This all came from a programme I recorded; one of those music programmes about classic albums. I’d managed to avoid the one about Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, but here was Cream’s Disraeli Gears, which by happy coincidence was the first LP I ever bought. The spring of 1969 it was, and there were two record shops in Cambridge – Millers, a department store at the top of Sidney Street, and Boots, which had a record booth over in the corner near the Petty Cury entrance where we’d go in school lunchtimes to listen to new Rolling Stones singles.
“Are you going to buy it?” The girl behind the counter would say.
“Dunno till I listen to it, do I?” I’d reply.
She’d put the record on and we’d sit in the booth and listen to it. It was like a telephone booth with holes drilled into what were probably asbestos walls to prevent echo, or in reality to make the booth look more music-like and less like something Superman would get changed in. And then of course we’d run off out of the shop without buying anything, stopping only to shoplift some sweets or twenty Gold Leaf if we were lucky.
But then one evening in the winter of 1968 there was a programme on the BBC about Cream’s farewell concert at the Albert Hall. I’ve always liked music, always kept abreast of who was who and where was where as far as the Top Twenty was concerned, but this was something close to adoration. I sat open mouthed through Sunshine of your Love and Spoonful and Crossroads and realised that Eric Clapton was in fact God. My father watched the programme with an expression of puzzlement and then asked me if they were actually trying to sound like that. The programme came to the part where Eric Clapton talked about tone control and effects pedals, and I realised the answer was yes.
At the time I was thirteen. The next week I went into Boots, ignored the latest singles and started thumbing through the LP section. They were called albums too. I didn’t know why until recently, when I found out that in America record companies used to release a band’s back catalogue in a series of singles lumped together and presented in page format in some kind of plastic binder like a photograph album. Later they released them in LP forms as “best of” collections. It wasn’t untoward to hear Americans say “I have a couple of Beach Boys albums and one of their LPs too.” This didn’t happen in Britain, so I couldn’t buy Cream records one at a time. I had to buy an LP or nothing, and the LP was £1/17s/6d (Why did they use “d” to symbolize pennies? No doubt the internet will tell me). Anyway, back in Boots I pulled out the cover of Disraeli Gears and asked the woman at the checkout if I could listen to it. Either she was feeling kind or she didn’t know me, because she put it on and I sat in the booth for forty minutes or so listening to the most fabulous noise I’d ever heard in my life. I needed to own it, but by my reckoning it would take me thirty-seven and a half weeks to save up for it, notwithstanding the price of sweets and the fact that I was just learning to smoke. I couldn’t steal it because they only kept the LP covers in the racks. The actual records were stored behind the counter. I was given a shilling in pocket money every week. My father had been giving me an annual increment of 3d a week for the last couple of years, and allowing my bedtime to go back by half an hour each birthday. Survived another year, son? Here, have some more time and money.
So I got a paper round. Every evening after school I had to cycle to the next village three miles away and collect the Cambridge Evening News and put it through 47 different letterboxes in my village. It took me about an hour and a half, six days a week and I was paid 4/6d a week by Terry Quinn, an unsmiling and slightly oleaginous newsagent and grocer with Brylcreemed hair who is probably dead now. He was OK, though. He gave me half a crown bonus every Christmas.
So after about three months, in the spring of 1969, I went into Boots and bought Disraeli Gears. It was like a ritual. The woman behind the counter asked me if I wanted it in mono or stereo and I said stereo and she slid the record out from its rack, put it into a new white inner sleeve and put the sleeve into the psychedelic coloured cover. I immediately took it out again and put it back with the inner sleeve opening at right angles to the outer sleeve opening so dust wouldn’t get in and the record wouldn’t fall out. And when I got home I played it at teatime, and in the evening and at breakfast next morning and I learned that thing about balancing the bass and treble controls despite the fact that they would never, ever be right and making sure there was no dust on the needle, and there was no feeling like it in all the world. Not just the music, but the pop of the record player going on, the amplified clunks as I adjusted the speed of the turntable, the click of the mechanism as I pulled the arm back to set the turntable spinning and the hiss and crackle from the grooves as the stylus touched the record.
It was the start of an obsession.
I bought Hendrix and Pink Floyd and Neil Young and that Deep Purple LP with the Hieronymus Bosch cover and Boogie with Canned Heat and the Best of the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper and all of those sampler LPs that would have been albums in America — Nice Enough to Eat and Fill your Head with Rock, Gutbucket and Son of Gutbucket. They were cheap and bulked out my record collection. But what fabulous noise there was to discover on those samplers, what gems and precious minutes of hair-on-end loveliness, Laura Nyro singing Gibsom Street, Dr Strangely Strange, High Tide and the odd blues outing from Tony McPhee and Jo-Ann Kelly. Given that I covered pretty much all the ground from the Byrds to Black Sabbath I wasn’t exactly discerning, but music was an eclectic mess itself back then. Engelbert Humperdinck was touring with the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Animals on stage after Tom Jones. It was young people’s music so it didn’t matter, no one would remember it in five years’ time. The Beatles made a bit of money and so did Mick Jagger, but this noise was just a passing phase, after all.
And now it’s gone. Clapton is dressed in Armani and makes me grind my teeth to a fine powder every time he plays Wonderful Tonight. The Jefferson Airplane promoted themselves to Starship status, and maybe they did build this city on rock and roll, but I don’t want to live there any more. But the point I’m making in this issue that’s dedicated to adaptation and change is that music was a tactile pleasure, not just an aural one. Records came in various thicknesses, were of differing quality. The Reprise label was particularly awful, their cheap vinyl scratching and hissing away under Neil Young’s quieter songs. Their covers were flimsy and the American gatefold sleeves were hastily adapted into single sleeves for British release. I knew people who only bought US import versions of any Reprise release, they were that bad, and they’d have the gatefold of Neil Young’s On the Beach, with the beautiful photographs and the flowery wallpaper and the empty pair of shoes that symbolized Danny Whitten in the sand next to the buried Cadillac fin. I’d read the lyric sheets as I listened to the music, or in the case of Disraeli Gears trace the intricate ornamentation of the cover design. And when the record finished I’d lift it off so carefully and slip it back into its sleeve and put it away (in alphabetical order of course) for next time.
Then came cassettes. Horrid little things they were, with their fragile little covers and no lyric sheets. No concept of design, the only useful thing being that you could wind a track back, or the whole side just by sticking a pencil into the centre of the cassette and whirling it around like a football rattle. My father bought a Mark 3 Ford Cortina 2.3GXL with an eight-track in it. He was getting ill by then, and he’d play Chopin and drive everywhere at 28mph in the wrong gear. When he died I sold the car and the eight-track that went with it. The best way to approach cassettes was to record on blank ones from the record player and then get a cassette system from somewhere and have and auto-electrician fit it for you, and then sod’s law dictated that the first time you drove round a bend the cassettes would all slide off the dashboard and either shatter into dozens of pieces or lodge under your brake pedal enabling you to drive at speed into bus queues full of children without being able to stop.
I was a taxi driver throughout the 1980s, and the only way to avoid New Romantic ghastliness or to have to listen to passengers’ inane drivel was to fit a cassette player and play horrible things on it. Given that it was the eighties that would usually be punk rock or death metal but I’d listen to the radio for John Peel too, and catch the undercurrents of dark matter in what people describe in retrospect as an utterly taste-free decade.
And sometime during that period they went and invented CDs, and everything had to be bought all over again. CDs were acceptable because they were big enough to feature artwork and you could use them as Frisbees or beer coasters and they’d still work. And the other good thing about CDs was that they finally made all those hi-fi buffs shut the fuck up. There are of course those who decry everything since vinyl, much as there are those who still believe in God and who think the Earth is flat. Like some kind of demented Texan creationist they hang on to their collections and fulminate like frothing evangelists when new releases are not released in vinyl format. But CDs put an end to all that nonsense; they were portable, and you could get little CD players for the bedside table and for the car as well.
And now there’s something else. As I said earlier, there was a time when the tactile aspect of music was as important as the listening pleasure. When you’d run your fingers along the spines of the LP covers, pull out the CD booklets and open up the lyric sheets. I have hundreds of CDs all stored in those little racks you can get from Ikea that probably have one of those cute Swedish names like Smegma or Prepuce. And now they’re going, to some extent because my daughter has taught me how to download things, but mostly because of Spotify, which holds twenty million songs, all free. Just go out and buy one of those Bose systems with a download link or go to a poncey music shop and get something so expensive and minimalist that it only has an on-off switch and a volume control. Whatever you want, whenever you want it. On your smartphone, bopping along the street with your Dr Dre headphones on, on your laptop while you’re working or playing Candy Crush (there’s probably a way you can mute the game without muting the music. Anyone who can tell me what that way is, so I can zap jelly whilst listening to Husker Du, will earn my eternal gratitude — but probably not my wife’s). With Spotify you can make a playlist and skip the filler tracks on your favourite CDs. Get one track only from bands like Martha and the Muffins who only ever made one good track anyway. Get Rock Lobster and Planet Claire without having to listen to Love Shack or buy a whole “Best of the B52s” CD. You could even get some kind of compromise going with your significant other. My wife and I have musical tastes that are quite radically different. She likes a tune she can hum to while I like something that sounds like a train crash. We have an overlap section like the common area in a Venn diagram that includes Tom Waits and Steely Dan and Portishead, but I tell her that Robbie Williams is for people who don’t really like music very much and she asks me, in a weird echo of my father’s words, if Sonic Youth are actually trying to sound like that.
But I do find it just slightly easier to get a Spotify account and pay that little bit extra to avoid advertisements, and my wife is the reason for this. She likes to relax at night by listening to Chakra-realignment music — or as I refer to it, fucking hippie bollocks. What she doesn’t want after twenty minutes of getting in touch with her higher angels by listening to panpipes or whales wailing or dolphins clicking is Barry Scott yelling “BANG! AND THE DIRT IS GONE!” or that mulleted wanker off of Safestyle Windows shouting “YOU BUY ONE YOU GET ONE FREE! I SAY YOU BUY ONE YOU GET ONE FREE!” And I don’t want to hear adverts for Dulcolax constipation relief during dinner and imagining the sort of calm and collected woman they use on the TV adverts who comes dancing out of the house smiling and waving as if she hadn’t spent the last twenty minutes shitting her brains out in random directions.
There’s one thing I’ll hang on to, though. In the nineties, Montreal took over from Liverpool, San Fansisco, Seattle and Manchester as the centre of music’s universe. Weird and wintry post-rock ambience came drifting down the ice-locked St Lawrence Seaway, and Arcade Fire got famous. But up in the Hotel 2 Tango, Godspeed You!Black Emperor were releasing gems of godless noise with titles like Terrible Canyons of Static, They Don’t Sleep Any More on the Beach and She Dreamt She was a Bulldozer, She Dreamt She was Alone in an Empty Field. Not only that, but they were selling in such limited quantities that the band were sitting in their converted hotel decorating each individual CD and LP cover that went out, pasting photos onto covers, deliberately designing them so they wouldn’t fit into CD cabinets properly. Constellation/Kranky records even put out a sampler of their artists, just like the old days; One Speed Bike, Fly Pan Am, Frankie Sparo and Thee Silver Mt Zion Tra-La-La and Oompah Memorial Band with Choir. These hand-decorated wonders are things I will not be parted from. The best music since the sixties, nihilistic, the sort of thing that could ideally soundtrack a Cormac McCarthy novel (Go and listen to Dead Flag Blues if you don’t believe me), drones and building cacophonies depicted by the band members themselves in graph form rather than as track listings. And while you’re listening you can run your fingers along the spines of the cardboard CD covers (no ghastly jewel cases for these guys), and look at the insert sheets and photos that have been affixed by hand to the cover.
These wonders I will keep forever. The Cream LP has long since gone, abandoned probably in the home of an ex-wife or girlfriend. And me? I’m old now, I won’t be moving from here, and the music will stay with me, at my fingertips, free. But apart from those few exceptions described above, all tactile pleasures have been removed. Another brick crumbles, and falls from the wall at my feet in a fine layer of dust.