“How do you know what’s where?” “It must be a nightmare finding stuff!”
‘How do you file your records’ is what they mean.
The voices refer to a matt black IKEA unit of five-by-five cubbyholes containing vinyl records (and a few books). Each square holds a number of LPs, 12”s or 10”s; the exact number in each hole or square is unknown. Those days of happily counting, re-arranging or re-jigging the order are gone. I’m still happy to have them – proud even – but they no longer dominate life as they previously did.
A friend, now parted, gave me this structure as my need was greater than his. It was as if this man acknowledged his mate and fellow collector as the victor of an already-ran vinyl appreciation contest with the unit as an imposing and emptily yearning prize.
Four hefty slabs make up the outer cube; another thinner four shelves stretch between the sides. Lastly, 20 rigid vertical dividers draw up the columns. It is a heavy lot in many ways.
The settee directly faces the unit. There is my own art on top of it – its own collection of angled colour and well-meaning creativity mirroring the record sleeves on display. On the floor below is a curly, thick white and brown rug. Other items from the past try to jostle into view – piles of books, DVDs and videos; a red metal filing cabinet with six handled drawers acting as a mimicking minion – but the unit, the vinyl, never ceases to impose on this or any viewer.
“How do you stop things getting lost? Keep things from blending into another?”
They are wondering if they might be arranged alphabetically, but then see Yargo‘s self-titled album at the top left whilst Harry Belafonte‘s Greatest Hits is propped up in the 19th square below. Coffee are on Harry‘s right while Miles Davis above him lasers out a scowling stare at any fool daring to glance in his direction. If there are long-players then there must be the short ones too, the small, cute ones, they might think, and there are.
Unlike the unit, the seven-inches are diffused and separated, almost defused of their power as they stand inside wooden boxes which hide all but the top inch of the sleeve which leads its lot. The clumsily-sellotaped ANTS in red serif chunks against a shining black background is Kings of The Wild Frontier. No need to see the rest to recognise it. Its top right corner hasn’t been snipped off so it was bought at its full price, undoubtedly at Woolworths when it was released. It’s the only Adam Ant 45” but there are two albums owned from the time of release (three squares along, two down, on the very right).
Should the need arise to hear the ramshackle punky funk of Ant Rap or observe a portly Marco Pirroni made up like an Essex housewife ill-advisedly visiting Blitz, it will still be there. If it never makes it to the turntables sitting in wait above the shelf of boxed sevens, it is enough comfort to know it is still there.
Adam and Co. are silly flimsy pop of course that provide little of the satisfaction gained from listening to many other of their fellow unit dwellers; the accepted presence of the Ants is however a reminder that there is no guilt in pleasure when it comes to potentially embarrassing musical chestnuts, only love.
Just as Norman Jay once confessed his love for Chicago‘s slushy AOR hit If You Leave Me Now, the unit shows the pride one can have in the dippy Laurel Canyon vibes of Bernie Leadon and Mike Geogiades’ Natural Progressions. It is not a matter of having the hippest and most obscure titles on display if The Simon Park Orchestra is visible.
A visitor from North-west England might see the dominance of black faces depicted on the sleeves on show and chalk me up as a Motown fan (the catch-all term and signifier of respectability which lives on here despite the closure of Wigan Casino and the dwindling of the Northern scene). Req‘s abstracted Futura-esque graffiti on Skint‘s Brassic Beats Volume 2 and the scrawled face-cum-cock on Bastien Keb‘s Standing in The Shadows of Zizou would poke a hole in that theory though.
If, then, they latched onto the two black cut-out 12” sleeves arranged towards the top right, they might settle for the DJ tag, and they would be half-right. But that would not explain the four Anthrax albums slotted inside that come before Messrs Leadon and Georgiades (rock, three squares) nor the mostly black moodiness of an American dusk over a country house on Aaron Copland‘s Tender Spring. It is hardly likely they would not see those nor comment on them. All are viable notes, sketches of a man as Gil would say. There’s more than just a DJ here. This is a music lover as well as a once fully-diseased vinyl addict.
For these are the remnants of what was once double, or perhaps triple, in size. Moving from house to house, country to country, does that to your pride and joy whether it be Queen Anne chairs, Monkees dolls or busts of Lenin.
Whilst titles are now sold to make space and earn pounds in accordance with the new thinking that the ‘collector’ must make way for the ‘creator’, many records were given away as gestures of friendship or sold due to a momentary lapse of love or reason. What has gone and is no longer present is still mentally and viscerally visible though. It lives on as having been once a part. And there is often a little pained thought at its loss before common sense takes charge once again. Three memories to illustrate:
YouTube can endlessly needle up the sound of Photek‘s Seventh Samurai, but the indecipherable gestalt of its sleeve is gone. It – and the countless others whose action is missing – could be bought again, but that would be besides the point, namely that of buying anew and fresh a week at most it was pressed and a few hours or days since levered and secured in a shop record rack somewhere.
That Tom and Jerry twelve picked up on Hackney’s Mare St is the last of a haul of unadulterated, more alive than the devil, gloriously rude white label jungle bought when plates and promos were common and easy to buy from a man in need of some draw.
An obscure Rephlex twelve can be bought again but an esteemed figure behind the counter will not be there to thrust it forward before pressing me towards the till (a silent and acquiescent believer being my role). I cannot recreate the compunction to take my purchase out of the plastic bag on the walk home to stare at the brown paper bag that functioned as its sleeve. Seen for the first time, the strange company logo on the label seemed an assurance of insular DIY excellence. If bought and played now, would the neurones fire with the head-fizzing sound of home-made acid house which was then unparalleled in its acerbic twisting of dance-floor rules and form?
Five-times-five worth of personally-lived times are present in this unit. The first album owned in 1982 (Mr Ant) and last year’s posthumous Microphone and Piano set by Prince are scattered among the metal and disco job-lot recently bought (the hair and guitar brigade are situated with rock; the boogie 12”s in the bottom two left-hand squares).
At the top left, the Massive Attack and UK street soul twelves (Elizabeth Troy‘s ‘City Vibe‘ and ‘Afro Latin Concrete’ by Redcloud + Digital Hemp tingles me as I type, bringing back memories of Bristol in ’93, London in ’95) lie hidden behind Yargo‘s front cover of a closely-cropped shot of a black and a white face about to kiss. Yet diagonally opposite new shapes have migrated there: books, a portable record deck and a sheaf of paper poke out from the bottom right-hand square.
The presence of these non-shellackian interlopers towards the bottom of the unit is a sign that the bootleg compilations and soundtracks might never be added to again. Once infinite in scope, there has been a narrowing of taste and desire.
This comes at a time of an illogical and unwelcome uprising. Vinyl is no longer antiquated neither is it an embarrassing relation to Betamax and Teasmade machines; it is rarely cheap nowadays due to the deep-pocketed appetite around the world for a musical format which is porous and tangible; meaningful and practically edible; an old yet ever-green reminder of the art and skill within a song or a groove.
So many – if not most – titles will go. The unit may then be dismantled or instead house another long-enjoyed personal retrospective. Some memorable sleeve spines however will always be on view and not because they easily stand out: the navy and baby blue R&S twelves; the primary colours of the De La Soul singles and first album; the Swifty-styled titles of early Mo Wax tunes above the swirling skied Salsoul releases.
The Happy Mondays twelves, 808 State releases and Terry Callier albums will remain as proof of the times lived, the youth and ages which still feel salutary and precious; the Pixies releases all bound up in teenage venturing to wild gigs followed by rough sleeping before the buses began again; the Def Jams and other first rap purchases a pointer of the then aural possibilities of hip hop and the need for all shows to be bum-rushed; a Cocteau Twins EP and the Rita Records compilation will always be, respectively, reminders of an inspirational family friend who tragically died and the song which wasn’t the first dance of a now-dead marriage.
Whether played or simply looked at in glances and stares, this is a unique world; an odd ecosystem of equality and equanimity.
There are many other collections more valuable and impressive in size or desirability, but none more precious to this owner. Hand-built over decades, housing the grit with the jewels, the corner-bin leftovers with the privately pressed goodies; that which is admittedly crap right next to the rare and revered.
To write of this beautiful behemoth in front of me as I type is not simply to acknowledge its existence. It is an opening and loosening of ties ultimately. Some of these ‘apron strings’, these sleeves and vinyl bound up and slavered with tears, kisses, drugs and sweat, were not originally mine; perhaps they have always been meant for others to enjoy; I should enjoy them while I can.
For now, Greatest Messages… Start… In A Silent Way… Soul Control.
© Pat Mellow 2019