In the late 1980s, I used to go out with a hoarder. He specialised in redundant and useless popular cultural ephemera. This was the period when compact discs warped the music industry with a clinical, digital speed of change.
I have poignant memories of walking into electrical stores and seeing customers being shown into the new secular vestibule - “the compact disc room” - where over-eager techno-thrilled salesmen would ritualistically slot Dire Straits Alchemy into the new equipment. While we can mock the fetishisation of the sound clarity now - particularly since our desires have passed to stark white headphones, small screens and flywheels - it is important to remember how our sonic literacies transformed when we first heard that sharp edge of music.
Needless to say, my former boyfriend never lost his love for the superceded. He remained a vinyl purist, a High Fidelity obsessional that loved the rare and the odd. Most importantly, he was a completionist.
On one Sunday morning, we were scouring second-hand record shops to complete his collection of Ultravox albums. As we checked out a hidden shop alongside a butcher and pub, a Dickens-like shop keeper emerged from a darkened store room. He was balding, with a few dark strands framing his pasty face. He was bitter and sleepless because his new “relationship” that he had hoped to commence the night before ended during pre-dinner drinks. He could only look accusingly at me to snarl, “women are really hard work”.
Women were much harder to collect than vinyl it seemed. His stock tumbled from every shelf, covering the floor and was piled around his front counter. In short, the shop was stacked with the dumped residues of those shifting allegiances to shiny discs. Second hand record shops became sad places where bitter single men, wanna-be DJs and obsessive collectors spent time flicking through the racks, mourning at the loss of crackling pauses between tracks.
I was reminded of this odd moment in popular cultural history when watching the profound shifts to music in the last decade with the decline of compact discs in the switchover to MP3. Pop history is often cyclical, not linear, and vinyl would revenge its redundancy.
There is an appropriateness to the speed and ruthlessness of the compact disc’s death. This ruthlessness is now part of our digitised age. A friend of mine - who had a nasty habit of going out with married men - was dumped by a bloke in a particularly nasty text message. I was there when it arrived. She could only raspily confirm through the shock that, “how you get men is how you lose them”. Similarly, the brutal dumping of vinyl would not bode well for the CD’s inevitable obsolescence. It was going to be a quick movement to the next big thing, or - in actually - a small white design object. But that shiny disc has thrown one more dice into the music market. In the last few years, beautifully produced compact disc collections - often with hard cover packaging, DVD, photographs and glossy booklet - have tried to lure collectors to remain loyal to the loser in the joust over formats.
In the age of digital compression, the only “value” of physical musical platforms is if they are part of a package of both sound and vision. Like DVD extras, there must be major reasons to buy a popular cultural artefact, rather than download, borrow or rent it. There have been startling box sets that have emerged in the last few years. Billy Bragg produced a two volume collection of all his previous albums, plus a “bonus” DVD within each pack. It was distributed by the ironically titled Cooking Vinyl.
Similarly, after the success of 24 hour party people and in preparation for Control, Joy Division’s back catalogue was gathered in Heart and Soul, featuring the ever-present booklet of disturbing photographs of the even more disturbing Ian Curtis. The justification of (yet) another repackaging of the band was that “Joy Division have a small but hitherto awkwardly compiled catalogue. The basic idea was to tidy up all the outtakes and single releases … It was decided to edit down the unissued/rare material for reasons of space and quality.”
In other words, the already available albums have been re-released (again), with a few oddities for the collectors (again). After the release of Control, the discs have been repackaged and released again. I now have 15 separately packaged versions of “Atmosphere.” It is a great song. Probably not that great.
Through the repackaging and recycling of the musical past, there have been some beautiful popular cultural artefacts issued through the death rattles of the disc. The Byrds There is a Season is a four-disc retrospective of their career, featuring a DVD (obviously) and a booklet (of course). There is something evocative in hearing the melancholic ringing of the 12-string Rickenbacker while viewing the past through the blue lens of Roger McGuinn’s granny glasses. The appropriately named Legacy Records are responsible for this profound testament to a band that covered Dylan’s songs but stretched far beyond the master’s harmonic capacities.
While McGuinn is a guitarist who rang the changes between finger picking styles and genres, one of the greatest guitarists of all time has - at least retrospectively - been properly recognised through box sets. Cooking Vinyl (again) featured Richard Thompson’s 1000 years of popular music. Accompanied by Judith Owen and Debra Dobkin, the legendary renaissance man/guitarist demonstrated the breadth and diversity of “popular” music. His versions of “Blackleg miner”, “There is beauty in the bellow of the blast” - from The Mikado - and the extraordinary “Friday on my mind” are remarkable restampings of the originals. The DVD (obviously) and the booklet (of course) offer a tight and complex journey through one man’s musical history.
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