Thursday, June 30, 2011

Farewell, (aka BMG Music Service)

It’s official. The website, which evolved from the mail-order music club BMG Music Service, is no more. The site closed down around midnight on June 29th, 2011. This probably does not come as a surprise to anyone. As CD sales have continued to decline, many music retailers have been closing up shop in recent years. It seemed like only a matter of time before this particular enterprise would come to its end.

But, personally, I hate to see it come to its end. I have fond memories of the time when I first became a member of the BMG Music Club. In 1989, after I acquired my first compact disc player, I finally couldn’t refuse those magazine ads for record clubs which I had been seeing since I was a child. As a youngster, I remember seeing ads offering certain numbers of LP records for only one penny. My older siblings repeatedly explained to me that there was a catch: I would be under obligation to buy more records later at full price. So, I had to wait until I “grew up”. And, by that time, vinyl LP records were (temporarily, it turns out) going out of style. CD’s were the new thing, and when I came to own my first CD player, I was anxious to buy CD’s to play on it. Being the fanatical music lover that I’ve always been, I did not wish to buy just a few. When I walked into music stores, I wanted to own virtually every CD in sight! CD’s were expensive, however. They tended to cost about $15 apiece, at a time when I was used to paying less than $10 apiece for records and tapes. Joining a mail-order CD club was the best option I had at the time to acquire CD’s at more affordable prices. Columbia House was the bigger name among CD clubs at the time, but a member of my household was already a member at Columbia House. So I joined BMG. (Many years later, in 2005, BMG acquired Columbia House and merged the clubs under the BMG name).

There were almost always good deals offered through the club. The deals were usually along the lines of “buy 1 CD, get 1 free”, or “buy 1 CD, get 2 at 50% off”; there were many variations. What it basically meant was that I was able to stock up on CD’s for an average price that was lower than the prices I would pay at a music store. These deals made me more willing to take chances on artists and albums that I was curious about. The catalogues offered an extensive selection of titles, usually including recent releases, compilations, back catalogue titles, etc. It’s safe to say that my CD collection would be much smaller if not for BMG. I don’t remember how many CD’s I was required to purchase as per the member agreement, but I had no trouble reaching that number.

I remember a controversy which surrounded the BMG and Columbia House music clubs at some time in the 1990's. Other types of music retailers criticized the clubs for undercutting their CD sales, and some artists complained that they were not receiving proper royalty payments from the clubs. Both of those parties argued that the original purpose of record clubs was to service parts of the United States which did not have easy access to brick-and-mortar music retailers in earlier decades. In the 1990’s, the retailers and artists argued, the clubs were doing more harm than good to the music industry. I can remember shopping at Tower Records and seeing some CD’s advertised as “not available from record clubs”. Of course, this controversy was mild compared to the controversies which later arose over mp3’s – which, as we know, are one of the reasons why the music clubs have become outmoded.

In the late ‘90’s, the BMG club began to seem like old news to me after I started to use the internet and discovered online music retailers. Still, it was there when I needed it, and I still made purchases through BMG fairly often. In fact, their website made even more CD titles accessible for purchase, and made it easier to respond to the monthly featured selections. Being the old-fashioned guy that I am, I long resisted their offers to “go paperless” by only receiving notifications through e-mail instead of postal mail; I also continued to send payments by check through postal mail, instead of paying online by credit card.

When BMG Music Service made its transition to in mid-2009, they eliminated postal mail catalogues and monthly featured selections. All orders were placed through the website, and all customers were required to pay online with credit cards. They reverted to one standard deal which rarely changed: CD’s were usually priced at $6.99, with free shipping. A very good deal, to be sure. But I usually did not find many CD’s that I was willing to purchase. That may have been due to the fact that many newer artists I was interested in were on independent labels; BMG always mainly sold CD’s by major label artists. Whatever the case may have been, the experience just wasn’t the same as the BMG experience which I used to take for granted.

After sent e-mails in May informing its members that the service would close at the end of June, the site held “everything must go” clearance sales, the usual price being $3.99 per CD. I was glad to be able to get in on one last great deal from the old record club. I received an e-mail today (the day after the site officially closed) informing me that the last batch of CD’s I ordered have been shipped. I’m looking forward to receiving these discs and savoring my last record club purchase.

I saw the end coming, but it’s still disappointing to see the club go out of business after I have enjoyed their service for 22 years. Thank you, BMG/, for all of those great years. You will be missed.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

An Evening With Wild Man Fischer (1969)

Larry “Wild Man” Fischer, a cult musician who suffered from mental illness, died earlier this month from heart failure at age 66. Fischer made sporadic recordings and television appearances beginning in 1968. A performance artist from the enigmatic genre known as outsider music, Wild Man Fischer may have been best known to fans of the Dr. Demento show. He had the distinction of being the very first artist to record for Rhino Records, beginning with a 1975 single called “Go To Rhino Records”. But the first person who was bold enough to give the Wild Man a record deal was Frank Zappa. In 1968, Zappa “discovered” Fischer while he was performing his songs on the sidewalks of L.A.’s Sunset Strip for passersby for ten cents a song. On his Bizarre label, Zappa produced and released Fischer’s two-record debut album titled An Evening With Wild Man Fischer. Recorded on a sidewalk in 1968 and released in April of 1969, the album is, by turns, a performance album by Fischer, a concept album about Fischer, and a documentary recording about Fischer. Zappa ended his association with Fischer after an altercation in which the Wild Man threw a tantrum – and a bottle – in Zappa’s home, understandably frightening Zappa’s family. As a result of this incident, An Evening With Wild Man Fischer did not stay in print for long, and it has never been released on CD. This long-lost album is decidedly not for the average listener’s taste, but for connoisseurs of outsider music, comedy records, and all things Zappa-related, it’s a must-listen.

The first of the album's four sides begins with the absurdly catchy “Merry-Go-Round” (which we are told “is Wild Man’s theme song, sort of”), followed by three tracks of the busker interacting with people on the street. The side closes with seven minutes of goofy Beat-style poetry by Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer, pretending to exalt the Wild Man.

The second side reveals Fischer’s bizarre song craft: it contains fifteen tracks which display Fischer’s often hilarious manner of street singing. The songs are mostly a cappella, give or take some tuneless guitar strumming on “Taggy Lee” and the amusingly creepy “Think Of Me When Your Clothes Are Off”. In his raspy and uninhibited voice, Fischer spouts oddball lyrics – sometimes using multiple voices to simulate dialogues between different characters – and imitates instrumental sounds with surprisingly good rhythm and timing. Most of the songs are sub-two-minute samples of the Wild Man’s strangely entertaining shtick, although the absurd black comedy of “Jennifer Jones” proves that he could stay on the same track for four minutes if he wanted to. It all plays like a stand-up comedy act from society’s fringe.

The third side sounds like a bizarre episode of VH1 Storytellers, as Fischer tries to tell the stories behind three songs he wrote as a teenager, all of which he thought could be pop hits. “The Taster” features full instrumental accompaniment by Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, and is surprisingly accessible. Another song, titled “Serrano (Sorrento?) Beach”, sounds like it had the makings of a good surf-rock tune. Unfortunately, this side is padded with filler, namely the incoherent medley “Success Will Not Make Me Happy” and another seven-minute recording (like the one on the first side) of Fischer interacting with people on the Sunset Strip.

The fourth side is the one that really serves as a twisted documentary about the Wild Man. Aside from the Zappa-assisted song “Circle”, a manic psych-rock psych-out which is probably no worse than many other such songs from the period, this is the side where Fischer candidly bares his troubled soul. “The Wild Man Fischer Story” is a tragicomic piece of performance art in which Fischer tells us (in multiple voices) the tale of how he was twice committed by his mother to mental institutions as a teenager, and about the doubts he was having at age 23 about the possibilities of a career in music. The spoken-word tracks on this side find Fischer rambling about his philosophies on life, women, music, and why he is “normal”. But the final track ends the album on a tellingly sad note: on “Larry Under Pressure”, we hear an exhausted Fischer anxiously acknowledging that he was not normal, and felt that he probably never would be. Quite a revealing Evening, indeed.

Wild Man Fischer - An Evening With Wild Man Fischer

Wild Man Fischer “An Evening With Wild Man Fischer” (Bizarre/Reprise 2XS 6332) 1969

Track Listing:

Side One: The Basic Fischer

1. Merry-Go-Round (This is Wild Man's theme song, sort of)
2. New Kind Of Songs For Sale (live on the strip)
3. "I'm Not Shy Anymore!" (Larry relives the past in the studio)
4. "Are You From Clovis?"
5. The Madness & Ecstacy (Kim Fowley & Rodney Bingenheimer provide an introduction to, and make prophesies about the future of Wild Man Fischer)

Side Two: Larry's Songs, Unaccompanied

1. Which Way Did The Freaks Go?
2. I'm Working For The Federal Bureau Of Narcotics
3. The Leaves Are Falling
4. 85 Times
5. Cops & Robbers
6. Monkeys Versus Donkeys
7. Start Life Over Again
8. The Mope
9. Life Brand New
10. Who Did It Johnny?
11. Think Of Me When Your Clothes Are Off
12. Taggy Lee
13. Rhonda
14. I Looked Around You
15. Jennifer Jones

Side Three: Some Historical Notes

1. The Taster (Fancy Version)
2. The Story Of The Taster
3. The Rocket Rock
4. The Rocket Rock Explanation & Dialog
5. Dream Girl
6. Dream Girl Explanation
7. Serrano (Sorrento?) Beach
8. Success Will Not Make Me Happy
9. Wild Man On The Strip Again

Side Four: In Conclusion

1. Why I Am Normal
2. The Wild Man Fischer Story
3. Balling Isn't Everything
4. Ugly Beautiful Girl
5. Larry & His Guitar
6. Circle (Larry’s first psychedelic hit)
7. Larry Under Pressure

Monday, June 13, 2011

Neil Young page updates

I've recently added three reviews to the Neil Young page of my website. These reviews pertain to his 1986 album Landing On Water (which is out of print in the U.S. but still available in some countries) and two rare EP's: Eldorado (1989) and The Complex Sessions (1994). The page is located here:

The Neil Young page is one page that I haven't made many changes to since I first created it in 1999. The original purpose of the page was to highlight six albums which were then referred to by Young's fans as "the lost six". The first six albums reviewed on the page were out of print at the time, but four of them were reissued in 2003. The ones which are still unavailable are the 1972 movie soundtrack Journey Through The Past (no loss there) and the 1973 live album Time Fades Away (a definite loss; why hasn't it been reissued?).

One revision I've made to the page is one that I would rather not have. I wrote in '99 that "Young has remained relevant", but that statement is now debatable. Many of the albums that Young has released over the past decade are below the standards of his earlier body of work. In some cases -- for example, Greendale (2003) and Living With War (2006) -- it seemed that Young was struggling to remain relevant. Regardless of recent disappointments, Neil Young will always be regarded as one of rock's essential artists.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Twelve years!

It’s amazing but true. It has now been twelve years since I first published my website Rarebird’s Rock and Roll Rarity Reviews. At first thought, it doesn’t seem as if it was that long ago. But then I start to think in depth about how much has changed since that time, especially as far as the music industry is concerned. In 1999, there was no such thing as iTunes, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, or Twitter. Music was sold mainly on CD’s. Audiocassettes were just going out of fashion at that time, and controversies over online music file sharing were just beginning to heat up. Brick-and-mortar stores like Tower Records were still the places where most music was purchased, although online CD sales were certainly picking up speed. Also, many CD’s were purchased by mail through clubs like Columbia House and BMG Music Service. I used to love visiting my local used record stores to find rare and out-of-print recordings, although I had just recently discovered the joys of eBay and GEMM in '99. Do you know how I used to check which albums were in or out of print in the early days of my website? It was very easy: I would check to see which titles were currently available for sale at CDNow, an online music retailer that sold every CD in print – and only the CD’s that were in print. If a title was not available from CDNow, I immediately determined that it was suitable for review on my website.

Flash forward twelve years later. Songs and albums are largely sold by way of internet downloads. CD sales have been steeply declining. Many brick-and-mortar music retailers – including the once-mighty Tower Records – have gone out of business. Some people are predicting a complete end to in-store CD sales in the near future. The Columbia House CD club was acquired years ago by its competitor BMG, and BMG (which is now called is shutting down at the end of June. Used record stores and independent music stores are becoming rarer. And did I mention the long-forgotten CDNow? That online CD store was bought out many years ago by (which was primarily a seller of books back in the ‘90’s).

Ironically, one very interesting thing has recently happened which seems incongruous next to many of these trends: a vinyl resurgence! Two decades after the music industry did its very best to kill off the vinyl LP format, a new appreciation has come about for 12-inch and 7-inch vinyl discs. Many people who have forgotten how much fun it can be to collect vinyl – not to mention younger folks who don’t even remember vinyl’s heyday – have (re-)discovered the fascination of watching a record spin on a turntable, as well as the forgotten beauty of LP cover art. For someone who is used to mp3’s and small CD packaging, it can be fascinating to look at a 12-inch album cover, liner notes, and sometimes even a gatefold sleeve – and then realize that there is music inside the package, too! Turntables and accessories have become easier to purchase, and small indie record stores are able to highlight vinyl records to their advantage. Personally, I never gave up my hobby of collecting vinyl, and I was dreading the day when records and turntables would really become obsolete. Fortunately, that day now seems much farther away. Time will tell how long this vinyl resurgence will last. In the meantime, it’s a breath of fresh air for me.

So, what effect do these trends have on my website? Is the site’s concept any more or any less meaningful after so many changes in the music world? Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that one. I do know one thing: I plan to keep my site up and running for many years to come. Thanks for your support!