PHONO – a return to vinyl

I can’t believe you need all that stuff!

That’s what our daughter said when she recently took an interest in our vinyl collection and I dug out the hifi equipment: turntable, amp, speakers, cables which within moments were entangled. You can see what she means. Compared with the tiny devices we’ve become used to this is a lot of kit, somewhat delicate, and not at all portable. Yet despite this there’s a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl. It’s all the rage, apparently. #Trending.

Once upon a time everybody bought recorded music on vinyl discs. There was no other option. Then in the early 1960s the compact tape cassette came along, and while this format gained popularity vinyl continued to rule. The 1980s saw the introduction of compact discs, offering crystal clarity. Playing a CD was like having the band in your living room, they said. We could smear CDs with jam and still they would play. We could scratch them and scratch them and still they would play. We could break them into teeny-tiny pieces and still they would play. There would be no more skipping or sticking, no more crackle or hiss. Rewind, fast-forward, pause – and just look at the size! Talk about compact. Well, the clue’s in the name ain’t it. The CD is the future, they told us. And the future is here.

Soon it was possible to buy only the songs we wanted on CD from shops such as Our Price, rather than buying an album that included maybe two songs we were familiar with because they’d been released as singles, along with a bunch of others upon which we were taking a punt. (More on that story later, to paraphrase Kirsty Wark.) Then, then, evolving from the portability first offered by the Sony Walkman and less successfully achieved with CDs, pocket-sized flash- and hard drive-based MP3 players came along, enabling us to take our music anywhere. With this combination of size, capacity, portability and choice, music consumers were in headphone nirvana. But without realising, what had we gradually traded away in exchange for all that convenience?

Returning to vinyl now after years of listening to digital formats, it’s clear that vinyl is warmer, more even, has greater depth. The music feels far more unified, a coherent body. And then there’s the physical aspect: albums have sleeves with artwork, lyrics, photos, small print information such as thank-yous and details of the studio used for the recording. Sure, CDs have covers, but they just don’t have the same tactile value as a big piece of card. And if you hold a vinyl record up in the light you can see the rhythms of the music etched on to the surface of the disc. Good luck trying that with an MP3.

In contrast to the portable formats mentioned above vinyl’s larger size and somewhat fragile nature require the listener to be in one place, and as we become an increasingly fast-paced, on-the-go, always-up-to-some-shit society that often can’t see the wood for the trees, we should surely welcome something that requires us to slow down… breathe… relax… There’s also something undeniably satisfying, indeed soothing, about a record spinning on the turntable as it plays.

Oh – you can’t pause it.

Yeah – there are some inconveniences. You can raise the needle off the record, but that’s not quite the same as hitting a pause button for an instant dead-stop. And although possible it’s far less easy to repeat or skip a track. One advantage of this, however, is the lost delight of those surprise tracks. Back in the day one benefit of buying an album containing tracks you’d never heard was that these were usually some of the best, unconstrained by the requirements of single release and radio play, and often gaining strength with repeated listens. A good example is the track Swing on Japan’s album Gentlemen Take Polaroids (click here to see Relax and Swing – a blog about 80s pop group Japan).

Also less convenient is searching for your music: there’s no box to type in – you’ve just got to rifle through the stack. But along with this comes the possibility of finding something you didn’t think you fancied or had simply forgotten about.

The thing is, I can get all this music free on Spotify.
~ Youth browsing vinyl

With my renewed interest in vinyl I went to HMV. They have so many of the records that are already in our collection, from artists such as The Smiths, The Beatles, Echo and the Bunnymen, for around £20. Given inflation over the years I guess that’s not bad: a lot of our records still have the price stickers attached, and they were mostly in the £3.99–5.99 range.

Here, too, is the lost fun of browsing miscellaneous records in a shop with the possibility of finding a surprise or gem. It’s clear that the unexpected, the potential for discovery, are key factors intrinsic to the vinyl experience. I know online music suppliers offer similar you may also like or people also bought features, but surely the determinations of a computer algorithm can’t compare with the spark of curiosity ignited by your mood in the moment.

I had expected our daughter to be a bit meh about the whole vinyl thing after her initial burst of interest. That I’d be perceived as a nostalgic fogey maligning advances in technology like some 21st century Luddite. But no, she appreciates the difference in sound too, and while she still uses Spotify while out and about or in her room, she now buys her own vinyl. For myself, I’d become largely disinterested in music, mainly listening to my beloved audio drama and podcasts. But the quality of sound on vinyl has reignited my enthusiasm for listening to music for the simple pleasure of doing so. Spinning as I type, This is All Yours by Alt-J – a band our daughter introduced us to.

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A Guy That’s Been – the death of David Bowie

Are you like me feeling moved by the death of David Bowie today? Perhaps you’re wondering at the media outpouring, or young enough to think he was just some old guy who used to dress weird. You could even be like David who?. I’d have to admit to being somewhat unmoved the day Elvis died, although it ruined my mum’s birthday no end. Thing is, now I understand why.

Bowie’s been present throughout my life, immeasurably creative, making it OK – indeed you better believe it cool as Clough – to be different. He produced incredible seemingly unlimited art let alone music. I had a crush on him when I was a kid. Both him and Mick Ronson who played guitar with Bowie for so long. A double whammy with their spangly pants, big hair and fuzzy Les Pauls. Let’s face it, they looked like the girls from ABBA, but with fuzzy Les Pauls. What’s not to love?

For many people of my generation Bowie’s longevity means he wrote the soundtrack to our lives, was the ever-changing odd-eyed face of avant-garde, both King and Queen of misfit cool. So now like the millions moved by the deaths of Elvis and Lennon et al before him, the feeling on the day of his farewell is that some part of us has died too. A part that previously spangled and sparked. Can the overnight popflop X-Factor age produce an artist capable of engendering such a reaction upon their passing? I’m not so sure. Because that was no DJ. That was hazy cosmic jive.

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A blog about the music of Brian Eno, Harold Budd & others, in which I let myself go a bit

During the day I often have BBC Radio 3 playing at a very low volume: unlike recordings with vocal content the classical music doesn’t interfere with my train of thought in any way, but does provide a level of stimulus. (Radio 3 does play a lot of opera, which is obviously vocal, but you know what I mean.) A while ago the station played a gentle ambient piece by Brian Eno, which caught my attention. I looked up some more Eno, and asked a friend who likes Eno’s music what he’d recommend as a starting point. He suggested a couple of albums.

I’ve found that I love this stuff. The title track of The Pearl, an album by Brian Eno and Harold Budd, is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, a deceptively simple composition that gradually increases in complexity and layering. Through headphones a stereo-pan whooshing sound is audible, which I reckon is one of the analogue effects used on the track, adding an effect of its own. The music overall is like fairies, sparks of light that exist in the spaces between moments. Curious visitors with delicate, pointed features, thin bones visible through their translucent skin.

The Winter Garden album – a collaboration between Eraldo Bernocchi, Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie – is probably my favourite. Harmony and the Play of Light is a beautiful track of sweet, gentle sounds with almost menacing undertones and harmonics. Instead of decaying, notes increase in volume, or shift in pitch, or develop vibrato. The relationships between the notes change and grow. The notes seem to create music of their own as other sounds rise or drift in. I see a black lake in a cavern. The light of the music reflects off the water’s oily surface, changing colour and shimmering. The lights rise, blue and white and sparkling gold, then drift back into the blackness. Some of the notes are old and wise. Younger ones want to play.

Heavy Heart Some More is like signals broadcast by a vast alien machine housed in a subterranean chamber. It’s ancient. Huge. A monolith. It’s sent out these signals for thousands of years but received no response. None will come.

There is Nobody on Eno’s Music for Films is almost tribal-sounding. Quartz is beams of light in ice-blue and gold rising from circles of stone in a pebbled garden, merging with thicker red and orange bands. Alternative 3 is a giant wolf stalking, trailing salvia, all hot breath and coarse black fur.

Slow Water on Eno’s album Music for Films has distant alien broadcasts. Then wine glasses singing. (You know how to make a wine glass sing, right? Right.) And maybe a bit of whale song. Then it all comes together in this incredibly relaxed, gentle piece. A woman in a floaty dress levitates above the ground with her arms swaying out beside her. She’s looking to her right, long red hair rising up above her shoulders. Maybe she’s under water. She just drifts, utterly at peace. As the track fades, she does too.

I find this music really stimulating to work to. All music I’ve previously experienced has been somehow two-dimensional, created and performed. But the music of Eno and Budd et al is not of this world; it is of other, far more exotic places. It is the music of gods and aliens, of transcendence. I don’t think this music is even owned by the musicians who created it – each soundscape is an entity in its own right. It’s as if these musicians have formed these sounds and then released them to find their own way, in turn producing sounds of their own. An analogy is obvious. To me this music seems to represent the purest form of creation.

Gotta love your man – a blog about Riders on the Storm

Riders on the Storm was never really one of my favourite tracks by The Doors. It was a bit too sophisticated, and that thunderstorm stuff was a bit corny, wasn’t it? I always preferred more rock ‘n’ roll/blues tracks such as Back Door Man and Soul Kitchen. But I was younger then, and while I still really like these tracks, when listening to Riders on the Storm recently I was stuck by the track’s true beauty.

Ray Manzarek’s keyboard shimmers and sparkles. John Densmore’s drums are soft and jazzy and sit snug with the steady bass from Jerry Scheff. The vocals are warm but with a distant, ghostly reverb. And Robby Krieger’s guitar? If I still played guitar and could have only one sound it would be the clean tone on this track. It’s smooth and warm and sweet, with just the right amount of sparkle through the amp as Krieger digs in. Listen as Morrison sings take a long holiday or make him understand within the first few minutes, and you’ll hear the guitar sound thicken as the harmonics develop. There’s a great contrast with the vibrato sound, too.

It’s not just about the sounds of course, but the playing. The musicianship is wonderful, the lightness of touch and the relationship between the members of the band really in evidence. The guitar and keyboards often play the same phrases simultaneously – a feature of many Doors tracks – or bounce off each other while the rhythm section maintains a solid foundation.

Riders is a gradual builder. So gradual you don’t realise it’s happening. The track’s relatively long, too, with an extended jazz/funk instrumental break. This section itself builds, gradually increasing in intensity, pace and complexity until eventually the keyboard takes us by the hand and leads us down into a wonderful, quiet few moments of thunder and rain. Then there’s a brief drum fill, and the steady, mellow music resumes. This bit gives me the tingles every time.

The production seems relatively straight, but the simplicity might be deceptive: often a considerable amount of work has gone into making something like this seem uncomplicated. Listening to the track repeatedly, many details become apparent. For example as the track ends and the storm reaches its peak the very subtle percussion becomes busier, and Morrison’s repetition of riders on the storm gradually gets more vocal layers until he can be heard screaming the words way back in the mix.

And then it all slows, the shimmering call and response guitar and keyboards fading as the storm weakens. Wonderful.

Here’s a link to Riders on the Storm, on youtube.

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