East of Underground: Not Your Average Military Band

East of Underground: Popcorn/Oye Como Va + I Love You For All Seasons
From S/T (U.S. Army/Wax Poetics, 1971)

Bonus: Black Seeds: In the Rain + Ain’t No Sunshine
From S/T (U.S. Army, 1972)

Here’s what a thousand dollar soul album sounds like. (No doubt, at least a few people are scratching their heads thinking, “this is good but one grand good? Word?)

Here’s the backstory from what I’ve pieced together from the liner notes as well as other research:

Back in the early 1970s, the U.S. Army sponsored a talent contest for servicemen stationed overseas in Germany, the “Original Magnificent Special Services Entertainment Showband Contest.”

The winner and runner-up during the first year, in 1971, ended up recording an album in Frankfurt, using some exceptionally good studio equipment since this album has surprisingly great fidelity (the reissue was mastered off of vinyl, not master tapes). Then it promptly vanished from popular consciousness for the next three or so decades until Dante Carfagna dug up a copy and made its existence known in high-end collector circles. I’m not exactly sure how many copies of this are “known” to exist at this point (at least a few) but it’s the type of LP whose obscurity explains why it commands so high a price.

Tthe EoU album is all covers so in essence, the band was one really, really impressive tribute band in a sense but for a bunch of amateur musicians, recording away from the States, the quality of the arrangements and production is truly awesome. It’d be like a bunch of Marines in Iraq getting together in the Green Zone and whipping out something that sounded as good as the recent UGK album. It’s just not what you’d expect and it’s so much better than what anyone would anticipate given the circumstances.

If this could be considered a “stage band” album, it’d rival most of what I’ve heard out there, including the almighty Kashmere Stage Band. Heck, the price of admission might be worth it for the group’s ultra-funky medley of James Brown’s “Poppin’ Popcorn” and Santana’s “Oye Come Ve” alone but if that wasn’t enough, the group also covers early ’70s soul classics like Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces,” the Impression’s “People Get Ready,” Dionne Warwick’s “Walk on By,” and I was especially impressed to see them covering “I Love You For All Seasons” by The Fuzz, a personal favorite of mine. The falsetto isn’t the most crystal clear but I like its fragility here.

The bonus cuts I’ve added are by the Black Seeds, winners of the 2nd annual Original Magnificent Special Services Entertainment Showband Contest, also recording in Frankfurt. I’m still not sure why but this album is nowhere near as obscure (though it’s hardly something you’d stumble on that often) and most definitely nowhere near as expensive though the latter perhaps isn’t strictly an issue of rarity. To put it mildly, the fidelity on the Black Seeds album is pretty terrible. Not only do they pipe in fake audience applause (almost always a cornball move) but in comparison to the clarity on East of Underground, The Black Seeds sound like they’re recording through a tin can. The fidelity is shot, the instruments mixed way too low and the singing barely audible in parts. It’s altogether a less appealing recording though I still have to give it props for interesting arrangements as you can hear on the pairing of the Dramatics’ classic, “In the Rain” and the much-covered Withers’ tune, “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Far as I know, the Black Seeds album has never been reissued but frankly, it’s just not as deserving of it.

By the way, it’s notable that the East of Underground CD is the first reissue (that I know of) done under the Wax Poetics banner. Hope to see more in their series ASAP.