Watching Almost Famous was the starting point of a renewed passion for Tony Myers, and a road to discovery for his son
Recently I watched the film Almost Famous with my two teenage children, Ariella, 15, and Noah, 13. Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film includes one of the best scenes depicting the sheer joy of listening to vinyl when the young aspiring music journalist has his mind set free by his older sister, who leaves him her LP collection under his bed when she leaves home.
I have seen the film before, but never with my children, and love that particular scene; watching it again not only brought back my own memories of playing records – but a bunch of questions from my son in particular, a “digital native” who simply could not grasp the whole vinyl experience.
The following scene when the young protagonist plays the first track off The Who’s Tommy and we see a close-up shot of the needle hitting the vinyl with a crackle before the music starts triggered the first and most pertinent question: “How do you know what track is playing?”
You have to refer to the back of the album cover and look at the track listings for a number, then making sure you have the correct side of the record on the turntable, count the wide grooves on the vinyl to bring the needle down on the song you desire, I replied.
On the dark side of the moon
My teenage children looked at me as if I had grown up on the dark side of the moon, never mind using that kind of rigmarole to play Pink Floyd’s classic concept album with its iconic gatefold sleeve.
“Well, how do you pause a track?” asked my son. By lifting up the needle by its arm and locking it, which was followed by the quite reasonable query: but how does it know where it left off to resume playing the the track if the record is spinning around?”
As a member of the MP3 generation, and an iPod owner, this is not surprising as he is used to a fast-scrolling wheel on a device with a backlit LCD display, an iTunes interface, 8GB of space with playlist support, making it very fast and easy to go through a list of up to 7,000 songs.
Trying to explain to my son that the thin grooves embedded on the vinyl played recorded music from the vibrations picked up by a stylus that delivers a sonic message through an amp and speakers must sound as alien to him as automobiles with starting handles were to my generation.
It just does, I replied. The truth was I didn’t exactly know myself, but of course part of the fun and enjoyment of playing records is that magical moment when the arm drops onto the vinyl with a crackle.
The first single I bought was Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing when it was in the charts way back in 1975. I was 12 years old. The first LP I owned was T Rex’s Electric Warrior, acquired around the same time because I liked the cover.
That same year I got my first record player for Christmas, a mono Fidelity model with a red lid and a big spindle so you could stack up to seven 45s – the equivalent these days of a playlist.
Records were a thing of my past, like Advocaat snowballs at Christmas, Oxford bags (flared-trousers) and the NME – or so I thought.
Time to bring out the vinyl
After 25 years of listening to CDs and MP3s it was time to bring out the vinyl again. Not only so my children could experience how recorded music should be played, but also for me. I was approaching my 50th birthday and as a present to myself I decided it was time to invest in a turntable.
After an investment of roughly £100 on an amp and speakers and a free turntable advertised by a friend on Facebook, I was set.
I still owned all my LPs; they were stored safely, or so I thought, at my parent’s house but after a recent visit I was horrified to discover that all my Who albums (most of their catalogue, including a very rare copy of the My Generation album on the Brunswick label) and some Led Zeppelin LPs were missing – and still haven’t been located.
As a teenage working class boy from the north, music proved to be my salvation and listening to The Who in particular with my two friends Al and Olly in our bedrooms inspired us to form our own band.
Then came punk and coloured vinyl and bands such as The Jam, Sex Pistols, The Ruts showed us the way.
Our Who-influenced punk band never really got going and, rather bizarrely, I ended up playing drums in a jazz band in Austria when I was 19 and started listening to cats such as Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Weather Report, Frank Zappa and Sun Ra.
I still have my jazz and blues vinyl, and reconnecting with John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme in its original gatefold sleeve on the Impulse label was the nearest I’ll come to a religious experience.
Moved to tears
Playing the record after almost 25 years I was almost moved to tears as my living room was filled with music of such warmth, fullness and richness you simply don’t hear on digital. I felt I was in the studio with the band as they put the tracks down.
Even turning over the album to side two was like a spiritual act. I felt an intimacy; that Coltrane had recorded this piece of music solely for my listening pleasure – I could touch it, feel it and smell it. And I could read the sleeve notes including Coltrane’s A Love Supreme poem and his note to the “Dear Listener” acknowledging his faith in God and how his masterpiece recording was conceived.
I had played A Love Supreme a thousand times before on CD and MP3 but I never felt that emotional connection before: why would I when these days all it takes is to press play on a digital device?
The download generation that my children belong to with their touch-screen devices and never ending playlists are losing out on the sheer joy of holding a record, book, magazine or newspaper in their hands and engaging with its content the way I did.
And this makes me sad, even though through my work as a tech journalist I am very much apart of this mobile revolution.
Listening to the Who’s Tommy again with my son stirred up similar emotions. It was another important album to me when I was growing up and Noah had been listening to it on iTunes after we watched Almost Famous.
Priceless father-son moments
Watching him play the record, and being mesmerised and intrigued by analogue technology, gatefold sleeves and surfaces that you have to wipe with a static cloth, and blow dust from a needle before you even listen to the music, is one of those father-son-moments that become priceless.
Now he understands the importance of music in its purest form, he has his own tastes of course and the bands he listens to are releasing their music on vinyl. A recent report from international music industry body the IFPI says that 12m vinyl records were sold last year in the UK, four times as many as in 2006.
On weekends we go “crate digging” at car boots, charity shops and independent record stores, unearthing recent gems such as Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure, Steely Dan, Joe Jackson, the Clash and the first Dire Straits album, which I remember owning on cassette.
Music set my mind free and was the reason why I ultimately became a journalist. For my son, his journey is just beginning but I know that vinyl is now part of his musical path and when that stylus hits the record he feels the same way as I do now: supreme.
As Henry Rollins succinctly sums it up: “Sitting in a room, alone, listening to a CD is to be lonely. Sitting in a room alone with an LP crackling away … is enjoying the sublime state of solitude.”
This article by Tony Myers originally appeared in the Guardian Newspaper.
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