August 22, 2008

Golden Age of Grooves


THE LONG-PLAYER GOODBYE By Travis Elborough SCEPTRE Pounds 14.99 (468pp) Pounds 13.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The long-playing vinyl album was, both literally and figuratively, the grooviest format ever to carry recorded music. A gleaming black 12-inch disc with approximately 20 minutes of music on each side, it wore a colourful circular label at its centre and was housed in a laminated sleeve carrying artwork ranging from the graphically inspired to the hilariously tacky. From its development in 1948 until it was challenged in the 1980s by something smaller, shiner and more capacious, the microgroove disc was the principal means by which music was stored and retrieved. The cassette, which trailed ingloriously in its wake, was the lowest form of recorded life.

So what wasn't to like? Well, LPs took up a lot of space, were easily damaged by the careless or stoned dropping of a needle, and needed changing more often than a baby's nappy. CDs were smaller, neater, and tailor-made for the slick designer 1980s - or so it seemed at the time. Now committed audiophiles and not just crusty old codgers like Neil Young and Ry Cooder are rediscovering the warmth and three-dimensionality which vinyl brings to recorded music.

As the vinyl album enjoys its cultish resurrection, a certain nostalgia is probably in order. Hence Travis Elborough's cultural history of the LP. The author's previous work was a history of the Routemaster bus, which might suggest a penchant for geekitude. Fortunately, this is leavened by a knowing wit which only sometimes descends into facetiousness.

Both author and book are at their best at the beginning and end of the story. Elborough is in his element recounting the vinyl disc's emergence from the primordial sludge of the shellac 78rpm. British 78 devotees from both the classical and jazz worlds implored listeners to boycott this newfangled American rubbish. Yet the long- player brought new notions of the production and consumption of music. It liberated symphony orchestras and improvising jazzers from the confines of the four-minute tranche, demonstrating that the medium was at least part of the message. Elborough is also highly entertaining on the simultaneous birth pangs of the CD and death throes of the vinyl album. Later,the MP3 looms and the CD is under pressure as vinyl rises again from the crypt.

In between, much of what we get is dangerously close to a bog- standard history of pop via the Great Album Era. We learn the author's prejudices and idiosyncracies (he takes swipes at The Band, and Jimi Hendrix is mentioned only in a footnote referring to the notorious UK "nude" sleeve of the epochal double-album Electric Ladyland), and nibble nuggets of trivia. Formidable sales of the soundtrack of The Sound Of Music, and the cast recording of My Fair Lady, dwarved Presley and The Beatles.

To declare an interest: I have not owned a working turntable since before Amy Winehouse hit puberty. The massive vinyl album library painstakingly amassed between the early 1960s and the early 1990s has long been sold off, both to conserve space and to realise ready cash. That leaves the CD unchallenged as the principal medium via which music soothes this savage beast or, alternatively, energises this torpid one. Travis Elborough may enjoy some small degree of Schadenfreude at the sense of unease and mild regret which his book has induced.

Charles Shaar Murray's 'Crosstown Traffic' is published by Faber

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