Once the dinner’s done and the last bit of pudding has been scraped from the bowl, the remainder of Christmas Day is the saddest few hours of the year. It is the time when you gaze around at your family, your home, at the tree whose days now are numbered in a way they just weren’t only 24 hours before and you feel the weight of love, loss and mortality baring more heavily upon you than they do on any of the other 364 days of the calendar. All the anticipation of Christmas Eve and the preceding days and weeks are so long gone; they belong to a different part of the year, even a different part of your life. The difference between post dinner Christmas Day and the rest of December 25th is much more profound than the difference between New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The world changes at the end of Christmas Dinner. It is not just that one is a bit too full and a bit pissed, or that one becomes used to the ownership of new things by that point. The jumper is beginning to fit your shape, the football has a few scuffs, the new DS, Wii, x-box or playstation games are becoming more familiar: that could happen if those things had been acquired at any point in the year. But I guess if you wake up on a park bench or in a hostel somewhere to the same sackful of bugger all on Christmas day, then that sackful of nothing has more poignancy than a sackful of sod all has on every other day of the year. Or maybe it doesn’t, for as difficult as my life might have been on occasions, it’s never been that hard. Christmas Day seems to mark a point at which a very definite change occurs. Effort and energy of one sort or another has gone into this particular annual event and there are rituals that must be observed too. On December 1st, I make the Christmas Pudding. Round about the 22nd or 23rd I meet up with Judd to buy meat and knock back three or four pints of Old Buggery in the Bar. Until I met and married Liz, I made the Christmas Eve visit to Michael Ledwith Senior’s house. I love Christmas and I’ve never been able to relate to any other perspective on the season. But the payoff is that I’m the saddest man in England by four in the afternoon. Thank God for the Dr Who Christmas special.
Before dinner however, I am still eight years old on Christmas Day.
The Mitchell family Christmas in the little terraced house on Howard Street went something like this. Our Karen, Tish and me would wake at an unspeakable hour and spend what seemed an eternity coughing in order to wake up our parents, who always remained steadfastly asleep. Once they were up and about we’d lie there listening to the pattern of sounds around the house; the lavatory door banging at the bottom of the yard, the grate being riddled through of ash and a fire being lit in the kitchen (the living room to everyone else). When we were finally called down there’d be a flurry of present opening. Big, longed for things first, then smaller, more mysterious surprises followed by the things we always got, Annuals and a shoe box full of various chocolate bars. At about quarter to ten my sisters and I went to mass, where we met Nanny and then walked her back to our house. After that, I went and called on my friends Mark and Shane Collier and David Fawkins, who lived opposite, to compare presents.
On Christmas Day 1978, David Fawkins got a pool table. His dad was a bin man and they had a car and a colour television. He also got Three Light Years, a boxed set of records by the Electric Light Orchestra. I had never seen anything like it. It was TARDIS blue, 12” square by about an inch deep with the title printed in silver. It contained three ELO albums: On the Third Day, Eldorado and Face the Music. It was the most sophisticated thing I had ever held in my hands. As if to confirm this, in the bottom right hand corner of the cover were the words ‘Special Edition’.
I suppose the marketing people at Jet must have seen Three Light Years as a way of making a bit of money back on three records that hadn’t been exactly massive. Things had picked up for ELO with A New World Record in ‘76 but it was their 1977 double album Out of the Blue that was their really big commercial breakthrough. After that it was all spaceships and arena concerts. But back on Christmas Day 1978 I didn’t know or care about any of that. I was seduced by the object. Three records in a box. I don’t think I’d seen records in a box before and I had certainly never seen records with labels like this before. Each circular paper label had on one side a picture of the original album cover, while the other side read “this side” followed by the track listing and “other side” followed by the track listing for the other side. Oh my God. This was surely the most original and unusual thing ever produced and I was enormously envious.
When I started this project and described it to people many said “Oh what a great idea”. Quite a few said “Oh, like Nick Hornby and that thing he wrote” and some said “bit nostalgic, isn’t it?” I was defensive on all counts. The nuns would not allow me to accept the first reaction as being made in good faith. “They don’t really mean it, you know” they’d whisper as one, “they’re only saying it not to hurt your feelings. Anyway, don’t go getting ideas above your station. People like you don’t do things like that”. As for the second, I was determined not to read anything else that might seem even a little similar, who ever had written it. I am too easily deterred by accusations of imitation. When I told my wife that someone had given me a book called Bringing it all Back Home by Ian Clayton, she demanded I handed it over. I had already dipped into it and seen that he was writing about his experience of youth and music in a post industrial town, a mining town in Yorkshire called Featherstone. There was startling parallels between what I was writing and what he had written and had published. Most alarming was that he had a chapter called One World that dealt with his experience of John Martyn. I had already decided to call a chapter of this book One World. Bless her faith in me and her understanding of what I’m like; Liz didn’t want me to be put off from what I was trying to write. I refused to hand the book over and one night she stole it and threw it on the fire. When I woke the next day I found myself in an underground cell with nothing but an ipod and lap top with a post it note on the screen that said simply “ You can come out when you’re finished and not before”. That’s where I am now and I’m not sure I’ll ever see the light of day again.
But even more than being deprived of my liberty in this dark bunker by the woman I trusted above anyone else, what troubles me most is the accusation that this project is ‘just a bit nostalgic’.
The National Trust has 3.7 million members. 9.9 million people tuned in to watch the opening episode of the second series of Downton Abbey. Any poll of British TV comedy has Dads Army somewhere in its upper fifth and who can resist a steam locomotive hauling coaches over the Ribble Head Viaduct? Yet people do not often talk of feeling nostalgic as a good thing. When did you ever hear someone say “Oo, I’m so nostalgic, me…” or “I’m planning a nostalgic night in with a bottle of Mateus Rose and a Vesta beef curry”. You don’t, not unless they’re conscientiously ironic types anyway. Despite our capacity to indulge in sepia toned notions of summer wine and a simpler, happier way of life in a fondly remembered land now so far away, people rarely use the word nostalgic in any way other than pejoratively. It’s understandable. I tend to do the same thing. I’ve never really fallen in with members of suburban civic societies who spend so much of their time trying to persuade everyone that we have to preserve this or that Victorian architectural anachronism because of its great history and place in the community and what-not. If it costs a fortune to heat, maintain and secure, if its purpose is unclear, if it’s a bloody eyesore, knock it down and start again. Progress, move on; but do something genuinely new and innovative instead of throwing up some faux Georgian nonsense built out of breeze block and MDF. Nostalgia is the pillow that smothers the sleeping child of innovation. Frank Zappa went so far as to say “It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice. There are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia” arguing that the time between the moment of the feeling of nostalgia and the thing or event for which one is feeling nostalgic is getting shorter and shorter over time and that eventually we will become nostalgic for the last nanosecond of our existence making it impossible for the human race to continue to function. Good old Frank. But I’m also one of the Dads Army crowd. Give me a weekend on a preserved steam railway and I’m a pig in shit. I love a dollop of the soggy stuff. But nostalgia wasn’t what led me to retrace my vinyl footsteps.
I’ve had long and polarised discussions about this project with Big Phil. Big Phil plays the bass in my band. When he’s not doing that, he’s a computer programmer. He got into the technology back at the beginning and perhaps in a parallel universe everyone is using his systems rather than Bill Gates’. Phil doesn’t own a single record or CD anymore. He stores all his music on his computer. It’s simple, uncluttered and accessible. I can see the appeal; in fact, I attempted to do the same at one point, putting CDs onto a laptop. Didn’t listen to them once after that. Phil said that he thought I was indulging in a nostalgia trip. I argued that I was just enjoying a different format for the sake of it, that it was a different way of interacting with the music. Phil said I was definitely indulging in a nostalgia trip. I said that my primary interest was exploring the acquisition of different sorts of music over time, how and why some things survived while others were passed over or even denied. Phil said, “Nostalgia trip”.
One day I turned up at Phil’s place to do some work on a CD we’d been putting together. On my way there I’d stopped off at King Bee Records and picked up an audiophile 180g pressing of Jonny Griffin’s The Congregation. “What have you got” asked Phil. I showed him. “Never heard of him. Haven’t held one of these for years…”He took the record out and inspected it. He spent a good few seconds scanning the cover with its Andy Warhol design. “They’re bloody big, aren’t they?” But I’m sure I detected a glow of fondness about Phil as he held it and looked at it.
A vinyl record is so much more than the playback. It is packaging, artwork and style. More so than with a CD, too. Scale is important. Would so many denim jackets have been painted with pictures from album covers if the original had only been five inches square? Maybe, but somehow I doubt it. And process is important too. The fact that one has to take care handling a record, that it must be looked after, is part of the process of being engaged with the music. Nostalgia! shouts Big Phil. Handling a record doesn’t change the experience of the music. Music is music, not packaging or the media it is replayed through. That simple? I don’t think so. If that’s true then what’s the point of ever seeing music live? Everybody knows how Beethoven’s Fifth goes. Why dress up and spend a fortune on going to a live performance? Accusations of being gramophone refusniks are not levelled at the concert going crowd. Why bother going to see Radiohead play live when you’ve got access to all their work on CD or stored on your PC? Isn’t it just because it’s different? Because it gives you something more than vibrations of air creating a variety of frequencies that your ear captures and your brain interprets? I would argue that the ownership of an object that makes those ripples in the air changes your emotional response to the content. I’d also argue that your relationship with the object, the time you spend looking at it, studying the artwork, the packaging, the typography, has the effect of fixing the content in your mind and is a route to the soul of the music. The Beatles red and blue compilation albums, respectively ‘63-‘66 and ‘67-’70, broadly speaking denote two distinct phases of the band’s creativity. I don’t think I’m the only person in the world who thinks of their red phase and their blue phase. By extension, I think of the 1960’s as being divided into a red period and a blue period. I was born in the blue period, whereas our Tish is a child of the red period. Our Karen, being born in 1962 came into being when the universe was formless and the spirit of God was moving over the deep. Hence The Great Train Robbery is a red event and the first moon landing blue. It might not seem important that the opening chord of a Hard Day’s Night is red and that the words Umpah, umpah, stick it up your jumper are blue, but the colour red will occur to me immediately if I’m asked when Harold Wilson first defeated Edward Heath in a general election and I think of the world being blue the year Martin Luther King was assassinated. Without those two artefacts, such associations would not exist for me. I would not have that shortcut to information about events or people or politics or religion or whatever, had I not spent time with those physical objects.
My record collection was never graced by the extraordinary thing that was Three Light Years. Sometime between 1978 a 1982 I’d acquired the three albums separately, On the Third Day being a clear vinyl edition I recall. Nonetheless I still desperately wanted that classy box with the silver lettering. I wrote to Jet Records, explaining, I thought very clearly, that I’d really like to buy just a box to put my copies of On the Third Day, Eldorado and Face the Music in. I got a reply too. They said that they weren’t quite sure what it was that I was after. I didn’t write back. I must have concluded that they thought me ridiculous for even imagining that a thing of such inestimable value and rarity could be supplied on a whim such as mine. Also, I already knew that even if I could get just a box, the covers that my records were in wouldn’t fit in the box and that I’d have put the records in the box in just the inner sleeves. That didn’t seem right, not least because I rather liked the big covers and my copies had ordinary labels. I was trying to make something that wasn’t from something that was and I knew it was wrong. I learned to live without the box and I bade Three Light Years farewell as our house and David Fawkin’s house were both reduced to motorway ballast.
Courtesy of Les at King Bee I replaced On the Third Day on my first retracing expedition. Face the Music followed a couple of months later. Chorlton’s Oxfam had a copy of Eldorado with it’s still from the Wizard of Oz on the cover on its wall but I refused to succumb, certain that whatever the asking price it was too high. Then, on a rummage through King Bee’s one pound bargain buckets I found it. Three Light Years. TARDIS blue and silver lettering. The box had seen far better days, dinged and scuffed and a big circular scar where someone had peeled off a sticker, exposing the white board underneath. And while the whole thing smelled musty from time in a damp cellar or shed, the vinyl was perfect, with its ‘this side/ other side’ labels.
The same rummage also threw up a copy of ELO’s Greatest Hits. It had the same musty smell about it as Three Light Years and was presumably part of the same collection. There is a Christmas day photograph of me aged 12 holding my new pristine copy. I look, and was, utterly delighted with my present. It was the thing I wanted above all else and I was joyous with it. Just eight years later it would go with the clear vinyl On the Third Day, a New World Record and all the rest to Helen Coventry and I wouldn’t give it a backward glance.
What struck me about the Three Light Years from Les’s bin and to a slightly lesser extent about the copy of ELO’s Greatest Hits was the state of grace from which they had fallen compared to their original, new condition. Yes, I had given my ELO collection away, but I still invested much in the new objects of my musical interests. I spent every bit as much time pouring over the ECM albums the art student me wanted to be associated with as I had examining Rainbow’s Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll when I was 13. How can it be that these fragile and really rather beautifully produced objects can ultimately be afforded such little consideration as to moulder in sheds and cellars and be valued at so little as a pound? On that Christmas day in 1978 the acquisition of Three Light Years seemed an impossibility to me. I’m sure there was a moment when its original owner could not have conceived of a time when they would ever be separated from it, let alone leave it to grow musty in a garage somewhere, much as the me in that Christmas day photograph could not have imagined a time when he would simply give away the object of desire he so proudly held out to be pictured with.
So do downloads and streaming actually free us from the guilt of ownership? Perhaps the care, maintenance and storage of physical music formats is just another burden on top of kids, stray cats and Labradors that really one just doesn’t need. Perhaps. But then, who doesn’t have a favourite cup or mug? We could save ourselves the time and space required to maintain and house ceramic cups by drinking from the polystyrene alternatives instead. We won’t feel bad when they break and we throw them away as we might when the father’s day present gets knocked from the mantel piece and smashes into a thousand, unreconstructable pieces. The truth is that we choose to use our ceramic cups because its nicer to drink out of them. Not only that, as objects of material culture, we like them. They have meaning, personality even, and we value that for its own sake. So why then are we increasingly disconnected from the physical formats that allow us to enjoy music? Is the truth perhaps a great heresy? For as much as we say music is an important part of our lives (and you hear people say that a lot) perhaps the truth is we’re not really that arsed. We want music, but we want it to be easy to get hold of, invisible in its storage and ideally we want it for free. And as for quality of sound, most appear to be perfectly happy to listen to highly compressed MP3’s through a pair of cheap headphones plugged into pay as you go phones. Or perhaps it’s even more depressing than that. The digital revolution has made us far less hands on, quite literally, with music. An ipod classic will store up to 40,000 tracks. In the days before I had a wife, children, a mortgage or a job, I would listen to seven or eight albums in a day. For the sake of argument, let’s say that was an average of 56 tracks. If I never listened to the same album twice, it would take almost two years of listening to eight albums every single day for me to get through 40,000 tracks. That’s nearly 6,000 albums. This suggests to me that the relationship now being enjoyed with music is not only less hands on, it’s also indiscriminate. With 40,000 tracks on your ipod, set to shuffle, one song is as good as any other and so it is that the technology has changed our attitudes to listening to the extent that we really don’t much care what we hear next. If you’re going to leave the decision about what you listen to up to the equipment, you might as well just randomly download 40,000 tracks from itunes and never think about the music again.
Obviously, most people don’t have anything like 40,000 tracks on their ipods and my argument about indiscriminate listening is bucked by the fact that people do take time to create playlists from albums they chose in the first place, much as old bastards like me made compilation tapes for our friends back in the early eighties.
But I can’t help but think: what makes a download a Special Edition? What happens to the glow of ownership of the artefact that David Fawkins had about him that Christmas Day in 1978, when ELO are taken out of their TARDIS blue box and converted into bits per second? And then, somewhere off to my left, I can see Big Phil. He’s dressed as a Dominican Nun and singing ‘Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler…’