Wiped takes a look at the work of psychedelic pop fan Nigel Lees and his home-grown Top Sounds record label, which has gained a strong reputation among missing music enthusiasts for its compilations of officially lost BBC sessions. It’s highly-anticipated new release, Shapes and Sounds Vol. 3, is out now and boasts more treasures recently re-discovered by Nigel.
If there’s a music equivalent of Indiana Jones then Nigel Lees is a strong contender for the title.
For Nigel has been instrumental in tracking down and sharing with an appreciative audience rare and lost live recordings from the psychedelic era of pop.
Founder of the Top Sounds label in 2004, Nigel has released three compilations on CD and vinyl sparkling with forgotten gems from the most interesting names in pop, psychedelia and progressive rock.
His fourth album, Shapes and Sounds Vol. 3, has just been released and contains another treasure trove of unique material featuring performances ranging from well-known bands such as The Pretty Things and Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich to the underground sounds of Skip Bifferty and The Earth.
“It really began when a friend of mine started a label of his own nine years ago and I helped out, getting into the stuff he was doing,” says Nigel, who started buying 1960s records back in 1981, aged 12.
“Over time our ideas and aims began to diversify and so I decided to do something of my own, which was start Top Sounds.
“Top Sounds has had four releases and though that doesn’t sound much in four and a half years, these things take so much time to do. My day job is as a coal miner so I can only run the label in my spare time.
“I’m always thinking of new releases and it occupies a lot of my mind, but there’s the job of physically putting an album out as well as the time and work involved putting it together in the first place. At the moment there’s no profit from it really: It’s more a labour of love.”
Maybe it’s in part thanks to his profession that Nigel is so good at digging out and tapping into rich seams of hitherto undiscovered music for each new compilation.
“I made contact with this guy who was recording music from the radio and TV on to reel-to-reel tapes, back in the 1960s,” he explains.
“He was taping music from late ’66 – early ’67 onwards and was actively doing so for some 10 years. He has got 300 tapes, 250 of which are sound tracks from TV.
“What is fascinating is that he taped a lot of Top Gear and Saturday Club and some of the material he has seems to be unique.”
The reason for that uniqueness is that BBC music shows such as Top Gear, broadcast from 1967 – 75 and hosted by the likes of a young John Peel, and Radio 1 stablemate Saturday Club were routinely wiped soon after transmission – though the BBC did at least retain some of the music performances in their archives.
“But for some recordings,” continues Nigel, “these are the only known copies in the world.
“For example, I’ve managed to find some Hendrix performances that don’t seem to exist elsewhere and approximately five Cream performances which are either better quality than the ones out there now, more complete or not around at all.
“I’d love to put out the likes of Cream and Hendrix as it would be great for my label but it’s a whole different ball game to dealing with material by lesser-known bands such as Tomorrow or Kaleidoscope.
“I contacted the Hendrix estate about the recordings I’d discovered and they said ‘it’s great you’ve found these’ but added that there’s a deal between Universal Music and the BBC to put out Hendrix material through themselves.
“Finding sessions by lesser-known bands is more exciting because, most of the time, they are easier to use.”
“Easier” is, however, a relative word. As all Nigel’s CDs are properly licensed by the BBC he has to follow strict guidelines, including obtaining permission from band members, before tracks can be released commercially.
“When I did my first Beeb CD I spoke with their licensing guy,” he remembers, “and I asked him how many signatures from band members I would need to get. He replied “All of them”.
“That can be difficult. For example, with a band like The Mirage most of the band have passed on, though I did manage to find the only surviving member.
“But I do what I can and in almost every case I find two or more band members. It’s only with the most obscure groups that I might not find any one. Even if only one member can be located then at least I can submit a proposal to the BBC and explain why I couldn’t get signatures from the other members.”
Thankfully, Nigel has managed to get the blessings of a diverse range of musicians and groups for Shapes and Sounds Vol. 3.
The 19 – track album, covering the years 1967 – 71, is bookended by lost performances by cult performer Bill Fay, “a cross between Bob Dylan and Elton John” according to the presenter of the show, BBC’s Disco 2, which was broadcast in early 1971 and then promptly wiped.
One of the songs, ‘After The Revolution’, is of particular note as Fay never recorded it anywhere else. It is only thanks to one music lover making a reel-to-reel off-air recording at the time that we can enjoy the performance today.
Wilder and rawer than the Rollin’ Stones but, alas, never as big, The Pretty Things make a fleeting appearance on the compilation with another important song absent from the official archives.
“It’s a stand-out track and quite a scoop for the label,” boasts Nigel of ‘Old Man Going’, which was the only one of four tracks from a late 1968 Top Gear session never retained by the BBC.
Even better than the album version, which appeared on seminal proto-rock concept LP S.F. Sorrow, it blasts out with fuzzed guitars as fresh as if it was recorded yesterday.
The most famous act on the album has to be Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. A double CD of their BBC sessions was released last year, but was missing one track, a psychedelic rock take of First Edition’s American hit `Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’.
Top Sounds has managed to locate a copy of that recording on what is known as a BBC transcription disc (similar to a vinyl record and used as an efficient and cheap way to professionally tape and distribute live performances to other, licensed broadcasters), as well as unearth a better version of ‘Frustration’ from the group’s first L.P.
“I approached Dave Dee at a gig last year and put the idea of featuring the missing song to him,’ says Nigel. ‘He was really enthusiastic but sadly he passed away earlier this year before he got to hear it again. I feel glad that at least he knew it was no longer missing.”
The other groups featured on Shapes and Sounds Vol. 3 are The End with two tracks rescued from off-air recordings, Skip Bifferty, Cupid’s Inspiration, Gulliver’s People and The Earth.
All the tracks have been professionally restored and mastered to make them sound as good as possible.
“The reel-to-reel tapes I use are generally very good quality,” explains Nigel. The guy who recorded most of them was plugging a recorder straight into the radio rather than using a hand-held mic next to the speaker, so avoiding outside interference.
“But the majority of the songs, probably three quarters, are from BBC transcription discs, which are good quality to begin with and easier to restore. I wouldn’t like to do an whole album of off-air material.”
As with the sound quality, the presentation of the album is vitally important and the CD of Shapes and Sounds Vol. 3 comes in a period-flavoured package with a 28 page colour booklet full of illustrations, band histories and listings of all their known BBC sessions, written by Nigel himself, who authored much of the highly popular `The British Psychedelic Trip’ series for Record Collector magazine.
The compilation maybe hot off the presses but Nigel is already thinking ahead to his next release, which might or might not include some early work by a huge glam rock star of the 1970s he’s recently discovered.
“I don’t want to give away too much at this stage,” he ends, enigmatically, “but my main source of material has so much I can carry on for ages putting out what he’s got if I get permission.”
Shapes and Sounds Vol. 3 is available now from Top Sounds on vinyl or CD.