Rovers PianoGiven the date, I suppose some horror-themed piece is appropriate, but I’m of the wrong generation to invest much interest in Halloween. ‘Trick or Treat’ was an imported Americanism that was imported too late for it to have constituted part of my childhood, with my only awareness that such a tradition even existed back then coming via a ‘Charlie Brown’ cartoon; those early animated outings for Charles M Schultz’s creation tended to premiere around the time of prominent US holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween etc. – and consequently the occasion formed the backbone of the storyline. Once we were into autumn, Mischievous Night and Bonfire Night meant far more over here than Halloween, though both seem somewhat diminished now; the one-time excitement surrounding the latter has been subdued by increasingly tighter restrictions on the sale of fireworks, whereas the former seems to have vanished altogether.

Such a consumerist cash-cow is Halloween today that the carnival is perhaps the major pre-Christmas excuse to go on a bender in fancy dress – though anyone who lives in a student neighbourhood will know it doesn’t take much to encourage that kind of activity. There are probably those – Goths, quite possibly – who take it much more seriously and no doubt mark the event by holding black mass ceremonies in graveyards at midnight, but for most it’s just another children’s festival extended into kidulthood. Obviously, the unique situation of the past eighteen months means any occasion reminiscent of what pre-pandemic life was like is desperately seized upon with even greater fervour than before, so expect social media to be awash with images of Halloween parties and piss-ups. I don’t remember anyone ever really taking photos of bonfires back in the day, and there was certainly never any photographic record of the pranks committed on Mischievous Night – which is a shame, for some of the things I can remember getting up to as a kid were worthy of being preserved as photos. Now it’s possible to document one’s entire day and share it with the world, it’s sometimes easy to forget the vast majority of experiences at one time were only recorded in memory.

Travel back maybe a century and-a-half and we arrive in the last period of history before it was possible to preserve an event in ways we take for granted today. Photography and then moving pictures revolutionised the documentation of the human experience, but just as innovative was recorded sound. I read a piece by Kierkegaard recently in which he expressed his love for Mozart; I considered the date that the renowned Danish pioneer of existentialist philosophy passed away (1855) and realised he shuffled off this mortal coil just two years before the earliest known recording of the human voice, which was made by Parisian Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. I thought about how lucky we are in the oh-so sophisticated early 21st century with how we can satisfy our craving for instant music compared to that of Kierkegaard and not just his own generation, but all the generations that had come before him.

If Kierkegaard wanted to hear a particular favourite by his favourite composer, he either had to wait until an orchestra was in town and hope the piece in question would be in their set-list, or he’d have to become accomplished enough to play it on the piano himself, and perhaps accompany a few friends who were competent on stringed instruments to the point whereby they could play said piece simply in order to hear it. Mind you, chances are he’d know enough people competent on stringed instruments to make assembling such an ensemble nowhere near as great a task as it’d be today; even roping someone in to make a vocal contribution wouldn’t be that difficult – after all, numerous adaptations of Jane Austen novels over the years have familiarised us with the fact that a post-dinner tradition was the accompanying of a pianist with a song; it was part and parcel of a social gathering in the same way that a contemporary equivalent would see the host simply sticking on some recorded music to play in the background. If this type of musical ‘turn’ was part of the middle-class evening-in for generations, the appeal of a singsong round the Joanna was no less strong lower down the class chain, and if not in the home then certainly in the local hostelry.

The presence of a piano as a commonplace item of household furniture may have long gone now, but it was still a lingering fixture during my parents’ 1950s childhoods from everything I’ve heard; the ‘public house’ upright piano was just as obligatory in the standard working-class residence as the middle-class one well into the halfway point of the 20th century, at least up until the modernist social housing revolution that created streets in the sky and dispensed with all the archaic furniture associated with the past. Being in possession of a modicum of musicianship wasn’t regarded as a novelty prior to that; I would imagine the majority of adults could bang out a tune on at least one instrument, which is maybe why the mid-50s demand for guitars from schoolboys inspired by Skiffle was treated as a natural phase by parents who forked-out the HP payments with no awareness whatsoever as to how they were acting as midwives to the cultural revolution of the 1960s by default. Today, the only children who can pick up an instrument and play it are largely those fortunate to attend a school where music lessons aren’t regarded as a luxury – and most adults probably know more people who can’t play an instrument than people who can.

With the actual playing of music one of the most accessible ways of hearing it, it’s no wonder record sales charts didn’t really capture the public imagination until the late 50s, when the sales of vinyl discs began to exceed those of sheet music for the first time. Sheet music had been a necessity for a century where those seeking to hear their favourite tunes were concerned, but the mass availability of said tunes on disc negated the need to replicate them and therefore negated the need to learn how to play them as well as the need for an instrument in the house to play them on. And almost 70 years after the first singles chart being published in the New Musical Express, we now don’t even need our music on a physical object.

It’s so easy to take for granted that when you undergo a sudden craving to listen to a specific piece of music today, you know you can access it within a minute of that craving; you can pull out a CD or LP from your own personal collection or you can go online and access it via Spotify or YouTube. Before recorded sound made all that possible, you would’ve been faced with no choice but to submit to the aforementioned means of accessing music that had always been in place for all of history up until that point. Yet even with the innovation of radio in the 1920s, playlists were still in the hands of the broadcasters; if you wanted to hear a particular favourite tune on the wireless, you’d have to write in to a programme to request it – and even then there was no guarantee they’d play it. Of course, you could go out and buy the record, but it wasn’t possible to buy every record you wanted; they could cost quite a bit, particularly LPs – hence the taping of the Sunday teatime charts onto a cassette, something that gradually evolved into a ritual for more than one generation.

As a teenager, one tended to listen to a good album or single with a dedicated intensity absent now, probably because it was the only record one could afford for a month or two and therefore it was played to death in the absence of choice. If lyrics were available, they were memorised, as was the whole package – sleeve, label and all. When you can instantly access any music you want, that level of commitment is simply not there. It ceases to be quite so valuable, and you can’t really care in quite the same way when it’s all on an iPod. Oh, well; such is progress. And I’ve no doubt Kierkegaard would’ve taken it. Not arf, pop-pickers!

© The Editor




VinylThough one could reasonably claim that, in an age of iPod shuffling and the downloading of individual tracks at the expense of a carefully planned running order by the artist, the recorded album as a structured art-form no longer exists, the fact remains that this weekend marks the sixtieth anniversary of the British album charts. The first chart-topping LP (as the album was commonly referred to prior to the advent of the CD) was Frank Sinatra’s peerless ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’, a classic for a defiantly adult audience, the audience the LP primarily catered for following its 1948 introduction onto the market. Initially, the Long Playing record was developed for classical music, enabling separate movements of orchestral works to completely fill two sides of vinyl, rather than being split into little sections as had been the case with the 78. The newfangled format was soon taken up by the mums and dads as a grown-up alternative to the vinyl choice of their children, the 45rpm. It continued to be a barometer of largely adult tastes for the first half-decade of the LP charts’ existence.

Glancing at a list of early LP chart-toppers, however, it’s interesting to note appearances by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Tommy Steele, even if Rock ‘n’ Roll has a mere cameo role to play where No.1 albums are concerned during the late 50s and early 60s. If one imagined ‘Original Soundtrack’ was the name of a band, they’d probably be the most successful album act of all time, for original soundtrack recordings utterly dominate the album charts during this period.

‘Carousel’, ‘Oklahoma!’, ‘The King and I’, ‘High Society’ and ‘My Fair Lady’ – either original Broadway cast recordings of stage musicals or the movie versions – all spent endless weeks sitting atop the LP charts between 1956-58, though none can compete with the daddy of them all, ‘South Pacific’. Hitting No.1 in November 1958, the soundtrack album for the film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage musical remained resident at the top of the charts for the next 70 weeks! Yes, it was the sole No.1 LP for the whole of 1959 and wasn’t deposed until March 1960. That wasn’t the end of the album’s chart-topping run, however; it returned to No.1 on a further seven occasions, finally ending a staggering tally of 115 weeks at the top with one solitary week in September 1961, almost three years after first reaching the pinnacle. Beat that, ‘Thriller’.

The early 60s saw an upsurge of chart-toppers from Elvis, Cliff Richard and The Shadows, as well as the incursion of Trad Jazz via the likes of Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and Acker Bilk, though middle-of-the road tastes were still the dominant trend; The Black and White Minstrels had a trio of No.1 LPs in 1961-62 and ‘West Side Story’ upheld the original soundtrack tradition.

There was a notable change from May 1963, however, when The Beatles’ debut album, ‘Please Please Me’, hit the top of the charts. It remained there for the next seven months, only knocked off No.1 by the follow-up, ‘With The Beatles’, in December. After almost a full year as the sole No.1 album act, The Beatles were momentarily deposed by The Rolling Stones, when their debut long-player hit the top for twelve weeks in April 1964. Most retrospectively regard the rivalry between the two bands in terms of the singles chart, though it’s more glaringly evident in the LP chart of the time. ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ knocked the first Stones album off No.1 in July, a position it occupied until The Beatles again replaced themselves in December, this time with ‘Beatles for Sale’. ‘The Rolling Stones No.2’ hit the top spot at the end of January ’65 and the Beatles-Stones dominance of the chart finally ended when Bob Dylan’s ‘Freewheelin’ reached No.1 in April, the first non-Beatles or Stones chart-topper in two whole years.

By the mid-60s, the LP was becoming more recognised as an additional vinyl plaything for the singles-buying teens, with further chart-toppers from The Beatles, Stones and Dylan enhancing the generational handover where the album was concerned. There was one final hurrah for the old-school LP, however, when the soundtrack album for ‘The Sound of Music’ hit No.1 in May 1965, a position it returned to on a further ten occasions for the following two-and-a-half years, enjoying 70 chart-topping weeks in total. Hard to believe in an age when the songs from the film are now primarily seen as the province of a cult and mainly gay audience; but it was once the mainstream.

It was the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in June 1967 that finally sealed the album as the vinyl purchase of choice for the record-buying masses, a position it held throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, surviving the changes in formats, from the cassette to the CD. The changes of the past decade, however, have altered the listening experience far more dramatically than at any time since the long-playing record appeared 68 years ago. The listener can now choose the running order of the album if they so wish; and the cohesive narrative of songs that became the album’s most distinctive hallmark has been rendered redundant. Still, it was bloody good while it lasted.

© The Editor