The subject of ‘private pressings’ is one which divides vinyl collectors. Many see them as landfill, others feel they are worth documenting as much for the light they throw on the run of the mill side of the music industry as any possible musical merit (and there is also interest from the social history angle). I must admit to me they are a source of much fascination, often housed as they are in some of the least accomplished album covers ever done. With a minimal art budget and a naive design sense, these are covers people have often overseen themselves. And been perfectly happy with. Who needs a design director?
There is perhaps a parallel between ‘private pressings’ of albums and vanity publishing in the book industry. Many were released by groups who couldn’t get a ‘proper’ record deal, and so paid for an album to be recorded and pressed themselves. There the analogy to vanity publishing starts to break down though as in most cases these pressings were done by working bands expecting to sell them at shows. And without distributors or labels taking a cut, they were a useful source of income. Given that the trade was going on long before major bands woke up to the revenue potential of selling their own records at shows, you could argue that ‘private pressings’ showed the way.
There were a number of companies manufacturing these albums, the grand-daddy of them all being SRT, based in Cambridgeshire. The SRT (Sound Recording Technology) logo appears on thousands of private pressings, and they handled everything from recording to mastering (though they would take recordings mastered elsewhere), packaging and printing to delivering the finished LP (or single). SRT would come up with a basic sleeve design, or base it on the client’s artwork. Many sleeves were single colour to save on price, but they would also do full colour if required. The majority of these albums were never documented or reviewed, so remain largely uncatalogued. I approached the people at SRT not long ago but sadly the company cleared out their archives a few years back when they moved premises. This is doubly annoying as I used the company a lot for CD mastering in the 1990s and wish I’d thought to ask then. But there were a number of other companies offering this service.
Today these private pressings mostly turn up in charity shops, or sometimes at record fairs under ‘miscellaneous’. There is undoubtedly something of the classic “shit business, music” line from The League of Gentlemen’s Creme Bruleé character about the whole scene. All these jobbing bands and musicians trying to get ahead and perhaps ‘make it’ sometime, all putting on their best smiles for the cover portraits. Then mostly disappearing without trace, beyond these albums. Yet many of the bands clearly enjoyed themselves, were content to operate at this level and had careers on the club circuit.
As well as the great variety of cover photographs which vary from accomplished to what were they thinking of, they almost always have very gushing sleeve notes on the back which are great fun to read. The sleeves almost all share one more thing in common; they are signed “with best wishes…” People went to a show, bought an album and got it signed as a souvenir afterwards.
So if I stumble across them, and they’re cheap (avoid Oxfam obviously, they spot the autograph and hike the price up accordingly! ), I tend to pick them up, with a vague idea (having spoken to a few other collectors) of putting a book together one day. Here are four of my most recent finds (with a line from the actual sleeve notes in quotations).
Barley – Remember Remember • the fashionable outfits alone made this worth picking up! Obviously a club act of some sort, this lot are all in matching brown suits (of the sort you might well have seen a smartly dressed gent wearing in the mid-seventies), with showbiz white bow ties to give the game away. A typical studio portrait probably done to use on posters and flyers, as well as the record. The trendy Letraset logo is very of the time as well, and the brown theme is carried on across the cover. Then someone thought ‘can we have a scroll design?’ And hand-drew a really bad one which let the whole thing down. “Take four talented musicians. Add vocal harmonies and comedy impressions and stir. Put into a hit cabaret club and watch the audience rise in admiration.” SRT. 1975.
Barry Richards – By Request • A very popular title with private pressings, this clearly has pretensions to the country scene (the fringed jacket) and maybe even Elvis (those sideburns). It looks like the photo was taken in someone’s back yard rather than in the deep south though, and the muddy brown printing doesn’t help. And once again the producers have been dipping into their Letraset catalogue. “By Request by Barry Richards – Why By Request?” SRT. 1978.
Budgie’s Country • is more convincingly Country, a musical genre which crops up disproportionately on private pressings. Budgie (backed by Silver Ace) is clearly living the dream in the vignetted portrait, which actually looks authentically Victorian Cowboy until you spot the wrist-watch and bracelet. This, perhaps optimistically subtitled Volume One, was issued by Hillside, an Ipswich label, and pressed by Lyntone (better known for their flexi disc pressings). “I am honoured that it has been my priviledge to make his dreams come true.” Hillside. 1979.
Diane Cousins – On The Road With • has opted for a colour sleeve, to do justice to the rather Jackanory-style cover illustration. I’m not sure whether she’s Welsh risking a trip to Yorkshire (check the signpost) or vice-versa (though as the album was taped in Sheffield I’m guessing the latter), but she ought to know that it’s illegal to travel inside a towed caravan. The budget hasn’t run to Letraset, the typeface is probably out of one of their rival’s catalogues – Mecanorma would be my guess.
Check the sleeve details too, how the label has cleverly made their catalogue number into the number plate, and added music notes as quotation marks (and in doing so suggesting she isn’t on the road at all). “Little did she know that one of her first jobs was to be employed in a plastics factory stamping out gramophone records.” Discotape Recording Studios, Sheffield. 1977.
Private Pressings 2 shows another half a dozen examples.