The History Books will tell you all you need to know about the great recording centres of the past such as Nashville, New Orleans, Memphis and Chicago, as well as the hit factories of New York and Detroit in the days when recording locales retained distinctive individual characteristics. Yet, there are parts of America that hardly figure at all in the annals of rock'n'roll and the farming state of Wisconsin in the upper mid-West is one of them. It is the state rock'n'roll forgot. Even neighbouring Minnesota gets a look in, mainly because Bob Dylan came from there, while remote North Dakota attracts a passing mention as the State where Buddy Holly met his end in a plane crash. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is more famous for the breweries of Milwaukee and its dairy produce than for its contribution to music.
Amid this oasis of indifference, Sauk City record-store owner and electronics buff, Jim Kirchstein, set up a small studio cum-label-cum-workshop, which came to dominate the Wisconsin recording scene for a decade without the benefit of publicity or very many hits. Several hundred singles ranging in style from rock to country to polkas were released on Kirchstein's Cuca label and its subsidiaries during that time, and dozens of young Wisconsin musicians owed him their start.
Located on the Wisconsin River, about 25 miles northwest of the state capital Madison, Sauk City could not have been further removed from the mainstream of the record business. The majority of its 2000 or so residents were descended from German and Scandinavian immigrants and the town served as a resource centre for the agricultural trade, farming being the predominant industry. One of Cuca's first releases, Muleskinner Blues by the Fendermen, a rocked-up version of an old hillbilly tune, caught on internationally in 1960 and, despite some legal difficulties, Kirchstein was able to plough back some of the profits into his own studio.
Jim Kirchstein's early success with the Fendermen may have lulled him into believing that hit records happened more by chance than design. However, by prudently keeping things small and manageable, Cuca gradually came into its own as its reputation as a recording locale began to spread: in 1962, teen idol Bobby Vee came in with his brother's instrumental group, the Strangers, while country star Bobby Bare also produced some sessions there around the same time.
The next two hits to emerge from Cuca's studio were both by black American artists. In late 1962, soul songstress Jan Bradley recorded Mama Didn't Lie at the Cuca studios for Formal, a tiny Chicago outfit. Chess subsequently purchased the master and pushed Mama Didn't Lie to #14 nationally in early 1963. Later that year, Kirchstein signed Birdlegs And Pauline, a couple from Rockford, Illinois whose debut 45, Spring, first appeared on Cuca prior to being leased to Vee-Jay Records of Chicago and becoming a sizable R&B hit.
Wisconsin boasted an awful lot of working rock bands, almost as many, in fact, as Merseyside in the early 60S, only the world rarely got to hear about them. Wisconsin kids, weaned since infanthood on polkas, were so starved of rock that they lent their keen support to the thriving local scene. Some of the earlier Wisconsin bands found the going tough to begin with. One veteran of the era recalled: "They didn't like us especially my father! We had to be very careful what rock song we dared do in the late fifties. If you did anything wild like Jailhouse Rock, they frowned on that. We'd play That's All Right Mama and they wouldn't know how to dance to it. Often, to secure a booking, I had to guarantee the band could play polkas!"
However, the Wisconsin rock scene had gradually coalesced by 1962 and the majority of performers gravitated towards Cuca's self-contained little operation by now Kirchstein was even mastering and pressing his own records. Some of the younger bands were landlocked surf instrumentalists dreaming of cutting as big a hit as, say, Wipeout or Boss. Kirchstein would either sign bands directly or offer them a competitively priced custom deal. They would come in, do their session and receive 300 records for $37.50. Some such releases appeared on Cuca while others came out on affiliated logos such as Sara and Night Owl.
It is this rich vein of raw, primitive instrumental rock that has been tapped here. 90% of the material is new to CD. Even the original 45s rarely turn up as these were usually pressed in very small quantities.
Featuring eye catching graphics, "Elemental Instrumentals" is bound to appeal to a wide audience, ranging from fans of rock instrumentals to garage-band freaks. It is one of the most exciting cruisin' instrumental CDs in a long time - a mad whirl of crashing cymbals, poundin' tom-toms and plangent, echo-swathed guitars.
By Rob Finnis