The Parallel Musiverse

by Mal Smith

I got to wondering recently – what did I listen to before I began working as a music PR in 1994? I have always thought the 1980s are misunderstood or misrepresented. There am I, British, in my late teens and early twenties. Yet the music charts of the time for me felt disconnected, at a distance from life. I could not relate to most of the chart music. To me it tended to sound aloof, clunky, all wrong. The chart music of the 1970s, by contrast I had mostly rather liked, for its seeming lack of calculation and its greater diversity.

I guess my tastes just did not align with the 1980s. The mainstream music, MTV, the films, and the comedy seemed mostly unremarkable. As luck would have it, several things happened to music, none of which I expected: the 1980s saw a resurgence of American Blues and Soul, Cajun and Zydeco, and the beginnings of; and mostly UK record companies began to release spellbinding collections of the best previously unreleased or hard to find American music. ​

The musical resurgence turned out to be a revelation. There was so much great stuff emerging. There was no need to be interested in chart music, even though chart music was hard to avoid. The sounds available to me were varied, though of course I knew there was even more out there beyond my knowledge than I had the time or the money for.

A third surprising thing happened. After a slow start, the new CD format did not restrict the sort of music you could buy. Despite much skepticism, the CD turned out to be generally a good thing, aside from the shoddy mastering, or lack of remastering, of some major label albums and the high cost of some, but not all, CDs.

There was something intangible in the air that seemed to bring it all together. Making a list of the best of these record releases today for the first time, looking through my collection – I don’t know why I’ve not done this before – I've realised or remembered their sheer number, and that not only did I buy these records, but also I was able to witness many of the artists play live in London in the coming years. Strangely enough, I have never thought about it quite like this before. Putting it simply, the records I bought determined the music that I went to see played live. This may seem obvious, but there had to be the inclination and the opportunity, or maybe the serendipity. ​

So this is what I call The Parallel Musiverse of the 1980s. It led me over time to see a wide range of artists and styles live on stage, just for example: Johnny Adams, Bobby Bland, Booker T. & The M.G.s, James Brown, Solomon Burke, John Cale, Calexico, James Carr, Vic Chesnutt, Otis Clay, The Robert Cray Band, Albert Collins, Dr. John, Honeyboy Edwards, Eddie Floyd, Canray Fontenot, Giant Sand, Dana Gillespie, The Glitterhouse Revue, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Eddie LeJeune, Magic Slim & The Teardrops, The Malaco Blues Revue, Delbert McClinton, D. L. Menard, Ann Peebles, Dan Penn, Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Queen Emily, Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys, Otis Rush, Percy Sledge, Jo–El Sonnier, Mavis Staples, Pops Staples, Koko Taylor, Irma Thomas, The Walkabouts, Junior Wells, Wilco, U. P. Wilson, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, and many more besides. I even got to work with some of this music, for example with: Bobby Bland, John Cale, Dana Gillespie, Glitterhouse Records, Magic Slim, Malaco Records, Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham, Queen Emily, The Walkabouts, Junior Wells, and U. P. Wilson. Others that I would like to have seen, I missed, often because they had stopped touring or had sadly passed away.

My favourite London music venues up to 1992 were The Carnavon Castle in Camden, and the Hare & Hounds, the Weavers Arms, and the T&C 2, all in nearby Islington – these were on my doorstep, a short bus ride away. Plus the Town & Country Club in Kentish Town and the Borderline in Soho. I miss them. My favourite records shops were Rhythm Records and Rock On, both in Camden Town. I miss them too. There’s one other thing I really miss and that is jukeboxes. The jukebox track that I miss the most is Baker Street.

What was I listening to in those days before I went into the music business? The records listed below were released 1976-1992. This is my selection of Blues & Soul, archive releases, sundry live recordings, Cajun & Zydeco, and And just a few Reggae and Jazz gems. This is representative of what I was listening to in The Parallel Musiverse…

Blues & Soul etc:

I had already absorbed a whole lot of blues, R&B, soul, jazz, and reggae, but I was then amazed at what kept coming. I told myself over and over this shouldn’t be happening. But it did happen. These are some of my favourite recordings, starting with the Rico Rodriguez album, because it’s so good and so soulful, and the incredible returns of Muddy Waters and Smokey Robinson, plus Professor Longhair’s new tour de force. Those marked * I bought on CD.

Rico – Man From Wareika (1976)
Muddy Waters – Hard Again (1977)
Albert Collins – Ice Pickin’ (1978)
Solomon Burke – Sidewalks, Fences And Walls (album track) (1979)
Smokey Robinson – Cruisin’ (single) (1979)
Professor Longhair – Crawfish Fiesta (1980)
Buddy Guy – DJ Play My Blues (1981)
Marvin Gaye – (Sexual) Healing (single) (1982)
Magic Slim & The Teardrops – Grand Slam (1982)
Z. Z. Hill – Down Home (1982) ​
The Robert Cray Band – Bad Influence (1984)
Bobby Bland – Members Only (1985)
Aretha Franklin – Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (1985)
Koko Taylor – Queen Of The Blues (1985)
Johnny Adams – Room With A View Of The Blues (1988) *
Toots Hibbert – Toots In Memphis (1988)
Etta James – Seven Year Itch (1988)
Irma Thomas – The Way I Feel (1988)
Lou Ann Barton – Read My Lips (1989) *
John Lee Hooker – The Healer (1989)
Neville Brothers – Yellow Moon (1989)
Doug Sahm – Juke Box Music (1989)
Various Artists – The Hot Spot (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (1990) *

Archive & Live Recordings:

Reissues, compilations, previously unreleased, previously hard to find, or live recordings. This is a staggering, unprecedented set of well-compiled and well-presented recordings amounting to a showcase of the very best. This selection of releases spans 1977-1991. Some of this music had never been heard before or had been almost impossible to hear. Many of these were compiled and mastered here in the UK. The sound quality is generally superb. All in all it was a revelation. I began to re-evaluate everything. There are quite a number here, so I shall group them into chunks for you.


This beginning period ranges around wonderfully. The reissue boom really begins in 1980, with many blissful releases put out by UK labels: Charly R&B, Ace/Kent, then Demon/Edsel.

Various Artists – The MGM Rockabilly Collection (1977)
Elvis Presley – The Sun Collection (1979)
Muddy Waters – Muddy ‘Mississippi’ Waters Live (1979)
Toots & The Maytals – The Best Of Toots & The Maytals (1979)
Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Live Rust (1979)
John Lee Hooker – This Is Hip (1980)
Jimmy Reed – Upside Your Head (1980)
T-Bone Walker – T-Bone Jumps Again (1981)
Jimi Hendrix – The Jimi Hendrix Concerts (1982)
Billie Holiday – 16 Classic Tracks (1982)
Hound Dog Taylor & the HouseRockers – Genuine Houserocking Music (1982)
Iggy Pop – The Passenger (single) (1982)
Various Artists – Another Saturday Night (1982)
Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland – Foolin’ With The Blues (1983)
James Brown – James Brown At The Apollo Volume 1 (1983)
The Impressions – Right On Time (1983)
B. B. King – Live At The Regal (1983)
Muddy Waters – Hoochie Coochie Man (1983)
Irma Thomas – Time Is On My Side (1983)
O. V. Wright – Gone For Good (1983)
Johnny Adams – The Tan Nightingale (1984)
Solomon Burke – Cry To Me (1984)
Clarence Carter – Soul Deep (1984)
Albert King – Laundromat Blues (1984)
Charlie Parker – The Dial Sessions Vol. 1 (1984)
Percy Sledge – Any Day Now (1984)
Jackie Wilson – The Soul Years (1984)
Bobby Womack – Somebody Special (1984)


All of these are nothing short of revelatory too. Some of the music had never been heard before. Some had not been available for years or had been very hard to find. ​ Some of these were starting to appear on Compact Disc – I bought the ones marked * on CD after I got a CD player around 1988/1989.

Bobby Bland – The Soulful Side Of... (1985)
James Brown – Soul Power 12” (4 tracks) (1985)
Jerry Butler – Only The Strong Survive (The Best Of The Philadelphia Years) (1985)
Sam Cooke – Live At the Harlem Square Club (1985)
Ann Peebles – I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down (1985)
Elvis Presley – Reconsider Baby (1985)
Various Artists – Black Gospel (Classic Recordings Of The Gospel Sound) (1985)
The Velvet Underground – VU (1985)
Sam Cooke – The Man & His Music (1986) *
Various Artists – The Best Of Blues & Soul (Malaco Records) (1986) *
Various Artists – The Harder They Come (Original Soundtrack Recording) (1986)
Jackie Wilson – Higher & Higher (1986) *
Jackie Wilson – The Soul Years Volume 2 (1986)


I'd heard of them as legends, but I had never heard the James Carr or Garnett Mimms recordings before. All the other 1987 releases are sublime too. This is awesome music.

Nathan Abshire – Pine Grove Blues (1987)
James Carr – At The Dark End Of The Street (1987)
Chi-Lites – The Best Of The Chi-Lites (1987) *
Charlie Christian – The Genius Of The Electric Guitar (1987) *
Otis Clay – Trying To Live My Life Without You (1987)
B. B. King – Blues Is King... Plus (1987)
Garnet Mimms – Warm & Soulful (1987)
Ann Peebles – 99 Lbs (1987)
Elvis Presley – The Memphis Record (1987) *
Sam & Dave – The Best Of (1987) *
Joe Turner – The Boss Of The Blues (1987) *
O. V. Wright – The Wright Stuff (1987)


CDs are appearing (* the first I bought) that are so good I had to get me a CD player. Again the music makes you melt.

Howlin’ Wolf – Moanin’ And Howlin’ (1988) *
Joe Simon – Lookin’ Back (1988) *
Mavis Staples – Don't Change Me Now (1988) *
Benny Goodman Sextet Featuring Charlie Christian – 1939-1941 (1989) *
Blind Willie Johnson – Praise God I’m Satisfied (1989) *
Magic Sam – The Magic Sam Legacy (1989)
Delbert McClinton – Live from Austin (1989)
Muddy Waters – Trouble No More (1989) *
Bobby Bland – His California Album (1990) *
James Brown – Messin’ With The Blues (1990) *
Dr. John – Dr. John’s Gumbo (1990) *
Robert Johnson ​ – The Complete Recordings (1990) *
T-Bone Walker – The Hustle Is On (1990) *
Dinah Washington – Dinah Jams (1990) *
Buddy Guy & Junior Wells – Alone & Acoustic (1991) *

Cajun & Zydeco:

Soon as I hear music this I am totally hooked. I would see D. L. Menard, Canray Fontenot, Eddie LeJeune, Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys, Jo–El Sonnier and others play live on many unforgettable nights.

Clifton Chenier – Boogie & Zydeco (1979)
Jo-El Sonnier – Cajun Life (1980)
D. L. Menard – Cajun Saturday Night (1984)
Beausoleil Avec Canray Fontenot – Allons A Lafayette (1986) ​
Nathan Abshire – Pine Grove Blues (1987)
Jo–El Sonnier – Come On Joe (1987) *
Eddie LeJeune – Cajun Soul (1988)
D. L. Menard – No Matter Where You At, There You Are (1988)
Jo-El Sonnier – Have A Little Faith (1989)
Charles Mann – Walk Of Life (1990) *
Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys – Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys (1990) *
Various Artists – Zydeco Blues 'N' Boogie (1990) *

The beginnings. Some I don't hear immediately. These albums did not necessarily get UK distribution or licensing straight away. But this was clearly the new thing pointing the way.

Rainer & Das Combo – Barefoot Rock (1986; reissued 1994 as a CD with extra tracks)
American Music Club – California (1988)
Camper Van Beethoven – Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (1988)
Giant Sand – The Love Songs (1988)
Lucinda Williams – Lucinda Williams (1988)
Camper Van Beethoven – Key Lime Pie (1989)
Freakwater – Freakwater (1989) *
Vic Chesnutt – Little (1990) *
Uncle Tupelo – No Depression (1990) *
Freakwater – Dancing Under Water (1991) *
Uncle Tupelo – Still Feel Gone (1991) *
The Walkabouts – Scavenger (1991) *
Vic Chesnutt – West Of Rome (1992) *
The Jayhawks – Hollywood Town Hall (1992) *
Rainer – Worried Spirits (1992) *

Those marked * are CD releases.

The 1980s is not the decade it’s painted as. You could go your own way happily and avoid what you didn’t really like, if you wanted. It was a time to learn, to gain unprecedented insight into well-presented music, some of which few had heard before. Some came fresh from a mesmerising archive. Some was new and just as mesmerising. It surprised me, surpassed expectations. Each time I hear something glib about the 1980s and early 1990s, I evince an inner alarm bell, with a wry smile and a roll of my eyes. A quiet chuckle emerges spontaneously. I still can’t quite believe I was there and it all happened.

Mal Smith © 2024

This is an article written for Delta PR's 30th Anniversary Year and it's dedicated to the great Jo-El Sonnier.

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