A Bedtime Story

Did I mention that I was at one time employed in the music industry?

First music retail, then radio.  And lots of gigs.  In particular, many jazz clubs. 

At one particular haunt, a certain Walter Mitty character would sometimes attend.  He was free and easy with his anecdotes about having been everywhere, met everyone and done – well, you know.  He had the air of a seasoned hanger-on – he would have made an ideal extra in the Hyatt House scenes in Cameron Crowe’s tremendous Almost Famous movie.  Softly spoken with a slight undertone of gravel and Thames Estuary, he was always too familiar and too soon; where Steve became Stevie, Frank would always be Frankie and Joanne would become Jo-Jo. 

No-one took him all that seriously.  His tales were all too convenient.  Whatever the happening, whatever the event – no matter how seismic – he had either been there or knew somebody that had.  None of the visiting (often American) musicians at the club recognised him, but he seemed to remember them and what they had all done together, long ago and far away.  His tales could raise an eyebrow and seemingly spark the odd memory with the headlining jazzers, it was just that they didn’t know him from Adam. 

On one occasion, he assured me that he had been a part of the sales team at Major Minor records that successfully steered Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t'aime to #1, following the record being banned by The BBC and subsequently dropped by Fontana records.   When I dropped the name of Phil Solomon - the Major Minor label boss – he appeared not to know of whom I spoke. 

But on occasion, his stories would appear to have some basis in reality.  Once, he lent me a box of 10 ½” 2-track studio reels of an (unnamed) early 70s funk outfit.  They sounded like Kokomo with a touch of the Average White Band.  The fidelity was first-generation studio quality (if you’ve ever heard studio tapes, you’ll know the difference between finished released product and the original 2-track master).  His claim was that he’d worked on the sessions – which were never released – he no longer had a 2-track, could I run off a cassette for him?  Sure thing.  Proof that he had some kind of industry background?  Maybe. 

I was nonetheless drawn in to his fantasy world – and took up the offer to visit his house, deep in The Colne Valley.  He presented to me some album sleeves – mostly live records – pointing himself out in certain grainy rear (or inside) cover shots.  (Look – there I am – on the inner gatefold of Never a Dull Moment.  And here you can see me on the cover of A Space Ritual). The images could have been of him – or anyone else who was around at the time.  

And he claimed to have worked on numerous other albums and tours.   Roadie, sound engineer, tour manager.  You name it.  He had quite a ticket collection and more than a few backstage passes, collectively framed and hanging proudly on the wall.  In the hallway – a jukebox stuffed full of fabulous singles (A1 on the Seeburg was, if I remember, an original copy of I Saw the Light).  Gibson and Fender guitars hung from the walls.  An upright piano and a drum kit sat in the big open plan living room.  But none of this made him the musical Zelig that he so obviously wanted everyone to believe that he was.   

The stories gushed out of him.  Each one taller than the rest (did I tell you about when we were all at the final mix down on Wish You Were Here…?) Before long, I was yawning and looking for an escape route.  Until – after several bottles of plonk had been shared – he careered off into the strangest tale of all. 

I had heard a version of the same story a few years earlier from another (somewhat more credible) industry colleague.  And my Walter Mitty friend confirmed some elements of the tale so as to afford it some kind of authority.  He leapt up in my estimation in seconds.

Nobody else ever recounted this tale to me – which makes it less of an urban myth.  But it should be all over the internet – it deserves its own Wikipedia page. 

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From the late 1970s onwards, record companies were becoming increasingly strict with the concept of artistic control.  Three or four potential hit singles were expected to be issued from any one album; woe betide any artist that could not deliver on this clause[1].  In the 80s, a certain very well-known chart-friendly jazz funk outfit watched their career nosedive when their record label pulled the plug, unhappy with the potential chart single quotient of the band’s recently completed new album.  The record went unreleased, the band eventually re-signed with another label and scored a minor hit with a remix of one track from the new album.  By which time, momentum had been lost and the damage had been done.  The group – quite used to selling out Wembley Arena in their heyday – were on the way down.  Greatest Hits tours of provincial theatres beckoned. 

A top-ten act were thus cast adrift by a record label that refused to get behind an album that did not quite fit the template as defined by the rigid terms of their oppressive recording contract.  So long, and thanks for all for all of the hits.

It is worth remembering that working anonymously in the recording business is not exactly uncommon – Paul McCartney has issued many records under one pseudonym or other, including The Country Hams, Percy “Thrills” Thrillington and The Fireman. 

Prince’s legendary “Black” album (the record did not actually have a name) was originally to have been issued with no mention whatsoever of its creator anywhere on the sleeve or on the record - indeed, the (briefly available) official compact disc edition in 1994 did not mention the name Prince anywhere except on a sticker affixed to the CD case. 

Two members of The Stranglers recorded under the name of The Purple Helmets, The Damned released an album as Naz Nomad and The Nightmares; XTC made two albums as The Dukes of Stratosphear. 

In all of the above cases, the public was alerted to some small degree as to the true identity of the artist(s) in question[2] whether or not that was the original intention. 

Since the birth of recorded music, musicians have guested on the recordings of others under assumed names or having forgone any acknowledgement, for contractual reasons or otherwise.  Mick Jagger was all over Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, his vocal is so high in the mix that no sleeve credit was necessary.  Eric Clapton anonymously provided the guitar solo on The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps.  He also appears on John & Yoko’s Some Time In New York City album, listed as Derek Claptoe.  Keith Richards is rumoured to play the lead guitar part on Rod Stewart’s Sweet Little Rock ‘N’ Roller from the 1974 album Smiler.  (Although there is video footage of Keith performing this song on stage with Rod c. 1975, his appearance on the album has never been confirmed).  In 1968 Stevie Wonder released an instrumental album under the name Eivets Rednow.  Did you see what he did there?

Dusty Springfield appeared on Elton John’s The Bitch Is Back under the name Mary O’Brien; Tina Turner is uncredited on Frank Zappa’s Cosmik Debris.[3] 

Musicians are not alone in this – famous actors often make uncredited cameo appearances in films and celebrated authors frequently utilise a nom-de-plume to publish works that might otherwise not fit the (regular) bill. 

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An enterprising and extremely well connected music industry figure – let’s call him Jean Claude - once had the idea that musicians, keen to make music free of the constraints of their current recording contracts, might consider recording and issuing records completely anonymously.  Such records would have nothing to do with their otherwise official output and would not receive any promotion (or be the subject of any media gossip) that might suggest as to the true identity of the artist(s). The musicians would be afforded full control of what constituted the final recording.  The records would be made in complete secrecy.  The only element of the finished product where the artists would have no input would be the cover art – more of that later. 

Jean Claude was sufficiently placed to approach a number of very high profile musicians – genuine A-list players – with the proposal that he could release an uncredited album of theirs in total secrecy.  It was up to the players how and where the music would be recorded.  No offer was made to cover recording costs – indeed, the players approached nearly all had their own studio facilities, making recording in secret that much easier.  Jean Claude suggested that all completed music should be totally detached from the usual style and output of the artist; partly to avoid any contractual wrangles but mostly to work as a creative pressure valve i.e. the opportunity for musicians to play and release what on earth they wanted to, without running the risk of harming their careers.

Meanwhile, in the mid-to-late 1980s, the record industry attempted to cater to the over thirties compact disc buyers by offering a form of pre-packaged muzak known as New Age.  A seemingly endless number of sterile, anodyne and mostly instrumental albums were issued in quantities by several North American labels.  Invariably, such records were exceptionally well recorded and carried nondescript sleeve art, typically of geographical landscapes.  Pictures of the artists were just not featured on New Age albums.  In these pre internet days, the names of the musicians featured on these records were essentially meaningless and to a large extent, uncheckable.  What did matter was that such records were beautifully packaged, immaculately recorded, rather quiet and totally understated – lifestyle statements for a new dinner party generation.  Music that some might consider to be fresh from the fridge.

Invitations were thus made circuitously to a carefully chosen list of world famous musicians.  No names were dropped – no suggestion was ever made to artist ABC that artist XYZ was on board with the plan.  To Jean Claude’s surprise, the take-up was high; the first set of tapes were delivered within days – in which case we might assume that a certain artist had been stockpiling private recordings for just such an occasion.

With his Filofax brimming with top drawer contacts, Jean Claude did not have to call in too many favours in order to get the first cluster of his ultra-covert recordings included across the latest release schedules of several different New Age labels.  Such record companies were far too interested in a batch of effectively free, royalty-exempt recordings to complain that some or all of the music might not entirely meet with their artistic mission statements.  Nobody except the artists themselves - and our (un)celebrated mover/shaker - had the slightest idea as to the true identity of who was actually playing on the records.  Half-a-dozen such records were effectively buried amongst blanket[4] New Age release schedules, lost amongst albums full of tinkling pianos, lightly strummed and plucked guitars and gently bowed cellos.

Predictably, none of the six albums ever troubled the charts – but due to the comparatively resolute marketing of the labels and high take up of the major record chains for New Age music, the penetration of the records into the (North American) market place was relatively good.  Jean Claude was disappointed at having to cloak the records under the guise of middle-class antiseptic mood music, but he reportedly admitted that this was (in the days before the world wide web) the easiest, perhaps the only route to market.  Our clandestine artists were not in any way disillusioned; rather that they were delighted to be able to record and release music free of the constraints of their exacting trillion-dollar recording contracts.
Before long, the impetus of the project and the number of new recordings now available was sufficient for a second batch of releases.  At which point, a big part of the plan clicked into place – the sleeve art of each record had been designed to form a pattern.  The idea was that if the LP sleeves were laid out in a certain way, a design would appear, revealing the bigger picture.  Best of all, there was no required order for the sleeve layout.  The artwork was clever enough that whatever order the album jackets were arranged, some previously concealed image would be revealed.  

But a total of sixteen albums were required to achieve the mandala - four wide, four high.   Due to the varying musical content, several of the recently delivered tapes would in no way pass muster with the New Age labels.  So a different tactic was decided upon; individual record labels were approached that were judged more sympathetic to whatever (variation or adaptation) of musical genre was on offer.  It was the late 1980s; independent record labels were finding it easier to release more and more records thanks to expanding worldwide distribution – green screen computer terminals were appearing in record shops that listed pretty much everything that was available and where it could be obtained from.  Ten more albums by surreptitious superstars were snuck out under the radar on a variety of labels, those catering for third-stream classical, jazz, avant-garde rock, country, electronic and - yes – New Age music.

The ultimate hidden missive in popular music was now in place, out there and available to anyone who cared to look beyond.  But nobody did.  The clues were too obtuse, the music all too disparate.  It would have taken a serious (and deep pocketed) record collector with far too much time on their hands to have ever assembled a full set of all 16 albums.  Let alone having sufficient inspiration to lay all of the record sleeves out on the floor thus making the connection, without even hazarding a guess as to who was really supplying what was in the groove of each record.  It was all a bridge too far.  Wasn’t it?

Soon after, Jean Claude apparently retired from the industry and later died, following a short illness.  Taking his secret with him. 

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Except that in reality, there are very few genuine secrets in the music business.  Another industry friend of mine - let’s call him Ray – once recounted the above story to me.  After we had together ingested much of a bottle of extremely rare single malt highland whisky, I should add.  I was drunkenly sworn to secrecy.  And to be honest, I didn’t – at the time - believe too much of what he had told me that night.  Life in the music business was full of tall tales.  But Ray was a very big wheel in a prominent global entertainment concern. 

I asked if Ray knew who any of the artists were.  He replied that he really didn’t know, he could – but emphatically would not - hazard a guess.  He explained that the whole point of the exercise was to allow famous musicians to work undercover; free of rumour or speculation.  It was not a scheme designed to one day sell bucket loads of albums and/or create some highly desirable collectors’ items a few years down the line.  My further line of enquiry – which labels were the albums released on? – was met with a raised eyebrow and a sideways glance that said that he wouldn’t be drawn further.  At least, not that easily. 

I didn’t enquire further; instead I filed the story deep within my back pages and in the morning, set about working off my hangover.

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Approximately ten years on and I’m sitting on the hessian carpeted floor of Walter Mitty’s capacious living room, in his converted Essex country farmhouse.  The stereo is blasting out the first Chicago album; I’ve had a go at keeping time on the drum kit but I’m rather sloshed, the hi-hat is jammed halfway open and the tom-toms are seriously out of tune.  Walter is spewing out anecdote upon anecdote; I’m beginning to wish that I was elsewhere but frankly, driving is currently not an option. 

Despite Walter’s desirable residence and exotic paraphernalia, he strikes me as someone who has the trappings of former wealth.  The stereo is old and the stylus desperately needs changing – but the amp is powerful and the speakers are huge JBLs that might otherwise serve as part of a PA system.  The central heating appears broken; the decor is on the wrong side of careworn.  The phone is disconnected.  If there was ever a lady that formed part of his life, she has long since departed.  His decrepit Volvo estate car is untaxed.  The guitars that hang on the walls haven’t been tuned or had their strings changed in an age. 

One does not like to ask, but Walter does not appear to have any regular form of income, nor does he appear to eat – I’ve got a serious case of the munchies but there is absolutely no food in the house.  Any state benefit (or royalty?) cheques that might land on the doormat are presumably converted into village store plonk, Rizzlas and Golden Virginia tobacco. 

I’m falling asleep but he’s raced off into another room only to come back with an armful of albums - some of the sleeves are dog eared, others still have the original shrink wrap; some are cut-outs[5]. Walter is down on his knees, arranging the records in no particular order.  My eyes gradually focus and my brain registers – a mountain - a volcano?  A skyscraper?  The image keeps changing each time Walter rearranges the album sleeves.  Together, the 16 LP sleeves create a moveable mosaic.  Didn’t he have these records on CD?  No, he was given them by…. 

His version of the story is nowhere near as eloquent of Ray’s but the message is the same.  Something like this. I’ve had to paraphrase a bit; forgive me – but this is the main thrust of what he said: -

"There’s this geezer, y’know?  He’s minted and he’s well into it, the music biz.  He gets this idea, see, that he can get these albums out by, y’know, real superstars but like, under the radar.  Using some made up names and stuff.  No-one knows who these guys really are, man!  But they’re the real deal. Mickey, you listen and tell me who’s on ‘em.   I don’t f******* know!  And the sleeves – they did this clever thing so that you can put ‘em down any way you like and mix them all up and each time you see a different picture.  It’s weird, man.  I’ve got the complete set – I’ll get ‘em for you.  This guy – I was staying at his gaff down in the south of France when he gave ‘em to me.  Just before he croaked from the big C".

Early next morning I rose from Walter’s threadbare sofa and saw that he’d packed the albums away.  I thought about making good my escape, whilst still intoxicated from last night’s booze.  He was snoring in the armchair - I left a note thanking him for his hospitality and for a most entertaining evening. 

On arriving home, I tried to piece together the relevant events of the previous night.  Like most mornings after, segments came back in no particular sequence – much like a new jigsaw where most of the pieces are separated but parts of the puzzle are still joined together and in the correct order.

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I never did learn Walter’s real name.  And as far as I could tell, neither did anyone at the jazz club that he frequented.   In years to come, I fell off the jazz circuit; I never saw Walter again.  Recently I chanced to drive past what was his old house.  I slowed down and saw that he clearly did not live there anymore; the presence of a trampoline in the manicured garden and three newish SUVs in the now-paved driveway suggested that place was now home to a quite wealthy nuclear family. 

Ray retired to the West Country some years back.  Last year his Facebook page carried the type of unfortunate birthday messages that confirmed that he had passed away. 

The effect of seeing the album sleeves in mosaic format effectively quashed what (alcohol soaked) memory I may have formed on that night all of those years ago.  Names and record labels did not compute or were erased from my mind – I was transfixed by the metamorphosing tableaus formed by the 16 album sleeves.

Nowadays, I keep an eye out for New Age albums whilst crate digging.  If I find three or more, I always attempt some kind of arrangement but never does anything fall into place.  The chances of my locating such albums in one second hand bin are slim, never mind any of these being part of the set.  It doesn’t help that the second set of releases supposedly came out on independent jazz, folk and classical labels as well as New Age.  But I keep looking.

Sometimes I think back and wonder if the whole story is a product of an over active imagination; elements of a series of dreams that have worked their way past my sub conscious and into my memory.  I’m really not sure anymore.

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Postscript

In the summer of 1976, in my home town of Bury St Edmunds, many people found themselves confronted with a selection of brainwashed religious nuts offering a free album called Change of Heart by a group named Golden Avatar.  The sales pitch went something like this…

“We’ve been instructed to give these albums away.  Do you like free music?  This is a secret recording made by George Harrison and Bob Dylan and…(insert name of global superstar HERE)

Once the record was in the hands of the recipient, the drool-case loon would then pronounce,

“We’re a charity; would you care to donate?  Most people give about a pound…”

A surprising number of these albums were successfully thus distributed – not just in Bury St Edmunds but across Europe and in the USA - to gullible and unsuspecting members of the public.  Today, hundreds if not thousands of copies of the record can now be found in thrift stores and car-boot sales.  Although Change of Heart is now available on CD, original copies of the album are frankly worthless and the record is considered to have zero musical value.

Two years later, a self-titled LP by a group called Busy Making Progress was sold on the streets in exactly the same way - Here’s a free album, give me a quid for it?  Except in this case, the LP sleeve went so far as to clearly state,

“This is a special benefit album. All the artists who contributed to its production did so without remuneration. Special thanks to Carlos Santana, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Neil Diamond, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Alice Coltrane for their inspiration and help with ISKCON projects…”

Whereas Change Of Heart featured a trippy/hippy/dippy album sleeve – and strong Indian musical influences - Busy Making Progress was more prog with an urban, New Wave cover.  In common with its predecessor, BMP is absolutely worthless both musically and financially.  The record is worth less than one Zimbabwean dollar, in my humble opinion.

Both albums were the brainchild of one Michael Cassidy; who released the records through his Sudarshan label.  It is not known just how many copies of the records were offloaded to the public under the falsehood that they were in fact secret superstar sessions.  I would guess that at least 100,000 units were shifted worldwide.  

There was at least one further album in the series.   Open The Doors To Your Heart by The J.O.B. Orquestra ‎was another release by Michael Cassidy – this time, a disco album.  And again, specious claims were made as to the record’s parentage –

Special Thanks for their assistance to ISKCON Projects - George Harrison, Stevie Wonder, Richie Havens, Alice Coltrane…” 

Thankfully, the record does not appear to have made it as far as the British shores. 

Nonetheless, Michael Cassidy managed to sell(?) thousands of copies of his awful records to dumbfounded pedestrians on the promise that the records contained something that in reality, they absolutely did not. 

Which was precisely the opposite of what our hero, Jean Claude, originally set out to do.

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footnotes

[1] In 1973, industry mogul and boss of UK Records Jonathan King released four singles from the debut album by 10CC – the first time I know of that an album was ever milked so heavily for potential hit 45s

[2] I was informed by a very senior source at WEA that Prince withdrew his “Black” album as the record company had essentially given the game away; it was his intention that the record should be allowed to sneak out with no promotion nor suggestion that he was involved.  But everyone knew that there was a new Prince album due for release.  The first we got to hear that the album had been cancelled was on the supposed release day in December 1987.  The record (and cassette and CD) simply did not turn up.  As for the finished product, the record label did not even carry the Paisley Park insignia; it was to be issued as a Warner Bros. record.  Neither did the (extremely scarce) promotional pre-release cassettes mention Prince; the tape boxes (and, apparently, the release schedules) simply credited the album to Some Body.

[3] For many years, it was believed by some that TV presenter Bob Holnes provided the saxophone parts on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street (thanks to a spoof gossip item in The New Musical Express).  Contrary to popular belief, Rod Stewart (absolutely) did not play harmonica on Millie’s My Boy Lollipop and Marc Bolan (almost certainly) did not play guitar on Ike & Tina Turner’s Nutbush City Limits. 

[4] A preferred method of launching a new label or promoting specialist music is to release several albums on the same day and to advertise them collectively.   Dave Robinson’s Stiff Records, Brian Eno’s Obscure Records, Island Records’ offshoot Help label and Virgin Records have all successfully used the blanket release formula at one time.

[5] Cut-out: - the American method of selling off remaindered records.  The sleeves of which are drilled or clipped in order to sell them off cheaply to the record trade