Words: Richard Norris
The label was called Waldo’s and released a number of odd post-punk singles from bands called the Bodies and the Tea Set, and was run by a graphic designer called Phil Smee, who designed record sleeves for Motorhead, Elvis Costello, The Damned and a heap of Demon/Edsel and Ace reissues.
Waldo’s morphed into psychedelic reissue imprint Bam Caruso, and I joined as teaboy-cum-label manager. Bam Caruso released dozens of albums, from artists like the Seeds, the Left Banke, The Eyes, July, SRC, as well as the soundtrack to the TV series The Prisoner and 20 compilation albums of UK psychedelia. I was just an enthusiastic teenager, taking it all in, and Phil’s knowledge and attitude had a profound effect. I’ve been seeking out odd psych and motorik tunes ever since, from all over the world.
After Dick Rowe famously failed to sign the Beatles to Decca, 60s A&R men were terrified of missing out on the next big thing.
The 20 compilations – the Rubble series – had suitably psychedelic names like Staircase To Nowhere, The Psychedelic Snarl and The 49 Minute Technicolour Dream. They were made up of songs by bands from around ’66-’68, who had managed to get deals with labels like Decca, Parlophone, Pye or Philips. After Dick Rowe famously failed to sign the Beatles to Decca, 60s A&R men were terrified of missing out on the next big thing, so hundreds of beat groups of the era got deals to make one 45 single, no matter how unlikely their song was to be a hit.
This A&R bonanza, combined with newly developed effects such as phasing and flanging and the extreme use of reverb and echo meant that during this two year period some of the oddest records ever made came out on these major labels. Most sold very few copies and were promptly forgotten about, until a small band of collectors started unearthing them in the 70s and 80s.
The records started to increase in value, from hundreds to thousands of pounds in some cases, such was their scarcity. A few appeared on badly recorded bootlegs. Bam Caruso was the first label to legally license these records, working from the original master tapes and lavishly packaging each compilation with archivist’s sleevenotes.
Working at Bam Caruso was like attending psychedelic university.
We started getting in touch with the musicians, and Phil Smee even invented a new term, ‘freakbeat’, to describe these slightly weird mod records, one which has since entered the general lexicon and become a recognised a genre name. We also ran a magazine called Strange Things Are Happening, a forerunner to Uncut and Mojo, with features on cult records, films and pop art. At its height the magazine was selling around 25-30,000 copies, but it didn’t last very long, as I moved to London, started writing for NME and got a record deal with Warners as The Grid.
Bam Caruso records still come out occasionally – there are 20 CDs of the Rubble series available – and Phil is one of the UK’s top designers, specialising in reissues, box sets and lavish packages, like the recent 19-disc Sandy Denny box set. Working with Phil was like attending psychedelic university. We’d sit and make compilation tapes all day from his record collection, which is the largest I’ve ever seen, spread over a few floors of his house. Some of those influences have found their way into both the Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve records I make with Erol Alkan and into the Time and Space Machine.
A worldwide top 20 psych will have to wait. Instead, here’s a UK psych featuring tracks I discovered a couple of years before Acid House at Bam Caruso.
Richard Norris’s second album as The Time & Space Machine, Taste The Lazer, is out March 26 on Tirk.