Even though I don’t actually own a record player any more, I do sometimes pine for the heyday of vinyl. I grew up with a healthy selection of 12″s occupying the dining room, which introduced me to Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, The Sugarhill Gang, Depeche Mode, The Muppets, The Prodigy, LFO, Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths and many more. At one point I owned somewhere north of 5000 12″s and around 1000 7″s, but sadly elected to sell the vast majority of these when I moved to London for the sake of space and convenience. Anyone who has ever moved house with this amount of vinyl will understand why I did this, even if they don’t approve.
It’s been written about many times before, but there is something special about the ritual: taking the sleeve from the shelf, sliding the inner sleeve out and removing the record (although of course us DJs would rotate the inner sleeve so that the record fell out nice and easy without having to take the inner out), placing it on the record player, aboard the heavy rubber “placemat” for want of a better word (I didn’t see a slipmat til I was 18). Growing up, this was then followed by starting the belt drive turntable, carefully holding a duster on the record just enough to gather any debris, and gently wiping/flicking it away, before lowering the needle to the run-in grooves and dropping the lid back closed, those few seconds of crackle and static setting the stage for the music to follow.
This moment was brilliantly committed to musical history by Fake Blood when he did his version of John Cage’s legendary 4’33” as part of Cage Against The Machine, where he spliced the intro crackle of 312 of his favourite songs together – as he put it “those 2 seconds of silence and crackle is like opening the cover of a book”.
But of course, for a long time my musical palette was limited to whatever my parents or older brothers owned, and whatever was on the radio. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m lucky to have a family with good taste in music. But I was keen to get involved, and I had my own ideas about what was really needed on our stereo.
I was an avid watcher of Top Of The Pops and The Chart Show around this time, I guess I would have been about 8 or 9. One day a song came on, and along with the video, really stuck with me. That song was Level 42 – Something About You, a bona fide classic.
I remember his suit in particular making a huge impression on me, and indeed, maybe that’s where my dubious penchant for ridiculous patterns and prints hails from. Thankfully I haven’t also gained a taste for bowler hats, bow-ties and canes.
I enjoyed this song so much that I recorded it off the radio and everything. I played it to death, enjoyed singing both the lead part and the falsetto secondary vocalist part. I probably jumped around and waved my hands in the air, as if I just didn’t care. And then one day I found myself in Lowestoft, with the fiver my Granny had given me on arrival for my trip there.
There was a record shop I’d been in a few times. It’s not there any more, and Google is failing me in my efforts to verify my memory, but I believe it was called Jack’s Records. I wasn’t used to having cold, hard cash at my disposal, and when I was it was generally immediately spent on the maximum amount of sweets (that’s candy to our American friends, please don’t vote for Donald Trump, thanks) that I could fit into that budget.
So in I trotted, not really knowing what to do. I was too young to have that fear of record shop staff that developed later in life, which then faded when they started realising I was basically a cash dispenser for them and began to treat me nicely. I had a little browse around and then saw something I recognised – Level 42! Not the band, obviously, but the sleeve for their record! Except, hang on, this isn’t the record I love, this is something else entirely. It was Children Say. Well, Something About You was, to my ears at the time, basically perfect. I’ve always been a very logical person (my dad often teasingly calling me Mr Logic in my formative years), and so I made the completely sensible calculation that a new song by the same band that did the old song must be at least as good, and probably better.
I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to say that it isn’t as good. Or even close. It has a certain something, and I probably played the record more than it deserved just out of loyalty to my purchase. I’d like to say that the B-side saved the day, but this jazz-funk went miles over my head. Although look at the style on Mike Lindup, the keyboard player. Magnificent. Marvellous stuff.
Which brings me to a few things that writing this piece has brought to mind. Firstly, does anyone out there remember their first download? Will that have the same emotional resonance? Possibly, but I doubt it. I certainly don’t remember mine. It was probably a virus on Kazaa or Napster I’d guess, masquerading as music or porn that I wanted. I remember this memory remarkably well given my age – it was a bright, sunny day, the shop was dark and a bit dank (in the pre-meme sense). I don’t remember the actual transaction, but I assume I paid for it, I was a good boy. I know memories are very imperfect vessels, but its there, giving me a link to that point in my life, regardless of the strict accuracy.
And then there is the relationship I then had with this magical piece of plastic in a paper sleeve. That was my record. The one record I owned. It deserved the respect of listening to over and over and over, until it revealed itself to me. I mean, it ultimately revealed that it wasn’t very good, but that’s beside the point. This was true throughout my teenage years; I would save up pocket money or money from my part-time job, and then buy an album, which I would then listen to intently for weeks until I could afford the next one. These days, I get so much new music emailed to me that in many cases I basically scan intros, skip to halfway through, then a bit further, then if it doesn’t at the very least pique my interest it gets deleted. Records that I would today just discard ended up becoming firm favourites. Music is forced to be more instant, and as a result often less permanent, in order to avoid just being ruled “BORING!” and tossed aside while the conveyer belt hurls more at the world’s listeners.
I certainly don’t want this to turn into an “Old man yells at cloud” rant, I am delighted to have put my days of spinal curvature behind me and not have to carry several hundredweight of plastic and cardboard around to play my gigs, and it’s much kinder to my bank balance to not have to fork out the best part of a tenner for a track any more. But our relationship with music has changed as a result I suspect, and I do worry that it’s not necessarily for the better. C’est la vie.