In part one of out two-part feature, Tony Sexton talks to Mark Lee Allen about his compilation series
Twisted Tales from the vinyl Wasteland
G Minus Mark and a Compilation Series to Die For
The compilation album forms a unique category of record. Other people’s collections can introduce us to music we know nothing of, music that would otherwise pass us by if it were not for the work of a true enthusiast, so long as you’re interested enough to listen. The compilation can bring us news from distant lands and bygone times, music our radios often overlook. They can provide inspiration, be an art form in themselves, or they can be no better than landfill, vinyl-filled crates in thrift stores and CD-stuffed racks in truck stops. If you collect records you will have your favourite compilations, and the memories of where you discovered them, the doors they opened for you. I have a particularly fond memory of buying one of the early Kent compilations of Northern soul, before I knew music like that existed. It distilled years of effort, the fruit of a collector’s fascination delivered to me for a small fee, a gateway to another world. The mixtape of our teenage years is the first compilation we make as a music lover, a conduit to funnel our passion for another’s attention. The compilation album that we buy in the record store is the same thing, but wearing makeup and heels, standing on a street corner, showing a bit of leg.
A couple of years ago I picked up two compilations that looked perfect for Whiskey Preachin. Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wasteland, released by Trailer Park Records, were just the sort of thing that would grab my attention, beautiful gatefold album sleeves illustrated with the sort of outlandish cartoon imagery you find on collections of scuzzy rock and roll and rockabilly music, or Cramps albums. The cartoons of hillbillies and freaks, the extensive liner notes on the inside of the gatefold telling what was known about each track and, and… an illustrated short story to pulp up proceedings… Wow! How could I not pay to enter this world, I’ll take a one-way ticket to Hicksville, please! Along the bottom of the inside cover were scans of the original 7s, these comps were clearly put together by someone who knew what they were about, knew what made the tuned-in record shopper salivate, who had a deep resource of strange hillbilly rockers and out-there country twang on seven inch and the focus and drive to create these wonderful objects. I was smitten, instantly bought both volumes the store had in stock and headed for the pub. A quick pint was in order to allow me time to read the liner notes and marvel at these treasures.
Complied by Oregon-based record collector, rare 45 dealer and Trailer Park honcho Mark Lee Allen, the Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wasteland series ”takes the listener on a dark adventure, a wrong turn into a bizarre, alternate world of American country music performed by small town, unknown hicks”. The first volume, titled ‘UFO on Farm Road 318’, was released in 2015 and collects together eighteen sides of rocking hillbilly, proto-rockabilly and deviant country that make you wonder if you haven’t been abducted and transported to a parallel B-movie world. It’s highly entertaining fare, with the style of the chosen tracks varying nicely as they jump between the fifties and sixties. With titles like ‘The Martian Band’, ‘The Invader’ and ‘Tiny Space Man’, this is music that reflects the preoccupations of the American consciousness at the height of the Cold War, the advent of space exploration and the possibilities suggested in the wake of Roswell. As the Trailer Park website explains, “booze and desperation mixed in backwoods recording studios to produce songs that tell white-trash tales of alien abduction, swamp gas and other off-the-grid weirdness”. Hell yeah! With lovely sleeve art by the ever-compelling Olaf Jens grabbing your eye, it’s not long before you’d be reaching for you wallet, if you’re anything like me.
Thankfully, the whole series, follows a similar pattern. Although the themes vary, the core idea is basically the same, rare and obscure country and hillbilly rockers of yesteryear that, likely as not, you’d never get to hear if these deranged albums had not been delivered up. Volume two, ‘Beating on the Bars’, deals in songs of jail and murder, while volume three, ‘Murder in the Swamp’, takes us into the murky backwaters of the bayou, with titles like ‘Swamp Gal’, ‘Frog Pond Boogie’, and my personal favourite, ‘Hillbilly Swampman’. Volume four, ‘Hippie in a Blunder’, is a real doozy. Any country song with the closing refrain “LSD made a Wreck of Me” must be worth a listen. There are also offshoots from the series that don’t fall into the numbered volume series: ‘Eighteen Wheels – Twisted Tales form the Truck Stops’ is full of great boppers and can’t be recommended highly enough, while ‘Cash-A-Likes’ does exactly what is says on the tin, offering us a glimpse into a world where JC was revered as if he were the Second Coming.
So, a one-of-a-kind compilation series, beautifully produced and lovingly pressed by Be! Sharp Records in Germany, with pertinent information on each track provided by Mack Stevens, a short story from Avery Powell and, of course, the striking illustrations of Olaf Jens. But how did Mark Lee Allen manage to pull such an eccentric set of tracks together for this oddball series of compilations? Surely this is the work of a whole team of collectors, or more than one lifetime? We’ll hear from Mark in just a minute, but the short answer is that he is a true obsessive (just check out his Instagram). Originally form Portsmouth, UK, Mark now lives in the States, in the rural north west where, as G Minus Mark, he runs his record dealing business, selling rare hillbilly, rockabilly and doo-wop 45s and 78s to similarly obsessive collectors and DJs. If you want to get an idea of the sort of music he trades in, check out the excellent show he hosts, Truckers, Shuckers, Freaks & Geeks. You’ll find a bunch of links at the bottom of this page, you won’t regret it. Then there are the 45s he’s recorded himself with The Driver Brothers and Bloodshot Bill, but that’s another story. Before you run off to listen to his shows for yourself, though, let’s give him a chance to speak for himself here:
You grew up in 70s Portsmouth, UK, where you fell in love with rock & roll and rockabilly at an early age. How does a teenage rockabilly fan from Hampshire end up dealing rare records in small town Oregon?
My parents had records laying around the house when I was a kid in the late 60s early 70s. They both seemed to have stopped buying music in the mid 60s (I guess they were busy after that with a crazy child). They gave me their Dansette record layer, orange and white, along with all their 45s. They played LP’s at the time on the big Grundig honograph downstairs, I didn’t know there were other records in the world, I assumed “this was the player, these are the records, that’s it”. I thought the music on the TV and radio was just on TV and radio (I have never claimed to be smart), so my first few years of music were my parents record. To this day, it’s obvious how it shaped my taste. My mother listened to country and Ricky Nelson’s early 60s pop, my dad loved 70s era Elvis, Brook Benton and The Platters. Later in life I’d make him doo-wop tapes, but only the slow songs!
My dad started taking me once a week to buy an Elvis LP. It became a tradition, we would buy one and play it, and I’d get to keep it. King Creole was my favorite, although my dad usually steered us towards the 70s cuts. One day I saw the Elvis No. 2 RCA LP, that sleeve! I stared at it, he looked so cool. I remember I said to my Mom “can I have my hair like that?” She said (and I remember it word-for-word) “An old-fashioned flip-back? No, you can’t!”.
This leads us to one moment that did it for me. My dad and I went into a newsagent’s so he could buy tobacco, and I saw a magazine called ‘The Story Of Pop - 50s Rock Edition’. It had Elvis on the front, so I bought it and took it home, looked at the photos. I was the kind of kid who had to know “who is this Duane Eddy?”. That magazine started an obsession that never left.
I’ve always been obsessed with the USA. As a kid I buried myself in corny movies, when most kids went crazy for Star Wars in 1977, I went crazy for Smokey & The Bandit. I loved the Clint Eastwood movies with Clyde the ape. Later I discovered road movies like Vanishing Point and Two Lane Black Top. There was something about those open roads that made me dream about that life, which I now have. I live in a very rural not-even town. My drive to work is a lone black line with railroad crossings and farms, so I pretty much did what I’d always dreamed of.
How many compilations have you put together since you started? Is there an idea for a compilation that has evaded you?
It’s hard to say. If you class anything retail and you count CD compilations, It’s over 100 or so in total. The first ones I did were before I could even use a PC. Jim Jeffries, my long-time pal, pretty much had me put the music on a mini-disc, then I’d tell him what I wanted and have him make the art work. We were very green. That was the Rockin’ Hillbilly set on Cactus. Then, when I figured it out myself, I did another eighty or so Cactus CDs covering all kinds of hillbilly music and a few rock & roll comps. I’m currently doing some work for the Sundazed label (Coxsackie, NY). There is one compilation I would love to do, but really it’s a can of worms I just can’t open. I’d love to do a Twisted Tales of all those dumb Southern racist records, highlighting the absolutely idiotic ones. Like how in the Johnny Rebel track he accuses his African-American fishing partner of killing the fish with his body odour! It fits as well as the Hippie in a Blunder album, I mean a Hippie in a Rat Hole is a little more extreme than an attack on a fellow’s personal hygiene, but it’s an untouchable subject. My point would be to show how dumb these tracks were/are, but I think getting into the argument of promoting material like this takes a man with more time and brains than I, so that one exists only in my mind. I’ve been wanting to do an Imperial Hillbilly LP set with the 8000 series covered, I spent years putting those together, mostly from the flexi 78s Imperial did for a time (like a vinyl single, not a breakable shellac). They sound great and there’s lots of great stuff that deserves a nice set dedicated to it.
Having put a few compilations together myself, I feel it is the natural progression from making mixtapes in your bedroom to impress girls with. What got you started on making compilations?
Making mixtapes was an absolute compulsion for me. The day I bought my first tape recorder and balanced a mike near a speaker, there was nothing stopping me. I would spend thousands of hours making people tapes, making myself tapes, I just couldn’t stop! The plus was that I worked in a record store and had become so expert at splicing that it earned extra record cash for a while. I miss the mix tapes, there was so much magic you could add in them.
What’s the story behind how Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wasteland get started?
Mix Tapes! The biggest influence on these compilations (and I’ve always tried to tell everyone this) was the Wavy Gravy LPs. Mike Smythe and Tim Warren are the only reason the Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wasteland albums exist. Wavy Gravy was the first step, being that I bought every Desperate, Sin Alley and all the rip-off-type comps that followed. It was a no brainer. I bought Wavy Gravy and that album blew my mind, I had never thought to seek out or even look at music like that. It was hearing Psycho and Rubber Room, The Evil Dope, all mixed with the sound clips… I of course wanted to make a Wavy Gravy-style mix tape, but couldn’t fill the 90 minutes of tape, so I started looking at B-sides of my own collection and found a few good tracks to add. This action was un-doable in my brain cells, it has kept me looking for the oddball stuff, but the comp that sent me into overdrive was God Less America. It was absolutely the blueprint for what I wanted to expand on. Many of the tracks I chose I first heard on there. I wrote to the compiler and did get his blessing to rip off his idea. He shrugged it off, but I will always credit that LP for being the Godfather of my compilations.
You released a string of CD comps called Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wasteland on Trailer Park Records, and now you have released some of these as lovely gatefold LPs, with wonderful artwork by Olaf Jens. How did this connection come about? The insides of the gatefold sleeves have plenty on information about the tracks, taking the listener through the album song-by-song, as well as a short story in the theme of the album. It’s so good to have something to read when you buy a record, what’s the story behind the liner notes?
The CDR versions were really just intended for a small group of friends, but I always wanted to do them properly. Someone approached me to make some compilations for him and gave me free rein on the project, so the gatefold sleeve, artwork and short story to match the songs, I thought that was about as far as I could go to give them the love I wanted them to have. My concept was more than just a few tracks strung together on an LP, I wanted a kid in a record store to walk in, say “aliens, UFO’s… COOL!”. Then he can read the story while listening to the music, he gets an entire experience. He doesn’t need to like or know the music, he’s taking a journey, like a B-movie with a fitting soundtrack. It’s easy to preach to the converted, but I hear from people with no interest in collecting these 45s how much they loved the whole package.
I met Olaf on social media, I was a fan of his artwork, he was a fan of my comps, we hit it off instantly and we’ve always made a great team. Between myself, Mack Avery and Olaf we seem to be on the same wavelength and barely need to tell each other what we want. To me it’s a perfect match.
On the latest instalment of your podcast, Truckers, Shuckers, Freaks & Geeks, you talk about the opening track, saying that you had acquired it in order to sell it, but that after listening to it more, you now want to keep it for yourself. This must be an occupational hazard. How do you separate collecting records for yourself from acquiring records to sell on?
By being cold, hard and brutal. The number one priority is to pay for what I’ve bought, skim out money for living expenses and the repairs of cars, trucks, fences, animal feed etc.! Then, if I’m left with some, I can pick out a reward for myself.
Where do you source all the wonderful records you list for sale?
Anywhere I can. I’ll drive as far as I can cover, check Craigslist, Facebook groups, put adds in places, leave cards, visit every antique store owner, get to know them, go to record shows, visit all the other dealers… Basically, I never stop! It’s not as easy as everyone thinks, but It’s what I like to do the most.
What’s the rarest record you have sold? Did you not want to keep it for yourself?
There are three that hurt to sell, but I needed money and I was happy to clear whatever debt there was at the time. They were Royce Porter on Spade, Bobby Roberts on Sky & Lonesome Drifter on K.
Are you still discovering music from the fifties that is new to you? Has anyone ever come up with an estimate of how many rockabilly records were recorded in the fifties? How would an estimate like that even be approached?
There’s always something new. The most fun for me is finding unissued tracks. I’m working on a secret project right now that will bring to the public some amazing unissued 50s and early 60s Rockers. Maybe You’ll review that set here later!
It seems impossible to imagine how many were made, but I am more haunted by thing we’ll never hear, tracks that were junked, taped over or destroyed. There must have been so much more that is lost to time.
What’s your favourite hillbilly tune?
Jim & Jesse “A Memory Of You” on Capitol. It’s maybe slightly more bluegrass, but that’s the one.
What do you think of modern rockabilly? How about modern country, do you hear any you like?
There’s lots of great bands out there, but I really don’t listen to them, apart from a few. A huge part of the fascination of the original records to me is the mystery. I do listen to new bands, but not rockabilly bands. If I’m listening to new music, it’s usually by contemporary artists.
There’s nothing quite like getting your hands on an original pressing of a favourite tune on 45 or 78. From your perspective, as both a record collector and a dealer, what makes an original pressing so much more desirable than a repro that may sound better? Can it be put into words, made intelligible to someone who doesn’t collect records? Or do you have to be a collector to understand it?
There’s no logical reason for it, it’s all psychological, nostalgia, and maybe a slightly warped perspective. It’s why I prefer to own VG- or under condition records. I look at the record, wonder who owned it, where it has been, what did it mean to previous owners… If I see a mint, dead stock original 45, It means it has been nowhere, done nothing. I have an imagination that adds a different layer when I hear the scratches, I’m hearing whispers from it’s past where others would hear noise. So, basically, it’s an obsession. It’s all BS, but I have my own reasons for preferring the real McKey. I mean, it’s the real McKoy!
What are your plans for the Twisted Tales from the Vinyl Wasteland series? Can we expect more volumes on LP any time soon?
Yes, as long as they sell I have lots more planned. The next one should be a moonshine volume, tentetivly called “White Lightnin’ In Excess”. There’s also a gunfighting volume, another volume of Cash-A-Likes, another "Truckin’ LP’s and a bad Elvis tributes compilation, “Twisted Tales From The Vinyl Gracelands” may be in the pipeline. We also have a two LP set on Sundazed out this year, a collection of small label hillbilly boppers called “Strut My Stuff”, and two volumes of 50s moody rock-a-ballads called “Fire Of Love” on BE Sharp/Trailer Park.
Finally, who would you have on stage at your fantasy festival?
Elvis in the pre-RCA Days, Gene Vincent with Cliff Gallup, Howlin’ Wolf drunk during the Sam Phillips sessions era, and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
No doubt you’ll be wanting to find out more about these fine records, probably you’ll want to own them. At the very least, you should want to hear what this music sounds like. Indulge yourself, check out the links below. We’ll be back shortly with the second part of this story, where Chris Sick speaks to Olaf Jens about his inspiration for the artwork for the series, designing record sleeves and how his love of music informs his work. See you back here soon.
Check out the links below for more from G Miuus Mark and Trailer Park Records