Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Perhaps the point of vinyl is not the music but those poignant pops, crackles and hisses

If you’re the right age, these sounds whirl you back in time to those first records you owned.

I had to listen to the test pressing of my finished album the other day. This is when you check what the vinyl version will sound like, so you sit very quietly in front of your speakers and, ignoring the songs completely, take note of the overall sound quality and strain your ears to listen out for any excessive surface noise, any unwanted pops or crackles. And, this being vinyl, there are occasional pops and crackles. But are they unwanted? Ah, that’s the question.

Vinyl has had a revival, you will have read. And part of me can’t help feeling that it’s really the pops and crackles that have made a comeback, securing their place in people’s hearts as some kind of badge of authenticity. The clunk of the needle dropping. The faint hiss before the first song begins. Sounds that, if you’re the right age, whirl you back in time to those first records you owned.

I loved those records of mine, yet I treated them so badly – handling them without care, leaving them lying on my untidy bedroom floor, among discarded clothes, copies of the NME and cups of tea. I’d pick them up with sticky fingers and let the grooves get coated in hairspray, and then I’d play them on my brother’s 1960s Dansette. I wonder whether I ever replaced the needle? Probably not.

For my 18th birthday, in 1980, I got a music centre, which was a step up, but still pretty unsophisticated. It wasn’t until I met Ben that I realised you could have a separate record deck and amp, with proper treble and bass controls, which Ben had adjusted to suit his exact taste so that when he put on an Eno album, or Chic’s “At Last I Am Free”, the sound shimmered like silver in the room. I’d never really considered the sonic quality of records before, my appreciation of them being entirely emotional. This was eye-opening.

If vinyl nostalgia among those my age is about remembering our youth, I think the enthusiasm among younger people is more about a longing for an idealised era that preceded them – a lost age of music, when it was new and countercultural. Through the medium of vinyl, they hope to recapture the innocence. All stardust and golden, they’re trying to get themselves back to the garden.

Two of our kids have bought record players and raided our album collection, working their way through Nico, Bowie, the Velvet Underground and Joni Mitchell. Right now, I can hear Joy Division’s “Transmission” coming from the youngest’s bedroom, and I wonder whether he’s playing Ben’s old seven-inch single, or mine. At this point, the idea of the record as artefact – a tangible thing that can be passed on – makes sense to me. I’m glad that single has survived. It feels like glue holding us all together.

But for those of us who still make records, the vinyl comeback is a bit of a nuisance. There’s a shortage of pressing plants, so the manufacturing queue creates an unwanted delay of several months between completion of recording and release. I’d like to finish a record and have it in the shops the next day.

The other reason I’m sometimes sceptical about its revival is that I remember when vinyl and cassettes were the only options. We’d listen to a recording we’d just finished – which had sounded so rich and sparkly in the studio – squashed on to a piece of plastic, with a sinking feeling of disappointment. In 1988, our album Idlewild was the first we released on CD and the experience was a revelation. We were thrilled at how close it sounded to what we’d actually recorded.

So I can’t get exercised about the whole “vinyl sounds better” debate. I don’t think it does, but then I don’t think that matters. People like vinyl in an irrational way, the way they like lots of things. There is meaning in placing the record carefully on the turntable, lowering the needle. It’s reverential, ritualistic. And maybe we like the snaps, crackles and pops, the surface noise, that faint mysterious hiss that seems to come from somewhere else entirely, perhaps the place where the music lives. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

Getty
Show Hide image

What the university staff strike reveals about our broken higher education system

The marketisation of our universities is facing its biggest opposition yet.

The biggest industrial strike ever by academic staff in Britain's universities has begun.

National newspapers are running panicked headlines about what may happen if the strike lasts: “University strike puts final exams in danger”, warns The Times. “University strikes could hit exams and graduation ceremonies”, says the Guardian. But as well as affecting the education of students who are heavily in debt, the strikes will hit academics with very different levels of job security, and university establishments at a time when higher education is on the political agenda. 

The University and College Union voted for strike action last month over a failure to reach an agreement with Universities UK (UUK), the body which represents of the Vice Chancellors of every university in the country, over changes to academics' pension plans.

The pension scheme at the heart of the conflict, the Universities Superannuation Scheme, currently has over 400,000 participants. UUK have stated that the pension scheme currently has a £6.1bn deficit and that the cost of future benefits has increased by one third since 2014. They are proposing a switch from a direct benefit pension scheme (fixed, guaranteed pension payments) to a direct contribution scheme (reliant on stock markets) to maintain the scheme's sustainability.

However, many academics argue the deficit is overstated, and is instead a cynical attempt to reduce the universities' pension liabilties. 

Older and more senior academics who have already spent several decades paying into the system will be less affected by the changes, as contributions will be protected under the old scheme until 2019. 

UCU however allege that this change will result in an average yearly £10,000 loss in staff members' pensions. Academics at 61 universities, including the likes of Oxbridge, UCL, Imperial College London, Cardiff University and the University of Edinburgh will be striking for 14 days. 

The strikes begin on Thursday, and yet no-one seems to know what will happen. FAQs provided by universities to students all appear to have a similar theme: Academic disruption will be minimised, but if you have a complaint, please email us. 

16 percent of academic staff at these universities will be on strike (because most academics aren't a part of a union) but lectures and seminars have still been cancelled. It is still unclear for students whether they will be examined on subjects that they will miss. 

But for the most part, students appear to support the academics. Mark Crawford, a Postgraduate Sabbatical Officer at UCL (the biggest university in the country to strike) says he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of students who have messaged asking him how they can help. 

Perhaps this is due to the pains some academics have gone to minimise the disruption their students will face. Some lecturers have made presentations available online, and have amendeded their reading lists. One academic at King's College London, KCL, has even rearranged her seminars off campus. 

Yet this feeling of goodwill may disappear when reality kicks in. Robert Adderly, a second year Law student at KCL, and a campaigner for the student group provocatively titled “Students Against Strikes” says he’s unsure how supportive students will be once the action actually begins. 

Adderly, while sympathetic to the concerns of the academics does not believe striking is the most effective way to negotiate with Universities UK. He goes on to say that he believes “neither side is willing to compromise” and says that the “only people losing out are students.”

He also says he believes a lot of students “haven’t assessed how they really feel about the strikes” and that the “longer it goes on, the more students who will get angry”. 

Adderly's thoughts are backed by a poll conducted by Trendence UK, a market research company, which found that 38 per cent of students supported their academics on strike, compred to 38 per cent who did not.

Several academics have spoken to the New Statesman off the record about feelings of uneasiness around the strike, arguing that there is a better, less disruptive way of resolving the pension debate. Others are unsure about the leadership of UCU and believe striking will only lead to a build up of work later. 

Professor Andrew Pomiankowski at UCL emailed his students saying while he supported the strike, he would continue conducting his classes this week. He later told the New Statesman “I have a lot of sympathy with the reasons for the strike - the loss of provision of pensions, especially for the younger members of staff. Talking is the only way of resolving this problem. However, I don’t feel that I should disrupt teaching of students. That’s a step too far.”

The strikes go to the heart of the debate about the marketisation of university. Even students who support the strike are in conflict with one another. Notably, students who support the strikes are unhappy with campaigns such as Adderly’s which are also demanding universities compensate them for lost teaching hours. Crawford says your “first instinct shouldn’t be how much am I losing? It should be how much is our staff losing.”

On the other hand, Adderly argues we shouldn’t pretend the marketisation of university hasn’t already happened, saying “It’s here. It’s happening. We are now consumers.” 

Though it appears unlikely that universities will refund students, these strikes are highlighting how our attitudes to higher education have changed in a short space of time, and causing some to ask if this is the future we want for British higher education.