“Three Minute Symphony” Compilation (1984)

If you’re like me, sometimes you come back from the record store regretting the purchase you didn’t make. I’ve gotten better about this over the years, specifically because I’ll just buy the damn thing, especially if we’re on vacation and I know I’ll never get back to that shop again. But there are still times I find myself headed back to the store the following week to look for that left-behind gem. Sometimes it’s still there. Sometimes it’s not.

Late last year I pulled a comp called The Elephant Table Album out of a big bin of experimental and krautrock-y stuff that Easy Street Records put out. I picked up, looked at, and passed on one called Three Minute Symphony. I can’t remember why I didn’t buy it. Probably because I was already spending more than I’d planned. When I got home and did some research I learned that both comps were put out by music journalist Dave Henderson on his label Xtract, the only two releases he ever did. Henderson was well known at the time for writing about some of the more difficult music of the early 1980s, an era rife with electro-experimentation and open to a certain level of arty weirdness, and that’s reflected by the artists he involved in his two projects. The premise of Three Minute Symphony adds an extra level of difficulty for the artists, as each was asked to submit a piece of roughly three minutes in length. For some that may have been stretching their normal song length, but for others the idea of something as short as a radio-friendly three minutes was probably a challenge.

Knowing all of this, now I wanted the record. So I went back to Easy Street and… gone. Gone, that is, until I was surfing their Discogs store a few weeks back, and there it was! Since they were doing some local delivery to my era (COVID and all that…), I promptly ordered it. I’d have written about it sooner, but while poking around online I also learned that Dave Henderson put out a book back in 2010 called Journey To A Plugged In State Of Mind – Electronic Music: A Century Of Experimentation And Exploitation. Figuring the book might touch on Henderson’s Xtract label, and because I was generally interested in the topic, I ordered it. Unfortunately it doesn’t go into his releases at all, and in fact some of the bands he worked with aren’t even included in the book. However, it’s a very valuable history of electronic music done album-by-album, and I’ve been taking advantage of my Spotify subscription to listen to quite a few of the things he writes about – so I highly recommend the book if this is a topic of interest to you.

As for Three Minute Symphony, unlike Elephant Table Henderson opened it up to artists outside the UK. Is it as “difficult” as the self-proclaimed “difficult music” on The Elephant Table Album? Maybe? Some tracks like Kill Ugly Pop’s “Let’s Get Real Gone” aren’t that far out there, though follow that with Ptose’s “Waiting For My Soul” and you might start to re-evaluate your own mental stability. I will confess to appreciating the three-minute format, though, knowing that if I’m not into what I’m hearing I’ll be onto something new in short order. This is one of those records I feel like I could break down track-by-track, because there’s something unique and different waiting for you around each and every corner. If there’s a common thread here it’s simply the lack of mainstream-ism in general – even the songs with more typical structures, for example Human Flesh’s “L’Ultima Storia”, have their own unique strangeness, that intangible quality guaranteed to keep them as far off the charts as humanly possible.

I find many if not most comps of so-called difficult music to be difficult to listen to end-to-end, but Three Minute Symphony is the exception. Perhaps the songs aren’t as “out there” as those on other comps, but more likely the short track durations (the longest song is 3:52, the shortest 1:58) keeps me engaged even when faced with the daunting prospect of DDAA’s “Your Mother With A Cake”. Definitely a worth-while pick-up if you find it and want to explore some of the weirder corners of the early 1980s. Unfortunately unlike it’s predecessor Elephant Table this one never go the CD re-release treatment, so vinyl (or an online rip) is the only way to hear it.

On a purely tangental note, I wonder who the lady is who appears on the jacket in the upper right corner. Did she ever know that here photo was on this record? It’s certainly not the most flattering picture, which I’m sure in part was the point of using it. It’s not Tad 8-Way Santa bad, but I can’t imagine she’d have been thrilled, but who knows.