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Friday, 18 January 2013

R.I.P HMV (1921-2013) - Some thoughts on growing up and falling apart.


DON'T you dare look like you’re not having a good time. Modernity won’t stand for it. Nostalgia is only tolerable these days if effectively neuteured into the eye-twinkling safety of much-missed sweets, ephemera, a dim halcyon chortling at a time when things ‘mattered’ and you ‘cared’, a ferociously maintained media-wide intolerance for ever suggesting that things mean any less now. Get the fuck over yourself old man. Everything is retrievable, via this link or that. Quit blubbing.
  But hold on. Nostalgia, as it’s phonetic adjacency to neuralgia suggests, is a more complex, nagging, painful thing than that. Nostalgia doesn’t have to be about yearning for what’s lost. None of us are dumb enough or depressed enough to think our school days were the best years of our lives, let alone wish ourselves back into the strange world of threat, confusion and hyper-sensitivity that childhood was. Nostalgia can, though, be about confrontation, can be about running against the brick wall of time’s ongoing moves of obsolescence on everything you once held dear. It can be a brutal realisation that in at its depths, what you’re really sad for is what the hell’s happened to you, how much you lost getting so much smarter. Case in point. Yesterday, I saw this photo and like every other image I see on a screen it should’ve been in one eye and out the other, should’ve been neatly processed at nano-speed, distracted me for a moment, maybe a few, but not put any kind of impedence in my day or in any way stalled the infa-red agility of living a modern life, being a modern consumer. Cos that’d be boring man. That’d be an old fart getting wet.


   But my god, it stopped my heart. Photos can do that when they don’t just capture a place and time but actually timetravel you back there, back into the skin you were in and the heart you had within, erase the accrued sedimentary cynicism and numbness of your intervening demise and remind you of when your soul hadn’t been disconnected from the mains, when your mind and metabolism actually cared about the next moment and whether you were gonna be around to see it. Nothing’s more heartbreaking than being reminded of a time when you thought you had a future, even if it was a no-future, fuck-everybody, gonna-die by the time I’m 30 kinda future. At least you had a hope (in hell), at least even if you were just drifting like you are now, you felt you could thrash your cilia and flagella and motor yourself somewhere, somewhere onwards, elsewhere, further in, deeper out. These photos, of the interior of Coventry's old HMV (next to the Dog & Trumpet pub aka the Woof N Puff) have effected me emotionally far more than anything else I've seen in a while. I don't mourn the HMV 'brand' (although huge sympathies to everyone in threat of redundancy), I suspect what I mourn is precisely that which is irretrievable - the feeling of how special a record shop is when you're a kid into pop, what a vital part of your trail round town it is, how littered with memories of things that have stayed with you forever, even as the shop changed and eventually went. That excitement in your heart when you walked thru the door, whether in a position to buy or not - that's what I miss. And that's something Amazon will never be able to bring back to me. Not complaining, or moaning, or wishing things back. Just saying - this photo brings me as close to a spiritual yearning as an atheist can get because - sounds dramatic but you are dramatic at that age - places like this, and libraries, and bookshops aren't just business concerns, they're places that save your life and make you who you are. You could say 'no, they're just the places that SELL those things that you think do all that'. But looking at these photos I know what I feel and it's powerful. This place was a sanctuary, as desired & sought by a pop kid back then as a cathedral would be to a medieval pilgrim. A home away from home. A place that contained wonders.


   Like I say, didn't matter if you had money. A place to go, and hang around, and rack up the daydreams and yearn, tucked under Cov's other palace of dreams, the ABC cinema. Corrugated fingertips from all that rifling. Pure pleasure, self-directed. Pulling out gatefolds, reading. If you'd managed to liberate a quid from yr mums purse then straight to the singles. When something massive, like a new Prince or a new Public Enemy dropped, I'd go to the shop just to slaver, just to be near. When I did have money, when I knew what I was going in to buy, I'd still tease myself, pretend I didn't know what I wanted, have a scan through the sale racks, check out the classical section, eventually find the self-teasing unendurable and stomp with righteous joy to the thing I wanted, pull it, take it to the counter. Seeing the counter-staff bag it up, handing your money over, taking the solid flat thing you got for your squids, finding a bench outside, getting it out of the bag, running your hands over it, keeping the cellophane unripped til you got home but maybe popping the side so you can tip the disc out, check the grooves. And then, of course, getting home, dropping it on the spindle, placing the needle, sitting back, waiting. When the first thing you hear might be 'Rocks Off', 'Five Years', 'Mambo Sun', 'You're Gonna Get Yours', 'Wendys Parade', 'Love & Haight', 'Holidays In The Sun' these moments become charged with significance, the further away you look back the deeper the hit. The first time I heard 'Rebel Without A Pause'. The first time I heard Kristin sing 'Call Me'. The first time I heard 'Teenage Riot'. All from this shop. All bought on a wing and a prayer.


   Part of the problem being an old fart and being in that intermediate generation tween analogue and digital is that the old formats seem so more imbued with magic, and so more upfront and honest about that magic. That's not just a reactionary habit - showing 78s to students,  the 16 and 17 year olds I teach were entranced with the shellac heft, the fragility, the fact that these objects didn't hide their love away, could, as demonstrated, be fixed if they went wrong with a dab of ivory soap or a penny on the needle. Scratches you grow fond of, locked grooves that accompanied long nights of narcosis. Records LOOK like they contain something, CDs (perhaps the most deceitful unsatisfactory format of all time, lying about their reliability, hiding their inconsistent workings behind a black impenetrable door) never did, and MP3s don't even look like anything other than numbers rotating on a screen. Don't get me wrong, no true luddite I, the MP3 is THEE ultimate format because it answers all the questions previous formats have left unanswered (portability, storage, taking up NO physical space). But with its tactility and warmth, vinyl remained an umbilicus back to the beginnings of recording technology, the fantastical sense that electricity had etched these hills and dales in 45 degree Westrex waves, the always barely-believable sorcery that could drive a needle up and down these PVC cravasses, sending signals out that saved your life.


   Vinyl was the format that nurtured me, that accompanied that burning stretch from 12 to 20-odd when you feel MOST at odds with the universe: consequently looking at these photos gives me feelings like nothing else because memory at its most vivid is contained not in the head but in objects and places and the feel of something in your hands, the way you could look at a record and imagine its sound all the way from the edge to the Porky's Prime Cut. Remembering that crazy 2 year period when file-sharing was just kicking off and I downloaded every single thing I ever wanted, will never give me the same sense of trepidation, fun, risk, discovery. The internet replaced all that waiting (the way the maths went was 1 record = tenth of your giro = only really afford a dozen albums a year, a few more dozen second-hand),  all that yearning, with a glut and ease you'd have been mad not to engulf yourself in. But whilst I have a fondness for my heaving hard-drive and my thousands of mediafire/rapidshare thieves, I have a love for those few-score slabs of PVC  HMV and others sold me in those Nice Price years, things bought blind with no preview, things that I HAD to learn to live with to make the money spent seem worth it, things that went through twists of fear/affection to stay with you, things that friends, writers, elder sisters and other talismans pointed you towards with intrigue and suggestion. Of course there'd be the joy of specialist shops as well, and later on outside of Cov. But that HMV was a place where the whole city went for music. It felt like everyone inside was chasing the same joy, albeit down myriad different alleys, all of us entranced by the sheer magic of soul and spirit and imagination transduced into wax.


Of course, part of HMV’s particular pull on you, the reason you greeted news of its demise with a certain self-protective numbness is that logo, how imprinted 
internally it is on all our memory banks, how you know that in India Nipper was sometimes replaced by a Cobra. Just how far the magic reached - across empires, how all my dad's Indian records still had the insignia of that shift from cylinder to disc. In its way, Barraud's picture reveals alot. The arrogance of Edison in knocking it back ("Dogs do not listen to phonographs"), the opportunism and luck of Berliner picking it up. That moment at the dawn of recording when the purposes of recording technology were almost entirely non-musical. Edison's original patent for the phonograph contains a myriad of uses of which musical reproduction is only one.

"Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer. Phonographic books, which will speak to blind people without effort on their part. The teaching of elocution. Reproduction of music. The "Family Record"--a registry of sayings, reminiscences, etc., by members of a family in their own voices, and of the last words of dying persons. Music-boxes and toys. Clocks that should announce in articulate speech the time for going home, going to meals, etc. The preservation of languages by exact reproduction of the manner of pronouncing. Educational purposes; such as preserving the explanantions made by a teacher, so that the pupil can refer to them at any moment, and spelling or other lessons placed upon the phonograph for convenience in committing to memory. Connection with the telephone, so as to make that instrument an auxiliary in the transmission of permanent and invaluable records, instead of being the recipient of momentary and fleeting communication."
MUSIC here as perhaps only one use of that magical mid 19th-century moment when photography and phonography suggested for the first time in human civilization that time could be stopped, that the previously evanescent could be captured and relived. The way that Recording technology has progressed, the way it's thieved from other technologies, turned the swords of electrical recording (WW1) and tape-recording (WW2) into the ploughshares of the microphone (intimacy) and multitrack (playfulness with source) is an odd one, a stop-start narrative of stasis and sudden progress that almost seems accidental. Deforest's Prime Evil, the stereo of Blumlein, Jack Mullin's tinkering with captured German magnetophones, Goldmark's microgrooves - these were not conceived of with thoughts of how what could be done with that technology could form some of the most important art of the century, they were tinkered into life with nothing but curiosity and playfulness. Even the MP3 was initially an academic research project into the impossible. Of course, we’ve been tutored by the white-heat of all that technological change to be dispassionate about this, even if for at least 40 years after the change from 78 to 33 & 45 the format really didn't change (and so we felt held in that post-war moment, as close to the Beatles & Stones & the comforts of the canon as we were to those ever-changing sounds pulling the ground out beneath us). Really what we’re seeing is the return of music to an almost pre-industrial state, the state it was in before this strange 150 year frightmare that is the record-business took what was previously ethereal and momentary and captured it and barcoded it for commerce. But looking at these photos I can't just blithely march into the future, no matter how much the fact musicians are back throwing their caps on the floor and hoping for the best might actually open up new ways of thinking about music making and listening, no matter how much the collapse of the record industry might loosen the systems of debt and dependence that have left so many in penury, and have so strictured and strangled the ambitions of western music. Looking at these photos I'm reminded that no matter how much of a bloated graveyard of artistry the record industry could be, it still had an exclusive control of my hope for much of my growing life, a direct control over my vacillation between despair and determination. It touched me innapropriately. I will love it forever, despite everything. RIP HMV. You, more than school, more than home, more than anywhere else, were my LIFELINE. Don't fret, I'm safer now. Safer. Not sure about happier.


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