Sunday, January 16, 2011

A few words about Then Play Long

There are, to state the obvious, a lot of "great" albums out there. And, in our sleek and modern world of interconnectedness, it would be hard to find a record for which there is not at least one vocal online booster out there somewhere. As someone who has always had a tendency to believe everything he reads, I find this somewhat alarming: What, you mean I have to listen to [record x by band y] as well?

Yes, I understand that people have different tastes, and it is true that there are certain types of music where no matter how far somebody pushes open the door, I am not about to walk through it. But whenever I read that something is a "great record", my brain files this away in an ever-expanding "save for later" corner, along with millions of other similarly tiny snippets of information, where it lies dormant until the day that I come across that record at a garage sale or in a bargain bin, at which time a light will come on, and I will find myself agonising over whether I "need" to buy it. (The logical end-point of this is a sensation of having to buy everything in the shop: and, yes, I have been there.)

The ready availability, somewhere, of a downloadable copy of pretty much everything ever committed to tape doesn't really help; it just has the potential to create a hopelessly unmanageable backlog of unlistened-to music, clogging up hard-drive space and crippling monthly download limits. People like me have never had it so good, and yet, like Charlie Brown, I have this nagging feeling that *sigh* I miss the old days.

I recently borrowed from the local library a book called something like "1,001 Albums To Hear Before You Die". You have probably seen it. It is roughly the size and weight of a concrete paving stone. What it does is, well, you can probably figure that out from the title.

The book is a useful aid to chronology, which, as is so often the case when (my) memory is involved, can be confusing. (So much great music appeared in the years 1978 to 1981, for example, that, even having (a) lived through it and (b) worked my way through Simon Reynolds's post-punk primer, I can never confidently say which record came out before which other record.) And I cannot deny that it is always gratifying to find someone writing (in a book!) in glowing terms about one or other cornerstone of my own life's listening.

On the other hand, it is a very "rock" book: guitar heroes are all over it; "progressive rock" and metal dominate the early seventies; the "canon", it seems, has spoken. It is a trainspotter's paradise: tick all the boxes, turn all the pages, complete the set. The writing is, frankly, appalling. If there is a "rock" cliche that can be trotted out, it will be trotted out. Quite possibly more than once.

To be fair, one narrow column of text for a "classic" album doesn't give much scope for scholarly analysis or personal reflection. Hence, of either of those things there is none.

Indeed, nothing in this book, beyond the simple fact of its inclusion, would cause anybody to actually want to listen to any of these albums. This is in marked contrast to Marcello Carlin's ongoing and very admirable project "Then Play Long", in which, for the past three years, he has been writing at length, one at a time and in sequence, about every UK Number One album, and doing so in such a way that he manages to find justification or purpose for even the least promising of entries (this would appear to be a challenge -- the charts care everything for sales figures and nothing for artistic merit -- but it is a challenge that he, like probably very few other human beings alive, is perfectly suited for) so that you actually do want to give each one of them at least one spin. His questions seem to be the right ones: What is it about this record, or its times, that caused it to get to Number One? What can we learn from the record itself, and its status when it first appeared, about both those times and our own? Why was it this record, and not that one over there, that made it to the top?

The answers can be surprising. One of the longest, and most fascinating, entries to date is the one on that most perplexing of albums, Bob Dylan's "Self Portrait" (a record that leaves one scratching one's head in wonder that it ever got anywhere near the charts, let alone all the way to the top). Elsewhere, he provides a very enlightening explanation of The Beatles' "Let It Be", an album the existence of and circumstances surrounding which I have never entirely understood. (He makes a very interesting point, here, about the uses of the Internet and whether "Let It Be" would ever have been officially released if it -- the Internet -- had been around then.) Heck, he even manages to write something fresh and interesting about "Stairway To Heaven".

Many of the records I turn to the most can be found in "1,001 Records" (I am, I guess, as much a slave to the idea of "canon" as the next obsessive), few in "Then Play Long". (Although, as we move into the seventies, more than I was expecting.) But it is fascinating to see what got to Number One, to dwell upon an alternative listening history from my own, and to be drawn to records I would not otherwise have given a second (or, in a couple of cases, first) thought. "Then Play Long" is the kind of project that the Internet was made for, and it is to be hoped that when he gets to the end of it (which, unless the charts themselves are consigned to history, he never will, but let's not go there) the entire thing can be adapted for a book. It might not weigh as much as "1,001 Records", but it will be infinitely more fun and insightful. Long may it play.