This weekend, Brooklyn Flea will host their 4th annual record fair in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with independent labels like Domino, XL, 4AD, Sacred Bones, Jagjaguwar and Captured Tracks selling music directly to fans. London’s Independent Label Market are jumping the pond and joining us, MTV Hive, and the Daily Swarm as sponsors.
An event like this is proof that record and vinyl culture is still alive and well, so we asked a few of our favorite writers and collectors for their best crate-digging stories.
Jace Clayton, a.ka., DJ Rupture
“The Dinner Party Soundtrack”
The best secondhand record store finds are always the unexpected ones. Records aren’t objects, they are moments coiled up. Memories, they need a person to play them. A good DJ springs it all open.
My hectic international tour schedule brings me into contact with a great many odd and lovely pieces of vinyl. There was my first time out of America with music – DJing in Wax Poetic, a band fronted by a then-unknown Norah Jones. I used my time off in Istanbul to simply wander the streets, ending up in one of those dusty record shops where the entropy is turned up really high. There I rescued a Cymande LP that was being slowly asphyxiated under sleeveless 45s. The Fugees had sampled the Caribbean-British funk band to great effect, now I could, too. But that was a digger find. It’s value was obvious, external; a truly special record is one you create your own value for. Ebay of the heart. I don’t care for mint-condition first-editions (Recording my “Gold Teeth Thief” mix, I accidentally stepped on one of my most valuable records, an original pressing of the Winston’s single “Amen, Brother”, whose fierce rhythm break has been sampled by precisely nine million drum & bass songs).
So many sounds. My best find was at a barbershop/record store somewhere in Sydney, Australia, staffed by Australian rockabillies, who appeared nicer and far tougher than their American counterparts. I walked in to see someone in the reclining leather seat, getting a trim. Rock ephemera coated the walls, but this shop had a quiet little bin labeled “World,” and it turned out to be thick with Middle Eastern records. After listening to a bunch of trebly classical Egyptian LPs, I came across a dark warm solo record — oud & voice, by a man named Houssein. I dropped the needle on the first track and knew instantly that this was the record. The music was passionate, contemplative, filled with surprising taqsim improvisations that made it seem perpetually new — each song a surprise to the singer and listener both. It cost around eight dollars. I hadn’t heard of him or the label (I still haven’t). But I’ve returned to the record again and again, in its spirals there are constantly new things to hear. This breathtaking a solo performance survived across two or three decades to languish in a rocky shop until one wayward American comes in … I was living in Barcelona at the time, and we kept throwing dinner parties — the Houssein record soundtracked each one, spread into my community of friends there. A good, rare LP finds its listeners, finds ways to share itself. I’m just here to help that happen.
Dave Tompkins (Author of How to Wreck a Nice Beach)
The best record finds often happen at the tentacles and generosity of others. Or in your own dumb luck, recovered in a memory.
Like when a friend’s two-year old daughter found a 45 I’d borrowed from another friend after misplacing it for a year and feeling rotten about it. It was a psychedelic disco gospel 45 with winged serpents cast out of hell on the label, and vocoder in the chorus singing about loving everyone because she’s walking with the king with mad Bee Gees haunting her voice. Thank you, little one.
Or that time when a friend came over and played an acetate of a sibling funk band from upstate New York covering “Whole Lotta Love,” in their garage, in broad daylight, and utterly cracked the sky in half while watching re-runs of Space:1999.
Or all those times “you” go out and hear a DJ drop something nice and try to kid yourself how this time you’re not going to be so damn grippy about it and just “be in the moment” and “enjoy the music” and not worry about playing yourself by writing the title down, or text yourself while pretending to text someone important, and perhaps fly, and then come home, unfly, and drunk-order the thing (Sidney Owens “Sputnik”) online, from GEMM (it was that long ago).
Or that time on Christmas Eve when you ran into your friend who’s supposed to be shopping for his girlfriend (same with you, chief) and he finds two copies of a one-sided, no-faced Masters at Work remix of “See Line Woman,” ten minutes long, in a box across the street from pre-FBI Kim’s Video, and gives you one.
Or the time you “found” that weird Theodore Sturgeon record in the mail about the telekinetic children who make pick-up trucks levitate.
Or that time you woke up in the middle of the night and found something you already had but had forgotten about it since, like, eighth grade, but suddenly realize that hey man, it’s an instrumental from a Fat Boys 12 from when they were the Disco Three and had James Mason producing them (not that James Mason), kind of sounding like John Carpenter 30 years before it was cool/a default to “sound like John Carpenter.”
Or. Wait. Maybe the best find was when your neighbor set his mattress on fire and nearly burnt down your apartment and you found, somehow, that your records were not harmed, and still appeared to be records, despite the fire’s best efforts to melt them into abstractions of bad art magma. One would think the fire would be a sign to stop collecting these fragile heat-sensitive objects and just be thankful for what you got. On 45 or LP.
Courtney Smith (Author of Record Collecting for Girls)
“The Active Hunt”
Some records are the type you hunt down, searching the Internet and record stores for a copy vigilantly. Some records are the type you stumble upon, never even knowing you wanted them until you see them in the bin at a record fair. And some records are the sort you just hope to stumble upon. I’ve been waiting for a copy of Let’s Active’s debut album, Cypress, to fall into my hands for the last decade. I discovered them on Rhino’s Poptopia: Power Pop Classics of the ‘80s and then I just kept finding people who were into them. But I have yet to find them on vinyl.
It’s not an easy record to find, because it was released by IRS whose back catalog have has changed hands several times since the album was released in 1984. While their label mates the Go-Go’s stay in print because they’re big sellers, there is not a lot of demand for Let’s Active albums. Even in the vinyl resurgence it’s unlikely Universal Music Group, the current owners of the IRS catalog, would repress any Let’s Active albums. They probably don’t even know they have the rights to it. And when you think of all the copies that have been taken out of circulation by their owners for being scratched, warped, or simply thrown away you have to wonder: how many Let’s Active records are there out in the world, really?
I don’t want to stalk this album. I’m not checking Ebay or Amazon on the off chance someone posted a used copy. I discovered Let’s Active via happenstance and have been bonding with people who know their work ever since. I trust that when the universe deems me worthy of a copy, one will magically appear in the stacks, or in a cardboard box of $1 vinyl on the street, or at that booth at the record fair I happened to stop and browse on a whim. This has happened to me before with Julian Cope, Elvis Costello 45s, and that color Ryan Adams album a mysterious person once sent me. When you’re supposed to have a record, it makes its way to you. Until then I’ll keep popping into the L section in random record stores and flipping through the vinyl. The best record is always the one you haven’t found yet.
Gaylord Fields (WFMU)
“The First Family Bargain”
I’ve been truffling out records from thrift stores, flea markets and garage sales for more than 30 years. I’ve paid $1 for LPs worth $50, and 50¢ for LPs worth $1. However, my greatest record find was an album I left in the spot I found it.
I was once in a massive antique consignment barn of the sort that always has a few LPs hanging out in wooden crates or cardboard boxes. Usually, some dispassionate vendor would sloppily Sharpie “ALBUMS $2.00” on the box front. However, in one crate I stumbled upon, each LP had a handwritten sticker in the requisite upper right corner that was not just ridiculously overpriced but also oddly calculated. For example, several common early-’70s Elvis discs, worth a few bucks at best, were marked at amounts like $74, $56 and $62, which led me to suspect the seller used numerology rather than an album price guide as a source.
And then I came across a copy of comedian and President John F. Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader’s Kennedy family parody album The First Family. Written on the little white tag was “$132,” below which was penned the single word “RARE”!
That was exactly $131. 75 more than I spent on my copy. And I overpaid!
This long-player, which gently mocked the Kennedys, is the unrarest album in the 130-plus-year history of recorded sound! It sold like hotcakes during JFK’s reign, but once the president was assassinated, a grieving American public couldn’t get these discs out of their homes fast enough. Possibly a million copies of The First Family were deposited in Goodwills and Sally Anns nationwide, perhaps as early as November 23, 1963. To this day, my tale of a comically overpriced copy of a worthless comedy album has proved a priceless source of amusement among my crate-digging cohorts.