Saturday, March 29, 2014

Vinyl Cultures at Brilliant Corners

To follow up on last Friday's fascinating seminar at the British Library, I decided to go along to this event which was run by colleagues at the University of the East.
It was interesting to stroll past the Russian Club Bomonti, where Diana Mavroleon and myself used to run the Songbird night many moons ago. It has now been re-branded, still as something Russian, but it looks as though the studios which appeared to gestate many rude arts professionals trying to get in free and treating the door person as though they were a subhuman-spawn-of-a-slug (that was me, btw), have now taken over the building completely. I hope they enjoy the real tree trunks holding up the bar canopy!
To digress more: I walked into a cafe to buy some coffee, and the staff were buzzing with excitement at the fact that Yoko Ono is due to eat there tonight. East London is surely star-studded; This was merely a stone's throw from where a table is laid each night for Gilbert and George in a Turkish cafe, given away by the sparkling wine glasses and smart silver tableware.
To digress even more, when I was a graphic novelist, I drew a story for some people whose postman was the son of either Gilbert or George, I'm not sure which one. So there's a story for you.

Brilliant Corners is as much art space as a bar, and an OK place to visit on one's own. I have always enjoyed going out on my own whether to see bands, listen to lectures or whatever, because if the mood takes you, you can leave without having to persuade a companion to leave with you. Take a good detective novel and feel comfortable in your own skin and you will have an absorbing time. 
(Martin, my Champagne Friend, Caroline, Gina and the Offsprogs are notable exceptions to this but trading quirks makes the whole process easier).

Colleen Murphy (of ) and whom I interviewed recently, sat at one end; next to her, Jeremy Gilbert and Tim Lawrence from the University of the East; then Dominik Bartmanski, author of the forthcoming Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age (Bloomsbury) and the journalist John Harris.
In turn, starting with Dominik, each speaker spoke of their engagement with vinyl. Their stories were engaging and delivered in different styles. I learned a lot: for instance that vinyl used for records is black because of a graphite additive that optimises the frequencies; that humans like distortion in music and that's what analogue sound recorded onto vinyl gives us, and as a scientist (missed who that was) commented, 'the ear is an analogue device'. Jeremy Gilbert remarked that since digital streaming, music has been decommodified but not decapitalised.
I thought about the Norwegian student that I interviewed about ten years ago who made money as a vinyl speculator. He bought the rare Oasis vinyl that was released as a specialist product and stockpiled it. 
I also thought back to the guy round the corner who advertised his entire vinyl collection on Freecycle. I asked him for all his 12" disco singles (he gave the whole lot of his albums to an unemployed man who just listened to music all day); but the thing was, they had no special meaning for me as did the vinyl that I bought and traded and was given back in the day, and I ended up leaving the lot in the lobby at the University of the West for the dance music producers to take away with them.
Dominik said that the toppy production on early CDs was because the format was originally tailored to Classical music; their length, after consultation with Karajan, was based on the length of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. 
I'd heard last week that this tinny sound was to do with the mastering process not being specific to CDs and I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in between.
And I thought back to cutting the Helen and the Horns single Freight Train at CTS studios in Wembley with a guy called Groucho who was a live reggae mixmaster in the evenings. It was he who told me about the fatigue caused in the brain as it tried to process the stream of on/off signals caused by the clumsy sampling rate on CDs, in a similar process to the way that the pulsing of fluorescent lighting irritates the brain. Many years later I sat next to a chap from Philips at a wedding and asked him if this was true. "Yes', he said. 'We are spending a lot of money on trying to trick the brain into hearing those myriad samples as a constant wave of sound that's as pleasurable to listen to as analogue sound is'.
Colleen talked about working in a record store in New York and the sudden change to CDs from vinyl, and John Harris gave a very funny overview of his own joy in listening to vinyl.
Overall, the panel (as was to be expected) came out very much in favour of vinyl and I resolved to get my turntable out and purchase a small amplifier so I can set it up and listen. I used to feed my turntable through a boombox because we had big empty kitchen units in our old house that acted as makeshift bass bins. 
The drawers here are stuffed with things and I can't get the bass end of the disco singles to thump, so I'll have to think about doing it all properly. I've been yearning to play The Young Marble Giants on vinyl, and also of course the cathartic disco and lover's rock 12"singles,  and it's high time I fought back against next door's endlessly-howling Spaniel puppy with a bit of bass end. A lot of bass end.
At the end of the talk, a fellow from Vinyl's Back Pages took rather an exception to the whole thing, which was to miss the point. Yes, yet again, the concept of innovative pop belonging to the young who can decode it and give it meaning was lost (we were an extraordinary audience, being still so absorbed in pop, reggae, dance music and so on that we gave up a Friday night to attend a talk about it instead of sitting at home listening to Dire Straits through a docked iPod); but this was a stimulating event.
I was half expecting to see Richard Osborne there, who is the author of Vinyl: a History of the Analogue Record (Ashgate); I'm sure he too would have had something to contribute.

I can recommend reading the articles on the website. Knowledge is bliss.

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