I'm at the stage now where I've got piles of bloody records absolutely bloody everywhere, propped up against every vertical surface, piled up on every horizontal. The shelving 'system' got filled up years ago. There are three main problems with this situation... 1) It's getting very hard to walk around the house, 2) I don't know half of what I've got, and 3) if I do know I've got something then I can never bloody find it. It's getting way beyond a joke...
Anyway, while investigating a 3-foot deep stack of the things, which has been unreachable for about a year, I came across several things I'd forgotten I owned. This is one of them, and it sort of ties in with the Mainframe LP I wrote about a few weeks ago in a couple of ways, but from a different angle, if that makes sense...? No, probably not. By that, I mean
it's connected to the early 1980s home computer boom. Mainframe put computer data on the back of one of their records, however this LP features music that was originally on the back of computer data cassettes.
People significantly younger than myself may not be aware that back then, the compact audio cassette was the main method by which computer software was distributed. 'Floppy' disc drives were for the seriously well-off, CDs weren't even on the radar, and a hard disc drive was the size of a the average washing machine. Cassettes were therefore ideal: cheap to buy/produce, and everyone had a cassette recorder in the house, even though data transfer rates were low and the potential fragility of the tape could lead to a frustrating experience trying to get the ones and zeros back into the machine. R:Tape Loading Error, 0/1 would be a familiar sight to many.
Yes, yes, but what's this got to do with records? Look, I'm getting to that, honestly. We need to consider the fact that the early days of the personal computer tended to attract some odd characters (and in doing so, we also have to zone in on the similarly-odd Sir Clive Sinclair here, for it was his ZX-range of machines which enabled anyone so inclined to get involved for very little financial outlay). Two such characters, Mel Croucher and Christian Penfold, had set up in the audio guide business during the late 1970s as Automata Cartography, which by 1982 had morphed into the software company Automata UK, following Mel's purchase of a Sinclair ZX81. A string of titles followed, starting with some compilations of very basic 'adult-ish' games for the '81, then in 1982 they wrote the bizarre adventure game 'Pimania'. Like Mainframe's LP, there was a substantial prize on offer to the first person to solve the mysteries and complete the game (and be at a specific time and place to collect it). Many other games followed, including a brush with Waddington's legal team over a Monopoly spoof...
RECORDS, MAN! RECORDS! Okay, okay. Well, what you tended to get from most other manufacturers was a cassette with the data track on both sides. All well and good, although if the tape got damaged you'd probably end up with two data tracks which wouldn't load in. Automata thought differently, and started filling up the cassette b-sides with odd little comedy skits and songs. These songs eventually became more relevant to the actual computer programmes, starting with the Pimania song (containing a few clues to solving the game buried in the lyrics). Croucher recorded all of these himself, very likely on a 4-track Portastudio. Pimania featured a basic rhythm box, some off key saxophone playing, some taped ducks, and the unmistakeable sound of the Casio "VL-Tone" VL-1. You know, that little white stick which Trio used on "Da Da Da" and The Human League on "Get Carter".
For a short period, before big business and big businessmen crashed the party, there was a lot of easy cash to be made in those early game days. Subsequent titles revealed that Mel had been spending some of his financial gains on new music making things, including a Korg
Vocoder, and even a Roland TR-808 and a TB-303. You can hear those acid mainstays - brand new at the time - most clearly on the track 'Video Nasty', along with some semi-Zappa guitar work and vocals. 'I'm The Slime' must have been an influence. In fact, the whole 'back catalogue' shows distinct signs of Zappa, Monty Python, VdGG, Ivor Cutler and various other 1960s/1970s oddballs, but filtered through a low-fidelity electronic fug with some rather filthy lyrics to boot. "Outsider music from the fringes of the microchip revolution", if I was pushed for a one line description. The atmosphere of the music nicely fitted the software, which was similarly odd, with a very heavy British eccentric twist to it. Never a bad thing, in my opinion.
The music and the binary code came together in spectacular fashion in 1984, with possibly Automata's crowning achievement, "Deus Ex Machina". This time, the soundtrack was an integral part of the game, which involved guiding a lifeform from birth to death. Mel again provided the songs, but this was now a full 40 minute soundtrack, split over two sides of tape and synced (hopefully, assuming your cassette player ran at the right speed) to the visual happenings. And although the music was recorded in the usual fashion, a professional studio was booked for the vocal contributions of various guests. Ian Dury, Jon Pertwee, Donna Bailey and Frankie Howerd played various roles in the soundtrack. Quite a catch, even though Pertwee fell off his Harley Davidson on the way to the session, and Howerd was reputedly not the nicest of people to work with.
In 1985 it all unraveled. Deus won many awards and column inches of praise, but sold few copies. The Pimania prize was awarded to two residents of Ilkley, Mel and Christian wound the company up, the Piman costume was put away and the two went their separate ways. Mel stayed in the industry, and has recently popped up again with a new version of Deus for the PC. In 2010, the US label Feeding Tube Records put the pick of the Automata music on this beautifully packaged LP, despite the ZX Spectrum and the Piman meaning absolutely nothing to American audiences. However the music transcends this, as music often does. You didn't really need all this typed information to appreciate it, assuming it's your musical 'bag' in the first place. Original Automata artist Robin Evans provided new art featuring the old 'gang' for the sleeve (which is made of the heaviest card I've ever seen used anywhere), and there's a poster featuring various old adverts and bits of ephemera. The tracks have been available online for many years (there's a link below), but the fact that someone decided that these things should be carved into vinyl for posterity makes me slightly glow internally. A real labour of love, in fact. Hats off, chaps. Go easy with your rubber duck.
Link to zipped mp3 files: http://www.worldofspectrum.org/hardware/pi3.html