Every time I see the phrase ‘bag for life’ I sing it in my head to the tune of Soul II Soul’s ‘Back To Life’.
Last night I hosted Album Club #79. That’s 79 months — almost seven years — of Album Club evenings, so I thought it was about time I wrote about them.
Way back at the start of 2011, my friend Bill dropped me an enthusiastic email with a link to a BBC News magazine article about Classic Album Sundays:
A growing number of music-lovers unhappy about the way album tracks are enjoyed in a pick-and-mix fashion have decided to take action.
The rules are strict. No talking. No texting. You must listen to every song on the album.
Classic Album Sundays treat our best-loved records like great symphonies and are being set up in London, Scotland and Wales.
Groups of music fans sit in front of a vinyl turntable, with the best speakers they can afford, dim the lights and listen to a classic album all the way through.
This monthly club in north London is run by Colleen Murphy and for her it is a strike against “‘download culture”, the sense that music has just become an endless compilation of random songs used as background noise.
”Everyone, stop multi-tasking, sit down, open your ears and do some heavy listening.”
Bill’s questions to me: Shall we start an album night of our own? Did I know anyone who might be interested? Yes and yes! This was great — it sounded like a book club without the homework. I was definitely in.
Five of us gathered on a February evening at Bill’s place. A lot of what happened that night set the tone of all Album Club evenings to come. We arrived, had a few beers and crisps in the kitchen and about 45 minutes in we were ushered through to the lounge. Bill revealed that he was going to play us a vinyl copy of David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. He’d printed the Wikipedia notes for the album and gave a small speech about why he had chosen it. Then the music began.
We sat there, in complete silence, listening intently. His stereo sounded amazing. I’d never heard the album before and from the opening notes of Changes to the fading sounds of The Bewlay Brothers it was a revelation. On this particular evening, and for the next couple of Album Club nights, the enjoyment of the music was mixed with the self-consciousness of sitting there in silence with everyone. Where do you put your eyes? Is it okay to jiggle my legs as the music takes me? Could I cough? Eye contact was strictly avoided.
After a few months the format was well-established and we consciously agreed some rules as follows:
- Album Clubs are held monthly. In the case of being unable to book a date that people can make (August and December are particularly difficult) we can double up with two in the following month.
- Hosting follows a round-robin format, with each member taking a turn in succession. In the case of sudden illness or force majeure on behalf of the host someone else can step in, ideally the next person in line so that you can simply swap places in the hosting order.
- The host has to supply all of the drinks (ale, lager, wine) and snacks.
- Most importantly, the host gets to choose the album. As host, your responsibilities for picking a suitable album are:
- You must love it.
- You are not allowed to play an album that you yourself have never heard before (see previous point).
- Strictly no compilations.
- No live albums. (This point is controversial with opinions on the rule split down the middle; I personally think these are legitimate albums in their own right but others believe that the inevitable presence of live versions of the artists’ own songs mean they are a type of compilation.)
- Albums are played as if they had been bought on vinyl, with the end of a side giving people time to pop to the loo, have a brief chat about what they’ve heard so far and top up with beer. If you don’t have the vinyl and are playing the CD or streaming the album, make sure you do your research to know when to press pause. Double albums will have three breaks, triple albums (and you have to be very brave or completely infatuated by the album to choose one) will have five. If streaming, a top tip is to make some playlists of the various sides in advance.
- At the end of the album, everyone can completely relax and enjoy the rest of their evening. Typically we end up lining up records on the host’s hi-fi that are linked to the album or fit with the vibe in some way. If it’s a Friday, a lot more beer is consumed.
Picking an album can be a difficult affair. Do you go with the one you really love or do you play something that you think people haven’t heard but are likely to like? Experience now tells me that you should go with your heart instead of your head and don’t over-think it. When everyone loves what you play (for me, Siren by Roxy Music, Heartbreaker by Ryan Adams and Tommy by The Who have all been successes) it’s a great feeling; when they don’t (see Human Racing by Nik Kershaw) it can be a bit deflating, but you get over it quickly.
Over the past six and a half years we’ve seen a few people come and go; two of the original five founding members moved away which made membership impossible and with a bit of recruitment we now have a ‘full team’ of eight. This is probably the perfect number — sometimes one or two people can’t make it at the last minute but it still leaves you with enough of the crew to make it worth it. For a while we had six but this means you always have the same two months of the year, no good if you find yourself lumbered with August or December. “Who’s turn is it next?” can always be answered by looking at our back catalogue of events lovingly put together and maintained by Mat.
It’s been brilliant to have an evening every month where I know I can just sit back, relax, listen to (typically) a great album and enjoy the company of a cracking group of friends. For me the best nights have been when I’ve discovered a truly brilliant album that I had never heard before: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory and Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle have been the pinnacle for me, closely followed by the unexpectedly punky eponymous The Pretenders. John famously loved Cosmo’s Factory so much he bought a CD copy of on Amazon before the first track had even finished playing.
Massive love and thanks to Bill for creating what is now commonly known as ‘the best night of the month’. We miss you, fella!
Keep coming back to this. Absolutely love these gravelly vocals. Having them isolated makes it clear how much they contribute to a great song.
Years ago, before podcasts entered my life, I used to wander everywhere with my headphones in my ears and my iPod on shuffle. Smart playlists gave me a constant stream of both music I knew and had rated highly along with a few tracks I hadn’t played.
One morning on the platform at Euston Square, waiting for a westbound train, a song came on which I had never heard before and demanded my attention. It wasn’t loud, it was just beautiful — I had seldom heard such an honest heart-achingly longing song before. It sounded as though it had been recorded on a home cassette deck and reinforced my theory that great songs shine through no matter how poor the sound quality is. The song was Dark of My Moon by Gene Clark and it is a track on a free Uncut magazine cover CD from the early 2000s. Give it a listen, it’s amazing.
From that point on, Gene Clark was on my ‘music to investigate’ list. A couple of weeks ago I found myself coming back to this song and I wanted to find out more about it and Gene Clark himself. Clark was a member of the Byrds and co-wrote Eight Miles High, one of their biggest hits.
Whenever I get into a new artist, I head over to Allmusic — it gives you the complete output of an artist along with ratings by both Allmusic staff as well as their users. His album No Other had five-star reviews by both and looked like a great place to start investigating more of his work. I wasn’t disappointed. This album is incredible and gets better with every play.
I haven’t felt this way about an album in a long time. It has hooked itself into my brain and won’t let go. Every time I hear it I notice something different, whether it is the second slide guitar solo on the first song, the frantic woodblock in the title track or the way in which the final tune builds from a sweet beginning to a magestic and sweeping end. As soon as it finishes I want to start it again. There is so much in this album.
When it was released in 1974, the record label didn’t do very much to support the album. Clark had a fear of flying which meant that he wouldn’t tour or promote the it much himself either. Reviews weren’t great and two years later it was deleted from A&M’s catalogue. It became a lost masterpiece.
Since it was ‘rediscovered’ and reissued a couple of decades later it has gained an ever-greater following. A couple of years ago a number of bands collaborated together to bring the music to a new audience through a small number gigs where they played the whole album from start to finish. I’m not that familiar with these artists (Beach House, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, The Walkmen) so didn’t know what to expect. Their performance is amazing — the musicians all gel so well together and the singing is superb. It gave me goosebumps the first time I saw it. If you’re looking for a way into this album you could do worse than watch this.
For a very long time the extent of my relationship with ABBA has been to get annoyed at ‘Dancing Queen’ being played at parties, right at the point where lots of people have been dancing and enjoying themselves. The song has always sounded so downbeat and melancholy to me and although it was a classic I never understood why people would think it fitted in with people partying and having a good time. It always killed the mood for me.
I went to Stockholm for my wedding anniversary this year. We didn’t plan much into our schedule, preferring to walk around, eating (a lot), drinking (what we could afford) and taking in the sights. On one of the days we decided to go for a walk from our hotel in Södermalm to the island of Djurgården with the vague intention of visiting the Vasamuseet, apparently Stockholm’s top tourist attraction. However, when we got there we were dismayed to see a queue of top-tourist-attraction proportions. Not wishing to spend a significant chunk of our holiday waiting in line for something we only vaguely wanted to see we decided to wander on. This is when we stumbled across the ABBA The Museum and the Swedish Music Hall of Fame, conveniently located in the same building.
My first thought was something along the lines of “Really?” Of course, I knew a lot of ABBAs hits—just from having turned on a radio over the course of the past few decades—and had to concede that they had some good tunes but my thoughts immediately went back to ‘Dancing Queen’. After a bit of debate and not having concrete plans of what else we should do (plus my hope that there may be one or two items about Roxette in the ‘Swedish Music Hall of Fame’ bit) we decided to go in.
It was such a pleasant surprise. I’ve always been a big music fan ever since I was a young boy and used to spend lots of my pocket money on music magazines such as Vox, Mojo, NME and later Uncut, reading detailed articles even about bands whose sounds and songs I had never heard. Wandering around the museum for two or three hours with no children in tow, being allowed to absorb the story of a very famous pop band about whom I knew very little beyond their biggest hits took me right back to those days where I pored over those magazines.
We both paid for the portable audio guide and were treated to Björn, Benny, Anni-Frid and Agnetha talking about the things we were seeing and hearing as we wandered around. I wasn’t familiar with a lot of their lesser-known songs and particularly their earlier work (‘People Need Love’ and ‘Ring Ring’, anyone?) nor about how they came to be, the boys being massively famous in the bands The Hep Stars and The Hootenanny Singers (yes, really) and the girls starting off as solo artists. We had a lot of fun in there and the verdict was that it was very well put-together and worth it even if you aren’t the world’s biggest ABBA fan.
I have a bit of an obsessive personality and when I get into something I really want to learn all I can about it and absorb myself in it. ABBA The Museum lit a spark for me. I started in the obvious place, listening to all of their back catalogue through Spotify and reading the Allmusic album guides as I went along. (You can find a playlist of tracks I found interesting that I wanted to go back to here if you want to hear them yourself—a particular highlight is Björn singing in an imitation Noddy Holder voice on ‘Rock Me’!) I also looked around for a good biography of the group and came across Carl Magnus Palm’s ‘Bright Lights, Dark Shadows’ which seemed to be the definitive work. On a hunch I picked up an audiobook copy, £7.99 from Audible.co.uk with a monthly subscription, and I’m very glad I did. At just over 26 hours in length it is a bit of a commitment but it is well worth it—listening to the book felt just like an extension of the audio tour that we took around the museum which is exactly what I was after. The story is very interesting and goes far beyond just a chronological sequence of events in the lives of the group. There are touchpoints with Swedish and European cultural history such as in the ‘schlager’ song traditions that they started out with and which where intertwined with the Eurovision Song Contest. Their tale is closely woven with Polar Music and in particular their manager and early songwriting partner Stig Anderson, someone who had such an impact on Sweden that he was given a televised funeral which is traditionally something reserved for “distinguished statesmen or royalty”. The story reflects the decades in which it takes place, for example the focus on songwriting and music publishing in the 1960s and 1970s and how this changes as we moved into the 1980s and beyond as well as the ABBA revival in the 1990s that was kicked off by Erasure and the multitude of tribute acts. I finished the book on the way home from work this evening and like any good story I’m sad to finish it. If you’ve an interest in popular culture, pop music or just like long and detailed biographies then it is well worth the time.
I grew up as a musically-enthusiastic child of the ’80s and ’90s, watching Top of the Pops on Thursday night and talking about it with my friends at school the next day, reading Smash Hits, listening to the top-40 singles countdown as I got ready for bed on Sunday evening and generally paying attention to what was happening in the charts. At some point, all of this dropped away for me. The singles chart was no longer meaningful. Part of this was me getting older and part of this was the fact that it didn’t take quite as much to get a hit anymore. The rise of satellite and cable TV as well as the Internet were factors too—there was so much choice that my friends and I no longer had the shared experience of listening to, reading about and watching the same bands through the same limited channels. This whole transition felt like a general decline.
A couple of years ago I caught a programme on Radio 4 which was discussing the state of the music business. They made the point that young people now expect to be able to download and listen to whatever they like for free and that an effect of this is that live concerts have now become the primary ways in which (big and popular) artists such as Prince, U2 etc. make their money. The situation of old had reversed: in the past, live shows were adverts for singles and albums and now those singles and albums are adverts for seeing your favourite band in a live show.
Or so I thought. I’m currently in the middle of reading the “extended special edition” of part one of Mark Lewisohn‘s incredible Beatles biography which details the history of the band right up to the end of 1962, before they had their first hit. This passage was very interesting and made me think back to that Radio 4 programme:
Still, the everyday business of management was the stage. No ‘pop stars’ could live off broadcasting fees and only the very biggest of chart stars could live off record royalties, so minuscule were the percentages. No one even tried. The sole object of making records was to attract a bigger profile and so earn higher fees from concert and ballroom shows – and, if the artists were lucky to be chosen, to appear in summer seasons in seaside resorts.
So perhaps the recent change isn’t a decline per se but rather a reversion to an old normal. Perhaps the focus we had around records instead of live performance as we were growing up was a drawn-out, temporary blip?
I recently sent a text message to the person that the text message was about.
Yes, we’ve all done it. This time it was sent to Mat and was originally a question to another friend to find out what Mat wanted for his birthday. Luckily not too much damage done there – a bit of a ‘doh!’ moment but it could have been much worse!
The incident reminded me of a song I heard on a Radio 2 comedy show recently, which I believe is incidentally titled “Sent a Text Message to the Person that the Text Message Was About”. I Googled for this and came up with a Myspace page that (almost) mentioned the phrase…this revealed that the composer and performer of the tune was none other than David O’Doherty.
David’s album is available from Trust Me I’m A Thief Records (both on CD and mp3 download) and I urge you to buy it. It saw me through my trip to and from work today and on more than one occasion I found myself cracking up, probably much to the bemusement of my fellow commuters. The album is recorded in David’s house and he’s got both great comical observations on life and excellent lo-fi songs. Here’s one from YouTube called “The FAQ for the D O D” (thanks Anna):
Many thanks to Ray for sending me a link to the reviews of Peter Andre’s and Katie Price’s album A Whole New World. Very amusing indeed. I won’t ask why Ray was looking at the album’s page in the first place…
I’ve recently started listening to Coverville, a fantastic podcast that is focused around cover versions of well-known songs. It’s really reawakened my passion for music and I constantly find myself writing down the artist and song names that come up on the show so I can investigate them further. Artists and songs that I currently want to check out are Richard Cheese (who creates fantastic lounge cover versions of well-known songs – check out the sample from his version of the Beastie Boys‘ Brass Monkey here), Prince‘s Erotic City (the show played a cool cover by Berlin of Top Gun soundtrack fame), Damien Rice‘s cover of Prince’s When Doves Cry, Nicky Thomas‘ Love of the Common People, The Folksmen’s cover of Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones (from the soundtrack to A Mighty Wind), The Kinks‘ Picturebook, and Albert Hammond (who I think did the original version of Air That I Breathe).
The show goes out two to three times a week and is usually between 30 and 60 minutes long. Brian Ibbott is the host and he does a great job – he obviously loves what he’s doing and is always very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the music he plays. Occasionally he’s joined by his wife and/ or his son at the end of the show for a ‘musically challenged’ quiz which is always quite fun to listen to. The show takes a number of formats – sometimes it’s a regular random show playing whatever he wants to play, sometimes it’s a ‘Cover Story’ which is focused around covers of and by a particular artist, sometimes there are all-request shows and occasionally there is an ‘Originalville’ where he plays the less well-known original versions of famous songs that were actually covers.
If you like all kinds of music and you’re looking for something new to listen to I thoroughly recommend it. It’s hardly been off my iPod since I subscribed and at the rate Brian produces the shows it’s likely to stay that way for some time!
I’ve recently started viewing a podcast called In The Attic and just had to blog about it as twice this week it has given me the ‘music goosebumps’ on my evening commute. From what I can make out, it’s a show that is spliced together from a live webcast. It’s a great format as it gives you the key pieces of the show within about ten minutes for you to watch whenever you want to.
The podcast is hosted by Rachel Fuller (blog here) and is regularly joined by Mikey Cuthbert, Simon Townshend and Pete Townshend (yes, he of The Who fame) – all of whom I believe to be Eel Pie recording artists. As well as a bit of banter, everybody has a bash every now and again at a tune and when they do it’s reallly worth listening to.
Two highlights for me have been a group version of The Who’s song I’m One on podcast 5 and a really gorgeous song called I Lose The Thread by Rachel on podcast 6. After hearing this I’ve taken the plunge and bought Rachel’s Cigarettes and Housework album from Amazon.co.uk; the reviews I’ve seen aren’t outstanding but if its as good as this song then it’s right up my street.
Just had an absolutely excellent weekend, topped off by a visit down to Brighton with Mat to see The Who. My wonderful wife bought me a pair of tickets a little while ago from eBay as a present as she knows how much I love the band. I’d thought about getting a ticket for their Hyde Park gig later this summer but I’m not a massive fan of humungous venues – this was great as it was a the Brighton Centre which only holds about 5,000 people.
Mat and I made a bit of a day of it – we got the train down to Brighton early, checked into the Hilton Brighton Metropole hotel (which at £65 was a complete bargain) and found ourselves a comfy pub to watch the football and catch up. A few shandies and a lovely dinner of fish and chips later and we were ready for the gig.
Doors opened at six-thirty; we got there about seven o’clock but didn’t miss much. The first band up were Two Choices and by the sound of things we didn’t miss much. The standing area was quite empty and and the lead singer seemed to really misjudge things when he tried to get everyone to repeat a long non-catchy chorus with screams of “I want to hear everybody here sing!” etc. Not so good. Next up were Casbah Club which features Simon Townshend, Pete’s younger brother, on lead vocals. They were much better and had some good songs – some much better than others. By the time they finished their set it was time for the main event.
I’ve been to quite a few gigs, especially in my student days, but I can’t remember feeling quite so excited before a band came on. By this time the place had filled up and there was a real sense of anticipation in the air. When Pete, Roger and the band came on the cheers were massive. The next hour and three-quarters passed by so quickly. First up was Who Are You which is a great song to start off the show, although Roger fluffed a couple of the lines and laughed as he said “well, I don’t f****** know!”. That didn’t detract from anything – the music was absolutely fantastic. After that they dived straight into I Can’t Explain, The Seeker and Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere. All through the set the lighting was some of the best I’ve seen at a small venue – it always seemed to be pretty much in time with the music and the effects were used brilliantly, like the fade out to a near-black yellow glow at the end of a big number.
The band ran through a medly of songs from their new album (or, I think albums if I understood Pete correctly) that are due to be released next year. The music was good but because the crowd didn’t know it the atmosphere seemed to fade just a little. Pete gave a wry smile and said “Yeah, I know – wierd, isn’ it? You’ll get used to them.”
I can’t describe the feeling when the really big numbers started – Baba O’Reily and Won’t Get Fooled Again – with their amazing synthesiser intros (if you haven’t heard these tracks, trust me in that this is so much better than I’ve described it!) and everyone in the audience gave out what seemed to be a cheer with a simultaneous intake of breath as to what was about to happen. They really didn’t disappoint – the lighting guys even managed to recreate a little of the sweeping lasers during Won’t Get Fooled Again like they used in the famous video in The Kids Are Alright. Another highlight was Pete’s solo performance of Drowned on his “new acoustic guitar” – I’ve never seen somebody play the guitar so fast and so well.
The best bit of the show for me was when they launched into a suite of songs from Tommy. Amazing Journey/ Sparks was just fantastic and really did seem to take things to another level. You know you’ve seen something great when you can’t wait to get home and listen to all of the albums again.
I’ve had a quick look around the web for things posted about the show and have found a few good photos from the evening on Pete’s website. Lonewolf posted a good review this morning and hnclover’s blog entry has led me to find that you can watch tracks from future live gigs through a special Who website for a buck a pop, which goes to charity! I’ll try and tune in in future.
All in all, an amazing night. It’s put me in a great mood all day and I’ve got Who songs buzzing all over my brain. Thank you so much my lovely wife! You’re the best.
A few weeks ago my wife and I went along to the wonderful NFT to see Antenna 18, the latest in a long line of evenings where they present a number of music videos and have some of the directors and producers there to be interviewed and answer quesitions from the audience.
We had a great time – two videos that I would recommend viewing are New Me by Jamie Lidell and Geisterschloss by Oliver Laric – both fantastic. In fact, Oliver Laric can be seen in the first video as well – he’s the guy bopping along dressed in white – as it was directed by his girlfriend, Aleksandra Domanovic. Finally, if you haven’t seen the Plan B video to No Good, you should definitely take a look – it’s like Sledgehammer revisited!
It was fab to do something different – London offers so many great cultural events and we don’t go to enough of them. We may well be back!
Stumbled across this great website last week – a summary of the first 20 Now… albums. I didn’t realise that the pig didn’t grace the cover of an album until Now…3; I thought he’d been there from the start, but it’s not the case.
Seeing some of the old covers again brings back memories – I distinctly remember spending several nights on a school trip listening to Now…10. Think I’ll have to scour iTunes for some of those loved but forgotten tracks. Hue and Cry’s Labour of Love, anyone?
I was saddened today during my morning commute when I read in Metro that Ray Charles had passed away. He’s been on my speakers since I was at University and although he has no recent ‘hits’ to speak of, he will be missed.
I was introduced to Ray by hearing some of his songs covered by The Beatles on the Live At The BBC album. That CD has been a gateway to a wonderful spectrum of music for me – Chuck Berry, the Crickets, early Elvis – and Ray’s songs were definitely some of the high points.
A couple of years ago I bought the wonderful Definitive Ray Charles CD after reading the glowing review in Uncut and still listen to it all the time. I had been keeping my eye out for an album of his that contained the awesome Mess Around – as featured in the classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles – as well as all of the other wonderful songs and this proved to be it. Awesome music.
Rest in peace, Brother Ray.