At sixteen, if I wanted to make a private call, that is, if I wanted to speak to a boy, I left the house. I walked through the village, past three pubs, and out beyond the first farm to where a phone box stood on a grass verge.
There was plenty that could go wrong. Someone might be there already, in which case I had to wait—at first politely, invisibly in the dark, and then, if they took more than a minute or two, encroaching on the phone box’s puddle of light. A grown-up would have rapped on the glass, whereas I could not bring myself to act. Waiting was agony, but all I could do was will them to finish. Did they not know that this was a matter of life and death? That I had to speak to him now?
Maybe no one was in (and nobody had an answering machine). I might get a wrong number or a crossed line and use up my money interrupting strangers. Or I’d get through and feed in the first of my stack of two-pence pieces for it to be ignored or spat out, either way leaving me cut off. I had to ring the operator and persuade her to allow me two-pence worth of time, about three minutes.
Sometimes it worked. I made the call, the boy was there and wanted to speak to me and, all of a sudden, I could hear him. He was intensely present—imagined and actual in the same moment. Our conversations were inept and brief, not least because phone calls were expensive. You used up your money and you did not ask people to ring you back. Phone calls were something in which you invested.
For those minutes I could hear the voice of the boy I was in love with, or the silence between us, I listened hard. Then I walked home through the dark, turning over every syllable, stress, pause, and intonation until the conversation became fixed as a kind of song.
Hearing a song that had captivated me was like getting that boy on the phone. There were so many things that made it unlikely. Even now, I get a rush of exhilaration when I hear David Bowie’s “Starman” or Marc Bolan’s “Metal Guru.” When they were released, I was nine years old and got to hear them maybe three times a week—if they were on Top of the Pops or Radio One, which I could listen to before school or bed. I was not quite ready to go out and buy my own records and these songs, even now that I can carry them in my pocket, remain tantalizing.
At seventeen I made my first trip to America, and could not decide what to eat or drink or watch or listen to, I was so concussed by choice. Britain was a land of four (official) radio stations. We had three television channels, which broadcast from the time children got home from school until the time their parents went to bed. Without video, television existed only in real time. You had to arrange to be there. If dinner was served during Top of the Pops, I ate as quickly as I could and then dashed back to our flickering black-and-white set. My mother didn’t understand what television or pop music were for; nor did she live in a state of waiting.
Before I knew where to find music, I had to make do with what was there. My parents had a handful of pop albums—Dylan, the Moody Blues, the Beatles—which I absorbed without preconception or expectation, and with total concentration. Later, I knew too much and didn’t trust myself. Someone I admired had said the Stranglers were good. Why didn’t I like them? Maybe I did. No, I didn’t. They were pub rock. Maybe I wasn’t listening to them in the right way. Was there a right way? Maybe I was wrong about other bands too. What should I like? Why couldn’t I like what I thought I liked? What did I like? And how could I be in love with a boy who liked that?
Records were expensive and hard to get hold of. I would make the trip into town to the one small record shop, not knowing if they had managed to get hold of whatever I had saved up for, or if it had already sold out. I read about forthcoming releases and held my breath: X-Ray Spex, Devo, Siouxsie and the Banshees.… Would I be able to get it on colored vinyl? Would I be able to get it at all? Our money was present tense, our economy straightforward cash; no one had a checkbook or credit card. We bartered with the shop, which sold our old records secondhand, and with each other. I might plead with someone to let me record their Magazine album, or I might go round to their house regularly just to hear it. We even borrowed records, which seems incredible given how precious they were. There are one or two I have yet to return.
What was it like to be someone with every record at their fingertips, one of those DJs whose rooms must be lined with vinyl? They had everything, so surely they had my song, whatever my song was. For several weeks in 1980, it was Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.” I was at the highest point of infatuation with this song when it had taken shape in my head but still felt astonishingly new every time I heard it. I was still waiting for it to arrive in the record shop. One night I lay in the bath for the whole of John Peel’s show, as the water grew cold, not daring to move in case he played it. He did, and I burst into tears. Waiting for a song was like waiting for a bus to arrive in that village. I would stand on the side of the road an hour after it was due, unable to accept that it wasn’t about to turn up, sure in fact that as soon as I got home and closed the door, it would.
A bus, a record, a boy… I could create the right conditions, but to some extent all were beyond my control. My record collection was limited. I had purged it of disco, soul, and hippie shit, and was reconstructing it as guardedly as I was reconstructing myself. It had to be right. The first thing we did when entering a friend’s room was go through their record collection. It was how you presented yourself and how you were judged. Like a profile on a networking site, your record collection advertized your personality, style, passions, hopes, and dreams. Only it wasn’t hidden away on a computer: it took up space.
There were always new songs. While waiting to hear what I liked, I had to listen to hours of other music, and something might catch my attention. I’d be excited about one song only to find myself distracted by another. Songs flickered out of car windows and shop doorways. They found me and made sure I kept coming across them until one day they were in my head and I wanted to hear them. I missed something I had not possessed. What more delicate form of seduction can there be?
We listen harder to anything we can’t quite hear, and in those days this meant not just availability but the quality of sound. My transistor radio worked best three inches from my ear. I spent almost as much time tuning it as listening, perching it on a shelf or windowsill, tweaking the aerial this way and that. I managed to get my parents’ old box gramophone for my room and listened to its woolly sound without frustration. Every piece of technology we had, from our cars to our central heating, was temperamental and so we expected difficulty. The stylus was unbalanced, picked up fluff or skidded across a warp and then got stuck on a scratch. Wires had to be tickled into place. I hoped and strained, adapting from one moment to the next.
Listening was simplified when my father invested in a neat little turntable and a pair of lightweight speakers, but the sound coming out of this machine made no noise at all. Yet I expected nothing more until I made friends with people who owned “hi-fi systems.” On these machines, the same old songs unfurled and blossomed. They were larger, clearer, and brighter. What I’d been listening to on the little stereo at home was nothing more than a diagram.
When I bought an album, I put it on at the start of side one, turned it over and listened to the end of side two. At first I would concentrate on the tracks I already knew but often these were the ones whose charm wore off as less obvious songs revealed their depths. Like many people, I have hundreds of songs imprinted on my memory to which I can sing along. I know every whoop and sha-la-la. Yet I cannot conjure them from silence, perhaps because I absorbed all that music as a listener and can only reenact that listening.
If I wanted someone else to listen, I leapt up and down, wrenching the stylus away from one track and putting on another, saying “Do you like this? You’ll love this. What do you think? Great, isn’t it? Isn’t it?” At such moments, I wasn’t actually listening. I was showing a song to someone. I made the music that had seduced me part of seduction.
An uncle who was leaving the country bequeathed us a pair of huge dusty speakers, an amp, a deck, a tuner, and a cassette player. I was enthralled by the heft of all this chrome and plastic, the cables and plugs, knobs and dials. Now I could make tapes, which gave me the chance to decide what songs I’d hear and in what order. This was not a simple exercise. It took hours to get right—to cue the stylus, adjust the bass and treble, balance the input and output volumes, and to remember to press pause not stop at the end of a song, and then to press it again when the next song started. Mix tapes gave us the chance to offer one another calling cards or versions of ourselves as defined by our record collections. I spent days figuring out the perfect track list for the boy I was in love with, and hours recording the songs. It was like presenting someone with a ship in a bottle or a castle made of matchsticks.
When CDs first appeared, I could tell the difference between them and vinyl instantly. They sounded freeze-dried. But I liked being able to swoop down on a track, repeat it endlessly, and to skip those I wasn’t sure about simply by pressing a button marked skip. I could sit across the room with a remote control and choose my song. The neat square package and shiny disc were pleasingly novel and I did not miss the scratches and bumps. Everyone’s records disappeared, and their music equipment grew smaller and smaller. Was music becoming less important? Or was this the stylish and convenient way to proceed? I didn’t notice that I had stopped playing records or how much I had grown used to the new technology until the day I tried to insert a single into a CD player.
I adapted to digital production the way I might get used to mountain air. Everything was clean and in place and extremely bright, and this made me uneasy until I came to expect it. Like the acute focus of camera zoom, digital recording seemed more real than the real thing. It took music further away from what it actually sounded like, and so acoustic performances, especially orchestras and operas, might now sound wildly unregulated. Why is the soprano so damn loud?
The Internet is my fantasy DJ’s record-lined room. While I waited each Thursday evening for the possibility of three minutes of David Bowie singing “Starman,” I can now watch that same episode of Top of the Pops on YouTube. I can make a playlist in a kind of supermarket dash, veering around, grabbing, adding and deleting. Or I can become completely paralyzed, as I was by the thirty kinds of breakfast cereal facing me in that American store. I suspect that I take even longer to make a mix CD today than I did a mix tape.
Too easy? Maybe, but all that saving up and waiting around wasn’t easy enough. I had the appetite for it back then, and the time to waste. What I miss is the seduction. The glimpse, the tease of a song which has got into my head but is not yet there for me to hear whenever I want to.
I am disappointed—not in the technology but in myself. Of course, I could still sit and listen to an album from beginning to end, over and over, but instead I indulge in a passive type of eclecticism, often leaving my iPod on shuffle. I am looking for that old feeling of surprise and delight, which won’t arise because I don’t know what I’m waiting to hear.
In 1979, we carried our musical credentials as we might a membership card for the Socialist Workers’ Party. Our lapels and satchels were covered in badges announcing allegiances. We were fanatical, narrow-minded, mocking, and horribly self-conscious. Yet we loved music with a depth and thoroughness it often repaid. To us, eclecticism was a conscious artistic gesture rather than a strenuous breadth of taste. I’m glad that I no longer care what anyone thinks of me listening to Neil Young, Disco Tex and the Sex-O-Lettes, Benjamin Britten, and Burial, but disappointed to see eclecticism become a style choice. Eclecticism has its conventions after all, including the paths we take through it: the superhighway of iTunes, the nature trail of the specialist site, and the tourist map of the search engines. We need the dark and dusty corners of the record shop, the chance to browse, to pick up something because it is next to what you are looking for and its silly name, Half Man Half Biscuit, or the girl in the green dress on the cover catches your eye. We also need to make mistakes, to remind ourselves that the girl in the green dress is no guarantee.
Things aren’t so bad. Much of my new listening comes, as it ever did, from people talking about or playing me something. There are still songs that I suddenly realize I know without any idea of how. There are still many people rigidly obsessed with a single genre or band. Music comes at me in old and new ways, and I suspect that the way I listen now has as much to do with being distracted and middle-aged as it has to do with technology.
These days my most focused listening is to music that I do not want to follow me home. I am not going to do the washing up to Stockhausen. I enjoy the kind of contemporary classical and electro-acoustic music that reveals itself in performance. Kurtág and Sciarrino have been for me as visceral an experience as Pere Ubu or the Pop Group live almost thirty years ago. I have CDs of both composers’ work but rarely listen to them, which bothered me until I decided that it was a virtue of this music that it meant so much more live, that it expected me to go to it, to wait and stop and listen.
Just as music has become more accessible, it has become more abstract. CDs, which once seemed ridiculously compact, are now clutter. But we are unnerved by this and glad to be offered artwork and sleeve notes along with our downloads. An MP3 file is a song, but a record is a thing that contains a song and it’s as if we still need our music to arrive in a package or vehicle.
Perhaps now, instead of imagining the song, I should be imagining its material substance—the idea of the record. Perhaps it was the idea of a song, like the idea of the boy, that interested me most.