Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Importance Of The Name

I’ve written previously on this blog about one of the central myths informing rock culture (first established by The Velvet Underground and Nico album), that initial commercial neglect guarantees greatness. This myth is so fundamental to rock culture that it enables commercially neglected albums to achieve considerable cult cachet in the years, perhaps decades, following their original release. Often these records acquire greatness because there are legendary circumstances concerning the band’s musicians, and/or troubled or difficult conditions associated with the album’s production. Myths also develop concerning the financial and/or physical conditions that constrained the record’s making that affected the time and moment of its release. An issue frequently surrounding a “cult” record is that for various reasons it was “delayed,” and the causes for this postponement contribute to the formation of its legend. The point is, often non-musical factors contribute to an album's cult status.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, it is a harsh fact that sometimes excellent records are released that just simply do not sell. (One can therefore deduce that the opposite is true as well, that for unclear reasons poor or mediocre records may sell exceptionally well.) One band that released two very good albums that sold poorly at the time of their release—almost forty years ago—and then vanished was a British trio called Hard Meat, composed of brothers Mick Dolan (guitars, vocals), Steve Dolan (bass, vocals), and their friend Mick Carless (drums, percussion). Hard Meat released two records for Warner Brothers Records in 1970, its first the eponymously titled Hard Meat (WS 1852, released ca. February 1970) and the second Through A Window (WS 1879, released ca. September 1970). I mention this band because while perusing eBay the other day, I learned that these two albums are now fetching premium prices. Astonishingly, some dealers are listing sealed copies of these albums for $99 as the “Buy It Now” price. This is a remarkable development, because thirty years ago, give or take a month or two, I was able to pick up sealed copies of these records for 44 cents.

I discovered the music of Hard Meat almost 40 years ago through what were known as Warner Brothers “Samplers.” These were promotional records featuring bands making records for Warner/Reprise that were available for purchase directly from Warner Brothers for $1 (in those days, you could mail in a dollar bill, cold hard cash, with your request and get a record in return). Warner/Reprise also issued some two record promotional sets (e.g., 1969’s Songbook) for $2, and once even issued a three-record set for $3, Looney Tunes Merrie Melodies, this around March 1971 as I recall (some sources indicate 1970 as the year of release, but I think this is incorrect). It was in this latter three-record set that I encountered Hard Meat’s “Smile As You Go Under.” Liking the song, I ordered through a now defunct record club the band’s second album, Through A Window, the only one available through the club. I very much liked the music I heard on the album, and played it frequently. I liked its sparse production (by John Roberton—not Robertson—also producing Steeleye Span at the time); it wasn't what is called “over-produced,” and while there were a couple medium tempo rockers, the bulk of the album had a folk rock sensibility, but was entirely unconventional in its approach. (The band's first album includes a cover of Bob Dylan's “Most Likely You Go Your Way And I'll Go Mine” from Blonde on Blonde). (Incidentally, a trio of songs from the second album are available on youtube: A Song of Summer, Free Wheel, and The Ballad of Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes; a couple songs from the first album are available as well, although I haven't conducted an extensive search.)

At the time, 1970-71, although I scoured the record bins for it, I was never able to track down a copy of the band’s first record. However, a decade later I found the band’s eponymously titled first album in a second floor record store in Omaha, in a bin composed primarily of used 70s disco records, 12” dance club mixes, and various cut-outs. In fact, I found six or eight sealed copies of it as I recall, all marked 44 cents. I purchased two of them, opening one in order to play it and leaving the other sealed (to this day). At the same time, I also found a sealed copy (to this day) of Through A Window for the same price. For that little amount of money, why not pick up a second copy?

I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered a band’s records so widely available in still-sealed form, a phenomenon made even more remarkable by the fact that so many such copies are for sale on eBay, sealed, 40 years later. I can therefore only surmise that Hard Meat’s records didn’t just sell poorly, they did not sell at all. The wretchedly bad sales ended the band’s career virtually from the get-go, a career that showed great promise. Indulging in a bit of speculation, the band’s poor sales may have had to do with its name, a crucial factor in achieving widespread acceptance. At the time (then a teenager), I remember thinking, perhaps naively, that “Hard Meat” was an oxymoronic name inspired by rock band names like Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly, “hard” as in “hard rock” and “meat” as in “tender” or “raw,” the sort of band name that might invoke one of its prestigious contemporaries such as Soft Machine. I now realize that “hard meat” invokes the language of pornography, and I wonder if this association didn’t have something to do with the band’s utter failure to sell any records. I can’t believe it was the music, as the number of sealed copies to this very day suggests no one ever actually heard it. As is widely known, no major avant-garde group or movement has ever achieved acceptance without a provocative name: think of Surrealism, Cubism, Situationism, Futurism, Deconstruction, Semiotics, and Punk Rock—or even Dada for that matter, which parodied the names for such artistic movements. But no major acceptance is going to occur with a name like Hard Meat. It's neither catchy nor youthfully insolent, like “The Sex Pistols” is, for instance. The name just doesn’t serve as a hook that would allow promoters to further the band's publicity, which would lead to major acceptance. I suppose there’s a lesson to be learned here, in the same way there’s a lesson in the names of other failed bands, such as The Peanut Butter Conspiracy and Test Icicles.

Originally from Birmingham, discussion on this board indicates in the early to mid-60s the Dolan Brothers played with local blues sensation Jimmy Powell and while still in Birmingham had a blues band named the Cock-A-Hoops (British slang for being in a state of boastful elation or exultation). The board also indicates band member Steve Dolan died a few years ago; he apparently spent a number of years as a session musician. I've come across various sources that indicate Mick Dolan has worked as a producer and audio engineer for various British bands and musicians, so he obviously stayed active in the industry for many years, and perhaps still is so. For those interested, below is a Hard Meat discography such as I have been able to assemble; I can't claim it is complete, although the major albums and singles are included.

I would welcome any additional information about the band, or additions to the discography.

Hard Meat Discography:
CD
Hard Meat/Through A Window Progressive Line PL582, 2002 [Australia] (pictured)
LP
Hard Meat Warner Bros. WS 1852, 1970
Through A Window Warner Bros. WS 1879, 1970
7”
Rain/Burning Up Years Island WIP 6066, 1969 (pre-Warner Brothers single)
The Ballad of Marmalade Emma and Teddy Grimes/Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow Warner Bros. A 6100, 1970 [Germany]
Compilation (LP)
Looney Tunes Merrie Melodies Warner Bros. PRO 423, 1971 (3xLP) (“Smile As You Go Under”)
Together Again MH 12915, 1971 [?] [Argentina] (Song unknown)
From Burbank To The Bay Area Warner Strategic Marketing 5046-66294-1, 2005 [UK] (2xLP) (“Free Wheel”)
The Melting Pot Volume 2 Good Groove Musik GGLP002 (Year Unknown) (Bootleg?) (“Free Wheel”)
Compilation (CD)
From Burbank To The Bay Area Warner Strategic Marketing 5046-66294-2, 2005 [UK] (“Free Wheel”)
Feel The Spirit: Other Worldly Folk Music Gems And Psychedelics Optimum Sounds OPTCD002 [UK] 2006 (“Free Wheel”)
Covers (LP)
The Human Instinct [New Zealand blues-rock band], Burning Up Years (Pye, 1969)
Title track of the album is taken from the B side of Hard Meat’s Island single issued in 1969

1 comment:

Felix Garfield said...

Here's a recent obituary for Mick Dolan:

www.birminghammail.co.uk/whats-on/music-nightlife-news/tributes-birmingham-sixties-music-star-7672440