Paired up with a decent set of headphones (Sennheiser PX-100s, for the anoraks out there), I can immerse myself in music anywhere. And very nice it is too, on occasions. Yes, I know a few of you in the rest of the world have been there for ages, but some of us need a little time to make the change. That’s my stance anyway. I won’t tell you what my childrens' slightly different opinions of this dilatoriness are down to.
But it got me thinking. I am of the analogue age. Recorded Music to me started with 78RPM shellac discs. They played for a maximum of 4 minutes or so, and if you wanted to listen to, say, a classical symphony, you were up and down, to the record player, like a Bride’s Nightie to turn the record over, and 4 minutes later, you did it again. Somewhere in my archives, I have a complete recording of Handel’s Messiah which is on, I think, 13 records – that’s 26 sides.
Then some clever soul in around 1948, I think in Columbia, came up with the Long Playing record - the LP. This was quite simply, a miracle. You could get around 25-30 minutes to a side, and because it was made from new fangled vinyl, the surface noise was almost inaudible and the frequency range capable of being played was (compared to the 78s), immense. The Hi-Fi industry was born, and mad (and not so mad) inventors in England particularly produced amazing pieces of electrical gear and loudspeakers to listen to the new LPs on. 50 years ago, they sounded stunning, and still do. Look up companies like Leak, Rogers, Radford, Quad (Peter Walker), Thorens, Tannoy, Spendor and Bowers and Wilkins if that sort of thing turns you on.
But the medium was still Analogue. Some people today still think the latest vinyl LPs sound better than their equivalent CD versions. I’m afraid my ears no longer allow me to decide, but the issue is still open to debate. What that does tell you is the sound then was pretty good. I’ve still got a couple of Classical recordings (Decca and Deutsche Grammaphon were the two companies that led the way in recording quality) which stand comparison with anything produced since – and they were released in the mid 60s.
On another tack, it’s interesting to wonder how this LP technology affected the way music (and Pop Music, in particular) was actually written. Because you put the stylus in the groove at the beginning of the record, and it wound its way unchallenged through the groove sequentially, it was quite difficult, and frought with the potential to damage the record significantly if you got it wrong, to skip tracks. You listened from Track 1 through to the End of Side 1, turned it over and then listened to the other side, again starting at the beginning of Track 1 on that side. So composers and singers had to give considerable thought to the order in which the songs appeared on the disc – even to decide what song they wanted to finish Side One on before you got up to turn the disc over. The format also forced singers and songwriters into a 50-60 minute collection of songs to put on one record. The prolific guy who had 80 minutes of songs to sell was not too welcome at the record studios in those days. One and a bit records didn’t go down too well with the suits in charge even then.
All of which thought came to me when I started to listen on my new fangled machine. When was the last time you actually listened to a CD from beginning to end, without skipping a track, or even thinking of Fast Forwarding to miss one you didn’t quite fancy? I don’t mean the live concerts, the “Greatest Hits” collections or the concept albums (The Wall, DSOTM, Tommy etc), but a common or garden standard collection of pop songs.
I sat down last night to think how many of the albums I possess which would stand this test. Where every song (not just most of them, but all of them) were ones you wanted to listen to. That’s what we had to do 40 years ago, and I’m not sure that the simple ability to skip, jump and reorder a digital version into whatever sequence you want today makes the artist think as much about what is on the record as they needed to back in the dark ages of the vinyl groove, and the stylus.
Anyway, for me the list so far isn’t that long. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily include the best individual songs ever – That’s another list! – but these LPs or CDs are the ones where every song hits the button with me – no weak links, fillers or make-weights.
As they say, in No Particular Order -
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours listen to the angst in the words
Steve Winwood – Talking Back to the Night the man has a great and unique voice
Wings – Band on the Run – I know it’s heresy, but I like this more than any Beatles record
Abba –The Visitors - a very dark album - Abba for people who don't like Abba. Assuming, that is, you get the one without the added Extra tracks which are very definitely Division 2. They left them off the first version for a very good reason – they’re not good enough.
Enya – Watermark she flows all over you like a warm Irish Coffee - very haunting
Michael Jackson – Off the Wall I think it's his best album
Stan Getz and Charlie Bird – Jazz Samba fabulous creamy sax and brilliant guitar playing
Roxy Music – Flesh and Blood perfect 1980s pop
Simon and Garfunkel – Bridge Over Troubled Water Only Just! There’s one track that only marginally scrapes through - the rest though is stunning
Bryan Ferry - Dylanesque Dylan's lyrics still lacerate, provoke and intrigue - some of his imagery is remarkable, and Ferry puts a more laidback 2006 spin on them. At least he can sing!
Gerry Rafferty – City to City one of Pop music's most under-rated singer/composers
Now that lot probably gives any psychiatrist worth their salt enough informatio to form a very clear view of the utter Middle of the Roadness my musical spectrum, and possibly my life spans. Let’s hope I don’t ever need to apply for a job again.