In Long Players, Tom Gatti has assembled an all-star cast of 50 writers and music lovers, each detailing their relationship with a single album.
In Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them (Bloomsbury) Deputy Editor of The New Statesman, Tom Gatti, has charged an eclectic group of authors with the task of dusting off the most transformative LP of their lives, dropping the needle, and summing up the experience on the page.
What results is a kaleidoscopic array of influences, histories, recollections of innocence, debauchery, and even trauma. Though we’re in expert hands — with the likes of Patricia Lockwood, David Mitchell, Rachel Kushner, Bernadine Evaristo and Neil Gaiman to name a few — the brief is no picnic. You only need to imagine doing it yourself: how can you possibly put into words your feelings about the most important album in your life?
Leading up to the Australian release of Long Players, we were fortunate enough to catch up with Tom Gatti. Dialling in from his London home, we chatted about the difference between favourite and important albums, how listening habits and mediums have changed over time, and how the best kind of LP can live and grow inside you.
Firstly, given such a tantalising brief, did Gatti encounter reluctance from the authors at all? In a word: no.
“This started as a feature in The New Statesman. A lot of the time, my job is to get writers to ditch whatever important, committed project they’re working on — like their novel — and do something infinitely more frivolous for me: ‘can you just do 500 words on whatever,’ and it can be like pulling teeth,” Gatti said.
“But I knew we were onto a good idea with this one because the responses were just instant, the writers were biting off my hand to take part, which is quite unusual. Some people took a while to think about it, but what was striking was that most people knew instantly what their record was and really keen to write about it, to share their experience of it. It was quite a Herculean task to corral these 50 authors and 50 different albums, but in terms of twisting people’s arms to take part, it was a dream. I didn’t have to use any of my usual flattery mixed with coercion.”
The fact that the authors relished the opportunity to take part is evident in the writing. The enthusiasm leaps off the page. It’s clear that the soundtrack to single transformative moments or long periods of evolving companionship means a great deal. Interestingly though, part of the brief was that the album in question shouldn’t necessarily be the writer’s favourite, but rather a “cherished” one. What was the difference?
“I think it’s an important distinction because when you’re asked what your favourite album, or favourite book, or favourite band is, it’s quite an inhibiting question,” Gatti explained. “So I wanted to make that distinction so that what came in would have a personal quality. I think there are a few examples in the book where if I went back to the writer and ask them what their favourite was, I’d get a different answer.
“For example, in Neil Gaiman’s entry on Diamond Dogs — if you put a gun to his head — I’m not sure he would say it’s his favourite album, or the best Bowie album. But it was the one that he first discovered on his own and therefore it sparked off all sorts of creative ideas in him and tapped into all sorts of things that were going on in his own imaginative development. It clearly holds a special place in his heart.
“I didn’t give myself a chapter in the book, though I wrote a little about my own experiences with music in the introduction. But if I was given this brief, a lot of cool, obscure choices would be quite tempting. Then you think, ‘that will look good, but it’s not the one that’s really lodged in my gut.'”
In most people’s romantic recollections, the album is almost always a vinyl LP, rather than a CD (Gatti even points towards the horrific character of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho as an avid CD collector). Still, in the CD’s prime (the late 1990s), the album as a format had never been more popular. So why the bad press?
“It is an unsexy format, isn’t it?” he replied. “I write a bit about The Bends [Radiohead] and I’ve got my copy sitting here. The case is cracked, it’s scratched, it’s plastic, it’s not a format that inspires great love or affection, it’s not particularly tactile, it’s shiny and brittle. It never became an object of love in the way that vinyl did and has — and cassettes are slowly becoming again.
“But I think for anyone who came of age in the ’90s, it’s hard for us to hate the CD because it will always have a big place in our hearts. For most of us, it’s the bulk of our music collection and I can’t get rid of mine. You need to find somewhere to store them that isn’t locked in an attic but is hidden away sufficiently so as not to offend your family.”
On closer inspection, however, the delivery mechanism of CD and vinyl and the sequential listening experience is not too dissimilar. But with the advent of devices like the iPod, as Gatti puts it in his introduction, the album was being “stripped for parts.” Now that streaming has cemented its supremacy as the most popular method for listening to music, would volume two of Long Players feature writers and their favourite viral playlists? Gatti’s response was adamant.
“Ah, no. People have suggested a second edition of the book and I don’t think I’d have a problem finding more writers to contribute. Look, playlists have a place. I like making Spotify playlists but let’s not forget: they’re nothing new. If you grew up on CD albums, you also grew up on mixtapes.
“The romantic part of me finds assembling a Spotify playlist too easy. There’s so much care, attention, and time that goes into making someone a mixtape, that if you give someone a mixtape, whether it’s a romantic gesture or not, it means a lot. Whereas the Spotify playlist is an unromantic drag and drop exercise. They’re not fixed things — which is possibly part of their appeal — but I don’t think you can have a deep emotional attachment to them.
“Streaming services are great for a lot of things, but what they don’t serve well is the kind of listening that the writers celebrate in the book: start-to-finish, concentrated, intense, sequential album listening. Every time I go on a streaming service, I feel like I’m pushed away from that. So I think that’s partly why we’re seeing this revival in vinyl LPs, which is happening in Australia, it’s happening in the UK, it’s happening in the States. In both Australia and the UK, vinyl sales are forecast to outstrip CD sales. They’re at a 30-year high in the UK. They passed that threshold of outstripping CD sales in the US last year.
“When these new technologies come along, like the iPod and then streaming, we do instinctively embrace them. They offer something amazingly convenient. You have to remember how revolutionary it felt: going around with your Walkman and two tapes to being able to carry your entire music library around with you. After a while we realise we’ve gained a huge amount, but what is it we’ve lost? There’s something I’m missing about my experience of music. And I think a big part of that is that ‘album listening’ that comes from sitting down, putting on a physical disc or cassette and listening to it the whole way through, which isn’t easily replicated in the digital sphere.”
The occasions of genuine illumination manifest in different ways throughout the book. When Melissa Harrison remembers Movements by Booka Shade and the desire to prolong the communal escapism that it soundtracked, it’s hard not to feel the pang of loss: “Often, at after-parties, we’d take down all the clocks, even taping over those on ovens or microwaves. We wanted to exist out of time with one another […] and we succeeded, for a while.”
Then there are the moments when an author reveals an internal transformation, brought on by the music. Imagine an album that gave you “…the peace of mind to celebrate a future that could never be guaranteed.” And awakened the realisation within yourself that you were deserving of love. Such was the experience of Booker-Prize winner Marlon James and Björk’s 1995 album, Post.
“Marlon James’ is a really good example. With most of the contributions, I was really impressed with how honest and open people had been. But Marlon James’ response did floor me. It’s so honest and also so beautifully framed in the way he describes what Post unlocked for him and that idea of possibility and uncertainty being a positive thing.
“There were others that surprised me in different ways. In terms of starkness and honesty, Will Self’s description of listening to Van Morrison [Astral Weeks] and being strung out, first on prescription then illegal drugs in this cavernous house somewhere in west London. It’s a very bleak picture he paints. Oddly, the music isn’t necessarily a healing force — it didn’t save him from this period in his life — but it soundtracked it. And almost for good or ill, it’s worked itself into his identity because of that.
“The American writer, Patricia Lockwood — who has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize — writes about being a teenager growing up in the midwest and stumbling upon this very odd record by This Mortal Coil, who is a Scottish indie collective. Just the sheer strangeness of it — she’d never heard anything like it before — was captured beautifully. And just from a selfish point of view, it was one of the records that I didn’t know before editing the book, so it turned me onto that record, which I now absolutely love.”
Through the collection of dozens of perspectives on the album as an art form, does it add up to a kind psychological analysis of the human condition through the prism of music? One thing that’s clear: there is an enormous variety of ways that music — specifically when it’s packaged up as an album — can speak to us.
When Linda Grant writes about Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, it’s clear that it has made an indelible imprint on her identity: “It is the most personal album I own, personal about Joni Mitchell and personal about me. I never saw her perform live. I don’t want to. I’ve no interest in sharing her with total strangers because none of this is about her, it’s about me.”
Whereas for Neel Mukherjee, the essence of the album lies in the recorded artefact itself. Here’s how he recalls an album of Mozart’s Concertos for Piano and Orchestra: “Pages turning, musicians clearing their throats, adjusting their seats: how alive and affecting, how real these traces of the making of music were.”
So did Tom Gatti come closer to understanding what connects memories and emotions to music through the process of putting this book together?
“I think there’s a couple of things that became clear to me while working on the book,” he explains. “One is that so many of these life-shaping encounters with music happen in the teenage years. There’s this great quote from Deborah Levy that listening to Bowie [The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars] was “throwing petrol at the naked flame of teenage longing. In your teenage years, you’re totally primed for that new and intense experience that music can offer.
“Another thing is that listening to these records is quite a nostalgic experience. And it is for me, for sure, when I listen to music from when I was a teenager. After not listening to them for a long time, I’ve gone back to Nirvana — the anniversary of Nevermind is coming up — so there’s a straightforward desire to recapture that part of your life.
“But there’s also a factor which a few writers pick up: the best of these records take you back to a special time in your life, but they also enhance the present moment. Sarah Hall writing about Radiohead [OK Computer] picks up on that, Rachel Kushner writing about The Gun Club [Mother Juno] also makes the point that while you have memories associated with these albums, but they exist in the present tense as well.
“I spoke with Ben Okri about his piece, Miles Davis’ [Kind of Blue]. He said that the music is playing “in a constant spirit loop”. I love that idea. And without trying to be overly poetic — because that’s Ben’s job and I can’t do it — when I go back and listen to Nevermind, in some sort of way, it’s been going around somewhere inside me the whole time.”
Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them is out now via Bloomsbury.