Friday, 19 May 2023

The Ones That Got Away: Near Misses With Rare Records Pt.2

by Stuart Penney

No. 2 - Robert Plant - The Solo Singles

Continuing our occasional series of disappointment and squandered opportunity, here’s the story of the time I foolishly passed up the chance to buy both of Robert Plant’s impossibly rare (and now insanely valuable) pre-Led Zeppelin solo 7” singles for just a few pennies.  But first, a little background.  

Before joining Zeppelin, Plant had a brief and unsuccessful solo career, during which he recorded a pair of decidedly MOR singles for CBS:

Our Song / Laughin’, Cryin’, Laughin’ (CBS 202656) Released March 31, 1967

The CBS press release for “Our Song” reads: "A new solo singer from Birmingham, Robert Plant makes his debut on CBS with "Our Song.”  Robert used to sing with groups like The Listen and Black Snake Moan but recently decided that his soul-sound voice could be used to better effect as a solo artist." 

The A side is a cover of an Italian song, “La Musica è Finita.”  It first appeared at the January 1967 Sanremo Song Festival where it was performed twice by two different singers - Ornella Vanoni and Mario Guarnera - and ended up in 4
th place.  And, should anyone still care about this kind of thing, the winners of the festival were Iva Zanicchi and Claudio Villa with the song "Non pensare a me."

One of the co-writers of “La Musica è Finita” was Umberto Bindi who also penned "Il Mio Mondo."  An English language version of the song became a May 1964 UK chart topper for Cilla Black as “You're My World.”

The English lyrics for "Our Song" were written by Tony Clarke (1941 - 2010). Between 1967 - 1978 Clarke produced seven albums for the Moody Blues and oversaw the recording of the 1965 live debut LP by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.

Long Time Coming / I’ve Got A Secret (CBS 2858) Released July 14, 1967.

The heartfelt A-side ballad was first released (as “It Took A Long Time Coming”) in early 1967 by American singer Laura Lynn on the UK President label (PT 104).  

“I’ve Got A Secret” is a cover of a song by St. Louis soul outfit The Sharpees.  It originally appeared as the A-side of a 1966 single on the Chicago based label One-derful (4843). 

Predictably, since Plant was a total unknown at the time, both records flopped and sank without trace.  I can’t say how many copies were sold, but I’d guess there was a pressing run of around 500 copies each, most of which would have been returned to the record company unsold (or flogged off cheap, as we shall see).  As often happens with records which become hugely collectable years later, “A" label promotional copies (as shown here) are more plentiful than stock copies.  It’s likely a hundred or so promo pressings were sent out to UK radio stations and the music press for review, outstripping actual over-the-counter sales.

Fast forward to mid-1969 and the record department of Boots the Chemist in High Street, Sheffield.  That’s right, the record department.  In a chemist.  Alongside the beauty products and medical requisites Boots also sold records back in the 60s and 70s.  But just like Woolworths before them, they had scant knowledge and very little interest in the music they stocked.  As often happened, the girl who might serve you at the record counter in Boots (or Woolworths) was, in all probability, selling cosmetics the week before.  So, any questions regarding the new releases by Dr. Strangely Strange, Third Ear Band, Principal Edwards Magic Theatre or Captain Beefheart would inevitably be met with the blankest of blank stares.

Boots the Chemist in High Street, Sheffield as it looked in the 60s

But despite that, Boots record department was always worth a visit for a couple of reasons.  Their chart singles were usually a little cheaper than the dedicated record stores and they also tended to heavily discount slow selling titles, so there were often bargains to be had.  It seems the record company reps could talk the buyers at Boots head office into ordering anything, no matter how obscure, with the assurance it would be a big seller.  Naturally, other than the big-name artists, this was seldom true, and the stores ended up with a lot of dead stock which was invariably knocked out cheap (seemingly below cost price) just to get it out the door.


And so it was that one day in mid-1969 while browsing the discount bins I found new old stock copies of not one but both of the aforementioned Robert Plant solo singles in Boots’ Sheffield store marked down to 1s/6d each (that’s 7½p in new money). A full-price single was 6s/8d (33p) at that time.

I pulled the records from the box, still in their correct orange CBS die-cut sleeves, and carefully turned them over to read the B-sides. After noting the 1967 release dates, I silently mused “Robert Plant.  Hmmm.  That name looks familiar.  I wonder if this could be the singer with Led Zeppelin.  I didn’t know he’d made records before joining the band.”  At this point I should have quietly handed over my three shillings (15p) for both records like any sane person would have done and walked away merrily whistling “Communication Breakdown.”  

But I didn’t do that.  Oh no.  Instead, I inexplicitly put the records back in the discount box and kept on browsing.  Finding nothing else of interest, I left the store without a second thought. 


Today those Robert Plant singles can sell for up to £1,000 each in mint condition and their value will surely increase in the years ahead.

Caveat emptor: in recent years we've seen unofficial (ie counterfeit) copies of "Long Time Comin'" in orange vinyl and "Our Song" in white vinyl for sale. Even these can sell for £40 or more.

For the sake of completion, I should also mention that Plant had previously appeared on a 1966 single by Midlands band Listen. The A-side "You'd Better Run" is a cover of a song by the Young Rascals while the B-side "Everybody's Gonna Say" is a Listen original. During the recording the band was replaced by session musicians leaving Plant as the only Listen member to appear on the record.

You'd Better Run / Everybody's Gonna Say (CBS 202456) Released November 26, 1966.

Footnote: Boots the Chemist was established 1849 in Beeston, a suburb of Nottingham by John Boot.  It was built into a household name by his son Jesse with stores all over Europe and the Far East.  As of August 2019, Boots had 3,063 branches across six countries.  In 2007 Boots the Chemist Limited was re-branded Boots UK Limited.

The first chemist branch outside Nottingham opened in 1884 in Sheffield.  The branch at 4-6 High Street, Sheffield was opened in May 1898 and is still there today in the same location.  Needless to say, it’s been a long time since they sold recorded music.


More Record Trivia:

Robert Plant wasn’t the only hopeful with a record in the shops on Friday March 31, 1967.  The very same day “Our Song” was issued, the UK CBS release sheet listed the following singles:

CBS 202610 - Paul Revere and the Raiders - Ups and Downs / Leslie

CBS 202642 - Guy Darrell - Crystal Ball / Didn't I

CBS 202645 - Romeo Z - Come Back Baby Come Back / Since My Baby Said Goodbye

CBS 202652 - The Executives - Sensations/Smokey Atmosphere 

CBS 202653 - The Harry Roche Constellation - Casino Royale (Have No Fear, Bond Is Here)/In the Pad of the Mountain King

CBS 202654 - Roger Bloom’s Hammer - Out of the Blue / Life's A Gamble

CBS 202655 - Gene Latter – Always / A Woman Called Sorrow

CBS 202656 - Robert Plant – Our Song / Laughin’, Cryin’, Laughin’

CBS 202657 - Joan Regan – No One Beside Me / A Love So Fine 

CBS 202658 - Dr. West's Medicine Show And Junk Band - Gondoliers, Shakespeares, Overseers, Playboys And Bums / Daddy I Know

CBS 2668 - Stan Butcher His Birds And Brass - Somethin' Stupid / Janie

Of those, only Paul Revere & the Raiders had a realistic chance of becoming a hit.  But despite making the lower reaches of the US charts “Ups & Downs” failed to sell in Britain.  Joan Regan was a big name in 50s UK pop but her time had passed by 1967 and “No One Beside Me” was roundly ignored.   

More interesting was Dr. West's Medicine Show & Junk Band’s “Gondoliers Shakespeares, Overseers, Playboys And Bums.”  They scored a minor US hit with their follow-up “The Eggplant That Ate Chicago” and while both singles failed to sell in the UK, band member Norman Greenbaum went on to score a worldwide #1 in 1969 with “Spirit In the Sky.”

A few months later the UK CBS release sheet for July 14, 1967 looked like this:

CBS 2843 - Gene Latter - A Little Piece Of Leather / Funny Face Girl

CBS 2846 - The Statler Brothers - Ruthless / Do You Love Me Tonight

CBS 2847 - Lynne Randell - Ciao Baby / Stranger In My Arms

CBS 2858 - Robert Plant - Long Time Coming / I’ve Got A Secret 

CBS 2859 - The Buckinghams – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy / You Are Gone

UK born Lynne Randell emigrated to Australia as a child where she became a successful pop star, touring America on the same bill as the Monkees and Jimi Hendrix.  “Ciao Baby” was her biggest hit, reaching #8 in Australia and becoming a hugely sought-after Northern Soul classic.

“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” started life as a jazz instrumental by Cannonball Adderley.  Among several vocal covers was this one by “Kind Of A Drag” hitmakers The Buckinghams which flopped in Britain but reached #5 in the US.  

Wednesday, 3 May 2023

Led Zeppelin - The Greengrocer Strikes Back


Record Shopping In Berwick Street, 60s Style

by Stuart Penney

What springs to mind when we think of Berwick Street? For Oasis fans it's probably the band's second album (What's The Story) Morning Glory? Love it or loathe it, this 1995 release is one of the biggest selling UK albums of all time and its clearly identifiable cover photo put Berwick Street firmly on the London pop locations map.

For others it could be the record stores.  In recent decades this humble Soho thoroughfare has become world famous for its profusion of CD and vinyl shops.  Every year on Record Store Day men of a certain age (and it is nearly always men, let’s be honest) can be seen queueing outside Sister Ray or other participating shops in all weathers well before daybreak.  

They do this in order to be first in line to secure that limited edition Morrissey 12” single in blue vinyl, or whatever other coveted RSD release has taken their fancy.  That same 12” single will, in all probability, be up for sale on eBay before the day is out, but that’s another story (morning glory).


Record Store Day was inaugurated in 2007, and Sister Ray were one of the first UK participants.  But record shops had been thriving in Berwick Street for years – Reckless Records moved there in 1984, followed by Sister Ray in 1989 and others soon followed.  More recently the advent of streaming, plus the COVID lockdown, saw a sharp reduction in the number of music outlets in the area, but several have survived. 

Before any of this, however, there was Musicland.  Operating from 1968 to 1975 at the junction of Berwick and Noel Street, this legendary record store was a mecca for imported US vinyl.  Back then many albums were released in America weeks or even months before we saw them in Britain and, together with One Stop Records in nearby Dean Street, Musicland always had the latest and best selection of imports in Soho.  

All this was pre-megastore, of course.  Virgin opened their first shop in 1971, but at that point they were a small concern operating above an Oxford Street shoe store.


My trusty record buyer’s diary from the period (in reality, just a dog-eared school exercise book) tells me I scored John & Yoko’s Plastic Ono Band - Live Peace in Toronto (shrink-wrapped with calendar) from Musicland just before Christmas 1969.  Other significant purchases around that time included the first T. Rex single “Ride A White Swan” (October 1970), a trio of US-only Donovan albums Hurdy Gurdy Man, Barabajagal and Mellow Yellow (various dates during 1968-69) plus Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats (February 1970).  

Literally on the doorstep of Musicland was the famous Berwick Street market.  First officially recognised in 1892, but established more than a century earlier, it’s one of the oldest street markets in London with a long and chequered history.  For the purposes of this story, however, all we need to know is that in the late 1960s the market had a rather excellent record stall.



In time honoured tradition, record company sales reps and music journalists alike would supplement their income by offloading unwanted samples and review copies at the Berwick Street market record stall, turning it into a goldmine for obscure new releases and promo records of every description.  I picked up countless rare gems there, some of which I still have and many others I regret parting with.  One memorable visit yielded a dozen or so Blue Horizon “A” label promo singles, including items by Fleetwood Mac, Otis Rush and Chicken Shack


Then, one day toward the end of October 1969 I was at the stall checking out the new arrivals, as I did most lunchtimes, when “Whole Lotta Love,” the opening track from the recently released Led Zeppelin II album came bursting from the speakers.  This was a big deal.  Zeppelin were poised to become the world’s biggest band and there was a huge media buzz around their eagerly awaited second album.  I decided to hang around the stall as long as possible to hear more.  

Now, immediately alongside the record seller was a fruit and vegetable stall, one of several in Berwick Street.  With his textbook cockney accent, fingerless gloves and toothpick thin roll-up permanently clamped to his bottom lip, the fruit and veg seller could have come straight out of Eastenders central casting, had the venerable TV soap existed at the time.  His well-honed cheery patter could often be heard above the music as he served the customers, forever charming the ladies with a cheeky “Mind how you go, darlin’.”  

It goes without saying that he also had the full complement of greengrocers' apostrophes on his signs - apple's, orange's, banana's etc.  Of course he did. But that’s probably a gripe for another day. 

The fruit and veg man didn’t seem too thrilled with the music emanating from the record stall, however, and judging from the disapproving glances he kept firing in our direction I could tell he wasn’t much of a heavy rock fan.

By this point “Whole Lotta Love” was nearing the end.  We’d negotiated the strange orgasmic middle section where the swirling sound effects move disconcertingly back and forth across the stereo spectrum, and now Jimmy Page was peeling off those life affirming staccato guitar phrases which lead back into the song.  

There we were, serious record browsers all, heads bowed over the LP crates, nodding along with the music as Robert Plant launched into the coda around a minute from the end.  “Shake for me girl, I wanna be your back door man” he bellowed suggestively before delivering a series of wordless grunts and moans, each one more exaggerated than the last.  Then at exactly the 4:58 mark Plant let out an extended groan which seemed louder, longer and noticeably more strained than anything which had gone before.  

It was at that point the fruit and veg man finally spoke up.  With perfect timing he raised his voice above the general hubbub and with a look of undiluted disdain called out: “Farkin’ hell!  What’s wrong with ‘im?  He sounds like he's bleedin' constipated!”  Everyone, including the record seller, roared with laughter.  How could we not? 

It was a priceless moment and one which has stayed with me to this day.  Even now, more than half a century later, I can never hear the final minute of “Whole Lotta Love” without thinking of the fruit and veg man and his perfectly executed interlocution.  It was the kind of witty put down our dads might well have said at the time, had they thought of it.  But it also comprehensively pricked the pomposity of Plant’s performance (if you’ll excuse the accidental alliteration) without taking anything away from the timeless recording itself.  

I’ve dined out on this story endlessly over the years and even passed it onto my son who now quotes the line freely whenever he hears the song.  Probably to the bafflement of his peers I shouldn’t wonder.

Wednesday, 12 April 2023

Keith Reid – The Last Fandango

by Stuart Penney

So, farewell to wordsmith extraordinaire Keith Reid, who died on March 23 at the age of 76.  I encountered him only once, extremely fleetingly.  Shortly after I moved to London in the summer of 1967 my job as a messenger boy for a West End music publisher took me to Golden Square in Soho, not far from Regent Street.  On this particular day I was tasked with delivering a package (on foot, as usual) to the offices of one of the film companies located there.

As I crossed the square, I became aware of a stylish figure walking a few yards in front.  He had an impressive Hendrix-style halo of curls, a Carnaby Street military style jacket and, best of all, he was wearing an extremely desirable pair of red Cuban heel boots.  In 1967 those boots would have cost him close to £25, or the equivalent of three-week’s wages for the likes of me.  As Cuban heels were, ahem, inclined to do, the boots affected his gait somewhat, causing him to teeter slightly forward as he walked.  56 years later I can picture that image now as vividly as if it were yesterday.

He entered the office block slightly ahead and turned to hold open the door.  During this random act of courtesy, I saw his face for the first time and recognised the man in the wire granny glasses right away.  It was Keith Reid who had written the words to what was indisputably the biggest hit single of 1967, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”


He asked for directions to whatever office he was visiting.  I can’t recall where I was headed, but it was on different floor to his destination.  So, I directed him to a board showing a list of businesses in the building and went on my way. 

As founder and non-performing member of Procol Harum, Reid wrote the lyrics for every one of their albums and singles from 1967 to 2003.  “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” their first and biggest hit, topped the UK charts for six weeks and reached number one in dozens of other countries around the world, eventually selling 10 million copies along the way, one of the few singles ever to achieve this figure.  Although not performing with Procol onstage, he was often pictured with them in the music press, making him instantly familiar to those of us who pored over such details.


But Reid didn’t confine his writing skills to Procol Harum.  He also penned lyrics for others.  In 1986 he co-wrote “You’re the Voice” for John Farnham, one of Australia’s most enduring pop stars.  The song appeared on Farnham’s album Whispering Jack which was a massive hit down under, achieving sales of 24 x platinum* and becoming the biggest selling Australian album of all time.  It also sold well in other parts of the world, particularly Scandinavia.  

*(In Australia an album qualifies for platinum certification if it exceeds 70,000 copies shipped to retailers.  So, 24 x platinum equates to 1,680,000 albums, or one record in approximately every five homes.  Not bad for a country of just 26 million people).

“You’re the Voice” was named 1987 Australian single of the year.  It topped the singles chart in Germany and reached the top ten in the UK and elsewhere.  

In an attempt to rally voters, the song has been used in TV adverts during Australian state and federal elections and during the COVID 19 pandemic “You’re the Voice” was played by anti-lockdown protesters in Melbourne and elsewhere.

Consequently, it was no surprise when, in an act of unabashed patriotism and/or blatant parochialism, virtually all the Australian newspaper obituaries I saw of Reid featured headlines such as “You’re the Voice Songwriter Dies” and covered the John Farnham connection in great depth before mentioning “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” almost as an afterthought. 

Thursday, 6 April 2023

Syd Barrett - A Madcap Mystery Solved

The Strange Tale of Syd Barrett's Mystery LP

by Stuart Penney

In late 1969* photographer Mick Rock visited Syd Barrett at his flat in Wetherby Mansions, Earls Court to take pictures for the cover of Syd’s first solo album The Madcap Laughs.  Those images are among the most powerful rock photos of the era and many ended up in the hugely collectible (and now very expensive) book Psychedelic Renegades (Plexus Publishing 2007).  

*(Ed. Note: Mick Rock has said the photo session took place in Autumn 1969, while other sources claim it happened much earlier in the year. We assume Mick's date is correct).

Due to his “erratic behaviour” Barrett had been ousted from Pink Floyd in early 1968 and embarked on a hesitant and short-lived solo career.  While Syd was not officially fired from the band, the Floyd members have said they simply stopped calling ‘round to pick him up for gigs.

The Madcap Laughs was eventually released in January 1970, followed later in the year by Barrett, his second and final album.  After this Syd went into rapid decline, disappearing from public view in the mid-70s and eventually moving back to his hometown of Cambridge.

Barrett’s mental health may have been fragile in autumn 1969, but Mick Rock captured him at his lithe, handsome best.  With wild, tousled hair and eyes heavily lined with kohl Syd cut a magnificent figure and it’s probably true to say that he never looked better than in the series of photos taken that day.

A few outdoor shots show Syd stretched along the bonnet of his 1959 dark blue Pontiac Parisienne in red velvet trousers and regulation rock star Cuban heel shoes from Gohil’s.*  The enormous left-hand drive American car languished, neglected and undriven, for months in the street outside the Earls Court mansion block until it was eventually removed (some say Syd gave it away). The car was later pictured on the back cover of the Barrett LP.

*(Ed. Note: Velji Gohil opened his Camden store in 1966 making handmade leather boots and shoes which became popular with the rock aristocracy.  Roger Waters later name-checked the shop in the song “Nobody Home” on side three of The Wall: “I’ve got a pair of Gohills (sic) boots, and I’ve got fading roots.”)

The Pontiac resurfaced in the 1970 black comedy film Entertaining Mr. Sloane, wearing the same London registered number plate VYP 74 but resprayed bright pink.  As to the car’s history, the story goes that Mickey Finn of T.Rex bought it in an auction at the Royal Albert Hall but didn’t like the attention it brought him.  So, a swap was arranged.  Syd became the new owner of the Pontiac, while Mickey got Barrett’s Mini in exchange.  True or not, it’s a great tale.


Another photograph shows a shirtless Syd crouching next to an open window, with the sunlight streaming in.  The bare wooden floorboards have been painted alternately orange and dark blue, the kind of project which probably seemed like a great idea at the time before it became clear, in the cold light of day, that the high gloss paint would probably take an eternity to dry.  The same photo also shows some unpainted floorboards, indicating the job was unfinished (a paint pot and brush are visible nearby).  Those famous Wetherby Mansions floorboards can be seen in all their striped glory on the front cover of The Madcap Laughs.

To the right of the photo is a stereo separates system.  Sitting next to an amplifier of indeterminate make we see a Garrard SP-25 Mk 1 idler drive turntable, then standard issue hi fi equipment for budget conscious music lovers across the land.  Introduced in 1967 the SP-25 is a four speed semi-automatic turntable capable of playing records at 16, 33, 45 and 78 rpm.  It wasn’t exactly high-end audiophile gear, but it was robust enough and did the job just fine.  A pair of giant loudspeakers (possibly Wharfedales) are placed haphazardly in the centre of the room, atop which sits a domestic reel-to-reel tape recorder.

On the turntable is an LP with a yellow label.  Keen-eyed record spotters will quickly identify the Direction label, a CBS offshoot launched in 1967 to issue mainly American soul and R&B in the UK.  Direction didn’t flourish, however, and CBS closed the label in 1970 after releasing only around 26 albums and approx 100 singles. But since we can't read the label and the sleeve is nowhere to be seen, how can we identify the LP on Syd’s turntable?


Fortunately, with only around two dozen Direction LPs to deal with, it was a relatively easy task to work out that the record is The Natch’l Blues, the second album by bluesman Taj Mahal (Direction S58-63397) and the 10th LP on the label.  It was a fairly new release in the UK at the time, appearing in March 1969 (although the US version had been released several months earlier on Columbia with a totally different sleeve design).  

How do we know this?  Zooming in, Syd’s record shows five banded tracks.  Four of them are roughly the same width, but the last one “Done Changed My Way Of Thinking” is much wider, running around seven minutes.  Not one of the other 25 Direction LPs have tracks which exactly match this pattern (yes, I methodically worked through all 50+ sides). So, by a process of elimination, it can only be side one of The Natch’l Blues.

Further evidence emerged in a January 1970 interview which appeared in issue #17 of the mid-70s Barratt fanzine Terrapin.  When asked what music he’d been listening to, Syd said:

“During the past six months there have been some very good things released.  The best things I've bought are the new Taj Mahal album, Captain Beefheart and The Band.  I don't think any of them have influenced my writing though.  I've been writing in all sorts of funny places.”

Of course, in the interview Syd could have been referring to the third Taj Mahal album, the double Giant Step / De Ole Folks At Home (Direction S8-63820/1) which was released in the UK in November 1969, but I like to think he meant The Natch’l Blues

All photos of Syd by Mick Rock (1948 - 2021)

The Ones That Got Away: Near Misses With Rare Records Pt.2

by Stuart Penney No. 2 - Robert Plant - The Solo Singles Continuing our occasional series of disappointment and squandered opportunity, here...