Before the Iron Maiden post, I was about to type a blog bit about Javier, a canny buyer from Santiago who was making a living here in Edinburgh sending boxes of records back home to Chile. He’d go to the charity shops, record fairs, car boot sales and the VoxBox Backroom picking up bargain records. Of course, he was after the usual rarities that EVERYONE is after [see Where Are All The Records?] There’s no guarantee that you’ll get hold of a 1966 copy of Revolver or the many other nice records but he didn’t need to rely on them as he had found a niche. An unlimited supply… and he could pay his rent here for years while supporting his family in Chile.
The answer was Phil Collins albums of the early 1980s. The ones with his face hogging the front covers. I’m talking about Face Value, Hello, I Must Be Going, No Jacket Required and …But Seriously.
In the UK, these smash albums of the 1980s are derided, defaced and usually pass from a fan’s loft to a record shop, then to a charity shop before being sent to landfill or turned into a cakestand, coasters, a bowl, or the like. Recycling vinyl is trickier than you’d imagine it should be and I’ve been arguing for years that they should turn spent records into a flooring material… Until then, we’ll have to put up with people turning dud records into clocks.
We sell run of the mill copies of Face Value and the other Collins albums for £1.50 in the backroom. A minty one, we’ll stick a cheeky fiver on and see how it goes. My Chilean friend, Javier would buy bags of Backroom records. Artists like Phil Collins, ELO, Olivia Newton John, Elton John, Duran Duran, Vangelis, Rod Stewart, ABBA and Simply Red. SIMPLY RED! I had to ask. How can you make this work?
He told me…
“See this album? Phil Collins… (Only he said theez album and Pheel Collins)
I can sell theez album for fifteeeen pounds in Chile. Not equivalent to fifteeeeen pounds. Fifteeeeeeen pounds in Chilean money.”
Fifteeeeeeeeeeeen quid! My jaw hit the floor… And I’m selling them to him (With discount) for a bit more than a pound. For a box of 25, he told me, it averages out at about £3 per record to get it to his Chilean record shop in Santiago. £1 a record. Shipping £1. Import Tax £1.
Javier moved back this year and I never did ask him why he thought his fellow Chileans had such an appetite for 1980s pop. I had imaginings of the dictator Pinochet sitting in his tower seething at the news that Easy Lover Phil has had another global smash hit. Then, against all odds, the film career. Buster! Damn you Collins! Your albums are revolting!
I did a bit of background reading expecting to find that Pinochet banned western music. But no, the opposite was true! By letting in western and neighbouring Argentinian music it undermined Chile’s own music industry hitting the exposure that the anti-Pinochet Chilean folk and rock musicians could get. Some were tortured or exiled. Folk musician Victor Jara was tortured and killed, others were simply ignored by state controlled media. If you like, there’s a lengthy article here about the Pinochet regime [1973-1990] and Chilean pop music here. You can hear a revolutionary number by Victor Jara below.
I was also saddened but not surprised to read that music was used by torturers. Cat Stevens, Nilsson and George Harrison are among the western artists that were played according to an article citing survivors recollections. No mention of Phil Collins (and you can make up your own joke here). The same thing goes on in Guantanamo these days and the US government doesn’t even pay the artists royalties. I’m reminded of the fantastic and powerful play/film Death and the Maiden starring Ben Kingsley and Sigourney Weaver which explores an imagined post-dictatorship South American country and the accidental meeting between a torturer and his victim where Schubert’s string quartet masterpiece Death And The Maiden had been the torturer’s tune of choice.
I wondered if Phil played Chile often? No, it seems he waited until Pinochet left power before playing a gig in Chile in 1995. Doing some research, I found that Collins was not even, as has been widely reported, a Tory voter. (Thatcher was a longtime supporter of Pinochet for among other reasons, his help to UK forces during the Falklands conflict). He also donates all the royalties earned from his music sales in South Africa to a charity. AND, to his credit, Phil played The Secret Policeman’s (Other) Ball for Amnesty International in 1981 which was to highlight atrocities committed by regimes such as that of Pinochet’s in Chile. I suppose In The Air Tonight has lyrics that would have some revolutionary appeal and hope. In the end Pinochet was voted out. -Not really due to 1980s pop but I have really grown to like Phil a bit.
So why are some Chilean fans prepared to pay so much for the Collins albums that we deride? Well, I think many Chileans couldn’t afford the music they liked in the 1980s and those that felt deprived then may now be in a position to compensate for that now. Also, that the longevity of UK artists in the rest of the world when they seem past their sell by date back here may appear mysterious until you realise that most of the world hasn’t seen Brass Eye (“I’m talking nonce-sense”) or read about Sting’s lengthy tantric sex sessions or Mick Hucknall’s 1000 conquests and Bono’s jet-setting hat. And maybe because of that, they are better placed to judge the music on its own merit rather than on the personalities that made it. I should also stress that Chile has a healthy appetite for all other genres of music.
I do keep in touch with Javier -Every month or so I raid the backroom and fill a box to go to Chile. ¡Viva la Revolución!
However, even with my newfound respect for the man, (and did you know he also paid for David Crosby’s Liver transplant!?) I still think Collins murders Tomorrow Never Knows…
Even a lighthearted blog bit about how someone can make a living selling Phil Collins records can quickly descend into one about serious human rights abuses. Coincidentally [and in these vinyl revival times, inevitably] he is reissuing his back catalogue on vinyl with bonus tracks and so on in November.
On a more upbeat note, direct proof that music can aid a revolution can be found in the Velvet Revolution of Czechslovakia. The Velvet Underground became unlikely heroes in Czechslovakia due to, among many reasons, percieved coded messages in the songs. “The cozy brown snow of the east”. The future PM Václav Havel was a fan.