The return of the album?

I’ve seen a couple of BBC radio and TV news items about the Classic Album Clubs running in a few British pubs. A reaction to the one-song-at-a-time ADHD listening habits fostered by the downloading culture, the clubs have an atmosphere of reverent reflection. The heads of listeners are shown gently nodding to the sound of a classic album being played in its entirety, pausing only as the record (vinyl, natch) is turned over.

A few things occurred to me. First, the “no talking” rule. Punters are allowed to talk before and after the presentation, but while the music is playing, only silent appreciation (and supping your pint) is allowed. I sympathise with the general sentiment; music is best enjoyed in a state of immersion. But this isn’t a gig (I hate it when people talk during the music at gigs!) where the unique nature of the event makes interruptions more of an issue. It’s a recording, available in a variety of formats for reproduction on a variety of domestic equipment, available from all good electrical retailers. If you want to listen in silence, why would you go to a pub and sit with other people?

To me, this completely negates the benefits of creating such a social event. Even with the greater interconnectedness that disparate music fans now enjoy via the internet, there is still no other effective social approach to music listening than to sit together in a room where the music is playing. What’s the point if you can’t point out your favourite guitar solo, ask about a misheard lyric, laugh at a dodgy synth sound? This does nothing for music; this is simply the pretentious act of being seen enjoying the “right” type of music. If you need to listen to your albums in silence, stay at home and don headphones!

And then, do we actually need to reverse the trend of iTunes shuffling and single-track downloading? We’ve always had singles, and in vast swathes of western musical culture, the fundamental currency unit is the song. The Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds” is a great piece of work, but I think most of the songs can be appreciated, enjoyed and marvelled at in isolation. The same might not be true of Brian Wilson’s follow-up “Smile”, where the gradual ebb and flow of ideas calls for the full symphony treatment. But that’s just me; everyone has different ways of listening to music. Schubert’s symphonies are not objectively “better” or “worse” than his songs or string quartets; they just present his musical ideas in a different format.

[By way of anecdotal reinforcement, I spent a couple of years or so where I hardly listened to any albums in full, apart from long-format classic pieces. Most of my music listening involved having my entire iTunes library on random. It was wonderful, and caused me to hear details on tracks that I'd never noticed when they breezed by in the context of their parent albums. But I grew tired of that, and these days I'm at the opposite extreme... I like to listen to an artist's entire back catalogue, in chronological order, hearing the gradual unfolding of creative trains of thought and the addition of new influences and interests. Neither of these approaches will be right for everyone, though.]

Finally, the idea that classic albums must be heard in their entirety is misplaced in many cases. Not every album is a conceptual song cycle like “Ziggy Stardust” (as featured in the BBC item) and while that club’s curator Colleen Murphy insists that the classics are not simply collections of songs, that’s often precisely what they are. The gradually shifting moods, perfect pacing and logical progression from Side A to Side B is so often wishful thinking on the part of the listener. Who even chose the order of the songs… the band? Or how about the producer or mastering engineer?

I’m starting to sound very negative, but I think these clubs are a lovely idea. I just think they’ve got the focus wrong. Forget the nonsense about “classic” albums and concentrate on MUSIC. Listen to a great album, song, symphony or whatever and then compare it with what that artist did next, or what he/she was listening to beforehand, or try to identify what makes it unique. You’re in a pub, with like-minded people, so TALK about it. Music is for sharing.

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One Response to The return of the album?

  1. Dr Rick says:

    I don’t need to write about this now, because your reaction was like mine, but better-phrased. It was exactly what struck me while listening to Today this morning – why on earth get together to listen to a record and not talk?

    And as for “no toilet breaks”… sheesh.

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