December 27, 2022

For the old-school consumer, who still prefers physical media in the form of groaning bookshelves, or those ‘perfect for vinyl’ shelving units you might have searched for over the years, the concept of a hard drive or e-book device containing those works, or even worse having them simply streamed online, is an undeniably grey and soulless concept – and understandably so.

When the end of year lists of best new albums appear, it is of course only right that the best new material is highlighted and looked into, as it is without doubt the lifeblood of every genre, and particularly so in the case of the various rock flavours covered here on Velvet Thunder. However, there is another sector of the industry which is making its own important contribution, and is easily overlooked when bestowing deserved plaudits. And that is the reissue market. Now, some might claim that this is very much of secondary importance, and indeed it has been claimed in some quarters that reissue programmes – be it remixing/remastering, repackaging, compiling of rarities or, in many cases, all of the above – is somehow a sort of ‘cash grab’ aimed at making the devoted fan fork out again unnecessarily. To this point I must respectfully yet wholeheartedly disagree, and here’s why…

Let’s equate the area of ‘golden age’, or ‘classic’ material with, say, the world of literature. Now, if you might perhaps be a reader of horror novels, or even of classic literature in general, then the chances are you will have read the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, or the works of HP Lovecraft or Edgar Allan Poe at some point in your lives. When that happened, it isn’t very likely that you discovered them via a dusty old, plain-bound, edition from the time of publication, or even from the 1920s or 1930s. Rather, most would have been drawn to them by means of a contemporary reprint, perhaps a paperback, but most certainly in an appealingly illustrated cover with the ‘blurb and synopsis’ common in recent times. The repackaging of these books has not in any way devalued them as the great works they are, but rather introduced them to a new audience as well as giving those who have already read them a nice-looking new imprint for their bookshelf. Similarly, especially since the advent of the film adaptations, countless people will have been drawn across the years to discover The Lord Of The Rings, and the world of JRR Tolkien in general. These might well have been discovered or even later obtained in a boxed collection of the books, which have become commonplace. Few if any readers will have directed their scorn at the publishers producing these redesigned or even ‘collector’s’ editions, and rightly so.

Of course, there are claims that classic albums should be able to be obtained more cheaply via downloadable media, or books downloaded straight to a Kindle or similar device. And this works for some, without doubt, and certainly has its place – not least in easily disseminating and supplying the material. For the old-school consumer however, who still prefers physical media in the form of groaning bookshelves, or those ‘perfect for vinyl’ shelving units you might have searched for over the years, the concept of a hard drive or e-book device containing those works, or even worse having them simply streamed online, is an undeniably grey and soulless concept – and understandably so. As I often say to any who enquire why appealing physical packaging matters to me, the simple fact is that as my music library has grown into the hundreds and thousands of albums over the decades, things do not get the repeated plays they would have back in the day when 50 or 100 albums constituted your hard-earned collection – and consequently I spend much more time looking at any given item than actually listening to it, and therefore shelf appeal, and the tactile experience of looking through the packaging, booklets, foldouts and whatever else you may get in a deluxe reissue, is and remains a deeply satisfying thing.

If you are a child of the electronic age and are entirely enamoured of the digital world of downloads and streaming options, then the chances are you have stopped reading this already, and so I don’t know why I’m addressing you anyway! If you’re still with me, and perhaps nodding your head as you cast a glance at your CD or vinyl shelves (all in alphabetical and chronological order of course!), then read on, as we are in something of a golden age of the vintage reissue. Indeed, specialist labels dedicate themselves either wholly or at least largely to curating the legacy of the music in this way, and should to my mind be saluted. Cherry Red Records are perhaps the name to first spring to mind, with their imprints such as Esoteric, Grapefruit, HNE, Captain Oi and Cherry Pop servicing the market with exemplary collections of classic rock/prog, left-field rarities, metal, punk and pop respectively. There are others as well, however, including the high profile deluxe output of BMG, the fascinating rarity-trawling of Repertoire and Voiceprint, and the vinyl reissues from newer names such as Snakefarm. All of these have put out some great releases over this last year, and I am going to look at some of the real highlights here.

From the prog rock and classic rock fan’s point of view in particular, Esoteric Records (the ‘progressive wing’ of Cherry Red if you like) have put out some fine releases as always this year, including some decidedly bumper boxes. Chief among these has been Interference Patterns by Van Der Graaf Generator, a massive fourteen-disc roundup covering everything released by the post-millennial reunion of the band, including live albums and, crucially, the Japanese-only third disc of the Real Time set. Spread across 13 CDs and a DVD, it’s a superb way to sweep up all of the latter-day material, and is a timely reminder of just how uncompromising and innovative the band have remained. Also in the ‘comprehensive set’ camp is Sinnin’ For You by the oft-forgotten Keef Hartley Band who, lest we forget, launched the career of future Uriah Heep bassist the late Gary Thain, who appeared on all of the band’s albums until 1972 when he left to join Heep and make his mark permanently in the pantheon of truly great bass players. The set covers all of the Hartley Band albums, plus a solo release by bandleader Keef himself, and is another great round-up – this time of a band who were influential back in the day and are ripe for rediscovery. Their pioneering use of horns alongside the core rock band line-up made them something of a British answer to Chicago, at the time when that latter band were themselves vital and exciting, and yet to sink into the morass of sugary AOR which later enveloped them. This is the sort of release that Esoteric excel at – presenting the work of a band you had half-forgotten about and making you realise why they released so much material in the first place.

Coming forward a little, into the early ’80s, the Esoteric deluxe multi-disc releases of the Toyah catalogue continued this year, with the live album Toyah Toyah Toyah and the breakthrough Anthem both appearing. As with the previous two in this series, these releases have been beautifully remastered, packaged and annotated, and the range of bonus material on Anthem in particular makes it absolutely essential, and it is illuminating to listen to this material with the benefit of hindsight and see just how experimental and genuinely progressive her deeper album cuts often were – the latter day liaison with King Crimson man Robert Fripp actually proving to be more of a meeting of like-minded innovators than many would perhaps imagine. More in this series in the new year, I’m happy to say. I have even had the pleasure myself of contributing booklet essays for some Esoteric releases by the likes of Jade Warrior, the remarkable Babe Ruth and the unknown and bizarrely named Hard Meat; modesty obviously forbids me from commenting on those notes, but the music contained on all of these made them a pleasure to contribute to.

While Esoteric have themselves mined the seam of obscurity quite regularly, the delves into the real areas of uncharted bafflement are often left to the fearless Grapefruit imprint, whose release schedule often makes the likes of Hard Meat seem like Pink Floyd or Dire Straits by comparison. 2022 has seen them unveil multi-disc collections of names such as Bachdenkel (who only released two albums, neither appearing until several years after recording them) and Blackpool-based outfit Complex (who managed a remarkable seven years during which they released only 198 physical albums – that’s 99 copies each of two self-recorded and released LPs. They would have paid more tax on 100!). They later put out one seven-inch single on an actual label (it flopped, of course), as well as an acetate-only album which never saw the light of day. Until now, when the Grapefruit Elves have somehow managed to find all of that stuff and more from the cutting room floor. One better still are Misty, whose album Here Again was never even released at all, and yet somehow Grapefruit have managed to produce a 17-track career retrospective of a band who only ever put out one single! As you may gather, I absolutely love this stuff being unearthed – it’s like finding buried treasure without having to look like an idiot with a metal detector…

Other Cherry Red imprints HNE, Captain Oi and Cherry Pop have also had productive years, with HNE giving us great career roundup releases from heavy bands as far removed from each other (in time and style) as Montrose (whose ’70s output was collected with some tremendous live bonus discs in the Still Got The Fire box) and much later metal band Blitzkrieg, whose 1980s and ’90s work was splendidly collected in the Inferno: Complete Recordings Vol 1 set. Captain Oi gave us the superb Eddie And The Hot Rods retrospective The Singles 1976-85 which rounded up every song on every EP and single release by the band, including some fascinating flip-side experimentation, while even the less excitingly named Cherry Pop produced a genuinely brilliant release with the expanded version (stuffed with great bonus material) of the groundbreaking and ahead-of-its-time fusion of rock and Indian music Monsoon, whose Third Eye was sadly their only album release.

Repertoire Records are another label who have put out some superb vintage material this past year. One such band who have been royally covered are Stone The Crows, who were fronted by the brilliant Maggie Bell, sometimes described as the UK’s answer to Janis Joplin, and also featured guitarist Les Harvey (brother of Alex), who was tragically killed when he was electrocuted on stage. Having put out all of the studio albums by the band (four) and solo by Maggie (two) in 2021, this year they supplemented those releases with a magnificent four-disc set of Stone The Crows BBC live recordings (Live At The BBC) which is an essential artefact from a band whose true forte was always live performance, and also two live recordings by Maggie solo from 1974 (Live At The Rainbow) and 1975 (Live In Boston). Also put out by Repertoire this year have been a similar live trawl of jazz-rock band IF (also titled Live At The BBC) and a reissue of the 1969 debut album by Renaissance, in their original incarnation before the more familiar line-up coalesced two albums later. A real highlight of the year on the label, however, has been the release of the legendary 1971 ‘stoner’ rock album Growers Of Mushroom by Leaf Hound, along with a later album Unleashed recorded by a reformed line-up bundled in with it. Growers Of Mushroom has long been one of those much sought-after vinyl rarities which are spoken of in hushed tones by heroically bearded men, and it has been a real pleasure to be able to readily access it and find out what all of the fuss was really about!

BMG are another major player who have been busy on the reissue front this year, this time largely on the vinyl side of things, with Uriah Heep and Slade both having been heavily involved. Heep saw their early albums Very ‘Eavy… Very ‘Umble, Salisbury, Demons And Wizards and The Magicians Birthday released early in the year on absolutely superb-looking vinyl picture discs (an incredible advance on the early attempts in the format around the beginning of the ’80s, which were dreadful by comparison), with sound quality which now compares with regular vinyl (again, at one time this was very much not the case!) Slade have also been given a similar vinyl makeover, with the marvellously eye-catching multicoloured ‘splatter vinyl’ pressings of the albums Slade Alive, Slayed, Old New Borrowed And Blue and Slade In Flame being joined later in the year by a similarly colourful edition of the 1973 compilation Sladest, complete with original booklet for a real nostalgia fest! Best of all from the band was the five-disc live collection All The World Is A Stage, containing five vintage live recordings covering a decade of the band’s finest years, which really does demonstrate just how tremendously powerful a hard rock force Slade were when ‘live and unleashed’.

Jethro Tull and Marillion have both been receiving definitive hardback book/multi disc reissue makeovers for several years now, and these continued in impressive fashion as the Marillion releases jumped forward from 2021’s tremendous Fugazi set to the Hogarth-fronted line-up with this year’s Holidays In Eden once again collecting masses of information, live recordings, remixes and all manner of audio goodness into a tremendous package. On the Jethro Tull front, with the 50th anniversary of the seminal Thick As A Brick album now upon us, we were treated to a reissue extravaganza. On the one hand was a ‘reissue of a reissue’, with the now scarce 40th anniversary deluxe book/CD/DVD set being reprinted and repressed, with the bonus of a more recent, and superior, remaster, but perhaps trumping that was a vinyl release reproducing in its entirely the original 1972 fold-out newspaper cover, which is a huge boon for those who missed it first time around or those, like me, whose original has been mothballed having started to show wear and tear and not opened up in all its glory for quite some years!

There has been more than this to whet the appetites of lovers of vintage material having emerged over the year, of course – but space makes it impossible to cover everything! It is, I feel, a fallacy to decry high-quality reissue releases as something detracting from sales of new material. Of course, the argument that there is only so much money to go round is a valid one, but then again, the sheer volume of new music being produced, in these days of self-releases and a multitude of small labels, way outstrips the days when the major labels ruled the relatively limited roost. More availability and more choice for the listener (and, indeed, ‘reader’ and ‘viewer’ in the cases of ambitious new documentation and DVD elements to a set) makes the lovingly curated legacy displayed by many of these titles a joy to behold.

Finally, please do peruse this very site – most, if not all, of the titles mentioned here, along with more besides, have been reviewed this year by one or other of our band of intrepid scribes, so a quick use of the site search feature will tell you much, much more than I have been able to go into here. Happy hunting – and indeed, listening. Forward into the past!