I did a bit of rifling in a record shop the other day. It’s an old habit that dies hard.
For me as a young school boy it was so much part of teenage life. We went to school in the city centre and lunch times and meandering journeys home were often spent in record departments. From memory there were three or four shops in easy reach of our school playground and over time the number grew. When I moved through to work in Glasgow I worked in Maryhill and I often found myself ending my working day wandering in to the city just to nosey around in record shops. There was so much we only half knew. The fact was that some of what we thought we knew was gleaned by staring long and hard at the covers and only imagining what lay inside.
For years some of the contents of these records remained a mystery. I knew the cover art inside out and even surmised what the music might sound like on the basis of the photographs, graphics and song titles. A friend invented the great game of asking the square assistants in D.M. Brown’s (never top of the hip parade) if they could order albums of invented artists and names: Do you have Rick Wakeman’s ‘Wooden Horse of Troy’ or is it not out yet?
However the really deep joy of any album sleeve was looking, reading, supposing and listening in the glorious solitude of my own bedroom. It struck me that so many sleeves reflected people being free to make music at all times of day and night. I’d heard recording studios worked round the clock and I tried to imagine what it would be like to be in studios where these recordings were put together. An early purchase brought all of these things together: Elton John’s Honky Chateau…still a favourite …sent my head spinning. I liked the rough and ready, troubadour Elton much more than I ever embraced glam Elton. The stubble and the semmet suited the music better for me. There was also another magical element to all of this.
I loved the photograph of the raw unploughed fields of France on the inside gatefold. Unglamorous, wintry and forbidding they spoke to me of freedom….these people had gone off to France (in winter!) to make music when we were all captive in classrooms. How decadent was that?
In all the sleeves the message was the same: Freedom. Led Zeppelin IV, Stephen Stills 2, Ram, Tapestry…I imagined into all of them people who were no longer bound by the deadly duties of the daily drudge but free to be roving troubadours going wherever and whenever with the muse. It was a lovely dream and I have no reason to be disabused of it now.
The album was and, hopefully, still is a beautiful thing. However it’s probably closer to its demise than its ever been. Don’t be fooled by the resurgence of vinyl..these figures only show an increase in what is a dying market. People got out of the habit of buying records and it’s going to be a long way back to convince nearly two generations of people that they need to pay serious money for stuff that’s been almost free for years.
This Tuesday we will celebrate the album. We’ll bring you some country albums we think worthy of owning in their entirety and we’ll play as many as we can from the original 12″ pressings. I’ve put some visual clues here for you. It’s going to be full of great country music..our way.
We’re on air from five past nine on BBC Scotland FM and repeated this Friday too! Join me if you can.