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Ace Records

by David Stubbs
Black Dog Publishing, London, UK, 2007
192 pp. illus. 220 b/w & col. Paper, £19.95 ($29.95)
ISBN: 978 1 906155 03 2.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Though by then he could recite the black American influences on England’s Beatles and Rolling Stones, this reviewer remembers how odd it felt, about 1970, to see a Tommy Steele movie.  Here was a rock n' roller, much like early Elvis but in 1950s London, who was imitative yet exuding his native culture, too.  Perhaps the co-founders of Ace Records would understand.

Among them, Trevor Churchill had been manager of Edison Lighthouse at the time of their sole hit "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)", while Roger Armstrong and Ted Carroll had played in bands.  As fans, they began to record the unsigned groups around them that they liked.  Sometimes they recorded one-shot singles by promising musicians on their way up, a moment before they found themselves with the major bands that made their name.  Before he changed his band’s name to Simple Minds, Jim Kerr recorded for Ace as Johnny and the Self Abusers.  Joe Strummer fronted the 101ers (named after the torture room in Orwell's 1984 ?) when he sported curls and big sideburns, shorn when he fronted the Clash.  Shane McGowan, later of the Pogues, appeared in the Nips n' Nipple Erectors’ Ace record "Bops, Babes, Booze and Bovver".  Too much of this chapter then reads like someone else's school yearbook, where you smile along but have absolutely no idea who is being depicted.  The Tooting Frooties?  Rocky Sharpe and the Replays?  Sniff n' the Tears?  A 1978 festival poster features the Coroners from Germany and a Captain Coke, who claimed dual residency in England and Holland.  And I'll have to take the authors' word for it that the Radiators were "Ireland's premier Punk band".

The Ace organization truly found itself when it turned away from new recordings and began reissues of 1950s music that inspired them, beginning with "Brand New Cadillac" by Vince Taylor and His Playboys, and tracks by Link Wray (originally on a label from Mississippi also called Ace).  They still released “shockabilly” tracks by the Cramps and the Meteors, and the eclectic Stingrays who claimed the influence of "rockabilly, garage punk, '70s punk, surf, northern soul, folk rock, we were omnivores".  As in the novel or movie High Fidelity, we breathe in the musty air of the now-rare record shops as we join the Ace lads as they travel with cartons to buy records for thirty pence each and sell them for fifty.  The founders' aesthetic finds expression in music devotees' pubs and clubs, including one aptly called 6Ts (pronounced "sixties").  This reviewer's own magpie art gang-qua-garage band pored over remainders and stacks of vinyl in Michigan's Goodwill Industries' and Salvation Army Red Shield Stores, but few of us were serious collectors who paid high prices for rare sides.

To a skeptic, Ben Mandelson's 3 Mustaphas 3 might seem to have as much serious relationship to African music as Julius Wechter's Baja Marimba Band did to Mexican music.  Still, Mandleson deserves credit for introducing Ace Records to African sounds, like Super Rail Band of the Buffet Hotel de la Gare de Bamako, Mali, a band from which both Mory Kanté and Salif Keita had emerged.  Mandelson helped Ace initiate "globe style" or "world music", and its subsidiary labels issued Kenyan Abana Ba Nasey's album "Nursery Boys Go Ahead", Zouk, music from Lesotho, plus Bollywood soundtracks and Serbian brass band music.  Their most glamorous artist, the late Yemen-born Ofra Haza, went from representing Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest, to embracing her Yemeni musical roots and mainstream success that included recording a track with Iggy Pop.

In 1989 Ace licensed Armen Boladian's Westbound label from Detroit, and reissued its 1970s Funk by the Ohio Players, Funkadelic ("Maggot Brain"!), Detroit Emeralds, Millie Jackson and Joe Simon.  The Fatback Band's 1979 track "King Tim II (Personality Jock)" was a Rap record that preceded the Sugarhill Gang's "Rappers' Delight", so often acclaimed as Rap’s beginning, by a few months.  Rights to Fantasy Records didn't mean Credence Clearwater hits but did mean Country Joe and the Fish, Joan Baez, Vietnam-era antiwar Soul songs.  Albums-worth of recordings by Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, and Booker T. and the MGs lay unissued in the Fantasy-owned Stax label vault until Ace rediscovered them.  The Ace crew discovered that a lot of instrumental Hammond organ grooves were being frequently sampled by rappers and contemporary dance artists, so could be marketed––how brilliant!––as "acid jazz".  Somehow these cuts sold better than reissues of 1958 audio interviews with racing car drivers like Stirling Moss.

Ace Records is a fun book.  One might gripe how the Selected Artists biographies in the back don't list any of the African bands, but are mostly of Ace's well-known American rhythm and blues artists. David Stubbs’ workmanlike text is like an extended historical article in MOJO magazine; the author has long written for Melody Maker and the music press.  What shines through is a story of the Ace project's faith in local bands and love of old and new music, of finding a niche and distribution region for licensing deals, and honorably paying royalties to artists even when no longer legally obligated to do so.  It is an instructive tale for anyone considering a boutique label; an ambition this reviewer has nursed, before seeing his own cassette archive age and decay beyond listenability.

Black Dog Publishing makes attractive books, now responsibly green on "woodfree" recycled paper.  The visuals in Ace Records include photos of hip musicians, Ted Carroll's hand drawn and photocopied flyers, and a trove of notable examples of graphic design of the 1950s and 1960s or skillful retro evocations of later decades.  One wishes the book came with an accompanying 20-track CD.  In comparison to deeper and more exciting music-industry histories, the confectionary volume Ace Records leaves the reader a bit unsatisfied.  The Bonzo Dog Band once sang of "a pink blancmange, a cherry trifle, a chocolate sponge", and this book belongs on that same dessert cart.







Updated 6th June 2008

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