Are record clubs the new book clubs?
- 18 January 2011
- From the section Magazine
A growing number of music-lovers unhappy about the way album tracks are enjoyed in a pick-and-mix fashion have decided to take action.
The rules are strict. No talking. No texting. You must listen to every song on the album.
Classic Album Sundays treat our best-loved records like great symphonies and are being set up in London, Scotland and Wales.
Groups of music fans sit in front of a vinyl turntable, with the best speakers they can afford, dim the lights and listen to a classic album all the way through.
This monthly club in north London is run by Colleen Murphy and for her it is a strike against "'download culture", the sense that music has just become an endless compilation of random songs used as background noise.
"Everyone, stop multi-tasking, sit down, open your ears and do some heavy listening."
The set album this month was Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. We sat in silence even as David Bowie's record was turned over to side two.
The seats were soft, someone had lit some incense. Some people closed their eyes, others nodded in rhythmic appreciation. There was a sense of being collectively submerged in Bowie's music.
"You're not even allowed to use the bathroom here, it's too noisy," says Ms Murphy.
Kate Bush's The Hounds of Love was a previous choice, and a popular one amongst the regulars. Most had heard bits of the record but few could remember sitting through it all the way through.
It is a topic that has been making the papers. Pink Floyd went to court to try to protect the integrity of albums such as Dark Side of the Moon. For music critics such as Neil McCormick of the Daily Telegraph they were totally justified.
"These are works of art at their greatest level. You can pick up a Dickens book and read a little bit of it and get some pleasure but you will not get the same pleasure as you would picking it up and reading it from beginning to end."
He took me through his vinyl collection, the albums you have to listen to all the way through. Top of the list was Blue by Joni Mitchell, then in no particular order came Get Happy by Elvis Costello, Dark side of the Moon, Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and all of Led Zeppelin. The list was a long one.
"They've created works that have a beginning, a middle and end, that have nuances, themes, that take you on a journey that's as great as any novel, any opera, any drama."
One of the greatest crimes he feels is to split up the suite of songs at the end of the Beatles' Abbey Road, because each song drifts in to the next.
The little tune Her Majesty is a simple little coda to ease the tension left by the Beatles farewell to their fans, the song The End. At the end of the song there is a gap and a final crashing chord, then to relieve the tension comes 23 seconds of this little acoustic ditty. On its own it begins half way through that final chord.
"It makes no sense," says McCormick. "To split them is simply shocking, meaningless."
But to Peter Robinson of the website Pop Justice this is the past speaking.
"Most albums, you've got a pretty good idea. The bad songs are pretty bad, you know. We're busy people. Let's just get rid of them."
Every album he owns is split, analysed and re-ordered. This, he says, is progress. The listener is in control and we do not have to sit through bad music. If he were to spend time with a "classic rock" album, he says the solution is simple.
"What I would do is open the track as an audio file, take out any drum solos, look for any guitar solo, take it out, close it and put it back into iTunes."
Albums, he says, have often become meaningless. Some songs are given away as free downloads, track listings can change with bonus tracks being added or changed. You can, he says, listen all the way through but do not feel obliged to obey the whims of a pop star.
But back at the pub in Islington in London, we were coming to the emotional climax of Rock and Roll Suicide at the end of Ziggy Stardust.
The £12,000 speakers were revealing little nuances of sound that some of us had not heard before.
The remastered vinyl seemed to capture the feel of the 70s and I had stayed awake for almost all of it. Heads nodded, a foot quietly tapped and as the final string chord faded out the lights were turned back on.
For Gina Tapsley, it was a revelation: "Listening to an album like this shows me something new, it's always an emotional experience."
DJ Shadow, The Stone Roses, Kanye West, Carole King. The blackboard was already filling with suggested classic albums for the months to come.