By Matthew Whibley
When I was 8 years old my primary school had a jumble sale. I remember it was during the school day, for some reason, and we were all encouraged to bring money from home. I remember it being quite a big event with many different stalls; clothes, books, toys, plus tombola and stuff like that. There was also one stall selling records, or vinyls if you were born after the time records all of a sudden started being called vinyls. I remember sifting through the offerings and having two covers catch my eye. One was by Max Bygraves and was signed by the man himself. If you don’t know who Max Bygraves is then don’t worry, neither did I. Even today I’m not sure who he is and am so uninterested I can’t even be bothered doing a quick search. The other cover was ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ by the Beatles.
What an amazing piece of cover art! What I thought then and definitely still think so today. This album was 25 years old by this point but to me the cover just looked so new and detailed and vibrant. My 8 year old mind was racing. It was going for a quid or two and I only had 20p or so in my back pocket. When all the kids had to get back to class the teachers obviously thought they hadn’t done very well, everything was too expensive for the small kids. They made an announcement “Everything now is 2p”. All the kids went crazy rushing to the toys and books. I legged it straight back to the record table, immediately grabbed Sgt. Pepper and took Max Bygraves too, for the signature.
I come from a family of classical musicians and my parents were working in orchestra management at the time. I had piano and trumpet lessons every week and would be forced to sit quietly through eternal symphonies petrified that if I let out a slight cough the whole concert hall would attack me. To this day I’m the only member of my huge family who finds no connection to classical or orchestral music. My siblings would listen to some pop or rock but my ears were completely at their mercy. A lot of Duran Duran, Phil Collins and Queen. My eldest brother was also heavily obsessed with Frank Zappa but you can’t blame an 8 year old for not loving it. Up to that age my musical tastes were completely thrust upon me. Going home and sitting next to the record player in the dining room alone, staring at this album cover, felt special at that moment. Opening up the huge sleeve and looking at these weirdly dressed guys staring at the camera. Thinking about how cool the one on the back was facing away from the camera. Reading through the words before even putting the disk on the turntable. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds; what an amazing story for an 8 year old to read! I popped it onto the player and went for it. Chugging guitars, sounding like a train coming in to the station with a cutting lead over it. “It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play….” Who the hell is Sgt. Pepper, who are the band, I thought this was The Beatles? I didn’t understand it, but I was so intrigued.
Having the band welcome you to the album seemed like such an incredible thing, to make you feel like every song belongs there since it’s part of the show. Every song different yet each one catchy, catching and fun. We get to the end and the band comes back to see you off; “We hope you have enjoyed the show”, yes I have, very much so. And just when you think it’s over, the best song ever, ever, begins. A Day in the Life takes you on a completely different journey but condensed into 4 minutes. And even when you’ve been through all the madness at the end of the song, this crazy woman appears repeating ” never to see any other way, never to see any other way”. It’s a lot for a little, lonely fat boy to go through, sitting by himself. My first album.
I’ve always had a huge appreciation of ‘the album’ as an art form in itself. An artist has an opportunity to either put all their best songs together or turn it into a journey. In today’s disposable digital culture I find many I speak to say they don’t have time or patience to listen to full albums. I just want to make the point right now that I’m not generalising everyone, I realise vinyl sales have greatly increased in the last few years and this does fill me with confidence that there are still many, like me, who need albums as a medium. But, most friends, students and colleagues I speak to would rather just pick out their favourite tunes and hit shuffle. I also have moments where I love to do this but it’s usually reserved for those artists I feel don’t know how to make a great album but still produce a few awesome tunes. I do find that that is most pop. Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande, Drake all seem to have tunes that are geared towards the single track brigade. They release an album because that is the done thing and their core supporters would have to buy the album to be true fans, but as long as there are 4 tunes or more which can get some good youtube time then they’ve succeeded. It’s those tracks that are usually produced by the big producer (Dr Dre, Pharrell Williams, J.Cole) and have a popular feat. (Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, fucking Lil Wayne). The other tracks on the album are more cheaply produced, unmemorable and unremarkable. They’ve done their job.
To have a strong body of work, arranged in the perfect order and with a running theme, be it lyrically or musically, is something I appreciate so much. Marilyn Manson’s second album Antichrist Superstar had 80 tracks of silence at the end so the listener couldn’t press shuffle. That album has a story starting with track one and finishing on track 17. Alt-J’s albums both begin with 4 tracks that are so well interconnected going from one track to the next that to miss iust one of them would be detrimental to the overall sound. Especially with albums of today where the artist has actively bypassed the desire to just focus on 4 or 5 tracks and just let the others be filler. For this I personally turn to black America, namely Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, J. Cole, Kanye West and Childish Gambino. Now, I have a tough time getting my friends, mainly white British rock and electro-philes, to listen to these albums and stick with them. “Hey Matt, I listened to that album and it wasn’t for me”. I always try and encourage them to listen 3 times, all the way through, yeah right. But that is how I find new albums, when something is supposed to be the next big thing (according to publications that I trust) I need to invest the time.
It was my friend James in Australia who was so keen I listened to Kendrick Lamar, I went straight onto Youtube and found Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe and Swimming Pools. To me they both sounded like every other shitty trap tune on the mainstream radio. James was clearly dismayed but understood, “I really think you just need to get his album Good Kid M.a.a.d City” a piece of advice I said I’d take but didn’t. When I read that his next album To Pimp A Butterfly was rocking the rap world and it was impossible to find a bad review, I knew I had to give him another shot. I bought the album and went for a long run. My first impressions were confusion, irritation and belittlement. Belittlement because I knew there was something here that I just wasn’t getting. The first tune sounded like a mix of styles badly fused together with this high pitched southern babbling over the top (Just to clarify I was listening to a lot of hip hop around that time so it wasn’t like I just didn’t get rap). Track 2 was full on jazz with speed slam poetry repeatedly telling me that ‘this dick ain’t free’. Splashy jazz and speed poetry? not for me. And so on it went, more and more confusing styles, Kendrick seeming to change his voice between every tune, “Why is he doing that?” And then this annoying poem that seemed to repeat after every track “I remember you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same”. I didn’t make it to the end of the album, switching it to something more familiar. I’d failed
I found a few tracks on there I really liked “King Kunta”, “The Blacker the Berry” and “i” . Now, To Pimp A Butterfly, in my humble opinion, is the greatest album of all time. Whenever I say that to people they look at me like I’m the most pretentious arsehole. But it’s true. From those 3 tracks I then started to appreciate the tracks around those. Then the first tune clicked for me, it wasn’t confusing at all, it was just some good modern day G-Funk but with a new flare. The second tune, when you get used to the fast delivery, has some amazing lines in it and the splashy jazz compliments it perfectly. It took me weeks to figure out that the two tracks after King Kunta, Institutionalized, was actually one track and the intro is just of a completely different style introducing the main tune incredibly. Why does he keep changing his voice? Because he plays different characters, he doesn’t just give you his point of view but what he assumes are the views of the people around him. Why does that poem keep repeating? Because with each telling he gives you a little bit more that feeds into the next track. Every tune has a story and a message. The music is eclectic and sublime and the rapping is original and flawless. And all of these reasons are the thing that scared me most at first. Just for the record, Good Kid M.a.a.d City is also incredible.
I’ve had so many similar experiences with albums before and after this with Bjork – Homogenic, Radiohead – Kid A, Kanye West – Yeezus, with Tool, Kate Bush, The Mars Volta, Frank Zappa and so on. The albums that have been the most difficult to get into have been the ones that have stayed with me the longest. Albums I love instantly (with the exception of a few) are the ones I stop listening to after a month or so. The point I’m trying to make is that when an artist alienates their audience before sucking them right back in, at the risk of losing air time and revenue, that is when I can truly respect them as a serious artist. This is why I’m wary of most album reviews. Obviously anyone who feels they know enough musically to write a review has some degree of expertise but I’m pretty clued up I think and can’t just give an honest opinion of an album immediately. An album reviewer will be sent a promotional copy of the album and then they have to whack out a review by the deadline. You very rarely see a review of an album that came out two weeks ago, or even two months ago? Why not?
My brother Daniel plays for the BBC Philharmonic and was once talking about playing contemporary pieces. He was saying that at the beginning of the week the orchestra would come together and play a new piece for the first time. Everyone in the orchestra hates it, or finds it difficult or strange maybe. As they rehearse it through the week, the musicians start chatting about how it’s growing on them and by the performance at the weekend they love it. Then a reviewer will go and write a terrible review saying the piece was rubbish. Daniel says it’s such a shame that the audience only gets to hear the piece once, there’s no time for it to become familiar as it did for the orchestra or even as it would have done for the composer whilst writing it.
As briefly mentioned before, I’m a big Frank Ocean fan. Frank Ocean on first listen has a very stereotypical R’n’B sound to his voice which puts a lot of listeners off. Both of his last albums I listened to once through and then left for a while since it didn’t excite me too much. A few weeks later listened again, liked a couple of tracks (as with TPAB), kept going back to those tracks and then you start to become accustomed to the other tracks and before you know it you’re telling people it’s your album of the year. I’m not saying this happens with all albums either, I wish.
Radiohead’s last album, A Moon Shaped Pool, I really liked when it came out and the more I listened, the more I hoped I would fall in love with it. A year on and I still just really like it. But I believe now would be the best time to write that review. Hail To The Thief, their 2003 album, was a grower and is now one of my favourite albums. At the time I was reading three star reviews of it and most people I know just gave it one or two listens and left it. It really makes me think about how many albums I haven’t given the time to. Music I tell myself I don’t like. What if I did actually invest some time in a Maroon 5 album. (Hmmm, maybe not)
Sticking with Radiohead for a moment. After their King Of Limbs I remember hearing that they were just going to stop making albums. They felt like the constrictions of adhering to an album format were too restrictive. I was devastated, the producers of OK Computer and Kid A don’t want to make albums? After that they released a few stand alone tracks, which were okay but would have worked better in the context of an album, they obviously decided to go back to make A Moon Shaped Pool. This album didn’t have a clear structure to it though. Apparently they just listened to the tracks in alphabetical order and decided that was the best order. Not sure how I feel about that.
Everything has to be short these days. People moan when a film is more than 2 hours long, even if it’s a great film. Twitter messages are hell to someone like me who probably won’t even get this article published due to the length. People shy away from meaty books or even careers that take years of study. “I can’t listen to a full album” ? Seriously? For a long distance runner like me I find albums the perfect accompaniment. In fact when I was 18 years old I went from being 19 stone to 12 stone completely due to the fact the iPod had just been released and I wanted hours of uninterrupted album listening, so I started walking everywhere. Walking later turned into running. I was skint for a couple of week once and my headphones stopped working, I didn’t have a single run in that time.
A good album deserves your time and effort. Can you imagine turning off Dark Side of the Moon after three tracks because you just didn’t get it? When Radiohead announced they wouldn’t make any more albums in favour of single songs, my heart sank. I’d hate for this modern age of pandering to short attention spans to kill my favourite art form. I have great faith it won’t though after listening to some of the amazing offerings we’ve had in the last few years. Go for a run, go for a walk, do the housework, press play, track 1, go!