VARIOUS ARTISTS – ” The Rock Machine Turns You On ” Released 1968

Posted: May 1, 2019 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
Tags: , ,

The Rock Machine Turns You On was the first bargain priced sampler album. It was released in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, The Netherlands, Germany and a number of other European countries in 1968 as part of an international marketing campaign by Columbia Records, who were known in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as CBS.

A 1969 dated edition ( Number ASF 1356) bought in South Africa had a different sleeve (yellow with cut outs in the Rock Machine boxes) and psychedelic multicoloured vinyl. It also has a completely different track list with such notable tracks as Big Brother and the Holding Company’s ‘Piece of my Heart’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’.

The Rock Machine marketing campaign was initiated in the US in January 1968, by Columbia Records under its president Clive Davis. The campaign was seen as a means of promoting its expanding roster of rock and folk rock acts, who included Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Moby Grape, Spirit, Taj Mahal, and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Early promotional material in Billboard magazine stated:

The Rock Machine...it’s the happening sounds of today. Out of it comes the biggest, hottest rock list that ever started off any month. And with our Columbia Rock Machine, the most exciting and meaningful merchandising campaign we’ve ever devised….. It’s all here – the talent, the product and the big concept to make it all happen. Now, doesn’t that turn you on?”

The design of the “Rock Machine” logo, used in subsequent publicity material, including album covers, was by Milton Glaser

As part of its highly successful campaign, CBS Records released The Rock Machine Turns You On, the first budget sampler LP,  in the UK in 1968. The album was priced at 14 shillings and 11 pence (£0.75), less than half the cost of a full priced LP at the time. It entered the UK Albums Chart in June 1969, several months after its first release, rising to no. 18, and was estimated to have sold over 140,000 copies. 

Side 1

  1. “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” – Bob Dylan – from the LP John Wesley Harding
  2. “Can’t Be So Bad” – Moby Grape – from the LP Wow
  3. “Fresh Garbage” – Spirit – from the LP Spirit
  4. “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” – The United States of America – from the LP The United States of America
  5. “Time of the Season” – The Zombies – from the LP Odessey and Oracle
  6. “Turn on a Friend” – The Peanut Butter Conspiracy – from the LP The Great Conspiracy
  7. “Sisters of Mercy” – Leonard Cohen – from the LP The Songs of Leonard Cohen

Side 2

  1. “My Days Are Numbered” – Blood, Sweat and Tears – from the LP Child Is Father to the Man
  2. “Dolphins Smile” – The Byrds – from the LP The Notorious Byrd Brothers
  3. “Scarborough Fair / Canticle” – Simon and Garfunkel – from the LP Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme
  4. “Statesboro Blues” – Taj Mahal – from the LP Taj Mahal
  5. “Killing Floor” – The Electric Flag – from the LP A Long Time Comin’
  6. “Nobody’s Got Any Money In The Summer” – Roy Harper – from the LP Come Out Fighting Ghengis Smith
  7. “Come Away Melinda” – Tim Rose – from the LP Tim Rose
  8. “Flames” – Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera – from the LP Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera

The Rock Machine Turns You On influenced a generation of music fans , At the time, what was then called “underground music” was starting to achieve some commercial success in Europe, bolstered by new radio and TV programmes such as John Peel’s “Top Gear”. CBS competed actively for this new market against other “progressive” labels such as Elektra, Island, Immediate, and the EMI subsidiary Harvest, who followed with similar samplers of their acts. Although some of the featured artists were already stars, others such as Leonard Cohen and Spirit were only starting to become known in Europe, and the album made a major contribution to their success.

CBS released a second, similar, sampler album in the UK in 1968, Rock Machine I Love You. The company followed up these LPs in 1970 with three double sampler albums – Fill Your Head with Rock, Rockbuster,  and Together!.

Some years later, the affiliated company, Epic Records, used a similar format for The Rock Machine Still Turns You On, Vols. 1 and 2, in 1983

The importance of this unassuming album can’t be overstated. It was the first rock sampler album I ever saw or heard, and almost certainly the first such ever released here in the UK. It was in fact the first time I saw the actual term “rock” used to describe the music at all; previously the successive labels “underground” and “progressive” had been coined to cover the diverging (from “pop”) stream of album-based, art-for-art’s-sake music that had started with Dylan and Hendrix. It was the new music’s first budget release; at a time when the standard price of an album was 32/6 (about £1.63), this cost 14/6 (about 73p), just within the average teenager’s weekly pocket-money allocation. And it would spawn a whole new sub-genre of record releases peculiar to, and essential to, progressive rock: the cult of the sampler.

What came over then, and still impresses today, is the sheer quality of this dip into the CBS catalogue of 1969. Each track can be seen to have been carefully cherrypicked from its parent album, no sample being so leftfield as to frighten off the listener, though nobody venturing further into any of the represented albums would have been disappointed. Yet the overall diversity of the collection is astonishing, both in terms of styles and artists, in a way befitting progressive music. Practitioners of jazz-rock, country-rock, folk-rock, blues-rock, psychedelia and simple honest weirdness are all represented, whilst the acts featured include established big-hitters (Dylan, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel), contemporary heroes whose days were numbered (the Zombies, Moby Grape, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, Tim Rose), newcomers who would fall at the first hurdle (the United States Of America, the Electric Flag, Elmer Gantry’s Velvet Opera) and up-and-coming artists who would go on to found dynasties (Leonard Cohen, Spirit, Blood Sweat & Tears, Roy Harper, Taj Mahal).

Two tracks above all left their mark on me. The Electric Flag’s “Killing Floor” induced me to purchase their album straightaway; this powerful number remains my favourite blues-rock AND jazz-rock performance of all time, with Mike Bloomfield on cloud nine and brass work to die for, the standout track from a solid album. By contrast, despite taking a perverse delight in “I Won’t Leave My Wooden Wife For You, Sugar” I somehow didn’t get round to buying the United States Of America’s only album until 2008, when a book review of it re-aroused my interest. This erotically engaging ditty with its homely brass band coda merely hints at the trippy weirdness of its fellow tracks – one to grow into over forty years, now to become a classic .

A steady stream of samplers followed as prog-rock blossomed, including the best of the lot: CBS’s double from 1970, Fill Your Head With Rock. Samplers were considered disposable, and originals are now quite rare and collectable (sadly, I disposed of all mine many years ago when thinning the collection). Whilst retrospectively compiled anthologies covering the whole life of a label are nowadays commonplace, original samplers with their snapshot of a moment in prog-rock’s history are not. The Rock Machine Turns You On is the only sampler ever to be reissued on CD in its original form – and that sadly minus Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”, probably due to some momentary petulance on Paul Simon’s part. It came out in 1996 and is now a rarity in its own right, never having been re-released. Sony could do a lot worse than reissue The Rock Machine Turns You On and Fill Your Head With Rock in their original forms, although licencing problems mean they probably won’t.

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