Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why LPs face the vinyl curtain

We live in an era of constant and frantic change, and no one bears the brunt of this more than the music fan. Admittedly, that's a music fan talking, but I can't be the only person in the country with 1,000 LPs and nothing to play them on. (Until I get the damn thing repaired, that is.) Travis Elborough is just 35, but I suspect he has a morbid streak. His last book was a paean to the Routemaster bus, a form of transport that has also seen better days. Like that book, this one is steeped in a nostalgia we didn't know we were feeling yet. Maybe he's a sort of cultural ambulance chaser, predicting the things we are going to miss before they are actually gone. But his instincts are sound.

Unless you hate music, the LP has underpinned your whole life. It changed music, and music changed us. It's not something we should abandon lightly.

For what did we have before? We had live music or 78s, with a handful of minutes a side. If you'd tried to record Wagner's Ring Cycle on 78s, it would have taken 112 of them. Without the arrival of the LP in 1948, created by the Columbia record company in the United States, classical music simply wouldn't have been introduced to a wider audience. The LP was as significant a development in the democratisation of the arts as the paperback, maybe even more so.

Old Fashioned 45 RPM vinyl records...

Elborough has the passion of a true enthusiast. He has four copies of Michel Legrand's Brian's Songs: Themes And Variations. He found his first copy in a charity shop and loved it so much that whenever he sees another he feels sorry for it and buys it to give it a good home.

This seems to me the right side of madness, if only just.

But he's also an indefatigable researcher, who has somehow seen a clear path through the vast amount of material he has accumulated to write a book that reads not only easily and well but wholly coherently.

He takes us through the heyday of classical LPs and their adoption as a status symbol in Fifties suburban America; the subsequent boom years of 'light' music, Mantovani and his million strings; the way jazz adapted itself to the new medium and stretched to fill it; and finally and at greatest length, the way pop took over the LP and made a vast and fantastically profitable industry.

In this history, the 78 is old-hat, the 45 a mere upstart competitor, and live music something that generally takes place out of earshot..

What particularly comes over is the serendipity of it all. Why should it be that the 40-minute LP remains the most satisfying way of listening to music? With hindsight we can now see that the compact disc contained the seeds of its own destruction. Stretching 40-minute albums to 60 or even 75 minutes meant you could charge more for them, but crucially it also meant they weren't as good.

Downloading now almost seems like a reaction to this: forget the filler tracks, just buy the one song you like. Which, if you think about it, is what singles used to be.

It's one reason why young people download more than oldsters: they like singles, we like albums.

Despite Elborough's pessimism - which, after all, is the spur that made him write the book - I'd like to think the long-player has a little life in it yet. Anyone who agrees will relish this richly enjoyable book.


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