In some ways, packing for a year in a different hemisphere is easier than preparing a suitcase for two weeks at the beach. I pondered this conundrum back in 1996 as I prepared for an extended relationship cultural exchange in Germany. Often the answer to the question “How many? How much?” was answered with the inner reassurance that I could probably source most things I needed in the country of disembarkation. And that was true enough; I even found a source of Vegemite. But deciding how many pairs of woollen socks to pack was nothing compared to trying to work out which dozen CDs to transport across the world to sustain me for twelve months. Because I wouldn’t be buying any in Germany.
Of course not, you say. Little money to spare. Yes, understood. Unknown employment prospects. Perfectly reasonable. So no accumulating music. Yeah, right.
When it came time to gather my belongings for the return to Aus in mid-97, I told myself the heaviness inside was to do with the inadequate capacity of my suitcase and nothing whatever to do with the impossibility of solving the relationship problems that had coalesced around geography. There’s baggage and there’s baggage.
And there are CDs. In this case, over a hundred and twenty of the buggers. I’d averaged around ten albums a month during the year. Pretty restrained, I’m sure you will agree. Talking of restrictions, those around luggage allowances are enforced without mercy at international airports. As I surveyed the tower of discs and the limited volume of case space, it became apparent that even the cut-throat measure of abandoning my fur-lined winter boots and discarding several almost mint ‘Lernen Sie Deutsch’ text books would be insufficient to avoid excess luggage penalties. What to do?
One option was to cull the CDs. That is what a sane person would do, as clearly not all ten dozen could possibly be described as essential. That late Move album? Past their prime, so it could go. The solid but unspectacular electronic music on the IC label? Not really Klaus Schulze standard. But it doesn’t work that way, does it? Once you have actually bought something, especially in a setting that is memorable (or at least unfamiliar) it is hard to let go. Well for a music tragic, anyway.
Needs must when the devil drives; that’s what I was thinking. Or words to that effect, like ‘Verdammte Gepäckbeschränkungen!’
Now you may or may not know this, depending on how often you have posted CDs around the globe, but most of the weight of a compact disc is in the plastic jewel case that houses the software and slick. Fully clothed, an average CD weighs around 100 grams. But strip it back to its unprotected nakedness and, depending on the thickness of the booklet, most albums will tip the scales between 25 and 35 grams. I stared at the skyscraper of CDs on the floor next to my suitcase. ‘Guys,’ I said, ‘Prepare for disrobing’.
An hour of assiduous case dismemberment later I had a tottering translucent tower of empty plastic boxes and a dense little package of recorded music one-third of the previous size and weight. Result. Now, what to do with the cases. I was pretty sure that a metre of plastic was not the memento of my presence desired by the lady in question but I couldn’t just dump them in the recycling. So off I trotted to the second-hand music store where I’d spent the most Deutschmarks.
Though I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the store, or even whether it had a name, I can picture it clearly. Lurking on the edge of downtown Mainz on the wrong side of a busy road dividing old-world European historicalness from utilitarian post-war drabness, Freddie’s shop was crowded. Not with customers —I rarely encountered more than one other customer in any single visit— but with stock. The lanes of record racks were placed so close together that when you bent slightly to see a cover in the back rank, your backside smacked into the shelf behind. And they were so stuffed with LPs that browsing was far from easy. All crate diggers know the story. ‘Have a Sale!’ you want to yell. ‘Put in another floor!’ Perhaps many record store owners are hoarders, totally unlike their clients.
The shop also stocked CDs, though there were fewer racks. To make up for the deficit in shelf space, Freddie had hit upon the novel strategy of stacking CDs in the shop window. Piled up like a musical Great Wall of, er, CDs, this bastion of recordings was neither user nor proprietor friendly. For starters, to browse these albums you had to loiter on the pavement outside, not an especially attractive prospect in winter. Even in nice weather, the traffic noise and likelihood of being staffed by footpath cyclists made for less-than-relaxing browsing. But say your eye caught something of interest; that is when the fun really began. You could either go back inside and attempt to provide co-ordinates to the owner: ‘Er, fifteenth column from the left — sorry, the right now I’m inside— about a foot —sorry, 30 centimetres— from the bottom. Pink spine, Popol Vuh album…’. Just translate that into German, would you? No? Despite a year of lessons, neither could I. So I usually opted for the Marcel Marceau approach, knocking on the glass to gain Freddie’s attention then pointing to a column and a distance down from the summit. I called this the successive approximation approach, as Freddie would extract a CD, hold it up, I’d shake my head and indicate higher or lower in the pile and back he would go for another lucky dip. It is amazing I bought anything at all.
Back inside and back to Freddie. The proprietor was not a small man. Bearded, amply proportioned, I doubt whether he could have comfortably navigated the aisles of his own store. Nor was he a talkative fellow, though this may have been more about our clunky attempts to speak each other’s language than a character trait. But communicate we did, to the extent that I discovered at least two interesting facts about Big F. Firstly, he had an almost complete set of original Brain and Ohr record releases. We are talking Krautrock Valhalla here, friends, though I never sighted this amazing treasure trove. We weren’t that close. The other fascinating Freddie fact was that he harboured a passion for lefty Australian folk-rockers Redgum and desperately desired their albums on compact disc. I promised to keep an eye out for them on return to Aus and for several years did indeed actively seek them, carrying the shop address around in my wallet until the paper became illegible with age.
On that early summer morning back in ’97, I conveyed something of my CD problem and its solution to Freddie and, basically, offered him the jewel cases. He was cautiously positive about the idea, so I cycled back home, bundled them up and trundled back, hoping as I accelerated down the final hill that this was not the day for my second bicycle accident. The first had resulted in a few grazes and some squashed plums. This one would surely see me being filleted by a thousand shards of plastic.
Arriving safely, I lugged the cases into the shop and dumped them on the counter. ‘That pile there are a little worn,’ I explained, ‘But the rest of them are pretty much new.’
‘Choose some CDs,’ he said.
‘In exchange for the boxes.’
Oh, OK. Thanks. What an unexpected bonus. In short order I’d extracted a few things that’d been on my mental ‘want’ list for ages. When I placed them on the counter, asking what balance I owed him, Freddie scowled. ‘Keep going.’
It seemed very generous, but you don’t say ‘No thanks’ to the Candy Store owner who has just granted you carte blanche, do you? Maybe his normal jewel case supplier had left town. So I browsed some more and added another two titles to the pile.
‘One or two more,’ said Freddie.
This was starting to feel just a little bizarre. I glanced at the fellow. He didn’t seem to be on drugs nor showing signs of incipient insanity, so I concluded that he must know what he was doing and chose a final album, a bootleg double CD of Steve Hillage performing in London in 1977 and 1979.
‘I’ll just remove these from their cases,’ I said.
Freddie slipped the discs and their associated paperwork into a small bag. I looked at the new pile of empty cases on the counter and grinned at Freddie. ‘This could go on forever.’ Freddie gave a lop-sided smile. It was the first time I’d ever seen his face move. There was a slightly awkward pause.
‘Auf Wiedersehen, Freddie.’
‘Tchüss,’ he said, ‘Have a good flight.’
What was it got me thinking about Freddie and his cluttered Mainz record shop after all these years?
The main trigger was receiving an LP ordered on-line in late 2015, an archival live recording by Steve Hillage, called, with admirable clarity, Madison Square Garden 1977. It is a lovely cover, the record has been pressed on cheerful orange vinyl, and the sound quality is excellent.
It was one of those late-night on-line browsing purchases and I did wonder, during the weeks spent awaiting its arrival, whether I actually needed more live Hillage from 1977. Let me take you down the winding glissando path. I promise we’ll get back to Mainz eventually.
Steve Hillage is a fascinating musician. His first recording was with psych-into-prog cult favourites Arzachel, a short-lived band that included Dave Stewart (keyboards) Clive Brooks on drums and Mont Campbell on bass. Their 1969 album is absurdly collectible (though available on CD for less than the sacrifice of your firstborn) and absurdly good. It is psychedelic in the sense of having a spooky discordant drug-infused vibe that invites turning the lights off, lighting a candle and anything else available, and taking an uneasy trip. The organ riots and the guitars growl while the rhythm section holds the foundations steady. Bubblegum psych this is definitely not. The longer jams are intense and suffer a little from recording limitations, yet remain freakily superior to most of what was being released at the time in terms of ideas and barely-contained energy. Mainly because this was no ordinary flash-in-the-ashtray paisley wonder. After Hillage left to go to university (history and philosophy), the other three became Egg, an often overlooked and under-valued progressive trio who exceeded Emerson Lake and Palmer in invention if not in sales.
Hillage and Stewart re-united in Khan, who produced one very interesting album (Space Shanty, 1971) after which Steve put in some time with Kevin Ayres prior to joining Gong in January 1973. His two-year tenure with Daevid Allen’s inspired pixie-hippies produced some of their best work and Steve even managed to record his first solo album —Fish Rising (1975)— during his final months in Gong. The next solo project was L (produced by Todd Rundgren), which, aided by a six-week US tour supporting Electric Light Orchestra in early 1977, did quite nicely in the world’s biggest music market. Back to England for more concerts, whooshing across to America to record Motivation Radio, bringing the band back to the UK for more touring in late 1977… it was a very busy and productive year for Steve Hillage.
A document of sorts was released as the 1979 album Live Herald, collecting a range of UK performances from ’77 and ’78. Oddly, the original double album had three live sides and a fourth of new studio recordings. These were later added to the next studio album, Open, and dropped from subsequent releases of Live Herald. (The 2013 Back on Black re-issue of the live double has just the concert material, now spread across four sides).
The reason I was drawn to the bootleg 2 CD set mounted in Freddie’s shop window was that each CD was from a separate concert; one from 1977 and one from 1979. I was really interested to hear more of an actual tour set rather than a cherry-picked selection as offered on Live Herald. GGGGONG-GO_LONG delivers on this promise, despite its very silly title.
Where Madison Square Garden 1977 varies from either of the others is in its shrewd track selection. Gone are flights of space-whisper whimsy like the charming ‘Light in the Sky’ and meandering jams such as ‘Searching for the Spark’. Instead we have a more focussed concert experience delivering electric space-boogie with sturdy riffs and lashings of cosmic pyrotechnics. Infectious guitar-based grooves abound on the cover versions that anchor each side. Donovan’s ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’ and George Harrison’s ‘It’s All Too Much’ respond very well indeed to Hillage’s electric gypsy aesthetic; the recognition factor no doubt helped US audiences back in 1977 and aids connection today.
That is not the end of the Steve Hillage story, not by a long chalk, but it is certainly enough for now. If you can get hold of either of these live albums, they provide a great introduction to the artist’s work. I don’t know the current availability of the vinyl, but if you buy CDs on-line, ask what the postage would cost without the plastic jewel cases.