I got Euros Childs' ninth solo album last week, Situation Comedy. It's on double-vinyl, spread across three sides, in a lovely gatefold package. As consumer fetish items go, it's lovely. Every time I buy one of his albums, it comes with a personal note, which is wonderful, though it makes me worry that he doesn't have enough fans to make personal notes unviable. And this delightful touch is clearly an attempt to remedy the implied impersonality of the exchange too: it highlights one of capitalism's problems. Which made me think about things more closely, as you'll see if you read on…
What's the music like? No idea. I haven't taken it home to play it yet. But in a sense, that's beside the point. You see, I buy most of my music on vinyl when it's available. There are a number of reasons why: mostly for the romance of it. When I started buying music as a fresh-faced, well, fresher, the local shop was Cob Records. It mostly sold vinyl because it mostly sold indie, prog and Welsh-language stuff. Vinyl was cheap, and it was rather conservative way of asserting difference to (from?) the shiny consumer futurism of CDs. Britpop's nostalgic element fuelled the vinyl craze, releasing multiple versions of songs on coloured vinyl at 99p each, all 'limited edition' which just fuelled my completism. I loved the sleeves, the numbers, the little messages on the run-off grooves, the ritual of placing the needle on the disc and getting up to turn over a record. I have at least 20,000 circular oil-based discs in my flat now, too many to play particularly often.
I can't claim that sound quality was foremost for me: I was using a cheap early 1970s record player with horrible speakers connected with cables thinner than shoelaces. By the mid-2000s I'd acquired my parents' 1985 Sony hi-fi but that wasn't much better. I've only had a decent-ish system for a couple of years now. No, in all honesty, I bought vinyl because I thought it was cool, and because it didn't feel as acquisitive as 'mainstream' consumption. Which it is, of course. It's the 'leftfield dollar', as Bill Hicks would no doubt call it: self-deluding hipsters eagerly hoovering up resistance on a pressed black disc.
But at least in those days, I could claim that vinyl was a mainstream, respectable format rather than purely a fetish object. When I unwrapped Situation Comedy last week, I realised that something had changed. The record player isn't just a slightly hypocritical act of lame defiance with which I can live, it really is a betrayal of modernity. Why? Well, I'm used to LPs now coming with a slip of paper bearing a download code, so that I can get the music on my computer and iPod. It's an explicit, if slightly shameful, recognition on the part of musician, record label and listener that the slab of vinyl is meaningless. It's virtually never going to be used. It's a luxury item whose semiotic meanings (time, luxury, conspicuous superiority over those oiks downloading ragged Rihanna MP3s) have completely overwhelmed the format's use-value. That sneaky bit of paper implies that even the most purist music snobs are actually going to dismember the album into its constituent parts and listen to random songs on Shuffle. If not, then at least it's going to be played on the bus, in the gym or used as background to washing-up or solitary self-abuse. Whatever.
What gave me pause with Situation Comedy is that no slip of paper fluttered out of the packaging and it bothered me. Who does Euros Childs think he is? He's written a set of songs which he wants me to settle down and listen to in order, from beginning to end. It's possible to skip songs on an LP but it's a bit fiddly. At the end of each side, you have to get up, lift the needle, turn the record over, put the needle back on the disc and start up the player again. In case that becomes too automatic, Childs has left a side blank, so that if you unthinkingly drop the needle on that side, you'll get a foul screeching noise and the pristine smoothness will be forever scratched.
It's a brave thing to do. Childs has decided that his art is no longer to be the soundtrack for other activities, it's to be an event in itself. The album is available on CD too, of course, or you can download it for free here, but the stand-alone LP implies that for those of us reactionary enough to insist on a heritage format, we'll have to really commit to the experience. Without the download option, it's no longer a postmodern joke: paying close attention to the aural and physical album is our only option. It is, in a sense, an implied challenge to we vinyl fans: face the consequences of what might have seemed an easy choice. Though one could of course argue that offering the MP3s for free is a coded critique of the downloader: buying the vinyl means buying restriction, commitment, time and attention. Downloading the music for free is to acquire something which is going to be pulled apart and treated like junk food. In a sense, paying Euros Childs for an untransferable format like vinyl is an investment in oneself.
Walter Benjamin wrote about this nexus of experience and feelings in 1936, in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. In it, he differentiated between the experience of viewing a painting and viewing a photograph of a painting. To him, every further reproduction distances the consumer from the 'aura' of an authentic piece of art. Into this space, he suggests, is silently introduced an authoritarian dullness: without the immediate experience of the artwork, we're at the mercy of the reproducer's choices and intentions, while we develop an unhealthy reverence for the artist of the 'original' piece of work. A Monet painting, it seems, is only worth millions because we're all overly-familiar with postcard reproductions. Although there are positives to the loss of 'aura', Benjamin worries that by becoming captivated by the process of mechanical reproduction (the wonder of CDs, vinyl, or moving pictures), we're abandoning the ability to enjoy or appreciate an artwork autonomously or subjectively.
To Benjamin, the vinyl record is merely a mechanical reproduction of a real event. It isn't as good, and it has different qualities. If Euros Childs had been around in 1936, the 'event' would have been his performance, and the recorded versions a pale imitation (though the divergence between live recording and the production of music designed to be listened to on any format adds another layer of complexity: some records can never be performed live). Yet the act of listening to the record in other situations would have had a very different meaning to the act of experiencing the live creation of music in a concert hall or studio.
In the 1980s, Jean Baudrillard returned to Benjamin's theme with his notions of simulation and simulacra. To him, postmodern society had interposed layers of imitation between itself and reality, to the extent that 'reality' had been replaced, or even sought to imitate the imitation (Apple's use until recently of paper-and-leather-effect skeuomorphism, I think, betrayed a certain discomfort with simulation, while ironically and accidentally distancing us even further from 'authentic' paper and leather).
When vinyl was the only available format, it was a 'first-order' simulation: a recognisable illusion standing in for the 'real' event, the original performance. The closest one could get, having missed the concert or wanting to hear it again. With increasing technical wizardry, the LP became a second-order simulation, so all-encompassing and convincing that it both pays homage to and threatens to overwhelm the 'real' – such as when the music heard on a record couldn't possibly be performed in real-time. Finally, in the postmodern period, then vinyl record becomes a third-order simulation, in which it appears to be both real and non-real, leaving behind any concern for authenticity and reality.
I doubt they'd agree, but I think Situation Comedy is both a third-order simulation and an attempt to deal with the loss of 'aura' in Benjamin's terms. Because Euros hasn't included a handy download for convenience, he's insisting that the experience of listening to his music becomes more 'real': it demands that I set aside time, that I pay attention to the physical object, to the grooves and the end of each side, that I listen to each song in the order its composer ordained. Yet at the same time, because a mechanically-reproduced event becomes my aim, the musician's original performance disappears completely. I chose not to have a CD, and therefore chose to add the complications and delights of vinyl. The experience was meaningless when only vinyl was available: so to choose it over CD or a download is to insist that the music is actually less important than the experience of the format.
I'm sure that Situation Comedy is a superb album, because Euros Childs' music always is. But what seemed like a slightly nostalgic decision actually turns out to be more complicated than I thought. And not entirely one as anti-capitalist and rebellious as I thought! Will I get the free download and solve all my cultural problems? Maybe, but not yet: having committed to the vinyl and the listening experience it demands, I'll at least go home, drop the needle and pay proper attention first.
Anyway, if you've got this far, you deserve some kind of reward. Here's some Euros Childs, starting with the single from Situation Comedy.
Here are a couple of tracks from Euros's first band, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, as a teenager. True to form, I have it on 10" vinyl…
My favourite GZM song. Always cheers me up: