GOLD DIGGER: SPACE IS THE PLACE
By Mark O'Shaughnessy
Mark O'Shaughnessy is a professional record dealer and the owner of Resolution Records, established in 1993. He has travelled all over the world with his job and will share some of his experiences and escapades with us in this regular column.
“Been there. Seen it. Done it."
These are words that jump into my mind on a regular basis when I am going about my daily business as a record dealer. It's not so much that I'm getting jaded by what I do - I'm actually not. It’s more that I crave some excitement now and again - and the phrase refers more to the fact that what we really need in the shop is a regular injection of amazing and interesting records. It’s just a massive boost for everyone concerned - me, the staff who work alongside me and, most importantly, our customers - both in-store and online. Read on:
The current renewed interest in deep space and and the race to learn more about Jupiter and Mars reminded me of Sun Ra’s death in mid-1993. I recall Gilles Peterson playing 'Space Is The Place' on his highly influential KISS FM radio show by way of tribute on the night and that in turn reminded me of an amazing Sun Ra collection that came my way in the weeks that followed.
Nobody can ever be fully sure how many LPs Sun Ra and his Arkestra actually "released" during his career - to attempt a full discography would be a fool's errand because Ra often pressed LPs himself and had band members stick hand drawn labels on them while he and the Arkestra were on the road - and they were never off the road during their peak in the 60s and 70s! He recorded for many labels during his time - ABC-Impulse / Horo / ESP-Disk / Philly-Jazz etc etc, but most of his own recordings were released on his own label - El Saturn - self recorded / self-financed / self-pressed / self-printed / self-distributed - often at gigs. Hence the mystery surrounding his full discography
I was still a fledgling digger back in 93 - I'd only been on extended digs a few times at that point, and was still finding my professional feet. I got to know a Jewish guy from Manchester at around that time (we'll call him Manny, just in case he's reading this) who knew very little about music but used to dabble in records because he knew there was money to be made. Manny was an interesting character, a gold merchant by trade...and...just to say that the 'record game' was populated by some shady characters way back then (still is, some would say). In these pre-internet days, all comms were done over the phone and deals would often take weeks to finalise...very frustrating times.
Manny called me up one evening and began telling me what he had for sale. He always seemed to have some amazing stuff and was particularly adept at finding Library records too. I never asked him where they all came from - he seemed something of a tough nut and didn't give too much away. As the conversation went on, he said "oh - I've also got a whole load of gear from outer space - about a hundred mate". (Manny referred to everything as 'gear' - records, gold bracelets, clothing etc). Of course, I was intrigued and asked him what he meant by outer space.
“Listen Marky” he barked at me in broadest Mancunian, “I can't tell you nuffink about these records except that they've all got a sticker on ‘em saying Saturn and they've all got a load of scribble on 'em". Nowadays, it would be simple to find out what he had as he could just send me a few pictures and I'd know instantly what was what, but as I said, back in those days it was all done by phone or snail mail (I myself ran a monthly paper mail order list for over 20 years, people...) and could take ages and ages to finalise such collections. I quickly put two and two together and realised that what Manny had was a whole collection of original Sun Ra albums on Saturn, seemingly all hand decorated by Ra and the Arkestra. My heart skipped a beat.
Manny was no mug, people. He understood the value of things and rarely made mistakes in his dealings with me and other people that I knew who bought from him, so this catch was gonna be a difficult one to land. We talked a little longer and I eventually felt that the moment was right to show my hand. As I say, this guy was no fool so this first offer was critical - if I went in too low, he'd get annoyed and the deal would be off instantly, but if I went in too high, I could be hugely overpaying. A bead of sweat trickled down my brow and I calmly said "how about two grand for the lot - twenty quid each?” The phone went silent for a few seconds while Manny did his own math. "Marky - you've got a deal" he said, and I allowed myself a little smile. “Tell you what, I'll even throw in delivery for ‘em - how's that sound? But I want the money in cash mate"
As I said, Manny could be a sharp operator and he liked to deal in the "queen's head" wherever possible, so a cheque (remember those?) was out of the question with him here. Now, two grand was a lot of money in 1993; I certainly didn't have it so I had to go down to my bank and arrange an overdraft extension to cover the payment. This took a day and I then had to go in and draw the cash across the counter. That's how it was all done in those days.
Clutching a huge wedge of red £50 notes, I packed them into a brand new 7" mailer which I then sent from my local Post Office by special delivery to an address in affluent Wilmslow and held my breath. There was no online tracking back then, no second-by-second internet trail existed - we simply had to put our faith in the postal services - it was a nail-biting two days, believe me..
Then, one morning five days later, I got a knock on my door - it was Parcel Force with a huge box for me - and I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I scribbled a one second signature on the delivery guy's paper document and lugged the box up to my first floor home office. I carefully opened it and examined the contents...there in front of me was what looked like an almost complete run of Sun Ra Saturn LPs - looked like they were ALL in there people...Nubians of Plutonia, The Antique Blacks, Monorails and Satellites, We Travel The Spaceways, Of Mythic Worlds, Lanquidity, Twin Stars Thence etc etc etc.
Oh my word - an absolute explosion of vivid colour, artwork, screen prints, sticky labels, stapled sheets, hand drawn figures, Egyptology, lunar imagery - just mind-boggling - an actual lifetime's collection, an archive of Sun Ra's work. My head was spinning...none of them were worth less than £100, even way back then. These days, you can comfortably triple that for some of these LPs - often there were only 99 of each title pressed. Why 99 you ask? Because back then, Uncle Sam levied taxes on record runs of 100 or over so many labels just pressed 99 in order to avoid the tax - we had a similar platform here in the UK too.
I sat down and carefully went through each LP, put them into their own plastic sleeve and made sure that the correct artwork went with the correct LP (not easy, people...each LP had its own sticky labels - its own unique artwork). This alone took me several hours. I finally reached the last LP in the box - an especially rare beauty called Dance Of The Innocent Passion - when I spotted a till receipt from a well-known charity shop (it was from an Oxfam branch in Cheshire cos I KNOW y'all will wanna know... ) just inside the inner sleeve - it read '100 vinyl albums / £1 per item / £100'...I stifled an inner giggle, Manny was savvy enough to pick up these amazingly rare records from his local chazzer at a pound a pop and then sell them onto me at 2000% profit - I had met my match folks - no contest. What I realised straightway was that Manny would have very likely accepted a coupla quid each for them - he really was a fast turnover merchant - so I could have gotten them for £200 in reality - oh well...live and learn...
And it's no lie to tell you that I only recently sold the very last Saturn from this collection - 25 years I held onto some of these records because I knew how rare some of them were - still are. I don't personally believe that such a collection will ever surface all together again - I believe it to be a one-off and what it was doing in a charity shop in affluent Cheshire is anybody's guess.
The moral of the story? Be brave when buying - it can often pay huge dividends!
Find out more about Mark’s day job here: