14 February 2021

Return to Cheapo or Is That All There Is, Sonically Speaking?


Whenever I start to recreate a visit to Cheapo Cheapo Records in my head I always find myself striding purposefully towards the very back of the shop, ignoring the lure of those goodies nearer the entrance. 

Which is odd, because this wasn't something I ever actually did. 

My main interest was in CDs, and even though DVDs multiplied and become more prominently displayed during Cheapo's final years a substantial amount of shelf space was still given over to the humble compact disc as you walked in, and it was my invariable practice to start with a look through these before gradually working my way towards the inner depths.

That harder-to-get-at stock did become more appealing over time because at some point - possibly in the shop's last two or three years - all the nostalgia CDs were torn from their hipper companions and relegated to shelving along the back wall, hence the destination in my reverie. By "nostalgia" I mean mostly thirties and forties recordings and a few discs from the early fifties which didn't fall into the rock'n'roll category - the Great American Songbook, in other words, whether crooned by British or American artists, or essayed by a smattering of jazzers: Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and others were heavily represented.

Rock'n'roll (and more recent pop) was there to stay in pride of place, greeting any prospective customers who popped their heads round the door, but I'm guessing that such Radio 2 Sunday fare as Peggy Lee - or what used to be Radio 2 Sunday fare until recently - hadn't attracted quite the same number of impulse purchases, hence its demotion to the comparative inaccessibility of the back room. And it wasn't just the extra few yards which made it hard to get to, as some readers will remember: you could have quite a job squeezing past should any other punters be clogging the shop's narrow thoroughfare - an image now doubly distanced, alas, at the time of writing.

So why weren't Miss Lee and her cohorts seeing much action? I suppose because the nostalgia brigade tended to be older than the typical Cheapo customer, more likely to be well-heeled enough to prefer splurging their money in the bright, wide-aisled comfort of Tower Records in Picadilly Circus or HMV's flagship store in Oxford Street, where a vast nostalgia/easy listening section always seemed to include an endless supply of British dance band releases on the Vocalion label. So why struggle through the confines of Cheapo when you didn't even know what, if anything, you might find of some favourite artist?

But I loved the mystery, the uncertain rewards - and it didn't hurt that during the last seven years of Cheapo's existence I was often buying records on behalf of an employer, building up a comprehensive library of popular music, so every visit to Soho's record shops was also a paid day out - though I'd have gone for myself anyway, and frequently did so at the weekends. In those final years, for work and play, I spent many happy hours going through all those nostalgia CDs at the back - which I suppose is why, with the condensing effect of memory, this now seems to have become the sole purpose of all my visits.
In truth, you wouldn't necessarily find the best or most interesting purchases on those furthest shelves, but the process of making a selection from those particular rows of CDs was undoubtedly the most fascinating part of any expedition.

It was a little like engaging with Radio 4's Round Britain Quiz, a show to which I have become addicted in recent years. The appeal of quizzes - for me, at any rate - is the fleeting and illusory reassurance they offer that all the information unthinkingly amassed over the decades, all those trivial and pointless details taking up so much valuable headroom, might prove to be of some practical worth, after all, and so for that blessed half hour of brain-barbecuing, if no other, there is a feeling of wholeness ... and I don't mean Bob of that ilk.

Actually, maybe browsing in Cheapo is more accurately described as a mirror image of that famed radio quiz: whatever they may know about other stuff, with very few exceptions its contestants are sorely lacking when it comes to basics of popular music - the exact opposite of what's needed when approaching that back wall, hands outstretched in readiness, trying to summon up every last jot and tittle absorbed from mounds of books, sleevenotes, radio programmes and music papers in unwitting preparation for this decisive moment ...

And so it begins again, in yet another waking dream, and I feel afresh that question-solver's satisfaction and immersion while flipping through the rows of CDs, absorbing an array of visual and verbal clues on each front cover, deciding in a millisecond whether or not an examination of the back sleeve, or maybe even an investigation of such prophecies as might be contained within the innards, is merited.

The packaging on those CDs of older music contained the hardest codes to crack. At that time rock'n'roll was only just coming into the public domain, so choices were comparatively limited, but there were any number of discs of earlier music to choose from, on a bewildering variety of labels, and my mission was to select the right one for a particular artist: the disc most likely to contain good quality transfers of the original recordings - definitely not rerecordings or airshots, thank you very much - and which seemed to include a representative sample of their best known work. 

Certain labels offered a reasonable guarantee of good sound, and the annotations to be found in the sleevenotes of such lovingly curated discs might contain enough information to allow the hunt to stop there and then, but it was rarely that simple. Many CDs, tantalisingly cheap, provided no obvious signposts: if the artwork looked amateurish, or the picture of the artist was clearly not from the period of recording, I would know to be cautious before adding it to the pile; if a title like "The Best of" or "Greatest Hits" was applied to someone whose career, like that of Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong, spanned many decades, I knew it would be wise to scan the back sleeve for more information; often, however, the blandness of certain covers, or their deliberate aping of more reliable releases, could deceive.

Artists like Donovan or the Kinks may have felt - and for all I know, continue to feel - aggrieved that budget rereleases of their material on Pye's offshoot Marble Arch in the late sixties devalued their brand, but unless memory is playing tricks there were only a limited number of those reissue labels around in those days; by the late 2000s, however, any record stall in any Saturday or Sunday market would be thronged with different labels, different repackagings of an artist's material from who knew what stage of their rise or fall in the public's estimation. Cheapo differed in that it certainly had much of the bargain basement stuff but a fair number of worthwhile compilations were mixed in - provided you knew what to look for.

Which is not to say that spotting the gems among the dross was always straightforward, even for the seasoned obsessive. Which is why - and here I come, at long last, to the burden of my song - a website devoted to one of the artists whose discs were frequently to be found against the back wall caught my eye a few years ago - too late, alas, to inform my purchasing in Cheapo but still well worth the attention of anyone still looking out for CDs of that sort.

I reckon that what every major artist needs is a website along the lines of The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography ... which may be a bit of a mouthful, but it's something which merits leisurely investigation if any of the foregoing has found an answering chime in you. It's an ongoing labour of love, maintained and updated by Ivan Santiago-Mercardo. 

You may recall that when a character in The Importance of Being Earnest finally discovers the military directories which will confirm his name he exclaims: "These delightful records should have been my constant study!" I don't know when Mr Santiago-Mercardo set up his site but had I been armed with a printout of his findings in the late 2000s I would have saved many man-hours in Cheapo ... not, of course, that I regret a minute of that immersion.

For Peggy Lee fans, the Lee-curious, or even readers who are simply interested in the phenomenon of public domain, or otherwise dubious, CDs - this site really is a must. Although I didn't come across it until 2018, long after Cheapo had been repurposed for the consumption of mango-based desserts, I immediately seized upon its information to buy yet more Peggy Lee CDs, even though clicking on a keyboard to purchase an item within that larger emporium of tat and marvels, ebay, is a poor substitute for the glow experienced while carrying a tottering pile of prizes to the counter at Cheapo's.

The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography will afford the reader many happy hours - or it probably will, if you've read with interest so far. Its author has taken it upon himself to annotate all the public domain releases out there, to point fingers where necessary (the needledrops of Hallmark), to indicate who has stolen other companies' material, and so on. He singles out, for example, a Spanish company who not only ripped off the bulk of a Mosaic release - a company renowned for its meticulous work in locating and remastering material - but didn't even have the grace to wait a few months until Mosaic might have got a decent return on their investment of time and money, thus discouraging such companies from future projects and, in this case, affecting Mosaic's relationship with EMI and having a knock-on effect on the possibility of subsequent releases by Capitol.

But the real, mind-boggling, work has to be Mr Santiago-Mercardo's valiantly sifting through all the vast multitude of similar-looking releases, assessing sound quality, contents, noting the amount of duplication to be found in other compilations and so forth, thereby making it possible for boss-eyed palookas like me to obtain more bang for their master's buck. Peggy Lee recorded between 1941 and 1995 - think about that for a moment - and the site takes you through all the different periods, all the studio recordings for Capitol, Decca and many others, all the transcriptions and film, TV and radio appearances. There are also some exceptionally detailed but very clear and well-written essays about key songs including Fever - making clear just who owed what to whom - and Is That All There Is?.

The image gracing the top of this piece of a notional "Very Best of Peggy Lee" has been taken from his site. He observes of its contents:

Combines 18 Columbia big band studio recordings from the Benny Goodman years (early 1940s) with 2 performances from Lee's radio show (early 1950s) and 1 World radio transcription (also from the early 1950s). Obviously, the title of this cheap and inconsequential disc is outrageously off the mark.
Guided and warned by the information on this website I've able to buy a considerable number of additional Peggy Lee CDs covering periods of her career not already represented by purchases from Cheapo, and there has been an additional pleasure in calculating which combination of budget purchases might match some more expensive and luxurious release which it would be harder to justify buying on my employer's behalf. 

A set of transcriptions (studio recordings meant for radio play only) were released complete on Jazzology's Audiophile label, for example, but Mr Santiago-Mercardo handily points out two lower-priced compilations which contain the bulk of the recordings. He advises that the Audiophile release is the best option but criticises its "middling" sound quality, stating that "all 49 numbers exist in far better quality", though not as yet commercially released. He then goes on to discuss another issue which includes a few of the World transcriptions: "No, it is not excellent sound quality.  But it does eradicate the dullness or opacity which characterizes many another release." If those words mean nothing to you then you are unlikely to gain much from this site. But if, like me, you have bought many a CD of older material and been stung, then this is precisely the kind of thing you will lap up.

The homepage for The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography can be found here. Those intimidated by the sheer range of what's on offer may be better advised to go to the FAQ page here, which includes notes on a selection of recommended introductory CDs, including advice about which editions to avoid. 

But if you want to plunge straight away into the world of dubious discs with innumerable variants, the heavily illustrated page here is where you want to go - its full title is: "A Gallery Of Public Domain, Budget And Bootleg Compilations". And if you have hung around in Cheapo, or any market stall, you will feel instantly at home.

There is, of course, a case to be made for asking: why bother with any of this? Won't the music come through anyway, even if the sound isn't alway top-notch? Well, maybe ... if you're lucky ... but it's one of the ironies of the digital age that a sound carrier intended to provide greater fidelity than vinyl can often sound a whose lot worse in the hands of companies out to make a quick buck - and if these artists of former times are to find favour with a new generation surely they need to be heard at their best?

I was lucky enough to have a brief email correspondence with sound restorer John R.T. Davies, shortly before his death in 2004; as some readers will know he left a legacy of remastered jazz recordings on the JSP and Hep labels and elsewhere, and understood better than most in the game how to preserve the original sound: too many CDs - and not only public domain issues - have the life drained out of them in an effort to obliterate the scratches, destroying what Davies called the "air" in a recording. (It's still going on if you frequent streaming websites: just compare a few different sonic treatments of the same jazz classic.)

I had emailed Mr Davies to say how much I'd appreciated his CD remastering of sides by Luis Russell, who had been one of my first happy jazz discoveries on vinyl in the early seventies, and got a charming reply almost immediately. A great man who devoted his life to preserving great music for everybody, he even arranged for his Marshal Cavendish Jazz Greats CD of Billie Holiday (part of a CD + magazine series) to be sent to my place of work free, gratis and for nothing, knowing that it was about passing on this music. A link earlier on this blog to an interview in which he talked about his rationale for remastering is no longer operational, but I think his key point was that he was aware that the transfer he made might eventually prove to be the only source material remaining, and thus he felt a sense of duty not to interfere too much with the original sound. 

At some point in the future I may try to list my purchases from Cheapo on this blog; secreted in some hard drive somewhere there ought to be text files listing those items bought for my employer over the years. The little business cards which Phil signed as proof of purchase were stapled to expense forms and handed to the accountant at my workplace; I have no idea whether these still exist - I suspect not, as the most recent must be about twelve years old now. 

I suppose CDs themselves are old hat now that so much music is streamed, and there's no doubt they are less attractive than LPs; it's difficult to imagine a similar revival. But when someone recently posted a picture of a CD with the distinctive Cheapo price label affixed to it on social media it pierced my heart, evoking memories of that wonderful, ridiculous Aladdin's Cave, filling me once again with that hopeless yearning described in an earlier piece about Cheapo closing:

I dreamt about it, about being inside once again, a few nights later. The pain, really, is in not having one final chance - not to plunder, a la the ill-fated Apple boutique, but to pay my last respects, and maybe finally buy some of those fairly pointless and inessential jazz/nostalgia CDs which hovered on the margins of possibility on each visit. And to do that not so much for the music as to perform a kind of final, altruistic - I might as well saying loving - act: to show that someone finally cared even for those unlovely parts of the shop.



The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography: A Gallery Of Public Domain, Budget And Bootleg Compilations

A Wreath for Cheapo

Cheapo Cheapo Records - the complete story

1 comment:

  1. Ivan Santiago-Mercardo has sent the following comment:

    Reading your evocative write-up brought up memories of going to used record stores here in the United States. One of those stores, located in Massachusetts, happens to be called Cheapo, too. Since I no longer live in the area, I just looked up for an update online. It's nice to see that it is still operating -- and that it has been around since 1954! But my favorite store in the area (and everywhere in the US, really) was, and shall forever remain, Stereo Jack's, in business for 37 years now. Great and very reasonably priced selection of LPs and CD from all genres, but especially jazz and the Great American Songbook. Knowledgeable and pleasant staff, too ... Thanks for awakening, through your picturesque and informative blog entry, those pleasant memories of my days of record hunting!