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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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