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Let’s start in the winter of 2017

It’s another cold and dark Scottish morning and I’m on my short train ride to work. I’m listening to my Spotify playlist, the one where I dump anything and everything that I’m listening to, old and new. I’m bleary-eyed and dreaming so I don’t notice I’ve come to the end of the playlist and Spotify wants me to keep listening. Rather than let the music stop, the algorithm picks a song that it thinks will keep me engaged.

The familiar power chords of Some Might Say by Oasis kick in and in my mind I’ve travelled back to a snowy Christmas in 1995, that I spent with my family, at my Uncle’s house in Over Peover, Cheshire.

Winter 1995

[PHOTO OF THAT TRIP] We’ve all felt this, I’m sure. You hear that one song that you played to death in the summer you left school or an album defined your first parent-free holiday with your friends. Music does this, it’s one of the things I love most about it.

There’s lot of music that has this affect on me, but none quite as much as What’s The Story (Morning Glory). I knew this record inside out. I played it so much the disc literally wore out. The case went semi-opaque with a million tiny scratches as a result of being perpetually pawed at. I knew the photography intimately and I’d spend hours taking in every detail of the artwork and booklet as I listened.

My Christmas present from my parents that year was my first CD player and my uncle was tasked with getting me a couple of CDs. I’m pretty sure he would have just gone into the local record shop and asked the salesperson “what would an 11 year old like?” and they picked out Morning Glory and Now That’s What I Call Music 32.

[PHOTO OF MORNING GLORY AND MAYBE NOW 32 TOGETHER]

From the moment I ripped the wrapping off, to the first day back at school after the holidays, I had Morning Glory on heavy rotation, 12 hours a day.

The Christmas of 1995 into Summer of 1996 was my final year of primary school and first year at high school. This album was with me through the whole experience and it is woven into those memories forever. When I stick Morning Glory on and listen start to finish I can re-experience these years of my life. It’s an amazing, sad, nostalgic and at times embarrassing experience and I love it.

Back to my morning commute and ‘Some Might Say’ is finishing. With 30 seconds left to play on the track, I skip it to see what’s next (another terrible habit I’ve picked up since I started using Spotify exclusively to consume music). Next I hear the unmistakable mandolin and drums that start Losing My Religion by R.E.M.

Summer 1991

I couldn’t believe it, again I time-travelled, this time to 1991 and when I was 7 years old. I’m in my bed on a Summers night. My curtains are closed but it’s light outside and the evening sun is streaming in through the gaps between the wall and the curtains. I have major FOMO as I’m in bed and I can hear the older children still out playing. My Mum must be out and my Dad has the album Out Of Time by R.E.M. on very loudly on the turntable in the living room.

[PHOTO OF THE GARDEN / BBQS]

As I’m lying in bed starting to listen to the music, I hear one song that sets my imagination off, visualising the vivid lyrics “that’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight”. I realise after a few minutes that I like this song, it’s not just some of my Dad’s boring grown up music. The song finishes and I shout my Dad through to my room, “Dad, could you play that song again?”. Each time it finished I asked to hear it again until I fell asleep.

[PHOTO OF REM OUT OF TIME]

While this one song gives me a specific memory, the real magic happens when I put the album on start to finish. Listening to the whole album, I don’t just have this one specific memory, but with each song I relive some of the experiences I had from 7 to 10 years old. I remember my old family home, Summer nights in the garden and playing football with all the children in the street. I think of the old living room, my parents having friends round and my sisters and I staying up late. I recall the smell of red wine, beer and barbecue smoke. I think about digging out a pond in the garden with my Dad and my friend Robert. I think about walking miles along the cycle track in the hot sun to go and catch newts and frogs to fill the pond with.

When I was younger, in my family home, music was loud and in the open. Headphones weren’t really a thing. I did have a small personal stereo that I would play my cassettes on and listen to the radio at night, but I would much prefer to play my music on the big stereo in the living room. The same went for the rest of my family. My parents would play their records in the house or in the car and these albums are now as nostalgia to me as my favourite albums are.

Returning to my train journey again and I impatiently hit the skip button, eager to hear what Spotify is going to give me next. Spotify gives me some songs so I skip until I hit Strung To Your Ribcage by Biffy Clyro. Yes!

I don’t know if you’ve ever got into this frame of mind when listening to music, particularly music that’s nostalgic to you. It’s something I experience often, on my own, with friends or family. You’re digging through old records or CDs looking for music that take you back. This is where my head was at, standing on the train that morning. Hitting the skip button was like digging through my CDs looking for something to trigger that familiar pang.

Spring 2005

Anyway, Biffy kicks in with Strung To Your Ribcage and again, in my mind, I’m transported but this time to 2005. It’s a warmish evening in the late Spring and I’m on the bus back to my flat in the Southside of Glasgow from my job selling furniture.

[PHOTO OF BIFFY CLYRO INFINITY LAND]

I remember in 2002 not being too fussed about Biffy Clyro. I had downloaded Blackened Sky from Napster or Soulseek or something similar and wasn’t too impressed so I paid them no mind at first. Then my good friend Ronnie started playing their new album, Infinity Land, in the car quite regularly. I loved it right away for so many reasons. They sang in Scottish accents, the guitar went from manic to beautiful and everything in between and Simon Neil’s strong melodic vocals combined with blood curdling screaming. I was hooked.

I’d fall asleep listening to it, which was always a terrible idea, because the hidden track would make it’s way into my nightmares. Skip to 24:25 if you dare. I’d enjoy every track from Glitter and Trauma to Pause It And Turn It Up, start to finish, end to end. So naturally when I put Infinity Land on now, from that very first synth line and kick drum on track one, I fondly remember the crazy two years I lived and worked in the Southside of Glasgow.

I remember the parties, cramming 30 people into a two bedroom flat. I remember playing techno records until 8:00am and the awkward conversations with the neighbours the next day. I remember the excitement of going on tour with my band and the prospect of two weeks on the road with some of my best friends. I remember the feeling of optimism when moving home and starting university (again). I remember meeting my wife for our first date and the first time we went to T In The Park together. I genuinely get all of this when I take the time to just listen to an album the way it was intended, start to finish.

[SOME PHOTOS FROM THE FLAT / T IN THE PARK / THE TOUR]

Music is weaved into each and every stage of my life from around 7 years old. Here are some more examples.

Billy Joel An Innocent Man album cover
Billy Joel | An Innocent Man 1983

This will forever remind me of driving down to Cheshire with my family (five of us) in a 1989 Ford Fiesta to stay with my uncle for a summer holiday, roasting hot in the back seat sharing barley sugars with my sisters. I makes me think of Stopping at Killington Lakes for a packed lunch and using the free binoculars to look over the water. I remember playing in my uncle’s swimming pool with my sisters and getting bitten by horse flies.

Alanis Morrisette | Jagged Little Pill 1995

The Summer between primary school and hight school. Hearing the album playing in someone’s car when my mum and I were walking along the promenade in Port Glasgow. Buying the album the next day and playing the whole record outside on my ghetto blaster, eating Sun Lollies in between games of football. Ice skating every other week and renting the big blue rubber skates. Lot’s of carry on at my uncles house in the pool, with the speakers outside and the music up as loud as we could stand it.

Alanis Morrisette Jagged Little Pill album cover

[ALBUMS THAT TRIGGER NOSTALGIA AND MEMORIES, LIST THE MEMORIES]

No Doubt - Tragic Kingdom

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Eminem - The Slim Shady LP

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Dr Dre - 2001

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Ocean Colour Scene - Marchin’ Already

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Stereophonics - Performance & Cocktails

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Radiohead - The Bends

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The Smashing Pumpkins - Machina The Machines Of God

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Jimmy Eat World - Bleed American

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Funeral For A Friend - Casually Dressed and Deep In Conversation

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Bon Iver - For Emma Forever Ago

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Burial - Untrue (2007)

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Sigur Ros - Untitled

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The tech we consume music with is killing ’The Album’

The more I’ve got into Spotify, the less I’ve consumed whole albums and the more I’ve favoured playlists with different tracks by various bands and artists. I’ve had discussions with friends and colleagues about this behaviour and it would seem I’m not alone. I think this pattern can also be seen in how new hip hop and pop artists are starting to release music, favouring singles and EP’s.

It would be easy to suggest that this is an age thing or to do with how the younger generation consumes music now, however, I believe it’s how tech has forced us to consume it. I no longer experience music in albums and that makes me sad. I’m guilty of hearing a song I like and adding that one song to my playlist and never returning to that album ever again, never letting the album tracks that didn’t blow me away at first slowly develop into my favourite.

Music is digital now and we don’t care about digital products like we do physical

I think our general disregard for and lack of connection with digital products goes beyond music and video. When we look at early versions of sites like Youtube, Amazon and Facebook on Wayback Machine, we normally express something like “Yuck, I can’t believe it used to look like that” rather than saying fondly “Aw man, remember when it used to look like that?”.

Do you remember when you used to have to buy a CD or record to hear new music? CDs at their height cost £14.99 for a popular album. That was a big investment for me as a 12 year old with no income. Some CD purchases were tap-ins like any Michael Jackson album. But there were others that were a gamble, like Blue by The beautiful South. I loved the single “Don’t Marry Her Have Me” so I bought the album, which turned out to be utter dog-shit. But I’d spent the money and I knew from previous experience that if you persevere you could begin to like it. I’d spent the money on that record and god dammit I was going to get my moneys worth. Now if I listen to a new album on Spotify, it needs to grab me in the first two songs or I’ll most likely skip it and move on to the next. If you have never consumed music the way we used to, by buying an album and investing the listening time in it, you are missing out on this rich experience.

The Plastic Player

Brendan Dawes echoed some of this sentiment in his New Adventures talk in Nottingham this year. For him it’s about the ease in which we can skip things, throw things away, move rapidly from one genre, artist or album to the next that he struggles with. He loved the discovery aspect of Spotify, but longed for something slower and more considered when actually consuming the music. So he made the Plastic Player.

Quite some time ago Brendan bought a box of 35mm slides and thought that they might come in handy for something. As you can see from the video, inserting a slide with the album art of the record you want to listen to immediately starts playing it from the beginning. To do this Brendan programmed NFC stickers for each of the albums to connect to Spotify via the internal Raspberry PI and play the album you chose.

This resonated with me in a big way. Brendan uses this in his studio every day and I love the fact he’s built something to help him consume music the way we used to, one album, start to finish, listening to all of it and letting go.

Brendan’s love for the physical world and making physical objects is infectious and his talk at New adventures was one of my favourites of the day.

We’re not listening anymore

I can’t help but feel that by taking the time to put an album together in a specific order with the right artwork, artists are reaching out for us to connect with their music the way we used to. But we’re not listening anymore, we’r not paying attention like we used to.

I believe that we’re losing that deep connection to the art that we consume and experience digitally, like music, film, TV and photography. We’re still searching for that connection but modern day tech, although well-meaning (in most cases), is making it cheap to listen to any album we want to on demand. Cheap to watch endless TV, film and documentaries for the tiny monthly fee of £9.99. Cheap to search google images for “amazing landscape photography”, consume the visual feast, disregard the artist and forgo any real connection to the content or the creator.

Losing My Religion

Michael Stipe talks about the R.E.M. song “Losing My Religion” and how it’s not about losing your temper or civility, or being at the end of your tether. It’s actually about unrequited love. This feels like unrequited love to me. It feels like ‘the album’ is still there and wants me to love it back, the way I used to, but instead I choose to pick my favourite track, save it and forget the rest. The way I’m consuming music isn’t loving the art form back. If this pattern emerges and it’s not just myself and a few like me, that could mean the end of the album or LP as a format, which would be a devastating blow for music.

How do I force myself to love the album back? What can I do to keep this format alive? Maybe I should build a plastic player like Brendan. Or maybe I should start collecting my favourite albums on vinyl. Maybe for now I should be mindful of ’the album’ and force myself to connect with it the way I used to.