Getting into the Groove: On Digital Playlists and Forgotten Memories

The other day I did something I’d been thinking of doing for some time; I resurrected my turntable and old records. They had been stored in the attic for over ten years, the records in cardboard boxes, the turntable carefully swathed in a black bag. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in vinyl. At first this struck me as little more than a passing fad for anything retro, but I realized there was more to it than that. It has reignited a debate about the merits of analogue and digital sound that go back over thirty years to the time of the introduction of the first commercial CD player in 1982.

Great, declared some, this is the future of technology for music lovers. Ah yes perhaps, countered others, but the sound isn’t as natural. Digital Sound is cold, metallic, featureless; it doesn’t have the depth, clarity and warmth of analogue sound.  So the argument persisted, never really dying out. And as I write this, strains from Ambient Sleeping Pill from the Internet fill my room – Tranquil, Serene and Deep (No ads, beats or cheese). This is music conceived, composed, constructed, and delivered without so much as the perturbation of a single molecule of air, until the loudspeakers kick in that is. I’m reminded of Frank Zappa’s definition of a composer, ‘a guy who goes around forcing his will on unsuspecting air molecules, often with the assistance of unsuspecting musicians.’ But that’s by the by and you can draw your own conclusions about Ambient.

Anyway, that’s not why I went up in the attic the other day, although I am intrigued to see if there is a difference having listened to digital sound exclusively for the last 12 years. What I have become increasingly aware of is that digital playlists impose a ritualized way of listening to music. This is because they fail to engage with the emotional responses a particular piece might invoke in me.  They fail to provide an opportunity to reflect on what I’ve just heard and to consider what I should listen to next. The perseverating thump click when the needle reaches the final groove forces you to act; you have to get up and stop the damned noise. But this offers an opportunity to choose the next piece in response to the feelings I am left with. Playlists are fixed (unless you choose shuffle play, which is like listening to classic FM), and force you into rote listening. The emotional devastation I experience at the end of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, leaves me in need of an uplift, I don’t want to launch straight into Mahler’s Seventh, much though I love that rambling, discursive piece of music. With vinyl I can alleviate my despair with Frank Zappa. Vinyl makes it possible to interact much more spontaneously with the music I listen to.

So, down came the turntable, unwrapped, dusted, cleaned and checked over. I’d forgotten that it is a really good piece of kit, a Linn Basik. I connected it to my amplifier, glad that when I replaced this a couple of years ago I bought one that had phono input (no need for a pre-amp), and gently tickled the stylus with my forefinger. The speakers emitted a series of reassuring growls and clicks. Then I brought some records down. Their covers were dusty, gritty and sticky. Ten years in an attic was not a good way to care for them. My hands and fingers felt tacky and dirty after handling them, yet strangely, when I examined them no dirt was to be seen. The record smelt of dampness, of dusty disuse, of old forgotten possessions, of time precipitated as dew saturated with lost chances and possibilities.

What to play first? So much to choose from. I grabbed the nearest LP and put it on the deck, Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. So far so good. I looked at the turntable. Something wasn’t quite right. The music sounded odd. Pink Floyd, yes, but Pink Floyd turned inside out, or upside down maybe. I looked at the turntable again, and realized it was rotating anticlockwise. Pink Floyd back to front? How? Why? I took the record off and stopped the turntable. Was my deck reproaching me? Was this its way punishing me for consigning it to limbo for all those years? Was it even telling me it wanted to put the clock back, to recapture its former role my life?

I removed the platter, and checked the pulley and drive. All seemed well. I turned the deck over but could see nothing amiss. I reassembled it, plugged it back in and turned it on again. The platter flickered, then shimmied clockwise and paused before shimmying counterclockwise. Then nothing; the platter remained immobile, but something about it conveyed the impression that it really did want to move. I gently pushed it in a clockwise direction with my forefinger. The turntable stuttered clockwise, slowed, then just as it was about to stop, picked up speed, and started to rotate confidently and fluently clockwise. I put side one of Götterdämerung on. My God! What an amazing sound. And I’m not really into Wagner.

I tried another LP, some Bach this time, Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations. I’d better wipe it down first, I thought, reaching for the tissue I clean my glasses with. I looked carefully at the surface; a white cat hair, a ginger one. Then it hit me; my life has been entombed in my record collection, dust and particles from my past, mostly invisible but nonetheless a part of my story, all the houses I’d lived in since the 1960s, our children as kids, my wife, our pets, me. My record collection has become a mausoleum of memories.