Armagideon Time

It’s time to ditch the chronological structure of this feature, which I had hoped to avoid from the beginning yet still managed to fall into in short order. The conceit served no practical purpose, except to ensure that the write-up of any given record would end up getting posted months after the initial flush of excitement had faded.

If the series of K-Tel posts and other entries in this feature hadn’t clued you in already, I’ve been a big fan of compilation albums since my tweener years. There were a handy and — more importantly — affordable way of obtaining favorite songs and discovering new-to-me artists without dropping the dough on a dedicated release. This was especially true during my mid-teens, when I gave up on contemporary music in favor of the pop-rock-soul sounds of the Sixties.

The department store bargain racks were packed with cheap collections of Sixties hits, thanks to the cresting wave of Boomer nostalgia during the back-half of the Eighties, and I spent a good deal of time sifting through them in search of specific “must haves.” JCI’s “Baby Boomer Classics” series was the gold standard as far as these things went, offering titularly themed (Soul Sixties, Electric Sixties, Surfin’ Sixties) rosters of original master recordings on chrome cassettes for under a fiver. I also dabbled on the mail order front by purchasing the notorious Freedom Rock set, which featured a deeper bench of offerings and, for some bizarre reason, “Freebird.”

The habit persisted through my brief thrash metal phase and the early part of my punk period, though my love of Sixties music had succumbed to grip of embarrassed erasure by the time Time-Life’s Classic Rock series of compilations rolled around.

Even if I hadn’t (stupidly) repudiated that part of my past, I don’t know if I would’ve made the plunge. For starters, they were a mail-order jobber, which was a logistical pain in the ass for a teen without a checking account or credit card. Even worse, they were one of those “on approval” deals where’d they keep shipping new installments on a regular basis, and there was no shortage of horror tales around the lunch table about friends-of-friends who’d been snared by similar schemes.

The series completely slipped from my skull for almost three decades, only resurfacing after I came across a print ad for it in a random DC back issue from the early Nineties.

(A big thanks to Greg A for finding a copy of the above ad for me, since I just sold the part of my funnybook collection where I’d first encountered it.)

My current record-buying renaissance was in full swing, and the compilations fit both my urge to reconstruct my pre-punk music library and my ongoing quest for long-players that would mutually acceptable post-workday spins for Maura and me. I was inspired to do a couple of exploratory eBay searches for various entries in the series, and was staggered by the exceedingly optimistic prices folks were asking.

Look, man, I’m sorry you got suckered into paying twelve bucks plus shipping for thirty-odd records during the Bush the Elder years, but let’s be realistic here. No one is going to spend upwards of forty dollars for two dozen songs that can obtained much more cheaply and easily in countless other places or formats. I had better luck on Discogs’ marketplace (after I worked up the courage to create an account) where decent condition copies of the various albums could be found domestically for under a tenner.

As tempting as it was to just pick up the entire lot, I’ve been trying to prioritize quality over quantity. As mentioned above, the featured material is readily available elsewhere, so there’s no point in buying something based on a couple of tracks out of a roster of twenty. In order to seal the deal, the has to be least one exceptional side — or a couple of pretty good ones — I can spin from start to finish without any bum notes souring the experience.

There were a few entries in the Classic Rock series which did fit that bill — one of the 1964 comps, a couple of the 1965 ones, the first 1968 one — but none so flawlessly as the original 1967 collection.

It’s only befitting an incredible year for pop music, but that’s still one hell of a roster. I’ve spent entire weekends cycling through the entire thing multiple times.

In terms of trade dress and production quality, the series is very much an upmarket, chronologically compiled sibling to the sell through JCI comps. (Both were released by Warners through its sub-imprints.) Each Classic Rock installment set came in a gatefold sleeve annotated with copious factoids and photos about the featured artists. While the number of featured tracks feels a little on the slim side compared to K-Tel offerings or later CD-based collections, it was done with an ear towards maximum fidelity. The subscription-based marketing scheme behind the series may have been a bit dodgy, but the Time-Life folks did take pains that the whales they snagged would get their money’s worth.

The luxurious low end of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” made a respectable showing even through the tinny built-in speakers of my bargain-basement turntable. That’s no mean feat, and it amped up my eagerness to get a proper set-up installed sooner rather than later.

As happy as I’ve been with the Classic Rock collections I’ve acquired, I’m still a bit baffled by the name of the series. Never mind the fact that most of the featured material falls into the pop and soul categories, the term “classic rock” denotes a very specific format that’s much different than what’s being offered there. The term-as-commonly-understood was coined by the radio industry in the mid-Eighties under some fairly contentious circumstances. Most of the stalwarts of the previous decade’s AOR scene had either broken up, lost their charting power, or drifted into the realm of soft rock power ballads.

The pop ‘n’ glam metal scene was the logical heir apparent, but mired in too much culture war controversy for programmers to unequivocally embrace. The record labels, on the other hand, were making a concerted press to elevate the critically acclaimed tier of “new music” acts — The Replacements, U2, REM, Husker Du, even Prince — onto the AOR throne. Programmers weren’t convinced (with good reason) that jobsite Joes would be as willing to swap out “More Than a Feeling” for “Books About UFOs,” and opted instead for a fixed canon of proven favorites aimed at the 15-to-35 white male demographic. Thus was “classic rock” radio born.

Outside of a handful of heavier cuts, the material contained on the Classic Rock comps was more akin to the stuff you’d hear on “oldies” station playlists, which had grown to encompass the entire Sixties by the twilight of the Reagan Era. Maybe the name was a misread or attempt to co-opt freshly minted term before the boundaries hardened, or maybe Time-Life’s marketing wizards decided that anything with “old” in it was more than the age-conscious Boomer target demo could countenance, while “Youth Oriented Pop Hits Year-By-Year From The British Invasion Period Through 1970″ was too little too unwieldy.

Perhaps I will contemplate this further while giving the 1967 installment another spin or three.

Related posts:

  1. Back to Wax #11: Harmonious invasion
  2. Back to Wax #3: Taking flight
  3. Back to Wax #31: This summer

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