Picture a generously proportioned library in a Georgian country house. It’s night-time, the shutters are closed, flickering candlelight illuminates the room. Thirty people relax in comfy armchairs and sofas, in silence, but the room is not silent.
It is filled with the sound of music: rich, warm notes that are luscious and vibrant rather than the compressed, digitised tones to which we have all become accustomed. The music comes not from an MP3 player but from a state-of-the-art stereo system upon which is spinning a glistening vinyl disc. Welcome to high50’s inaugural record listening club evening.
Inspired by Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy, who runs Classic Album Sundays in London, we began thinking about records that form an important part in the soundtrack of our lives, and how brilliant it would be to listen to them with high50 members. So it was with huge excitement that we held our first listening club at Babington House in Somerset.
It’s a bit like a book club, but it isn’t. The concept of record listening clubs goes beyond coming together to share a mutual passion for a particular art form (there are gigs and music festivals for that). Record listening clubs are about celebrating an album the way it was originally meant to be heard, in its entirety on a format that does it justice. The clue is in the name, record listening club, so a turntable and vinyl are essential to the evening’s success.
The resurgence of vinyl
Vinyl – the ‘old fashioned’ LP – has been undergoing a renaissance over the past few years. Sales in the US last year rose 36 per cent, and sales of CDs declined, giving way to downloads.
The reasons for vinyl’s resurgence are many, but the primary driver is sound quality. No, not the warm, fuzzy, nostalgic sound of bacon frying on a Sunday morning, but, in the words of Robert Harley, editor of US audio magazine The Absolute Sound, “An openness, transparency, dynamic expression, and musicality not matched by CD.
“At the very highest level of music reproduction, there’s not even a debate: LP is musically superior to CD.”
As important as the format is how you listen to the album. In the age of the iPod, where music is an instantly available commodity, we scroll and click and listen to single tracks, often on shuffle mode, but do we really listen? Does the music hold our absolute attention, or have we lost the art of experiencing a record as it was meant to be heard, as a body of work rather than a collection of tracks to be shuffled or fast forwarded? When was the last time you gave an album your full concentration and experienced its power?
Think about it. At a classical recital, more often than not you will hear music that was written to be heard as an entity (Beethoven’s Fifth, say) and the performance will have your complete focus. No chatting to friends, sending texts or nipping out to the bar to get another round. You enjoy the music as the composer wanted it to be heard.
Wasn’t that what we used to do as teenagers, when we’d rush home with our purchase, rip off the cellophane and listen to both sides of our new LP again and again? The running order was of paramount importance, designed to add as much effect and emotion as possible to the listener’s experience.
That’s why a record listening club can only be described as a stroke of genius, an invitation to us to re-connect with albums in a fashion and on a format that brings them to life in a way that nothing else can.
We chose David Bowie’s seminal The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars for our inaugural event, a momentous work that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It was his fifth album, and not only a musical coming of age but one that saw him marry mime and drama in live performances.
It set us apart from our parents in a way that the Rolling Stones caused dissent between our older cousins and our uncles and aunts. What was he wearing? And why did he make that noise?
An invitation was extended…
We put round the word that high50 were coming to Babington House, a luxurious members’ club and hotel in the West Country that is rock ’n’ roll in its philosophy to the nth degree. Would anyone come, or would we end up listening to Bowie by ourselves?
We needn’t have worried. As the room filled with high50ers, we could feel the energy and anticipation in the air. We were all going on a journey – a sensory adventure!
There were plenty of 45s from 1972 to get everyone in the mood: Maggie May (recorded in 1971 but released as a single in ’72), Heart of Gold, Burlesque, A Little Bit of Love and All the Young Dudes.
At the front of the room was the star of the show: a record player, but not as we knew it. This was a new dimension in hi-fi: a Brinkmann Bardo turntable, an object of beauty in its own right; several silver boxes that performed various amplification functions, and a cracking pair of Sonus Faber Amati Futura loudspeakers that were as tall as a small adult and as stunning as a supermodel.
This amazing piece of kit came courtesy of Ivan Kursar, a tall American whose company Cool Gales specialises in vinyl systems costing from less than £500 to a thundering £80,000.
Ivan is a vinyl enthusiast, as he explained to us before lifting the stylus on to side one. “Think about the tactile quality of vinyl,” he said. “The cover artwork, the liner notes, and that familiar slab of black (or red or white or blue or illustrated) vinyl itself. No one ever really liked the CD as a physical format, and downloads and internet music services like Spotify are invisible. Only vinyl has that lovely tangible feel.
“Then there’s the tea ceremony aspect of playing a record: retrieving it from its jacket, holding it by its edges, placing it on the turntable, brushing the surface dust off, and placing the needle in the groove. All that makes for a calming prelude to a listening session. And vinylphiles actually do listen; they don’t regard music as a background accompaniment to other activities.”
Put the needle on the record
Already we were pricking up our ears. As Ivan lowered the stylus, we dimmed the lights, and we were left in shimmering candlelight to get lost in the album as the plaintive refrain of ‘Five Years’ set us off on our journey.
The sound was loud and room-filling, and crystal clear. If we were expecting a collection of songs recorded 40 years ago to sound thin and dated, we were proved wrong, both in terms of production quality and compositions that had successfully stood the test of time. Sure, we could hear where different takes had been patched together, but that’s more a mark of the techniques of the day, and rather charming in its way.
And so we listened through 39 minutes of music (see track listing, below), pausing only for Ivan to turn over to side two.
“Is it all right if I move?” asked one five-o-er. “My husband thinks I should remain completely still.”
Do what feels right, whatever you like, we replied; we had been tapping and silently clapping away.
For those of us now accustomed to the digitised version of the album, we were re-acquainted with instruments and licks and fills that have been buried in the compression process. It almost felt like a live performance, and listening to it communally was powerful indeed. When, finally, the string chords that herald the end of ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide’ faded away, none of us wanted to break the spell. Reluctantly, the lights were turned back on and we fell back to earth, blinking as we were released from the experience.
How was it for you, we asked. Everyone had an opinion. Mind-blowing. Powerful. Emotional. Amazing. I’d forgotten what a brilliant album that was. Moving.
We talked about Bowie, about our teenage selves, about music and culture of 1972, about vinyl versus digital, about our listening habits, our never-fading love of music. It was the first time we’d met, yet it felt like we’d known each other for years, brought together by our love of Ziggy and our common high50 ground. Intelligent, articulate, artistic, interested and interesting, youthful, humorous – all the qualities we strive for on high50 reflected in the people who came to join us for that evening.
We’ll be returning to Babington in the spring with another disc and we’ll be rolling out our listening club across the UK over the next year. But if you would like to start your own record listening club in the meantime, send us an email or drop us a comment, and we’ll help you get it rolling. And we’d love to hear how you get on.
In the meantime, if you’re hankering after a record player again but are worried your vinyl collection might not pass muster, take heart. Ivan Kursar says: “The quality of equipment available for vinyl playback today is superior to anything available when vinyl was in its heyday. If you’ve been storing your LPs in your loft for years, and you haven’t heard an LP played on a modern system, you are in for a very big surprise.”