Time Tunnel

Time Tunnel: Does Anybody Remember Samplers?

How did we get to hear the music we loved back in the late 60s and early 70s, when it was never played on the radio and we were too impoverished to buy full-priced albums? By buying SAMPLERS – that’s how!

Here, in the present, late in the year 2020, music is everywhere.  The internet is full of it.  Music magazines of all genres offer free CDs each month, packed with extracts from the latest releases that editors believe will appeal to readers.  It’s impossible to move without encountering streaming services.  And that’s before we even consider the myriad mainstream and specialist radio channels that pump out music of every description, 24 hours every day.  It’s fair to say that here, in the present, anyone has access to whatever music he or she chooses, whenever he or she wants.  In fact, we’re possibly (whisper it) overwhelmed with choice and availability of music, in a way that has never happened before.

But we’ve not always had it so good, in fact, the situation described above would have been unrecognisable even five years ago, and traveling back even further in time – to the late 1960s/early 1970s – things were positively primitive.  Back then, the choices for accessing new music were:

  • You’d hear something you liked on the radio.  If your tastes fell outside of the mainstream, this was pretty unlikely.  Popular music radio in 1969 consisted solely of Radio 1, which played the chart hits and little else.  The sole exception was if you tuned into one of the shows presented by john Peel – Top Gear or Night Ride, and then you’d be able to pick up on some the innovative and strange new sounds that were being produced.
  • You saw a live performance of a band and decided that you liked what you heard, so you sifted the racks of your local record shop until you found one of their albums.  You bought it, treasured it and you spread the word.  This happened a lot and, it’s true to say, the reputations of many bands that emerged during that halcyon 1968-1971 period were built upon word-of-mouth recommendations.  Unfortunately, in 1969, I was only 14 years old so had neither the means nor the parental assent to attend live performances, and the 37/6d price of an LP was way beyond the means of anyone who’s only income was a paper round wage.
  • You heard something you liked during a listening session in the home of a friend or acquaintance.  This was how my early interests in Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Led Zeppelin, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and The Doors were sparked.  But you had to know someone who owned, or who had access to such gems… and that was a bit of a lottery.

The concept of a low-price compilation album that allowed a record label to offer a sample of its signed acts and allowed the record buyer to hear a variety of new music without breaking the bank had been around for quite a while.  Indeed, Jac Holzmann’s Elektra label is commonly credited with releasing the first such Sampler album – A Folk Music Sampler, issued in 1954 at a retail price of $2.00.  The low price was possible because Holzmann had ensured that every new signing’s contract included a clause that entitled the label to use one track from any artist’s album for royalty-free inclusion on a Sampler.  The net result was:  high sales (punters were understandably attracted in droves by the low price), low costs (only the basic cost of production) and the enhanced visibility and reputation of the artist.  Everyone was a winner!

We all recognise how the musical experimentation of the mid-1960s started to blossom in 1966-67 and to bear stunning amounts of fruit as the 60s transformed into the early 70s.  Musical innovation was everywhere and labels were signing new acts in unprecedented numbers.  Indeed, many of the staid old companies that, despite the Beatles-led 1960s musical revolution, had remained unchanged since the days of the wind-up gramophone and 78RPM records took the plunge and set up Progressive imprint labels – EMI had Harvest, Decca had Deram, Atlantic had Cotillon, Pye had Dawn.  And so on.  Furthermore, as the management and A&R departments of the established labels had little understanding of the new types of music being made, artists were given levels of creative freedom the like of which had never before been seen.

All of this added up to a market bursting with exciting, challenging, often excellent (albeit occasionally crap) music that had few points of access to those who would wish to hear it.  And that’s where the Sampler came into its own.

CBS was the first label to revisit Elektra’s idea and compile a low-price album to showcase the contemporary acts on its roster.  The Rock Machine Turns You On was released in 1968 and featured 15 tracks, including classics such as Fresh Garbage by Spirit, The Zombies’ Time Of The Season (taken from their classic Odyssey And Oracle album), Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair/Canticle and Statesboro Blues by Taj Mahal.  The album also provided many listeners’ first exposure to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Roy Harper and the legendary Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera.  And all for an unbelievably low price of 14/11d (just less that 75p in today’s currency!)

Prepare to be turned on…

Adopting the CBS product and pricing model, Liberty, Warner Brothers and Island Records were next off the mark, in 1969, with, respectively, their Gutbucket, The 1969 Warner/Reprise Songbook and You Can All Join In collections and, for the next couple of years, it was Game On!  You Can All Join In in particular became something of a ‘must have’ possession.  At least it did at our school, where it was regularly spotted under the arms of various earnest-looking, hair sprouting aspirant hippies.

Island’s roster gathers

1970 was probably the golden year for the Sampler.  Island followed up the success of You Can All Join In with Nice Enough To Eat, an album which probably represents the high-point of the Sampler concept.  First of all, it’s a collection of really great tunes, many of which became classics, not because of their place on their parent albums, but because of their accessibility on Nice Enough to Eat.  In particular, King Crimson must have won over hoards of fans who’s first exposure to their mellotron-driven proto-prog was 21st Century Schizoid Man; Side 2, Track 4 on Nice Enough to Eat.  I’ve often wondered how many of those new converts went out and bought Larks Tongues in Aspic or Red on the strength of that single Sampler track and wondered where the bombast had gone… 

Other goodies that will always be primarily associated with Nice Enough to Eat are Jethro Tull’s We Used To Know, I Keep Singing That Same Old Song by Heavy Jelly, Gumgamai – surely the only Quintessence number that would fail to achieve a ‘Pointless’ answer and the mercurial Strangely Strange but Oddly Normal from Dr Strangely Strange, Dublin’s answer to the Incredible String Band.  Furthermore, in a field not noted for its cover art, Nice Enough to Eat was the exception – the letter-shaped cookies and the suspiciously bright coloured smartie (or pill) shaped things in the cover illustration did, indeed, look Nice Enough To Eat.

Mmmm… Tasty
Dr Strangely Strange… Oddly Normal…

Other Samplers to hit the racks in the golden year of 1970 included a surprising range of double albums, all of which went on sale at the bargain price of 29/11d – not quite £1.50!  Harvest’s PICNIC a breath of fresh air, had the USP of including a hitherto unavailable Pink Floyd track, Embryo.  The album featured a huge range of artists and musical styles, from the unadorned traditional folk of Shirley and Dolly Collins, the left-field musings of The Battered Ornaments, Roy Harper, Kevin Ayers, Pete Brown and Piblokto and Syd Barrett, the electric storms of Deep Purple, Bakerloo, The Pretty Things and The Edgar Broughton Band to the otherworldly dreaming of Michael Chapman, Barclay James Harvest and The Third Ear Band. 

Harvest joins the fray
Edgar Broughton Band

CBS chipped in with Fill Your Head With Rock another double helping with a cover illustration featuring The Flock’s violinist, Jerry Goodman.  Alongside label heavyweights Chicago, Santana, The Byrds and Janis Joplin, Fill Your Head With Rock gave many of us youngsters our first chance to hear the likes of Laura Nyro, Al Stewart, Tom Rush and the amazing Trees.  For me, and many like me, the takeaway tracks were, however, Argent’s Dance In The Smoke (Argent, of course, went on to hit the big time a couple of years later with Hold Your Head Up and those of us who’d paid attention in 1970 were smugly able to say “I told you so…”) and Come to the Sabbat a quasi-Satanic chant by Black Widow, a Leicester-based combo who laced their act with occult imagery, and who’s drummer went on to play the Devil’s rock and roll with Showaddywaddy.

An invitation from Jerry Goodman

Not to be outdone, Island popped up again before 1970 was out, this time with Bumpers, yet another double, with more tracks from the label’s mainstays including Traffic, Spooky Tooth, Mott the Hoople, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and Free.  Bumpers was perhaps most clearly distinguished by the inclusion of Going Back West, a track from Jimmy Cliff’s first Island album.  It’s hard to believe now, but in 1970, reggae was a no-go area for the self-considered music afficionado, but the inclusion of this track was an early indication of where Island Records were headed and a sound piece of advice with regard to where we all needed to go too.

Here comes the Reggae…
Fairport – 1970

Atlantic Records also entered the fray in 1970.  Their Age of Atlantic set was a huge seller, mainly on the back of the two Led Zeppelin tracks it included – Whole Lotta Love and Communication Breakdown.  For less than £1, we penurious ones could own two of the outstanding tracks from Zep’s first two earth-shaking albums, without having to shell out the best part of a fiver!  Buffalo Springfield’s Broken Arrow, Dr John’s Wash Mama Wash and Comin’ Home by Delaney and Bonnie and Friends (featuring Eric Clapton) all added to the value of the collection, as did the fascinating cover design which featured plasticine stylings of each of the contributing bands’ logos.

Plasticine paradise
The imperious Dr John

After 1970, the idea of the Sampler started to wear a bit thin.  In all likelihood, Samplers had probably been aimed principally at people of my own age and outlook – young people who had the interest and desire to explore, but were short of the readies necessary to seriously invest in a band’s catalogue.  But, by the end of 1970, we’d got older, the money to buy full-priced albums by the bands we’d learned to love was more plentiful and, with the snobby aura that all serious music fans consider their right, we were starting to view Samplers as being the province of the musical novice.  Effectively, the Sampler became a victim of its own raison-d’être.

Samplers didn’t fade away immediately.  In 1971, Island released yet another double LP set, punningly entitled El Pea, a product that was noted at the time for the “disc cleaning device” integrated into the cover.  This “clever” device was nothing more than a piece of sponge, glued to each side of the gatefold sleeve, intended to wipe each disc as it was extracted from its pocket.  In reality, all it did was scratch the disc surface.  It never caught on…  Also in 1971, Warner Brothers released Fruity, an album that came in a circular cover, similar to the packaging of Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, and like Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, it was difficult to store the album safely and effectively and it tended to roll off the shelf unless properly restrained.  The contents were good though and provided an early taste (at least on this side of the Atlantic) of Alice Cooper, The Allman Brothers and Ry Cooder.

As things started to get silly…
El Pea’s notorious disc-cleaning “device”

After 1971, all went (virtually) quiet on the Sampler front.  There were a few murmurs; Virgin brought out their excellent reggae compilation The Front Line in 1976 and Melody Maker made a couple of game attempts to revive the concept, offering albums that they’d put together in conjunction with A&M Records and, later, Virgin, to their readers, but, to all intents and purposes, the day of the Sampler was over.

But Samplers left quite a legacy.  I’ve already indicated that Samplers were my introduction to several bands that I’ve gone on to follow ever since, and I know that I’m not alone in that.  I owe my appreciation of Argent, Martin Carthy, Dr John, The Byrds, Free, The Mighty Diamonds, Syd Barrett and the Zombies to tunes I first became familiar with by hearing Samplers.  Also, the Sampler provided setlist inspiration to any number of amateur bands; Fresh Garbage, A Song For Jeffrey, Better by You Better Than Me, I’m A Mover; all were staples in the sets of pub and college circuit bands throughout the 70s, and some continue be so even today. 

And now, back in 2020, the wheel has turned full circle.  Samplers are in demand again – this time by collectors.  They’re snapped up as soon as they appear in second-hand vinyl shops and examples in good condition can command breath-taking prices on Amazon and Ebay.  They’re still an excellent way to relax and revel in those far-off days when virtually every label’s new signing was a winner.  I love them!

So, in tribute to a wonderful concept, I’d like to offer my tracklist for my very own (conceptual) Sampler album, The Best of the Samplers.  It’s a double album, of course:

Side One

Time of the Season – The Zombies (The Rock Machine Turns You On, CBS)

Fresh Garbage – Spirit (The Rock Machine Turns You On, CBS)

A Song For Jeffrey – Jethro Tull (You Can All Join In, Island)

Meet On The Ledge – Fairport Convention (You Can All Join In, Island)

Better By You Better Than Me – Spooky Tooth (Nice Enough to Eat, Island)

21st Century Schizoid Man – King Crimson (Nice Enough to Eat, Island)

Side Two

Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal – Dr Strangely Strange (Nice Enough to Eat, Island)

Embryo – Pink Floyd (PICNIC a breath of fresh air, Harvest)

Eleanor’s Cake Which Ate Her – Kevin Ayers (PICNIC a breath of fresh air, Harvest)

Old Gopher – Edgar Broughton Band (PICNIC a breath of fresh air, Harvest)

Listen – Chicago (Fill Your Head With Rock, CBS)

Come to the Sabbat – Black Widow (Fill Your Head With Rock, CBS)

Side Three

Dance in the Smoke – Argent (Fill Your Head With Rock, CBS)

Gunga Din – The Byrds (Fill Your Head With Rock, CBS)

Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin (The Age of Atlantic, Atlantic)

Communication Breakdown – Led Zeppelin (The Age of Atlantic, Atlantic)

Wash Mama Wash – Dr John (The Age of Atlantic, Atlantic)

Thunderbuck Ram – Mott the Hoople (Bumpers, Island)

Side Four

Going Back West – Jimmy Cliff (Bumpers, Island)

Walk Awhile – Fairport Convention (Bumpers, Island)

Spring Season – Amazing Blondel (El Pea, Island)

Under My Wheels – Alice Cooper (Fruity, Warner Brothers)

Money Honey – Ry Cooder (Fruity, Warner Brothers)

The Right Time – The Mighty Diamonds (The Front Line, Virgin)

A conglomerate of Samplers

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