Vinyl on the brain

In planning to write a blog on vinyl records, I was responding to recent personal experiences and insights on this topic. Then events somewhat overtook me, as I learned of the death this past weekend of Philip Jeck (more on him later). So this post has taken on a slightly different tone.

Image sourced from Vintage Everyday

The initial trigger for this blog came from the realisation that I’ve been spending more time on Twitter engaging with fellow vinyl enthusiasts – and of course, this interest has been amplified by social media algorithms and their “preferences” and “recommendations”. In my experience, most people who post content about music in general (and vinyl in particular) tend to be much nicer than those who indulge in the didactic venom and unfiltered hate speech that passes for “social commentary” these days. But this just goes to prove that you find your audience (and your confirmation bias?) where you choose to seek them.

Part of this on-line engagement is prompted by a passion for collecting, and a love of sharing. Yes, it could merely relate to showing off one’s vinyl stash, and may reveal fetishistic tendencies – but frankly, there are far worse vices. A lot of the commentary details successful crate-digging, charity shop bargains, and re-discovered hidden gems. In fact, the prospect of finding an over-looked classic, unearthing a valuable rarity, or simply completing a gap in your collection often drives this obsession. So much so, that recently I found myself dreaming of records which I know don’t exist, but in so much detail that part of me thinks these artefacts must be out there somewhere!

Like many music enthusiasts, I was first exposed to vinyl records via my parents’ and then my sisters’ collections. For a time in the late ’60s, my dad used to visit EMI on business, and would sometimes come home on a Friday having picked up a new release or two, most memorably the first few singles on the Beatles’ Apple label. I probably got the collecting bug more than my siblings, and still recall the key albums I bought with my own money: “Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield, “Autobahn” by Kraftwerk, and “A Clockwork Orange” by Wendy Carlos – which probably confirms my personal bias for instrumental, electronic and soundtrack music.

Then, I started playing in bands with mates from school, an interest that was further fueled by the arrival of punk rock, and the realisation that there was more to music than the Top 40 and old hippies singing into their patchouli-drenched afghan overcoats. One group I was in, Greenfield Leisure, received an airing on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 programme (the Holy Grail for aspiring musicians at the time), but mostly these bands existed on home-made demo tapes, and were only ever heard (and rarely appreciated…) by our long-suffering families. Later, I worked in a chain of infamous second-hand record stores in London, which, if nothing else, revealed some of the weirder ends of the vinyl-collecting public. It also helped expand my musical knowledge, but at the cost of a fair chunk of my paltry shop wages.

Vinyl is not necessarily the most convenient format of music – it’s not as portable as digital, and not as robust as CD. Records get scratched, they warp, the grooves fill up with dust, and the sleeves get battered and torn. So, despite advances in technology, and the huge market for digital music and streaming services, why have vinyl records endured?

The continued and renewed interest in music on vinyl cannot be explained by a single factor – this phenomenon is as multi-faceted as the genres of music people listen to.

First, whether or not driven by events like Record Store Day, limited edition releases, box set retrospectives or physical copies being shipped with download coupons, vinyl sales are steadily on the up. But as a proportion of how people listen to music each week, purchased music (physical and download formats) comprises less than 10%, while streaming formats account for two-thirds of our listening.

Second, the tactile nature of vinyl records, plus the opportunity they present for creativity in their use of artwork, design and packaging, can generate a more engaging and long-lasting experience. As someone said recently on Twitter, you probably don’t remember the first music you downloaded or streamed, but it’s very likely you remember the first record you bought.

Third, quite apart from the vast amount of artist and label back catalogue being reissued on vinyl, more and more new and contemporary music is being released on vinyl as well as digital – sometimes, there’s not even a CD edition.

Fourth, swathes of back-catalogue can only be accessed via original vinyl editions, having never been re-issued during the hey-day of CDs in the 1990s and early 2000s. In fact, even where current and past releases have been released for streaming and/or download, the vagaries of geo-blocking can mean that this digital content is not available in all territories.

Finally, the economics of streaming (and to a lesser extent, downloads) have revealed that artists receive just a tiny proportion of the subscription revenue generated by Spotify, Apple and others, which can make vinyl purchases more attractive to music fans. This dynamic has also made direct-to-buyer platforms like Bandcamp more appealing to artists and fans alike.

Back to Philip Jeck, a sound artist who transformed piles of dusty old records into a musical experience. Using techniques he gleaned from watching hip-hop DJs and post-modern turntablists, he curated (rather than composed) sound collages built up from layers of seemingly forgotten and anonymous recordings, turning them into live art. I was fortunate enough to see him perform twice. The first was in 1993, when he presented his magnum opus “Vinyl Requiem” at the Union Chapel in North London. The second was in 2008, for a much more intimate solo performance at The Toff in Town, Melbourne. In both cases, the use of streaming could not have resulted in such a strong creative process or delivered such immersive listening.

Next week: Music with literary leanings

Dead Pop Stars

Back in the 1960s, rock stars weren’t expected to have long careers. “I hope I die before I get old,” sang The Who. Soon after, the likes of Hendrix, Jones, Morrison and Joplin joined the 27 club. Nobody associated pop music with longevity, let alone a pension fund. But now we have octogenarian rockers releasing new albums and even touring (health permitting). It’s almost indecent….

Of course, most musicians don’t go out in a blaze of glory, at the height of their career. Instead, they fade away gracefully after their 15 minutes of fame (or pursue a career in reality TV). With better management of their back catalogues (and thanks to streaming services, box-set reissues, band reunions and come-back package tours), a decent living can even be had by artists from the second and third divisions.

As we ourselves age, we may measure our own mortality against the stars we were fans of. I’m not quite old enough to remember (or register) the passing of Hendrix or Joplin, but I certainly remember where I was when Elvis Presley, Keith Moon and Sid Vicious each left this mortal coil. For various reasons, none of these untimely deaths were totally unsurprising, based on their lifestyles. I was somewhat shocked when I heard about the death of Ian Curtis – I was still a teenager, he was only a few years older than me, and I’d even spoken to him, albeit briefly, at one of his last ever gigs. But again, not totally unexpected in the circumstances.

Understandably, John Lennon’s murder was pivotal in popular culture (due both to the manner and timing of his demise), but otherwise, major rockers from the 60s & 70s have reached old age intact (but not always with dignity). Sure, there have been many exceptions, mostly thanks to lifestyle choices or misadventure. But it’s not uncommon for pop, rock and jazz musicians to live (mostly happily) to a ripe old age – in recent times, we have lost Harold Budd, Jon Hassell, Lee Perry, McCoy Tyner and Charlie Watts, who each enjoyed more than their three score years and ten. Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr are still troubling the charts in their 80s (and what about Sir Elton!), while the remaining members of the Beatles and The Stones are close to joining octogenarian rock royalty.

So it was with some sadness that I read about the recent death of Pat Fish, aka The Jazz Butcher. Not only was he just a few years older than me, but I’d enjoyed seeing his band play several times around London (most memorably, supporting R.E.M. in late 1985). I’d also met Pat a few times via a mutual friend, and he was always charming and entertaining.

Pat was one of the last “gentleman rock and rollers” – he wasn’t just in it for the money or glory (although both help to sustain a long music career). He was a chronicler of the absurd, the whimsical and the eccentric (in the nature of other English songwriters such as Ray Davies, Syd Barrett, Robyn Hitchcock and Julian Cope), and as epitomized by “Mr. Odd” and the self-referential “Southern Mark Smith”. Yet, despite this, he found loyal audiences across North America and Europe, where he was probably more appreciated than in the UK. (For example, a Paris-based American musician I knew at the time only became aware of The Jazz Butcher thanks to a tribute to Olaf Palme they recorded after the Swedish prime minister’s murder.)

If the calibre of a band can be measured by the songs and artists they cover, The Jazz Butcher made some interesting choices, revealing their influences and personal tastes: “Road Runner” (Jonathan Richman), “Sweet Jane” (Velvet Underground), “Take The Skinheads Bowling” (Camper Van Beethoven) and “Spooky” (Dusty Springfield). And Pat was also supportive of other bands that were associated with his home base in the East Midlands, or signed to the same labels he was. In this way, and at various times, he was connected to the likes of Bauhaus, Spacemen 3, Eyeless in Gaza, In Embrace, The Pastels, Teenage Fanclub, Bron Area and The Woodentops.

Finally, in keeping with the times, The Jazz Butcher have been the subject of a recent reissue campaign, and there may be a posthumous album released shortly.

Cheers, Pat!

Next week: Opening Up…

 

Telstar!

The quality of a song can often be reflected in the number and variety of cover versions it prompts. Think of tunes that have become jazz standards, or key songs like “Yesterday” or “My Way” which have become some of the most covered compositions in the pop canon. Sometimes, the original can be overshadowed by a later interpretation, to the point where it becomes the definitive recording. (For me, John Cale’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” outclasses both the original and later, more popular renditions). Too often, though, cover versions are pale imitations, mere pastiche or karaoke cannon fodder for TV talent shows.

One of the first records I am conscious of hearing at home and playing on the family Dansette is “Telstar” by The Tornados (the 7″ version with the deep blue Decca label, and distinctive striped orange and white sleeve). Although the main melody is quite simple (and total ear-worm), the original 1962 version features strange noises and curious effects, while the overall instrumental tone is appropriately other-worldly. Both of its time (reflecting the emerging space age) and timeless, “Telstar” has given rise to numerous versions, and thanks to the current lock-down in Melbourne and the wonders of YouTube, last week I killed a few hours searching and compiling this playlist.

I’m sure there are many more tributes out there, but this list comprises 20 or so key recordings I came across during my internet trawl:

Chronologically, the first couple of tracks on the playlist are quite faithful renditions by The Tornados’ contemporaries, The Ventures and The Spotnicks. (Strangely, the latter put out a later, and rather pointless “updated” version.)

The record’s initial success led to a vocal version by Bobby Rydell which has a certain naive charm. This in turn inspired (directly or indirectly) a couple of wonderful European vocal recordings – by Slovenia’s Marjana Deržaj and Finland’s Laila Halme. They both stay just the right side of kitsch, and bring some unique elements of their own.

These vocal recordings are followed by a cluster of orchestral/easy listening renditions, typical of the time both in style and context: there’s Billy Vaughn‘s big band recording, featuring sax and guitar; The Hawaiians‘ exotica; and James Last‘s cheesy string arrangement. All great examples of the hits of the day played in styles to suit all tastes…

We shift gears for The Pyramid‘s ska take, followed by Al Casey‘s faithful version from the early 70’s, that features an interesting opening. Also around this time came Hot Butter‘s sanitized synths, that feels like a missed opportunity to go further out in space…

If we take “disco” to be a broad church, then the oddities by Venus Gang and Ovni would just about qualify in that category – while The Shadows‘ early 80’s take sounds like those awful Stars on 45 records.

Also in the 80’s, we find a couple of versions that are either ironic, or so post modern it hurts. The Models‘ 1981 recording attempts to add some new wave atmosphere, while Ad Infinitum‘s 1984 effort is notable for coming out on Manchester’s very hip Factory record label. (It also features a tongue-in-cheek piano bar version on the b-side.)

Finally, a couple of more recent versions that each add another dimension. First, from 1997, Takako Minekawa‘s neo-loungecore interpretation (very on message for the time), which would appeal to fans of Saint Etienne and Stereolab alike. Lastly, from 2014, Bill Frisell‘s restrained but lush slide guitar that presents a fitting tribute to this classic space age instrumental.

[“Telstar” cover versions that I wish existed: the outake from Bowie’s “Low” sessions; Kraftwerk’s 1975 sound check from London’s Festival Hall; Esquival’s bachelor pad stylings; Jacques Loussier channelling Bachian counterpoint; and Marlene Dietrich’s vocal rendition…]

Next week: Living in limbo

More Music for Lock-down

Last year, as Melbourne was entering its second, lengthy lock-down, I listed some of the music that helped to sustain me during the endless days of working from home. Now, as the city faces another (twice-extended) 4 week lock-down, music is one of the few pleasures still available….

My updated list includes:

Eduard Artemiev – Solaris (Original Soundtrack) A science fiction film from 1972, and in the vein of JG Ballard or Brian Aldiss, it concerns the strange psychological illness that afflicts scientists on-board a space station orbiting the planet Solaris. The slightly claustrophobic electronic score is offset by a number of compositions by JS Bach. Note the early Zoom call and all-day PJs featured in the accompanying stills from the film.

Various Artists Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AOR & Boogie 1976-1986 Perfect antidote to lock-down blues, this compilation of mostly up-tempo numbers reveals more depth below the shiny surface – the arrangements, choice of textures and compositional structures make this more than just easy listening. (Released by the excellent Light in The Attic label, there’s also a second volume, plus related compilations that focus on the more ambient and experimental end of the spectrum.) Definitely a mood-enhancer.

Hans-Joachim Roedelius – Drauf Und Dran The prolific Roedelius has released one of the most sublime albums of his lengthy career – which is saying something for an artist closely associated with ambient and minimalist styles. A piano-based album, with very few electronics or effects, the clarity of composition and playing make for a brief but welcome respite from the mental fug of lock-down. In a similar vein, I would also recommend Brian Eno’s soundtrack to the Dieter Rams documentary, and Eno’s recent work with his brother, Roger, the albums Mixing Colours and Luminous.

Mogwai – ZeroZeroZero Another soundtrack, for the TV series of the same name (which I have not seen). Like the Solaris soundtrack, the music is more about the atmosphere than the narrative, and all the more powerful as a result. Also worth mentioning is Mogwai’s recent studio album.

Khruangbin = クルアンビン* ‎– 全てが君に微笑む Khruangbin are a band whose music I heard on a couple of sampler albums, without knowing anything about them. Playing an infectious blend of instrumental Funk, Psychedelia and Dub Reggae, this compilation brings together a number of their early singles (including inspired covers of Serge Gainsbourg and Yellow Magic Orchestra). Rather beautiful for these monochrome times.

Michel Legrand – La Piscine Yet more soundtracks, this deceptively lightweight but lush album, featuring just the right amount of economic violin solos by Stéphane Grappelli (who could let his virtuosity get the better of him), recently got a re-boot for Record Store Day, so it’s pretty hip at the moment. Other soundtrack and library music compilations I have been delving into include Adventures in Soundtracks, The Music Library and Unusual Sounds. Mostly reflecting the anonymous/unsung world of studio session composers and players of the 60s and 70s, most people would recognise at least one or two tunes, if only from their use as samples in other records.

Greg Davis – Somnia Finally, a work of stillness and contemplation – built on sustained drones and minimal instrumentation, this album nevertheless manages to generate immense depth and emotion. Again, perfect listening in this stilted yet listless environment of lock-down, curfew, social isolation and pent-up frustration and sorrow. (Also check out the Davis’ contemporaneous work, Diaphanous.)

Next week: Startupbootcamp Sports & EventTech Demo Day 2021