My friend George and I were digging through the vast mix of junk and gems that is Souq Al Ahd, Beirut’s Sunday flea market. Hovering over a pile of vinyl, George flicked through with a look of anticipation on his face. Excitement quickly turned to disappointment. “My father’s friend told me about a rare vinyl pressing of David Bowie’s Space Oddity. If you ever find one, snatch it up. It Could be worth £1000.” For the next two years that I lived in Beirut, I looked through any dusty piles of records I found in various storefronts throughout the city. I never came across a copy of the record.
My initial understanding of the myth of the “Space Oddity” Vinyl pressed in Lebanon was misled. Although the David Bowie record is a gem, the real mythology comes from the general pressing of records in Lebanon and not the release itself. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Societe Libanais du Disque began to press foreign records, buying the rights from the American or European parent companies. Lebanese vinyl pressing began because of the demand created by the tourist boom in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Ernesto Chahoud, a DJ and record collector, described Lebanon in the 1960’s as an international hub of sorts.
“Everybody used to come to Beirut, it was a hub for everyone… All the hippies used to come here…all the movie stars used to come here. It was like Coppa Cabana. The currency was good, the weather was good, life is good, they come smoke dope, they come to the beach, they ski, whatever. And for sure they used to go and dance.”
The Lebanese nightlife and music scene in the 1960s was not only rich, but also diverse. Istanbul, the only other Middle Eastern city that came close, was easily overshadowed by Beirut. As a tourist hub, people from all over the world would come to Lebanon for holiday. This created an incentive for Lebanese record companies to press vinyl that was not necessarily at the forefront of popular music, but rather catered to the more niche musical tastes of tourists. David Bowie was an obvious choice for Lebanese daughter companies, as he was an international hit at the time. Along with the popular music of the time, Northern soul, funk, disco and regional music from France was also pressed too. Certain songs, that belonged to whole albums in Europe and America were pressed in Lebanon as singles.
Lebanon’s romance with vinyl was short lived. In 1975, the Civil War broke out and the conflict quickly drove the thriving tourism industry into the ground. A few years later vinyl pressing died with it. For fifteen years, the conflict drug on, destroying Beirut’s image as a traveler’s paradise and the fledgling record industry that came with it. Many of the records pressed in Lebanon were destroyed with it.
As the fog of war cleared in the 1990’s, and life in Lebanon slowly returned to relative normality, a few blessed crate diggers were left with a gold mine of rare vinyl records. Chahoud reflected on this period saying, “I remember the 90s, I used to go to Souq Al Ahd and dig. I used to find this Eddie Holman B-side, everybody looks for it, called “I surrender”. I used to find six or seven, buy them for like two dollars. They’re worth 1,000 dollars now.” Eddie Holman was one of the famous Northern Soul singers, a variant of Motown born in Northern England and the Midlands, who found popularity among Lebanese music fans. Chahoud also recounted digging through crates in Lebanon and finding blank white label records give to DJs. The only way to find out what they were was to listen to them. Other vinyl collectors caught on to the Lebanese vault of vinyl treasure. Florian Keller, a German DJ who specializes in rare funk and soul records, lists Beirut at the top of his favourite places to dig for records.
Obscure political and manufacturing circumstances created even rarer pieces. In particular, a Johnny Hallyday record called “Jesus Christ”. Hallyday was the French Speaking world’s Elvis Presley. Over the course of his career, eighteen of his albums went platinum and sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. Since French culture heavily influenced Lebanon, Hallyday was an obvious choice for Lebanese vinyl manufacturers. Although French culture was extremely popular in Lebanon, especially amongst the Christian segment of the population, they were not as socially progressive as their European colonizers. Hallyday’s 1970 hit, “Jesus Christ”, offensively depicted Jesus as a vagrant hippie. After being pressed, the Lebanese government pulled the record from the market. Hallyday’s name was misspelled on the few copies that were pressed, adding to the unique obscurity of the record. Recently, a single copy sold on Ebay for close to $1,000.
Since the 1990’s, Lebanon’s secret vinyl underground has been largely exposed. Connoisseurs, businessmen and tourists have bought most of the valuable Lebanese pressings. In the Bohemian mecca of Mar Mikhael, an old record store called “Super Out” still sells some vinyl. On first glance, the store looks like a gold mine waiting to be excavated, but only a tiny percent of the store’s inventory is for sale. The old owner is not naïve.
More recently, a couple record stores have popped up that still deal in old records, but their inventory is mostly made up of new, foreign music. Walking through Souq Al Ahd, there are still piles of records for sale, but with the increased awareness of the vinyl mythology, true gems are hard to find. This isn’t to say there aren’t treasures still left undiscovered. Dusty attics in mountain houses, grandparent’s storage spaces and small stores off the beaten path may provide a dusty sleeve with a piece of Lebanon’s brief love affair with vinyl records.