What is it about cult artists? My good friend Ben once asked me, when I gave him a lovingly curated mix CD of great music, whether this was another compilation made by artists that nobody had ever heard of. A cult artist normally has a small but very passionate fanbase and the assumption made by its fans is that the artist is too unusual to be appreciated by the general public. Sometimes I feel a little bit aggrieved when an artist I like suddenly becomes famous. It was like that with R.E.M. Thanks to Allan Jones’ Melody Maker article, I bought the first two R.E.M. records in 1984 and subsequently liked to remind everybody I knew about this when they became famous. “Of course, their first two records are the best”. How often have you heard this said? Or “When they sold out they lost all credibility”? I sometimes think I preferred it when my favourite artists remain unknown to all but a few. Which was somewhat unfair, bearing in mind that I was earning a comfortable living but I seemed to prefer it if they starved. I’ve just read an article in UNCUT about how Marc Bolan transformed Tyrannosaurus Rex into T.Rex in order to become successful. Which he did brilliantly whilst simultaneously inventing “glam” so fair play to him. But there is something smug and complacent about dropping unknown artists into conversation. “Oh yes, Rain Parade were a huge influence on Patty Hurst Shifter” and when people look at you blankly, you can just shrug your shoulders and give the impression of a vastly superior knowledge.
Being male, I love a good list and a few years ago I made a list of the best records ever. It’s accessed via the website below. In truth, my favourite albums are not made by unknown artists. Of my Top 20 records of all time, 3 are by Van Morrison, 4 by The Beatles/John Lennon, 2 are by Bob Dylan, 1 each by The Beach Boys, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and the rest are by Half Man Half Biscuit (2), Counting Crows, Tim Buckley (2), Sunhouse, The Unthanks, The Mountain Goats. I don’t think that’s particularly obscure. (Interesting that “Starsailor” by Tim Buckley is down at Number 12 – I need to revise this list and restore it to its rightful place at Number 2).
There’s an interesting Wikipedia page called “Psychology of Music Preferences”. One of the sentences is a bit of a giveaway for those of us who like to pretend we just like obscure music because it’s better and everybody else is just a bit boring. “Music preferences can also be influenced by how the individual wants to be perceived, especially in males. Music preferences could be used to make self-directed identity claims.” It’s back to the pompous assumption that carrying round the Blind Faith record in 1969 made you, in the words of Lucinda Williams, “2 Kool 2 Be 4-gotten”.
Having said that, I like Patty Hurst Shifter. They don’t have a Wikipedia page. They appear to have released only two LPs and 1 EP. If you visit http://www.pattyhurstshifter.com you come across a website with some Maths lessons on it (?). One of their members was Mark E. Smith but he’s nothing to do with The Fall. Their bassist Jesse Huebner looked like Harry Enfield. Their lead singer was Chris Smith but he never played cricket for England. Skillet Gilmore used to be the drummer in Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams first band. They originated in Raleigh, North Carolina and originally formed only to draw attention to Drive By Truckers who weren’t attracting big crowds.
I have always assumed that the name Patty Hurst Shifter was a play on the name Patty Hearst, who was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst and was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. There was speculation that she may have joined forces with her kidnappers to extort money from her grandfather. However, when searching for more information on the group I have found reference to Linda Vaughn who was active in racing and marketing for nearly six decades and known by legions of racing fans as Miss Hurst Golden Shifter. She was the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame’s Lady of the Century. A not very well known fact (certainly not by me) is that Linda Vaughn was not the first Hurst Golden Shifter Girl. That honour was bestowed on Pat Flannery, known as “Perky Patty”. Hence Patty Hurst Shifter. I conclude that this all has something to do with stock car racing and Hurst gearboxes (or shifters). Here’s a picture of Perky Patty.
The album is great. There are two stand out tracks. One is called “Sadder Side” and starts with a full electric guitar strum before the bass and drums kick in. It’s a slow and moody song and it would be true to say that the singer is not in the best state of mind. “Just a dirty little trick I picked up out on the sadder side of town and when it gets too crowded on the losing end only the truly cold make it through.” It is fairly typical of the Paisley sound of the mid 1980s which The Rain Parade, Green On Red and Dream Syndicate perfected. This however was released in 2006. The lead vocals by Chris Smith are emotional and passionate. The instrumentation is dense with a full sound developed by an organ. The review in UNCUT described the group as a “literate, thrilling quartet” and described the record as “a classic of delinquent rock’n’roll bravado, barroom heartache, carnal testimony, all the regrets that come with reckless living and ruinous women.” The CD is also excellent and folds out into a four sided cover with all the lyrics.
A few years after I bought this record I was playing a random selection of songs that I had put onto a CD. One song came on and I didn’t recognise it. It was a slow brooding song that went on and on and on and I could not recognise it. I played it several times and finally (I can’t remember how), I found that it was the ten minute album closer “Acetylene”. It’s haunting, sad, mesmeric and bears many repeated listens. It’s not easy listening; for example “Somebody gave up the fight today. Just another fool lost it all in a heart rending way” or “It’ll be no small miracle that saves you when you can’t even stand yourself.” For more on this record, visit this website.
So, do I like this record because it’s good or because very few people will have heard of it? Does an artist’s obscurity add to its worth? Would I like this as much if it were in every magazine’s top 100 albums of all times? Am I an aficionado of cult music or is it all a smutty schoolboy’s misspelling?