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The Greatest Compilation Ever

The Recommended Records Sampler (Recommended Records)

I can’t remember the last time I was asked about my Desert Island Discs, but for nearly twenty years my robotic response was the same: the two-LP Recommended Records Sampler (1982). There may have been more important compilations released in my lifetime, but I can’t think of one at the moment. Clocking in at precisely two hours, the thing took me weeks to fully absorb, and much longer to make sense of. I’d probably never heard a more challenging, diverse, and intelligent assemblage of music in one place. The record literally changed my life.

Some background: Recommended Records was an English label and distribution service founded by former Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler in the late ’70s. As the name implies, Recommended served primarily as a means for Cutler to evangelize, release, or re-release records by artists he liked. Fortunately he had impeccable taste; he also had enough of a sense of justice that he felt compelled to get better exposure (read: any exposure) for such important but neglected groups as Faust, This Heat, Wha Ha Ha, and ZNR—to name just the best-known of them. Otherwise unavailable records by these artists and many others could also be found in Recommended’s characteristically low-key shop, virtually unnoticed in an unfashionable South London neighborhood.

Initially, Recommended was closely connected with the loose consortium Rock in Opposition, whose founding (spearheaded by Cutler) was an act of protest against the record industry and its refusal to support non-mainstream or progressive music. The original members of RIO were Henry Cow (England), Etron Fou Leloublan (France), Samla Mammas Manna (Sweden), Univers Zero (Belgium), and Stormy Six (Italy), but over the years the organization expanded to include a number of other bands. To most people it was never clear exactly what RIO was, and in fact after an initial concert or two (the flyers read “Five Rock Groups the Record Companies Don’t Want You to Hear”) it was probably known more as a bunch of Cutler’s cronies from across western Europe than anything else. In spite of the varied instrumentation, heterogeneous musical backgrounds, and wide geographic separation of the RIO bands, there was a vague stylistic connection between them, to the point that people still refer to “the RIO sound.” That sound, all but impossible to define, includes elements of modern jazz and 20th-century classical or chamber music, as well as obvious inheritances from ’70s prog rock (most obviously prog’s extended structures and love of odd time signatures). Etron Fou was Captain Beefheart fueled by French scatological humor; Univers Zero and their French counterparts; Art Zoyd were hulking chamber outfits steeped in the music of Stravinsky, Bartók, and 70s prog giants Magma; the Muffins (from Rockville, Maryland) were a light-touch progressive-jazz outfit in the tradition of the Soft Machine.

The Sampler, which featured all the bands in the extended RIO family and many others, was, as presumably intended, many people’s introduction to Recommended. The record’s four sides were each a full thirty minutes long (pretty much the physical limit), and the music, by more than two dozen bands, was all new, some recorded especially for the collection—the record wasn’t simply an assemblage of already “available” tracks by these artists. Anyone who claimed to know of more than a handful of the contributors was probably lying. The set included the eerie eight-minute epic “Walter Westinghouse” by San Francisco’s the Residents; a proto-electronica sound collage, including field recordings from a violent street protest, by German composer Heiner Goebbels (later to become a darling of the contemporary music scene); a new mix of This Heat’s “24-Track Loop”; the sinister, bass-clarinet-dominated “Boss de Crosses dans le Doulos,” by Belgian punk-funk outfit Les Tueurs de la Lune de Miel; the orgiastic, uncategorizable “Viva Papa Ubu,” by Henry Cow (featuring the band singing/shouting lines from Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi in unison: “Long live Pere Ubu, our great financier!/ Tang tang tang, tang tang tang, tang tang tang, ta-tang!"); the pop mini-masterpiece “Copy Me,” from home-recording pioneer R. Stevie Moore (my introduction to his music, oddly enough, though he hosted a radio show in the New York area and lived right across the Hudson); a late-night modern-jazz instrumental by Mexico City–based Decibel; and wrapping it all up, Robert Wyatt singing “The Internationale.” Other contributors included the unhinged Tuscaloosan swing-jazz singer Fred Lane, the mysterious “Amos” (late of the Homosexuals), strident post-punk leftoids the Work, and the Satie-esque French duo Joseph Racaille and Patrick Portella.

Listening to this set twenty-six years after its release, and probably ten years since I last heard it, I’m still awestruck at its roster of artists and the groundbreaking, utterly original music contained within. The collection was clearly a labor of love for Cutler and the artists: I can’t imagine any of them made a dime from it, and like other Recommended releases, it was manufactured to the strictest (i.e., most expensive) standards. Without crowing about it, Recommended used “classical”-quality vinyl and mastering, hand-silkscreened covers, and beautiful, often expensive packaging. (Thank goodness the Recommended staff were communists and not accountants.) Unfortunately the CD reissue of the Sampler doesn’t include the pasted-on glitter lettering and indestructible plastic sleeve that the original LP did, but, with my turntable lying in a broken heap somewhere, at least I can listen to it on my laptop, and it still sounds absolutely fantastic.


Dave Mandl

DAVE MANDL was the Rail's former music editor. He is a freelance writer/journalist.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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