While the well-documented vinyl resurgence has been a boon to mom-and-pop record shops and music fanatics everywhere, getting the vintage format ordered up for LP-lusting labels has become a nightmare. The last companies to make whole record pressing machines had died out by the early ‘70s. Some parts could be tracked down with Columbo-like fervor, but the available engineers who knew how to fix the things could probably be counted on two hands.
That all changed last Saturday, when Jack White’s Third Man Records launched a huge new vinyl record pressing plant behind its one-year-old record store in downtown Detroit.
According to Third Man staffer Ben Blackwell (his official title is Psychedelic Stooge), even for a connected, busy imprint like theirs, orders were delayed four months or more. So along come White and his burning desire to take vinyl into a future it didn’t know it had.
“We’re all just punks from the Midwest who put out singles, made our own flyers and toured the same couches,” says Blackwell. “And the idea of a plant always kinda felt like the final frontier. So it was about two years ago we started having conversations with Shinola about what they were doing in Detroit, and an opportunity arose to share a building with them. Our immediate inspiration was to finally tackle pressing records. It was a little tricky tracking down presses—I even went on a wild goose chase down in Mexico City. But once we met the guys from [German company] Newbilt, the seeds were sown. We’ll have eight presses to start, with room to grow if necessary. The manufacturing area is 10,000 square feet. We have the ability to press 5,000 records every eight hours.”
While John Q. Public might be surprised records still exist, Third Man have also added whole crazy layers to the packaging of the format. For now, much of that will still be handled elsewhere, but there are a number of screenprint artists doing their thing back in the plant. For Saturday’s party, the label offered limited editions (like, limited to only being made on Saturday) of classic Detroit albums from the Stooges, MC5 and others, with sleeves screenprinted in-house. Many were up on eBay minutes after midnight, of course.
The sizeable stage and impressive sound set-up in the store will allow for regular concerts where bands can have the show recorded and, sometimes immediately after, pressed into platters to take with them. It’s the same set-up the label has utilized for years in their smaller store space in Nashville. Tours of the factory are expected to happen monthly. A particularly appreciated regional angle on the Third Man plant is that the workers are unionized, with strong hourly pay and benefits.
The whole enterprise has expanded from a cool give-back from White to his hometown into a sprawling Wonka-like factory, able to create wonder not just in the minds of the collectors who slobber over the records and many vintage tchotchkes around the complex, but for the intrigued tourists who frequent the obsessively yellow-and-black hub.
But last Saturday afternoon, it was all about the party. Fans formed a long line, some having camped out in tents through the cold and rainy night before. Starting about 2 p.m., after a couple of brief, impassioned readings from two Third Man Books authors, the Craig Brown Band strummed into a stomping-then-sorrowed set of re-juiced'70s outlaw country. Brown admitted to being hungover from the private party the night before that reportedly included hooching till 4 a.m. But hangovers are a requirement for Brown’s brand of lady bemoaning and swagger slinging.
Kelley Stoltz has been at it for a few years now, so the subtle dance beats and '80s robot ring ladled into his deceptively catchy singer-songwriter sound has given him a second wind.
Next up were Memphis garage rock heroes the Oblivians. Though most active in the '90s, their recent fine reunion album and consistent run of surprise shows like this have allowed them a rabid reprise too. New good ones like “Call the Police” howled just as heavily right next to old faves like “Strong Come On” and “Memphis Creep.” Yet more local flavor arose when Rachel Nagy, from soul-garage mainstays the Detroit Cobras, got up to debut on the classic “Bad Man."
While a steady flow of beer would have been fuel-correct for the incrementally trashy train of the lineup, it probably made sense not to serve any libations (unlike the usual live shows at Third Man), as the packed crowd—now standing/rocking around for nearly four hours (and some having snuck in six-packs anyway)—went ballistic nonetheless for legendary San Francisco surf-slop merchants the Mummies.
Kicking through the crowd via the front door rather than the backstage area, the foursome, decked out in requisite stained-wrap duds, slugged over to their gear and and jumped and kicked and yowled through a hearty 50 minutes of their best three-chord junk. The band knew full well that the audience expected as many between-song heckles and arguments as songs. And we were duly supplied, with the drummer slipping in short snide snippets of old Motown hits everyone is completely sick of. And just when you thought the band was about to flip the bird and book, they’d explode through bashers like ”(You Must Fight to Live) On the Planet of the Apes" and “Uncontrollable Urge."
Did we mention the whole shebang was free? Here’s to Third Man Records pressing loads of new Detroit-inspired sounds for years to come.
Read our round-up of exceptional turntables and vinyl-collecting tips here.