The Record My Wife Made Me Turn Off

“Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.”

- Pablo Picasso

I think the needle of my turntable was in the middle of “Crocodile Rock” on the album Doin’ The Woo Hoo With King Uszniewicz and His Uszniewicztones.  My wife (who listens mainly to contemporary country and pop music) and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment at the time, leaving her nowhere to hide from my stereo.  She had heard all kinds of different music piped through that system that wasn’t her cup of tea, from The Mentors to G.G Allin.  But 5 tracks of King Uszniewicz (pronounced “you-SNEV-itch”) was all she could tolerate.

For much of the 1970′s, King Uszniewicz and the Uszniewicztones were an oldies band that played regular gigs at The Orbit Room cocktail lounge, located in a bowling alley in Detroit, Michigan. Cub Koda from the band  Brownsville Station was intrigued by them and even released a single by them on his “1-Shot” record label.  Years later a series of compilation albums, made up of home-brewed recordings and out-takes, was released on Norton Records, the most recent being a split LP featuring another band called South Bay Surfers. Oh and by the way, did I mention that King Uszniewicz and the Uszniewicztones were really, really bad at playing music?

It’s challenging to describe the sound of King U and the U Tones.  There is guitar, bass, drums and occasionally a keyboard depending on which lineup you are listening to.  They trudge their way through covers of songs like “Land of 1000 Dances” and “Doo Wah Diddy.” The vocals – both lead and backing – at times are energetic, and at other times sound tired and drunk. Some cuts sound so bad that I wonder if it’s intentional, but the liner notes by Cub Koda suggest otherwise.  Plus this was the 1970′s, before the age of MTV’s Jackass show and Tom Green, before it was trendy to be obnoxious on purpose.  There are plenty of inept bands that think they sound better than they actually do.

The trademark of any good King U song is the tenor saxophone played by lead vocalist King U himself.  It’s always off-key as it honks out three or four note solos and accents the music. The sax is like that annoying, loud-mouthed and socially-awkward party guest that changes all the festivities.  It sounds like a goose that got run over by a truck.

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So you may be wondering why I would buy all the King U albums and listen to them.  It’s becuase they are humorous and fascinating.  They have a sound all their own that cannot be mistaken for any other band.  They’re “bad” – but in the same way that an Ed Wood Jr. film is “bad” or the film  Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) is “bad.”  There’s a certain charm there.  There’s something about the false starts, the poor production, and the overall delivery of a King Uszniewicz cover song that gives it a human quality, an honesty that would lost if they were more skilled at what they did.  It keeps them interesting, and sets them apart from other cover bands that do the same old thing.

There’s a scene in Rocky (1976) where Mickey, Rocky’s boxing coach, says to him “You got heart, but you fight like a goddamn ape.”  That sums up the King and Co.

Record Store Spotlight: Double Decker Records

“I’ve never been here before.” said my friend Steve’s wife.  I was meeting Steve to trade one of my albums for a Led Zeppelin II Robert Ludwig hot mix.  I was surprised that his wife had never set foot in Double Decker before, because Steve is there about three times a week.  So am I.  As a matter of fact, I’ve met a lot of people there. A little while back I wrote a piece on why I like vinyl and in it I mentioned a store that really got me interested in records.  Double Decker is that store.

Double Decker is located at 808 St. John Street in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  Jamie, the proprieter, runs the place on the philosophy that his store is “not a museum.”  That shrinkwrapped copy of Cro-Mags Age of Quarrel - that copy of Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud with the booklet insert – that U.S. pressing of the first Danzig album – even that esoteric psych album on the wall that looks cool – those things are not there as a conversation pieces for you to drool over everytime you go in. They’re for sale and priced to move.  And if there is something you want, you should grab it. Chances are the next time you’re in it will be gone.

One of the store’s attractions is “The Fifty Cent Room” where everything is (you guessed it) fifty cents a piece. You will find LPs, 45′s, and 78s all of which did not quite make the cut to be in the main part of the store.  Shoppers spend hours in this large room and walk out with records by the box-load.  Just yesterday I bought a bunch of 78s for a little over $20.

We all have our stories about albums we’ve kicked ourselves for over-paying for, and what I like about Jamie’s store is that it is realistic and trustworthy for pricing.  I’ve lost count of how many gems I’ve found at this place for more-than-fair prices and in great condition.  Last week I picked up a mono white label promo copy of the self-titled Eddie Cochran album on the Liberty label.  I’ve seen that record at music expos for triple digits, and trust me I paid much less for it at Double Decker.

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“These records aren’t gonna price themselves.” Jamie frequently says with his price gun in hand, trying to keep up with a fluid inventory that is constantly changing.  This is not a place where you are  going to see the same assortment over and over again.  And if there is something you are looking for, chances are it will show up sooner or later.  Having been around for more than 15 years, Double Decker sets the bar high for what can be expected of a record store.

Announcement: New Online Vinyl Community

Just an announcement that I’ve started an online vinyl and record collectors forum called Vinyl Talk. It was quite a daunting task because I took the long way around.  I paid for web hosting, but after spending about 7 hours trying to get my wordpress blog content transferred over, I realized that I was in over my head with all the codes, files, passwords, downloads and uploads, all of which was Greek to me.  It was a pain in the neck for a guy with my limited computer skills.  So I  cancelled the hosting and went with a much easier ProBoards option.  Not quite as sexy as it could’ve been with a self-hosted bulletin board, but this way is a lot less blood, sweat and tears.

So stop by and say hi to us over there!

The Punk Comp That Changed My Life

…. Okay, so maybe it didn’t change my life but it played a critical role in shaping my musical taste. I grew up in a dull, sterile suburb outside of Philadelphia.  There was no music scene going on and not much of a sense of culture or community. It was the kind of place where you go to church on Sunday and the same person begrudgingly shaking your hand during “the sign of peace” is the same guy who will cut you off in the parking lot on the way out. This was years before the internet as we know it.  Interesting music and film would only trickle into my neighborhood after being sieved through various filters.  But – there were a few good comps that made it through my front door.

My older sister went through a punk “phase” in the late 1980′s.  I remember her wearing a shirt that said “Anarchy” with an “A” in a circle. She also had a Sex Pistols shirt that my parents confiscated and cut up for rags after she wore it in front of my grandmother one day.  One time – in front of her friends – my dad forbade her, on moral grounds, to wear a shirt she had made herself.  It was a plain-looking blue shirt, but, for reasons known only to her, she had painted the phrase “Elvis Had A Stinky Butt” on the front of it.

Remember, this was around the days of The Parents Music Resource Center, The Satanic Panic, and taking punk and heavy metal way too seriously. Parents had to scrutinize what their kids wore and what they listened to, and keep them from hearing things like W.A.S.P., Motley Crue and Ozzy or else they may go stark raving mad. After all, there were those kids that had a suicide pact after they listened to Stained Class (1978) by Judas Priest. It was all the music’s fault, right?

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Anyway, her punk years were important to me because of the great music that made its way into our home.  Off the top of my head I remember records by The Exploited, The Meatmen, Dead Kennedys, and Fear in her collection.  Let Them Eat Jellybeans (1981) was also one of them. It’s a (now classic) punk compilation released on Jello Biarfra’s Alternative Tentacles Records. It became my education in punk rock.  I was in elementary school and hearing bands like Circle Jerks, Flipper, The Feederz, Dead Kennedys, Geza X, Black Flag and others.  My sister recorded parts of the comp on tape for me to listen to, but she left out more risqué songs like “Slave To My Dick” by (the Canadian) Subhumans. Later on as I got older I would borrow the record and finally hear it in it’s entirety.

Side 1 of Let Them Eat Jellybeans is devoted to what was considered “hardcore punk” at the time.  Side 2 is avant garde and features bands like Half Japanese and Christian Lunch.  By the time you get to “Sleep” by Voice Farm at the end, it’s hard to believe you are listening to the same record.  As time went on, I came to realize that listening to this kind of music in the area where I lived was a very solitary experience.  The only people in school who knew about this stuff were people that I had told about it, and half of them could’ve cared less because it wasn’t Megadeth or Guns N Roses. But that didn’t dissuade me from digging deeper and deeper into punk rock and esoteric music of all kinds.

Years later when Nirvana would take Half Japanese on tour with them, all I could think of was how amazing it was that a band from that old punk comp was opening up for the one of the biggest rock bands in the nation. Kurt Cobain wore a Flipper shirt when Nirvana played on Satuday Night Live.  I felt like shouting to my friends – “See! This is what I’ve been trying to tell you guys for years!”

Much later my sister abandoned the punk image for a neo-hippie type of thing that involved growing her hair long and listening to Phish. But I’m thankful for those handful of songs that gave me my apprenticeship in hardcore punk and allowed me to listen “outside the box.” Let Them Eat Jellybeans will likely never be reissued with it’s original track listing again.  Apparently Jello Biafra had a falling out with Frank Discussion of The Feederz.

Digging Deeper Part 1: Records I Took A Chance On

Someone recently posed the question on one of the vinyl collector’s forums: “How do you all find new music to listen to? The radio is crap….”  Among many suggestions posted in reply, my response was that I dig deeper into old music to find “new” things to listen to.  My taste is all over the place, and having such a broad range creates greater opportunity to find cool records.  Here are some records that I found out about somewhat accidentally by being in the right place at the right time.  These are records I hadn’t heard of before, but ended up being good finds.

One summer afternoon, my wife and I found ourselves knocking on the front door of an old rowhouse.  Yet again I had dragged my wife, who listens almost exclusively to Top 40 Country songs and Christmas music, to go record hunting with me.  (If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is.)  A man came around the corner and lead us down a hill to where his rusted-out pickup truck was parked. He pulled an old dirty quilt off the hood to reveal about 10 crates of rock albums.  A lot of them were in rough shape, and smelled like cigarette smoke, but after thumbing through a few titles I knew that it would be $50 well spent.  I ended up finding three gems that really stood out.

Heavy Cruiser (1972) is an album by a band of the same name. It looked promising from the crumbly lettering on the front to the band pic on the back of four guys on a moonscape with guns and bullet belts.  It opens with a great crunchy cover of Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody.” This is a great rock album that runs a gamut of styles from heavy to soft.  “Lectric Lady” is one of the heaviest and best tracks.  The last song on the second side “Miracles of Pure Device” is unusual and out-of-character for this album.  It’s more experimental and noisy and ends with an answering machine loop. Heavy Cruiser was a project of bassist Neil Merryweather, and is basically the same lineup as another band called Mama Lion, but without female vocalist Lynn Carey.   A second album, Lucky Dog, was released in 1973.

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Privilege (1969) is a self-titled release produced by the Isley Brothers for their T-Neck Records label. It’s a pretty good bluesy/psych rock outing with a lot of good fuzzy guitar riffs and soloing.  Privilege was formed by two members of the Philly R&B outfit Soul Survivors.  The Isleys invited them to record for T-Neck after having been impressed with their musicianship.  On the liner notes on the back of the cover, organist Paul Venturini is quoted as saying “We want you to enjoy this album, feel it, whether your thing is FM or AM….”  I can’t help but think how strange it is that a lot of younger people today would have to google that to find out what it means.  Man I feel old.

Trapeze had a prolific recording career and existed in several incarnations from 1969-1994.  Members went on to be in Deep Purple and Judas Priest. The fact that I had never heard of Trapeze until I found this copy of Medusa (1970) in that record lot makes me wonder what else is out there that I’m missing out on. That’s the beauty of vinyl.  There’s a seemingly endless number of records waiting for discovery. Despite the fact that my copy is falling apart at the seams, and there is an annoying jump at the beginning of side 1 (drives my inner record geek crazy) I was really happy to find this one.  There’s not many ways to describe it other than saying that it’s a great hard rock album.  Great riffs, raspy vocals with a lot of heart, guitar fuzzbox, heavy bass, heavy drums, and cowbell, what more do you need really?  Worth checking out.

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Sometimes people ask me how I’ve heard of the music that I listen to.  “How did you hear of these guys?”  There’s a lot of ways to find out about music – impulse purchases, reading liner notes of albums, overhearing albums played in record stores, genre compilations, word-of-mouth, and some record shops even have turntable listening stations set up. There are also bands that will cover songs that have influenced them.  The Meatmen covered a song called “What’s This Shit Called Love” on both War of the Superbikes (1985) and again on their live album We’re The Meatmen And You Still Suck (1988.)  That song was originally written and recorded by a band from Cleveland Ohio called Pagans.

When I saw a Pagans compilation called Shit Street (2001) I knew this was an opportunity to dig deeper on a band that had influenced one of my favorite punk bands. It’s an excellent compilation of singles as well as some unreleased material all from 1977-1979.  The record sets the tone by opening up with the original 7″ version of “What’s This Shit Called Love” followed by the flipside “Street Where Nobody Lives.”  The aspects that stand out the most from those two tracks are the powerful drums and bass driving the rhythm. There’s a big energy there. Among the originals such as “Eyes of Satan” and “I Juvenile” (two of my favorites,) is a cover of The Rolling Stones “Heart of Stone.”  The Rolling Stones filtered through Pagans is a stroke of genius.  Their version of “Heart of Stone” captures a certain desperation and loss. It’s pure emotion.

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In 1983 Pagans released a self-titled full length album which is usually referred to as The Pink Album. The album is put together from several lo-fi live recordings done in front-man Mike Hudson’s basement, and it’s an absolute monster.  Loaded with distortion, fuzz and sometimes feedback from microphones being too close to amplifiers, this is an aggressive, blistering experience. My favorite tracks are the “Seventh Son Wiped Out” which sounds like Little Richard’s “She’s Got It” brought to a state of anarchy. Another treat is the slow, sludgy version of “Street Where Nobody Lives” called “Slow Street.”

Sporting one of the coolest album covers of all time, The Pink Album was released in a limited run of 500 on Terminal Records, but has since been reissued by Treehouse Records, and later Crypt Records.  You cannot imagine how excited I was to find an original copy of this, and intercept it before it hit the shelves at my favorite record store years ago. A piece of midwest punk history, they are not easy to find.

The production value of Pagans’ music is almost like another band member. They write material that wouldn’t work as well in a sanitized multimillion dollar recording studio. The lo-fi production of these two records is what really brings out their essence.  The Pink Album, along with Iggy and the Stooges Raw Power (1973) is one of those albums that needs to be heard on vinyl.

Brownsville Station

Best known for having written and recorded the juvenile delinquency classic “Smokin’ In The Boy’s Room” in 1973, Brownsville Station was a prolific midwestern power trio that delivered distilled rock and roll through the 1970′s.  The main lineup was Cub Koda, Henry Weck, and Michael Lutz. Frontman Cub Koda fell in love with music at a young age and in addition to recording as a solo artist, also wrote a column in Goldmine Magazine, contributed reviews to Allmusic guides, and wrote liner notes for several albums.  Unfortunately he passed away in 2000 from kidney disease. I try to snag Brownsville Station albums when I see them, so far I have five.

Yeah! (1973) is an album of mostly cover songs.  The best covers are a slightly slower version of Jimmy Cliff’s “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah,” Lou Reed’s classic “Sweet Jane,” and a faithful rendition of Balloon Farm’s “A Question of Temperature.” The cover of Robert Parker’s “Barefootin’” is a real ass-kicker.  For the right crowd, this record would’ve made a great setlist for a 1970′s bar band.  This is also the album with “Smokin’ In The Boy’s Room.”  It’s the last song on side 2 and delivers much more of a punch than the later Motley Crue version.

School Punks (1974) finds the band recording more original material than on Yeah! and lyrically continues the teenage angst theme started with “Smokin’ In The Boy’s Room.” The songs are light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek.   They center on the trials and tribulations of being in high school in the 1970′s, but written by guys who were in their mid-20′s. The whole album is excellent.  The bass and drums on “Meet Me On The Fourth Floor” literally rattle my headphones if the volume is up too high.  “Kings of the Party” is a great opener for this record. Search online for footage of them performing it on the 1970′s T.V. show The Midnight Special.  It has to be seen to be believed.

Motor City Connection (1975) is one of my favorite Brownsville Station records.  The production is a bit slicker. The whole teenager thing is gone and the lyrical content throughout the album is boiled down to the two tried-and-true subjects in rock music: love, and rock and roll.  “Give It To Get It” is centered around a very simple and catchy guitar riff, and is one of my favorite 1970′s rock songs in general.  Side 2 ends with “They Call Me Rock N’ Roll,” an ambitious 9 minute medley of original material broken into different parts.

Brownsville Station (1977) finds the band with the addition of a fourth member, Bruce Nazarian.  Althought there are some good cuts to be had like “Mr. Johnson Sez” – a bluesy rock homage to Robert Johnson, and “Hot Spit,” overall this isn’t one of Brownsville Station’s better efforts. It comes across as a bit overproduced, impersonal and busier. There’s more emphasis on solos than good solid songwriting.  It’s missing that certain something that comes across in their other work.

For Air Special (1978) the band name was shortened to simply “Brownsville.” Along with the name change came an image makeover that was a bit more “serious.” The outrageous and flashy clothing is gone.  Cub Koda got a haircut and is even wearing a tie and pinstripe sports jacket in his pic on the inner sleeve.  Air Special is aggressive and heavy. Overall it’s a much better record than Brownsville Station.  “Cooda Crawlin’” and “Taste of Your Love” are musically much darker than what I would expect, but it works. It seemed like the band had broken the ice as a four piece and things were beginning to gel. Unfortunately this album proved to be their swan song.

Remaining members reunited in 2012 and released a new cd called Still Smokin’ . I haven’t had a chance to pick it up, but I’d be curious to hear what the guys are up to.

Record Store Spotlight: Vertigo Music

Around 1998 I was dating a girl who lived in the Reading area of Pennsylvania.  I remember the first time she took me to this record store that was right down the street from where she lived.  That first visit made an impression on me and 15 years later I still remember some of the great stuff that was on those shelves: both of the Metal Blade label Mentors albums, Christian Lunch’s Unreliable Sources EP, White Flag’s S is for Space, the punk comp Let Them Eat Jellybeans, almost all the Plasmatics titles …. the list went on. On the wall of the store I saw The Dead Boys’ We Have Come For Your Children and the soundtrack to Reform School Girls (which I still kick myself for not getting.) Working my way towards the VHS rack (this was around the advent of dvd) I saw concert videos for bands like Fear and Minor Threat, as well as the two legendary punk documentaries The Decline of Western Civilization (1980) and D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage (1980.) And this was just the punk section.

The store is called Vertigo Music.  Vertigo carries a great selection of new releases and reissues of indie rock and alternative music, and also a large selection of used LPs covering many genres such as classic rock, new wave, jazz, soul, and country. There are also some really cool conversation pieces for sale near the register – but don’t look for the G.G. Allin bobble head because I already bought it.

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Vertigo was opened in 1997.  Having changed locations from West Lawn to Penn Avenue in West Reading, it is still going strong 16 years later. Stacey, the proprietor, opened up her store because she was tired of the corporate aspect of other jobs. She says she’s been passionate about music since she was a kid, and that becomes clear the moment you talk with her.  I’ve talked with her about everything from Negative Approach to Wesley Willis, from Dead Kennedys to The Cramps. Sometimes when I visit her store, I spend more time talking with her about music than I do shopping. Although she has accumulated a solid record collection at home, she tends to buy records for herself once in a while and doesn’t consider herself to be a “record collector.”

I asked Stacey what the last record she played at home was.  Her answer: The Pleasure Seekers 7″ for What A Way To Die.  I’ve never heard that one, but knowing Stacey’s taste in music, I really should check it out.

Preachin’ Blues and Gospel

~ “I kick ass for The Lord.” - Dead Alive (1992) ~

I’ve always liked African American gospel music.  I remember seeing The Blind Boys of Alabama perform years ago in Philadelphia. They opened with a powerful rendition of “Down By The Riverside.” As the concert progressed it turned into a borderline church service. There was an energy there, I remember the woman sitting next to me throwing her hands in the air, her face pointing upwards, her eyes shut, ready to “testify.” There was sincertiy in that music.

Some of the best art is created as an extension of one’s self. It’s spawned from deep-seated beliefs and emotions, usually by people who aren’t concerned how the general public will react to it. My favorite music is music I can feel.  Music that I don’t just listen to, but music that I experience.  Having grown up Catholic, much of the music I heard in Sunday Mass was sanitized and dull.  If only it could’ve sounded like these records.

God’s Got It (2003) is a compilation of singles from the 1970′s by Reverend Charlie Jackson.  Having never heard of Reverend Jackson, this was an impulse purchase for me.  The black and white photo on the jacket of the reverend playing an electric guitar while three members of the congregation clap and sing along gave it an authenticity that was through the roof. This is energetic, emotional and rhythmic gospel music.  Sharp guitar strumming, hands clapping, and a few female vocals provide the canvas for Jackson’s guttural delivery. This record has a real presence, impossible to listen to and be neutral about.

Reverend Gary Davis was born in 1896 in South Carolina.  He was blinded as an infant when a doctor put some type of drops in his eyes that were too strong.  He later taught himself guitar and learned to play a wide variety of musical styles.  After he became ordained a minister, he would often refuse to play blues in favor of gospel.  He was highly influential on bands like The Grateful Dead, and Bob Weir is quoted as saying “Rev. Davis taught me, by example, to completely throw out my preconceptions of what can or can’t be done on the guitar.”

I was very excited to find this particular record because the material was used as part of a Reverend Gary Davis compact disc box set I used to have.  Children of Zion (1974) is a live recording of a 1962 performance at Swarthmore College in my home state of Pennsylvania. The recording quality clearly captures the wonderful acoustic guitar work and powerful vocals. From uplifiting songs like “I’m Going To Sit Down on The Banks of the River” to the haunting “(I Heard The) Angel’s Singing,” the album overall is a great showcase of Davis’s capabilities.

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Truth be told, I have mixed feelings about Record Store Day. But once in a while, the powers that be who make decisions about RSD really nail it.  Death Might Be Your Santa Claus was released on vinyl in a limited edition of 5000 pieces on Black Friday 2012.  My friend and I bought the last two copies in the store, disappointing some customers who wanted to add it to their stacks.  It’s a collection of old “race records” from various labels like Okeh and Vocalion all with a (mostly gritty) Christmas theme.  Loaded with great examples of country blues and gospel,  this isn’t your typical Christmas compilation. One outstanding track is the upbeat a cappella “When Was Jesus Born?” by The Heavenly Gospel Singers, which sounds like primitive doo-wop.  But the tracks that will stick to your ribs are the vehement, heavy-handed, fire and brimstone sermons by one Reverend J.M. Gates such as “Did You Spend Christmas Day In Jail?” Another sermon “Will The Coffin Be Your Santa Claus?” is a grim reminder of our own mortality and a plea to “get right with God.”

Here’s a little known fact: as of this writing Death Might Be Your Santa Claus is the only Christmas album in my collection.

Record Store Spotlight: Mr. Suit

Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  For many it conjures images of shoo fly pie and horse-drawn buggies.  But for 6 years it’s been home to Mr. Suit Records.

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I found out about the place quite by accident.  I was at another shop in Lancaster called Angry Young and Poor, and the guy behind the counter mentioned a music store that sold, almost exclusively, records.  He told me that at one point this place had two copies of Samhain’s Unholy Passion on white vinyl.  I knew I had to check it out.

The first time I went in I combed through every bin, it’s one of those places where you want to leave no stone unturned so you don’t miss anything.  Plus I was enjoying the conversations going on in the store. One was about Herschell Gordon Lewis. Another conversation was about an Elvis Presley children’s record.  The idea of Elvis sneering out a rendition of Old McDonald – “…. with a cluck-cluck here and a cluck-cluck there….” – indeed sounded like something I’d need to look for at a later date.

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I picked up a really nice copy of the 1999 reissue of The Gears Rockin’ At Ground Zero and my favorite Sex Pistols comp Flogging A Dead Horse. I picked up so many goodies that day that Mike (the proprietor) gave me a box to carry my haul back to my car.

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Mike’s family has been in the antique business in one way or another for years.  Being someone who’s interested in vinyl and record stores, he jumped at the opportunity to open a shop of his own.  Rather than choosing one specialty, he gives equal attention to a variety of genres – garage rock, jazz, soul, hip hop, you name it.  Mike himself is a record collector, but he says it’s not to the extent that someone may assume based on his livelihood.  His philosophy is that he doesn’t want to be the kind of store that just carries leftovers, while the good stuff never makes it to the racks.

I asked Mike what the last record he had on his turntable was.  The answer: The Pirate’s Press reissue of Cock Sparrer’s Shock Troops.  (One of my favorites as well.)

When in Lancaster, visit Mr. Suit.

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