Album A&E – an occasional series where we rescue under-rated albums from critical oblivion
Massachusetts, 1983. A 23-year-old college drop-out called Tim Warren is working in a record store. Pissed off by the state of music in the early 80s, he decides to do something about it. After considerable effort, he creates one of the greatest compilations of garage rock of all time: Back To The Grave Volumes 1 – 8. It’s a forgotten treasure with one hell of a back story.
I first heard about the series during an interview with Johnny Jewel about his Chromatics album ‘Kill For Love’. He told me he was listening to little else at the time and had subsequently named a track on the album ‘Back From The Grave’. I sniffed out one the volumes and it blew me away. It’s raw, rare angry 60s punk rock that spits from the soundsystem. Listen to it in the morning and you’ll leave the house ready for battle.
The only garage rock compilations available in the early 80s were cheesy, and “mixed punk with psychedelia and bubble-gum stuff”, says Warren (pictured below). It was the gnarly, chaotic and angry garage rock that really interested our hero. He planned to revive the punk ethos – ‘fuck musicianship’ – with primal teen “slop” that was never allowed on ‘60s reissues’ and had faded into obscurity.
Almost all the bands that feature on the compilations were teenagers aged 13 to 17 who would sell their records at high-school dances, play a few local shows and then disband upon graduation from high school. Their short, random careers make it all the more exciting when you hear the quality of the tracks.
But how did Warren manage to collect and release such a vast amount of abstruse tunes? With a box of 45s and an address book in his pocket, he travelled to the Library of Congress in Washington to find out how to get in touch with the bands. After noting all the songwriters’ names and addresses he could find, he called everyone in a particular area with a particular surname until he hit the jackpot.
Once he got through to the right person, he faced his next obstacle. Often the bands would laugh or think he was mate prank-calling about their erstwhile garage rock careers. Even so, he’d write to them with a contract, royalty cheque and a few questions. He’d wait a week and phone them again until he’d persuaded them he was for real.
I don’t care if he’s American. Give the man a knighthood.
Many of the bands chosen have interesting stories behind them that are recounted in the liner notes.
The Royal Flairs – whose ‘Suicide’ features on Vol. 3 – got their break when the Beach Boys chose them as winners of a local radio station’s Battle of the Bands. However, one night, it all went wrong. An obese dancer called Miss Temptation was working at a go-go club they were playing at. A “cellulite-crazy psycho” broke into her dressing room and attempted to rape her. The lead singer of Royal Flairs tried to intervene and he was shot in the head. He survived but the recovery time split up the band.
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The Keggs (from Vol. 5) were a 4-piece Detroit group who recorded their two best songs in a studio just before it burnt down during the Detroit race riots. Luckily they found the woman who owned the studio and managed to press just 75 copies for family and friends.
It’s always thrilling excavating top notch music that’s been buried or ignored and Back From The Grave is a woefully unrecognised document of music history. Warren says a Vol. 9 is still in the works and when it’s out it’ll “pervert the ears and tastes of today’s young”. It’s not easy to find the CDs or vinyl but it’s worth the hunt. They’re a blast.
Warren’s tips for finding the Graves? Online, look at Crypt Records (Tim Warren’s label, Soundflat, Dirty Water. Amazon carry the condensed CD versions and they’re sold in London record shops Intoxica and Sounds That Swing.