Artifacts of mp3.com: Offwight Radiator – Sent Fishing By Your Neighbour

In 2001, Time magazine published an story entitled “Bad Online Music.” Written by Lev Grossman, who has since become a bestselling fantasy author, the article discussed the advent of free downloadable music on mp3.com. But instead of reveling in techno-optimism, it focused on a few songs that Grossman considered especially mediocre.

It’s like watching a car crash–horrifying, yet you can’t tear yourself away.

Lev Grossman, “Bad Music Online”

Two of the songs have since become cult artifacts, representing those early days of home-produced online music.

The first song selected for ridicule was “There’s Nothing in My Dreams” by Girls With Attitude, a cadre of peri-pubescent girls seemingly corralled by a parent keen on marketing them. The singing, lyrics, and musicianship are amateurish to the point of verging on avant-garde, approaching the outsider appeal of The Shaggs, reinvented for the digital generation.

To my knowledge, the members of Girls With Attitude have never resurfaced. A small record label named One Kind Favor pressed an unauthorized ‘reissue’ of their mp3.com tracks onto vinyl, limited to 27 copies, with each disc individually made using a lathe record cutter.

Another band targeted for vitriol in “Bad Online Music” was a UK act named Offwight Radiator, derided by Grossman as “inexplicable alterna-dirge.” Is that an accurate description? You be the judge:

Curious about the story of Offwight Radiator, I used archive.org to track down an old website attributed to them. That website was administered by James Hart, a member of the band who continues to have a web presence to this day. Reached via email, he was happy to tell me the story of Offwight Radiator, whose lone brush with fame was a derogatory article in North America’s most identifiable general-interest newsmagazine.

“The turn of the millennium was a strange one for me,” Hart explains. “After the intense excitement of the Y2K bug, involving late nights and travel across the east of the UK and the birth of our first child the previous August, the discovery of the mp3.com website — the first real ‘public access’ music site, a legal alternative to Napster and MusicMatch — was a real tonic to me.”

Hart, who learned guitar at age seventeen after buying a cheapie from a church sale (“it was like playing cheese wire”), is still making music to this day. “The bottom line is that I was, and remain, a mediocre musician, at best, and until fairly recently (before GarageBand and cheap multitracking software came along) just made do with what equipment I could get my hands on.”

Hart grew up in the eighties, when popular music in the UK was far more diverse than it is now. “How long is it since we could last see that the charts had pop, acid house, goth, heavy metal, indie and Status Quo in the top 40?” he remarks. “I knew that I would never be good enough to make it in any of them. The brilliant thing about discovering mp3.com was that it accepted everyone – possibly the first site of its kind, and the range of music available was frankly mind-blowing.

“Even better — and I wonder if it was the downfall of what was actually a service that was well ahead of its time, given the success of Spotify now — it offered a small amount of payment each time a song was played.”

At the time, mp3.com had a feature known as stations, which were playlists curated by users of the website. Hart came across an station called “The Worst of The Worst!,” among the site’s most popular pages.

Logo from the Worst of the Worst mp3.com station. (Source: archive.org)

“It was eye-opening, inspiring, and a joyful celebration of music that really, really wasn’t very good,” Hart says. “A world apart from the polished pop of the charts, and even more raw than the likes of grunge that had been and gone during the 1990s. I fully acknowledge that it could have been considered snarky or even cruel to knowingly exhibit these songs like musical freakshows, but I’ll be honest, I really felt like I had come home. “

Mp3.com was a goldmine when it came to outsider music. Sadly, the original website is now long gone, and whatever artifacts exist are those that have been preserved by individuals, most of them likely on decades-old hard drives. There are few physical remnants of the website’s enormous database. For a period of time, mp3.com offered a service known as Digital Automatic Music, in which they would burn CD-R copies of their mp3 albums, in jewel cases with artwork, for artists who wanted to make their music available for sale to fans. Those CD-Rs are now a fascinating time capsule.

Hart mentions that he purchased a few Digital Automatic Music CD-Rs from mp3.com, which serve as rare artifacts from this era of outsider music. He owns a coveted copy of Murder in the Recording Studio by PritStik, an old album recorded in 1987 and then uploaded to mp3.com in the nineties, sometimes considered the worst album of all time. Hart also identifies the mp3.com superstar Cyrus ‘The Slammer’ Sullivan as a key example. For awhile, Hart ran a fansite dedicated to this personality, an inept, self-aggrandizing singer/songwriter responsible for racy nuggets like “21 and Legal” and “Sex Worker (Stripper Mix).” (Sullivan has since become a bodybuilder, according to his Twitter account, and is not to be confused with a controversial figure with the same name who runs a website to shame carriers of sexually-transmitted diseases.)

Hart points out that there were some artists on the “Worst of the Worst” list that were consciously producing bad music, among them acts like Pizza Gratis and Doctor Orange. “And [there were also] those who had no idea, like Tammy Swindell and the wonderful Naomi Hall,” the latter of whom was featured on Irwin Chusid’s radio program, Incorrect Music, which specializes in outsider music. Hall, who continues to create music, is perhaps known for her track, “Nothing But Silence,” which is an unpolished yet catchy effort that she later issued on her album, Love Full of Punches. She continues to create music to this day, seemingly embracing her outsider status by promoting herself as “Hello Kitty meets Frank Zappa.”

It was into this cauldron of suspect music that Offwight Radiator entered. Hart tells me he has been creating music since he was old enough to “bellow into a cassette recorder.” Some of those compositions still exist, though he warns me they’re not so hot. But when he met a colleague who shared his enthusiasm for unusual music, they decided to start jamming together, pulling in a few other friends. “Including, oddly enough, my mother-in-law,” he tells me. “And thus, Offwight Radiator was born – a play on words from the faded paint on the heater in the small lounge room where we played, and the fact that we were nowhere near the Isle of Wight, where one of the band member’s ex-husband’s family now lives. Or something like that.” (Instead, they lived in Luton, an hour outside London).

He is careful to add: “We didn’t take drugs, nor, indeed, even drink alcohol when we were making the music – but that didn’t stop it being raw and as expressive as we could make it.”

Their goal was to end up on the “Worst of the Worst!” station. He remembers the night they recorded “Sent Fishing By Your Neighbour” vividly. “The only time we could ever really socialize was when my just-turned one-year-old son had finally settled for the night. We were living in a small two-bedroomed house, and had gathered for what had become a fairly regular ‘Monday night social,’ like an open house for friends, work colleagues and family to come and join us.”

“One week we decided that we wanted to make our contribution to the unusual music that I’d discovered on mp3.com. Those of us who had the equipment agreed to bring a few bits and pieces: three microphones, some kind of effects unit, a Windows PC (probably from work) that could record it, and a guitar.”

Risking waking Hart’s infant son, the band determined to record “something lo-fi and challenging,” bouncing ideas around. He doesn’t think they wrote any of their plans down, but once the concept was sorted, he recalls them all kneeling “in some perverse reverence” around their microphones.

At the start of the recording, you can hear that the gang still isn’t quite ready. “Well the numbers are going up, does that mean it’s recording?,” Suzanne asks.

“You’ve got to sing into the microphone,” Hart responds. “We’ve only got until 11.30 because then I have to take everybody home,” he reminds everyone.

The song itself is a short two minutes of atonal guitar strums, disembodied chanting, and the repeated, droning refrain: “sent fishing by your neighbour.” Think Velvet Underground meets Jandek. “We knew what the song’s basic structure was going to be, such that it was, but the performance was live, visceral and entirely improvised,” Hart explains. “I believe that, during the recording, Ed actually unscrewed the top of one of the microphones.”

Hart recalls submitting the now-legendary “Sent Fishing By Your Neighbour” to the “Worst of The Worst” station’s curator that night. “Like some peculiar audition,” Hart jokes. When the band heard back that Offwight Radiator was accepted to “Worst,” they were overjoyed. Apart from “Sent Fishing,” a few other songs were added to the station, including “Lucy and her Potbellied Pig,” which Hart says was “recorded on a cassette recorder for maximum lo-fi quality,” and “Hoover Guitar Solo,” which he reveals “was performed by my brother-in-law who had never touched an electric guitar before.”

Hart is careful to emphasize that “Sent Fishing” was not a cynical ploy for attention, and he distinguishes it from the likes of the British hit “Bring Me Edelweiss” by the band Edelweiss, which was created by carefully adhering to the tenets of The KLF’s The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way). Instead, he says the goal was to join the “Worst of the Worst!” party. “[It was] more to achieve that same sort of feeling one gets when one manages to go live on the air on a radio contest, or has a picture in the local newspaper. We wanted to be on mp3.com‘s ‘Worst of the Worst!’ And we were delighted when we were up there with the rest of them.”

Offwight Radiator makes it onto the Worst of the Worst! (Screenshot from archive.org)

“It just so happened that Time magazine picked up on the cult following that ‘The Worst of the Worst!’ had garnered in that time, and our ‘song’ was listed as an exemplar of the genre. That is the greatest musical success of my life. I have kept, and cherish the cheque for just a couple of dollars that OffWight Radiator made during its brief moment of (very limited) fame,” he says, before realizing he may have misplaced it.

“And then my baby son grew up, my music-loving colleague moved away to Devon, my mother-in-law doesn’t visit any more, and I learned the ukulele, which is a lot easier.” So ends the saga of Offwight Radiator.

Members of Offwight Radiator:

  • James Hart: “I’m still in Luton (at the moment), and haven’t really done anything nearly as interesting since (…yet)”
  • Ed: “A broadcast engineer and now IT company owner, working and living in Devon.”
  • Suzanne: “I’m not sure where she is, but she’s now got a small son.”
  • Beth: “She’s still married to me. Bafflingly.”

Thanks to James Hart for the interview. Visit his website here.


So that’s the potted history of OffWight Radiator. I’m happy to answer any questions; or, indeed, will understand if the whole thing is just too disappointing and you’d rather write about some of the other fine exponents of Incorrect Music from the Worst Of The Worst days. 


Where are they now?Naomi Hall is on Twitter (last posted in 2018) and released an album in 2012Cyrus Sullivan is not the one who runs  STDcarriers.com – in fact gocyrus.com links to his PayPal page.. Michael James posted a comment just a on the full upload of Prit Stik’s “Murder in the recording studio” album to YouTube – I’m hoping to get my copy of the CD signed.Tammy Swindell is – as far as I can tell – still producing Christian musicMP3.com is now a brightly-coloured (and long overdue an update) website about brightly-coloured pop musicMe? I’m still in Luton (at the moment), and haven’t really done anything nearly as interesting since (…yet)
All the best

Mystery Tapes Galore: The Cassette Archive

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was thinking, there has to be some sort of information on this somewhere.”

Ezra Fike is a twentysomething graphic designer who lives in a small town in Missouri with his family, having recently moved back home from Omaha due to COVID. An enthusiast of the cassette medium since some childhood adventures in home recording, he has a habit of scouring thrift stores for old mixtapes to use as recording media.

In early 2019, Fike bought a cassette shelving unit for five dollars at a thrift store, only to discover a few tapes inside. There were copies of the soundtracks to Conan the Barbarian and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There was John Denver album home-recorded onto tape from an LP. But something else caught his eye — a strange cassette that stood apart from the rest.

“There was this one that I had never heard of before,” he tells me via Skype. “It was called Adimus I, and it had a picture of a pink castle against a purple sky.” There was no artist name nor record label listed.

The Adimus tape. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

“It wasn’t a professionally produced tape. It was just a blank tape that someone had recorded something on to. And they had written ‘Adimus I 1984’ on it. I decided to give it a listen and it was just this crazy, lo-fi, home-produced synth-pop with a weird fantasy/science-fiction bent to it. It obviously sounded amateur — you could tell that somebody just made this in their home. But I was genuinely impressed by some of the melodies and some of the production.

“[When] I started playing [my roommate] walked in and was like, ‘What on earth is this?’ And I said, ‘I have no idea. I don’t know who this is.'”

Turning to Google, Fike wasn’t able to find any information about this strange tape. There were very few clues, apart from the unusual title, Adimus. The liner notes were just a track listing, offering no additional context — no names or other personnel.

“I became fascinated by it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was thinking, there has to be some sort of information on this somewhere. So I recorded the tape to my computer and uploaded it.”

He created a Bandcamp page for the tape, and then posted it on Reddit, hoping someone might recognize it.

“And it initially got some interest going, but very quickly people started accusing me of faking it,” he says. “That I had created this, and had aged the audio. People did some digging into my profile and discovered I make music myself, and so they were suspicious of me. They didn’t think it sounded like something made in 1984.”

He was disappointed by this response, and more or less abandoned the active hunt for information. But this led to a broader interest in arcane cassettes. “I started wondering how many other lost pieces of unknown music there are out there, sitting in thrift stores. It was so easy finding this one, there has to be more like this.”

Expansion

Fike, at the time, was living in West Plains, Missouri, population 12,000. Fortunately, small towns can be a fertile bed for esoteric art. “I started scouring my local thrift stores, antique shows,” Fike tells me. “I was lucky enough to live above a bookstore that had a very large cassette and VHS selection. And I ended up finding a couple releases that were handmade, privately distributed, that I couldn’t find any information online. So I ended up recording those as well.”

Fike’s cassette collection. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

He switched his Bandcamp page’s name to The Cassette Archive and started uploading tapes to it. He aimed for tapes with no online footprint. At this point, there are 31 tapes available to be perused. Fike told me the stories behind several of his favourites.

One mystery tape was a cassette called Straight To The Heart .​.​.​.​.​no sell out here by someone named J.R.S. “It sounds like this college-age Christian dude making this Christian rap album really amateurly with his friend. There’s something very heart-warming about it. It has some of these weirdest rhymes and beats. A lot of it is very tone-deaf Evangelical bullshit.”

Then there’s “Sour Dough Sam” Sings Gospel by Durwin Burtz, which is a ventriloquist recording an album as his puppet. “My favourite track on it is ‘Tommy’s Cry,’ which is this very grim tale of domestic abuse but with a weird, sugar-coated Evangelical twist on it. It’s, I guess, what you’d call outsider art.

“I found it in a church that I had attended as a kid. I happened to be back in the area and I knew that they had some cassette tapes so I decided to go over there and rummage. I talked to some people from church about it — do any of you know who this is? Did he come to the church, or did you know somebody that went to see him perform or something? I never got an answer out of it. But that’s certainly a lot of the weirder one.”

Doing some updated research, we discovered a couple mentions of a pastor named Durwin Burtz. On an old Tripod page for the Fraternal Order of Police #105, there is a message from Burtz about his puppet show:

A few years ago I lost my right arm in an accident caused by a DUI driver. As Captain D the pirate I entertain and challenge school children with ventriloquism and magic and my personal story

http://rsullum.tripod.com/FOP105/id9.html

Meanwhile, a news article documents Burtz’s 3000-mile trip across America to return someone’s lost dog.

True Mystery Tapes

There are many true mystery tapes covered by The Cassette Archive — cassettes which render no Google hits, apart from those posted by Fike himself. One is a 1986 home-taped synth-pop cassette called Time Control Addiction by someone named D.O. Durant. It sounds like one man with a keyboard. A cover of “Heart and Soul” by Joy Division is included, hinting at Durant’s influences — indeed, his reverb-coated voice bears a striking resemblance to Ian Curtis’ vocals.

karaoke night at the fallout shelter by Peter King, released in 1999, is four tracks of overdubbed lo-fi pop, like something that would have come out on one of the many indie-pop cassette labels that circulated in the nineties. Yet, unlike most of the artifacts of the heavily catalogued DIY tape scene, no record of it is available online. It may be the work of a Peter King from Indiana who was a member of several bands in the nineties and 00s, including Buffalino and The Impossible Shapes, and who now records as Peter and the Kings.

Desert Storm by Fast Freddy is a cassingle featuring two ultra-patriotic rock anthems about the Iraq War, featuring blazing electric guitars and amateurish vocals atop plodding drum machine rhythms. From “Rock Iraq (Rock ‘n’ Rule)”:

American patriots
Blow your skulls out the sky
Saddam Hussein
Mad dog will hit you between the eyes

[…]

Contracts, diplomats, we gave you every chance
One nation under God, now it’s time to dance
We’re gonna rock Iraq
Rock and rule”

Then there’s a weird, thrashy sounding demo called First Is Next from 1989 by a band named C.I.A. This could be by the N.Y.C. thrash act of the same name — if so, it would be quite the find for thrash completists, since it doesn’t show up anywhere in discographies and demo listings — but the sonic resemblance isn’t great.

Cassette Appeal

Fike tells me his fascination with the tape medium is rooted in its status as a relatively neglected format. “I’m not an expert on cassette tapes, but I feel that cassettes depreciate at a greater rate than vinyl does, and there is certainly a greater culture surrounding vinyl collection than there is cassette tape collection. You’re cleaning out your old house, and you go into dad’s closet, and there’s fifteen cassettes that you used to listen to all the time. It’s not like you’re going to be able to sell these for fifty dollars. Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re going to be valuable.

Some of Fike’s obscure tapes. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

“Cassette tape was so cheap to produce. It was available to so many people. Which meant that there’s just massive, massive quantities of Patsy Cline, Pat Benatar, and Barry Manilow. All this junk that nobody cool is interested in. It’s almost mind numbing going through a thrift store and searching through boxes and boxes of this stuff. You just see the same three Christmas albums twenty times. It’s almost like the number of cassette tapes out there devalues them as a whole. People are less likely to pay attention to each cassette.

“When I heard the Adimus tape, I realized I really like this, the aesthetics of this. I love how wacky and weird it is. It really would be a shame if no one else got to hear it. I just got to think, there’s got to be lots and lots of undiscovered music collecting mold, that is probably going to be thrown out in three years.

Though his interest is rooted in the thrill of rescuing esoteric gems from the brink of extinction (one wonders how many limited-run, private-press tapes have already had their last extant copies sent to landfill), he recognizes that obscurity is no guarantee of quality. “I certainly have collected some unknown albums that I think are absolute shit. Not everything unknown is interesting. It’s not like every unknown cassette that I come across automatically goes into the Archive. At the end of the day, I’m interested in amplifying the voices of these tiny artists that wouldn’t get heard otherwise. I want them to survive into the amplified age.”

Fike’s background in graphic design infuses his project with a visual appeal. He tells me about how he agonizes over what part of the cassette J-cards to use for as each tape’s square Bandcamp profile image. As a result, scrolling through the Archive is a visual and conceptual thrill — each tape, be it a pastoral, new-agey treat like like Sam McNally’s Stargate, or the bizarre infomercial-style melodies of Break In ’84 by Hearts & Chips, brings a dose of intrigue.

Fike’s cassette playing set-up. (Image credit: Ezra Fike)

These days, Fike has been busier on account of an internship, and the trickle of tapes has slowed since The Cassette Archive opened up shop. At one point, he explains, he had envisioned a growing database that would inspire people all over the world to send tapes to be memorialized in the Archive. But he also has reservations about courting popularity.

“I’m the curator, I’m the one putting this stuff out there. But it isn’t mine. I mean, man it would be really cool if I could send the Adimus tape to some sort of audio professional and get the audio cleaned up, then do a repress. But then you’re making money off this person.”

For now, the people behind these unusual audio treasures — largely remain mysteries. Perhaps one or more of them will stumble upon the Cassette Archive and reveal the stories behind their musical creations.

Meanwhile, Fike will continue his recovery work, trying to save these vulnerable relics from disappearing forever.


Update (Feb 15, 2021): On account of this article, the real-life Durwin Burtz (whose cassette is discussed above), reached out to us to tell us a bit about the origins of his tape:

“I was a pastor most of my life and did magic and ventriloquism in several venues, mostly churches. My favorite puppet ‘Sour Dough Sam,’ was made for me by a good friend 40 years ago this year. Robert Plate made him from a piece of basswood that I provided. He gave him to me. Along the way I home recorded and gave to folks that I met at different venues.

“I made them a lot of years ago. I’d say I made less than 50. Its the only one I made of myself. I haven’t heard of any showing up other than the one that was downloaded on the internet.”

Image credit: Ezra Fike

Thanks to Ezra Fike for the interview and photographs. The Cassette Archive is here.