Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XXXV: We're Only In It For The Money

I can remember it clearly, even after at least twenty years. The sheepdog you had to step over to get in the door. The two stoner hippie dudes that worked there and, as it turned out, owned the place. The black curtain in the back corner that led to the room where they kept the bongs and the Zippo lighters with "Keep On Truckin'" painted on them and the cool day-glo concert posters. And the record bins full of LP's that'd be worth a fortune now. And I remember not one, but two copies of the butcher-baby version of the Beatles' Yesterday and Today, displayed in a glass merchandise counter right under the cash register.

The price stickers on the shrink wrap said $150. We thought, at the time, that it would be insane to spend that kind of money on a single record. We knew the whole story behind Y&T, and that it was extremely rare, and that one day it would be worth a lot of money. But $150? I used to get funny looks from my friends when I'd spend $15 on the first few Mobile Fidelity pressings back in the late '70's. I used to groan whenever one of my favorite artists decided to release a double album, because that would mean the better part of ten bucks. The nerve.

Now I would kill to get one of those LP's. I'd spend the $300 for both copies without blinking an eye. I think of the Biff character in those Back To The Future movies stealing a sports fact book and then traveling back in time so he could bet on all the Super Bowls and World Series and Stanley Cups. I'd go back in time and snatch up every Yesterday & Today, Two Virgins, and the Casino Royale soundtrack I could carry. I'd go back to the '50's and buy up all the RCA Shaded Dogs and Mercury Living Presences. I can remember the Tower Records by my house having a complete endcap display of Mobile Fidelity UHQR's, and the clerk telling me that the manager was in trouble for buying so many of them. Apparently they were just sitting there, because no one in their right mind would spend $50 on an LP no matter how good it sounded. If I had those LP's right now, all shiny and still sealed, I could easily buy the house of my dreams and even put a shiny new BMW in the garage.

It's an all-too-common dream, of course, to capitalize on time travel and rake in the big bucks. But when I think about all the little record stores I frequented in my youth, I realize what treasures they really were. Pepperland. Looney Tunes. Beggars' Banquet. I used to frequent Licorice Pizza the most. It was a small chain that was eventually bought out by Sam Goody's. Whenever I poke my head into a Sam Goody's now, the vacuousness and sterility of it all almost makes me want to cry. It's a surprise if I make it to Tower twice a year anymore. It's all so unmusical. I miss those old record stores a lot.

I'm really starting to think about this, the collecting side of LP's, mostly because I'm getting a lot of e-mails asking about the worth of certain pressings over others, and the difficulty of finding really rare titles. To tell the truth, I'm not an expert on this stuff because I've always stressed the love of music over the fun and sport of collecting. I do own some rare LP's that are worth a lot of money. I can count at least ten of my LP's that could fetch over $200 on e-bay. And there are probably a hundred more that would be worth more than forty or fifty bucks a pop. But I never bought any of these titles knowing that one day they'd be worth a shitload of money. I've bought every LP I own with the expressed intention of listening to it and enjoying it.

Recently, though, the collector side of me has slowly emerged, and this is affecting how I choose to buy certain titles. For example, a few months ago I purchased a sealed copy of a Nautilus half-speed pressing of The Cars' Candy-O for $40. Now, I'm not the biggest Cars fan in the world, but I bought this LP for two reasons. First, it was a Nautilus audiophile pressing, and the only other Nautilus title I have, The Police's Ghost In The Machine, is one of my reference discs for absolute sound quality. It's one of the LP's I bring along whenever I audition a new piece of hi-fi equipment. Secondly, it was SEALED, a magical word in the realm of record collecting. A twenty-year-old sealed audiophile pressing for $40 is a bit of a bargain these days.

Once I received the album, I was momentarily conflicted. Someone, after all, saved this album, stored it carefully, and protected it for over twenty years because they thought it would be very valuable one day. And here I am, the one that finally forked out the green (they must have been a bit disappointed with just $40 after all that work), and I'm ready to break that seal and play that album without hesitation. So I hesitated. Who the hell did I think I was, anyway?

Needless to say, I did open the LP after a few minutes of internal debate, and I felt silly for even worrying about it. The record sounded great, much better than I remember from owning it the first time around. I even asked a few record collectors and audiophiles I know about what they would have done. Every single one of them said I did the right thing. "The hard-core collectors of the world ruin things for the rest of us," one of them said. This reminded me of when I managed a Toys-R-Us a few years ago. Many a little girl left our store in tears because they couldn't find the latest Barbie. The collectors had snapped them all up. Same with the little boys and Hot Wheels. There's something awfully upside-down about that.

When I originally thought of writing about the collecting of rare and valuable records for this column, I intended to give a specific listing of what records you should be looking for. I wanted to give you an idea of what certain Shaded Dogs, UHQR's, and other prized LP's were worth. As I started to do the research however, things seemed slightly skewed from what I expected. I think the Vinyl Renaissance has messed things up a little. For instance, some of the original RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence LP's could fetch four figures, and once in a while even five figures for a perfect sealed copy. I've talked about these labels before. They're mostly classical albums from the late '50's and early '60's that, due to the minimalist recording methods, are some of the most natural-sounding recordings ever. Well, about ten years ago they decided to release most of these titles on CD. They even offered them at "The Nice Price" (about ten bucks apiece). I noticed that afterward, the prices of the original LP's sank a bit. Then the LP revival came along, and some crazy person decided to reissue the Living Stereos and Living Presences on vinyl for about $30 each. Since then I've stumbled upon a few old RCA and Mercury LP's for ten bucks or even less. Now, these may not be the most sought-after titles in mint condition, but I think the days of paying ten grand for one of these jewels are over.

UHQR's, however, seem to still have the magic. UHQR stands for Ultra High Quality Recording, and these very special pressings from Mobile Fidelity may be the pinnacle of LP pressing. UHQR pressings were limited to only 5000 per title, and only a handful of titles got the UHQR treatment, including Sgt. Pepper, Supertramp's Crime of the Century, Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman, and Dark Side of the Moon. These were made in the late '70's, and like I said, they ran for about $50 a piece. So what did you get for that kind of money? Well, each UHQR came in a big thick black box that was individually numbered (the lower the number, the more it's worth now), and a lot of special packaging. You also got an LP pressed from some of the finest vinyl available. This translated to an unusually silent LP, with little or no surface noise. I actually owned the Supertramp UHQR at one time in my life, and while I wasn't a fan of the music, I was utterly amazed by the sound quality. I jumped up in alarm the first time I heard that harmonica blast at the beginning of "School," the opening cut. It's actually one of my fondest and most vivid musical memories.

Well, recently I tried to see if I could find a UHQR on e-Bay. There were a few near-mint and excellent-condition copies of the Supertramp, the Cat Stevens, and I Robot from the Alan Parsons Project going for $75 to $150. Not too bad, I thought. Then I found a SEALED copy of Sgt. Pepper up for auction, and the bidding started at $7,500. Holy crap. I have an excellent original Parlophone UK pressing in stereo, and it cost me $20. I can't even imagine spending that kind of money on something that probably sounds marginally better than that at best. Mint copies of Dark Side of the Moon also seemed to approaching that lofty price. Maybe I'll wait to win the lottery before I bid on those puppies.

Then there's my famous Casino Royale story. I've talked about this title before, and how at one point in time it was truly the Holy Grail for some record collectors. The soundtrack for the film Casino Royale is noteworthy for its outstanding sound quality, especially for the mid-60's, when multi-miked recordings were becoming the rage. It's also noteworthy because the film was hated so much, so not many LP's were pressed. As a result, the LP became one of the rarest and desirable titles ever, fetching, I've heard, as much as $15,000 for a sealed copy. When I wrote about this originally, and my wish to accidentally stumble across one, I received an e-mail from a Perfect Sound Forever reader who had one he wanted to sell me for just $50. He said it was in near mint condition. I thought even totally trashed copies went for more than that. I was very reluctant, therefore, to go ahead with the purchase, but I finally took the risk. And I received the LP in the mail just a few days later. And I played it. And it sounded great. And I looked on the return address on the package, which was different than the address I sent the check to. The LP was sent from a state penitentiary in Pennsylvania. I just hoped that someone didn't get a shiv in the back for it.

That brings me back to Yesterday & Today, which might be the true Holy Grail of record collecting. I did a search on e-Bay, and it brought up a lot of entries, few of which were an actual copy of the butcher-baby version. There were a few of the altered, later copies available, where the slabs of meat and dolls' heads were replaced with smiling Beatle-faces. Then there were a few posters for the butcher-baby version available, and those were actually pretty expensive. There was even a recall notice for sale, where offended consumers were notified that they could actually return their ghastly, horrible, carnage-littered copy for a new, happy one. I wonder how many idiots are kicking themselves for responding to that offer. There was one butcher-baby version in fair condition that started bidding at $100, but 'fair' generally means shitty and unlistenable, and who wants that? I also found one that had the protective sticker over the cover, and that started at $679. "The unpeeled copies are actually becoming quite valuable," the seller said. But everyone wants to see the butchered babies. A protective sticker will not do.

Yes, a SEALED copy of the Beatles' Yesterday & Today, unfettered with protective devices or last-minute studio substitutions, just might be the real Holy Grail for LP collectors. Yes, a five-figure selling price might not be out of line. If I'd bought those two copies at Looney Tunes LP's for $300 in 1979, I wouldn't be able to get that dream house, but I'd probably swing the BMW without any problem. Oh, and if you're in prison, and you've just beaten someone out of their pristine copy, and you need a few cartons of cigarettes, you know how to get in touch.

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