How about this for a wild night out: sitting in a room above a pub with the lights off, gathered round a vinyl turntable, listening to David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ in its entirety, and not speaking.
That’s the concept behind Classic Album Sundays, a club in north London that’s attracted a small following by presenting classic albums as precious artefacts deserving of museum-like respect.
Hmm. So that’s all the fun of rules, sitting quietly, enforced reverence. You might as well go to a library – though since budget cuts mean that the average local library will soon house nothing but a ZX Spectrum, the Sunday Sport on a stick, and a large-print copy of the Top Gear Annual, perhaps it’s just as well someone is sticking up for the benefits of quiet contemplation.
Instinctively, though, it feels wrong, treating albums like this. Especially the no-talking bit. An album’s ‘classic’ status doesn’t arise purely from the noise that comes through the speakers. It’s socially constructed – the product of years of people debating albums, writing about them, reading about them, arguing over their worth.
Take away the ability to turn to someone and say, “I love this bit” or “I always thought this song sucked”, and your destroying music’s most precious function: to
give boring people something to talk about bring people together via shared memories and common reference points.
That said, and without making too big a deal out of this club night – it’s only attended by a handful of people each month – it does speak to a collective unease over the way, in the digital age, songs have replaced albums as music’s defining art form, and what that says about the (supposedly more superficial) way we engage with music.
Last year, MGMT begged their label not to make ‘Congratulations’ available as individual tracks on iTunes – they felt it deserved to be listened to in its entirety. Pink Floyd, too, tried to prevent EMI from breaking up albums like ‘The Dark Side Of The Moon’ into separate tracks (presumably because it puts the whole Wizard Of Oz synchronisation out of whack).
But it’s telling that both those attempts failed. You can’t turn back the clock. Bands can’t force people to listen in a certain way, any more than journalists can whinge about the way publishing online lays them open to abuse via comments. It’s just the way things are now. I called up the club’s founder, Colleen Murphy, to talk over some of these issues.
At the club you listen to albums on vinyl, through expensive vintage speakers. What’s wrong with an iPod?
“Well MP3s only give you 20% of the information, so a great deal gets lost. These days that’s the only way a lot of people listen to music, as MP3s on a phone. They’re not getting the full spectrum – the audiophile enjoyment.”
Do you not think silent contemplation sucks the joy out of music, makes it into a museum piece rather than a living thing?
“Not at all. The BBC video made the club look quite stern, but it’s really laid-back, not remotely somber. People do remain silent, but it’s not something I have to enforce.”
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Why do people have to be quiet, though?
“Because we take our hearing for granted. People think nothing of watching a movie for two hours and focusing on it, not saying anything. Yet they think it strange to stay quiet for 45 minutes to listen to an album. It’s an amazing thing, when you’re so used to rushing around and multi-tasking, just to close your eyes and listen. It’s a revelation.”
But what about singing along to music, or dancing to it? Isn’t that what people want to do on a night out?
“Well I’m a club DJ, so I’m perfectly OK with people dancing and talking and singing. This is just another way to appreciate music. It’s not either/or.”
The whole ‘classic albums’ thing – isn’t it a bit of a fusty concept?
“No, because I’m not saying all classic albums are from the ’70s. Janelle Monae’s debut – that’s a classic album, it deserves to be listened to all the way through. Sure, some albums only have a couple of good songs, and you can download those – but some albums were made as albums. Musicians spent a lot of time on them, poured their heart and soul into creating this amazing thing. I think sometimes we ought to appreciate that.”
The club night was inspired by this blog post by DJ Greg Wilson