Greg Shaw Mines The Garage
Bomp RECORDS' FOUNDER Greg Shaw has always been at the forefront of the re-issue game--but not in anything as obviously marketable as "pop" music. Instead he's pioneered the field of compiling obscure 1960s garage and psychedelic rock with his Pebbles album series.
The Pebbles family of vinyl re-issues stretches over 100 albums, and is known by several other titles--including Highs In The Mid Sixties, Rough Diamonds, Electric Sugarcube Flashbacks and English Freakbeat. The vinyl collection began in 1979, eventually selling over 30,000 copies a year, and peaked a decade later. They're now making a gradual conversion to the digital domain.
Pebbles has also paved the way--artistically and commercially--for other labels to dig deep into the closets of 1960s garage rock. There are now literally hundreds of other competing garage re-issue compilation series (on vinyl and CD) from the U.S. and Europe. It's obvious that more garage music is now available than ever before, and much of the groundwork was laid by Shaw.
Anywhere from 15 to 20 songs by different bands fill the grooves of each Pebbles, occasionally with more than one song from each of the obscure groups. The quality of the songs is remarkably wide in both performance and recording--from excruciatingly dismal to remarkably brilliant.
None of these forgotten songs were hits, most were never heard outside the band's home town, and almost all came from band-released 45s in batches of 500 or less. Compiled together, these garage rock artifacts reflect a vibrant cultural underground that is only now being appreciated.
Shaw recently talked with Big Noise about the phenomenon of the garage rock re-issue.
BN: When Pebbles first appeared, collectors were excited to have obscure garage music available in any form, even if the transfers from original 45s were sometimes crude or scratchy. Now it seems that fans are more demanding.
Shaw: The standard in this field has really moved on from where it was when Pebbles started. Now there are labels like Sundazed and quite a few others that are going to original sources (master mix and multi-track tapes) and doing a really thorough job.
I continue to try to fill the gaps, because I don't think it's the role of Pebbles to compete with those people. There are as many different ways of doing this as there are people doing it.
BN: The CD versions of Pebbles sound "better" than the original vinyl re-releases. You obviously are trying to address the collector's concerns for aural quality.
Shaw: In the past I've mastered from scratched (vinyl) copies and on occasion even from cassette. I won't do that for the CDs--they have to be from mint copies or original tapes.
BN: How did you decide originally what material you'd use for re-issue?
GS: What I did was go through every known (Sixties garage/psych) song and I made a working-list data base on my computer. I listed which songs exist, with a description and rating grade, what the sources were, who had the record--if I knew that or if I had them myself--and then I organized it by region.
I've got about 50 regions that I'm tracking that way and there are several hundred records on each of those regional lists that are under consideration for future re-issues. There are certainly 15,000 to 20,000 songs of sufficient quality that could be on my work list.
BN: Besides correcting some of the vinyl-version liner notes, adding new photos, artwork and previously unreleased songs, you've also combined under the Pebbles name songs from other series .
GS: This isn't really a resuscitation of Pebbles and Highs of the Mid Sixties on CD--it's really a new series. It's a distillation of the whole field, my compilations and everyone else's, and things that haven't been compiled yet.
BN: Do you have an idea of what kind of people are buying these records and CDs?
GS: It's hard for me to know who the audience is, but generally the people who buy these are not insulated from the culture of it. If they like this stuff enough to buy it they probably buy other garage stuff, probably read some of the fanzines, and they gradually get involved in whatever scene there is around this music.
Sooner or later they adopt the values of this scene--and they have to collect 45s because a lot of the new bands making this kind of music make 45s. I think they're aware of vinyl.
BN: Has the re-discovery of these old garage records become a way of life for some people?
GS: There is a real lifestyle issue with some of the people who are into this stuff. Some people, even some of the younger ones, are obsessed with this caricaturized '60s lifestyle.
The re-issues they buy are the soundtrack for their lifestyle of haunting thrift shops for old clothes and pretending that they live in the world of (the cheezy 1967 teen exploitation movie) Riot On Sunset Strip. This is a fantasy world that I don't share with them.
BN: Why do you think that this music captures the imagination so strongly?
GS: This stuff definitely comes from some weird place, and you can't even lump it all together except to say that it all comes from left field. It's like another dimension that it's coming from. Each one of those tracks is such a unique vision of somebody.
BN: Do you think this music as important now as when it was being made almost 30 years ago?
GS: I think that once something passes beyond its creative phase into a preservation phase, it becomes something different, like a lifeless artifact or a museum piece, and it's no threat to anybody.
And the first time around this stuff was so intense and disturbing that it was a threat to the status quo in a lot of ways. I think that was its purpose, to piss people off and to make a statement.
BN: Does garage and psychedelic music remain a rite of passage for some young people?
GS: I think so. You go through a phase when you're young where you want to reject the culture of your parents or the establishment society, but you can't invent a whole new culture of your own unless you're a visionary, so you join some kind of counter-culture.
We do have these kind of pre-fab alternate cultures, and because they're small and very stylized and self-limiting they appeal to young people who want to belong to something--but in a manageable scope, where they feel they can have a place and a feeling of status.
I think it serves a valid role, and I think this type of thing has always taken place.
Seven volumes of Pebbles are currently available on CD. Write Bomp Records at PO Box 7112, Burbank, CA 91510 for a mail-order catalog.
Timothy Gassen has recently completed his second book on garage and psychedelic music, to be published later this year.
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