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Opinion: Record Store Day, Midnight Oil

May 9, 2013
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

Anyone who reads my column knows of my deep love for vinyl records, and that love was only reinforced with the assistance of Sony/Legacy for the big day April 20 - Record Store Day - where I proudly spent about $200 on some of the greatest music ever created on vinyl.

Legacy made my day even better by sending me five - count 'em, five! - classic vinyl records from the company's immense catalog, all individually numbered, limited-edition releases pressed on sterling 180-gram vinyl in mono, complete with the "vintage" look of when they were originally released.

For those of who who might live under a rock, Record Store Day was created six years ago to promote and celebrate the comeback of vinyl and the independent record store. While a lot of music has gone digital in the form of downloadable MP3s (yuck), CD sales are on the wane.

But the biggest surprise during the last five years has been the stunning re-emergence of vinyl and an actual market for it, consisting of mainly older record-lovers like myself and young people fascinated that such a thing ever actually existed - a record, with an artful cover and something substantial they could actually hold in their hands. And, to top it all off, vinyl sounds better than CDs and MP3s. Oh, the young ones still want their iPods, but the hard-core young collectors, the college crowd and the young intellectuals attracted by the idea of an album being art also are buying glorious slabs of vinyl.

The fact is, almost every major label release today is pressed on vinyl, if you are willing to pay a price and seek it out. But the number of indie stores in Pittsburgh selling mostly exclusively vinyl shows there is a market for this stuff.

There's also a ton of indie labels leasing the rights and going into vaults and re-releasing classic titles on high grade vinyl for, unfortunately, high-grade prices. But at least they are getting released!

Back to the Legacy vinyl. I obtained three classic Miles Davis albums, including "Round About Midnight" - one of the 10 greatest jazz albums ever made; "Milestones," another classic featuring saxophonist extraordinaire John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly; and "Someday My Prince Will Come," a fine recording featuring Coltrane's last studio outing with the jazz genius.

Also gracing my turntable were "Introducing Shuggie Otis," the classic first release by the reclusive funk/bluesman, complete with digital download code; and the "Various Artists -No Alternative" album, originally released in 1993 and featuring the cream of the crop of alternative artists in a benefit record featuring Matthew Sweet, Buffalo Tom, Soul Asylum, Urge Overkill, American Music Club, Goo Goo Dolls, Pavement, Smashing Pumpkins, Bob Mould, Sarah McLachlan, Soundgarden, Straitjacket Fits, Barbara Manning, the Verlaines, Uncle Tupelo, Beastie Boys, the Breeders, Sonic Youth, Jonathan Richman and Patti Smith.

The album originally was complied for the Red Hot Organization's AIDS Benefit Series and has long been out of print.

Other special titles released for Record Store Day by Legacy included vinyl releases of "The Hidden Treasures of Taj Mahal - 1969-1973," "Aerosmith," "Get Your Wings" and "Toys in the Attic"; a 7-inch single of Hendrix material and others, including Cypress Hill, Mad Season, Sly and the Family Stone and Willie Nelson.

Although I'm sure a lot of these sold out on Record Store Day, I'm just as sure there are still lots of them in record bins across the country. In fact, the Miles records sounded so good I bought two similar pressings of Davis with Gil Evans that were released in 2012 on Record Store Day that were about $20 per record - not a bad price considering the outstanding packaging and super-high fidelity. There's just something special and magic about a well-pressed record ... mm, mm, good.

-- Midnight Oil - "Essential Oils"

Also recently released by Legacy is a two-CD compilation featuring the music of one of Australia's best rock bands.

I remember as a younger man watching MTV in college - when they still ran videos - and seeing and hearing one of the most striking bands ever - Midnight Oil doing its underground smash "Power and the Passion." I remember being instantly hooked and excited. I needed to find out who these guys were.

Midnight Oil was everything I ever could have hoped for in the perfect rock band - they were part classic rock, they were competent and relentlessly creative on their instruments, they were musicians who had a decidedly punk edge without the sloppiness and anarchistic edge of punk rock, they were fiercely - and in the most intelligent way possible - politically left-wing and wrote crafty, melodic hard rock that was unpretentious and even danceable.

But the biggest factor for me was the band was from Australia - huh? I mean, AC/DC, another great rock band from the Land Down Under, seemed more interested in a pizza party than party politics.

Midnight Oil also boasted one of the most fabulous front men ever in singer Peter Garrett - a giant, bald guy with huge hands who looked like a mutant and danced like Frankenstein's monster but was one of the most well-educated, articulate rebel rockers ever. Actually, Garrett was just as foreboding intellectually as he looked - a law graduate of the University of South Wales, Garrett raged against corporate politics, greed, corruption and polluters as well as becoming a relentless advocate for Australia's indigenous people, a man associated with Australia's Green Party who also was fiercely devoted to fighting social injustice.

He also was scary, both intellectually and figuratively. Here was a truly macho dude with a left-wing slant you couldn't ignore or just write off as a pansy liberal. Garrett might just punch you in the face, either physically or devastate you politically with a withering argument. He was, after all, a lawyer.

But none of this would mean a thing if the music wasn't any good, and boy was it ever. Midnight Oil was a band of musicians who could deliver the goods live on stage just as well as on record, where the band's recordings sounded much punchier than most '80s rock. Master musicians, they were even better at crafting hooks that stuck in the craw, and the band reached international heights with 1987's "Diesel and Dust," an unlikely international hit record based on the band's tour of remote parts of Australia. Boasting one of the best radio-ready single ever -"Beds are Burning" - Midnight Oil showed they were a band not to be ignored.

The band stayed together until 2002, when they disbanded at the height of their powers. And what happened to Peter Garrett?

He's now an elected member of Australia's government, a current cabinet minister for school education, early childhood and youth and is officially referred to as "Sir Peter Garrett." This is the equivalent of Bruce Springsteen being voted president of the U.S.

Pretty cool, if you ask me.

God bless Australia.

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