… Or in other words kids: what goes around comes around. By Andrew E. Hall.
The largest music company on the planet, Sony, is pressing vinyl again.
It’s making records..
Am I so aged that I can now only communicate with an ever-dwindling (by way of popping one’s clogs) group of contemporaries?
Have I lumbered myself with a Sisyphean task?
I’m unsure if Britney Spears ever made a record – I feel her dubious vocals might have been piped through digitised frequencies straight onto compact disc.
Not that some you would even remember them!
The point I’m attempting to make, I think – and feel very free to correct me if I’m wrong – is that the relentless march of progress often consigns things that were once considered progressive, to the historical scrapheap. Frequently accompanied by unhealthy doses of sneering and smugness.
But while things like vinyl records (do I really need to explain what they are?) and the absolutely gorgeous array of equipment upon which they were played languished in unlit corners of unused rooms, they were patiently plotting resurrection.
Some would accuse me of recklessly anthropomorphising things made of plastic, metal, precious gems, wood and glass.
Back in the day, it required substantial investment, and a lot of love and care, to listen to, and to really hear, sounds that had profound consequence for the global consciousness.
An audiophile might argue that these days we are left only with the ability to listen.
In my youth, playing music on records was a communal experience. An all-in family event for which specific time was made and in which a semi-reverential process was observed. Records in and of themselves were things that demanded respect. We called them “album” because that’s exactly what they were; their packaging was titillating and tactile.
Buying a new one was considered carefully because in those days we understood very well the nature of opportunity cost, and we had no access to lines of credit that enslave us today.
But the world speeded up – to more than 33 revolutions per minute, more even than 45 and 78. The rituals that brought disparate groups together were sacrificed on the altar of individualism and consumerism. Oh so cleverly disguised as a twisted egalitarianism.
Shared experience turned selfish indulgence initiated, ironically, by the Sony Corporation before it was outstripped by Apple.
While dust jackets performed with aplomb and fabulous artwork faded, turntables stopped turning, amplifier valves stayed cold and their inert gases within remained inert – perhaps in the darkness knowing they would never be warm again – a tiny spark was kept kindled by kindred spirits.
Those for whom portent and popularity and new-toy prestige are all suborned by a form of love difficult to describe.
As it happens, though: Everything old is new again.
Take me, for example; I reinvent myself every day – with varying degrees of success, it must be said. And in the immortal words of Leonard Cohen, “I ache in the places I used to play”.
I first heard those words on a record.
It would be lovely to imagine that Sony has decided to invest in making records because someone in that corporation was overwhelmed by an inspirational attack of fond nostalgia.
Not so much.
Demand and supply, profit and loss, is the only calculus that matters to some.
Bean counters have recognised that a growing number of people are pushing back against being railroaded into cramming their entire recreational experience into a device that can be carried in a pocket – that, once plugged into, shuts out the rest of the known universe, not to mention all the as yet unknown ones.
Some have cottoned onto the artifice of the digital box.
Record-lovers think outside the square.
Recent data have revealed the same uptick for lovers of the printed word, whether in book form or a hard-copy newspaper.
Or, in your case, a magazine . . . come closer, have a smell, beautiful isn’t it?
In an office far from here priceless boxed-set packages that weigh quite a lot contain every book that has ever been written in English.
Among those pages that feel so good to the touch I discovered that I’m a Tellurian.
So are you . . . hail fellow, well met.
When the world spun at 33, 45 and 78rpm music was made by tellurian musicians; many of whom actually played their own instruments.
They were often not wealthy.
They were often stoned (in a good way).
Some became celebrities through grafting hard in a grinding regime of public performance. Fame had little to do with the infamy that plagues the digital divide.
Songwriters helped make sense of the nonsensical.
A startling few were etched into grooves on vinyl, and became “groovy”, timeless.
The “record industry” welcomed them and exploited them ruthlessly in a simulacrum of sycophancy and subservience. Along for the ride were artists – graphic and otherwise – and writers, electronic engineers and pioneers . . . and people who made cups of coffee and tea: analogue drifters who laid the foundations upon which the digital daydream is built.
A finished album was a comprehensive statement that murmured, “state of the art” in all senses and meanings.
In the late ‘70s I carried two of them around while backpacking through Europe. They were J.J. Cale’s Naturally, and an album by former New York Dolls front man David Johansen that featured a song titled Funky but Chic.
I was a traveller in four-four time, sometimes three-four if I was feeling particularly romantic. Six-eight is troublesome and should be avoided unless you really know what you are doing.
People from far-flung places were generous in sharing their high fidelity equipment with me. Language barriers were transcended by musical universality. There was a whole lot of love in the air.
Things took a curious turn during the 1990s. En mass we went for quantity over quality. We became connected as we never had been before, and as disconnected as we’ve ever been. People stayed away in droves from venues large and small that hosted live performance. Record collections became clunky and clichéd and the conversation stopped.
What had been inclusive on a macro scale became exclusive and microcosmic.
We shrank before our very eyes.
Of course music makers didn’t stop making music. They became angrier though, more flippant – their relevance reiterated only by adulation.
The further we delved into a new millennium the crazier things got, and someone carelessly misplaced the reset button.
But I think it has been found again.
Two young Australian musicians, Courtney Barnett and Tash Sultana, have helped restore hope in me.
In Courtney’s lyrics are brilliantly wrought images of the mundane, as music reviewer Mike Powell writes on Pitchfork.com:
“Barnett’s music builds on the wordy irreverence of mid-1960s Bob Dylan and a blend of psychedelia, folk and country. Avant Gardener tells the story of a girl dragging her underemployed arse out of bed late on a Monday morning to try her hand at gardening . . . at which point she suffers a panic attack.
“The scene unfolds like a dream:
‘Halfway down High Street, Andy looks ambivalent / He’s probably wondering what I’m doing getting in an ambulance’, Barnett sings.
‘The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar / I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying’.
“They’re both right. Later, the song’s poor narrator struggles to get a good pull on her asthma inhaler.
“I was never good at smoking bongs, she confesses, I’m not that good at breathing in.”
A poignant rendering of the pickled malaise we can get ourselves into if we opt out of the conversation. The metaphorical garden becomes a frightening refuge from suburban conformity.
We need to get out more. We need to learn to breathe again.
I saw Tash Sultana at a music festival recently. She is known for her fiery vocals and command of multiple instruments and looping pedals. She first found the spotlight via the Internet with live videos of her one-woman-band performances – often performed in her bedroom.
She got her first guitar as a preschooler and went on to learn brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments, among others. She was busking on the streets of Melbourne by her mid-teens.
In the spring of 2016, when she was 20, a live recording of her song Jungle went viral on Facebook, accumulating more than a million plays in less than a week.
See? I’m not a curmudgeon after all!
I’ve watched Tash on You Tube and I think that both she and You Tube are absolutely fantastic.
But she’s better live.
Courtney and Tash play at festivals all over the world. They are motivational. They start conversations. They teach us about connection amid the day-to-day drudgery.
In saying this I’m reminded of some words that Ruth Ostrow wrote in a recent newspaper column:
“What has happened to the art of communication and conversation in these days of online chatter and social media and texted sound bites? It’s a time when points of view are confined to a few characters or boxes, and statements are made rather than questions posed and pondered, when narcissists impose selfies and self-obsessed tweets to create envy rather than connection, and words are geared to a pathologically short attention span.”
To Ruth I would reply: listen the music of Tash Sultana and Courtney Barnett.
Buy their records, take them home and play them with your family and your friends on equipment that has lain dormant for way too long.