It Was All About Vinyl
The 70's were a time when buying an album wasn't just a quick jaunt to the record store, but an event. "Head Shops" were everywhere. Many record stores had their own headshop area. Music Millennium on 32nd and East Burnside was the main place where I bought my records. They too had a head shop upstairs. Millennium, as we Portlander's referred to it, wasn't like a record store at all; it was more like someone's "place" where you went to hang out. Out front, there was always an older hippie panhandling. His daily mantra was: "Spare change for food and survival?" Sorry pal, any spare change goes toward the next album or some incense, or a couple packs of Zig-Zags. Inside of Millennium was the ambiance of cherry incense and records playing on the staff turntable. Those memories are some of the most vivid and the most cherished.
Another one of my favorite record shops was a small, out-of-the-way place in downtown Portland called Wooden Ship. By no means was it as great as Music Millennium, but it was interesting and fun. I remember another place-the name escapes me now, where you could buy albums without covers for thirty-five cents each. I picked up "Best of Cream" from one of those places. One particular day in 1970, I decided to skip a week of school and hang out with my brother Pat who had a car. We went everywhere, all over town. We bought cigarettes-Camels, and stopped in several of these small head shop places. I discovered one of the best Black light rooms ever. They had a huge square poster of a blue spiral design called "Zonk". I just had to have that poster. It was at this place that I picked up that "Best of Cream" album.
Albums in general, served many purposes besides just listening pleasure. So many were genuine works of art, so much that I had to keep rotating the covers that were in the very front of my stacks. Yes cover artist Roger Dean was largely responsible for revolutionizing the album cover art industry. Interestingly, Dean is hand-bidextrious meaning he can airbrush with both hands and often did his backgrounds in this manner.
Roger Dean worked in watercolor, one of the most difficult mediums of all. For this inside cover of "Yessongs", his cat walked across the top of the not-quite-dry piece. He had to fix it by spraying over and over again thus creating the interesting cloud effects at the top. Close scrutinization will reveal paw print shapes.
Album covers also were the ultimate "rolling stations" where we rolled our joints.The fold of the double-albums served almost the same purpose as a cutting board, where the unused portions of the valuable green could be dumped back into the baggie.
The upstairs area of Music Millenniumwas also where the import records were kept. They were more expensive (naturally), but often featured extra, or different songs than American releases of the same. A good example of this would be Black Sabbath's first album which featured their cover of Crow's "Evil Woman" at the end of side two. Also, the covers were usually a thin paper-like cardboard with a soft matte finish as opposed to the stiff cardboard and American gloss finish covers. Quite flimsy, but very stylish; imports were quite unique.
Import records also offered the serious record buyer the opportunity to get an album that just plain wasn't available in the states yet. If you couldn't wait, and you just had to have it, then an import was probably the best way to go if the band was foreign. Such a case existed for me with "A Tab in the Ocean" by Nektar and The Scorpions' "Virgin Killer". When I first picked up "Virgin Killer", I bought the import release which cost $5.50. Now this was an album just begging to be banned from any shelf. It featured a nude pre-pubescent girl on the cover in a provocative pose. "Virgin Killer" was probably The Scorpions' most monumental cover mistake, and a true collector's item. I always felt that The Scorpions' music was so far above the crappy cover choices they made in the 70's. However, I did enjoy "In Trance" immensely!
"Electric Ladyland" was another legendary import. It was double-folding album of culturally diverse naked women. Hendrix' wonderful album had an equally wonderful import cover. Aside from the imports, The record stores had class and style.
Hopefully, you can all remember "Cut-Outs", the albums that never made it in sales, so the record companies added a little punch hole, slit, or simply cut out the corner to indicate what they were. Cut-Outs were cheap, from a dollar, to a $1.99. Most of them were great records, still shrink-wrapped, and otherwise brand new. I became a true connoisseur of cut outs and usually sought them out first at the stores that carried them.
I would have to say that at least a third of my rather sizeable record collection in the 70's was comprised of cut-outs. Another benefit was the fact that since they were so cheap, it was easy to experiment with unknown bands and find timeless treasures. It was amazing to me that so many of these records became cut-outs. Some of the classics that I picked up for a buck were: Nektar's "Remember the Future" and "Recycled", Lucifer's Friend "Banquet", "Foxtrot" and "Nursery Cryme" by Genesis. My theory was "hey, if you're gonna give 'em away, I'll take 'em."
They were illegal pressings. Somebody cheated, sneaked into a concert with a tape recorder hidden inside a box of popcorn, or a like scenario. Somebody took this muddy, crappy live recording, pressed it to vinyl, and voila! A bootleg was born. Record stores-the good ones anyway, also carried "Bootleg" albums! I remember purchasing quite a few of them at Music Millennium and Wooden Ship. Back in the early 70's, they usually came in just a white cardboard cover with a price and title stamped on the front. In this great culture, this stamping technique was soon replaced by Xeroxed copies of a photo of the band. The stamped bootlegs soon became hot collector's items. Bootlegs were grab bags; you never knew what you got till you opened them. They were very hit and miss. Mostly, they were turkeys with horrible sound quality. However, there were some that were actually quite awesome. Rarely did they ever sound great, but many of them could be quite acceptable, and extraordinarily clean in sound quality.
Recalling some of these, I had the mother of all bootleg albums from the Rolling Stones, which is now legendary. It was called "Liver Than You'll Ever Be". I also had bootlegs by The Small Faces, The Grateful Dead, Aerosmith, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Emerson, Lake &Palmer, and Robin Trower.I still have most of these. I think my most memorable bootleg was called "My God!" by Jethro Tull. Music Millennium would stamp the prices on the covers of these. They generally went for $3.50 and no returns. Like 'em or not, once you took them out of the store, they were yours forever.
Bootleg albums were a culture unto themselves. For one thing, they didn't belong to an artist's particular catalog of albums. Take Pink Floyd for example. I've had probably 5 or 6 bootlegs by them, yet these albums seem so separate from the mainstream Floyd releases. One of these was called "Raving and Drooling" (which I later learned was a working song title). It had a nearly 30-minute version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond." The quality was pure crap, and the performance had seen better days as well.
I did have another Pink Floyd bootleg, the title escapes me now, but it had a playlist similar to the concert I'd seen in 1972. This one was a double-album, the sound quality not too bad at all, and the performance was just a monster! One of the best, most powerful Floyd shows ever recorded.
Update: This particular bootleg has been recently located! It was the 1972 Hollywood Bowl concert just 4 days before I saw them."Atom-Heart Mother" comprised all of side one (naturally), and side two consisted of Careful, with That Axe, Eugene" , and featured an awesome live version of the PF rarity "Embryo". David Gilmour was beyond electric with his reverb turned up high, and cranking out screaming guitar solos to "Cymbaline", "A Saucerful of Secrets", and Fat Old Sun. Once I'd heard this live rendition of "Fat Old Sun", I never wanted to go anywhere near the original ever again. I sure wish I could get my hands on this bootleg again. "A Saucerful of Secrets" took up all of side four.
I had so many Rolling Stones bootlegs that I couldn't keep track of them all. Their performances on vinyl when it came to being live, always seemed a bit weak. However, they had their old live "standbys" that just couldn't be beat. "Midnight Rambler" was always one of these classics, along with "Stray Cat Blues", "Love in Vain", "Sympathy for the Devil", and of course their ever-marvelous versions of "Carol". The Rolling Stones became for me, a religion of sorts. They were heralded as "The Greatest Rock N' Roll Band in the world", and I always wondered how that could be. To me, The Beatles were always were, and always would be the greatest.
Fading Into Obscurity
Soon, the record stores lost their personality, and smaller places were finally being replaced. It wasn't until the latter 70's that they lost their presence, and became mega-chains with zero personality, flavor and personality. They were much like going to the local variety store to spend your money. I wasn't greeted by longhairs with whom I felt an affinity with. There was no incense to smell, and there certainly wasn't any low, or ambient lighting with a nearby poster room squirreled away behind a curtain of beads.
The Black Light rooms were awesome, and oh so mysterious. In that purple glow, you were drawn to the inner sanctum of wild electric color, surreal landscapes, flying dragons, and Escher stairways in blues, greens, reds, and fire yellows. Everybody's Records was an example of this. Cold, unfriendly, yet large, and carried a good variety. Another place that bored me silly was "Crystal Ship", but that store didn't last long.
No, by 1978, the record shop culture took the heavy commercial upswing, replaced incense with overhead neons, and substituted posters with more windows. Sadly, these old record stores are to me now as ghosts towns; remnants of something great that was, and can never be again, or at least not in the same way.