Fistful of Fuzz was a remarkable compilation from 1998 that collected a number of hyper-obscure 60s garage psych singles that had never appeared before on reissues or compilations. When it came out, little to nothing was known about the bands responsible for each song; in one case, even the band’s name was unknown!
Yet despite each track’s esoteric nature, they are all standouts. Lost relics from bands that only put out one single, which subsequently disappeared into the ether.
Even the cover was a little esoteric. It embraced an inexplicable Spaghetti Western theme, augmented with psychedelic background and text. As far as garage psych comps go, this one was a memorable beast.
Curious about the story behind this noteworthy comp, I tracked down the main man behind it, a passionate psych and garage rock collector named Mike Ascherman, who lives in Queens. Over the phone, he regaled me with the tales behind this compilation and shared stories from his trove of experiences collecting rare records.
Ascherman is now in his mid-60s and retired, having worked as an accountant for many years. He traces his interest in rock music to his high school days in the late sixties, when he would listen to WNEW-FM, New York’s first underground rock radio station. There he encountered bands and artists that today are icons, like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors. “I started reveling in the idea of being into music that no one else was into. You can like music, but if you hear it ten times a day it gets annoying. Most people listen to music as sonic wallpaper, and it doesn’t matter as much.”
A key fork in the road was his acquisition of Lillian Roxon’s Rock Encyclopedia, which included profiles of various artists, including then-obscure bands like Ultimate Spinach, United States of America, Love, and the Silver Apples. “I just wanted to get records by every band in that Rock Encyclopedia that I’d never heard of, just to hear them,” he says.
After high school, he went to Stony Brook University, where he encountered a few others like him. That’s when his record collection started to expand. “I spent more time in the Sam Goody in the nearby mall than I did in class,” he jokes. “I was always going through the bargain bins discovering bands like The Litter, and the British band Van Der Graaf Generator, which is still my favorite band to this day.”
After this he branched into progressive rock, then modern classical, and then jazz and avant-garde music, all in the quest of new and different sounds. But in the eighties, he circled back to rock — that’s when he got into “real collecting,” seeking and obtaining records using the Midnight Records mail order catalog and Goldmine magazine. Since then, he’s become ingrained in the garage/psych collecting scene, though he has always maintained an enthusiasm for many different styles of music.
The origins of the Fistful of Fuzz compilation date back to a record label Ascherman ran with two friends, which was called Parallel World. He tells me they put out several great records. Their first was a reissue of the 1980 private-press LP Classic Epics, by South African prog/psych band Steve Linnegar’s Snakeshed. Then came a reissue of 1973’s Chapter One, a Nigerian psychedelic funk gem by the band Blo. “Of course now everyone knows Blo,” Ascherman says. “I’m the one who discovered the band, because I found two copies of the record in one of the local record stores in Midtown Manhattan, a legendary — to my mind at least — store called Pyramid Records.”
Those two, limited-edition reissues sold well. The label subsequently diversified its scope, doing CD releases of “the two ultimate weird records of that time, and still two of the best,” Jupiter Transmission by Bobb Trimble and The Unicorn by Peter Grundzien — outsider, or “real people,” music, as Paul Major would call it.
But eventually Ascherman left Parallel World, as it was fizzling out. Around then, the label had put out a collection of Cambodian rock music called Cambodian Rocks — which was quite successful, and spawned several subsequent volumes on other labels. (It even warranted its own Wikipedia article!) The label was also working on a compilation called World of Acid, which Ascherman was helping assemble. It came out in 1997, after he had left their partnership.
After leaving Parallel World, Ascherman collaborated with another collector, who proposed the idea of doing a psych compilation using Ascherman’s collection. He tells me that the Parallel World partnership was often paralyzed by indecision, with the partners agonizing for days over things like compilation titles and even the name of the label itself. But Ascherman and his new collector friend, “Alex Martin,” made decisions with unprecedented efficiency. With only a few minutes’ consideration, they named the label DMT; they wanted a three-letter drug name but felt LSD was overused. Martin then came up with the acronym “Digital Music Transcendence” on a whim. And Fistful of Fuzz had a nice ring to it, so they went with that. Same with the artwork. “It was just a cool name, a cool picture. It was different,” Ascherman says.
The Spaghetti Western theme was chosen because it was fun. Many assume Clint Eastwood is the cowboy on the cover, but Ascherman tells me that’s not true. “My test press has the original with Eastwood’s face, but [the official cover] was actually an actor named Ty Hardin,” Ascherman says. They made the change to reduce the likelihood of legal problems. The artist responsible for the portrait replaced Hardin’s gun with a guitar.
Acherman explains that Fistful’s tracks come from a variety of vinyl singles and acetates. Several of the songs came from a Michigan record dealer. “He collected Michigan but he knew everything else. He only kept Michigan records, so other things got sold or traded.” In the early nineties, Ascherman acquired a heavy psych record worth a four-figure sum that this dealer wanted, and they worked out a trade involving several records. Ascherman received a batch of singles in exchange; some were records he was looking for, but the dealer also included several other obscure singles calibrated to Ascherman’s taste. Two of those records found their way onto Fistful: The Pretty’s “The Electric Hand” (“my favourite psych single, even though I don’t have a copy at the moment”) and Sounds Synonymous with “Tensions”.
Keep in mind that these were the days before you could look records up and stream them off YouTube. So when you paid good money for a record, you had to have a sense it was worth it. Ascherman talks about getting a “vibe” or “sixth sense” about a record, which would lead him to fork over the cash to buy it. “A lot of people these days, like everything is either turd or face-melt,” he says. “But it isn’t. A lot of things are just okay, some things are good. Rarely things are really the face-melt or fantastic. For every single that made it on to Fistful of Fuzz, there’s a stack of things that I didn’t like, or things I liked that weren’t comp-worthy.”
One of the most enigmatic of the tracks is a cover of “Purple Haze,” which Ascherman obtained at a WFMU record fair in the East Village, through a trade with a fellow dealer. “I had a good garage single that he wanted and he brought me over a couple things to check out, and I heard this and I said, ‘Man, I gotta have this.'” That scorching “Purple Haze” rendition came in the form of an acetate record with no information on its label. The identity of the band remains unknown to this day. As a fun touch, Ascherman listed the band as “John Doe & The Acetates” on the Fistful‘s track listing.
When Fistful came out, nothing was known about any of the bands. So Ascherman put a notice on the back of the disc, urging artists to get in touch to collect royalties — and he made sure he always had these available to pay bands who reached out.
The process of trying to find the bands who recorded these singles is a story itself. Ascherman tells me about the garage rock collectors’ phenomenon of “tracking,” in which they try to locate the members of the bands from the rare singles they’ve acquired. “I started this in the eighties. I went into Manhattan to the main branch of the New York Public Library and went into the phone stacks and was looking through phone books, writing down hundreds of numbers to call to try to find people. And if you actually found someone, it was an accomplishment. Nowadays [with the internet] it’s like, ‘Oh okay, here’s another guy.’ The fun was taken out of it in a way. And it became very cutthroat, people going behind people’s backs to try to find people and track bands.”
Ascherman tells me collectors used to abide by a code of honor when it came to tracking. “If someone was tracking somebody because they had the record, other people laid off. If you did the work, you get the fruits of your labor.”
A few of the Fistful artists ended up tracked. One example was the whimsically named Loos Foos & the Fiberglass Cornflake. “Eventually I got put in touch with the singer from the band, and I got a little background there. They were from Rhode Island. They were somewhat known there, he was a bit of a local legend. Eventually, someone with a music blog interviewed him and they had his whole story up there.”
Another interesting case was The Ruins. “I knew nothing about them when I put it out. But I later met one of the members of the band who was a fellow record collector. I told him, ‘I want to pay you guys for the royalties and give you copies.’ He didn’t want anything! He just thought it was cool it’s out.”
“One of the artists that I’d like to find, to pay him, but also to learn about him, is Don Malena and The Dry Ice. Don Malena turned into a country singer; I have a couple of his other singles on the Accent labels. I’d like to know more about him.” Ascherman thinks somebody somewhere once tracked down the band that backed him, The Dry Ice, though that information is now long gone.
Then there is the curious case of the Peabody Co. Ascherman found a set of six acetates at his favorite record store, Pyramid Records, shortly before they closed down. (He tells that Paul Major used to get first dibs on things from that store, but when Major got married and left town, Ascherman was granted the first right of refusal.) “When I got the [Peabody Co.] acetates, all that was on there was the name ‘Peabody Company’ and each track title,” he remembers. “The only other thing on there is the name of the studio where it was pressed, which was the first place I went to [to get information]. I went to the building and spoke to a security guard there who knew nothing about ’em. This was in the midtown Manhattan. All these little companies had tiny little offices in there.
“Even last week, I looked up a few of the song titles on BMI and ASCAP again, and still nothing was ever registered. Even though seven of the ten songs were originals, there were no songwriting credits on it. No other copies have ever popped up, not even an individual one.”
I ask him his thoughts on when this record might have been recorded, and what he hears in it. “It’s gotta be ’68 or so, I figure,” he estimates, with a collector’s precision. “By the sound, obviously these guys were into Blues Magoos and that kind of sound, they did the cover of ‘Tobacco Road’ with the little guitar and theremin and the drums freaking out in the middle. They also did the Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’ — it’s shorter but it has a similar theremin thing going through the middle of it .The originals have a New York, East Coast Blues Magoos-y psych influence. We figured they must be from New York, but without having any names to work with, they couldn’t be found.”
Just this year, the Peabody Co. acetates got assembled into a limited edition LP for the Out-Sider label, an imprint of the Guerssen reissue label, which is based in Spain. “Alex from Guerssen and I are hoping that, now that it’s getting out into the internet, someone from the band will contact us,” Ascherman explains.
Because there was no cover art whatsoever to work with, they used a generic cover art image that was used by the vanity label, Century Records, for psych records. (Ascherman owns multiple records that have this artwork). They figured, if Peabody Co. were to have self-released the record at the time, that could have been the art they would have used.
Ascherman shares a story about the magic that can occur while unearthing obscure old records. “I sell on Discogs,” he explains. “I had a record by a guy named Tyler Famularo from the Midwest. It was released on Audifex, one of a series of labels — not quite tax scam records but similar. They put out records they called ‘advance review copies.’ This was on one of those. I had a spare copy and I put it up [for sale]. Somebody ordered it and I noticed that the payer’s name was Rebecca Famularo. [I asked her about it] and she said, this was my father. She saw this, and she didn’t know he had a record, and [it turns out] he didn’t know he had a record! She was buying it as a Father’s Day gift. And I should mention I refunded her money, I said I couldn’t charge her for the record. She said she donated it, which is a nice thing. She wrote me back after he got the record, he was so thrilled about it. [In a lot of cases] they just sent out tapes and thought they were rejected and that was the end of it.”
An interesting addendum to the Fistful of Fuzz story occurred nearly a decade later, when it was bootlegged by an infamous bootleg label, Particles. Ascherman explains that this label is run by a UK collector who will shamelessly bootleg rare live recordings and comps, having previously run a notorious label called Radioactive Records. The bootlegs were mainly low-quality “needle-drop” boots, produced on the cheap and completely unauthorized. Yet Ascherman jokes that it is a “badge of honor” that his comp was selected for “reissue.”
The Next Chapter
Fistful of Fuzz was followed by another compilation, For a Few Fuzz Guitars More — again, another Spaghetti Western name and cover. Most of the tracks on that came from the collection of a friend of his, Steve. The artists on this compilation were also previously unknown, and mostly new to compilations — although in some cases, he uses the alternate side of the singles from Fistful.
One artist on For a Few is Sherman Marshall, whose single was released on the California record label Chartmaker, better known for putting out the 1969 self-titled album by Darius. That latter LP became a high profile psych reissue, aided by Darius’ larger-than-life persona — although many feel the real talent was in his backing band, Goldenrod. Darius was later tracked down by collectors, leading to the discovery of enough unreleased acetates to warrant a second collection. Yet Sherman Marshall has not been successfully tracked, and remains an enigma to this day.
One band from the comp that was successfully tracked was Peacepipe, whose scorching “The Sun Won’t Shine Forever” is a highlight of this disc. A friend of Ascherman’s hooked him up with this single, which was so incredible they were determined to hunt Peacepipe down. They put Rich Haupt of Rockadelic Records on the case. “He was the master tracker,” Ascherman explains. “If you had trouble finding something you went to Rich.” Sure enough, Rich found the signer in no time, and they discovered that there was a full album of unreleased material on tape. They worked out the licensing, and in 1995 the Peacepipe album came out on Rockadelic. The Peacepipe track on For a Few Fuzz Guitars More is from their single on the Accent label, the record that started it all.
There were intended to be two subsequent volumes of the Fuzz series, which never saw the light of day, though Ascherman has circulated them to some fellow collectors on CDR. In continuing the Spaghetti Western theme, they were titled The Good, The Bad, and The Fuzz and Fuzz You Sucker. Several of the tracks from the The Good ended up on the fourth volume of Aliens Psychos & Wild Things, a compilation run by a Virginia collector.
And at his Queens home, Ascherman owns dozens of CDRs filled with obscure psych and garage records that he’s converted to digital versions. These are the sum of his many years of collecting — Ascherman doesn’t hang onto every record he owns; instead, he privileges quality over quantity. Thus his actual collection has been whittled down to only the most cherished items:
Thanks to Mike Ascherman for the interview.