Funk Archaeology: Digging Down Under

There are record collectors… And then there are people like Egon from Now-Again. Egon – who was the general manager of the Stones Throw label for 11 glorious years – is one of those rare creatures scouring the entire globe for the choicest bits of obscure wax, from Turkish psych to Zambian soul. In this edition, Egon shares some of his finds from a recent trip to Australia.

I was looking forward to a four-city Australia tour with Madlib and J.Rocc last October. I’d never been, and the opportunity to get paid to DJ – and to visit the country’s four main cities alongside record-collecting pals – seemed like the perfect way to spend a week. Of course, there would be the requisite exercise in the restrained hedonism of good food and good drink. And I’d thoroughly schooled myself beforehand: knowing that one of the new world’s finest old-world style wines hailed from South Australia – Penfolds Grange, a Rhone-styled wine made primarily from Australia’s favorite grape, shiraz – I was looking forward to exploring off-the-beaten-path Aussie wines, and I figured that at least Madlib would be up for the challenge. So we allowed our wine rider – possibly the most complex two pages in a five-page document – to be altered to focus on the local juice.

So imagine my surprise when I found J.Rocc – not the most easily impressed by the wines found backstage on a Madlib Medicine Tour stop – enjoying a glass or two. And imagine my chagrin to find that both he and Madlib, my stalwart digging partner, laughed me away when I told them of my plans to spend my off-hours finding the great records that I was sure Australia would offer. It started shortly after we landed, during a bleary-eyed brunch at a smart-looking downtown Brisbane café which, naturally, served a better flat-white than even a Los Angeles coffee snob like myself could get at home. Ayers Rock! Galapagos Duck! The Don Burrows Christmas album with the “Jingle Bells” break! Oh yeah, Egon, you’re in for a great time. Good luck. Have fun. We’ll be asleep at the hotel. Wake us up for dinner if you find something good.

Sure, I’d been raised, like any child of the turntabling age in the ’80s, on Men at Work. But I’d been fortunate enough to erase that memory with the likes of Aussie jazzer John Sangster and his universally approachable canon. And there I stood, in Australia, knowing there were some damn good records just waiting to be found, so cracked-out tired from a 12-and-a-half-hour flight cramped in economy – Madlib’s pal at Virgin America was polite enough to upgrade he and J.Rocc, but I was left behind (note to self: remember that flight the next time homey asks for a last-minute guestlist hook up) – that all I could think of was the simple soul-rock of Jeff St. John. With his flat rendition of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” repeating in my head, I almost retired to the hotel for a nap myself.

There are some great records here, just begging to be rediscovered.

But I’m glad I didn’t. And in the moment, I was glad to be able to cajole Madlib and J.Rocc into taking a walk to Egg Records in Brisbane’s West End, if only because they got to hear the killer prog-rock of Spectrum’s Milesago. Lenny Webber, manning the store at the time, was kind enough to play the best cuts from the album in their entirety alongside the garage psychedelia of Procession’s self-titled album. That proved my point: fellas, there are some great records here, just begging to be rediscovered.

Lenny reminded me that DJ Sheep lived nearby. Sheep! Bevan? My dude with all of those rare Russian records that I’d swapped for on Santa Monica Boulevard five years back? A quick phone call later and there I was, standing on the corner of Boundary and Vulture Streets, looking out for the wiry digging expert and anticipating some old-fashioned Aussie schooling. Not more than five minutes later I stepped into Sheep’s car, explaining that Madlib and J.Rocc had decided to skip the proceedings in favor of some shut eye but that I, feeling as perishable as a stack of ripened bananas, was ready to buy. He whisked me to his lab in a quaint Queenslander house – Bulletproof Crates was the name, he later told me – and the adventure began.

Blackfeather - Mangos Theme Pt. 2

Blackfeather - “Mango’s Theme Pt. 2”
(Infinity, circa 1970)

As advertised, Sheep had plenty of records in the lab, but precious few were for sale. And it had been a while since we’d seen each other, so he pulled out a series of breaks and beats that might have touched the right nerve in 2009 but were removed from my current wants in 2012. He hit the nail on the head when he showed me the Kuni Kawachi and Flower Travelling Band album – a grail I’d passed up in well-priced if vg-minus condition in the Shinjuku Disc Union in 2008. While that disc wasn’t for sale, my reaction to it made him pull out the awesome hard rock of Jimmy and Hiro’s Strawberry Path, which did have a price on it. High, sure, but it broke the ice. That led to him pulling out a record by Sydney’s Blackfeather – not because, like Jimmy and Hiro’s release, it was killer hard rock – but because it had a similar break. Luckily for the two of us, even through my sleepless haze, “Mango’s Theme Pt. 2” knocked my socks off with its opening drum, bass and string-section volley. I knew we were on convergent paths.

This record features a pre-AC/DC “Bon” Scott on keys, tambourines and – if local myth is to be believed – an uncredited violin solo.

Infinity Records was the progressive rock subsidiary of Festival, the large Australian indie that issued the silly Exciting Daly Wilson Big Band album that once cramped my record shelves. This record, Blackfeather’s first, features a pre-AC/DC Ronald Belford “Bon” Scott on keys, tambourines and – if local myth is to be believed – an uncredited violin solo. This song is one of those impossible-to-categorize things you happen upon from time to time in digging escapades. In a pinch, though, I would say it sounds like what David Axelrod might have recorded had he produced High Tides’ landmark “Death Warmed Up” session from their Sea Shanties album.

Paul Turner “Panels V”
(EMI Australia Custom Pressing, circa 1979)

I didn’t find this album in Melbourne, but that didn’t surprise me: most of the interesting American high school and college band albums I find domestically come from varying locales far removed from the range of the school’s original distribution network of friends, family and kind, local souls. So finding this album in a charity shop in Perth – on yet another solo mission after a bumpy flight over a strip-mined Australian interior – somehow seemed appropriate.

This record is an anomaly in the school-band album vein – it’s a fully funded set of electronic music recorded at the University of Melbourne, whose experimental music department, founded in 1973 with the help of the Gulbenkian Foundation, made available to students an array of synthesizers, tape machines and audio gear in the hopes of facilitating – according to the original album’s liner notes – “analogue hybrid and direct sound synthesis.” Goodness. While this album was meant to represent a half-decade span in the University’s lab, and it’s presumed to have been released in 1980 on an EMI Australia Custom Pressing, the music contained within wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of the fine releases on Phillips Records’ avant-garde Prospective 21 series.

Terry Britten “Bargain Day”
(Columbia Australia, circa 1969)

I purposefully booked an extra day in Melbourne with digging in mind. After making sure Madlib and J.Rocc got to their crack-of-dawn flight back home on a foggy Monday morning, I pored over the local recommendations that DJ Sheep had given me and focused on a series of stores that I wanted to hit. Melbourne’s stores have great, colorful names. Vicious Sloth and Licorice Pie were both calling, but Sloth’s Glen Terry – whose wares came highly recommended by Los Angeles’ arbiter of fine records, Geoffrey Weiss, who had just bought a collection of insanely obscure Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysian oddities from him – was out of town. So Licorice Pie it was. I was content knowing that owner Dave Reitman was already pulling a series of records for me to consider.

Even if you ignore the message, the music itself is compelling: equal parts progressive pop and heavy, psych-influenced freakbeat.

Amidst a well-stocked store brimming-over with finds from a recent trip to Japan, ’70s European jazz and, of course, a variety of the great Aussie music that I was after, Terry Britten’s solitary 45 stood out. “Bargain Day” is one hell of a thing, a banging platter of heavy beats that manages the difficult feat of making a song about the “coming of the lord” sound less like preachy Xian mumblings and more like the skull smashing exercise in the pain sinners will feel lest they take advantage of the big man’s “bargain day” and make recompense. But even if you ignore the message in Britten’s phased vocals, the music itself is compelling: equal parts progressive pop and heavy, psych-influenced freakbeat.

Had Britten – who was born and raised in England, and only briefly lived in Australia in the late ’60s (where he fronted garage rock band The Twilights, penning their “Comin’ On Down” single) – only released this 45 before moving back home, he would have been a god amongst men. But he spent the ’70s and the ’80s writing and producing songs like “What’s Love Got To Do With It” (with Graham Lyle) and the surprisingly killer (at least in the 12-inch dub mix) “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome soundtrack.

Cybotron “Raga In Asia Minor”
(Champagne Records, 1978)

Oh how I love discovering sincere and odd albums recorded in isolation, hidden for years. Such was the case upon hearing “Raga In Asia Minor,” from the second out of three official Cybotron records issued by synthesizer fanatics Steve Maxwell Von Braund, Geoff Green and drummer Colin Butcher. This song sounds truly out of time and space, like the half-robot centaur on their retro-futurist cover.

Unfortunately for these marooned electro-proggers – whose best songs are out of synch but not out of spirit with Germany’s mid-’70s Krautrock gentry – another ensemble with the same name was on the verge of creating something amazing in Detroit. This one, a hip-hop leaning electro combo lead by Juan Atkins and Richard Davis, would press two 7-inch singles on their own Deep Space Records before being picked up by Fantasy Records, thus thrusting the name Cybotron into the stratosphere, and forever squashing this talented Australian band’s hopes of being more than a fancy footnote in modern electronic dance music’s fledgling stages.

Rob Thomsett “Baiame”
(Kubernete, 1975)

I’ll be honest and admit that I’d never heard of this record before seeing its incredible – even from a fair distance – textured, fragile, minimalist sleeve over Dave’s shoulder at Licorice Pie. The price tag, backed by a couple more zeros than I would have preferred to see, demanded I ask for a listen and, when a lo-fi drum break set the pace for a spacey Mellotron lead on the first track, I was hooked.

Dave explained the genesis of this oddity, originally released in 1975 in an edition of one hundred or so copies on the Kubernete label from Canberra. It seemed too good to be true: a record that mixed the best of progressive rock, fusion jazz and mid-’70s psychedelia, recorded in a series of overdubs on a two-track reel-to-reel by a jazz guitarist equally enthralled with The Rolling Stones, The Meters and Jethro Tull. That would be the Rob Thomsett who, in an interview from 2011, recalled he was into “really heavy prog” in the early ’70s but soon “started crossing over into Bitches Brew”-inspired jazz before he discovered the Aboriginal creation myth yaraandoo and decided to set the tales’ themes to music.

This is a singular record which could have only been made in a sprawling continent like Australia.

And here sat the artifact, priced at a few more dollars more than I would have liked to pay, but within reach, and oh-so tantalizing. I heard something that reminded me of Marc Moulin’s Sam Suffy on one track, something that begged comparison to Portuguese progressive ensemble Quarteto 1111 on another. I just had to have it, and I’m glad I made the sacrifice: this is a singular record which could have only been made in a sprawling continent like Australia, by an open-minded pioneer not scared of asking big, unanswerable – and almost certain to be unheard – questions via his progressive music.

Thomsett, for his part, found success as a manager and author, largely in the technology field, in the ’80s and ’90s, but he couldn’t escape the questions that led him to record this album. Though he grants few interviews and answers less emails (believe me, I tried), in that same 2011 interview, he mentions that he’s returned to music and, with 35 years of insight, rerecorded an expanded version of his masterpiece.

By Egon on June 10, 2013

On a different note