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!