Friday, 7 March 2014

07/03/14 - Ode to the Album

Thanks to the iPod, music just isn’t special any more.
Wait, no, that’s a horrible thing to say. Sorry, let me explain myself…

In the good old days - the sixties and seventies; before my time, but the time when my parents were growing up – recorded music was something special, something to be cherished. Each album was an event, to be hunted down and appreciated holistically and repeatedly. There was none of this ‘download a track here, download a track there’ nonsense – you had to actually go to a shop and buy the album you wanted. You’d devour it whole, appreciating the album as it was intended by its creators; the first track is the opener for a reason and there’s method behind the running order of the subsequent tracks, the cover art has depth and significance, and so does whatever liner notes they chose to (or not to) include. It was a thing. And because vinyl was chunky and substantial, you had to have somewhere to keep it, and it was always obvious. You couldn’t buy an album and forget about it.
This specialness helps to attach memories to music. On the day that Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ ‘New Boots & Panties!!’ album was released in 1977, my dad went to every record store in Canvey Island trying to find it, asking each baffled proprietor ‘excuse me, do you have New Boots and Panties…?’. Picture that. He was lucky not to get a thick ear, cheeky sod. In fact, when you think about it, half the stories of that generation have some sort of über-cool musical significance; my wife’s parents, for example, actually met at a Beatles gig at the Cavern Club. How rock ‘n’ roll is that? You can be sure they think about that every time they flip ‘Rubber Soul’ onto the turntable. The rhythm was all-pervading, it was everywhere in everybody’s lives.
I remember when I was growing up, my parents had maybe a hundred records. (Compare that to the amount of music on your iPod right now…) I knew every one of those long-players inside out. Still do, in fact. The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sticky Fingers’, ‘Let It Bleed’ and ‘Exile on Main Street’, Graham Parker’s ‘The Up Escalator’ and ‘The Real Macaw’, Led Zeppelin’s ‘II’, Budgie’s ‘If I Were Britannia I’d Waive The Rules’, Nazareth’s ‘Hair of the Dog’… we knew them all by heart. Because that’s what we had.

Broadly speaking, we can say that the sixties and seventies were the vinyl era, the eighties were all about cassette tapes, the nineties (and early noughties) were the time of CDs, then it went online. I was lucky to straddle the cusp of tape and CD, wherein the ideals of the vinyl album still held but the music was a little more portable.
Recordable cassettes allowed us to share music with friends. ‘Home taping is killing music’, cried the industry, but they couldn’t have been more wrong; home taping perpetuated kids’ fascination with music, broadening horizons that ultimately bolstered the industry as a whole, encouraging another generation of adolescents to spend their spare time going to gigs and hanging out in record shops.
Most of my pocket money was spent in Gatefield Sounds and B-Side the C-Side, respectively the local independent record store and a second-hand music exchange – it was the latter that spawned my fondness for rarities and collectibles. You see, I had this ingrained love of the album – these snapshots in time created for us by our music idols, representing their own perspective on that particular period, captured forever in a bundle of musical memories – and, once I had sufficient spare change to start collecting my own, I became obsessed with completism: if I’d bought an album I really liked (Mansun’s ‘Attack Of The Grey Lantern’, say, or 60ft Dolls’ ‘The Big 3’), I’d collect all of the associated singles in all their forms, as well as any demos and imports I could get my hands on. These were the times, remember, when releasing a single actually meant something – when people would have to make the effort to go to the shops to buy it, and bands would reflect this effort by releasing a single on two CDs, cassette and 7” vinyl, with different b-sides on each. You could be really snobby about it. ‘What, you haven’t heard the acoustic version? No, not that one, the demo? You mean you only bought CD1? Huh…’

I hate downloading music. If I’m going to buy an album or a single, I’ll buy a physical copy of it and store it in a rack, so that if I want to listen to it I’ll have to find it and make the effort to play it. The band went to great lengths to create it in exactly that format, so it’s the least I can do.
In my whole life, I’ve probably downloaded no more than around twenty songs, and they were all from MySpace in about 2005. (And, to be fair, they were by bands like Milburn and Bromheads Jacket, whose CDs I then went out and bought in a shop.) I’ve only ever bought two tracks from iTunes – they were ‘Damn Damn Leash’ by Be Your Own Pet and ‘Bug Powder Dust’ by Bomb The Bass – which are now lost on an old, scrapped version of iTunes on a defunct laptop. I object hugely to the shitty strategy of only allowing you to listen to things you download on an Apple device – I’ve paid for the fucking track, why shouldn’t I be allowed to burn it to a CD and listen to it in the car? I should own that copy of the track, not just rent it from Cupertino on a limited basis.
(Don’t worry, I tracked down an original promo copy of ‘Damn Damn Leash’ on CD - complete with cover hand-painted by the band - on, and the Bomb The Bass album ‘Clear’ was sourced from the marketplace – they’re mine now. I can listen to them wherever I want.)

So anyway, back to my opening statement about the iPod. Now, it’s a bloody clever little device, and I love mine to bits. I use it every day. However, the gadget’s ubiquity adds to the maelstrom of musical indifference demonstrated by a lot of people these days. This is illustrated most vividly by the people you see who are still using the fucking awful white earbuds that come with iPods. These are so crap for listening to music with, you might as well be hearing reel-to-reel tape, underwater, through a tin can attached to a bit of string. They’re horribly weak and tinny, and they have no bass whatsoever. None at all. And no dynamism. You lose all perception of the magic captured in the studio, you’re just listening to a faded and discoloured facsimile of the music you’ve paid for. People who use these earbuds don’t really want to listen to music in any meaningful sense; they want a background noise that they can ignore, to drown out reality. They could just as easily be listening to white noise.
So the equipment’s all wrong, but so’s the attitude. Downloading a song here and a song there and smooshing them all together into a little music box is sacrilegious to the creative process that spawned the tracks in the first place. There’s nothing special in treating music like an all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s disrespectful.

I said earlier that ‘the rhythm was all-pervading, it was everywhere in everybody’s lives’; you could argue that this is still the case today, that people spend far more time listening to music than ever before because the versatility and portability of technology allows them to do so. But it’s not the same. Listening to it and hearing it are two very different things.

Maybe I’m just a crotchety old sod.

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