Sherlock Holmes Box Sets (1970s)

Every generation has their version of “Back when I was your age we didn’t have [fill in the blank]”. With the pace of technological advancement over the past 20 years we’ve now reached the point where the shifts aren’t generational, but sub-generational, as both the pace of innovation and speed of adoption continue to accelerate. It won’t be long until high school sophomores will wax poetic to incoming freshmen about how much easier the new class has it, because a year ago X, which is suddenly ubiquitous, didn’t exist.

I often think about this in the context of entertainment. I was born in the early 1970s. At that point, pretty much every household had a television, if not more than one, and the primary TV was most likely color. Radio was certainly everywhere as well, but generally when it came to “shows” people meant what was on TV. In most markets you were limited to a handful of channels – the three major networks, PBS, and maybe a swap meet calibre local access channel was about all we had. If you wanted to see the new episode of Happy Days or Three’s Company you had to make a point of being in front of your set at the scheduled date and time. Yes, VCRs existed in the 1970s, but who could afford one? I recently saw an add in a 1977 magazine listing VCRs at $1,000, and blank tapes at $100, both of which sound outrageous today. But when you factor in inflation… wow! That 1977 VCR would be the equivalent of about $4,200 in today’s money, with the blank tape costing another $420 (I believe my father was earning $12,000 per year in 1977). And since you couldn’t even buy movies on VHS at that point, could you really justify spending that kind of money? And even if you did, for what? So you could catch Sanford and Son a day after it aired?

By the early 1980s my family had cable and a VCR, and enough indie video rental stores were around that you could at least see movies like Deathstalker and Easy Rider. An ever growing number of cable channels and syndication meant you could catch up on at least some old shows, but it probably wasn’t for another 25 years that things like TiVo made recording shows easier. And now even that seems quaint in the era of streaming. More and more people I know are dropping cable completely and doing everything via streaming services, and people are as likely to watch shows on tablets or phones as they are televisions.

So I’m of the last generation that remembers a time before cable and VCRs, while the generation after mine will recall their life before streaming. But if we go one generation older than me, folks who grew up in the 1950s, most people didn’t have television, and even if you did the few channels that existed didn’t even broadcast all day. In fact, if you were telling someone about a “show” you were looking forward to that night, it was probably a radio show. And likely not one that played music but some kind of radio theater. While I know what it means to have to tune in at a specific day and time to catch your show, the idea of sitting in front of the radio to listen to it seems as foreign to me as having your schedule dictated by TV does to a teenager today.

I got three boxes of free records from someone at work the other day, and included were three box sets of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, all of which I believe were released on vinyl in the 1970s. One, The Hound Of The Baskervilles & The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, consists of the sound from two Sherlock Holmes movies, which you can more or less follow but definitely includes passages where the action is purely visual and you’re left scratching your head. The other two, though, Sherlock Holmes Tales From Baker Street and More Sherlock Holmes Adventures, are comprised of radio show episodes from the 1940s and 50s, each about 25 minutes in length. It’s a trip listening to these and thinking about the role they played – this was the cutting edge of delivering entertainment directly into the home. And they’re kind of fun to play in the evening while you’re chilling out with a cocktail.

You can actually find these from time to time and fairly reasonably priced. So long as the vinyl is in good shape, one of these boxes will give you a good three hours or so of entertainment and a way to travel back in time… even if you can play them any time you want.

Spykes & Parashi – “Braille License Plates for Sullen Nights” 7″ (2019)

All empires eventually fall, be they the various Egyptian and Chinese dynasties, one collapsing and another rising to take its place, or more Western models that see an empire fall to be replace by something from outside. Sometimes the demise is gradual, like that of Rome which split itself in two and then watched helplessly as the western portion slowly corroded and collapsed. Other times the end is more definitive, like the Romans usurping the Carthaginians and not only selling off the people of Carthage into slavery but, so we are told, even salting the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again, an historical exclamation point if there ever was one. Often empires last for hundreds of years, other times they explode onto the scene and are gone in the blink of an historical eye, like the dozen year rise and fall of Germany in the 1930s and 40s. But if there is one thing we’ve learned from history, it’s that all empires fall. All of them. Every single one. It’s as inevitable as death, taxes, and the futility of the Seattle Mariners.

Braille License Plates for Sullen Nights is the soundtrack of the end times as the once glorious empire circles the drain of history with increasing rapidity, occasional desperate reaches out of the abyss unsuccessfully trying to arrest the fall and stop the inevitable. The demise is like gravity, the combination of electronics and strings pulling your tonearm toward the center hole before reaching the end that is not an end, the locked groove hell of the Vandals sacking Rome yet again or the Russian artillery delivering a modern Ragnarök upon Berlin. Even in final defeat you can’t escape that hopelessness of the repetition of the locked groove, the sound of lost glories and the unceasing, plodding drudgery of defeat and decay.

Limited to 200 copies on 7″ vinyl, each with a unique hand-cut jacket, Braille License Plates for Sullen Nights is available on the Radical Documents Bandcamp page HERE. Are you up to looking into the inevitability of future collapse? Can you handle the existential dread? Only you can answer these questions for yourself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Chris & Cosey – “Technø Primitiv” (1985)

I’m clearly becoming infatuated with Cosey Fanni Tutti. Whether it’s part of Chris & Cosey, or Carter Tutti, or any of the other permutations, I find the blend of Chris Carter’s soundscapes and the dreaminess of her voice to be perfect companions, both to one another as well as to me as I sit and listen. In fact I’m dangerously close to going down a Cosey rabbit hole and buying up all of her stuff that I can get my hands on, which could be a dangerous proposition given that I’ll be in London in a few weeks time.

Technø Primitiv was the duo’s fourth full-length album (♠), a somewhat somber dance record, a languid sonic dream sequence that turns the listener back into themselves, Cosey’s voice like a guru’s mantra allowing you to slowly slide into another state of consciousness. The oddest twist on the album comes at the end of side A. The second-to-last song is “Haunted Heroes”, a serious ambient number that replaces her vocals with what I believe to be a war veteran describing some of his experiences, his voice distant but clear. That’s immediately followed by the sugary “Stolen Kisses”, the closest thing on Technø Primitiv to a true pop song. The contrast between the two is palpable and a bit startling when “Stolen Kisses” first begins.

Technø Primitiv is the kind of good that can cause a paradigm shift in how you think about music. I’ve been flirting with more and more electronic and dance music recently, and this may just be the gentle shove I needed to jump into the deep end of the pool.

(♠) As near as I can tell, at least… sometimes with artists that constantly put out albums with name variations it can be difficult to tell.

Coil – “Panic” (1985)

There are three songs on this 12″ from Coil, and all three bring something different to the party. “Aqua Regis” is the stuff nightmares are made from, and industrial horror show from the deepest recesses of the most primitive parts of the brain. I mean, just look at the cover of this thing – if that image isn’t nightmare fuel, I don’t know what is. However, “Panic” is some great industrial dance, metallic beats and more structured than its predecessor, though the vocal interlude is creepy as hell (and it sort of sounds like they sampled some Led Zeppelin era Robert Plant with some of the moaning). The B side is given over to an industrial cover of “Tainted Love” that will peel the paint off your soul, if you have one. Even played at 45 rpm you’re left thinking, “wait, is the speed too slow?” It’s not. It feels like something being sung by a homicidal stalker. Meaning it’s pretty great.

The Outfield – “Play Deep” (1985)

It’s a bit odd that a band from the UK would name itself after a section of a baseball field, especially if they weren’t fans of the game to begin with. The trio originally recorded a demo under the name The Baseball Boys, a reference to the baseball-themed gang in the movie The Warriors (1979), (♠) which makes a bit more sense, and despite recognizing the need for a better name they still ended up with something baseball related. Why The Outfield in particular? Well, according to an interview the band did with the Los Angeles Times in 1986 they simply came up with a list of 10 possible names to replace The Baseball Boys, and The Outfield was the one they liked the best. As fans we’d like to think there was something more to it, but there it is.

The baseball theme continues with the name of The Outfield’s debut album, 1985s Play Deep. While somewhat of an oversimplification, “playing deep” in the context of the outfield indicates that either (1) the batter at the plate has a reputation for hitting the ball far, and/or (2) that runners are in scoring position and the manager has decided he’s more concerned with preventing a ball from going over the fielders’ heads than he is with one of the baserunners scoring on a single to the outfield. Does “play deep” have any meaning as it relates to the 10 songs on Play Deep? I sincerely doubt it as none of the songs appear to have any ties to the game. The Outfield flirt on and off with the baseball theme in later album titles as well, specifically Diamond Days (1989) and Extra Innings (Unreleased) (1999), plus the comps Playing the Field (1992) and Big Innings (1996), but I don’t think they ever recorded a song that had anything to do with the so-called National Pastime. Come to think of it, there aren’t a lot of baseball songs out there with the notable exception of John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” and to a lesser extent Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” and Meatloaf’s “Paradise By the Dashboard Light” (the latter is only metaphorically about baseball, though it does include Baseball Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto as the play-by-play guy, so bonus points). (♣)

By the time Play Deep came out and “Your Love” made an unsuccessful run for the top of the charts my baseball career, such as it was, had ended. I played two seasons of Little League for the Fortune Personnel team (named after our corporate sponsor… capitalism digs its claws into you early in the US) in, I believe, 1982 and 1983. And yes, I played in the outfield. At the major league level the three outfield positions tend to have consistent profiles and abilities – the center fielder is fast and has a good arm; the right field needs a great arm to make the long throws to third base; and the left fielder… well… the left fielder can hit and is generally not known for his defense. In fact sometimes he’s a defensive liability. In the little leagues it’s even more noticeable. See, when I played, the rule was that every player had to appear in at least two innings if they showed up for the game. And left field is where you hid the suckiest kids, the ones who couldn’t catch or were slow or ambivalent about being there. If memory serves, I believe that over the course of my baseball career there was only one game in which I played somewhere other than left field. Oh, and I couldn’t hit for shit either.

Two things strike me about Play Deep. First, the harmonies are brilliant. Second, these songs have a certain quality about them that just sounds like The Outfield. I can’t place it, but there are other bands and performers like this as well. Bruce Hornsby, for example, has this “thing” he does with the piano that seems to be on every one of his songs that, the second I hear it, I’m like, yup, that’s Bruce Hornsby. In fact, I got to see Bruce perform once – he played the National Anthem on piano at, ironically, a Seattle Mariners baseball games years and years ago. And guess what? He made the National Anthem sound like a Bruce Hornsby song too.

There’s one thing that has always confounded me about “Your Love”. I get it that the narrator is having a tryst with an old flame. After all, right at the start we establish that his new lady is out of town. Josie’s on a vacation far away… But what I always wondered about is the line, You know I like my girls a little bit older. Is this him telling the girl he’s inviting over that part of why he’s with Josie is because Josie is a little bit older, or is he still into his nameless ex because she’s a little bit older? Somehow I feel like this is an important distinction. One of these ladies is “older”, but which one? I posed this question to Mrs. Life in the Vinyl Lane, and she looked at me like, “is this a serious question?” It is. But I suspect I’ll never know the answer. Either way, he’s a dirtbag Josie, and you should leave him.

(♠) “War-riors… come out to play-ay….”

(♣) To be fair, there are others, especially if you want to go back to the 1940s and 50s. There are also plenty of novelty songs dedicated to specific teams or players, and even songs by baseball players themselves, such as my personal favorite “Phillies Fever” (1976). Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball (Willie, Mickey & The Duke)” (1981) is a classic as well, with the added benefit that Willie (Mays), Mickey (Mantle), and The Duke (Duke Snider) were all outfielders. See? It all comes full circle.