On the eve of its celebration at New York’s famed Cutting Room, one more dive into this year’s most indispensable album guide
The first rock ‘n’ roll album that I ever bought was Grand Funk Railroad’s Live Album.
It was 1970, I was 13 years old, and up until that time I’d only bought 7” singles. Live Album cost me a whopping $3.33 in pre-inflation lawn-mowing cash, on sale, at a long-gone record store in Erie, Pennsylvania. From Grand Funk, it was a short sprint to Steppenwolf, the Rolling Stones, and Spirit before I discovered the joys (and pitfalls) of membership in the Columbia Record Club. Thus began a life-long obsession with music and record collecting that has now spanned five decades and continues, unabated, to this day…
I suspect that a lot of fanatical record collectors have a similar “origin story,” or else they were turned onto music by an older sibling or a friend. Some folks catch the collecting bug in college, communal housing and a diverse population leading to all sorts of cultural cross-pollination. What virtually all collectors share is an unyielding dedication to the minutiae of music – import records, vinyl reissues, bootlegs, alternate covers, picture sleeves, et al – and while some people prefer 12” records, others may collect nothing but 7” singles, some CDs or cassettes (or, *gasp*, even eight-track tapes!). No matter your favorite flavor, there’s music and a format out there to suit your tastes.
They say that “you can’t judge a book by its cover” (also the title of a cool 1962 single by Bo Diddley, written by Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon) but, in the case of Sal Maida and Mitch Cohen’s The White Label Promo Preservation Society: 100 Flop Albums You Ought To Know, pretty much everything you need to know is right there on the book’s cover. Adorned by the colorful artwork of better than a dozen LP covers, including obscurities like Baby Huey, Gorillas, the Remains and the Merry-Go-Round, the book provides membership into The White Label Promo Preservation Society, ostensibly a sort of record guide but, in reality, a coded transmission from secretive group sent out to fellow travelers like myself and, possibly, you, gentle reader…
Maida and Cohen have both enjoyed storied careers in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Maida is a talented musician who has played bass with a number of legendary or, at a minimum, infamous bands like Roxy Music, Sparks, Brian Eno, and Milk ‘N’ Cookies and he penned his career-spanning bio, Four Strings, Phony Proof and 300 45s, that was published by HoZac Books in 2017. Cohen has been writing about music and film for publications like Creem, Phonograph Record, Village Voice and, *ahem*…the Rock and Roll Globe…for as long as I can remember. Cohen has also journeyed into the belly of the beast, working in the industry as an A&R executive for labels like Arista, Columbia, and Verve Records.
In spite of their lengthy experience and unassailable knowledge, however, The White Label Promo Preservation Society is no mere “record guide” like Rolling Stone used to publish in paperback before they went ‘Hollywood’ and forgot what good music is. Named for the pre-release “white label” promotional albums that we rockcrits used to get back in the day (and boy howdy, were those ‘good old days’ for a music lover!), the book is more a labor of love than a dry, academic database of record titles and info that anybody could look up on Wikipedia.
The duo’s premise is simple, yet brilliant…they’ve chosen roughly 100 albums from the 1960s and ‘70s (although they do dip a couple years either way into the 1950s and ‘80s) that, for whatever reason, failed to crack the Billboard Hot 100 albums chart (or even chart at all) but which “tell an important part of the story of rock and soul music during those decades.” They don’t cheat or take short cuts (i.e. no “greatest hits” LPs) and while the chosen albums focus primarily on rock and soul music, a few inspired records in the country, jazz, and blues genres found their way into the pages.
Maida and Cohen didn’t make this sojourn alone, either, inviting some friends along for the ride – musicians like Peter Holsapple (The dBs), Amy Rigby, Wreckless Eric, Steve Wynn, Radney Foster, and Marshall Crenshaw, among others, as well as longtime music journalists like Susan Whitall and Dave DiMartino (both from Creem magazine), Ira Robbins (Trouser Press), Mike Stax (Ugly Things zine), and Jeff Tamarkin (too many credits to mention). A few industry folk contribute as well, like writer/producer Pat Thomas, Grammy™-winning producer Russ Titelman, and Miriam Linna, a bona fide triple-threat who is a talented writer, musician, and the proprietor of Norton Records. Needless to say, all of these contributors know their way around a long-player, and they each have records they love that they’ll be glad to tell you about.
Even great artists sometimes release an otherwise cool record that fails to find an audience, and The White Label Promo Preservation Society includes essays on albums by Rock & Roll Hall of Famers like the Who (My Generation), Chuck Berry (Rockit), the Lovin’ Spoonful (Everything Playing), Fleetwood Mac (Then Play On), and Yes (Yes), all artists who enjoyed a truckload of hit-driven record sales through the years but who also released that one sorely overlooked LP. The book also includes many of the “cult rockers” you would expect any hardcore record collector to seek out, bands like the Flamin’ Groovies (Shake Some Action), Captain Beefheart (Safe As Milk), NRBQ (NRBQ), and Pearls Before Swine (One Nation Underground) whose best efforts nevertheless fell on deaf ears when released, only to be rediscovered years later.
Where The White Label Promo Preservation Society shines is with those artists who really fell between the cracks, records by folks who even the ol’ Reverend has never seen or heard. The Paupers (Magic People), Elaine Brown (Seize the Time), Bunky & Jake (L.A.M.F.), Space Cadets (Space Cadets), and the Mighty Ryeders (Help Us Spread the Message), as well as Sal’s mid-‘70s outfit Milk ‘N’ Cookies (Milk ‘N’ Cookies) are all deserving of rediscovery, and essays on these albums make compelling arguments that you need to hear these records NOW! With this many cooks adding to the broth, there are bound to be some sour notes, and while Maida and Cohen’s contributions are reliably solid (and insightful), a small handful of their guests are obviously amateur writers prone to hyperbole. Most of the musicians’ essays are fascinating glimpses behind the curtains, revealing those records that shaped their own recorded efforts.
AUDIO: Milk ‘N’ Cookies “Chance To Play”
Overall, The White Label Promo Preservation Society is a heck of a lot of fun to read, with every essayist sharing his or her love of a particular album. Some of the entries are like mini history lessons, while others are more biographical in nature, connecting the writer to the record. Most importantly, almost every entry will prompt the reader to dive into YouTube or Spotify to hear the record, and while these essays are effusive in their praise, they also provide an invaluable treasure map to long-lost gems worth digging into dusty crates to find. As Maida and Cohen succinctly state in the book’s introduction, “Sometimes, at a street fair, one of us might be browsing with a friend through cardboard boxes, dig out an LP and say, ‘You need to hear this,’ pretty much forcing it into his hands. This is the book version of that.” Nuff said…
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some shopping to do on Discogs…
For more info, check the web.