An Endless Trip with

Hot on the heels of his mammoth, 530-page overview of British rock, folk, and jazz records released between 1963-1973 (Galactic Ramble), editor Richard Morton Jack and about a dozen cohorts set about compiling a North American companion, Endless Trip which we reviewed back in April. At nearly twice the weight and boasting an additional 250 pages, it may well be THE definitive overview of US and Canadian rock and roll records released during the fertile 1965-1974 period. Jeff Penczak tracked Richard down for a chat about how this new volume came about and what his plans are for covering the rest of the world...

Had you planned this so-called sister volume to Galactic Ramble all along, or was it contingent on the success of the British version?

It was always at the back of my mind, but the enthusiastic response to Galactic Ramble encouraged me to get it moving.

Was the preparation of Endless Trip similar to what you did for Galactic Ramble, or was this an entirely new process?

It was similar, in that I asked a number of knowledgeable enthusiasts to contribute, but putting together the old reviews and pictures was much more of a headache, because tracking down copies of Cheetah, World Countdown, Eye, Hullabaloo, and so on is not at all easy on this side of the Atlantic. Also, there are so many albums that could have been included in Endless Trip that I had to make harsh decisions: no soul, not much jazz, not much country, etc.

This book is nearly 250 pages larger – almost 800 pages. Was there that much more material to cover and does this in any way reflect a greater variety or depth to the North American music scene from the mid-‘60s-‘70s?

When you consider that we omitted things like privately-pressed albums and jazz – both of which were included in Galactic Ramble – you get an idea of how many more records were issued in the US than the UK at the time. I also decided not to include most country, gospel, soul, and R&B records, which would have greatly expanded it, too. I think the fact that Endless Trip essentially focuses on major label rock, pop, and folk and yet still fills 800 pages shows just how prolific the music scene was back then.

You’ve bookended your entries to the decade between 1965 and 1974. Are there specific incidents in those years that led to those lines in the sand?

It’s not so much specific events as the fact that the album came into its own as an art form (of sorts) around 1965, rather than albums just being random singles and tracks cobbled together to make a fast buck. 1974 is a slightly arbitrary cut-off (though it means the book spans ten years), though by 1974 I think the music scene had become a lot more diffuse and arguably less homogenous. In short, Endless Trip covers the first great album era!

You’ve eschewed rarity ratings and price suggestions. Aside from your stated reasoning that prices fluctuate significantly over time; can one also infer that your book is geared more towards the casual music lover or nostalgic musicologist than the collector crowd?

I collect records myself, and have no problem at all with books that are geared towards collectors. But I think price suggestions are meaningless between hard covers. You can very quickly ascertain the rough value of a record by going to eBay or, and the value of albums fluctuates enormously. Take the Billy Nicholls album – I’ve seen copies of it in the same condition go for £1000 and £7000 (just look at popsike). So which is its value? I could have put a rarity rating in, I guess, but I’d have been creating a huge amount of work for myself, and I doubt it would be very accurate – in any case, the majority of albums in Endless Trip aren’t rare at all, just obscure. One (mostly complimentary) Amazon reviewer has written that he (or – unlikely though it is - she) wishes the book combined ‘a comprehensive discography, histories and anecdotes of the bands, a price guide and some guidance as to the kind of music and the relative quality of the records’. All I can say in response is that such a book would take a lifetime to compile accurately, would need constant updating, would fill several volumes, and cost a fortune. Still, if some philanthropist out there wants to fund it, feel free to get in touch….

Reviewing over 3000 albums is a formidable task that you and your dozen or so cohorts attack with gusto and an obvious passion for the music. Can you give us an idea of how you divided the material – did you create a rough template of what styles of music you wanted to include and then leave it up to your various contributors to submit their favourites or were you feverishly trading short lists amongst yourselves to avoid duplication?

I think duplication is a good thing in a book of this sort, so readers can get different perspectives on the same record, or a unanimous verdict. I compiled a long (but not comprehensive, of course) list of albums that were eligible for inclusion, and circulated it to the contributors. Thereafter I left it completely up to them as to what they wanted to write about, but about two-thirds of the way through the process, I sent another list of things that had not yet been tackled, and they began to fill the gaps. There are some albums that are pretty boring to listen to and write about, so I ended up covering a lot of those myself!

As the editor, where did you draw the line regarding In or Out? Obviously you had to omit a lot of records. Is it fair to say that these represent your favourites from the period?

A lot of my favourite albums are included, but not only because I like them! I didn’t exercise any personal prejudice in what was or wasn’t included, it was done more by genre or relevance to the rest of the book. Basically, anything that fills into the rock, pop, folk or singer-songwriter genres is included if any of the reviewers was in a position to cover it or if I found an old review that was halfway intelligible (and a lot of old reviews aren’t!).

While not (intentionally) dogmatic or snobby, was there ever a sense (or dread) of revisionist history creeping into the reviews? I think it’s a brilliant approach to include contemporary reviews so the reader can gauge the initial reaction to an album, but did you ever get the feeling that you and your team’s personal reviews may be reflective of how kind time has been to a release. Did you intentionally try to put yourself in a mindset of when you first heard the record, or are your reviews based on recent re-listens?

All the reviews in the book are based on recent re-listens, not on trying to hark back to their time of release. In fact, only one or two of the contributors were even alive when this stuff was being released! Needless to say, part of the interest of the old reviews is that they are so out of sync with modern tastes – Love’s Forever Changes, for example, got pretty poor reviews, while Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle was hailed by almost everyone as a masterpiece. Many of the old reviews shouldn’t be taken too seriously – a lot were clearly written either by older people who didn’t like rock music or in haste by people who probably had better things to do – like going to see the artists live! So the new reviews perhaps give a more balanced and judicious verdict, as well as contextualising albums with other music that hardly anyone had heard of at the time, including learned critics.

The book itself is a massive undertaking. About how long was the work in progress before you got it into a condition that you deemed suitable for publication?

I started work on it in the autumn of 2009, once Galactic Ramble was out in the world, and it took about a year to get it together, then about six weeks of intensive layout and proofing. The joy of receiving entries from a panel of reviewers is that the book almost writes itself into existence....

There are over 300 full-colour album reproductions (including the cover artwork) which only fuel the conversation regarding the loss of the album cover as an art form. Was there any rhyme or reason to the final selections or were you simply trying to represent a cross section of album art?

They were albums I own and like, so I photographed them one afternoon shortly before the deadline! But yes, I was trying to offer a mixture of the obscure and the well-known, as well as to choose images that are appealing.

If there’s one glaring omission, you’ve once again elected not to note whether the albums are currently available in the reissue market. This seems particularly frustrating for some of the more interesting, obscure releases that readers may be enticed to hunt down after reading the original reviews or your re-evaluations. Was this intentional and are readers thus directed to the internet to research the current availability of a particularly intriguing release?

I’m sorry that it seems “a glaring omission” – but to me, it seems a waste of space to print details of CD reissues, because anyone who wants to buy an album can just do a quick Google search to find everything they might want to know in that regard. The book was already big enough without me needing to collate what has or hasn’t been put out on CD. I think a dedicated book purely about CD reissues might be valid for people who don’t have internet access, but otherwise, what’s the point? Are there CD collectors out there? If so, I haven’t met one. There was enough material to fill the book already, believe me! Should I also have included details of albums that can be downloaded illegally?!

Your Top ten lists are a lot of fun and great argument starters. But I am puzzled about the “Best Albums Not In The Book” category. I had thought that this would offer ten North American albums from the period that escaped detection or were otherwise omitted. However, most of the suggestions in this category seem to be British albums, which by definition wouldn’t be in the book anyway. You did the same in Galactic Ramble – listing mostly American LPs. So should this category perhaps be interpreted as the compiler’s Desert Island Disc suggestions?

The idea for “Best Albums Not In The Book” was for reviewers to recommend LPs that were ineligible – i.e., that weren’t American, or were released beyond the book’s timeframe, or belonged to genres excluded from the book. The fact that most are British is therefore not a surprise! And vice versa for Galactic Ramble.

Another of my favourite parts of the book is your inclusion of contemporary adverts, which almost serve as a history in music marketing. Did you have any difficulty clearing copyrights to use the images or were they taken from your personal magazine collection?

The images were all from my collection of old magazines, and finding out who even owns the copyright to those is hard enough, without tracing individual adverts! If anyone has a problem with things used in the book, I would be happy to make amends in any subsequent edition!

While you were writing your reviews, were there artists or albums that you rediscovered – music that you had forgotten about and only upon re-evaluation realised how good it really was? And, in contrast, were you ever taken aback by albums that you had always presumed to be top shelf that turned out to have lost their edge over time?

The problem with covering lots of minor albums in reasonably quick succession is that derivative or bland music becomes disproportionately tedious. Therefore some albums that might in fairness be merely mediocre have been slated, and some that are still mediocre but have some charm may have been praised a little too highly. What was nice was to encounter an album like, say, the maligned Strawberry Alarm Clock’s Wake Up… It’s Tomorrow, and be reminded that not all albums with dumb titles and hippy-dippy artwork were crass cash-ins (listen to it, it’s a lost gem!). But in general, the reviewers all know their stuff so well that I think their opinions are considered and fair. Also, one of my few editorial stipulations was that the albums had to be listened to at least three times before the review was written, and I’m sure that was the case for everything in the book.

What’s the reaction been to the book? Has it been as well (or better) received than Galactic Ramble?

It’s early days (the book was released on April 1st), but there have been warm reviews and it is selling well, so I’m hopeful that it is filling the gap in the market I anticipated.

Have you been contacted by any of the artists to thank (or pick a fight!) with you over your opinions? I’d think that anyone would be glad to have the renewed interest and publicity, particularly the more obscure artists.

Funnily enough, no! But Al Kooper requested a review copy, and he doesn’t get uniformly ecstatic acclaim in the book….

In the past two years, you’ve published two books covering more than 6000 records across over a thousand pages. Now that you’ve conquered North America and the UK, what are you setting your sights on next?

I have set the controls for the heart of the Antipodes, and am currently collating albums from Australia and New Zealand for a third volume in the series… pity me.

Thanks to Richard for his time. You can find more information about both Galactic Ramble and Endless Trip on their dedicated websites.


Feature interview: Jeff Penczak. Artwork & layout: Phil McMullen © Terrascope Online 2011