A new book, out this week – ‘A Fabulous Creation’ by David Hepworth (Bantam Press) – is subtitled ‘How LPs Saved Our Lives’. I’m about to dive in and I suspect it will sum up my major preoccupation during pop and rock’s golden years, the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. From, say, The Beatles’ Rubber Soul to Steely Dan’s The Royal Scam, should one wish to bookend the period. Of course, there were many good records made before and after this mid to mid-decade, but it was the era in which the ‘album’ came of age.
I had been playing in semi-pro, frankly no-hope groups, usually with friends, dreaming of becoming a pop star like those chaps on the covers of the LPs I devoured like it was some kind of illness. ‘Vinyl’ was my chief monthly overhead, and by 1972, while still living at home with my supportive parents, thank you, and earning about £750 a year from office work, I was regularly buying several albums a week, sometimes ‘on import’, and often quite affordable thanks to a friendly Harlequin Records branch manager. Obsessive by nature, I kept a record of my acquisitions and recently, while flicking through those records, calculated that in 1973 my tally averaged 7.41 albums a month. This gradually increased.
Working in the city, I would catch the tube up west in my ‘lunch hour’ to visit record shops such as One Stop or Musicland in Soho, usually on a Wednesday as that was the day you could pick up the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker (bought all three, natch, and sometimes Record Mirror, and always the fortnightly Rolling Stone) 24 hours ahead of the provinces. This meant a wannabe pop star could study (and sometimes respond to) the Musicians Wanted ads in the ‘MM’ ahead of the crowd. I did a number of failed auditions.
Back on earth, my mates would come round on a Wednesday evening, a ritual that lasted for several years, and we would sit in rapt attention, distracted only by those music papers, as a new release or two was spun on my monophonic record player, Emitex record cleaning cloth close to hand. My bedroom, in which I would later have to actually sleep, filled up with cigarette smoke as we sipped tea and quietly nodded in sage agreement about the execution of a particular guitar solo, or enigmatic lyric. Discussion would occur only during a break in the music, but it was usually about Eric Clapton’s new hairstyle, or what ‘gigs’ the weekend held in store. Fleetwood Mac… Cream… the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
I acquired a ‘stereo system’ with a pair of Wharfedale bookshelf speakers. The total cost was about £70 – a fortune in 1969 – and I recall the anticipation. The big record companies were adapting to the popularity of stereo and the Decca label shrewdly hedged its bets by introducing the dual-function album sleeve with a little hole in the back corner to reveal a colour coded, generic inner bag – red for mono, blue for stereo, thus saving on printing costs. It seemed that mono LPs were being phased out, and sleeves would carry the legend: ‘To play this STEREO record on a mono reproducer the reproducer should have either a stereo pick-up wired for mono or a suitable mono pick-up’. Sales of compatible cartridges soared.
Eventually, in late ’73, my friends and I formed what would become the Kursaal Flyers, and we enjoyed a degree of success in the ensuing years, founded largely on Paul’s front man charisma, a fairly good repertoire and the opportunities offered by the London pub rock circuit, where it was possible to perform with sparse equipment and quickly get noticed if you were any good, which we patently were.
And the music we played, be it country rock cover versions, or our own ‘original’ songs, was inspired by our record collections. Graeme was mad for the Grateful Dead, and although we didn’t favour twenty-minute instrumental jams, their song-based albums such as Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty were touchstones. Paul was crazy for the Flying Burrito Brothers, a late incarnation of which we would later enjoy touring Europe with. Who could have imagined such a thing, when we were dutifully listening to The Gilded Palace Of Sin five or six years earlier?
Yes those twelve-inch slabs of vinyl in colourful cardboard jackets – those ‘fabulous creations’ – did ‘save our lives’. Not literally, like a life jacket or a surgical operation might, but spiritually, because without the smidgen of success that the Kursaal Flyers enjoyed, and the things that followed, I for one might now be a very disappointed old man. The music on those long-playing records entertained and informed us. They were the holy scriptures that gave our lives direction and meaning.
*a London record shop specialising in jazz