From 8-track to vinyl, cassette to playlists, Getintothis’ Sean Bw Parker explores the cultural history of the recorded album as fetish item, and wonders if it still matters.
Winter 1980, and Adam Ant stares out from the 12 by 12 inch glossy cardboard square in a box in the burgundy flock-wallpapered dining room of a rural Devonshire pile.
His Kings of the Wild Frontier is for now eclipsing a fascinatingly drawn ink on white of Revolver by The Beatles, another mysteriously powerful artwork whose contents does exactly what it says on the tin. Two musical pioneers, leading separate cultural charges 15 or so years apart, jostling anarchically for attention amidst Beethoven and Gilbert & Sullivan.
My pre-teens elder brother and I would recklessly pull the exciting black vinyl from the covers and haphazardly bang them onto the struggling turntable, this patient nanny entertaining every existential need the two boys had for soaking up every moment of new sound and harmony they could discover.
A couple of years later, beneath Grongaer Hill and Dylan Thomas’ Golden Grove, the Sugar Loaf mountain and Brecon Beacons, Fine Young Cannibals, Terence Trent D’arby and The Cure would hove into the view over the bleak valley horizons, swinging guitars and tantalising haircuts in place of swords or pikes.
Their message from the East was concealed in cassette tapes, fragile palm-sized boxes which would regularly break trough frenetic teenage over-opening, let alone the HB pencil ‘recovery technique’, which would have to be illustrated to be explained.
Safe to say the magnetic tape the sound was recorded on had a fairly limited shelf life, and the ghetto blasters of the 80s would regularly churn and shred it up like a million mini-Watergates to the invigorating refrains of Guns n’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction.
I soon started working at a nearby antiques shop, and collecting dust atop my bureau there was an old 8-track player. This obscure device enabled me to regress to the early 60s as baggy led us into the 90s. These strange, mini UFO-type objects led me to discover the explorations of early Santana’s Abraxas and a certain David Bowie’s nursery rhyme-like mid sixties debut.
Good old Wonderful Radio 1 would jolt me back to early 90s reality – though vinyl was living hand in hand with cassette at this point as the rest of Bowie’s 70s cornucopia of delights opened up by vinyl, joss-stick and no small amount of Thunderbird, Marlboros and White Lightning cider in the evenings.
The mid-90s arrived in a burst of cynical energy and music industry mega-profits, as the major labels adopted Britpop and bought-out or co-opted indie labels and contracts. The ‘indestructible’ CD was at peak sales, and Blur, Oasis, Take That and The Spice Girls were raking it in for the fatcats – while the performers apparently didn’t fare too badly from the deals either.
The industry was a well-oiled machine at this point, and you could somehow smell that with the endless regurgitating of ideas. CDs weren’t in fact indestructible. I remember easily smashing quite a few.
The approach to the millennium was when the fetishisation of the album as desirable object floundered, as it appeared that new ideas had dried up, and they had become another source of revenue in an increasingly manipulative corporate business model. Pricing them upwards of £15 a pop might have been the proverbial straw for many.
Rumours of something called the Interweb were abound, and Bowie early informed us that it would ‘change everything’, and music would be as easy to access as ‘turning on a tap’. Original pirate file-sharers Napster led this nu-punk revolution, while the record industry labelled it theft and heavy electric gods of the enormodromes Metallica sued the young tech maestros.
This was the point at which the corporate model crumbled: music became democratised, the gate-keepers were sidelined and ignored, tunes were everywhere and scarcity vanished. File-sharing became paid downloads, these lost traction pretty quickly, then social media and shared playlists became the thing.
Conceptualised, packaged albums delivered from the ivory tower of EMI, and all the more mysterious and glamorous for it, were replaced by half a million YouTube videos watched by about 100 family, friends and well-wishers. Major labels became unwilling to invest in new talent as they were frankly losing money, and as always has been the case, radio play needed to generally be paid for (payola) and press stories published through a system of favours or invented news.
The current renaissance in vinyl is sweet and somewhat encouraging, particularly if you’re a 60-year old white male who enjoys having old psychedelic or Madchester moments repackaged at him.
Otherwise it’s back to the old process of enjoying a random gig you’ve been invited to so much that you either buy a copy of the acts’ album after the show, or Google/Spotify them when you get back home later, still reeling from the otherworldly, transportative experience they’d taken you on a few hours before.
Put like that it might be the art that needs revitalising, rather than the model. Whether or not hacks approaching their mid-forties should be writing about music or its delivery is a question I’ll leave you to ponder on. Adam Ant might not (have) approve(d).