So wrote Edward Gibbon after completing his magnum opus "The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire". I kind of know how he feels. True, I haven’t toiled for the twelve years that it took Gibbon to produce his text, but it’s been over three and a half years since I started this project, which is a good two and a half longer than I initially planned. And over the course of that time, what started as a labour of love has just become a labour.
But why stop now? After all, Gibbon was working to certain parameters with his tome; the Roman Empire rose, the Roman Empire fell and, having fell, Gibbon had a clear cut off point to put down his pen and get on with the washing. Clearly, 'Crazy' does not mark the 'end' of UK number ones; there was a 'next one' after it (it's Sandi Thom’s delightfully titled ‘I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)’if you're interested). Not only that, from my current vantage point in 2012, there are six years and counting of 'other' number ones waiting in line for attention that isn't going to come. Not from me anyway.
So, why stop now? Well, let me explain; I was browsing the second hand vinyl in a charity shop (as I'm wont to do) the other day and I came across this copy of David Bowie's 1972 'Starman' single in the box. Just seeing it there stopped me in my tracks. It only got to number ten in the charts so we haven't come across it on these pages, but there it was - orange RCA label, white/green RCA paper sleeve and 'Suffragette City' on the B-side. Two songs scratched into vinyl and sent out into the world to try its luck with the public, a perfect artefact from another era and an item of substance and meaning that would not look out of place hung behind glass. Which I guess is apt, seeing that it and its kind have become something of a museum piece. Give that copy of ‘Starman’ (or any other single) to your average clued up teen today and I've little doubt they wouldn’t know what to do with it.
And why should they - in a digital age of MP3 where Itunes and Spotify stream music straight down the phoneline, the thought of having two or three songs 'burned' onto a cumbersome plastic disc probably seems as ridiculous and cumbersome as the stack of eight 78rpm discs once needed to house Beethoven’s' 9th symphony at a time when the whole thing could be fitted onto two 33rpm discs. Or, as ridiculous and cumbersome as my own two disc box set of ‘Beethoven’s' 9th' (Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) would seem to anyone who has it on a single CD and can listen to it in one go without getting up to change any discs at all; give me convenience or give me death. Or better still, give me seven inches of vinyl.
You see, I've long thought that the 45” single was the best medium for music. Seven inches of plastic over which to make your definitive statement. Yes, people have made definitive statements over the course of an album too, but the extra space also encourages filler and patchiness - song one not up to scratch? Well song two might be, or song three. And so on. But a 45” single is a one shot at the title affair, a condensation of talent and conscious decisions that leads the artist to think that this song is the best statement we can make. It doesn't always work out that way, but even with the most horrendous of singles, somebody somewhere must have thought that it had a decent shot at the title.
Growing up, singles weren’t exactly cheap. Buying 10 or 12 singles cost more than buying an album of 10 or 12 songs, but there was little risk involved - you heard the song on the radio (not YouTube or Itunes) and thought 'I like that'. True, some rich folk may have bought them on a whim, but I wasn't one of them; if I bought a single there was a reason behind it and the thought of owning a 45 I didn't 'like' was as bizarre as going out without your trousers. Buying the parent album was a risk - the remainder of the songs were unheard and might be rubbish (and, as I’ve so often found out to my cost, most were), but you knew where you were with a single in your hand.
I can remember the first singles I bought ("Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and ‘I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper – one to be proud of, one not so), most people can, but how many can remember the last one I wonder? I can. For me, it was Neneh Cherry's 'Buffalo Stance' and it was bought from the leftover vinyl bargain rack of a local supermarket long after the song had dropped out of the charts and contention. It wasn't consciously my last - I didn't come away thinking 'this is the last single I'm ever going to buy'. It just turned out that way. Local shops had slowly stopped stocking them in favour of CD singles anyway so they weren't that easy to come by anymore and besides, my tastes had moved away from the top twenty by that stage. Where mine and popular opinion did converge, I was by then working full time and had money enough to buy the album without worrying too much whether the bulk of it was up to scratch or not. So I guess that for all my railing, I myself played my own small part in their downfall.
Which in a roundabout way is my answer to the question ‘Why stop now?’ Well, in one way the decision wasn’t mine at all; it's called itself to a natural halt really. You see, my own idea of what a 'single' is has been obscuring like the hazy horizon on a summers days over the past decade or so that I’ve reviewed. Singles in their traditional form have become marginialised and acquired the status of artefact. You can still buy them, even in the today that I’m writing in, but to do so has almost become an act of bloody mindedness when you can download the same thing without even leaving your bed. It’s akin to making your own furniture instead of buying it flat packed from Ikea. Some handy people do make their own furniture in the sprit of naturalness, but as George Orwell wrote “from the very start there is a touch of artificiality about the whole business, for the factories can turn out a far better table than I can make for myself. But even when I get to work on my table, it is not possible for me to feel towards it as the cabinet maker of a hundred years ago felt towards his table, still less as Robinson Crusoe felt toward his.”
There’s no doubt about it, buying singles is now the exception rather than the norm that downloading has become; the days of the top twenty set out in a rack at your local record shop have long gone. CD singles came first of course, arguably the same thing (albeit on a single disc) but arguably completely different too. When did they gain dominance? I'm not sure, but I've noticed that since circa 1994, it’s become increasingly difficult to find a true square image of the single sleeve to accompany each review I've written. In the majority of cases, all I've been able to find are the slightly rectangular images indicative of the rectangular CD case they came in which, in my own bloody minded way, I've compressed into a square. It's not ideal (or factually true), but it was enough to keep the ruse going - even though I wasn't buying them, I could still imagine that rack of vinyl down at Woolworth’s with the latest releases all nestling there in their paper sleeves and waiting for me to call in and browse them.
That all changed with 'Crazy'. With a fact of popular that's surely going to become as widely ingrained into common knowledge as surely as ‘Flowers In The Rain’ was the first song played on Radio One’ or ‘Here In My Heart’ was the first UK number one, 'Crazy' managed to reach number one on the strength of downloads alone. Which means, to put it bluntly, not one physical copy changed hands in order for it to be the best selling song in the UK. And that bothers me. As much as I've embraced electronic media myself, there remains something special about the physical act of buying and owning music, especially the definitive statement of that one shot at the title single. And now it’s gone.
But the music is still there and people are still listening, so does it matter? Well yes it does. The sense of loss is troubling – it is to me anyway. I still own all the albums and singles I ever bought from pre-teen to present day and, apart from the music within the grooves, their physical presence stand as ‘exhibits’ in the museum of my life. If I turn the sleeve to my copy of AC/DC’s ‘If You Want Blood’ to the light, I can still read the History homework indented into the cardboard where I’d used it as a laptop desk to write on back in 1979. That ‘Starman’ disc I found has ‘Steve’ written on the label in ink – who was Steve? Did he buy this disc? Was he given it as a gift? Does he know it ended up in a charity shop box and would he care if he did? Who knows – my point here is that even in something so incongruous and low-key, there’s a small history of someone there just waiting to be uncovered.
It’s not just the covers either. My well-worn copy of ‘Atomic’ has two big clicks on the intro, making it unique, my own personal Christian Marclay remix. Imperfect in itself maybe, but no other copy can boast the same. And even though I’ve not played that actual single in over twenty, those clicks have become so ingrained that I’ve been conditioned into thinking this IS how Atomic is supposed to sound and I mentally put them in place myself whenever I play my CD copy of ‘Eat To The Beat’, be it the 2001 ‘remastered’ version or the 2007 ‘Collectors Edition’ double disc set with DVD. Other examples abound, but you get the picture.
And not only that, in their own small way every piece of mass-produced vinyl I own has become personal to me and comes with its own associated memories. I can generally remember the shop I bought them from and the circumstance of why I bought it. You don't get that with downloads do you? You don't get the physical connection between you and the record, the needle and the groove, the personal touch or individuality. You don't get the hanging around the local record shop with your mates, the browsing through the racks, the reading the sleeves. (though on the plus side, there will be no more frustration courtesy of the disinterested shop girl's attempts to find the vinyl to go into the blank sleeve you offered to her. This might be nostalgic cliché, but it doesn’t mean it’s not fact. Because it is. All now it’s gone, like tears in the rain.
Maybe it's just me. Maybe people neither want nor miss it and clinging steadfastly to the ‘old ways’ is the domain of the same kind of 'special' person who dutifully pedals around on a penny-farthing rather than a light frame road bike. Or still listens to Beethoven’s Ninth over eight scratchy shellac discs on a wind up Gramophone. Or maybe I’ve just got old without knowing it. But whatever, I miss it. And though I may be a Luddite dreamer, I know I’m not the only one – as comedian Stewart Lee put it: "…….tapes and records and things. And for the younger people, a record was like a massive flat MP3, and there was almost no information on it at all. It was very impractical, it could break or warp in the heat or get scratched. But it was better than your life."
Amen to that. But with ‘Crazy’ putting that final brass screw into the coffin lid of the seven-inch vinyl, it’s time to close the lid on this project too. The hits still keep on coming, and I'll still keep listening, but if they’re no longer in a format that will be browsable in a charity shop box some twenty years hence, then I’ll leave it to someone else to do the writing. My work here is done.