The 6 Best Bargain Bin Bangers To Buy
Pay no more than £1.99 for a copy! Avid vinyl collector and self-avowed Northern cheapskate, Townsend Music Head Of Digital Barney takes us through his favourite hidden gems that reside in the bargain bins of every vinyl fair, record store and charity shop in this green and pleasant land.
While the days of finding a pristine copy of Revolver for £1.99 at your local charity shop may be long gone, there are still bargains to be had out there in record land. Among every copy of South Pacific soundtrack nestling next to Bimbo by Jim Reeves, there could be timeless LPs like Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells and Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygene resting in the same stack.
Allow me to present a selection of mass-produced, multi-million sellers from the late 70s and early 80s whose legends may have dimmed across the years but are well worth your time. These are records repeatedly seen on sale in well-worn sleeves at pocket money prices from local record stores like Townsend Records, but, (whisper it!) each of these cut-price classics I've listened to at least as many times as albums for which I've paid ten times the price. Dust off your vinyl brush and prepare to dig deep for The 6 Best Bargain Bin Bangers To Buy!
Sky - Sky 1 (1979)
For Fans Of: Marillion, Mike Oldfield
The daddy. The motherlode. The Big Kahuna. I believe it's a British by-law that in order to open a second-hand record shop in the UK, at least five dog-eared copies of Sky are legally required to be on the premises at all times, priced at no more than £1.99 each. Sky were an English/Australian instrumental rock group that specialised in combining rock, classical and jazz. Sounds horrible right? But the group's original and best-known line-up featured classical guitarist John Williams and electric guitarist Kevin Peek, alongside three British session player icons: bass player Herbie Flowers, drummer/percussionist Tristan Fry and keyboard player Francis Monkman.
While the virtuoso talents of the whole team are undeniable, it's the special sauce of Herbie Flower's (he of 'Walk On The Wild Side' sliding bassline infamy) rock-solid, funky presence that keeps Sky from descending into prog-rock meandering and well into the realms of music that still sounds fresh and innovative. Put anything over the domineering bounce of 'Westway's picked, palm-muted bass hook and it'll sound good - add some of the world's greatest musicians at their most restrained and tasteful and you have something very special indeed. Quite why Sky doesn't sit in the pantheon of other classics from this age, I cannot say; perhaps it was the diminishing returns of their later albums and the somewhat novelty breakout hit of 'Toccata' from Sky 2 that eclipsed the genuine greatness of this record. If you're going to try out just one record on this list, the only way is up with Sky.
“Sky's progressive/classical/jazz fusion has an ageless quality that stands up to contemporary scrutiny.” - We Are Cult
Giorgio Moroder - Midnight Express (Music From The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1978)
For Fans Of: Daft Punk, Tangerine Dream
While not quite as unheralded as the other releases on this list, the soundtrack to Midnight Express - in both its sleeve variations - is regular bargain bin fodder. Released on October 6, 1978, by Casablanca Records, the album was composed by Italian synth-pioneer Giorgio Moroder, arranged by Harold Faltermeyer (of 'Axel F' fame) and won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1979.
While the entire soundtrack more than stands up as a record in its own right, it's 'Chase' that is the game-changer here - anyone familiar with Daft Punk's 'Giorgio by Moroder' will spot the reference. Created especially for the film, director Alan Parker explicitly asked Moroder for a song in the style of 'I Feel Love' which Moroder famously composed for Donna Summer.
What Morodor delivered was a track that evolved the use of music as a tension-building device in cinema, a sonic trick that continues to provoke anxiety to this day in films like Drive, How to Blow Up a Pipeline and Tron Legacy to name but a few.
"Any time someone describes a piece of music as 'cinematic,' there’s a decent chance they’re thinking, consciously or subconsciously, of 'Chase'. It's impossible to overstate, let alone list, the amount of composers and films who've ripped off 'Chase'." - Pitchfork
Various Artists - Reflections (1982) & Imaginations (1983)
For Fans Of: Ennio Morricone, Riuichi Sakamoto
OK, I'm cheating a little here, but - as with a sibling pair of puppies begging to be taken home from the pound - I'm loathe to separate this brother and sister pairing of chazza shop classics. While the first volume of 'Original Instrumental Hits' Reflections is more lovingly arranged and mastered, Imaginations has a better overall tracklist in my opinion. Whoever donated one of these cheap and cheerful collections to a record store or, woe betide, left them to be discovered in their mantlepiece after leaving this mortal coil, chances are that if one appears, the other won't be far behind.
Granted, in 2023, the opening salvo of the theme from Brideshead Revisited is unlikely to set many pulses racing, but what follows across the two volumes are some truly essential selections of instrumental music, masterfully curated and arranged. From avant-garde soundtrack work ('Theme From Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence' - Riuichi Sakamoto); to contemporary jazz ('Shepherds Song' - Bob James); to classic rock ('Albatross' - Fleetwood Mac) it's a surefooted spectrum of smooth. My personal favourite is The Maestro Ennio Morricone's 'Chi Mai', taken from BBC series The Life & Times of David Lloyd George and a bargain at ten times the price.
Rise - Herb Alpert (1979)
For Fans Of: Weather Report, Bob James
While over on Reddit, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass' mariachi million-sellers of the 1960s, such as Whipped Cream & Other Delights may have become a punchline for ubiquitous, laughable and downright corny bargain bin records, there is indeed gold in them thar hills of Herb Alpert's solo soul-jazz adventures of the 1970s. Rise is the richest of those nuggets, a blueprint whose arrangements and structure Herb rinsed and repeated across a run of albums through the early eighties. Rest assured, none of the work before or since quite reaches the apex of the uplifting energy of this aptly titled long player.
For modern listeners, it's the title track's bassline and beat that will immediately capture the ear, expertly flipped by Bad Boy Entertainment as the backing track of the world-conquering 'Hypnotize' by Notorious B.I.G in 1997. The rest of the record follows suit in vibrancy and tone, boasting a world-beating array of session specialists from Abe Laboriel to Steve Schaeffer. While the upbeat jazz-pop on offer never reaches the outer limits of a Mahavishnu Orchestra or Wayne Shorter, neither is this the muzak that many may expect of Alpert. Give the dynamic disco of 'Aranjuez (Mon Amour)' a shot on the playlist below if you need a second opinion.
"What Rise all adds up to is an extraordinary recording that stands the test of time as a bona fide classic of the late disco/pre hip-hop era." - AllMusic
Andrew Lloyd Webber - Variations (1978)
For Fans Of: Gary Moore, Emersion Lake & Palmer
Now we're getting into the weeds! Albums that promise to fuse rock and classical are ordinarily the last things I would reach for, £1.99. or not. Perhaps it was the anarchic humour of the sunglasses, headphones and stonking sound system overlaid over a painting of a classical string quartet on the sleeve that made me take a (cheap) chance on this album, but I'm certainly glad I did. Variations is a classical and rock fusion album, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber and performed by his younger brother, the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Story has it that it was not until Julian beat his brother in a bet on a Leyton Orient football match that Andrew was forced to write his accomplished brother a cello work. As his subject, Andrew chose the theme of Paganini's '24th caprice', added 23 variations for cello and rock band and premiered the work at the 1977 Sydmonton Festival.
On the recorded version, Julian is accompanied by session legends Don Airey, Gary Moore, John Mole, Jon Hiseman Rod Argent and Barbara Thompson. It's this distinguished powderkeg of rock virtuosity that really makes this baby ignite.
While most listeners will recognise the thrilling classical and rock mash-up opener as the theme from The South Bank Show, once the band gets halfway through Side 1, the wigs and ruffles come off. By the time we hit Moore-showcase 'Variation 7', classical pretensions are gone and the band erupt into an odd time-signature prog rock freak out that would make Rush sit up and take notes. More likely than not sitting in a bargain bin near you for less than the price of a Grab Bag of Walkers Crisps, Variations is well worth a spin.
"It’s beautifully recorded and performed, the tune and its variations are endlessly hummable, and it has stood the test of time while so many other records attempting to fuse classical, rock and jazz have thankfully disappeared into the Great Remainder Bin in the Sky" - Tracking Angle
Hank Marvin - The Hank Marvin Guitar Syndicate (1977)
For Fans Of: Mike Oldfield, Steve Hackett
Okay. Hear me out. While I'm quite fond of the easy-listening cover versions produced by Hank's day job in The Shadows, I won't waste 400 words convincing you that anything other than 'Apache' is essential listening. But The Hank Marvin Guitar Syndicate, a 1977 album by Hank Marvin, is an altogether more ambitious affair, about which I can find precious little online.
It was the back sleeve credits featuring KPM Library Music stalwarts including Kevin Peek, Alan Parker, Herbie Flowers, Alan Hawkshaw and Shadows drummer Brian Bennet that tipped me off to the potential quality of this record. And from the opening Alan Hawkshaw-penning 'New Earth' - a track sonically more at home on an Alan Parsons Project record than a Cliff Richards LP - it's apparent we're not on 'Summer Holiday' anymore.
What follows this adventurous opener is a journey through different genres from surf to pop to prog-inspired instrumental rock tracks that I'm assuming Hank had a ball stretching out and indulging in. Highlights include the breezy 'Flamingo' and the smooth, funky 'Syndicated' - one to sample on the Spotify playlist below.
The Hank Marvin Guitar Syndicate is likely more difficult to come by than the rest of the records on this list - and it might even break that £1.99 barrier if you do come across it - but for fans of KPM, Bruton and De Wilde library music, this curio is a pleasure from top to tail.