November 2011

Arts & Letters

Spin it

By Robert Forster
Identity in 30 albums

Some years ago I was in the cluttered study of a friend who works as a music journalist and radio broadcaster in Munich. The walls were lined with shelving filled with vinyl albums and there were large metal cabinets stacked with CDs.

My friend, who has a generous yet cynical nature, explained to me that when he first met his wife in the early ’80s, he already had close to 1000 albums. His future wife had just 25. But when he turned to me with a smile and said, “She had a better collection than I did,” I knew exactly what he meant.

I have never been a collector and my record collection at any one time has never exceeded a couple of hundred albums, but I have known people who have had far fewer records – 25, 30, 40 – and their collection has not only been better than mine, it has somehow managed to sum up the history of rock’n’roll. I have crouched and flicked through 30 records stacked against a wall or in a plastic crate and, appraising the random mix and taste on display, thought it as valid an attempt as any to document the decades of rock history.

I was also able to judge a person on 30 albums – to visit a share house, sift through a bundle of records and, on the evidence of the one Bowie album, the number of Talking Heads LPs, the appearance of a Joni Mitchell album or not, and how early they’d stopped buying Ramones records, get a fairly good fix on a person before we ever met.

Once in Germany I was with my wife caretaking a flat owned by a university lecturer of hers. I had known this friend for a number of years and, through my faltering Deutsch and ignorance of some local mores, had never been able to ‘read’ this person as well as I would have liked. Twenty albums were stacked beside an old stereo system. I flicked. Classical. Classical. Classical. And then three Joan Baez albums – I knew her.

So could the concept of an armful of albums be expanded and turned into something? A recent publishing phenomenon has been books dedicated to the 1000 albums, novels or movies you must hear, read or see ‘before you die’. But who has the time? How about ‘The Ultimate 30-Album Record Collection’? Or ‘How To Buy 30 Albums and Have the History of Rock’n’Roll’?

But there’s a catch. The collection would not include three albums by The Beatles, two by The Rolling Stones, two Dylan, two Elvis, The Dark Side of the Moon and Nirvana’s Nevermind. That’s the worthy list, sensible and dull, that runs counter to the inspired collection propped up beside the friend’s or stranger’s bed, assembled from the pick of the op shop, the hip record store, the leavings of a jilted lover, one or two from big sister or brother, and the funky album you found in the gutter while stumbling home from a party one night – that’s the collection.

Before a list made to such specifications can be put together, the particular era that the collection is centred upon must be found. And with the life of the vinyl album as prime cultural artefact stretching from 1966 (when 30 albums would probably have covered the total number of great rock albums that had been released) to the early ’90s – when the CD gained market dominance and rock history was so much deeper – the choice is wide.

Where I came in as a dedicated record-buyer was the late ’70s. It was during the heady days of punk and post-punk that I started to haunt the five good record shops in the centre of Brisbane and visit friends’ houses and meet people with walls of records, as well as those with 30 albums that could be carried from house to house, party to party, cradled in their arms. This was when I was walking down hallways, past bedrooms, spying a rack of albums, sneaking in and doing the quick flick.

So adding a few years to deepen the possibilities of selection, compiling a list fondly remembered from acquaintances’ collections in the early ’80s is something I could do.

First, though, a word on record collections. Be they 30 or 3000 discs, they contain two things. At the heart of any collection is the taste of the collector, and this is usually reflected in the purchase of recently released albums. These usually run to just over half the collection. The remaining albums are those inspired by the present: tangents followed, odd and crucial albums from previous decades tracked down. This is the esoterica that complements the core. This is the moment when you flick past the Siouxsie and the Banshees album and find Dusty Springfield’s Greatest Hits.

I am not intending to lay out a numbered, vertical list of 30 albums, with all its implied claims to ‘authority’. Instead I’m going to crouch down before a 30-album stack against a bedroom wall – dirty clothes and a filled ashtray on the floor if you want atmosphere. My fingers will do the walking. It’s 1982 and this will take two minutes – a little longer if I pull out albums to check credits. The record facing me is Talking Heads’ More Songs about Buildings and Food. And then I start flicking. The Gun Club Fire of Love. Magazine The Correct Use of Soap. The Human League Dare. The Beatles Let It Be – a classic 30-album move, rejecting the big albums of major artists, so expect no Sgt. Pepper’s or Revolver – and, from Dylan, you find Nashville Skyline or New Morning, not Blonde on Blonde or, heaven forbid, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (what’s weird is how the off-centre treat somehow ‘gets’ both artists). James Chance Off White. Laughing Clowns Laughing Clowns. John Coltrane A Love Supreme and The Sound of Music soundtrack – a classic hip doubleheader, showing two improbable records sitting side by side and ‘talking’ to each other. Joy Division Unknown Pleasures followed by ABBA Greatest Hits. Television Marquee Moon. The Velvet Underground The Velvet Underground & Nico – although released in 1967, this so fresh it can still be classed as ‘recent’. The Pretenders Pretenders. The Feelies Crazy Rhythms. Van Morrison Veedon Fleece – the handed-down album from big sister. The Birthday Party Prayers on Fire. One album (usually unlistenable) bought solely because it was on a hip label – so something from Factory, ZE or M Squared. Patti Smith Horses. The Cure Three Imaginary Boys. Bo Diddley The Best of Bo Diddley. Love Forever Changes. Diana Ross diana. The One David Bowie Album – Bowie being an artist of such significance till ’82 and of so many (dis)guises that the album has the added function of being an instant personality test. So the appearance of Hunky Dory would lead you to suspect a sensitive, intelligent soul; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or Aladdin Sane a preening, outgoing person capable after a few drinks of proclaiming themselves bisexual; Low and Heroes – hip and cool; and if they have Station to Station, all of the above. Tactics My Houdini. Iggy Pop Lust for Life. Young Marble Giants Colossal Youth. And the wacko album found in the gutter, scrunched cover and all, sitting beside something heavy like Big Star Third/Sister Lovers: The Best of Young Talent Time.

And that’s the list. Jumbled, brilliant, flashing by – a little like rock’n’roll itself, you could say, and a thing of the past.

I now have people telling me, with the wonder that comes with the ability to explain new technology, that they have 10,000 songs available at the swirl of a finger.

“It’s all in there,” they say, pointing to a machine a little bigger than a packet of chewing gum.

“Yes,” I say. “I know.”

And although vinyl is having a resurgence these days, approaching 30% of sales in some of the record stores that have survived into the age of the free download, and young people can still walk into a lounge room and see a stack of newly released albums against a wall or speaker, it is on nowhere near the scale it once was, and never will be again.

That’s gone forever and it’s accepted. But unfortunately something went with it and that’s the benefits of reduction, of owning just a little: an informed, idiosyncratic grab at the whole thing. The implication, for anyone who stumbled into your room, or whom you led there, was that this is what I think is valuable, or what turns me on, or (draw breath) who I am.

It wasn’t ever about having all the records: it was about having some and appreciating the gaps. The unknown places between one record and the next used to be the place of dreams.

Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

Shelves of rock'n'roll dreams. © Joanne Fitzgerald.
Cover: November 2011

November 2011

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