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FIELD NOTES: Cut it out

Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1981, I found myself in the food court of the Sandusky Mall with my buddy, Carl. We were home on break and had gone to the mall to buy Christmas gifts and kill some time. Two girls approached as we sat, talking about what store to hit next and who we had yet to buy for. Carl greeted them and introduced them to me as acquaintances from his summer job. 

“What are you guys up to?” 

“Oh, you know,” Carl declared suavely, “buying some Christmas gifts, and I got this album for  myself.”

“I’ll bet it’s that new Police album.”

It was a reasonable assumption. A few weeks earlier, The Police had released a much-anticipated new album called “Ghost in the Machine” and the first single, “Spirits in the  Material World,” was rocketing up the charts. 

“No, it’s ‘Rocking Horse Massacre’ by Porcupine Lips,” he declared as he pulled the album from the bag and proudly showed them the absurd cover. In truth, I don’t remember the name of the band or the album, but it was something at least as ridiculous as what I’ve made up. 

“Huh. Well. Huh. So … well … I guess we should get going …”

A few seconds after the girls had skittered out of sight, Carl turned to me and said, “I should probably have just agreed it was ‘Ghost in the Machine’ and left it at that.”

“You think?” 

“Rocking Horse Massacre,” or whatever the album was actually called, was from the “cut-out” bin at the Woolworths. Although the notion of deeply discounted music lasted well into the cassette and CD eras, the proper cut-out bin was specific to the age of the vinyl record album. Most places that sold music had a cut-out bin, and in discount stores like Woolworths, cut-outs were often the entire music section. 

Cut-outs were so-called because the music distributor cut a notch, about an inch long and a quarter-inch wide, in one corner of the record sleeve to distinguish them from “first-run” records. Most cut-outs were albums that had been returned to the distributor. Pressing records onto vinyl was a time-consuming process with a very long lead time, so record companies had to guess how many copies an album would sell well before the release date. These records were then shipped out to the stores with the contractual understanding that any which did not sell within a specified timeframe, typically 90 days, could be returned. Those records were then cut and sent to the secondary market, discount stores, mom-and-pop record shops, convenience stores, etc. The artists received less compensation for these sales, so they needed to be permanently marked so the distributors could not “cheat.”  

Cut-outs typically sold for $3 or $4 at a time when new releases were $7 or $8, although some real stinkers, like “Rocking Horse Massacre,” could be had for as little as a buck. There were three general types of cut-outs.  

The most coveted were albums by popular artists that did not sell as well as the record company expected for one reason or another. The band Heart, for instance, got into a legal dispute with its record company, who then released an unauthorized collection of covers and essentially unfinished material called “Magazine.” As you might imagine, it was nowhere near the quality of their earlier albums and sold very poorly, winding up in cut-out bins across the country. The Crosby, Stills & Nash album “CSN” was one of their best-selling, yielding the top-40 hit, “Just a Song Before I Go.” Still, their record company must have overestimated its commercial appeal because it was a frequent inhabitant of discount bins throughout the late  ’70s. And then there’s the Xanadu soundtrack, about which the less said, the better.

The second type of album occasionally found in cut-out bins was the dated compilation. These were collections of popular songs specific to a year or theme. The songs had been modest “hits” several years prior, so an album called “Mellow Gold ’73” might appear in the bins in 1980. These could be really great finds, even if for just a coveted song or two.

The third type of cut-out was the “what in the heck were they thinking” album. You would like to believe that if a record company invested the time, effort, and money to release an album, there must be at least one halfway decent song. Interestingly, that was not always the case. It was shockingly common to pick up a dollar album, play it through and wonder incredulously what made any record company executive greenlight it.  

That became something of a game for Carl and me, finding the stupidest, least promising selection in the cut-out bin and forcing ourselves to play it all the way through to see if there was any redeeming aspect to it. Hence, “Rocking Horse Massacre.” 

What about you? Do you remember cut-out bins? What was your best cut-out find?

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