HAL on Earth

Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you.

Sci-fi fans will recognise the “dying words” of HAL, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL goes mad, you see, and murders all but one of the crew of a spaceship. The one survivor shuts HAL down, and as his circuits die HAL sings “Daisy Bell” not especially well.

The film was made in 1968, when 2001 seemed a very long time in the future. It is full of guesses about what computers might be like in this glittering space age, and some things are wildly excessive – HAL can lip-read, from side on. Other things are pure 1968. HAL, like the computers of that period is HUGE, a giant mainframe the size of a small house. That’s how computers were back then. They were enormous, and very expensive, so there were not many of them. A university, a government agency or a large company might have one.

Something else about the computers of the late 1960s. Their information capacity was tiny, pitiful to modern eyes. A standard smart phone has about 64 gigabytes of memory. A gigabyte is 1000 megabytes. A megabyte is 1000 kilobytes. And the big, expensive computer you are about to meet could store 32 kilobytes of data.

0278 a

The ICL 1905 computer had a massive 32 kilobyte memory.

Let me introduce the ICL 1905. It was a computer, which was used by the Queensland Main Roads Department. And, in January 1969, it starred in a recording. Someone, the equivalent of HAL’s Mr Langley, had programmed it to play music. What does it sound like? Pretty much what you would expect from a computer with a 32K memory: truly awful.

But the fact that someone went to the trouble of pressing a record, to preserve this ghastly beeping for posterity, shows that getting a computer to play music was a real accomplishment, something exciting and new in 1969.

And now? It sounds like HAL on Earth. But it is fascinating, and truly weird. Just listen!

Side A

Side B

  • Artist: MRD [Queensland Main Roads Department] Computer ICL 1905 32K
  • A Side: Brahms: Waltz in A Flat
  • B Side: B1 Wagner: Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, B2 Colonel Bogey
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: custom pressing
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: January 1969

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs



Bong-smoking skeleton rides motorbike

The magic and mystery of heavy metal is somewhat of a closed book to me. That the musicians are skilled is not in question, and their fans are models of admirable loyalty. But the merch? Not for me, that whole “black tee-shirt with a picture of a bong-smoking skeleton riding a motorbike across a desert which is also the body of a tanned Amazon warrior in a metal bikini” look.

Mens-Funny-T-Shirt-Darth-Vader-Heavy-Metal-Designer-T-Shirts-Short-Sleeve-Cotton-Tee-Shirts.jpg_640x640And a lot of metal lacks, to my ears, light and shade. Often enough it is just pitch-black, from screaming beginning to screaming end.

But I have met and chatted to pleasant and cultured people wearing the black tees, and they are not the perpetual adolescents the art-work might suggest. Their passion for and appreciation of the music is real. What is more, metal fans put their money where their pierced tongues are.

This record is a seriously obscure early release by a Melbourne, Australia, band Virgin Soldiers. It was put out by a label called Metal for Melbourne (their fourth, and last, release). It is also seriously metal: the two sides are labelled Metal A and Metal B. There are people who love it – enough that a Netherlands outfit put out a bootleg CD in 2008.

Someone in Japan bought it from me for A$50, plus postage. Looking at what the record is selling for now (A$130+) I let it go pretty cheaply, but that is fine. I am glad the record has gone to a home where it will be played and loved.

This is “Metal A”, track 1, a song which the same name as the band, “Virgin Soldiers”. (Which came first?) More than many metal tracks, there is light and shade. The band is tight, the production excellent. I won’t be buying the black tee with the skeleton anytime soon, but I can agree that for what it is, it is genuinely good.

Just listen.

  • Artist: Virgin Soldiers
  • Album: Watching The World
  • Track: Metal A, Track 1 “Virgin Soldiers”
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Metal for Melbourne
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: M4MLP0004
  • Year: 1990

‘Obscure English singer-songwriter’

It says in the Bible:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

That is the King James translation, at any rate. If you want to get all-1970s and groovy, there is the Message version:

I took another walk around the neighbourhood and realized that on this earth as it is— The race is not always to the swift, Nor the battle to the strong, Nor satisfaction to the wise, Nor riches to the smart, Nor grace to the learned. Sooner or later bad luck hits us all.

Hmm. Not perhaps the finest moment in the Message. Anyway, you get the point. Life ain’t always fair. Sometimes, people do something wonderful, and get no recognition.

Leno BCase in point. In 1974, Sam Leno released his one and only LP. It was on Anchor Records – not a major label, but home to Alice Cooper among others, so big enough. I am a researcher by trade, so to find out more about Leno did not seem like a challenge. Mainstream release, mid-1970s: should be easy. But no. The sole reference I can find to Sam was written four decades later – in a piece mostly about someone else.

John Apice, in the roots music journal No Depression, compares a contemporary artist, Comrad, to “an obscure English singer-songwriter named Sam Leno”, who:

had one wonderful album called “Ordinary Man,” … these two artists are on the same wave-length, kindred spirits, soul-brothers. … It’s a rich, ignored musical style … Tin Pan Alley, pop songs of the 1920s and dance hall frivolity … Leno’s album was filled with these kinds of light, well-recorded, fun to sing melodies … Comrad is not imitating Sam Leno. How could he? I doubt Comrad ever heard of Sam Leno.

Neither had I, but Apice is apt in his description and justified in his appreciation. This is the B-side of one of Leno’s handful of singles. It is a gem. It deserved to succeed, but didn’t. No further albums followed, and I don’t know what happened to Leno. The race is not always to the swift.

  • Artist: Sam Leno
  • Single Title: Oh, Joanna
  • Track: B-side, “You Know What I Mean”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: Anchor
  • Catalogue: ANC-10646
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1974

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs



Odd and proud of it

One of the better things to happen in Australian music back in the 1980s was a band called Mental As Anything. In the slang of the day, to say someone was “mental” was an insult. It implied eccentricity and stupidity rather than mental illness, but even so it was a bit unpleasant.

The Mentals, as they became known, took defiant ownership of the term. Singing quirky songs about life on the creative, dope-smoking fringes of suburban Australia, they were odd and out there and proud of it.0057 Plaza A

One of the band was Martin Plaza – not his real name, it’s a place in central Sydney – and he released a solo album in 1986. A single from it, a version of a 1960s Brit pop hit “Concrete and Clay”, made the top ten in Australia.

But Planet Vinyl is all about found sound, the unexpected, the unfamiliar, and that is what lies on the B side. “New Suit” is a song about a man who has bought a second-hand suit, and thinks he looks pretty sharp in it.0057 Plaza B

My new suit, it looks so good
My new suit, it fits so well
My new suit, I think you will agree
My new suit, looks good on me

A silly, lightweight song which didn’t even get on the album – but it is just the sort of whimsical, fun celebration of the ordinary which the Mentals did so well. I love it.

  • Artist: Martin Plaza
  • Single Title: Concrete and Clay
  • Track: Side B “New Suit”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm
  • Label: CBS BA 3404
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1986

Many of the records discussed on this blog are for sale via Discogs

Beware of the pricks

There is a peculiar excitement in dropping the stylus onto a record which is a complete mystery. The label is blank, or illegible, or in a foreign language. Not Italian or German: an English speaker can puzzle those out, more or less. I’m talking seriously challenging languages: Russian, or Hebrew, or (as in this case) Chinese. What, you wonder, as you start the turntable, what on earth am I going to hear?

It can be a disappointment. A Taiwanese pirate pressing of Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits? Whoop-de-do. 7024 Label A

But this EP – from the 1960s, you would guess – fully lives up to the mystery promised by its exotic-looking label. Rose Chan was a Chinese-born woman who lived in what is now Malaysia. In the 1950s she became a star cabaret dancer and acrobat, known as the Queen of Striptease. Her shows were breathtakingly daring for the day. A contemporary report of a Rose Chan show:

When Chan comes on stage, she moves subtly, gently swaying in a slow dance, all by herself. As she removes one piece of clothing after another, the tempo gradually picks up. When she reaches the point of removing her brassiere, she holds back. That is when her stagehands bring in the pythons, and she dances with the snakes wrapped all around her. Next, she removes her brassiere, and dances bare-breasted.

It didn’t stop there, but this is a family-friendly blog. Let’s just say that later in the show, bananas and coke bottles were involved.

Married many times, often in trouble with the law, especially as Malaysia came under the influence of conservative Islam in the 1970s, Rose Chan was flamboyant, unapologetic, brave. Not necessarily someone to trust with your life savings …  but nobody’s perfect. And she could sing. Just listen to this – I don’t know what it is called, because I can’t read Chinese. I don’t understand the lyrics either, though you kinda pick up the general vibe. Not gospel, shall we say.

But the whole thing is an amazing creation – Marlene Dietrich meets Chinese opera with a hint of Marilyn Monroe singing cabaret while wrestling with a python in a Bornean swamp.

Question. How did this naughty record get to Australia, a country which long banned the importation of the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

There are two possibilities.

A: Rose Chan did tour Australia in 1970, though she had an unhappy time of it, being prosecuted in Perth for indecent behaviour (the Lady Chatterley effect). Maybe someone saw her show before it was closed down, and bought the record.

B: Quite a few Australian servicemen served in Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s, involved in the conflicts which accompanied the de-colonisation of British Malaya. Rose Chan was, no surprise, enormously popular with troops stationed there. An Aussie Digger, farewelling the nightclubs of KL, could well have snuck Rose Chan record into his kitbag.

My money is on Option B.

  • Artist: Rose Chan
  • EP Title: Unknown
  • Side 1, Track 1: Unknown
  • Format: 7” LP 45 rpm
  • Label: Unknown
  • Manufactured in: Unknown
  • Year: Unknown

Groovin’ Around, Baby

In 1973, a group of Australian musicians got together and cut a single. They called themselves Wild Honey, and they could play. The arrangements are complex: shifts in tempo, complex harmonies. For 1973, this is high level production.0220 Label A

Who were they? That is a mystery. There have been lots of bands called Wild Honey, but this does not turn up in an ay of the usual source. The label, Cohns or maybe “Call for Cohns” is otherwise unknown. The catalogue number suggests vanishing smallness: “CAWH”. Almost certainly this stands for “Cohns, Armstrong (the studio where it was recorded), Wild Honey”. They don’t even bother with a “001”, as most tiny labels do, with the proud / defiant hint that is more is to come.

0220 Label BOne clue. Both tracks were produced by one Bruce Rowland, who also has a composing credit for the A side. It is not impossible that this is Bruce Rowland, the Australian musician who is best known as a successful composer of film scores. But that is just a guess. Another credit is Steve Groves: a guitarist of that name later played with the Australian folk-rock band The Bushwackers. Could be him.

If anyone out there knows more, please get in touch.

Meantime, I am posting both sides of the single, because they are so rare, and because I like them both. The record is pretty battered, but the music comes through.

Side A is “Groovin’ Around”, slightly spacy-folk-rock with a hint of Crosby Still and Nash about it. Over reaches just a tad, but a fine effort. Side B is less ambitious but more successful, a humorous rock song about an International Man of Mystery. In fact, Austin Powers would have loved this record.

A Side: Groovin’ Around

B Side: Talkin’ Turkey

  • Artist: Wild Honey
  • Title: Groovin’ Around / Talkin’ Turkey
  • Format: 7” 45 rpm
  • Label: Cohns CAWH
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1973