Thursday, 5 November 2009

The ESP Sampler

In my early teens, the sampler album was an excellent way of having seemingly important artists represented in my tiny record collection. Island's late 'sixties/early 'seventies various artists budget releases were still in the racks, the single L.P.s available for the price of a new 45 - King Crimson's 21st Century Schizoid Man and Dr. Strangely Strange's Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal were particular favourites at thirteen. Other tremendous discoveries via samplers were the Third Ear Band's Stone Circle (off the twenty-track cheapie promoting the Harvest Heritage series - Shirley Collins was featured too, as well as Tomorrow's My White Bicycle); and Peter Hammill's German Overalls from a reduced-in-the-sale Charisma round-up. A few weren't so great, like the free CBS and Polydor ones I acquired through music weekly Sounds - generally, pretty dull; I wish I'd put the postage and packing money towards an Ivor Cutler or Lol Coxhill L.P. instead, but I was impatient to hear, and own music by, as many different artists as I could.
Amongst the most consistent samplers I've found are the three Virgin Front Line collections; and the 1982 double put out by Recommended, two hours long and encased in a glitter-decorated thick plastic outer. By comparison with the latter, On-U Sound's first Pay It All Back offering looks disappointingly cheap and nasty, though houses some gems like Prince Far I's classic ode to Bedward, a preacher whose faith erroneously led him to believe he could fly. Y Records' Birth Of The Y is pretty fine too, as are those assemblages of music from around the world on GlobeStyle. Then, each having its moments, there's Virgin's V double with its famous sleeve image of the six-fingered hand making a victory (or peace) sign... and of course Dandelion's There Is Some Fun Going Forward, the cover star being John Peel in the bath, with female company.
In the 'eighties I haunted Brighton's secondhand record shops, one day stumbling across The ESP Sampler (ESP-Disk' 1051) in Vinyl Demand. I knew of The Fugs, and Pearls Before Swine, and of course Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, had an awareness of the label... The vinyl looks very distinctive, twenty-one tracks per side, most of equal(ish) length - one-minute excerpts from the ESP-Disk' catalogue. There are so many tracks that the listing had to be continued from the back cover onto an insert tucked inside the blue and red sleeve. I'd always loved records with lots of little tracks, from Young Marble Giants' Testcard (unusually, a six-band E.P.) through to Ivor Cutler's Privilege which had track separation lacking on his Virgin albums. I enjoy studying vinyl, generally trying out the shortest tracks first, wondering, "What on earth... ? !" if they clock in at a minute or less.
There's plenty of free music on this 99 cent sampler - it proved a crash course for me on those artists I'd read about in Valerie Wilmer's overview of the new jazz, As Serious As Your Life : Pharaoh Sanders, Milford Graves, Sunny Murray, Albert Ayler... There's so much more besides, though - underground stuff like The Godz (and the aforementioned Fugs and Pearls Before Swine); a portion from The Coach With The Six Insides (a musical adaptation of Joyce's Finnegans Wake); William Burroughs; Allen Ginsberg; Ishmael Reed; something from the Movement Soul L.P. of sounds of the freedom movement of the deep south; and a version, sung in Esperanto, of Auld Lang Syne, taken from the label's inaugural release. Vocalist Patty Waters first came to my attention via this sampler.
I guess The ESP Sampler might be filed alongside Morgan-Fisher's Miniatures project for which he enlisted numerous artists who submitted short tracks of around one minute. Although there were different reasons behind the two records, they seem to fit together nicely because of the brevity of the pieces.
The ESP Sampler was perhaps a canny commercial idea : give just a mouthwatering minute of things, enough to tantalise, arouse curiosity, encourage purchase. Maybe it was a little mean not to offer up entire tracks in most instances; or was that more to do with the lengths of many of the free jazz excursions which could scarcely be kept intact ? It's a pretty different story with rock-based samplers where whole tracks appear.

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