The making of a box set with 'no hits'
'Nuggets II' journeys into the beat of the world
(CNN) -- Two words on the shrink-wrap sticker on "Nuggets II," a Rhino Records box set, say it all: The collection, four CDs each running more than an hour, contains "no hits."
In the record industry -- heck, even in the world of box sets, which are often filled with filler -- this would seem to be apostasy. No hits? Why would anybody want to buy a box set with no hits? You may as well manufacture CD-sized Frisbees.
But there is a method to Rhino's madness. After all, this box set follows in the tradition of "Nuggets," four CDs of 1960s American garage band music from the same era, based on the famous 1972 double-LP compiled by Lenny Kaye.
That box set ran the gamut from national hits -- the Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction," the Beau Brummels' "Laugh Laugh" -- to regional obscurities such as the Merry-Go-Round's "Live" and the Sonics' "Strychnine," all celebrating the DIY ethic of countless Beatles/Stones wannabes.
It also surprised the heck out of Rhino (a division of AOL Time Warner, as is CNN.com).
"It sold four or five times what I expected," says the label's vice president of A&R, Gary Stewart, noting that sales tallied about 45,000 copies. (Sales of 20,000 copies of a box set is considered good.) The popularity of "Nuggets" cemented a decision, made even before "Nuggets" hit the stores, to do a sequel.
But what to focus on? Stewart and his colleagues decided to do anything but more American indie rock.
"We realized, rather than go to the next level of garage rock, there was a whole other world out there," he says -- a world of 1960s rock songs from locales ranging from Great Britain to Iceland, Peru and Czechoslovakia.
And so "Nuggets II" began, a box set that would feature more than 100 songs most Americans had never heard of.
'An all-night screaming match'
Stewart would be just the guy to do that. The 25-year veteran of Rhino started as a clerk in the label's original incarnation, a record store in suburban Los Angeles, California.
An inveterate record collector, he can remember reading about some of the bands on "Nuggets II" and ordering their LPs at the Rhino store.
He and the Rhino staff started with a list of about 1,000 choices, which were then boiled down to 100-best lists by about a dozen people. Then Stewart and a few others looked for a discernable pattern among the choices. That wasn't easy.
"This isn't the standard set. Even less than 'Nuggets I,' there are no chart positions or sales [to look at]," Stewart says. "You have to use taste without going overboard."
Stewart boiled the various lists down to his own selection of about 100 titles, then made alterations based on suggestions. Finally, he invited several people over to his house for "an all-night screaming match that turned into a kind of record collectors' 'Twelve Angry Men.' "
In the end, nobody was completely satisfied with final 109-song track listing.
"People say, 'How come this isn't on it?' " Stewart says. "And that's good."
Obscurities and Carnaby Street mod
What is on "Nuggets II" is still a record collector's dream. There are bands that were big in their native countries, such as the Move, that never had a U.S. hit. There are bands that featured future stars (the Rolling Stones' Ron Wood in the Birds, Yes' Steve Howe in Tomorrow) and bands that were obscure even in their native lands.
Best of all are the songs themselves. Sure, there are a couple recognizable tunes -- "Friday on My Mind" and "Pictures of Matchstick Men" -- but many are classics from Uruguay, the Netherlands, Denmark and Spain that likely would have been lost if not for Stewart and his merry band.
"Nuggets II" has induced some of the songs' musicians, many now comfortably ensconced in some other life, to come out of the woodwork.
"I've heard from ex-band members," says Stewart. "And some people are excited to have their tracks included, like the Pretty Things and Dave Edmunds."
The set's also benefited from Rhino's Grammy-winning design team, which has placed a '60s soul collection in a carrying case for 45s, covered a '70s collection in shag carpeting and called a sci-fi collection "Brain in a Box," with appropriate art included.
"Nuggets II" is steeped in '60s Swinging London psychedelia, from Carnaby Street mod to dazzling Op Art, and features a detailed 100-page book with liner notes for each song.
The package, which was released last summer, hit a nerve with critics. "All those who enjoy music richer in energy and daring than intelligence and maturity should add 'Nuggets II' to their music collection," wrote Amazon.com's cheeky Steve Halloran in naming the set to Amazon's "Best of 2001."
Stewart's just pleased that all that music has an outlet.
"There was so much good music in here that should have been heard on the radio," he says. "... I'm as proud of this as anything I've ever done."
Even if there's not a hit to be found.
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