I love Norton Records. The folks at the small-but-mighty New York based reissue label are archaeologists, music geeks and party animals of the highest order. They search the cities, towns and backwaters of our great nation looking for the most brilliant wigged-out and hard-to-find vintage rock and R & B records they can sniff out. Garage-rockers from Tacoma who had a couple of local hits in 1965? Airshots from a wacko Cleveland DJ? Unreleased '50s rockabilly acetates from Texas? Check, check, and check. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, Dad. One-hit wonders are generally too popular for this bunch -- they prefer no-hit wonders, or better yet, records that were never even released at all.
Like the gooey toppings on the proverbial rock n' roll sundae, Norton's waxings (they'd much rather sell you vinyl, though they grudgingly make most of their LP releases available on CD) have packaging that's almost as fun as the music, with artwork and graphics that are the envy of labels ten or a hundred times their size. And their liner notes are so well researched that a lot of 'em could pass as dissertations, except that they're too much fun to read.
Norton makes the occasional foray into new music, most notably with last year's brilliant album by Mary Weiss, the former chirper from girl-group legends the Shangri-Las. But it's their reissues that really make my heart beat a little faster and set my extremities to twitching. And with their latest three volume opus, Mad Mike Monsters, they've outdone themselves.
Pittsburgh's own Mad Mike Metrovich (1936-2000) was a man ahead of his time. Had the Internet existed back then, he may have never been anything more than another dork scouring the Web for obscure and out-there music. But back in the '50s and '60s, finding this stuff took ingenuity, gumption, and a soupcon of moxie. A true vinyl junkie, Mad Mike would go to warehouses and buy 10,000 overstock records at a penny or two a shot. After somehow managing to sift through all of them, he'd play the most dynamic, ass-kicking tracks on his radio show and at local dances -- but not before scraping off the labels so other DJs couldn't find out what he was playing and track down their own copies.
Mad Mike Monsters presents four dozen crude, sleazy and raucous gems -- also known as "Mad Mike Moldies" -- that singed the ears of Pittsburgh's hipper teens 40-some years ago but are almost completely unknown outside the city limits. "Strollie Bun," "Done Done The Slop," "Surfin' In The China Sea," "Oo-Ma-Liddi" -- the titles alone are brilliant. And the music? A monolithic, monophonic din of honking saxes, pounding drums, twanging guitars, and vocals that are grunted, yelled, and sometimes even sung. The novella-length liner notes by Miriam Linna are worth the price of admission on their own, painting a fascinating picture of Mad Mike and the scene that evolved around him during his '60s heyday.
But you may be asking, why should we care about these semi-talented puds whose badly recorded 45s sank with barely a ripple so long ago that even John McCain was still a young lad? Well, I'll tell you. Shane Kai Rey and Marquis Chimps may not have had the songwriting talent of a Chuck Berry or the vocal gifts of an Elvis Presley, but when it comes to passion, excitement, and sheer off-the-wall fun, Chuck and Elvis (and Little Richard and Bo Diddley and Gene Vincent, for that matter) ain't got nothin' on "Strollie Bun."
And speaking of those hallowed early R 'n' R greats, let's face it. "Hound Dog" and "Johnny B. Goode" and even records as nutso as "Tutti Frutti" have been overplayed to the point where they've been totally emasculated -- any danger and thrills they conveyed were long ago swept away in a tidal wave of oldies radio shows and infomercials shot in faux-malt shops, featuring extras in poodle skirts and letter sweaters. If you want to feel the vitality and energy of real rock n' roll before it became the soundtrack to a warm n' fuzzy nostalgia trip, Mad Mike Monsters -- not to mention a goodly chunk of Norton's ever-expanding catalog -- is a great place to start.