Island Samplers – more than your money’s worth in old pence

Island sampler You Can All Join In front cover

In the early 1970s, inspired by the success of CBS’s The Rock Machine and The Rock Machine Turns You On, many record companies started putting out budget-price samplers. Island Records made some of the most popular samplers, and the Island samplers are still regarded with affection and listened to today. Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, Traffic, Cat Stevens and King Crimson all gained some of their early following from these collections. This is their story.

Cheap as chips

At the cusp of the 60s and 70s, albums were still quite an expensive item at around £2 (The equivalent would be £21 today; for context, the average weekly wage was around £32, a pint cost 20p and a new car £600!) These budget samplers would come in around at the pre-decimal equivalent of 70p (£8 today!) and were good for the labels, the artists and the punters. For many, this is how they were introduced to their favourite bands and albums. Would you pay £21 for a new album unheard?


You Can All Join In (1969)

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When Island released its first sampler, the Island ‘family’ was small enough and obscure enough to be gathered together in a park of a morning for the cover photo, taken by designer Cally for Hipgnosis, ‘bleary eyed after a party’. Standing shivering in greatcoats are the likes of Richard Thompson, Stevie Winwood, Sandy Denny, and all the members of Jethro Tull, Traffic and Free.

(Wikipedia for a who’s who of the cover)

For some of the bands, this was lift-off. Jethro Tull, Traffic, Fairport Convention and Free all gained a huge new audience. Some of the other bands, like Art and Tramline, disappeared.

1. Jethro Tull – A Song For Jeffrey
2. Spooky Tooth – Sunshine Help Me
3. Free – I’m A Mover
4. Art – What’s That Sound
5. Tramline – Pearly Queen
6. Traffic – You Can All Join In

7. Fairport Convention – Meet on the Ledge
8. Nirvana (not THAT Nirvana!) – Rainbow Chaser
9. John Martyn – Dusty
10. Clouds – I’ll Go Girl
11. Spencer Davis Group – Somebody Help Me
12. Wynder K. Frog – Gasoline Alley

… and You Can All Join In is one of those seamless compilations that simply cannot be improved upon. A dozen tracks highlight the best — and that is the best — of Island’s recent and forthcoming output, from much-anticipated debut albums by Jethro Tull, Free, and Spooky Tooth to the sophomore effort by Fairport Convention. There’s also a healthy taste of the label’s most-successful-so-far signing, Traffic, as a leaf from Steve Winwood’s back pages — the Spencer Davis Group’s “Somebody Helps Me” joins Tramline’s cover of “Pearly Queen” and Traffic’s own “You Can All Join In” (yes, indeed, this collection’s title track). (

The compilation reached the top 20 in June 1969. Such is its place in music history that this cheap, almost throwaway compilation was reissued on CD during the early 90s rush to the shiny disk, even beating some of the albums it referenced. The CD combined it with Nice Enough To Eat, and is now attracting high second-hand prices.

Nice Enough To Eat (1969)

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Encouraged by the success of You Can All Join In, a followup Island sampler appeared later the same year (1969) featuring many of the same bands. Jethro Tull, Fairport, Free, Spooky Tooth and Traffic got a further boost, and this time they were joined by such rising stars as Mott The Hoople, King Crimson, Quintessence, Nick Drake and Dr Strangely Strange. This lineup has proved to be more enduring over the ensuing decades, with only Heavy Jelly lost to us.

The collection may have been a bit less cohesive and more demanding than its predessor, lurching from Nick Drake’s tender Time Has Told Me to the iron crunch of King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, gentling down to Quintessence and the Strangelies. describes it as ‘slightly incoherent’.

Mike Sida’s cover spelled the band names in alphabet biscuits on the front, and featured biscuits accompanied by various pills and capsules on the back.


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1. Fairport Convention – Cajun Woman
2. Mott The Hoople – At The Crossroads
3. Spooky Tooth – Better By You, Better Than Me
4. Jethro Tull – We Used To Know
5. Free – Woman
6. Heavy Jelly – I Keep Singing That Same Old Song

7. Blodwyn Pig – Sing Me A Song That I Know
8. Traffic – Forty Thousand Headmen
9. Nick Drake – Time Has Told Me
10. King Crimson – 21st Century Schizoid Man
11. Quintessence – Gungamai
12. Dr. Strangely Strange – Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal

Bumpers (1970)

The next Island sampler was a double album, released in 1970. There were variations in the designs and track listings released in Europe and Australia, which Wikipedia puts down to a rushed release. It cost the equivalent of £1.50. Bumpers were a kind of sports shoe fashionable at the time, and the cover was designer Tony Wright’s artwork, put into context by Mike Sida (who, inexplicably, put the shoes on the feet of an Aztec figure on the back).

In the track listing we can see some follow-through of the acts that were now the flagbearers for Island – Tull, Crimson, Fairport – as well as newer acts like Cat Stevens and Fotheringay, the band formed by Sandy Denny on leaving Fairport. Jimmy Cliff was there representing Island’s Jamaican past, as this music began to go mainstream in the UK.

Traffic – Every Mother’s Son
Bronco – Love
Spooky Tooth – I Am The Walrus
Quintessence – Jesus, Buddha, Moses, Gauranga

Mott The Hoople – Thunderbuck Ram
Jethro Tull – Nothing To Say
Jimmy Cliff – Going Back West
Blodwyn Pig – Send Your Son To Die
Dave Mason – Little Woman

John and Beverley Martyn – Go Out And Get It
King Crimson – Cadence And Cascade
If – Reaching Out On All Sides
Free – Oh I Wept
Nick Drake – Hazy Jane

Fairport Convention – Walk Awhile
Cat Stevens – Maybe You’re Right
Renaissance – Island
Fotheringay – The Sea
Clouds – Take Me To Your Leader

El Pea 1971

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The last in the series of classic Island samplers was this double album released in 1971, the title an obvious pun on ‘LP’. The design – by Douglas Maxwell Ltd – was unusual – a cardboard gatefold sleeve in which the two albums were presented in transparent plastic pages. The inner sleeve had drawings of the artists by Alan Cracknell.

El Pea had a leaning towards acoustic and folky songs.  Some of the hungover urchins who had appeared two years ago on the front of You Can All Join In were now stars, and could be used to attract listeners to Island’s newer signings like Amazing Blondel, Tir Na Nog and the Incredible String Band, who had just come to them from Elektra. Notable surprises were the String Band’s Mike Heron showing off his rock chops with John Cale, and McDonald and Giles  and Emerson Lake and Palmer, two off-shoots from King Crimson.

1. Traffic – Empty Pages
2. Sandy Denny – Late November
3. Alan Bown – Thru The Night
4. Heads Hand & Feat – Song For Suzie
5. Fairport Convention – Lord Marlborough

6. Jethro Tull – Mother Goose
7. Quintessence – Dive Deep
8. Amazing Blondel – Spring Season
9. McDonald & Giles – Extract from Tomorrow’s People: The Children Of Today
10. Tir Na Nog – Our Love Will Not DecaY
11. Mountain Side 3 – Don’t Look Around

12. Free – Highway Song
13. Incredible String Band – Waiting For You
14. Cat Stevens – Wild World
15. Bronco – Sudden Street
16. Mike Heron – Feast Of Stephen

17. Emerson, Lake & Palmer – Knife Edge
18. Nick Drake – Northern Sky (listed on the sleeve as One Of These Things First, a different track from his album)
19. Mott The Hoople – Original Mixed-Up Kid
20. Jimmy Cliff – Can’t Stop Worrying, Can’t Stop Loving
21. Mick Abrahams – Greyhound Bus

I don’t think El Pea was ever released on CD but it’s been shared on YouTube here

The appeal of the samplers was clear. Punters got a chance to hear some of the best new music at a heavily discounted price, whilst the record company got to promote music that did not readily lend itself to radio or TV airplay. Some of the compilations were classic recordings in their own right, and Island Records probably came out with the classiest. (Nic Oatridge)

Other labels samplers

Island sampler artists I’ve written about


A Norman Lamont sampler!

If you’ve made it this far you might want to try this:

The Monk From The Mountain of Sorrow lyric video

Lyric videos seem to be a thing nowadays, presumably so that something shows when you’re looking at them on Facebook during a meeting with the sound off, pretending it’s an important email.

This song was on All The Time In Heaven. I’d written it years earlier of course, and at first I was a little coy about saying it was ‘about’ Leonard Cohen – after all it’s very indirect. But all the imagery really was drawn from what I know of him from the Greek island of Hydra to the Zen monastery on Mt Baldy, so I’m happy to say it now. I feel like I’ve said a lot about him since he passed away so this will be the last.

As always, if you like it, please share with someone else who might.

Leonard Cohen – my life in (his) art

cohenI was sixteen and in fifth year at school. My girlfriend at the time was in sixth year, her eye on the end of school and the beginning of ‘real life’. One evening at her house she brought out a white album with an obscure, burned out photo on the front. Songs from a Room.  “You should hear this, you’ll like it. He’s over 30 but he’s really good!” I listened with mild curiosity to what seemed like a voice from another generation, noting the first recording I’d ever heard of a Jew’s harp, an instrument I owned but would never have thought had any real application to music.



The adult life

But it was the sinister patterns and wartime narrative of The Partisan that really hooked me.  Not even Cohen’s own song, but it became the door to Cohen for me, the fact that music could talk about the adult world in a way that made it in equal terms credible and intimidating. That and the picture on the back, Marianne in her towel sitting at the typewriter. This was a different world from the hippie, India-tinged music I loved most at the time. There was a sense of culture shock, that only grew when Cohen’s next release came to my attention. Songs of Love and Hate. Just the title was enough. How, at what was in Scotland at least, still the fag-end of the hippie period, could you call an album that? And not apologetically either – the sleeve design was a sledgehammer compared to his two previous albums. When I heard Famous Blue Raincoat and Joan of Arc, I became a Cohen devotee for life.

Live Songs was a bit raw and uncomfortable. Cohen sounded disturbed or drugged, and the sleeve bore a letter from a fan who, I was told,  would soon after take her own life. The front picture added to this feeling of desperation. We are so used to male shaven heads now it’s hard to remember the associations it had long ago – the workhouse, the concentration camp, the psychiatric ward.

Travelling the 70s

In 1974 New Skin for the Old Ceremony didn’t have such a strong effect on me, but what it did bring was a tour date in Glasgow. I sat mesmerised as the normally rowdy Greens Playhouse hushed to silence for this self-effacing man in a suit and black polo-neck and his small band. He seemed so genuinely surprised that anyone even knew his songs. I’d never seen so humble a performance in front of a sell-out crowd. I wasn’t actually performing at the time, but something of it stuck with me as the right way to approach an audience.

 We have seen newsreels of humans in the extremities of pain and dislocation. Everyone knows you are eating well and are even being paid to stand up there. You are playing to people who have experienced a catastrophe. This should make you very quiet.  Speak the words, convey the data, step aside.  (How to Speak Poetry)

The next albums became associated for me with the places I was living when I heard them. I bought Death of a Ladies Man while living in Rotterdam. I bought it on cassette as a cassette player was all I had. It was puzzling to say the least, but the cheesy arrangements couldn’t disguise the desperation of songs like the title track and Paper Thin Motel. Cohen evidently wasn’t any happier. I wondered if he’d survive.

The golden moment at Hammersmith

When Recent Songs appeared I was living just outside London and it was a delight. The songs seemed more serene and the violin-and-oud arrangements were elegant and stately. I fell for Cohen all over again. A tour was announced and I got a ticket for the Hammersmith Odeon. I then heard that on his last tour he’d actually come and played a free afternoon’s show at the very unorthodox psychiatric hospital I was working in, the Henderson Hospital. I went to the Odeon bearing a letter from the staff inviting him to return, which I could do no more than pass to the bouncers. The show, later released as Field Commander Cohen, is the one I’ll remember as the best. Not only Cohen’s performance but every instrumental solo – oud, violin, guitar or saxophone – was immaculate and riveting. During one sax solo I had a vision of liquid burning gold pouring down the steps of a dark cellar. (At the gig, I was on nothing stronger than coffee and solitude.)

 In a sense when someone consents to go into a mental hospital or is committed he has already acknowledged a tremendous defeat. To put it another way he has already made a choice. And it was my feeling that the elements of this choice, and the elements of this defeat, corresponded with certain elements that produced my songs, and that there would be an empathy between the people who had this experience and the experience as documented in my songs.

Zero. Zen

During the five years before he returned to the marketplace with Various Positions, I discovered a journal called Zero produced from the Mount Baldy Zen Center, for which Cohen was an editor and contibutor, and discovered to my surprise that Cohen shared my fascination with the black and sepia world of Zen Buddhism. Although I vacillated for a while, and still do, he was fully committed and would later become even more so, but it gave me a new key with which to read his poetry and lyrics.

Various positions across England

Another album, another town. I was living in Manchester when Various Positions came out. Hoping for a reprise of the Mid-East atmosphere of Recent Songs, I was disappointed by the country arrangements, but not by the songs, which seemed as strong as any from before, especially If It Be Your Will. He toured again and I saw him on consecutive nights in Manchester and Birmingham. It was a country  band, with pedal steel as the main lead instrument. But the most emotionally intense parts were when he came back after the interval for solo renditions, in a thin spotlight in the darkened theatre,  of Avalanche and Stranger Song.

The silence and the return

In the interim before his next album, people who weren’t fans began talking about him once more with the release of Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat and the tribute double album I’m Your Fan, which featured John Cale’s stately reworking of Hallelujah, with new verses written but not recorded by Cohen. Suddenly it wasn’t so lonely being a Leonard Cohen fan.

He shocked everyone, however, with the synth and drum machine textures of I’m Your Man in 1988. True to the pattern I first played this in yet another new home, in Leek in Staffordshire. People were maybe expecting him to come back with a return to the styles that had inspired the tributes. No. No way at all. But the new, octaves-deeper voice made up for everything and made Cohen exciting again.

Moving to Edinburgh in the 1990s I heard The Future but didn’t get to any of his European tour dates. I discovered the fan site The Leonard Cohen Files in 1995 during my first years on the internet and learned that Cohen had gone to live at the Zen Center. That looked like goodbye. He would see out his years as a Zen monk and we would have the albums and memories to treasure.

As we know, it didn’t turn out that way. The albums kept coming, including the one that was to become my favourite, Ten New Songs, and we even got to see him live again, in Edinburgh and in London on his triumphant world tours.

In the presence

Leonard Cohen with fans in London
No, that’s not me with him!

I had the chance to speak to him once, as I walked to the Barbican for an evening where Phillip Glass was playing his settings of Cohen’s music. I stood with my friend Deena a few feet away from him outside the Barbican entrance as he signed CDs and books for a handful of fans. But as they leaned into him for selfies and pushed more products at him, which he thanked each individual for buying, I felt sorry for him. He seemed small, weary and alone, doing his duty of civility and gratitude, and I was glad when he broke away and headed inside. We didn’t have the heart to join in the feeding frenzy. (The full story)

 Since then, I’ve had the ritual of greeting each new album with time specially set aside at night, and a glass of red wine, the last instance only a couple of weeks ago.

I wasn’t just being a fan when I organised the three Lenny tribute nights in Edinburgh – I feel like Cohen has been part of my life since I first brushed with the idea of adulthood. He’s informed every stage of my life, emotionally and spiritually. When today came, it wasn’t a shock, he’d prepared everyone with his recent press and songs. (And you could read ‘mortality’ into every album he’s ever put out!)  Tonight I’ll raise a glass, not in sorrow or bereavement, but just in gratitude.

A Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen: Tower of Song and Hallelujah

Here are a couple of clips from the ‘Many Sing Lenny’ tribute night at the Captain’s last week. Given time and a peaceful life I’ll make up a compilation of all the acts I filmed, but here’s my ‘Tower of Song’ and an informal community singalong of Hallelujah featuring Kat McKenzie, James and Paula Igoe, Nelson Wright and Fiona Thom (thanks to Kat for the vid).