Started slow, long ago

The other day my son asked to borrow the booklet from my CD of Smile, because he wanted to check the lyrics of “Good Vibrations”; I’d burned it to a CD that I’d given him for Christmas, along with a bunch of other stuff (Oasis, the Shins, Iggy Pop…) I told him the lyrics of the song on Smile were different from the original, and (once I’d persuaded him I wasn’t winding him up) that was that. But it started me thinking.

In the next post I’ll say some more about Smile – which I’d classify as a glorious failure for a number of reasons, some of them (interestingly) out of the control of anyone involved. In this one I’m going to talk about vinyl. Then with any luck there’ll be a third post which will tie it all together, although exactly how as yet I know not. But hey, enough of my yakkin’.

We’re all normal and we want our freedom.
Freedom?
Freedom. Freedom. Freedom. Freedom…
All o’ God’s children gotta have their freedom!

The first time I heard Forever Changes, I got up instinctively at the end of “The red telephone” to turn the record over. Then I sat down again, because the first time I heard Forever Changes was about eighteen months ago and I was listening to it on CD. All the same, I knew the end of side one when I heard it.

Like Dan, I miss the LP format. What I miss isn’t the LPs, which haven’t entirely gone – I’ve got a functioning turntable & still occasionally buy new music on vinyl – but the album format which they gave us. Consider: a heavy cardboard sleeve twelve inches square. There are the visuals, for a start: 12″ x 12″ is a handy format for artwork, not to mention the 24″ x 12″ of the gatefold. There are track listings, production credits, details of who played what and who wrote what; then there’s an inner sleeve, which may have more artwork and may have more information, or perhaps song lyrics. The whole thing is a rich, dense artifact, in a similar scale to a glossy magazine – a handy size to hold and contemplate, whether you’re listening to the music or anticipating it as you come home on the bus. At the same time, as packaging it’s deeply functional: it’s wrapped – fairly closely in some cases – around the record itself.

The record, let’s not forget, embodies the music. The record has a certain irreducible fetishistic appeal, which alternative recording technologies (partly because they were alternatives) never really acquired. You hold a black vinyl disc in your hands, and you’re holding crystallised music: that physical object is your only way of hearing that music. It’s divided into two sides – two sets of tracks. In itself, the way the tracks divide up tells you something about the music you were going to hear – particularly if there’s only one track on each side (or, for that matter, if there are ten). Either way, there’s an inevitable pause between side one and side two, giving you the chance to gather your thoughts and renew your attention.

Maintenant c’est jouĂ©. There’s a lot that’s good about the music-listening experiences which have effectively supplanted the LP. Indeed, their sheer convenience makes it slightly academic to talk about their drawbacks: as George Orwell said, travelling from London to Brighton by walking alongside a mule would certainly give you a better experience of the country than taking the train, but that didn’t mean anybody would actually do it. Still, something has been lost. I think there are three main factors. There’s the sheer length of the 80-minute CD format; it may suit Beethoven, but it’s death to the album format. The tracks multiply or sprawl; without the minimal structure provided by that end-of-side-one breather, the album turns into a big bag of tracks, inviting the listener to skip or resequence. (Top tip for Beck’s Sea change: 1,2,3,5,4,6, then 8-12. Try it.)

This technological erosion of the album format has both followed and reinforced the rise of a radio-like, track-based way of listening to music and thinking about music. In the piece I referenced earlier (which really is superb, by the way – if you’re going to follow any of these links, follow this one) Dan laments the poverty of musical metadata offered by iTunes: you can put names to the track, the album and the artist, and, er, that’s it. For me this suggests a conceptual shift rather than (or as well as) skimpy work by software engineers. On the radio, after all, you never expected to hear the name of the producer or the dates of the session or the jokey credit for the studio runner. You heard the music, you got the basic information and you could go out and track it down – it in this case being the vehicle of the real musical experience, the graspable object of beauty and store of information that was the album. That extra stage has more or less vanished now: what you hear is what you get, there is nothing else. Which means that the album becomes less important than the mix – your own mix, mined from the music you’ve accumulated. (Last year CD album sales actually rose in the UK – but sales of compilation albums fell sharply.) Malcolm McLaren, of all people, saw most of this coming years ago.

The third big change is one that Uncle Mal didn’t foresee, and it’s the clincher. With a portable cassette player – by which I don’t necessarily mean a Walkman (although it certainly made life easier when you didn’t have to tote around something the size of a shoulderbag) – with a portable tape player, anyway, your music could become as portable and as ubiquitous as music on the radio, at the cost of also becoming as light, disembodied and information-poor as music on the radio. But there was another cost, suggested by the lyrics to that song:

hit it, pause it, record it and play
turn it, rewind, and rub it away

A spool of tape is an extraordinarily inefficient medium for storing a series of separate tracks – more so than a vinyl LP, in some ways. You get into storage/retrieval tradeoffs straight away: the easiest tape to play is the one that consists solely of stuff you’re into right now, but that’s also the hardest tape to maintain. Of course, you could take the tape out and put another one in, but that only delays dealing with the problem – after all, how many tapes are you going to want to carry around?

So the third big change has been the rise of digital players. Sure, Malcolm had Annabella sing

now I don’t need no album rack
I carry my collection over my back

but I think the significant word in that is ‘back’: if you seriously intended to carry your entire album collection around on tape you’d need a sizeable rucksack. (I once taped one track from every album I owned – a project of quite Shandean irrationality. I’ve still got the tapes – they take up a whole drawer of my cassette box.) Now you can get your entire CD collection into a box the size of a fag packet in considerably less time than it takes to play them; you don’t get the same economy of time with vinyl albums, but it’s still perfectly doable. And then that’s it – that is your music collection. You can plug it into your audio system, you can plug it into your car stereo, you can hang it round your neck and go rollerblading if you’ve a mind to. You don’t need no album rack – wherever you are, your music is there.

This effect is exacerbated by the way music now seems to stay in fashion indefinitely: the Led Zeppelin of the fourth album and the Pink Floyd of Dark Side are still there – still our contemporaries. This is a very recent phenomenon; at the time of Dark side it would have seemed absurd to talk in this way about music that was 33 years old, or 13 years old for that matter. ‘Progressive’ rock wasn’t a genre to us then – it represented rock that had progressed, had left the past behind. (A few years later, many of us had similar views about the New Wave.) Most pop music from before the late 1960s is still over the horizon – there’s no appetite for replica reissues of Herman’s Hermits albums, and very little appetite for anything by the likes of Vince Taylor or Cliff Bennett – but once you get to about 1967 the clock has effectively stopped. (The Smile sessions were in 1966.)

You can have your music anywhere; not only that, but you can have all the music there is. On Desert Island Discs recently, John Sutherland chose his eight records to salvage from a shipwreck, but spoiled the effect rather with his choice of luxury item: a 60GB iPod, which would potentially give him the choice of another 14,992 pieces of music. Everyone’s a librarian – but it’s not a library of albums, with all their freight of musical metadata and art-work and in-jokes and period design and misprints; it’s a collection of tracks, each one as light and bodyless as the stuff they play on the radio, each interchangeable with any other. (Ultimate realisation of this vision: the iPod Shuffle, which picks its own random route from track to track, and doesn’t even deign to tell you which track you’re listening to.)

All of which makes this a strange time to be hearing Smile for the first time… But I’ll come on to that.

Postscript I was halfway through writing this post when I discovered I wasn’t the first person to think along these lines: in the February 2004 Salon article quoted here, Paul Williams of Crawdaddy comments, “It’s ironic that we’re talking about the [first] great album that never was at a time that the very form of the pop album is itself falling on hard times.” Spooky. Another one of those reverse premonitions, I guess.

4 Comments

  1. Martin Wisse
    Posted 24 January 2006 at 16:58 | Permalink | Reply

    And with the coming of digital, online music, music stored as just any other file on your computer we’ve definately said goodbye to the album format.

    We now have tracklists, not albums and it doesn’t matter anymore that
    the first song you hear is Critical Mass by Nuclear Assault and the second Blank Expression by the Specials
    . It’s all under your, the listener’s, control.

  2. Rob Jubb
    Posted 24 January 2006 at 21:25 | Permalink | Reply

    I confess to owning an IPod, and the relevant equipment to plug it into the back of my stereo, which means I basically never listen to CDs any more. That hasn’t stopped me listening to albums though, although I did once spend a couple of weeks just listening to every track I owned in a random order. It seems more to me than the information-rich experience of listening to music disappearing, on the more substantive note, it’s been displaced: it’s not that the information no longer exists or is produced, it’s just that it’s not there in the thing you listen to music through, but rather elsewhere – on the internet most obviously. As for vinyl, heretic that I am, having never owned any, I’m not really in a position to comment.

  3. Phil
    Posted 24 January 2006 at 22:08 | Permalink | Reply

    Martin – in your example it’s rather obviously not under your, the listener’s control, because you’ve ceded control to iTunes. As for ‘doesn’t matter any more’ – why not? I’m not saying there’s nothing gained, but I do think there’s a loss as well.

    Robert – I like the idea of the information being displaced rather than disappearing. If you remember the Faust Tapes (which you probably don’t…) one whole side of the LP sleeve was given over to reviews of the band’s previous work (which had been on a major label and been ferociously well-regarded but sunk pretty much without trace in terms of sales). That was a radical move at the time – but it’s quite commonplace now to have that kind of informational backup on hand when you’re listening to a new album.

    Glad to hear the iPod doesn’t actually force you to shuffle; my sentimental attachment to the Album is one of the things that’s made me hold off from getting one. (That, and the fact that I never listen to music in the street.)

  4. Posted 6 September 2008 at 17:06 | Permalink | Reply

    I agree with your analysis. The CD and mp3 have serious drawbacks as a form of musical presentation. You practically need a magnifying glass to read anything in a CD booklet. The record companies didn’t care. They pushed through CDs as the next big thing so they could make their windfall profits. I think mp3s are an insult to anyone who takes their music seriously, I avoid them at all costs. Grrrrrr.

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