Elvis’ untimely demise in the bathroom at Graceland was celebrated in my hometown. The Niagara of nostalgia unleashed reprieved the local record pressing plant and temporarily ameliorated the sales-depressing effects of home taping, the proto-downloading of the day. This is the only reason that I have ever found for thinking kindly about the vinyl record. Our relationship has always been fraught. Skips and pops appeared on my 45s and LPs in spite of the most antiseptic environment - surely contrary, anyway, to the essential snack-food disposability of pop. Ever since I discovered that jamming a kitchen knife into the grooves of Jimmie Rodgers’ Pistol Packin’ Papa produced a passable imitation of the Andrews Sisters’ sound, or that biscuit crumbs on a 45 had minimal effects on its fidelity, I have been wary of the obsessive-compulsive pernicketiness of the hi-fifiend and vinyl junkie. I definitely want my MP3, if not my MTV.
Hats off, then, to the excellent Richard Osborne for producing a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable romp through the musical history of polyvinyl chloride. It delights me to know that Thomas Edison thought that playing jazz records backwards improved the sound. I can provide an immediate list of candidates for this treatment. One of the joys here is the discovery of how many of the long-term impacts of vinyl on the nascent music industry and its output were already the subjects of experiment and exploration as the technology was being born. From the outset, Edison encouraged musicians to experiment by modifying and reshaping the sounds recorded; he foresaw the possibilities for extending and recasting the range and characteristics of performances in quite radical ways almost from the beginning.
Edison thought that playing jazz records backwards improved the sound. I can provide a list of candidates for this treatment
Osborne brings together a plethora of technical and historical anecdotes about the making of music and recording from all angles. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, theorists pro and con the mass production of art, have walk-on appearances, but this is not an account preoccupied by one dimension or issue related to the music committed to vinyl. It skips from the absorbing story of the birth of the “record player” in the work of Edison, Charles Cros, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville and Emile Berliner, through the development of mass markets for the records - first shellac and later vinyl - being made, to the live recording of performers from Dame Nellie Melba to Mamie Smith, up to the glorious empire of the LP and the 45.
The book’s aim - to bring together the medium itself with the music it has propagated and nurtured and to account for the continuing popularity and ubiquity of what is in essence a vestigial remnant of glorious but defunct technology - is beautifully realised. To tease out the connections in language, practices, cultural understandings and forms wrought by the history of these little pieces of plastic is a considerable achievement, and Osborne brings it off with some style. Furthermore, he is not wary of controversy, expressing astonishment at the fortunes paid for rare Northern Soul 45s even as the “brilliant” singles of Abba, priced at pennies, languish in charity shops. It may well be that the attachment to vinyl is merely another trait of postmodernity, a futile attempt to rescue popular music from the bargain bin of history.
This is, however, a level-headed and largely unpartisan view. The author has produced a valuable collection of sound bites and snapshots of what the 20th century sounded like - issuing forth, most of the time, from the speaker of a Dansette. If only to remind me that it was indeed “groovy” to be part of a culture in which popular music became important, I delight in this book. The groove is indeed, in the heart.
Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record
By Richard Osborne
Ashgate, 224pp, £55.00
Published 1 December 2012