“He would empty his mind, hang from his legs or feet and begin to speak the first words which came to his mind, transforming himself into a supple conduit…”
Behold: One of the most strange and mysterious albums I own.
According to the back cover of this bizarre CD-R release, this is a collection of intercepted cell phone calls from an American city, as captured by a visiting professor from Nagykanizsa, Hungary named Petros Drecojecai. They were supposedly captured in the early- to mid-1990s, while Drecojecai was attending conferences in Northern California, living in “furnished downtown flats.” While fiddling with an “antique radio” he had brought from home, he inadvertently tapped into the calls. According to notes he left behind, he believed he was listening to an American talk radio program, and thus he recorded samples and sent them back to Hungary on tapes to try to “demonstrate to his colleagues what this sort of programs [sic] represented culturally in the United States.” He had apparently been unaware that they were private phone calls.
Listening to the release, the calls do indeed sound legit, so whether the Petros Drecojecai story is true or not, there still must be some story to tell. Each features different voices, and the recordings don’t sound remotely staged. There is audio interference, as might be expected using a scanner to intercept calls, and several recordings capture conversations in progress. The best argument for these recordings’ authenticity is that, if someone were faking this whole thing, the calls would probably be a lot more titillating and a lot less non-sequitur.
While some calls on Mistaken Receptions are a little bit racy, many are mundane: someone checking their bank account balance, a wrong number, a young woman trying to engage her sleepy boyfriend in conversation. Yet sex and heartache are never far away. In one call, we hear a woman trying to convince her male friend to become male stripper with a promise of $500 per night, but he remains reticent: “Do I have to suck dick, put anything in my ass?” A number of the calls feature arguments, including a woman berating someone for offering her money for sex, and another woman chewing someone out for leaving too many voicemails on her machine. The most entertaining recording is also the longest — it’s another call featuring the woman who was earlier trying to convince a man to become a stripper. In this recording, she is chatting with another male friend; over nine minutes, she bemoans the deadbeat father of her daughter, discusses her own plan to lose weight via Jenny Craig and become a stripper (which she again cites as a $500 per night opportunity), and laments her crack-smoking mother, who is currently in prison.
The final track, a “bonus,” was reportedly recorded by Drecojecai in an apartment building in California. The recording claims to document Drecjecai’s “enactment of the exertion to depletion theory.” That involved hanging precariously by his feet from the balcony of the fifth floor apartment.
“He would empty his mind, hang from his legs or feet and begin to speak the first words which came to his mind, transforming himself into a supple conduit at the disposal of the elments [sic], thereby receiving paranormal signals emitted from local or transient electrical fields and acting as a repeater to orally reproduce the sometimes haunting results.”
Liner notes to Mistaken Receptions
The notes go on to explain that, four days after this performance, a “very strong and putrid odor” pervaded the apartment complex; it was later discovered that an elderly Russian immigrant had passed away in the room right below Drecojecai, and had been dead the whole time he performed his session.
Given the story, the recording of Drecojecai’s “exertion to depletion” performance is a little under whelming. It’s a three-minute lo-fi recording — you can hear the rumble of cars passing outside — that features a thin disembodied voice repeatedly imploring someone, or something, to “come in.” (At one point, he seems to be addressing the spirit of Amelia Earhart.)
The only mention of this CD-R online comes from the distribution catalog for Electro Motive Records, which is where I got my copy. For years, it was also listed in the legendary Aquarius Records catalog, where I first discovered it. Those may be the only venues that distributed this CD-R.
As I was buying my copy, I spoke with Peter Conheim, who runs Electro Motive Records, to find out what he knew about the Drecojecai story. Conheim, a former member of Negativland, told me that he was a neighbour of Drecojecai’s. Over email, he outlined the story as told in the liner notes. He points out that Drecojecai is a pseudonym, and that he cannot recall the person’s actual name. After Drecojecai performed his exertion-to-depletion demonstration, Conheim tells me he seemed to become more bizarre, telling Conheim about his “interceptions,” which Conheim assumed to be delusional. When Drecojecai played Conheim and his friend some of the recordings, he was shocked to learn they were real. Conheim wanted to press them onto CD-R, and Drecojecai agreed but disappeared before the pressing happened, never receiving a copy of the disc.
Inspecting the disc, I noticed a few details which were worthy of examination. There is an email address with a German Yahoo! domain: firstname.lastname@example.org. However, an email sent to this address returned undelivered (“Not a valid recipient.”) The same is true of an email sent to email@example.com.
I then noticed that the CD-R had a catalog number: PD02. This suggested there may have been a previous release on the Petros Drecojecai Archives label. Curious, I reached out to Conheim again. This time, the story changed a little bit. He no longer endorsed being Drecojecai’s neighbour, and instead told me he received CD-R, unsolicited, to his distro’s PO Box — from the Petros Drecojecai Archives label itself.
He did tell me that he remembered asking the label what PD01 was, and was told it was a limited-edition LaserDisc release intended for museums and institutions rather than the general public. According to Conheim, it was the “kind of LaserDisc that was briefly manufactured in tiny quantities where each individual frame on the disc held a single picture or a document, and you could ‘page’ through them. Obviously some kind of presumably obtuse PD research project! Considering LaserDiscs held something like 30,000 frames, it must have been quite the project.”
He also mentioned that a letter that came with the CD-Rs was signed by someone named “H. Richard” — in the liner notes, the cover image is credited to this name. Yet, Conheim recalls paying for the CD-Rs directly to the Petros Drecojecai Archives, not to an H. Richard.
A question lingered for me: what is the provenance of these recordings? Was it even technologically possible to intercept cell phone calls?
The answer is yes. According to this Wired article from 1997, standard radio scanners were capable of picking up cell phone frequencies at the time. In 1986, The Electronic Communications Privacy Act made it illegal to listen in on cellular telephone frequencies, and in 1993, it became illegal to manufacture or sell radio scanners that could access the frequencies used by cell phones, or to modify scanners to do so. Yet it was still something that people did, particularly bored ham radio enthusiasts. In that article, the writer interviews a shortwave radio hobbyist named Ed:
“Monitoring cellular to me is something I do when the bands are quiet — the best times to listen are late at night. The middle-aged men haven’t scored any pussy, so now it’s time to call a hooker before they go to sleep — or a phone sex line for a quickie. I enjoy toking some good weed, when I can score, and tune around.”
So what is the story here? Did Petros happen to own an outdated radio scanner with the cellular frequencies unblocked? Or was the “Petros” story a tall tale, and this instead the work of a ham radio whiz?
Do you know anything about the Petros Drecojecai story? If so, leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
“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.
“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.”
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.”
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“
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.
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.
“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.
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.
Thanks to Ezra Fike for the interview and photographs. The Cassette Archive is here.
And why did he create a blank record housed in a sandpaper cover?
When Ursula Block’s seminal art catalog, Broken Music, came out, one interesting entry was this sandpaper record, attributed to “ANONYMUS”:
As the picture shows, the “record” itself is a square of sandpaper. Printed on the sandpaper is “Norton”, which refers to Norton Abrasives, a sandpaper company. Adalox, meanwhile, is the trade name for a type of sandpaper that Norton makes. P80 refers to the grit size of the sandpaper (this one is a medium grit.)
I reach out to Jan Van Toorn, who uploaded this anti-record to Discogs. He owns one of very few copies of this record. He explains to me that he purchased it at an art gallery-cum-bookstore in Cologne around 1990. Around then, he saw another copy at a different bookshop/gallery called Bucholz, but he hasn’t seen one since. When he tried to reach out to the original bookstore to find out who Göbel was, they didn’t have any information.
He shared the following images of his copy, which include the sandpaper-abraded surface of the blank LP, as well as an autograph:
He notes that, while the Broken Music catalog kept Göbel’s name “anonymus,” the catalog for Ursula Block’s 1988 exhibition with Christian Marclay, Extended Play, did list Göbel as the artist responsible — which matches the autograph.
So who was Göbel?
Was it a fake name, an appropriation of this famous German inventor who was falsely believed to have invented the incandescent lightbulb before Thomas Edison? Or perhaps named after this architect who authored an extensive history of European tapestry?
Both Heinrich and Göbel are common last names in Germany, which contributes to the information shortage.
Certainly, this wasn’t the only record, or anti-record, to experiment with sandpaper. Just two years prior, the Durutti Column released their famous album, The Return of Durutti Column, with an outward-facing sandpaper cover (designed to damage other LPs in your collection). Richard D. James used to put sandpaper on the decks during his DJ sets, and the conceptual artist Timm Ulrichs created variably-graded sandpaper records in 1968. But this one is among the most mysterious, since Göbel’s identity — and motivations — remain obscure.
Do you know more about Heinrich Göbel or this mysterious anti-record? Are you Henrich Göbel? If so, please leave a comment or contact me!
Thanks to Jan Van Toorn for contributing the three images of Göbel’s record, and for providing invaluable background information. Van Toorn runs ART RPM and Slowscan Records.
I’ve never been to Las Vegas, but when I imagine it, I visualize the Strip as a single conglomerate of casinos and hotels, all interconnected such that you can walk from one building to the next without ever stepping outside. The rooms are jumbo-sized yet windowless, and mercifully air conditioned. A glitzy neon fortress set to twilight twenty-four hours per day.
Riviera, a vaporwave concept album designed to simulate the Vegas experience, is the soundtrack to that fantasy. It is named after a Vegas hotel that closed down in 2015, and each song evokes a specific context, thanks to the unambiguous titles: “Rainforest Cafe,” “Treasure Island,” “Mandalay Bay,” “Hotel Lobby,” “Red Leather.” The songs themselves use obscure samples from neglected corners of pop culture, then coat them in reverb to impart a vaguely dizzying effect. It truly is amazing how the album can evokle the the site-specific feeling of Las Vegas with little more than looped samples of pop music.
Vaporwave is a genre that is said to conjure nostalgia for an imagined past, and Riviera, a casino-themed album, does this with expert precision. It’s part of a group of vaporwave recordings that evoke specific situations. There is an entire vaporwave subgenre called mallsoft, which aims to evoke the experience of wandering through a mall. Climatewave is a subgenre focused on evoking the Weather Channel, circa 1987 or so. And there have been vaporwave concept albums about office buildings and phantom radio broadcasts.
Riviera evokes its casino feel through careful sound production and the power of suggestion, making use of pithy song titles and excellent cover art. As a result, it has become a cult album among vaporwave enthusiasts.
One element of Riviera remains a mystery, however: its creator. Like many a vaporwave name, Kodak Cameo is inscrutable by design. The name is borrowed from a 1996 point-and-shoot camera, making it somewhat Google resistant. We don’t know anything about the producer themselves — where they call home, what they do for a living, their gender. I imagine Kodak Cameo as one person, mainly because vaporwave tends to be produced by solitary producers working on their laptops. Many vaporwave producers adopt these sorts of cryptic monikers, and some degree of anonymity is fairly common.
The enigma quotient was increased when, some time after Riviera came out, Kodak Cameo fell off the face of the earth. Their Bandcamp website evaporated, and no contact info persisted. Nobody publicly got close to identifying who they were. Yet the album was embraced by fans.
Riviera came out as a digital release on a fascinating record label called Fortune 500, which was run by a producer named Luxury Elite, often shortened to Lux. She was prone to disappearing for periods of time, only to abruptly reappear with new music. But a few years ago she evaporated into the digital ether seemingly for good, her social media feeds running dry since then.
Fortunately, the Fortune 500 Bandcamp remains online, which is fortunate, because there are many gems to be enjoyed there. (Messages sent through Bandcamp to Lux went unanswered, sadly.) The Fortune 500 discography is an archive of whimsically-titled albums with enticing covers, each with a distinct visual aesthetic. Many of them belong to a subcategory of vaporwave called late night lo-fi, which evokes the experience of looking down on the city from a luxury apartment at 2am, circa 1992.
Given aesthetic similarities, some have suspected that Kodak Cameo was a pseudonym of Luxury Elite, but she has denied that. Kodak’s use of samples is polished, which suggests that this isn’t their first kick at the vaporwave can, so it is possible that they have also recorded music under other pseudonyms. (There are more than enough faceless vaporwave monikers out there that one or more could be Kodak under a different name.) But despite many question marks, Riviera has been embraced by fans, garnering effusive praise in reviews on Rate Your Music, including a 1462-word essay that reads like hypnagogic casino fanfic:
“It’s 2:38 AM. It’s 53 degrees. You’re riding in a Convertible from the 1950’s that your father got from his father from an Indian Reservation not far from Southern Nevada…”
What little we know about Kodak we can derive from his choice of samples on Riviera. Many of the selections are Japanese music from the eighties, particularly songs with synthesizers. Samples are taken from ballads by actress/singer Yuki Saito and idol singer Risa Honda, from 1987 and 1989 respectively; Kodak has taken their instrumental bits, slowed them down and looped them. Other picks from earlier in the 80s, including tracks by Toshiki Kadomatsu and Yuko Ohtaki, showcase a Japanese light-funk scene heavily inspired by American R&B trends of the day — a sound that came to be known as “city pop.” Only one of the identified samples on Riviera comes from outside of Japan: a 1983 b-side called “Never Too Late Your Lovin’,” by a short-lived New York funk group called Sunfire. Clearly, Kodak’s proclivities run towards the obscure. Perhaps he is from Japan, or simply infatuated with Japanese culture.
One fascinating postscript to the Riviera story is that Kodak released a sequel at one point. Riviera 2 apparently came out on Kodak’s very own Bandcamp page but then disappeared. For a couple years, people were hunting for a copy and coming up dry. In September 2016, someone found a high-quality version by “signing up for a Chinese streaming service to get it in 320kbps,” providing a life-line to those obsessed with the original Riviera. I believe this to be the cover artwork; it is the image for on a YouTube video that contains the album, and is also the image that comes up in the mp3 metadata:
There is also a SoundCloud account attributed to Kodak Cameo that includes some Riviera tracks as well as some new, stylistically different selections. The last track was uploaded a year ago. The location is listed as Tahiti, French Polynesia. Is this Kodak, or someone pretending to be them? I sent the account a message awhile back, but didn’t hear back. Like many things Kodak-related, it’s a series of dead ends…
Do you know who Kodak Cameo is? Are you Kodak Cameo? Do you have any more information about Kodak, Riviera, or Riviera 2? If so, leave a comment or email me!
“Without getting too philosophical about it, its almost as if I was meant to discover this collection.”
In early 2014, a Pittsburgh musician named Ben Opie wandered into one of the most intriguing experimental music mysteries in memory.
He was shopping at a local record store, Jerry’s Records, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Browsing the experimental music racks, Opie discovered an unfamiliar record with a hand-assembled cover:
Intrigued, he looked inside, only to discover that it was a record made up of pieces of several other records, all carefully glued together. He would later try playing it on his turntable, and learned that it played well.
According to the insert booklet, the LP is a mutant combination of eight different LPs, ranging from a New Order Blue Monday 12″ to a Dave Brubeck record to a couple Mendelssohn symphonies.
The record was titled T OA RIT ECC G, short for “The Only Actual Record In The Entire Conglomerate CataloG,” and was credited, intriguingly, to Kurt Vile and Rose Selavy. The label was listed as Conglomerate Records.
“What became especially intriguing was that the return address on it was for Connellsville, PA,” Opie tells me via email. “Connellsville is a small town in western PA, about an hour or so south of Pittsburgh. It’s really backroads, and not far from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. This made little sense, and I went onto a local bulletin board to ask if anyone knew about Conglomerate Records, or the record’s credited creators, Kurt Vile and Rose Selavy.”
After posting on the board, he got a message from an employee at Jerry’s Records. “He said there was a collection of cassette tapes that went with that record. I arranged to buy it all. It came as part of a mass purchase Jerry’s made of a major local collector. He had died and his widow sold off his record collection.”
As Opie puts it, “The Conglomerate collection is an insane collection of recordings and objects.” He has painstakingly cataloged most of them on Discogs, complete with explanatory annotations, with the exception of several anti-cassettes and two anti-LPs, which don’t meet the website’s standards.
“The packaging, as you’ve probably noticed, ranges from basic 80s-period xerox covers, to elaborate hand-created original creations. the music ranges from primitive musique concréte/Plunderphonics, ambient music, industrial noise, and more conceptual releases. I was told some tapes didn’t survive, such as one tape wrapped entirely in rubber bands.”
This DIY visual aesthetic, which is often quite striking, is intermingled with tongue-in-cheek references to experimental art and music:
Opie sorted out that many of the names involved were references to other things. For example, “Rose Selavy” is a play on Rrose Sélavy, a female alter-ego maintained by Marcel Duchamp. And “Kurt Vile” is not the contemporary singer/songwriter, but instead a reference to the German composer Kurt Weill. Few of the releases have dates on them, but those that do span from 1986 to 1990.
Opie was desperate to figure out who was responsible for this artifact, posting on local message boards in search of information. Other people, intrigued, fanned out in an attempt to find anyone who know anything about the label. But even discussions with Pennsylvanians who were on the scene at the time, and RRRecords’ Ron Lessard, who is more or less a historian of the underground experimental music scene, were fruitless. Nobody knew anything. Nobody had even heard of Conglomerate Records.
There are few definitive pieces of information about the releases themselves. None of the artists on the releases were listed as having releases elsewhere. Bands like Oviparous Pig, Phthisis, and The Donut Holes, were Conglomerate-exclusive. One tape, String Quartet Hoedown by The Conglomerate String Quartet, includes some possible clues in its liner notes. These notes include an essay which profiles each of Quartet’s members, including Kurt Vile (“he takes great pains to conceal his true name”) and other names like Stephen Thomas, William Alva, and Dieter Mueller:
However, none of those names lead to any plausible clues on Google. It is likely that the entirety of this essay, attributed to Rose Selavy, was fabricated. In fact, all people and bands associated with Conglomerate Records appear to be Conglomerate-exclusive.
Opie suspects that there was a ring-leader behind Conglomerate, but that more than one person was involved. “One of the Conglomerate ‘house bands,’ The Donut Holes, has a picture of two people on the cover. One of those two people is also seen clearly in a group photo on the Albert Ayler Memorial Washboard Band tape. The guy with the big glasses. I have to wonder if that is Kurt Vile.”
Take a look at the bespectacled man on each of these covers:
The other clues are the references to various places in Pennsylvania. The tapes with the earliest catalog numbers provide an address for a PO box in Lemont Furnace, PA, along with a zip code for that area (15456):
Lemont Furnace is a small unincorporated community near the southwest corner of Pennsylvania with a current population of just over 800 people. As a Herald-Standardarticle describes, it is a small town that was founded to house coal miners, an industry that has since dried up. The name “Furnace” refers to the large kilns that were used to bake coal. One tape is recorded as being live from the Pizza Hut in Lemont Furnace, but who knows if one existed in the late eighties?
Later releases list an address in Connellsville PA, which is a small city about 20 minutes away from Lemont Furnace, most recent population over 7000.
Other tapes mention a performance that occurred live in Black Lick, PA — another southwestern PA town, with a population of 1,462. There is also a mention of “the Bettendorf, Iowa group Quadriplegia.” It is tempting to imagine a late-80s noise scene emerging from the small towns in the corner of Pennsylvania, playing house shows and Pizza Huts.
Several of the Conglomerate tapes seem to parody various noise and experimental tropes of the age. The cover of a tape called Pain Party At Presque Isle features a graphic pornography close-up. There is also a tape with a sandpaper cover, and another with a Xeroxed cover depicting human innards:
The Conglomerate Records web of mystery also includes a number of dubious “compilations,” each with its own assembly of colourful band names that don’t appear anywhere else. Pain Party at Presque Isle compilation advertises itself as such:
Its track listing is filled with unfamiliar names; only Helicopter and Twilight Sleep appear elsewhere, on their very on Conglomerate tapes. None of the bands are listed on any other record labels on Discogs. The idea that Kurt Vile created this web of (presumably) fictional noise acts is something to marvel at:
Meanwhile, another compilation, Fast and Slow Pain is billed as a “thrash & grind” comp. It is described by Opie as such:
“Spurious compilation on Conglomerate. Band names listed on cover are Ash Wednesday, Boanerges & the Pewkickers, Burn Unit, Consumption, Litigation, and Spree Killer. Content is actually tape loops and various audio mixing of thrash metal recordings.”
It, too, features more fictional band names, and also references a few (real) extreme metal compilations. Perhaps the best part is the toll free number:
This compilation is one of the most clear indications that Conglomerate is purely satire. The idea that there are bands listed, but that their songs are all loops of established thrash recordings, is clear evidence that elements of these releases were pure fabrications.
Conglomerate even had its own sub-label, an imprint called Pointless Endeavors that focused on especially conceptual releases. These are a few of them.
PE 1: Revlover
Opie: “The Beatles’ Revolver album played backwards. When it was more difficult to do such things.” For me, the greatest realization is that “Revolver” spelled backwards is “Revlover.”
PE 6: Mel Odious - The Original Soundtrack From WANK’s Award-Winning Mood And Melodies Radio Special Hosted By Mel Odious
Opie: “It’s literally Barbra Streisand’s Greatest Hits, with a mustache drawn on her. I think this is a nod to Duchamp drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”
PE 7: Kurt Vile – Beatlephobia! A Statistical Smear
According to the amusing liner notes above, this tape contains Sergeant Pepper overdubbed onto itself over and over, such it produced 17 million overdubs in total.
PE 8: Kurt Vile – Throbbing Gristle Bring You 20 Jazz Funk Greats Erased By Kurt Vile
A copy of Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats that’s been “half-erased” — likely subjected to a strong magnet.
A number of the Conglomerate releases haven’t been documented by Opie on Discogs because they are anti-releases, and thus unplayable. This is a nearly exhaustive showcase:
Conglomerate Multiformat A
Opie: “It’s an LP with (parts of) a CD, buzzer, cassette, radio cart, flexidisc, and 78 attached to it.”
CGL OX5: White Noise for Kasimir Malevich
The contents of this tape are all spraypainted white, including the actual magnetic tape inside — which leads to an appealing visual effect. Opie says it cannot be opened.
Fornax / Sculptor
A cassette adorned with a collage, with the magnetic tape pulled out and wrapped around it.
MMMMNNN – One Second
Opie: “A cassette box filled with shards of cassette case, and 1 7/8” of tape.” That amount of tape would play for one second if properly spooled.
CGL OX6: Onomatopeia
The text states:
soft, relaxing music performed by the Methaqualone Con??uort under the direction of Claes Oldenburg
CAUTION: This cassette may not be compatible with all stereo systems or sensibilities
The cassette has been melted to the point of being unplayable. The tape’s label references Claes Oldenburg, is a sculptor known for his public art, and methaqualone, a now outdated sedative, better known as Quaaludes. The exact last word of the second line is difficult to make out.
CGL 00: Rat Prick Anthems
If you’re like me, you’ll want nothing more than to hear a Rat Prick Anthem. But don’t get too excited — this tape has been taken apart and thrown into the tape case without its cassette, along with assorted scraps of paper.
CGL 0XXXI: Telemusik 2: For People on Hold
Opie calls this an “assemblage of cassette tape loop and some sort of electronic device that’s fallen apart over time.” It appears to be a piezoelectric transducer, perhaps a contact mic or speaker.
This is a tape with various items glued to its case, including a guitar turning key, some cassette innards, and several pieces of metal. A dadaist band name and title cap it off — if those are indeed the band and album name.
CGL 3TF: Rosi & The Dirigibles Present Three Transposed Functions
Opie guides me through this bizarre release. As seen in the top left image, the outer sleeve of the record is a camouflage pattern, which is the polyurethane bag used in the package of Throbbing Gristle’s 1980 single, “Subhuman” b/w “Something Came Over Me.” Inside that is a record sleeve constructed of chopped-up flexi discs that have braille on them; these are 8 RPM records that were intended for visually impaired people, with readings of then-current periodicals. The record itself is a Xerox of a 7″ single. It is housed inside an unusually shaped inner sleeve repurposed from an actual LP sleeve. This sleeve includes some information plus a list of recommended songs, including artists as diverse as Skip James and AC/DC — these songs comprise the track listing for the playable tape contained within Rose Sélavy’s 100 Grooviest Corporate Hits box (see below).
An empty cassette shell. No other information was provided with this tape.
As per Opie, the tape’s j-card is a Buffalo Springfield cover (but upside down), and it’s been overlaid with a transparency of Yes’ Yesterdays compliation. The empty cassette shell comes from an unidentified RRRecords release, and is an obvious homage to the label’s Recycled series — one of Conglomerate’s many satirical nods to the noise scene.
CGL PE9: In a Silent Way: Anti-Frantic Music from Conglomerate Records
This tape promises performances of John Cage’s “4’33″” and Lennon and Ono’s “3 Minutes of Silence.” But the cassette has no tape in it. That is presaged by the twin warnings “no dolby” and “no sound.” Of note, Kurt Vile’s name is playfully spelled “Kurt Vial,” and an ensemble called “The Spitvalve Brass Quintet” is billed on the front.
Unidentified Empty Cassette Case
Another cassette shell with no tape in it. The bits of text (“American”) and what looks like the end of a zip code or phone-number are tempting hints — though it is unrelated to American Tapes, which did not exist at this point.
Unidentified Metal Tape
This tape is playable, but features a rusted metal cover and tape label.
CGL 0X13TH20: Rose Sélavy – Rose Sélavy’s 100 Grooviest Corporate Hits
The pièce de résistance, this is an eight-cassette case filled with wonders. The catalog number suggests that these eight tapes are assigned numbers 13 to 20 within the CGL 0X series, which is the Conglomerate series focused on anti-tapes. The highlights here include:
A tape cassette filled with dry macaroni.
A massacred tape instructing you to “Please Rewind.”
A couple deconstructed cassettes.
A cassette shell filled with circuit board components, and attached via wires to a syringe.
One playable tape, which collects the songs listed on the LP insert to Rosi & The Dirigibles Present Three Transposed Functions, above. (Why? We’ll never know…)
Opie tells me that, since he initially put out a call for information about Conglomerate, he’s had recovered another artifact that sheds more light on the label’s story.
“The last development was that the person who sold me the tapes told me there was something additional he didn’t give me,” he tells me. “There were three snapshot albums filled with duplicate, original, and even unrealized covers for the cassettes. This has led me to be certain, though without confirmation, that the person whose record collection this was, was most likely ‘Kurt Vile.’ I have never confirmed this with his widow. His nephew is a former student of mine, but he knew little of his uncle’s younger life. I’m not yet ready to share that name.”
As seen above, the booklets include copies of the Donut Holes cassette, among others. He notes that these booklets also contain covers for some non-CGL releases, including tapes by John Zorn and Milton Babbit, and John Oswald’s Plunderphonics, suggesting that the person behind Kurt Vile was likely active on the tape trading scene.
And yet there are no records of any Conglomerate releases online, nor does anyone remember any of it. This makes it doubtful that Kurt Vile actually traded copies of his Conglomerate releases. Adding to this, many of the label’s tapes are obvious one-copy editions, even if some of them state on their covers that they are larger editions:
In the end, I ask Opie for his “best guess” as to why these editions exist. “It was done for the creator’s (or creators’) personal enjoyment to be sure,” he explains. “But there’s so much work put into these things, there must be more to the story than that. I believe more than one person was involved, but have absolutely no leads as to who those people could be.
“Without getting too philosophical about it, its almost as if I was meant to discover this collection. Of course I don’t mean that literally, but it’s fortunate that it wound up in my hands where it’s appreciated. I wonder what tapes are completely lost to time, and I find that unfortunate.
“Nobody I’ve discussed this with, or shown the collection to, has any real theories as to the origins of these tapes.”
My theory? It is clear that this collection was a laborious and resource-intensive undertaking. Is it possible this satirical collection was produced as an exhibition for a gallery? If so, was it ever exhibited? Was there possibly an an arts grant? Was this collection mentioned somewhere at the time, for example in a zine like Sound Choice or Option?
For now, Opie tells me he has no immediate plans for the collection. He has dubbed every playable tape into digital versions, and plans to invest some time into separating them into tracks and making them more available. Perhaps one day someone will come across them and they will tweak a memory.
Do you know anything about Conglomerate Records? If so, email me or leave a comment!
Ben Opie plays saxophones and various electronics in a variety of projects, including Thoth Trio (intense acoustic jazz), Bombici (electro-acoustic Balkan dance music), and Throckmorton Plot (improvised deep grooves and electronics). He also books the Live! at Kingfly creative music series at Kingfly Spirits, and teaches music technology at Carnegie Mellon University.
As always, if you can help shed light on our Unsolved Mysteries, please do! Any information is very much appreciated — please leave it in the comments section, and I will update the post, with credit, accordingly.
[See the end of this article for an exciting update!]
While listening to Fool’s Paradise, a rockabilly, surf, and rock & roll show on WFMU, I heard a thrilling instrumental surf track called “Night Ride” by an act called The Invaders. The band appears to be a trio — drums, bass, and guitar. A simple but momentous bass line incites matters, after which a wave of amateurish but rollicking drums sets an off-kilter pace, while a fluctuating guitar line brings the treble.
According to Discogs, this was put out in 1962 on a local, one-off record label named Pacer, based in a small city in Ohio named Delaware. The writing credits were Balogh, Iver, and May.
“Night Ride” and, in one case, its b-side, “Invaders Twist,” have appeared on a handful of compilations of obscure rock and roll singles over the years, released on specialist labels with titles like Realllll Rrrrrockin’ and Rare Rockers From Small 1950’s Labels Vol. 3 and, my favourite, The Best Of Greasy Rock ‘N’ Roll Volume 6. But no information survives about the band itself.
I did some digging. There is a Pacer Inn and Suites Motel in Delaware, which matches the record label. Unfortunately, all three names listed as writer credits are common ones, so Google searching those names in conjunction with “Delaware Ohio” and “Ohio” is of limited utility.
Eventually, I reached out to the Facebook page of Endangered Species, a Delaware OH shop that bills itself as “The Last Record Store On Earth.” Stephen from the store responded quickly, letting me that they get a copy into the shop every once in awhile. He clarified that the term “Pacer” has special significance in Delaware. “We are the home of The Little Brown Jug horse race and the horses are called ‘pacers,'” he explained. “It is the team name for the local high school as well, The Delaware Hayes Pacers.”
Stephen told me he’s worked in the shop for forty years, but has never been able to clarify the origin of the single, suspecting it was self-produced and self-financed by some “local teens.” “We get a copy in now and then and if in nice shape, sell it for $2.99.” Considering copies have sold for $66 on Discogs, that’s quite a steal!
If you can shed light on the mystery, please do! Include any relevant information in the Comments section and I will update this listing, with proper credit provided.
UPDATE! July 20, 2020: Mystery Solved!
David May, one third of the Invaders, left a comment on this very page (see below) and connected with me via email to fill me in on the Invaders story!
May now lives in Brentwood, Tennessee, but he grew up in Delaware, Ohio. He started the Invaders in fall of 1961 after meeting a new friend, Tom Ivers. They were both in high school. “We played as a duo for a time and used the name The Invaders, boasting ‘rock-it to the music that’s out of this world!’ After a few weeks our ambition grew and we found a drummer named Greg Balogh – at a different high school – and we became a trio doing instrumentals. We were the only band we knew about in the area and were invited to play at lots of local events and parties. We did have a few original compositions and decided we should make a record. Greg’s grandfather owned a local recreation area named Eckels Lake and he offered to underwrite our recording session.”
They were managed by Rick Scarry, who had recently graduated from their high school, and who was working as a radio DJ. “He had connections with radio and TV people in Columbus and one, Jerry Beck, knew his way around the recording studio and distribution channels.
“We did our recording session at Coronet Records in Columbus and 500 copies were pressed at Columbia Records in Chicago. The records were placed in local record shops in central Ohio and in juke boxes. Local radio stations played it quite a bit in April, 1962 and we often joined disc jockeys at sock hops they hosted all over central Ohio. We were featured guest recording artists! Our band’s lifespan was fairly short, however, as I left town in the fall for college in Kentucky. We may have reconvened a time or two after that, but I never went back to Delaware once I was in college.
“The Pacer Records label was inspired by the harness racing theme that was a big deal in Delaware. One of the triple crown races of harness racing, The Little Brown Jug, was held every September in Delaware. Our high school mascot was a pacer. Thus, Pacer Records. The address on the record label was the home address of Rick Scarry, our manager.
“Rick left Delaware himself a few years later and became a very popular radio personality in Los Angeles during the 70’s and 80’s. Following that, he embarked on a successful career in movies, television, and commercials. He is still active in that industry today. I have been in contact with Rick over the past few years, and most recently about these findings, and he is as surprised as I am.”
The story of how May came across this blog post is its own story. “I have been playing guitar since the late 1950’s and focus mainly on instrumentalists from the late fifties and early sixties,” May says. “I am constantly looking for new things to learn to play from that era. I search eBay for ‘rockin’ guitar instrumentals’ once or twice a year. A search I made in April led me to an album titled Guitar Runaway and as I scanned the track listings my eyes settled on track seven, side one, by The Invaders. It was titled ‘Invader’ (not ‘Invader Twist’ – the true title) but the writer credits were the names of our band members. I was stunned by this finding because it never, ever entered my mind that our recording would ever get out of central Ohio and certainly wouldn’t have acquired any interest from collectors or record manufacturers.
“I also found out at that same time that both sides were actually posted to YouTube. I messaged the person who posted ‘Night Ride’ about how he was able to post it to YouTube and he revealed to me that the song was found on an album, Rare Rockers From Small 50’s Labels. He furnished me the link to Discogs, which listed that album. From that link I was able to make the discovery of all six of the compilations that contain one or the other side of our recording. That was my initial exposure to Discogs. There are currently 36 of the various albums containing our record for sale by Discogs members. The sellers are all over the world. I am just absolutely astonished by these findings, and quite enthusiastic to say the least. I have had contact with several Discogs members in the past week about the record. One man in Belgium paid $167 for his copy of it.
“I was directed to the article in your website by another member of Discogs community. He owns a copy of our record and was identified on the website as an owner. I messaged him asking how he came to acquire the record, and he shared a lot of interesting information with me in his reply. He first heard the recording on the same radio show you mention in your article. He even shared with me playlists for the several dates on which he heard our record played! He put in a saved search on eBay for the record and finally after three years waiting a copy came up for bid which he acquired in 2017.
“In his delightful message of reply to my inquiry he sent me the link to your article about our record in Anomaly Index, May, 2020. I can’t tell you just how excited I was to read what you had to say and to have the opportunity to provide the information you were seeking about the band and the record.
“Today I called the owner of the record store, Endangered Species, in Delaware, Ohio, that you had communicated with. I shared information with him about the band and about the members. We had a wonderful conversation, and he recalled communicating with you about it.”
May updated me on his pursuits and the whereabouts of the former Invaders. “I know that Tom Ivers, the other guitarist, has deceased some few years ago. I have been unable to locate Greg Balogh, the drummer, but have information that as recently as two to three years ago he still lived in Delaware. I asked Patrick Bailey, the record store owner, to help me trace down Greg, if possible, so there’s a chance I might still find him. I know he will be or would have been delighted to hear how our little self-financed record has achieved a world-wide following (sort of!).
“After college, I enjoyed a 34-year career with Southern Bell/BellSouth telecommunications company, retiring in 2000. I took a hiatus from playing for several years but resumed in the late 1980’s when my oldest son became interested in playing guitar. I have been spending lots of time playing ever since. I also have a nice collection of guitars and amplifiers. Nothing really valuable, just for variety’s sake. I have a good friend that plays drums and we have played gigs for several years identifying ourselves as The Elderly Brothers. My oldest son plays bass guitar with us quite often. We play exclusively music of our teenage years, 1956-64. Keeping the beat alive, so to speak.”
May expresses gratitude for the interest in his decades-old record. “This experience of the last couple months has really elevated the spirits of this old man!! 58 years after our record’s release into obscurity.”
Thanks to David May for the interview and for the images.