Still turning world
The Long-Player Goodbye
Sceptre, 480pp, £14.99
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 Two decades have passed since the vinyl record was first threatened, then superseded by the compact disc.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.