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Elektra Records - A Glaring Omission from the Story

In 2006, Elektra Records released a sumptuous 5 x CD box set retrospective, called (in honour of its greatest release) Forever Changing: the Golden Age of Elektra Records, 1963-1973. Now, I spent many of my teenage years listening to, or intensely chasing, many of the LPs that the label made over these years, so the release was of great interest to me. Unfortunately, the considerable pricing of the set, alongside its limited availability, made its purchase a no-brainer for me at the time, so I was pleased when a friend gave it to me a few days back, on extended loan.

It is without doubt an impressive monster of a package, reminding me somewhat of the obsessive detail and over-inclusiveness that characterised some of the late John Fahey’s Revanant Label reissues (the Charley Patten and Albert Ayler boxes, for example). It also got me re-thinking about the whole ‘Golden Age’ idea, one that continues to be contested, but has nevertheless informed my two books on British free improvisation. The sheer scale of the tracks included and their accompanying artists is initially overwhelming, even though I have heard probably half of the songs previously. Obviously, artists such as The Doors, Love, Judy Collins and Tim Buckley are fairly well-known, and now occupy secure seats in the Immortal Rock/Pop/Folk Songs List (or whatever canonical title one wishes to adapt). There are also plenty of artists involved who I either have never heard or barely know - for example, in no particular order, Judy Henske, Dick Rosmini, John Koener, Dave Ray, Oliver Smith and many, many, many, many more.

It’s easy to see why many of these failed to make much of an impression either at the time or on future history, to be frank. Some nuggets (the epochal Nuggets album itself came out on Elektra in 1972, and acted in many ways as the midwife to the whole ‘forgotten classics’ shtick) are best left unearthed.

Elektra began as a ‘folk’ label in essence, and provided a home for a whole array of singer/songwriters, given their impetus by the success of Bob Dylan in particular, but also Judy Collins and Joan Baez in the 1962/3 period. However, one of the criticism of the ‘Golden Age’ trope is the tyranny of choice, in terms of who gets to choose the occupants of the various lists that the nostalgia industry has given birth to, and what exactly they get to choose, Many lists are uncritically over-inclusive, to be sure, but some are notable by what they leave out. In the case of Forever Changing, there is a 1967 release on Elektra that is not only not featured in the box set, but one that doesn’t even warrant a mention in any of the ‘bumf’ that comes along with the compact discs (and there is a lot of it, just as there was with the Revenant sets!).

This glaring omission, not only in terms of historical completeness, but also because of its importance as a radical piece of then-contemporary music, is AMMUSIC (EUK-256), recorded in ‘66, but not delivered into the stock of baffled record shops until the following year, where it soon sank without trace. It doesn’t even get a mention in ‘White Bicycles’, the autobiography of Elektra UK’s head honcho Joe Boyd (coincidently published around the same time as the box set), which is odd given that it gave him a bum rap with his bosses back in New York HQ. Obviously, the record has been excised from popular accounts because of its perceived un-listenability, and its deviance from the label’s desired norms of sound and presentation, but it still really surprised me how the avant garde continues to be excluded (or, at the very least, marginalised) from even the most apparently conclusive/inclusive historicising processes. It’s a shame, as monuments like Forever Changing would benefit from ‘comfort zone’ extension, with a small, but important, part of the narrative restored to its proper place. AMMUSIC has certainly outlives a record like Diane Hildebrand’s Early Morning Blues & Greens, with no offence meant to Ms, Hildbrand. Or Crabby Appleton’s eponymous offering, or…

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