How Many Albert Ayler Albums Does One Man Actually Need?

A quick flick through the pile tells me I need seventeen. Hang on, are we including the box set? Twenty-six it is, then! Sorry? Oh, “actually need?” That’s different from “has hoarded,” is it? Hmm, don’t like the sound of this…

You’d think either figure would offer a more than reasonable grasp of the achievements of a musician whose recording career was as brief as that of the Beatles. But who’s talking about reasonable graspers? We’re talking about the musical accumulators here, those who might struggle with the “actually need” element of the question. I’m sticking with seventeen for Albert for the time being, but that might change…



A super feller, apparently

Stranglers Pink EP

One of the real reasons for the advent of the CD


Accumulating music was a lot less complicated when I was a youngster. There was vinyl. That was it, more or less. Vinyl was finite, at least, although a friend’s purchase of three differently-sleeved copies of “I Don’t Need To Tell Her (I’m A Super Feller)” by The Lurkers may have suggested otherwise. There were cassettes too, which enabled the devout accumulator to stockpile a huge private armoury of John Peel sessions, but which lived in the constant peril of mechanical fatality. And be honest, they could never compete with  a dodgy pink vinyl EP by the Stranglers, or a French bootleg 7-inch by “Le Velours Souterrain,” which cost 20p in a junk shop. The advent of the CD meant that whatever obscure tune had necessitated a pink EP could take its rightful place among the bonus tracks, where it could be safely ignored by all but the frankly unwell. But nonetheless, anybody with a more esoteric preference might still have found it unevenly represented in provincial record shops, where the offering may or may not have prompted further enquiry. Not that further enquiry was necessarily the best seed to sow…

Purchased in a junk shop, apparently...

Who would believe this was bought in a junk shop?

It was sown in my own mind quite early on, as my affection for Punk Rock grew in proportion to public disapproval. The singles box filled up nicely (only two by the Lurkers, mind you), but LPs would have to wait until I was emancipated from the domestic chore economy. Full-time employment, then, set me on a path which often crossed that of the accumulator, and few things encountered en route illustrate the journey quite like my fondness for the chastening racket of an avant garde saxophonist from the 1960s…

Albert Ayler 1966-6

Albert Ayler

Albert Ayler In Greenwich Village

A torrential outpouring of baffling noise, earlier today.

The first Albert Ayler album I ever bought was a vinyl copy of “Live in Greenwich Village,” a torrential outpouring of baffling noise from 1966, with a matching cover. Needless to say, it was the greatest record I’d ever heard, and similar was required as a matter of urgency. Local stores carried a mere few of Ayler’s less essential albums: one made in Denmark with a band he’d never met before, another with a trumpeter who didn’t know what was going on, and a soundtrack LP to a forgotten art house film. True, all of these offered the required baffling noise in varying degrees of tumult, but his definitive recordings were still missing in action, especially “Spiritual Unity,” (June 1964), his defining work and the album that could get a space alien to understand free jazz. But once it was found and digested it all suddenly made sense, as surely as “God Save The Queen” defined punk’s chaos to an excitable teenager! The clueless trumpeters and baffled pick-up bands on early records became signposts on a road to Damascus, the cellists and harpsichord players on that came later now seemed like obvious developments of an art of which he was the true master. Every Ayler record in the racks suddenly had a place in a historical scheme, and suddenly I “actually needed” all of them. An album of tortured spirituals recorded in a loft in Manhattan? Yes please! A one-sided LP of assault-and-battery racket with his brother squawking at inhuman velocity on trumpet? What else! Mono recordings made on a portable cassette player in a Bowery hovel full of drug dealers? Accept no substitute!

Albert Ayler's defining half hour, and a definite free jazz album. For some, the road to Damascus started here. For others, it didn't.

Albert Ayler’s finest half hour, and a definitive free jazz album. For some, the road to Damascus started here. For others, it didn’t.

What chance does the zealous convert have at a time like this, how can he end up with anything but a big pile of music? In due course more reissues were snapped up as they appeared, CDs were bought to replace LPs, new versions of CDs were bought to replace the old CDs that had been bought to replace the LPs, and all of these digital formats were eventually stored on the hard drive – well, you remember what happened to the cassettes! And still more music reappears, his debut recordings with a mystified Scandinavian band, live concerts from just days before his death in 1970, his very last official album, which had bagpipes on it. But I’ll save those for later – what do you think I am, crazy? And anyway, show me the Velvet Underground fan who, surrounded by nearly every note they ever played, actually owns a copy of their very last, Lou Reed-less album…

The Original Memphis Five

The Original Memphis Five enjoy taking due precedence over Pink Floyd.

But should we scoff? After all, accumulators amass all this stuff because they’re curious, because they love it enough to take a chance on something they’ve never heard before, because they might not hear it on the radio, because until recently they couldn’t just listen online. None of this stuff is sold to them, as such – indeed it’s their constant nagging that governs the outer limits of the reissue market. Not for them the six-disc box set of Dark Side of the Moon while they’ve never heard a record by The Original Memphis Five, nor the Amazon review when they could just talk to somebody in a shop. And they want to share it with you, whether you ask them or not – you want a mixtape, the accumulator is on the case immediately!

You do not own this album. Nobody does.

You do not own this album. Nobody does.

If we follow their manias, they’ll take us down little back alleys to specialist shops full of jazz records, or reggae, or whatever, and they’ll talk at length to the chap behind the counter who will have found them a shellac 78 by the Original Memphis Five , or a white label pre-release 12-inch by Doctor Alimantado, or even a Dutch Lurkers single, because, well, that’s what they’ve always done. And somewhere in their ranks lie the future historians, the writers, the archivists, the people who will quietly keep all this stuff alive while buying music becomes as thrilling as buying a pint of milk.

So, how many Albert Ayler albums does one man need, again? Twenty-six, just for starters…

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