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Off the Beaten Tracks: The Joy of Samplers

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FOR the hard-up music lover in the late Sixties and early Seventies, budget-priced sampler albums were heaven-sent. For just a few bob you could travel through a record label’s roster listening to the cream of its artists. The aim of course was to make you buy the full-price LPs at getting on for two quid from which the songs were taken. However this would often end in disappointment when you found you had the best track already.

Some samplers were actually classics in themselves, so it’s on with the crushed-velvet loon pants and RAF-surplus greatcoat for a deep wallow in nostalgia.

I’ll start with my favourite label of all time, Island. Its first sampler, in 1969, was You Can All Join In, named after the Traffic song. Retailing at a mere 14s 6d (73p), this was seriously good value. Even better, I was lucky enough to find a copy nestled in the second-hand racks at the Electron in Nelson for a mere 7s 6d (37p). I played it to death.

First of the 12 tracks is A Song for Jeffrey, an alternative mix of the track from Jethro Tull’s album This Was. Next is Sunshine Help Me, from It’s All About Spooky Tooth, followed by Free’s  I’m a Mover, from Tons of Sobs. The Stephen Stills song What’s That Sound comes from the LP Supernatural Fairy Tales, by Art, and then a cover of Traffic’s Pearly Queen from Tramline’s album Moves of Vegetable Centuries. Traffic themselves close Side One with the title track.

Meet on the Ledge from Fairport Convention’s What We Did on Our Holidays kicks off Side Two in rousing style and then Nirvana (British band, nothing to do with Kurt Cobain) perform Rainbow Chaser from All of Us. Next, John Martyn with Dusty from The Tumbler, Clouds with I’ll Go Girl from Scrapbook, the Spencer Davis Group with Somebody Help Me from The Best of . . . and to conclude, Wynder K Frog with Gasoline Alley from Out of the Frying Pan

Its successor, Nice Enough To Eat, came later that same year and was even better. Fairport get things going with Cajun Woman, from Unhalfbricking, a strange choice given that Island could have gone for the magical Who Knows Where the Time Goes? Mott the Hoople’s eponymous debut album provides a terrific second track with At the CrossroadsBetter By You, Better Than Me is from the Tooth’s second album Spooky TwoWe Used To Know from Jethro Tull’s Stand Up, Woman from the LP Free and to close Side One the epic Heavy Jelly single I Keep Singing That Same Old Song. Side Two begins with Sing Me A Song That I Know by Blodwyn Pig from Ahead Rings Out followed by the lovely Forty Thousand Headmen from The Best of Traffic. Nick Drake makes his bow with Time Has Told Me from Five Leaves Left, then comes the King Crimson tour de force 21st Century Schizoid Man from In the Court of the Crimson King. Gungamai, by Quintessence, is from In Blissful Company and Dr Strangely Strange wrap things up with Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal from Kip of the Serenes. Wow. Fifty-five minutes for less than three quarters of a quid – what amazing value.

Island’s next sampler, Bumpers in 1970, was a double. Space precludes a track-by-track account so I’ll just give the highlights. The opener is the excellent, seven-minute Every Mother’s Son by Traffic from John Barleycorn Must Die. The lovely King Crimson track Cadence and Cascade is from In The Wake of Poseidon. Free’s Oh I Wept, from Fire and Water, is a personal favourite but one track towers over everything else on this, or indeed any other album. Sandy Denny’s The Sea, from Fotheringay, is a majestic, mesmerising song whose accompaniment rises and falls in waves like the ocean. My number one track of all time.

Another double, El Pea, arrived in 1971 costing £1.99. It begins with another brilliant Traffic song from the John Barleycorn album, Empty Pages, followed by the wonderful Sandy with Late November from her album The North Star Grassman and the Ravens. Those two tracks alone are worth the price of the sampler. There are contributions from Fairport, Tull, Free, Nick Drake and the new supergroup Emerson Lake and Palmer.

The first rock sampler released in the UK, so far as I am aware, was CBS’s The Rock Machine Turns You On in 1968. It opens with Dylan’s I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight, from John Wesley Harding, while Laughing Lenny Cohen completes Side One with Sisters of Mercy. My favourite track is probably Taj Mahal’s Statesboro Blues. Rock Machine – I Love You came out that same year and the double Fill Your Head with Rock in 1970. CBS was never my favourite label but Fill Your Head does include the Trees song The Garden of Jane Delawney.

Transatlantic joined the sampler fray in 1968 with Listen Here! which relied heavily on Pentangle, including their Travellin’ Song plus cuts from Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, separately and together.

One sampler I really love is the Liberty collection Gutbucket, from 1969, with a sweet picture of a pig on the cover. This starts with Captain Beefheart’s Gimme Dat Harp Boy from Strictly Personal. My top tracks are the instrumental Dismal Swamp, by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, No More Doggin’ by Tony McPhee and Rollin’ and Tumblin’ by Jo-Anne Kelly, the latter two both taken from the LP Me and the Devil. Son of Gutbucket that same year includes the great Idle Race song Hurry Up John.  I have a CD reissue from 1994, featuring 25 of the 31 tracks from the two albums.

Also in 1969 came Atco Blockbusters, a selection of Atlantic artists including two tracks from Iron Butterfly and two from the excellent Dr John – Mama Roux and I Walk on Gilded Splinters. In 1970 came The Age of Atlantic, which kicks off with Comin’ Home by Delaney and Bonnie featuring Eric Clapton. Yes get a look-in with Survival as do Led Zep with Whole Lotta Love and Communication BreakdownThe New Age of Atlantic in 1972 was a must-buy because it contained an unreleased ten-minute version by Yes of the Paul Simon song America. Not to mention Loudon Wainwright III’s brilliant Motel Blues

To highlight its entry into the prog arena with the Harvest label, EMI in 1970 released the double sampler Picnic – A Breath of Fresh Air. This was my introduction to acts such as Barclay James Harvest (Mother Dear), Roy Harper (Song of the Ages), Kevin Ayers (Eleanor’s Cake [Which Ate Her]) Michael Chapman (Postcards of Scarborough) and the deeply weird Third Ear Band (Water), who would put everyone including myself to sleep at the Clitheroe Castle Pop Festival in 1972.

All Good Clean Fun in 1971 showcased the United Artists label over four sides of vinyl including Man, Hawkwind, Canned Heat, the Groundhogs and Brinsley Schwarz. 

The following year saw the release of There is Some Fun Going Forward, from John Peel’s Dandelion label, including tracks from Medicine Head, Clifford T Ward and Kevin Coyne, plus the brilliant Bridget St John song Fly High

And finally Virgin Records’ double album V came out in 1975, kicking off with Robert Wyatt’s Yesterday Man and continuing via Hatfield and the North’s Your Majesty is Like a Cream Doughnut to close with Pentagramaspinn by Steve Hillage.

All these samplers show the huge strength in depth of the rock scene at the beginning of the Seventies and helped introduce many non-singles-producing acts to a wider audience. For those not in my collection which I have failed to mention, my apologies. 

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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