Cult Case Files, Film, Music

CULT CASE FILES: Harvey Sid Fisher and the Golden Age of VHS Trading

The story behind a tape-trader classic


In Cult Case Files, Hassle film editor Oscar Goff shines a light on cult classics of the distant past, the alternate present, and the possible future, and tries to get a bead on just what the words “cult classic” actually mean. To catch up with the rest of the series, click here.

When they write the history books about our stupid era, the Viral Video Age will likely be said to have dawned in 2006. With its simple interface and higher resolution, Youtube freed the format from gargantuan Quicktime files and choppy RealVideo links, suddenly making it easy to share videos like “Lazy Sunday” and “Charlie Bit My Finger” with the simple click of a mouse. But the practice of sharing you-gotta-see-this videos with your friends stretches back much farther: before Youtube, before social media, before the dawn of the internet itself.

The ancestors of the modern viral video, in fact, didn’t involve computers at all. With the rise of home video in the 1980s, film fanatics were suddenly able for the first time to become film collectors– and, if they were lucky enough to own a second VCR, to become distributors as well. Soon the floodgates opened, and underground weirdos began building massive collections of off-the-radar ephemera: obscure films, punk rock concerts, context-free snippets of public access TV, the odd homemade comedy skit, and, of course, plenty of truly offensive shock footage. With no internet to connect with fellow collectors, many of these video junkies met face to face, connecting at comic shops or record shows and swapping their home-dubbed treasures. Other enterprising souls went so far as to publish their own zine-style print catalogs, which they would use as the foundation for a DIY mail-order business (a few of these operations, such as Sinister Cinema and Something Weird Video, are still going strong). The goal was to find that perfect, oddball tape, which you would force all your friends to gather around the VCR to watch– and then trade that for something even better.

I was what you might call a last-generation tape-trader: as a rural teen in the late ‘90s, I relied on internet message boards and newsgroups to build my collection (I started out in search of pre-Sci-Fi Channel episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and quickly fell down the rabbit hole). What I lacked in seniority, however, I made up for in zeal, and soon built up a formidable collection: the Filipino superhero musical Alyas Batman en Robin (completely unauthorized, entirely unsubtitled); a tape compiling 6 hours of clips from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Al-TV specials from the ‘80s; the crude early mashup Apocalypse Pooh, which dubbed the soundtrack to Francis Ford Coppola’s classic war movie over clips of a certain Silly Old Bear. All of these are, of course, now readily available online, but back in my day you had to work for your silly videos, dammit.

Relics of an analog youth.

Of all my weird little tapes, however, none received more pay than Harvey Sid Fisher’s Astrology Songs. In a sign of the changing times, I never actually had Astrology Songs on VHS; rather, it was on a DVD-R I picked up at the late, lamented Mondo Kim’s Video on St. Marks Place in New York. Astrology Songs was not listed among the disc’s contents, but was instead simply slipped onto the end of the disc following the main feature (a pair of “Irritainment” video mixes from beloved freeform radio station WFMU). This in itself wasn’t too much of a surprise; the tradition of throwing on random “extras” to fill out a tape’s running time dates back to the earliest days of trading. But what followed quickly had me grinning from ear to ear.

At first, I had no idea what I was watching: a dapper man, dressed in a tuxedo and standing in an empty soundstage, briefly introduces himself before singing a jaunty song called “I Am the Ram,” written from the point of view of a typical Aries (“Busy as a bee, on the go all the time / Can’t sit by the fire, I need mountains to climb!”). To his left, a young woman performs an interpretive dance, pantomiming each lyric as if in a game of charades. When the song ends, a new dancer enters, and the man launches into a different number: “Talkin’ ‘bout the Taurus! Talkin’ ‘bout the bully-bull-bull!” This repeats, naturally, an additional ten times, with a full-length pop song written for each sign. Three dancers cycle in and out, each with a different costume for each song, but the focus remains on Fisher, grinning from ear to ear and singing his heart out.

If you have visited my home more than once in the past 20 years, there is a good chance you have seen Astrology Songs; like any good trader, I cherish the opportunity to subject my friends to my favorite discoveries. When I show someone Astrology Songs for the first time, their reaction is always the same: the fidgeting realization at the beginning of “Taurus” that they’re in it for the long haul, and a nervous protest that they’re not sure they can watch twelve songs of this. They always can, and always do; by the end, they invariably find themselves singing along and cheering for their favorite dancers. I will occasionally reconnect with a friend who watched Astrology Song on my couch several apartments ago, yet can still easily launch into the chorus of “I Was Born a Capricorn” or “P-P-P-Pisces.”

By my estimation, I have watched Harvey Sid Fisher’s Astrology Songs dozens of times– certainly more than many films which I would count among my favorites. Yet, for all the hours of entertainment it’s brought me, it occurred to me that I don’t actually know much about it. So, with a little bit of online detective work, I cold-messaged an account which appeared to be the real Harvey Sid Fisher, and within hours that familiar, genial twang was coming through my telephone. Finally, I could answer the question that had been asked during countless late-night viewing parties: who is this guy?

Fisher, I soon learned, is perhaps the quintessential California journeyman, by turns an actor, a golf instructor, a screenwriter, “one of LA’s top ten million photographic models,” and a one-time hair stylist at a 24-hour beauty salon. He began playing guitar in his teens, but started his musical career in earnest following encouragement from a girlfriend’s uncle, who happened to be a professional songwriter. He has written songs about everything from golf etiquette to the Vietnam War. But when his name comes up in conversation, it is almost always thanks to his astrologically-minded song cycle.

When asked whether astrology had been a particular source of fascination for him, Harvey quickly demurs, “Not at all! I have no interest in it. I’m just a songwriter.” Nevertheless, the idea came to him in the early ‘80s that the Zodiac could provide fruitful lyrical subject matter. Following a period of gestation, Fisher recorded Astrology Songs in 1987 and self-released it on cassette (it would eventually receive a vinyl pressing in 1993). But it was the video, of course, which would shoot him to an odd sort of fame.

Shot at a local public access TV studio in 1989 for an estimated $35 budget, the Astrology Songs video is a work of true eccentric art. The dancers, I learned from Harvey, were initially paid $5 a piece for their performances, though he would later reconnect with additional payments several years down the road (Harvey tells me that he lost contact with one of them somewhere in the intervening years, but has some money earmarked for them; if the mystery dancer happens to be reading this, he encourages you to reach out). His initial idea was for the dancers to simply add some movement, but he reveals that they got together the night before the shoot to coordinate their wardrobe and choreography; “It evolved!”

The performance was broadcast live on Los Angeles public access, but Harvey sent the tape to similar stations in New York, Memphis, and elsewhere– which gives one a sense of how it began its second life. “They started using it every time they had an open space,” Harvey explains, no doubt prompting tapeheads and insomniacs to scramble for the “Record” button. Those home-tapers, of course, would share their finds with their networks, and Astrology Songs began its journey across the country. “Somebody once told me how many rock and roll groups on the road, on the bus, are watching video when they’re touring!” The tape soon became a secret handshake among oddballs and hipsters; eagle-eyed readers of Daniel Clowes’ classic graphic novel Ghost World may spot Fisher’s name on the events calendar at Enid’s favorite zine shop.

In the intervening years, Fisher has, in his words, “gone from relative obscurity to total anonymity.” He has continued to plug away in his varied careers; one of his screenplays, Taken for Ransom, was produced in 2013 as a Lifetime movie with Chazz Palminteri and Tia Carrere. You can find him on Instagram, which he updates sporadically and occasionally uses to treat his followers to a spontaneous live-streamed performance. As for Astrology Songs, Fisher finally uploaded it in its entirety to Youtube in 2015, reckoning that it would be easier to simply make it available for free than to take the trouble to mail copies to the odd souls still sending away for them. It feels like a full-circle moment, allowing it to be shared with ease by the same video junkies who, a generation earlier, would have been mailing dubs to strangers across the country.

In many ways, tape-trading was one of the most personal forms of cinephilia, in which the viewer curates their own personal canon comprised of films and videos seen by almost no one else on earth. But it also, almost by definition, stripped these videos of any context, making it at times easy to forget that there was an actual person on the other end of that insane clip. Tape traders were sometimes accused of exploitation, of laughing at people who had no idea they were the butt of some collector’s joke. I’ve probably been guilty of this myself once or twice in my life, but I can truly say I’ve never felt this way about Astrology Songs. Each of these twelve ditties is lodged deeply in my brain, occasionally bringing a smile to my face as their choruses run through my head; in other words, they are good songs. Speaking to Harvey, I found myself with an even greater appreciation of this odd little achievement, the unlikely pinnacle of a truly idiosyncratic career. I often miss the mystery that came with receiving a brand new homemade tape, but I’m thankful that, through the internet, we are able to learn the stories behind the clips.

Finally, a postscript. Before I got off the phone, I asked Harvey a question which often comes up while watching Astrology Songs: what’s his sign? “I am an ontologically giddy Sagittarian!” he responds, before letting out a funny, high-pitched giggle. I will, from now on, have a far deeper appreciation for the lyrics of “I’m a Sag’.”

WHERE TO FIND IT: As previously mentioned, Astrology Songs is available to watch legally for free on Youtube. For ease of viewing, it is divided into individual songs, but for the full tape-trader experience I recommend watching them all in order, preferably late at night.

FURTHER STUDIES: Like Astrology Songs, most classics from the tape trading era are now freely available to watch on Youtube, but watching individual clips on a Google-owned algorithm doesn’t convey the magic of the pastime. You’ll come closer by perusing the channels of archivist/remix artists like Everything Is Terrible! and The Found Footage Festival, who harness the maverick tape-trading spirit by reconfiguring thrift store VHS clips into twisted nuggets. But for my money the best bang for your buck comes from the feature-length collages of TV Carnage. Compiled by Ontario-based comedian Derrick Beckles (an associate of Eric Andre and Tim & Eric), these brain-melting, 75-minute masterpieces are available on DVD directly from the artist, and will give you that delirious rush of receiving a care package of analog madness from a like-minded obsessive.

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