Aidan Smith is instituting a new rule: his children can only listen to their favourite tune if they listen to the whole album.
The birthday card had a £5 note inside. “Buy yourself some new jeans,” wrote my mother, although this was more or less an order: my only pair were riddled with holes when this sort of thing wasn’t fashionable. So of course I spent the money on Roxy Music’s second album.
Well, you would have done the same in 1973 on the way to Jean Machine with its Wild West-style swing doors if you glanced at the window of Bruce’s, Edinburgh’s top rock ’n’ pop emporium, and saw Bryan Ferry and his band spread out across the inside of For Your Pleasure’s gatefold sleeve with their quiffs and their space-age clothes, all of them brandishing guitars.
Roxy were anti-jeans. Brian Eno, not even wearing trousers, sported a feather boa. They were also anti-cheesecloth shirts, boogie-woogie boringness, “sensitive” singer-songwriters, my father’s record collection, school, rules, Terry and June, tinned peaches and the general greyness of life. I’d found my favourite band and begun my obsession. Many more albums by many different combos would be bought and that wouldn’t be the last time a must-have LP was preferred to basic essentials such as food.
Saturday is National Album Day. Everything gets its own day now but we shouldn’t be cynical about this one. National Album Day is only happening in 2018 because this is the 70th anniversary of the long-player. How typical of the album to wait, quietly and serenely, until an opportune moment. Somehow I don’t imagine that National Ballpoint Pen Day arose out of similar dignified behaviour. Most likely it was forced through by an industry in a high state of panic over email and social media threatening to kill off letter-writing for good. A host of events are planned. Concerts, talks and exhibitions of artwork. And at precisely 3.33pm we’re all supposed to play our favourite albums. It’s 3.33pm of course because platters used to spin at 33-and-a-third revolutions per minute. Choices can come from the CD and download eras but I’m guessing that the spirit of National Album Day is vinyl.
Vinyl, which you played with a sapphire needle (because you couldn’t afford diamond) and a penny taped to the record-player arm. Which crackled when you removed it from the inner bag, a sound only beaten for loveliness by the crackle of the gatefold’s glossy finish when the cover was opened up. Which you held between fingertips like it was a precious artefact containing important clues about life’s inner meaning, which incidentally it was. Which you dusted with a special anti-static cloth, or the sleeve of your cheesecloth shirt if you were sad enough to wear one. Which you wobbled a few times, imitating a Rolf Harris sound-effect from what the tabloids would term “happier times” for the disgraced entertainer. Which you sniffed before one last ritual: inspecting the inscription on the run-out grooves and hoping in vain for something other than “a porky prime cut”. Which you lay down on the swirly patterned rug to savour, during which you would memorise the lyrics and all the credits (Roxy namechecked their stylists; Canned Heat never did this). And which you abruptly stopped playing after discovering a scratch midway through the second track, requiring another trip to Bruce’s in the hope the too-cool longhairs behind the counter might be persuaded to give you a replacement copy.
I feel sorry for kids now, denied this slow, fiddly, elongated, tedious and completely thrilling rigmarole. Being in love with music took commitment but it was worth all the effort and having invested so much time and money – you wouldn’t guess how much the most recent Roxy remastered boxset cost and my wife doesn’t need to know – I’m not about to give up on it now. Not when National Album Day is almost here.
What do albums mean to my children? Absolutely nothing. They love music but aren’t going to hang around waiting for the songs they want to hear. Skip buttons mean they don’t have to, and when they graduate to Spotify they’ll be recommended other acts they should like based on previous choices. Says who? Some dystopian disc jockey who doesn’t want them having the fun of investigating new music for themselves because, what, that might destabilise the country or something?
There’s nothing wrong with mind control used in the right way so this half-term I’m instituting a new rule: when we’re in the car the children can shout out for a favourite tune but must listen to all the album from where it originated. I’m doing this out of pent-up frustration with Alexa – why has she never heard of King Crimson? – and a shuffle button on the iPod which has little trouble locating Ed Sheeran (the kids made me include him) but has never once – not ever – played anything with a squawky saxophone on it by Van Der Graaf Generator. (There’s a name-and-a-half. Bands wouldn’t be allowed to call themselves Van Der Graaf Generator now; focus groups and image consultants would see to that).
So which LP will I be playing come 3.33pm on Saturday? I think I know what Vic Reeves would choose, having once submitted the comedian and his sidekick Bob Mortimer to a Mr & Mrs-type quiz to find out how well they knew each other. “If your house was on fire what did the other guy say you’d rescue first?” I asked each separately. “My painting of a chaffinch,” said Bob correctly, and Vic, equally bang on, replied: “My copy of Free – Live.”
It must be gratifying to be so sure about something, to have that certainty and constancy in your life. Me, I’m always skipping and shuffling between No 1-with-a-bullet all-time faves and know the quest will never end.