The Imperfect Art of the Steal

All LP collectors live to some degree for that mystical moment when they walk into a garage sale and there, waiting just for them, is some fantastical record, let's say a mint, unpeeled Beatles "Butcher" cover, priced at two bucks. Or even better, that random afternoon when a neighbor will ask you to take grandfather's old records and there, amongst the shellac flotsam and jetsam, will be a mint 78rpm disc of Blind Lemon Jefferson singing, "Black Snake Moan" still in the original Paramount sleeve.

Sad to say, but the return of the LP, coupled with the immediate and encyclopedic nature of the Internet, have all but wiped out the fabled big score. Innocents waiting to be taken advantage of are few and far between on record collector sites like Discogs and eBay. If you can run a computer well enough to become an eBay seller, then you can also research what everything is worth. And forget about record stores. They are just as bad, or good, depending on whether you're the buyer or the seller.

It was with utter surprise then that while shopping for records in Tucson, AZ. recently I came upon a pile of Hey Jude LPs. An intriguing compilation of singles and B sides, a placeholder of sorts between Abbey Road and Let It Be, the album which feels like an EP, and whose import copies from the UK had no title printed on either the front or back of the jacket, was originally called The Beatles Again.

Over the years Hey Jude has risen in the estimation of Beatles fans thanks to McCartney's anthemic title track (which has been variously ascribed to being about John Lennon, Julian Lennon, Jane Asher or McCartney himself) and especially the first finalized stereo mixes of "Rain," "Revolution," and "Lady Madonna." "Rain" is the first use of backward vocals on a recording. The Beatles also made a number of promotional films to promote the song, which is often cited as an early example of music videos.

Even though it has appeared worldwide in only 171 different pressings—by comparison Revolver has 380 different versions—Hey Jude was originally conceived for the American market and has always been most prevalent here. Out-of-print on LP since 1988, it saw its first official release on CD in 2014. Not a part of the 2009 The Beatles, (The Original Studio Recordings) CD boxed Set or the Apple USB apple, Hey Jude is available as an MP3 or Apple Lossless download as a part of the problematic US Albums collection on iTunes, which reputedly used the 2009 UK remasters rather than the original US masters as a source. It can also streamed on a number of services, including Spotify and Google Play.

Collecting Beatles records is much like collecting Blue Note first pressings—abandon hope all ye who enter here! Like the band's music, acquiring early LP pressings and singles today is a competitive world unto itself. As I sorted through a stack of American Hey Jude pressings in Tucson, most in VG shape or worse, out popped a UK export copy (CPCS 106) in the laminated sleeve, with the dark green Apple labels and the misprint "Paper Back Writer" on the A-side label. Slipped out of the sleeve, the record looked to be in NM condition. It was priced at $20. I added it to the pile of LPs under my arm and as casually as possible sauntered to the counter. The game was on! I couldn't watch as the clerk totaled up my purchases and knocked off an extra $20 because I'd bought so many records. Ducats were exchanged, albums were slipped into a bag and I made my escape.

But alas, my joy was short-lived. If it's too good to be true in life, then perhaps it truly is. Unless you have an Iron Man robotic eye, or carry a microscope around, it's hard to judge the actual surface of records through a cursory inspection. Later, when I examined it under a bright light, the LP has what looks like a single BB shot to the inner tracks. While the surface of the record was not broken, tiny cracks radiated out from the center of this ding. My cohorts, who'd been envious just a moment before, now relaxed into satisfied smiles. But not all was lost. Those heavy UK Apple pressings saved the day. Despite the prominent wound, the record plays fine. Aside from the usual reduced sonics of all inner tracks, "The Ballad of John and Yoko" on Side Two, where the defect is the worst, plays without any audible changes. I did actually get a steal! One that even with this imperfection still sounds better than the American pressings I own.

When it comes to vintage vinyl, the hunt can be exhilarating. Search on!

Allen Fant's picture

Collecting is fun- isn't it? Happy Listening!