Living as a Mod in the 21st Century

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

WARNING: Northern Soul and 60s Garage spotted at Goner Records in Memphis

Established in the hip college neighborhood of Cooper-Young, Goner Records has much to offer the traveling Mod. 
The trendy Cooper-Young neighborhood

With plenty of rows of 45s to flip through, it's a true audiophile's playground. With a certain predisposition towards the college crowd (some neo-punk was blaring through the speakers when I walked in), there's something for everyone. Again, Memphis based Stax was well represented.

Now, if you are looking for the "crate diggin'" experience this is not the place for you, quite the opposite. Everything is well organized, expertly labeled and appropriately priced. Don't expect to find the Holy Grail of all Mod records for a buck but you are guaranteed to leave with few fairly priced killer tracks. Again, don't forget to ask if you can have a peak at the secret stash behind the counter and see how it feels to hold a 200$ unmolested copy of an unknown 60s southern garage band.

What I enjoyed the most about the place is how a lot of the 45s are precisely labeled by musical inclination and accurately graded. This might be time consuming for the employees but what a joy for the consumer! I bought quite a few stunning records that I wouldn't of considered if it wasn't for the description on the paper sleeve.

Add to that Joe, a friendly staff member who let me browse past closing time without even saying a word. Wow! How often do you see that? Most importantly, I left with some smashing tracks and groovy tunes.

Have a listen.

The Sweet Bippies - Love, Anyway You Want It - AM Records

Sight And Sound - Alley, Alley - Fontana Records

The Sensational Epics - It's A Gass - Cameo Records

Willie And The Red Rubber Band - Chicky-Chicky Boom Boom - RCA Records

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A true American classic: Gibson guitars

If I were a musician, I would probably have a Gibson strapped to my body. I can't speak to the musical prowess of the instrument but the timeless look is undeniable. With adepts from across the globe, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Still 100% American made, I had a chance to tour the Memphis factory. With only 50 guitars being produced daily and 3 weeks to be made from start to finish, you can expect your axe to be top quality. Most of the guitar making process I have witnessed is being executed by hand.

At one station, you could see naked wooden guitar body parts being strapped together by an intricate web of ropes and hung on racks in order to let the glue dry. It seemed a bit archaic but it would have made any bondage practitioner's pupils dilate.

The paint booth was quite impressive. I didn't realize until then that every Les Paul is hand painted by a skilled craftsman, hence making every guitar unique. My favorite station was probably the detailing section where "scrapers" go through every inch of the guitar using sharp blades. All the edges are carefully reshaped.

The final assembly station is also quite a sight. I have no idea how they insert all the electronics in the guitar through those small openings with such ease but I know I would loose my mind. I have a hard enough time trying to change a scooter cable on my Vespa; I don't see myself doing such precise work.

These men and women at Gibson are more than just factory workers; they are artists in their own right.

Special Ben Sherman limited edition Gibson guitars

* The photos of the guitars are not the property of Parka Avenue. If Gibson or Ben Sherman have an objection, please let me know.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The search for vinyl in Memphis: Shangri-La Records

It would be hard for me to visit a city like Memphis, so rich in musical history, and not go on the hunt for a few soul 45s and a couple of southern garage records. It would be like being in Pontedera, Italy and not stopping by the Piaggio factory.

Things have changed slightly since I first started seeking out record stores while on vacation in various American cities. Now that I have a considerable amount of the "classics" in my collection, I gradually eased over to the more collectable and rare stuff. You never saw me pay over 30$ for a 7" before. Now, if the track is, as my mate Eric Colin would say a "Monster", I’m ready to part with my hard earned cash. One important criteria remains, it has to be a tune you'll dance to. Moving feet and sweat are part of the equation.

So I did my usual homework and surfed the web to find the best record shops Memphis had to offer. I also asked the kind Memphians, every chance I got, if they had any recommendations. One name kept popping up: Shangri-La Records. Situated midtown, we took the historic wooden tramway from downtown to the last stop. From there, it's a brisk 20-minute walk to the store at 1916 Madison Avenue.
As soon as you walk through the door of this converted house, you are faced with a few shelves of desirable soul and rock 45s. There's a sizeable amount of rare tracks up for grabs. How do I know they are rare? It says so on the box!
In the adjacent room, you'll find all your favorite northern soul artists and labels well categorized in different sections. If you are heavy into Stax, you will be well served. Chances are you'll find what you are looking for. Make sure you have a look at their smaller but well garnished 60s garage section on the nearby wall. A turntable is also at your disposal.

I didn't leave with a boatload of records but I'm very satisfied with the quality of the merchandise. Andrew was also very kind and helpful. Always make sure you ask him to see the pricey items he has behind the counter. Starting at around 30$ a 45, you'll find a few dozen mint copies of the really cool stuff. Ask nicely and he'll play a few for you.

I had a quick look at the LP section and was very pleased to find a nice copy of The Young Holt Trio's album Wack Wack. The title song being one of my favorite soul instrumental tracks, along with Green Onions of course, I didn't hesitate to add it to my half a dozen singles. It was only once I got home that I realized that I had actually bought a never opened, sealed copy of the album. The plastic being ripped in the top corner led me to believe that the album wasn't sealed and I hadn't even bothered looking at the condition of the record before purchasing it.

My only complaint is about having price tags being partly put on the label of the 45s. When I carefully peeled off the 30$ price tag off a mint copy of a Sunny & the Sunliners 7", the label was slightly damaged. The only consolation is that it's on the B-side.

These are some of the treasures I left with.

Hip Huggin Mini - Sunny & the Sunliners - RPR Records

Love Power - The Sandpebbles - Calla Records

The Volumes - You got It Baby - Inferno Records

Look What You've Done To My Heart - Shirley & The Shirelles - Bell Records

With My Love And What You've Got - Jean Wells - Calla Records

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I’ve seen the Promised Land: Stax Records

Like many Mods, when asked to choose between Motown and Stax, I have always leaned on the Memphis sound. Even if they have a lot less hits then their Detroit counterpart, I prefer their raw, gritty, funky sound when compared to the more polished, pop oriented, clean arrangements of Gordy’s gang.

When you look at artists like Sam & Dave, The Bar-Kays, Booker T. and the MG's, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Ike & Tina, The Mar-Keys, Otis Redding, Al Green, Eddie Floyd, it all screams Mod. In fact, when these artists flew to England on their ’67 tour, they were greeted like superstars. A lot of them remember that tour as the pinnacle of their career. Steve Cropper, guitarist for Booker T. and the MG's remembers: “They treated us like we were the Beatles or something.” Stax has undeniably always had a huge Mod following.

So I don’t think it would surprise anybody if I said that one of the main reasons why I chose Memphis as a vacation spot was to go visit the “ground zero” of one of the most influential soul recording companies, Stax Records.

It all started when Bill Stewart started recording out of a garage and then moving the business in a small record shop out of an old movie theatre on McLemore Avenue. The place long gone, it's now a comprehensive museum. An impressive collection of stage costumes, musical instruments and concert posters are displayed along with concert clips and interviews. An extensive history of soul music, from its roots in gospel and blues to Isaac Hayes’  peacock-blue and gold trimmed Superfly Cadillac El Dorado, complete the picture.

Tina Turner's stage dress
Otis Redding's favorite suede jacket
Sadly, the original studio has since been demolished but a replica of the famed Studio A has replaced it.  A new building annexed to the museum houses the non-profit Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School. As an elementary school teacher, I can only support such an initiative.

Stax's original Scully two-track recorder. Otis Redding cut Mr. Pitiful and Respect on this machine.
I get chills just thinking of the hits that were mixed on this soundboard.
The place may not emanate the same mystical and magical atmosphere that I felt when I visited the untouched studios of Motown and Sun but I was still in awe in front of the historical significance of some of the pieces.

Booker T. Jones' M-3 Hammond organ, used to record Green Onions.

What I take away from visiting the legendary studio is how everybody involved felt like they were part of a big family, where there was no color line, black and white working together. That may sound overly simplistic but maybe that's the perfect ingredient for making such timeless music.

When we left Stax, I asked the taxi driver if he could do a quick detour on Edith Street so we could go see Booker T. Jones' former house, a few blocks away from the studio. The older taxi driver, that could of easily passed for a blues player himself, was a bit surprised by my request. He admitted it was the first time he was ever asked that. Luckily, I had the address. That's how big of a fan I am.

Booker T. Jones former house near Stax.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The place that started it all: Sun Studio

Most people equate Sun Records with Elvis Presley. Since this a Modernist blog, we will leave the stories about the King to the Rockers. I can recognize Presley's contribution to the world of popular music but like most Mods, I am more interested in the real pioneers of a musical genre.

Sam Phillips, the mastermind behind this tiny studio located at the intersection of Union and Marshall in Memphis,  was a real trailblazer. The place first started as the Memphis Recording Service. Sam's slogan was: "We record anything, anywhere, anytime". He was interested in making recorded accounts of music that had never been laid down on vinyl, mainly the blues.

1951 would end up being a year that would change music history and this one song would start a revolution. And it all happened in this room. This is where Rock and Roll was born!

According to most musical historians, Rocket 88 is considered to be the first Rock and Roll song. Credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, it's actually Mod favorite Ike Turner who is responsible for all the arrangements. It's also the first ever-recorded example of the use of a fuzz guitar! Legend has it that on the way to the studio the guitar amplifier cone was damaged and in an attempt to repair the defective part, newspaper was stuffed in the amplifier. This caused a distortion and Phillips liked the sound and decided to keep it.

Other artists favored amongst Mods also made their debut at Sun Studio. B.B. King and Rufus Thomas are certainly the most notable. Rufus Thomas has been, for a lot of us, associated with Stax Records but he was actually the first artist responsible for giving Sun Records it's first hit single in 1953. Without giving any more info on the song, I invite you to listen to it and see if you recognize anything.

Just like when I visited Motown last summer, standing in such an historic place has left me speechless a few times.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Mod on the road: Memphis, Tennessee

First impressions are key when you visit a city for the first time. Aside from the fact that we missed our connecting flight and had to spend a very short night in Chicago, I was looking forward to spending a week in the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock and roll.

One of the best ways to get a sense of the soul of a city is through its local food. We were quickly recommended to try the Trolley Stop Market at 704 Madison Avenue. We had flown out of Chicago early that morning and we hadn't had a bite to eat. Our stomachs were growling.

As soon as we walked through the door, one of my favorite soul tunes was coming out of the speakers. If this was any indication of how my week was going to be, this was a good sign.

Part market, part art gallery, this restaurant is one unique place. With paintings of blues musicians, done by artists from the area covering the walls, I felt right at home. Just like their motto states: "Farmer owned. Farmer operated", you can bet that only fresh ingredients are used here.

 As we sit at the bar, I thought that there could not be a better way to start the journey than to taste the local beer. Right after I had ordered a pint of Ghost River Oatmeal Stout, I realized that everybody around me was eating brunch. I explained my predicament to the server behind the bar and he nonchalantly said: "Have you ever had coffee in you beer?" That could be a non-conventional way to start a brunch and I was eager to try something new.

After the initial adjustment of drinking luke warm beer, I was happy with my choice. The meal was just as tasty. Nothing too out of the ordinary but oh so good! An egg, cheese and sausage sandwich with a side of hash brown really hit the spot.

My girlfriend had the Whitton Farms shitake, sarrell, spinach, and ricotta omelet. We were unfamiliar with what sarrell was, but the green leaf with its subtle hint a lemon flavor blended well with all the other ingredients.

Memphis, you have won us over already! Now, off to visit the birthplace of rock and roll, Sun Studios.