Vinyl Excursions: Scarce Sounds in Canberra

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Australia National University, June 2019

Happy Saturday! I’m sorry to never have completed my entries on my trip down under, especially considering how fantastic Hobart and IAG were in general. I still hope to post about some highlights. In the meantime, I’m finally enjoying an hour or so of downtime out of my box-filled house, so I thought I would finish this post on one of the highlights of my first week in Australia – a meeting with author and archivist Ross Laird, known to the internet community as Scarce Sounds.

I’d been in touch with Ross off and on since I first began the Ben Irving project in earnest roughly five years ago. He came up in internet searches as an expert on the Okeh records catalog, so I emailed him to ask if he had any record of the Ben Irving Orchestra (or any proof that Ben recorded and released any music). He got back to me quickly and thoroughly, running through expansive evidence that there was no record of anyone by that name in Okeh’s catalog.

I got back in touch with him earlier this summer in the weeks leading up to my trip down under. It turned out that as a longtime employee of the Australian National Film and Sound Archive, he was based in Canberra and would be in town when I was there for the IASPM meeting. We met up in his old haunt on the Australia National Uni campus to chat a bit more about where our respective projects had brought us.

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Ross Laird and a bottle of Mount Majura 2009. Canberra, 6/28/19.

In an unanticipated bit of hospitality, he and his wife invited me to their home in the suburbs, where I’d be able to see one of the most unique and expansive record collections in the world. At least, I saw part of it. He mentioned that he had a shed full of shellac records (not so nimble and as prone to weathering as vinyl) and an additional office/storage room other than the one I saw. Here are some photos.

Thousands of records from his archive (including very rare ones) are for sale on his Discogs page, Scarce Sounds. As he explained to me, Ross doesn’t view himself as a collector as much an a curator. Pursuant to the name, most of his records are rare and don’t really exist within the public archive. He aims to change that for many great overlooked artists from the Global South, then sending the recordings afield to other music lovers. It’s a worthwhile pursuit and a point I hope I can reach one day.

 

He sampled a bunch of 78s and 45s for me, most of which were still shrouded in mystery (most, if any information that exists about them on the internet, he put there), but my single favorite song I heard all night was a bubblegum pop song by Rita Chao and Sakura, entitled “Bala Bala.” The song has a driving baritone sax lead, fantastic female duo vocals, about 4 different words in the whole song, and I loved it to death. Some good Samaritan put a piece of “Bala Bala” on a supercut they uploaded to YouTube about ten years ago.

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Did YOU Have to Explain ‘Blossom’ to Your Students Today?

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In case any of you were wondering, yes my PhD is hard at work, discussing the dated early-career arc of Joey Lawrence to a group of confused students in my Population Geography class. Let me backtrack and explain how it came to this.

The University of Tennessee opened a 1906 time capsule left entombed somewhere in the Estabrook Building, one of my favorites on campus (and slated for demolition). I watched it on their Facebook Live video feed with my Population Geography students before they took their final exam this morning. I also paid attention the livestream of comments, which were a heady mixture of demands they stop blabbing and open it already, self-deprecating “jokes” about Tennessee Football, and (after they opened it and found… desiccated nothing) righteous anger and Geraldo Rivera references.

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They historians on hand, including my colleague Bob Hutton (who would no doubt appreciate that last link), did a great job recovering from the disappointment. They had a comprehensive catalog of the items the 1906 crew left in the buried box, most of which had been preserved lovingly in the UT Archives behind them. They also took this opportunity to reiterate the value of well-maintained and funded archives, a sentiment upon which I’ve doubled down on multiple occasions.

Another curious byproduct of this experience was the seemingly inevitable reminscing about the Nickelodeon time capsule, which Mike O’Malley and Joey Lawrence buried in Orlando, on live television, on April 30, 1992. It was moved when Nickelodeon studios moved in 2005, but it is still slated to be opened on April 30, 2042 – fifty years to the day after it was buried.

The first epiphany I had was that 1992 was 26 years ago. 2042 is in 24 years. Society is more than halfway to the finish line of waiting to unearth this sealed box of early 90’s ephemera, most of which is readily available in thrift stores and vintage shops. Popular movies on VHS. An Orlando-distributed issue of TV Guide with Burt Reynolds on the cover. A hat embroidered with “WHOA! ’92” in honor of Joey Lawrence, then at the height of his teenybopper fame.

The latter item made me and an older student in my class (three years my junior) laugh out loud. When I saw the younger students looking on in confusion, I informed them that once upon a time, there was a show called Blossom that helped catapult their teenage cast to fame. I never watched the show, so I forgot that it starred Mayim Bialik , who is still incredibly famous as a star on The Big Bang Theory, perhaps the worst and most culturally caustic show ever produced (not a personal knock on Bialik by any means).

gi_153511_green20gak20lo20resIt’s impossible to predict these things, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the video camera they put into the capsule (after being unable to eject the tape) wound up being the most valuable thing upon unearthing in 2042. That, or the Barbie Doll in it’s original packaging. Or, maybe even the tube of Gak, a sticky slime compound cross-promoted with Nickelodeon shows whose name, somehow, functions as a stand-in for cocaine. You can’t make this stuff up.

So, in conclusion, time is like sands through the hourglass; I fear I may blink and it may be time for Mike O’Malley’s great-grandson to crack open that thing LIVE on YouComvrizoncasTube Mentalscreen Googlevision. There are more important lessons here, though, which can be applied to our experience from today. First, keep your archives funded and well-maintained by enthusiastic historians and lovers of material culture. Second, whenever your university gives you the opportunity, pull up a local Livestream to watch with your students. It may pull everyone on board, even temporarily, with campus civic life, and you never know what cultural revelation you may find, even if the capsule is empty.