Frank Gutch Jr: The Many Lives of the 45

God, but I love 45s!  Out of all the formats invented by the musical gods, it is my favorite.  You can have all of your albums and your CDs and cassettes and, yes, even your eight-tracks.  All I ask in return is your 45s.  The Little Record With the Big Hole.  The Single.  AM Radio’s Friend.  The Rock ‘n’ Roll Pointer.  It is so cool, it freaks me out.  Actually, I should say “they” because over the years the format changed with the times— from the simple one track a side to the EP with three to five tracks (technically a 45 because it was recorded to play at 45 RPM most of the time) to the promo 45 (same track on both sides) to the mono/stereo promo 45 (same track on both sides— one in monaural and the other in stereo) to…. Man, I’m running out of wind here.  There’s more (colored vinyl, picture sleeves, etc.), but I’m anxious to get started because, like I said, this is my favorite format.  Bar none.

When I was a kid, I had no idea what a 45 was outside of those children’s 45s, pasty yellow (though they called them “Little Golden”) and full of what children liked, I suppose.  I did like them, but they had a little hole and somehow, even in my youthful ignorance, knew that that just wasn’t right.  I listened to them, but had to wait until Christmas of  1956 for the real ones.  That morning, I woke up to not just one but two introductions to a world which changed my life forever:  Fats Domino‘s Blueberry Hill and Elvis Presley‘s Rip It Up EP.  I practically peed my pants waiting for all the presents to be opened because that was the rule— no playing until gift-giving was concluded, which unfortunately also included the saving of ribbons and bows and bagging of destroyed Christmas wrap for the ritual Christmas bonfire.  If my sister had received any records I don’t remember because the second the post-Christmas chores were done I dove for the console (us kids had yet to get our own record player— that would come a year or so later) and plopped Fats and Elvis on the spindle and hit play.  I’m sure I was a blithering idiot, giggling as the music played, but I didn’t care.  The music was mine (well, the records were mine) and I stood and watched the label as the record spinned and was almost beside myself when the next record dropped.  Alas, the first of those records was to be a lesson because when the girl from  one street over came for a visit, I tossed her jacket onto the chair where I’d just laid Blueberry Hill and when she sat down, I heard this muffled crack as the record broke.  I was so angry, I told her to go home and she went home crying which made me feel even worse than I already felt and when Momma found out, she made me go to her house and apologize. Talk about highs and lows.

That was the first of a thousand lessons I didn’t know I would need about the care and handling of records.  I learned that if you weren’t careful, records would eventually skip, the dreaded bane of the vinyl junkie.  I learned that if you stacked records so they would drop, the records would get chewed to pieces, the action virtual sandpaper to the grooves.  I learned that peanut butter and jelly does not make the music sound better and that leaving a record in the sun was a no-no.  I learned that it took three weeks of allowance to save up that 69 cent purchase price and that was if I gave up candy and the matinee.  Yes, life was tough for the pre-teen back in the Stone Age.

I also learned that if I played my cards right, I could hear the latest and best by making the right friends.  Our neighborhood was packed with kids, some of whom had big brothers and sisters and who had access to what seemed like millions of 45s.  Like the stealthy cattleman thinning the herd, I watched and listened and waited until I had formed friendships with the best “ins” a guy could have.  Dale and Dean Richter.  Twins.  They lived down the street and had a big sister, Ione, who was as crazed as myself when it came to rock ‘n’ roll.  And she was cool.  She shared.  I would go over to their house after school sometimes and Dean or Dale would pull out the little 45 player and we would shuffle through what seemed like endless stacks of records (there may have been 50, if that) and we would sit there on the floor, listening.  When Mrs. Richter started dinner, it was time to go, but that little hour or so was pure sanctuary.

Records were records then.  There were hundreds, though they seemed like thousands, and you bought them where you could.  In Sweet Home, we had a music store which mostly sold and rented instruments (thank God for the school system) but had a table of 78s and 45s.  There were guys who traveled around in their cars and sold records out of their trunks.  There was “Name It and Claim It”, a game which the disc jockeys would play where if you were the third or fourth caller, you got a copy of the record (which for us in Sweet Home meant begging the folks for a trip to the next town over to claim your prize.  Sometimes, the rich kids would head to Salem or Eugene on a shopping trip and would take orders for friends (alas, I was never one).  You think drug trafficking is big business?  They had to have patterned it after the music business— at least what to us was the music business.

I am looking back through a long history in the music business.  When I first became aware of the inner workings of radio and records, it was as much a dream world as a real one.  Here is a Cliff’s Notes version of what I learned.

One:  Radio station copies, promotional copies (promos) or any records for the purpose of supporting radio and retail stores did not at first exist.  No, wait.  They did exist.  You wanted a record played, you gave a copy to the station.  The thing is, they were no different than what were called “stock copies”— copies sold at any retail outlet.  Sometimes label reps would hand-stamp a name and phone number on a label hoping for feedback from the station, but mostly they just handed over stock copies and hoped for the best (and the best was sometimes moved into that category with the help of the envelope which accompanied said copies.  What?  You think Alan Freed was the only dee-jay doing the dirty?  You’re more naïve than I thought).

When radio and records moved past the holding hands stage, some major labels— the ones with the deep, deep pockets— decided that they didn’t need reps, that they themselves could rep their own product.  Thus was born the “promo”— a record specifically pressed for promotional use.  These came in a variety of styles.  Many were pressed with a white label and in the collector’s world came to be known as “white-label promos” (WLP), many were essentially stock copies with promotional markings and many were plain stock copies.  Some labels used stars to mark the A-side or the hit side (graphic solid black stars, doofus)— the side they wanted played— and others didn’t, perhaps hoping for the elusive double-sided hit.  Epic Records, in fact, went a step further, marking their 45s for a short time so that even the sight-challenged could not miss it.

Stereo didn’t just happen with equipment, my friends.  It happened in radio and in a big way.  At first, it started with FM, a side of radio pretty much left to the geeks until the money people got hold of it.  The mere ability to broadcast music in stereo gave the entertainment business a boost that even it could not have predicted.  Radio was already huge and music hardware sales were booming, but stereo broadcasting?  The train had just slipped into neutral on a six-mile 12% downhill grade.

The labels, ready to hop on a runaway train if it meant more profits, hopped on.  Some genius came up with the mono/stereo promo 45.  Think about it.  A good half or more of the popular music stations were AM, but FM was closing in and fast.  How to service them both?  Voila!  Mono for the AM, stereo for the FM and on one disc!  I did mention genius, right?  It deserves mentioning twice, at least.  Not only that, it made for excellent marketing potential.  Think of it.  Short, edited version for AM; extended or long version for FM.  Wow!  Game changers came from everywhere.  It would not be long before the seventies and eighties started the real mind games— non-LP B-sides, Side One continued on Side Two (especially apropos during the live album rage), 45-only releases…..

Do you see why 45s are my favorite music format?  God, it was and is like my own little sandbox, the different 45s being my shovel and my pail and my dumptruck and more.  And I haven’t even gotten to picture sleeves, the holy grail of 45 collectors.  Now, I used to collect.  I stopped when I met and dealt with a few serious collectors.  These guys were as careful as diamond cutters when they were looking at picture sleeves and 45s— as serious as card collectors.  They wore jewelers’ glasses.  They wore gloves.  They graded on everything card collectors grade on— picture centering, sharp edges, wrinkles and creases, color quality, rips and tears, stains.  They practically held the records up to their ears and listened (or maybe communicated with the artists.  I don’t know.  I couldn’t hear them— must have been telepathy).  Those dudes were crazed (vinyl whisperers?) and I used to think they would never be able to find a woman until one day I saw that this one guy had.  All I could think was, what are the odds!?

THE ANOMALIES—My Favorite 45 Stories…..

I believe the most famous of all the 45 stories revolves around Moby Grape.  The Grape were without a doubt the most-hyped band out of San Francisco during the flower power days, even moreso than Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, poster children of the movement.  Columbia Records somehow got it into their heads that releasing five singles from the album at the same time was a proper move, so they did it.  And they promoted it— like crazy.  And had their asses handed to them on a platter.  At least, that is the popular version.  Of course, I was in Eugene at the time, attending college, and all I remember is hearing Moby Grape all over every rock station in the listening area.  For weeks and months.  When I went down to Thompson’s Record Mart to buy copies of Omaha and Indifference, my two favorite tracks from the album, they were sold out.  I had to wait a week for them to restock.  And they had ordered more than a few, my friends.  Whether the hype worked to the media’s expectations or not, it definitely worked.

Little Steven wasn’t the only person to harbor an active hate/disgust for Ronald Reagan during his reign of terror, but he was one of the few who put his music where his mouth was.  He begins Vote That Mutha Out! with a crunchy and catchy guitar riff and “Uncle Sam wants you” and proceeds to lambast the so-called great communicator with truths only an idiot couldn’t see (“He’s got every death squad on his payroll/Who cares as long as they stay out of sight/He’s mortgaged all our futures/For a final moment in the spotlight”).  I knew who Little Steven was and I liked his work to a degree, but after hearing this, I became a diehard fan.  And I dig the picture sleeve, too!One of the coolest 45s released during the late sixties was The Yellow Balloon‘s Yellow Balloon.  While virtually every writer in those days tried to tie My Three SonsDon Grady to the recording, the fact is that Grady did not perform on the track.  He did, however, put together a band and perform on the album, which was self-titled.  The cool thing is, though, that the flip side was “Yellow Balloon” spelled backwards in its entirety and, yes, the letters were reversed on the label, as well, and, yes, the song was played backwards in its entirety,too.  The night-time dee-jay on KASH radio in Eugene used to play the flip regularly, that’s how cool KASH was.

Larry Fischer (aka Wild Man Fischer) passed away recently and it got me to thinking about my days at the old Rhino Records store on Westwood Boulevard in L.A.  I used to run in to Larry there occasionally and I have to admit that I was taken aback the first time.  Larry— how to put this— struggled sometimes.  The guys who worked at Rhino watched out for him and eventually recorded one of L.A.’s most classic songs with him— Go To Rhino Records.  They didn’t do it to make money.  They did it to give Larry a little wind in his sails and to promote the store because, as the song implies, that was the place to go.  I watched him sing it one time for a customer who handed him a buck, something the guys tried to discourage.  They thought it a slam against Larry’s precarious mental state and after watching him sing, I agreed.  It wasn’t the song.  It was Larry’s personality change at getting the money.  In a way, Larry Fischer was a really nice guy.  Every time I hear this, it is reinforced.

Back in the mid-seventies, 45s continued making their own way in the music world.  Music had exploded and artists were coming out of the woodworks, much of it imported from Europe.  Camel came via the UK and gave us rock with less prog than most.  They scored minor success with a series of albums, the most notable (if only for its concept) an all-instrumental album titled The Snow Goose.  The next album, Moonmadness, was given a push by its label in the US (Janus Records) and when they released the single from that album, they decided to utilize a live version of Lunar Sea as the B-side.  At ten-minutes plus, this is the longest song I have ever encountered on a single, though I am sure there must be others.  It’s worth mentioning for that alone.

Of all the bands to come out of Seattle during the Grunge Years, Son of Man was my favorite and I’m not sure why.  I liked them before I ever heard them.  The drummer worked at the record store I worked at for a short time and he used to talk about the practices and the frustrations and the highs when they finally got the chance to enter a studio to do some recording.  What they came out with was The Dummy and Me b/w Temporary Altercations, which was released as a 45 on the Szanktone Records label.  It hit the streets in ’91.  As far as I know, it was not long after that that the band’s equipment was destroyed in a house fire.  They never recovered, which disturbs me.  I’ve heard their demo tapes.  Good enough for a label, easily.

NOTES:  I’ve been hammering Des Moines’ Bright Giant for what seems like forever.  They seem always to be just short of going into the studio or mixing or whatever else it takes to put product on the market these days.  Well, I got word.  The album is mixed, mastered and on the way to the plant.  Their self-titled EP, released before the invention of the cotton gin, it seems, was a mix of The Black Crowes and early Rolling Stones and was good enough to get my knocked-me-on-my-butt award right next to Those Boys From Lake Charles, Research Turtles.  I am salivating as I await the pending release of each of their new projects…..  Sydney Wayser‘s new album is on its way too, sez Sydney, and I know it’s good because I’ve watched some videos on the Net, but it’s not yet in my hot little hands, which is slowly becoming my only indication of actual release.   I would slap her around but she’s a pretty young thing and has a voice and way of writing and performing that leaves me aghast.  Again, I cannot mention her last album, The Colorful, enough.  It is a beauty…..  I mentioned Hannah Miller last week, I think, and damned if for once the business side of things didn’t work the way they are supposed to.  I received a review copy in the mail only a few days after sending an email to Hannah’s promotion company and I am wowed.  Not only does she have a voice on the velvet side of Pieta Brown, she is a songwriter of note.  I hear shreds of Ollabelle and Pieta Brown and Susan Werner and so many more artists whose music I love.  It’s titled O Black River and if you like any of those artists mentioned, I heartily suggest scoping her out…..  News just came down that Elephantom is completing their project soon.   Can’t be soon enough for me…..  Rita Hosking‘s Burn continues to impress.  I love the way she handles the old-timey songs, but this is an album of another color.  Her songwriting has jumped a notch and maybe more…..  A guy named Jim Allchin just clocked me a good one with his Overclocked album.  It’s blues but it’s better, if you can dig it, and he makes his guitar sing!  I’m serious.  He has a bit of Stevie Ray in him, does Jim, and balances it with many of the other class guitarists who know how to rock the blues…..  I’m thinking of dissecting the Copyright Act of 1976 (if that be the proper name) next week, but I don’t know.  It sounds like a lot of hard work.  Then again, the mere fact that the major labels have taken it upon themselves to attempt to rewrite the law in their favor makes it a topic worth exploring.  Those bloodsucking leeches could use a good kick in the ass, if only for karmic sake…..

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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew.  He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row).  He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted.  Read at your own peril.”

4 Responses to “Frank Gutch Jr: The Many Lives of the 45”

  1. Pete Byerlay Says:

    Have you seen a promotional 45 from a new guy named “Gord” Lightfoot singing “Daisy Doo”??? I believe it was his first. The A-side was “Remember Me, I’m the One”.

  2. Jim Chisholm in Campbell River Says:

    I share your excitement about 45s. I have lost a few stacks over the years and ripped a few up into ersatz guitar pics as well. But I share with you and others the joy of discovering, purchasing, listening to and watching their colorful rotating actions and not the least sharing these vinyl treasures.

  3. Mike Patterson Says:

    Hi Frank, how cool to see The Dummy & Me by Son of Man mentioned in your blog! Right there next to Moby Grape, and Little Steven!
    I sometimes wonder about Szanktone Records. Whatever became of that Bellingham label? I think The Thin Men did something with them but I’m not sure. Now that it’s the 20 year anniversary of Pearl Jam’s 10, and Nirvana’s Never Mind, it’s fun to hear other groups from that moment in ’91 before Never Mind was released. 10 was just another album by a new band from Seattle that looked and sounded to me like something headed to relative oblivion. My how things can change over night in public opinion .
    Son of Man says, “Thanks a million. for the memories.”
    Mike “Top Jap” Patterson

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