ART / Outside Edge: They barely talk, but they agree on one thing: naff sells

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The Independent Culture
EXOTICA Records is run on a shoestring (a frayed, gym-shoe sort of a shoestring) from a residential house in Dulwich. To date, it has released three albums and it's held together by two men, Jim Phelan and Mike Alway, who don't have much to do with one another.

'Jim likes to call himself the Chief Executive,' said Mike on the phone from Richmond, 'I don't know what he's talking about. I hardly ever see him. He wanted to create the impression to you we were serious artists working in a liberal workspace in south London. If you'd gone to meet us there, I wasn't even going to turn up. He may think he's serious. I like to think of myself as a charlatan. And the music he's interested in is dead - it's like he makes love to a corpse.'

'If he said that, he was being honest with you, then,' Jim said later. 'Well, the music he produces isn't my favourite either. But it doesn't matter. The arrangement just sort of works.'

The serious artist and the charlatan, who tend to communicate by phone, are dedicated to the disinterment of specific 'novelty' records. Phelan, 'Mr History', collects obscure Beatles covers - William Shatner's startrek-in-his-eyes version of 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds', 'Eleanor Rigby' sung in Latin by Derek Enright MP, 'We Can Work it Out' delivered by a choir of cats, dogs and chickens . . . While Alway, 'Mr Sensuality and Going Forward', chases after football records - Gazza's rendition of the 'Birdie Song', 'I wish I could play like Charlie George' piped by a six-year-old schoolgirl in Nottingham ('and he was only there on loan'), Jackie Charlton's 'Geordie Sunday' - 'Jack off guard for a few moments there, I feel.'

And all this, they say, because there isn't enough 'glamour' in the world. 'Other record corporations', said Alway, who used to be an A and R man, 'churn out this incredibly shallow glamour, all those jeans and back-to- front baseball caps. What I wanted to do was take something very low, that everybody thinks is naff, and inflate it like a magic trick to something that's much higher. I'd love our records to be the equivalent of those middle career films that Orson Welles made that nobody liked. Works of genius, brilliant but flawed.'

But they also do it, you suspect, because they love it - particularly the tracking down part of the job. Exotica is in contact with fanzines, magazines and fan clubs all over the world - as far away as Indonesia, as deep as Africa; they write, they ring, they haunt second-hand shops. Phelan (who designs record sleeves the rest of the time) thinks he's listened to about 3,000 Beatles covers in all, but that only one in 50 makes it on to his list. 'They have to have something unique,' he said. 'A lot of people think that these are bad records, the worst Beatle tracks, but the bad ones, Billy Pepper and the Pepper Pots singing 'Please Please Me', for example, go unnoticed.

'The best thing is when something comes up just when you least expect it. I remember when I found 'Penny Lane' by the Wilson Malone Voice Band. I was going through this stash of psychedelic records which looked very promsing. I had great hopes for Ethel the Frog doing 'Eleanor Rigby' but it turned out to be bland. Suddenly I heard 'Penny Lane' and the moment it started I knew, 'This is the one, it's got to be on there.' '

The job does have its disappointments. EMI turned down Phelan's request to include Pinky and Perky singing 'Yellow Submarine' (occasionally, if it's something they've taped off the telly, Exotica casts a veil over the licensing laws) and there was a football song about West Bromwich Albion from Africa that Alway wanted to use, 'but it went on for 37 minutes and there was no point you could get in and out'.

Alway has great plans for the future, though. He hopes his next project (a third football record) will include a passage from a Diana Dors film in which she seduces a swimming pool attendant by 'raving, orgasmically, about Georgie Best' and a clip in which Joan Collins talks about football - in Italian. And what about Phelan? (After all, he puts in most of the money.) 'Oh, he'll probably tell you that there's going to be a second Exotic Beatles,' said Alway. 'Well, I suppose it's good that he should have a little project of his own.'

For 'Bend It 91', 'Bend It 1992' and 'The Beatles', write to Exotica, 49 Belvoir Road, London SE22 OQY