It seems unfair to blame The Waterboys. Or more precisely, The Waterboys’ 1988 folk rock album Fisherman’s Blues. But if reasons or excuses are required for why I came to write this book, it’s where I am usually forced to start. To be honest, I never especially cared for Fisherman’s Blues when it was released. And I can’t say I like it that much now either. But over the course of one summer a couple of years ago I heard it nearly every day. Often several times in a row. This was not some perverse exercise in aural masochism. It was merely that in the park near my home, I’d invariably encounter two men who appeared to spend every afternoon downing cans of frighteningly strong lager and tirelessly listening over and over again to Fisherman’s Blues on a small stereo-cassette player.
I formed elaborate theories about why they might be doing this. In Oliver Sack’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, there’s a story about an alcoholic sailor who can’t remember anything after 1945. This sozzled duo, given their fondness for grog and music of a nautical bent I reasoned, could just as likely be trapped in 1988. I liked to imagine, therefore, that they woke each morning and fell upon Fisherman’s Blues almost as if it were a previously unexplored island. The pair would then duly embark on a sonic expedition (heavy on the pilsner rations, light on hard tack) to fully acquaint themselves with this strange new musical landscape. But having mapped every contour, they’d arise the following sun-up, their minds utterly blank, and to do it all over again. And again, and again. Their existence was effectively a cruel parody of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence or Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and, possibly, made no more bearable for being conducted to A Bang on the Ear rather than Tristan and Isolde or I’ve Got You Babe.
The most likely reason, of course, as to why they played this album constantly was that it was the only one they had. But at a point when most people (myself included) were starting to carry thousands of tracks on their iPods and phones, this idea, the notion of having the one album began to nag at me. I started to mull over just how quickly we’ve all got used to having so much music, so easily to hand. I grew up obsessed with music. I have devoted years to trawling the record shops and lavished hours on the LPs that I bought with any spare cash I had. But even as I type these words, Wifi-ed to the web, I feel ever so slightly mocked knowing that the whole musical canon is only a mouse click or two away. To anyone suckled on downloading and used to snacking on an array of tunes, the thought of listening to one album in its entirety – let alone sequentially – could appear anachronistic and positively quaint.
I began, though, to consider how equally radical the long-playing vinyl record was when it was created in 1948. Before the LP, discs lasted around four minutes, shattered if dropped and wore out after only seventy or so plays. So what today might appear limiting had once been a real liberation. And yet sixty years of astonishing changes on, the LP and what it bequeathed to us – the concept of the album as a linear whole – endures. Just about.
The more I delved into it, reading my way through ancient music and hifi mags and raiding the National Sound Archive in the British Library, and talking to people like Samuel Charters, the field recordist who unearthed the blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins in a Houston tenement, the more obvious it became to me, that the LP really had revolutionized the way music was produced, packaged, marketed, sold, purchased, listened to and performed.
Setting down a few thoughts, initially what I found myself wanting to convey was simply how exciting it must have been when there was literally everything to play for and folks were still taking note of these new fangled sleeves.
But rather than getting lost in the music, I was also keen to tell a much broader story; LPs do not exist in isolation – they need consumers as much as producers, after all. The LP had the good fortune to arrive at the moment when post-war austerity was giving away to affluence and when an era of unprecedented leisure, technological advancement and social change beckoned. Like the calorie rich fare that Fanny Craddock dished up, the astonishing success of, say, Mantovani’s sugary easy listening albums in 1950s, for example, seem as much a reaction to the lean years of powdered eggs and butterless cakes as anything else. While, at a push, you could almost see the oil crisis and the three-day week some twenty years later, as a desperate attempt to prevent Emerson, Lake and Palmer from making any more triple vinyl LPs.
LPs are, of course, bound up not just with history but with so many of our own histories. We all make our own record collections as we move through life. Fascinating as my coming to terms with the Psychedelic Furs ‘difficult’ third LP is, or the weeks when Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution or The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms were never off the turntable, I was keen to avoid turning this book any kind of personal story. Nor is it any type of critical guide, though anecdote and opinion, naturally, rear their ugly heads from time to time.
The resulting book is then, I guess, an unashamedly rhapsodic and highly partial tour of the life and times of the LP. One that anyone who has ever loved an LP – regardless of what it was and in the unlikely event that it was recorded by Bruce Springsteen – will hopefully still enjoy. It’s a book that celebrates the days when we listened with pleasure to our albums all the way through – even if that was only because there was bugger all else to do and flipping between songs was trickier… Or because we were bombed out of our minds on frighteningly strong lager in a park.