Sixty albums to mark sixty years
Twenty years ago (well, nineteen as I write this), I had the idea to mark my 40th birthday with forty pieces of writing about music which had meant something to me over those years. I more or less managed it through the chaos of dealing with huge changes at work while adjusting to having two young children in the house, and ten years later, I thought I should revisit it, add ten more memories, and reflect on what had changed in the intervening decade – including the fact that I was by then a citizen of an entirely different country.
Naturally, I can’t let another ten years go by unmarked, but I’m equally sure I can’t go back to that particular well again. It’s not that I couldn’t find another ten pieces of music and another ten memories, more that the intention of the thing was to talk about particular memories, and for the most part, those haven’t changed. What I remembered about Buzzcocks twenty years ago is what I remember about them now; I’m confident I don’t have anything particularly new to add to that story and, well, if you’re reading this, you probably read that, too.
So sixty different things, then. Sixty pieces of writing about what, exactly? I toyed with sixty novels or sixty films, but I do still want this to be about music. Thanks to things like Spotify, I can point you to the music and let you discover it for yourself, if you don’t already know it, and that’s much harder with books or films (or TV shows, or whatever else I briefly thought might work).
No, it was always going to be music, and the format I’ve settled on, and given away in the subtitle, is the humble Long Playing record. Probably the most significant change in my musical life since I last sat down to do this is that there is a neatly filed shelf of vinyl albums just to my right, replicating in many ways the one I shed more than thirty years ago when it seemed likely that the CD would be the ultimate musical format, and all that vinyl was a) extremely heavy and awkward to move and b) mostly composed of things I bought in a fit of misplaced enthusiasm in 1981 and had never listened to since.
That long-lost collection did have some gems, most of which I’ve replaced – often with second-hand copies of similar vintage – and some things which are now rarities owing to living in entirely another continent. Some of what I sold back then I don’t miss and wouldn’t replace, but what I didn’t appreciate back then when we needed the space (and probably the money) was that I wasn’t just selling stuff; I was letting go of a significant part of my life.
CDs, it turned out, were just commodities; LPs were possessions, carefully created experiences which could whisk you back in time just by the act of sliding the inner sleeve out and inhaling that particular vinyl and cardboard smell. Even the humblest hardly played albums could have me in a reverie; if you saw me now in a record store, flicking through the stacks in the way I did when I was 15, you would be struck by the faraway look in my eyes as I uncovered something as unpromising as Metal Rendez-Vous by Krokus; you might wonder what on earth could be causing me to give this slice of early eighties landfill euro-metal more than a glance, but if you had owned the original and not thought about it for more than half your life, you might understand.
I tried it with a CD of Peter Gabriel’s So, the first CD I owned, but there was nothing there. Twelve inches of vinyl does something to me that nothing – not even a well-loved book – does, and I think it’s a factor of my age.
I was born in 1962, so missed the initial surge of 12 inch LPs triggered by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and all that followed them. By the time I was aware of albums, and could afford to buy my own, they had a fixed place in life and a culture all of their own. I fondly imagined that by flicking through the Frank Zappa back catalogue in Boots’ record department, I was participating in an age-old ceremony; taking the baton passed down to me by generations of music lovers who had gone before me. I didn’t really understand that I was only fifteen years or so into what we might call the ‘album era’, and that it would only last another ten years as the predominant musical format.
I grew up musically in the peak of the album era, and it unquestionably shaped the way I think about, and listen to, music to this day. If, like me, you are pushing sixty, I imagine that you, too, feel that there’s something right and inevitable about the LP record. Other generations will see it differently; I think my children do appreciate the aesthetics of vinyl, but to them music is something you stream on whatever device you have to hand – the analogue way of doing things is awkward and slow.
Which, I think, is kind of the point.