Return To The Listening Booth

I hadn’t been expecting that I would post today – two posts in successive days isn’t my usual pattern, after all – but, yet again, the excellent Timehop has reminded me of the anniversary of a post. As many of you weren’t following my blog when I posted this five years ago today, you probably won’t have seen this one before. For me, it is a nice little piece of nostalgia, which I think many will relate to – the way we listen to music has changed so much during my lifetime. The piece also helps to explain my love of music, how it developed, and is background for those of you newer to my blog who may have wondered what I’m doing. Don’t worry, I often ask myself that too! From 2016, this is:

THE LISTENING BOOTH

Looking back over how our lives have altered since the long gone days of youth, one of the things that has changed a huge amount is how we consume music. I’ll admit to having a subscription to Apple Music, as it is just so easy and convenient, but I do miss the joy of a proper record shop.

I first started getting into music in the early 1960s, just before the Beatles rewrote everything. I can remember the days of listening at lunchtime to the old BBC Light Programme, I think it was called Workers Playtime. My sister and I used to keep our fingers crossed that the one pop song in an hour long show was one that we liked. Then came Radio Luxembourg and the pirate stations, which I used to listen to on a little transistor radio – remember them? – until the then Labour Government closed down the pirates and the BBC restructured to cater for a mass audience, with the new Radio 1 and the Light Programme becoming Radio 2. Over the years I’ve gone away from Radio 1 to Radio 2, which caters for old duffers like me! But there is only so much that radio can give you. It’s much better to have your own collection of music, that you can dip into whenever you want, and find something to suit every mood.

Music from prehistory!
Music from prehistory!
Sgt Pepper

That is where the humble record player came in. My parents were a little late coming to that party, but they eventually did get one and my lifelong love of building my record collection began. Like most of us, I guess, I can still remember the first record I ever bought: Eve Of Destruction, by Barry McGuire. I must have had rebel tendencies back then! But, to be fair, the song was a massive number one hit. Not bad for a guy who started in the New Christy Minstrels, singing about the wheels coming off his wagon! ‘Buying a record’ is a phrase largely unknown to modern day youth, who are far more in tune with downloads and streaming, and are as a result missing out on the sheer joy of owning the physical product. I used to buy my records either from a secondhand stall in the local covered market, which had a vast selection of ex-jukebox 7 inch singles, or in a specialist record shop. You could actually go into a shop, browse through the racks, and then take your choice to the assistant and ask ‘can I listen to this please?’ Remember the listening booths? If I mention these to my daughters – who are 30 and 24 – they look at me very strangely. But that is how we decided whether to buy. I spent many happy hours – not all at the same time! – sitting in a little booth, wearing headphones and listening to new records for the first time. The ubiquity of streaming services which enable you to listen to anything you want just didn’t exist back then. And the beauty of it was that it had a social aspect to it. Being in a record shop with your friends and taking it in turn to choose was so much fun. And there was always the chance of meeting someone new and bonding over a shared musical taste. Sitting at home with the computer just doesn’t do that for you! Once you had made your choice, you left the shop with a piece of vinyl in a cardboard sleeve, and rushed home to play it. Well, I did, anyway! Singles didn’t really have much packaging, but the sleeves for long players became ever more creative, depending on the promotional budget that the record company allocated to its artists. And once the idea of the gatefold sleeve was invented, there was even more space for the creative geniuses to work with. I always liked having the words to sing along to, and sometimes these came on an insert so as not to take up cover space. Many of these are now held to be design classics. The Beatles sleeve for the Sgt Pepper album, for example. Or the Rolling Stones Sticky Fingers – yes, the zipper really works! One of the best, for me, was the sleeve for Jethro Tull’s concept album Thick As A Brick, which opened out into the format of a local newspaper, complete with ridiculously silly parody news and horoscopes. That just didn’t work in CD format!

Real music!
Real music!

But vinyl records had their drawbacks. They were very easy to damage, either by scratching them with the stylus when you were trying to find a particular track on an album, or by leaving them around to gather dust, warp in the sunshine or be chewed by the dog (guilty on all counts!). They were heavy to move around in any volume – they became an extra piece of luggage to take to university! – and they took up so much room. So gradually they fell out of favour. After vinyl there was the cassette tape. It was small, light and the player was more robust than the old record player. But unless you had a digital counter on your cassette player it was a nightmare to find a particular track on an album. And if you’ve ever had one come unspooled whilst in the player you’ll know their major drawback – remember the days of carefully extracting them so as not to break the tape, and then rewinding it with a pencil? Happy days, or maybe not! The cassette did, however, give rise to the first real attempt at taking your music with you to listen anywhere, with the Sony Walkman and all the various competitors. A bit like an iPod, as long as you had a box to carry all your cassettes with you. Then they invented the CD, the Compact Disc. Remember when these first started? All those promises that they were indestructible, that you could smear them with jam and they would still play? Really? I still have no idea why anyone would want to do that, and have never tried it. A waste of jam, if you ask me.

Not my collection, but I had quite few of these.
Not my collection, but I had quite few of these.

Over 50 years I’ve amassed a huge collection in all three formats. The vinyls and cassettes are still at my ex-wife’s home, and we’re talking about ways to sell them off. It feels a bit like destroying my past but, sadly, I don’t have enough space for them, and don’t own anything to play them on anyway. I’m not a hi-fi buff – one of those who swears that music sounds best on vinyl – and I’ve been seduced by the ease of digital music. I know, I’m a philistine and a hypocrite, but hey – what else can I do! Even if I had the room for a large vinyl collection and owned a record player, it has become very much a niche market these days, and those albums which are released on vinyl are often gimmicky – coloured vinyl, anyone? – and cost twice as much as the equivalent CD. When you compare that with the streaming services, these are just so cheap that actually buying a physical product can’t really compete any more. As I said, I use Apple Music, which costs the equivalent of one CD per month. For that, I now have a library of over 4,000 albums available at the tap of a screen, via my computer or even through my TV, to which I’ve attached a rather good sound-box! The industry is trying to recreate the market for vinyls, with such initiatives as the annual Record Store Day – which my good blogging friend Michael wrote so well about recently in this post. Like me, he remembers the joys of the record shop – however, unlike me, he can at least go to one: there isn’t anywhere selling proper records for miles around here!

As I write this, I’m listening to the new Oysterband album, released today – and I haven’t had to go anywhere to get it. They are one of my favourite bands and it’s great to be able to hear the new album straightaway. But I do feel I’m missing something. And I don’t think I’m alone:

That was where I ended the original post. I should add a footnote to correct a minor error of memory in it, though: despite my recollection, Eve Of Destruction only reached #3 in the UK charts, though it got to #1 in the US. I could try to claim that I was recalling the American charts, but would you believe me? Thought not…

A further footnote: for American readers, I feel I should point out that the reference in the post to ‘jam’ was, of course, to what you guys for some inexplicable reason call ‘jelly’ – for us that is something completely different, as Mr Python would say.

A final footnote is that I didn’t explain what that last image was. For those of you not familiar with the excellent Marc Cohn, that was the sleeve to an album he released in 2010 celebrating the records he was listening to back in 1970, when he was 11. On this album he covers twelve songs by the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Van Morrison, among others. This is typical of the laid back approach he took to the songs of his (and my) youth:

Rather different from the Cat Stevens original, or the best known cover version – by Jimmy Cliff – but the style is ideal for Marc’s soulful voice: I love it!

I chose to re-post this piece as, reading it again earlier, it brought back waves of nostalgia for my younger days, and for ways in which we had a lot of musical fun that modern day kids probably don’t get, and wouldn’t understand. I hope it brings back similar memories for you.