Still turning world

<strong>The Long-Player Goodbye</strong>

Travis Elborough

<em>Sceptre, 480pp, £14.99</em>


Writing in the late 1950s, the classical music critic Roland Gelatt expressed concern at the sudden increase in classical recordings now available - via the new long-playing record - to a public in danger of being "dulled by a glut of merchandise", and whose listening would lose its "devotion and absorption". Quoting Gelatt in The Long-Player Goodbye, Travis Elborough draws a parallel with current concerns about the MP3, hinting that changes in recording and listening technology have always been met with trepidation. Two decades have passed since the vinyl record was first threatened, then superseded by the compact disc. The final days of vinyl - which, these two new books suggest, we might be ex periencing currently - have been predicted with the regularity of millennial cults proclaiming the apocalypse. But this century's key technological shift, transforming recorded music from discrete physical artefact to malleable virtual commodity, has accelerated the decline of the record and record store, and popular music journalism has taken up a preservationist stance in response.

Why the sudden taste for heritage? It might be because my generation of writers is the last whose earliest musical memories are tied to the vinyl format, from our parents' record collections to teenage pilgrimages to the Rough Trade shop. But even in the 1990s, record buying felt anomalous, the mark of a "real" music fan, and Old Rare New draws upon that self-identification for much of its material.

Old Rare New's setting is the independent record store of the kind immortalised in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity - a treasure trove guarded by a knowledgeable, socially awkward elite, and a valuable meeting point for members of musical undergrounds. This community spirit is echoed in this large-format book's anecdotal, scrapbook approach, with musicians, DJs, writers and record collectors supplying interviews and reminiscences interspersed with more detailed essays. Byron Coley, in the interesting position of both critic and one-time store owner, provides a warm, erudite account from both sides of the counter, while Bob Stanley less successfully combines his own collecting history with a whistle-stop tour of recorded music's earliest day. The introductory essay by the editor, Emma Pettit, details a trip around surviving record stores in the US, which provides most of Old Rare New's evocative photographic material.

Travis Elborough gently mourns the passing of the LP in the introduction to The Long-Player Goodbye, but concentrates his efforts on a lively and somewhat irreverent tale of the long-playing record's history, from the 1940s to the CD-dominated 1980s.

At the heart of The Long-Player Goodbye is the question of how media affect content - in this case, how decisions based on technology, economics and the whims of record company moguls, audio fanatics and musicians from Mantovani to Lou Reed shaped the listening habits of the 20th century (or how Vivaldi's Four Seasons went from baroque rarity to ubiquitous background music). Elborough addresses the question with a pacey narrative which attempts to cover the LP's every permutation over a 50-year period - a task that seems ever more ambitious as records multiply over the years. In this sense, Elborough does better with the early days of the LP, and neatly describes how genres such as jazz adapted to and were shaped by it, correlating its evolution from popular to avant-garde form with its availability on full-length albums.

Also notable is a chapter that documents the 1970s boom in 1950s nostalgia, tying together "oldie" compilations, the studied retro stylings of Roxy Music, Don McLean's "American Pie" and other manifestations of rock's "mid-life crisis". This fares much better than a previous chapter's attempt to rattle through the entire decade, and those feeling a little overfamiliar with rock's back pages might find more to enjoy in accounts of easy listening, spoken-word recordings and eight-track cartridges.

The marginalia of everyday listening are where one suspects Elborough's primary interest lies, and he likes to point out the discrepancies between what is accepted as rock-crit orthodoxy and what the people of a period actually spent their money on, noting with fond irony that, before a separate chart was created for such monstrosities, Top of the Pops 20, a mid-priced compilation featuring covers of the day's biggest hits, trounced the originals, beating Rod Stewart to No 1; or that the culturally fertile early 1980s which gave birth to hip-hop were also soundtracked in the US by a six-million-selling REO Speedwagon album. Chatty footnotes digress upon anything from the style of handwriting with which record owners marked their purchases to Peter, Paul and Mary's sleevenotes to Chris Petit's cult film Radio On - but if The Long-Player Goodbye lacks analysis, it includes a surprisingly thorough bibliography.

At the heart of both books is a love for the medium of vinyl, and a recognition of the economic and technological factors shaping its decline - a decline that should be documented.

However, Pettit's assertion that the record shop offers more opportunities for "chance encounters, knowledge, cultural and musical introductions" than an online exchange is simply not true. Communities have been formed around digital music culture throughout this decade with increasing sophistication, and many would argue that the knowledge exchange generated by such networks has led to the formation of as many bands as came together via a tacked-up "Bassist Wanted" notice.

Likewise, some acknowledgement of the continuing centrality of vinyl in dance music, and the internet's role in allowing small labels much wider distribution of actual artefacts via mail order - the opening up of the global record store - would have countered both books' more nostalgic elements.

We are yet to read an analysis of how the latest changes in format have affected music at base level, but Elborough's summation of vinyl's capricious history suggests we will - and its conclusions will surely be more diverse, ambiguous and interesting than the digital hegemony feared by many "serious" music fans today.

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.