A vinyl single. Photo: Getty
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BBC Radio 4's The Single Life revealed the romance of vinyl

At this rate, the self-funded seven-inch may well make a comeback.

Single Life
BBC Radio 4

To the basement of a record shop in Huddersfield where the Mancunian musician/writer Mark Hodkinson is sifting through a pile of self-funded seven-inch singles from the 1970s and 1980s and wondering what happened to the people who made them (15 January, 11.30am). Thirty thousand such records stuff the room. That’s a great deal of hope and effort. “Do you sense the work and the ambience?” Mark murmurs in awe to the shopowner. “Oh yeah,” comes the sighing reply, “but a lot of them have moved on to be solicitors and accountants – the punks anyway. The rockers don’t change, mind. They just cut their hair.”

Once the calling card of any determined band, a self-funded single showed, if nothing else, how hard you were prepared to graft. “You had to book a studio,” someone points out, “to record it. Then mix the record, then find someone to master it and oversee the mastering, then find a manufacturing place and a distribution deal and get the sleeve printed up and get it into the shops. It was a rite of passage that said we are serious.”

Yes, but it could also mostly just be done in your bedroom. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (1989 in Manchester), your teenage correspondent had a boyfriend who was very nice and cool. A young musician in a band with his twin brother and a school-mate, he self-funded a single that became a surprise hit at the Haçienda and the follow-up got to number three in the charts.

Standing in the crowd and watching him on Top of the Pops may have been one of the most vomitously nervous moments of my life, but something I remember happily to this day (and have discussed with him since) is the idiosyncratic, all-consuming, sweat-and-tears making of that white label: in a bedroom in south Manchester on an SH-101 vintage synth. The toing and froing to the kitchen for toast. The intricate sampling from Fatal Attraction. The borrowing of £200 from his mum to press up 1,000 records and then the driving around in a clapped-out Maestro from record shop to record shop in search of an approving seller.

The trio went on to form the successful indie rock band Doves, and so you could say that that agonised-over white label was completely transformative. Hodkinson’s documentary was concerned with somewhat sadder outcomes (bands breaking up, dreams dashed) and yet that same enabling spirit was there. Money borrowed from your mum or aunt, post-recording pizzas in crap suburban bistros, intense pride in the object when it emerged. This past week it was reported that sales of vinyl records rocketed to 9.2 million in America last year, the highest since 1991. They may be only about 4 per cent of all albums sold, but increasingly records are kept as objects, collected. A little more romantic than a download, you know? At this rate, the self-funded seven-inch may well make a comeback. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump