Saturday, September 26, 2009

Soma Records Roundup

Soma: Ancient Hindus used this word to describe a magical beverage, drink of the gods, or more accurately, the Drink-as-God. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley imagined a drug called soma which, when ingested, induced visions. So many dreams. So many visions. Midwestern businessman Amos Heilicher may or may not have had visions, but in 1957 he did think to spell his own name backwards. Then he used the handle for his new record company, Soma Records.

Minneapolis born and based, Soma epitomized the great American independent label. During its heyday, 1959-1966, it thrived largely beyond the reach of national trends, and, thanks to a number of favorable conditions, it functioned as linchpin for a uniquely regional rock ‘n’ roll scene. For one, Heilicher owned probably every juke box and “rack job” (record vendor for dime stores) in Minnesota, and he had the power to sway local airplay in favor of his co’s records. Then the kids themselves, ever hungry for danceable tunes, and living in a region largely crossed-off the tours of big national acts, threw favor at homegrown heroes like the Trashmen, The Accents, Underbeats, et al. In such relative isolation, a taste for rough rockin’ instrumentals developed. Most of the action took place at the dozens of weekly dances held around the region. By playing these dances, many of the bands earned exceptionally good money, even by today’s standards. Such conditions had a way of reversing the usual formula where the show promotes the record. Records became calling cards for the shows. Still, many of ‘em--released by a slew of labels, but especially the Soma discs by the Fendermen, Bobby Vee, The Gestures--charted, and charted big.

What follows is by no means a comprehensive roundup, but it covers the classics. There's a streaming playlist at the end of this post.

The Fendermen “Mule Skinner Blues” b/w “Torture” 1960 (Soma 1137). Jim Sundquist & Phil Humphrey shred the Jimmy Rodgers original, achieving some kinda pinnacle of hickoid mania while landing a surprise spot in the Top 10. Thirty years later, the Phantom Surfers lifted the riff from the instro “Torture” as the basis for their own classic surf stomp “Wave Hog.”

The Fendermen “Don’t You Just Know It” b/w “Beach Party” 1960 (Soma 1142). The cover tune backed by an original instro works again.

The Gestures “Run, Run, Run” b/w “It Seems to Me” 1964 (Soma 1417). Now a classic from the Nuggets comp, this one got released midway through Soma’s great run.

The Gestures

The Trashmen “Surfin’ Bird” b/w “King of the Surf” 1963 (GA 4002). Does this one really need an introduction? On Soma subsidiary Garrett records, named for Soma engineer George Garret.

The Trashmen “Whoa Dad!” b/w “Walkin’ My Baby” (GA 4012). A-side’s a Felice & Boudleaux Bryant composition, and one of the coolest records ever!

The Trashmen

Dave Dudley “Six Days on the Road” b/w “I Feel a Cry Coming On” 1963 (GW 3020). On another Soma subsidiary, the C&W imprint Golden Wing. Immortal trucker classic backed with one of the sappiest titles ever. That’s Dave Dudley for ya, who shoulda steered his big rig wide round the countrypolitan pile-up.

Dave Dudley

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