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Records are magic. Drop the needle in the groove, and the sound waves can transport you instantly to another place and time. In this age of instant access to limitless song libraries we don’t often think of what a gift that is.
From songwriters to producers and engineers, each contributes to the musical spell that transforms listeners. With that energy, dedicated fans sometimes contribute to this legacy by preserving rare recordings.
Charles (“Chuck”) Stenberg is one of these self-made archivists. Like many fans of the era he grew up on The Beatles, was inspired to play the drums, and became a record collector. That passion led him to become a documentarian of his local scene. He eventually met Gary Nieland – founder and jack-of-all trades of Salem, Oregon’s Garland Records – and learned of the music he recorded.
Gary was a musician as well, starting out in 1961 as drummer for The Champs, who recorded the classic “Tequila.” As a performer he learned recording studio fundamentals at California’s Gold Star, Sunset Sound, Studio Arts, and Wally Heider.
With the initiative to record his own music and promote local musicians, he built his own basement recording studio with a half inch Ampex 4-track reel-to-reel tape machine and Neumann, Sennheiser, and Shure microphones. He engineered, recorded, and mixed every session for fifteen dollars an hour.
Garland Records got its name from the first three letters of Gary’s first name, and the last four letters of his last. He took a musician’s approach to producing - valuing natural clarity over period effects. Instead of imprinting his own producer’s vision, Nieland was adaptable to the needs of each band and song.
Most of Gary’s 4-track productions were recorded on seven tracks and bounced down to four, so his final mixes had minimal tape hiss and maximum range. He recorded three basic tracks and bounced them down to the fourth, freeing three additional tracks for vocals and overdubs. Nieland sent final mixes to Hollywood engineer John Stack for mastering, usually pressing 1,000 copies.
From 1967 to the mid 1970s, some of the local bands Nieland recorded were released on the regional Garland Records label. Starting with his first 45 release of Prince Charles and the Crusaders, the label put out more than 24 rare 7 inches during the 60s. After the studio was shut down, the tapes were stored and forgotten until Stenberg resuscitated them in 2017.
Chuck had no previous experience with master tapes. He gathered and cataloged the tapes, restored Gary’s Ampex recorder, mined the production masters, mixed the outtakes, and found a label to rerelease the music.
Like other Pacific Northwest music, nine months of dank rainy days seeped into the sounds of Salem. In the late 60s and 70s, the youth of the capital city were in the shadow of the post counterculture come-down. Hiding behind the well-to-do public facades was the dark alter-ego of their home.
It may sound like the freewheelin’ good time music of the era, but instead of kaleidoscopic day glow, the palette of Pandora’s Box is overcast in shades of grey.
The majority of these recordings are previously unreleased. Other than the tape boxes and the 45s themselves, there’s no other existing documentation. Collectors who are concerned with minutiae may find the lost back story of Garland Records maddening. We’ve taken every effort to find the original characters and share their memories. /Christopher Eddy (Sun Ra Arkive & Commander of The Eclipse Army)