Since the end of March, music has been one of many artforms that can free you from the immediacy of now familiar walls. Having used the time to reacquaint herself with the depth of her collection, Cath Holland comments on the totemic nature of records and their ability to hold a scrapbook of experiences deep in the grooves with the music itself.
Lockdown days sprint by, but each hour turns elastic and lasts forever. The news is downbeat with daily death tolls and social media is noisy with petitions and crowd funding appeals – or the living of best lives. Online gigs divert and amuse until one Saturday night there are three shows no less, clashing with a live Q&A and a Twitter listening party. The need for something less scheduled, calmer and personal is urgently required.
Thoughts turn to my record and CD collection. Life mess over the past three years leaves it in chaos, stored around the house in disorganised sections. Newer purchases reside in the living room, away from the general population. The alphabetising of them occurs as an idea to re-establish some order in a world off-kilter. The living room quickly comes to resemble a student bedsit: its main content are bookshelves, a record and CD player, and a lifetime’s worth of physical sound carriers. It’s a source of amusement and self-realisation when, overnight, internal and external settings recalibrate to a default teenage self. As a teenager, my record collection was the centre of my world, an anchor, reliable. And so it is once more.
Only now, it’s different. Albums from adolescence span so few years, though they seemed all-encompassing in the moment. I’ve had little chance to pull out my Wham! LPs much of late; they’re not forgotten about exactly, but edged off the radar by cuts of fresher meat reflecting adult life. Cue then, as needle rests in groove, the happy reminder of George and Andrew bopping about on Top Of The Pops in shorts and orange tans, and with unnaturally white teeth. Shiny yet subversive pop in plain sight, the working class experience rarely documented so efficiently in music or outside it. The irony of signing on under Thatcherism, the escapist dream of a cheesy Saturday nightclub with plastic palm trees and watered down cocktails morphing into an unaffordable foreign holiday.
Yvonne Page, business manager at Liverpool record shop DigVinyl – in normal times, that is, but now confined to home with her personal record collection for company – sees a similar mirroring with her own idle formative years. Her monthly radio show for Melodic Distraction in April explored at her childhood in America, sharing with us the records given to her by family as a teen and picked up at yard sales, the music going on to provide the bedrock for her later taste and loves.
“When you’re a teenager you have so much free time and everything is new and interesting,” says Yvonne. “It’s that sense of discovery and passing the time, the world seems endless and time is endless. Time can’t move fast enough! And that’s kind of what we’re experiencing now in a weird way. We’ve all been forced to slow down to fill our time in different ways.”
Rediscovering what we’ve long owned offers a reconnection. Yvonne too has taken time to enjoy neglected albums, studying liner notes and examining artwork. We use music in different ways and for varying circumstances, the space and time around us right now encouraging us to move away from using music as background noise to warm the air while we amble on with our lives, or half-listen to on our phones to fill time on the way to work.
“Sometimes if you’re listening to a record you just pull it out, throw it on, go about doing what you’re doing but now we have time we can actually look at it, the inserts, the history of the record, how it was rediscovered,” she says
Mid-sorting frenzy, in a stack of classical albums in my spare bedroom, a long lost copy of Mudhoney’s eponymously titled debut album is unearthed in among the Mozart. Finding it is unexpectedly emotional, like reacquainting with an old friend and picking up exactly where we left off and wondering why we didn’t stay in touch all these years. It kicks off a massive digging out of Mudhoney records and CDs from shelves downstairs and many pleasurable hours of getting to know each once more.
Stephen McRobbie of Glasgow band The Pastels sees his own listening habits shifting slightly under lockdown. At the Monorail Music record shop in the Scottish city, his normal working day is soundtracked by albums, new releases and favourites he knows won’t bug whatever colleague he’s working with.
“As a listener, I think I feel less crowded and more tolerant,” he says of listening during lockdown, erring towards the melodic and enjoying bursts of BBC 6 Music so his consumption doesn’t become ‘over curated’.
“I know Katrina [Mitchell, The Pastels’ co-vocalist and drummer] has enjoyed listening to records randomly and similarly for me. Sometimes odd things, but weirdly more classic things” he says. “We heard a great Van Morrison track on Cerys Matthews’ show on 6 Music and decided to listen to Astral Weeks all the way through for the first time in ages. It’s amazing, but it’s got a real undertow of madness. The double bass playing is totally jazz. As a record it’s dizzyingly complex but of course, kind of immediate too.
“Sometimes it’s been very normal when we’re playing a bunch of singles we love with a glass of wine,” continues Stephen, “but otherwise I feel a bit more disconnected from friends that I’d see at a show or whatever. I’ve been trying to stay in touch but I miss a bit of pub music chat. We’re… trying to think of it as a temporary change and not seeking out too much so that every minute is filled with something. It’s nice to have a bit of space too.”
The Pastels’ 2013 album Slow Summits is featured in June in a Tim Burgess’ Twitter Listening Party. The premise of the popular social media format is quite simple: artists listen along to a record in real time and chat informally to contemporaries and fans. The parties are nostalgia-heavy, although newer more contemporary work was introduced to the schedule as the weeks progressed. The parties are a scrapbook of muso chat, artists reminiscing about recording sessions and production techniques. Fans bond enthusiastically and the affection from both sides is clear; a yearning for, and sharing of, stories of when lives were simpler and easier, maybe. When lives weren’t so confined to one place and familiar faces. The listening parties seem as much as a support network and reassurance to artists than it does to the fans.
“Tim’s been such a brilliant facilitator,” says Stephen. “He’s an enthusiast but he’s really perceptive too. He sets such an excellent tone. The main positivity for an artist is reach and rediscovery.”
Taking the time to listen to an album from beginning to end is the complete focus of attention. It is something these parties, and the extra time we have during lockdown, has given us. Faithfully following the narrative of the artist’s vision is an intimate and intense relationship 45 minutes long, give or take. But the imagining of our own stories and worlds within and around lyrical brackets creates a personal landscape of our own. Thousands will stand in arenas when all this is over, dozens to hundreds in smaller gig spaces, each taking different interpretations and perceptions to each song, verse and chorus performed in front of them. Right now, we’re confined to our individual households, many living alone. This virtually shared consumption of music serves a different function linking strangers and friends, a creation of a temporary but valuable community.
Back in the world of lockdown, it’s not impossible to buy records or CDs. But like shopping for toilet roll it takes much longer. We’ve had to relearn patience and convince ourselves of the benefits of delayed gratification, waiting for an album to arrive, grown accustomed as we have to a traditionally speedy service via Discogs, Bandcamp, record shop or label mail order. We’re reliant on streaming to join in with the parties if we don’t own albums already. The physical product vs streaming debate is tiresome but sound carrier choice aside, lockdown has robbed collectors of the satisfaction of the hunt. The friendships and connections we establish through record collecting, friendly competition, the frequenting of record shops, buying records at gigs direct from the artist – all the magic pieces which add colour and back story to each purchase and makes it personal has gone.
A record collection is like a diary; they can map out one’s life. Albums gifted for birthdays or Christmas, they connect us both with people no longer with us and those who we can’t see at the moment but will soon, like an invisible string stretched and frayed but still very present. We know where we’ve bought albums. We have colourful memories of Saturday afternoons touring the record shops in Liverpool. And pootling around Oldham Street the morning after a long night in Manchester, before the bumpy and hungover journey home. Car boot sale purchases and charity shop finds. Emotions and the personal experience attached to inanimate objects is not new or revolutionary. We wear jewellery, clothes to reflect ourselves. With the luxury of time to hand, the ownership of an album takes on a new level of value.
“It is inherently sentimental” says Yvonne. “What’s attached to [the record] is where you found it and who you were with. Were you on a weekend getaway in Berlin when you came across it or at your favourite record shop that has been closed down? Because it is a physical thing there is always going to be some sort of memory attached to it. It’s the connection you really miss.”
Viewing our records through the rosy glow of romanticism is indulgent and lockdown highlights that along with the irrational joy of record collecting. My late husband lived in quiet despair of my completism around favoured artists. Why, then, am I asking myself, as I catalogue everything, how many copies of Sgt Pepper did one man need? The answer is five as it turns out, including two on CD, although one as part of a box set gets a free pass. Three copies of Transformer live within these walls, a combined effort. One a teen purchase, another bought in better condition, then finally number three found in a charity shop priced so cheap it was a sin to leave behind. As for the multiple copies of Elvis’ Christmas Album because nice ladies kept giving them to me. I love each one equally.
I have no favourites. Record collector logic is no logic at all. It’s expensive, and takes up far too much room. But before lockdown, the insert in a reissue of Moby Grape’s 1967 debut reproducing claims of vinyl’s cheapness, ease of use, storage and convenience, read like a drunk person wrote it. But when I re-read it this week, I start to think it all actually makes sense, and I realise quarantine is having an effect. Of course record and CD collecting is bonkers and yet, sorting through out-of-order albums, stumbling across a mislaid sweetheart or running a finger blindly along spines on a shelf, pulling out one feeling right to the touch, seeing what it is and playing it, gives promise and a connection with an outside world. The physical sound carrier has that sentimentality attached, a self-indulgent emotion, and daft really when you think on. But it’s more than good sometimes to be soft and open, be illogical and a little foolish. It’s actually very necessary.