In a recent interview with Digital Trends, Robyn Hitchcock commented, “the LP seems very dignified and regal”. Hitchcock also nailed it in observing “The CD is slowly dying. And we know now, when something approaches extinction, it becomes fetishized.”
The dominant format of the last 30 years is set to slowly slip from our collective consciousness. The foreseeable future will be dominated by streaming services, not downloads, not physical formats. The likes of Tidal, WiMP and Qobuz Hifi lossless services will plug the hole left by the slow departure of physical CDs. CDs won’t die out completely, they’ll simply slide away into a niche interest, similar to where vinyl sits now.
So why do many music fans and audiophiles find it so hard to quit the physical format and subsist solely on FLAC rips, HRA downloads and Spotify streaming?
The answer may lie in our teenage years. Or rather, what we grew up with. Come on in Dr Freud, have a seat – we’ve been expecting you. Music listening experiences might ultimately move beyond streaming. The 30th anniversary remaster of Cut Copy’s Zonoscope might well delivered as an inhalable gas or digestible pill. Who knows? Millenials not weaned on physical formats won’t know any different. They won’t miss what they never knew.
For folk presently crossing over into middle age like yours truly, it’s a different story. Until Napster, Audiogalaxy, Kazaa and emusic.com, tipped us into the 21st century, physical formats were all we really knew. At the risk of sounding creaky, music just wasn’t as available as it has been in the last ten years. (That and we had to lick the road clean with our tongues int’ mornin’).
I grew up during an odd time, my music obsession taking hold just as the recording industry was trying it damndest to get consumers to forsake vinyl in favour of the more convenient, near-indestructible Compact Disc.
I wasn’t convinced one way or the other until the prospect of hauling several hundred records up and down the M1 and M6 every twelve weeks presented. In the summer of 1990 I was eighteen and about to head to university, the lead up to which I spent committing my favourite records to cassette tape.
Home taping didn’t kill music for this fella. It made me buy more music. Much more. The convenience of cassettes was (and is!) unassailable but they sounded pretty darn terrible, even to my teenage ears. With my first student loan I bought a Sony CD player and integrated amplifier and took to buying CDs as a way of maintaining good sound quality without the black stuff overrunning my dorm room.
Who sunk the final nail into my vinyl-buying coffin? Robyn Hitchcock – that’s who.
By January 1991 I’d discovered R.E.M.’s Green and Document. When Out Of Time dropped a few weeks later R.E.M. played a secret (and widely bootlegged) gig at London’s Bordeline under the name Bingo Hand Job. Joining them on stage that night was Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock.
Commenting on Michael Stipe’s early 90s guest appearance ubiquity one waggish columnist at Select magazine tongue-in-cheekily suggested that if you sang loud enough in the bath Stipe would bubble up from below to sing backing harmonies.
And sure enough, Stipe was afforded turns on not one but TWO Robyn Hitchcock songs in 1991. For those playing at home they were “She Doesn’t Exist” (from Perspex Island) and (So You Think You’re In Love UK single b-side) “Dark Green Energy”.
That same year marked the first time I saw Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, themselves a bastardised version of earlier outfit The Soft Boys, play live in support of Billy Bragg at Birmingham’s Hummingbird. At the end of the show I bought a souvenir mug from the merch stand. Twenty-three years later and with almost as many Hitchcock gigs under my belt, it remains one of my most sentimentally treasured possessions.
The mug also symbolizes the moment my CD-buying switched got flipped.
Hoovering up Robyn Hitchcock’s then back catalogue on CD was made even easier in the face of bonus tracks available on nearly every CD edition. A vinyl copy of Element Of Light went ten songs deep. The CD? Fourteen. The music industry’s incentivisation for music obsessives to switch to a digital format was as cynical as it was crystal clear.
Four years later Hitchcock bought the rights to his own catalogue and had Rhino handle remastering and reissues. Three albums with The Egyptians and five solo efforts, all recorded before Hitchcock jumped to a major label (A&M) in the late eighties. No vinyl this time, only CDs with yet more, alternate bonus material. I bought the lot.
In 2007/2008 my bank balance withstood another financial blow at the hands of yet another round of re-issuing. Yep Roc put out remastered CDs of those very same titles with yet another selection of hitherto unreleased material tacked on to reel in the completist buyer.
Being a Hitchcock completist is a challenging business. Albums have popped up in all sorts of odd territories over the years. I’ve no idea why 1989’s (truly superb) Queen Elvis didn’t see a UK release but it didn’t; a practice that led to paying stupidly high import CD prices at HMV. BBC session compilations and live releases vanished as soon as they appeared via Strange Fruit. Obliteration Pie, a compilation of oddities that contains the definitive version of “A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations, Briggs”, only saw daylight in Japan.
For the uninitiated – and by his own admission – Hitchcock is one part Beatles, one part Dylan and one part PG Wodehouse. In priming the reader that Hitchcock is a “singer-songwriter” of “enduring” vintage, rarely does commentary pass without mention of Syd Barrett. A card that’s regularly over-played by journalists (especially Stateside) is that Hitchcock is a British eccentric.
Whilst Hitchcock’s songs do contain references to insects, fish, skulls, suitcases and long red bottles of wine – as well as more obvious motifs sex and death – most of his catalogue sounds disarmingly straightforward. There’s a heavy lean towards a Beatlemusic sound (his term) on The Egyptians- and Venus 3-backed records whilst Hitchcock’s solo turns tend to be much quieter affairs: vocal, piano and acoustic guitar pushing him (reluctantly?) toward the folk genre.
If there’s discomfort to be had from listening to any one of his twenty solo albums, it isn’t from the cosy acoustic strum or huggable harmonies. It’s Hitchcock’s lyrics, tapping equal parts surrealism and tenderness, that often paint an unsettling picture. For a broader background on the man himself check out the excellent interview conducted by Marc Maron as part of his WTF podcast series. Unusually for Maron, he shuts the hell up and lets his guest (Hitchcock) talk.
It was said in 1991 that if you threw a rock in the air in the middle of Bristol you’d hit an ex-member of The Blue Aeroplanes (such was their number).
If you threw a rock in the inner west of Sydney right now you’d probably hit Robyn Hitchcock.
Hitchcock spent the best part of May and June down under: club-touring with Steve Kilbey (of The Church) as well as playing smaller, more intimate venues with local musicians Emma Swift and Chris Pickering. I caught one of the latter shows where the trio ran through what many fans consider to be Hitchcock’s meisterwerk: I Often Dream Of Trains.
It’s a record comprising sketches of eerie spaces, cold rooms at dusk, autumnal woods and very British austerity without really being about any of these things. If anything it’s the sound of an artist taking the most dramatic and – if you listen to his more ardent admirers – most rewarding left-turn of his career. Predominantly consisting of lo-fi guitar and piano, IODOT’s songs are barely there – nothing gets fleshed out. Sounding boney and skeletal, IODOT is not an audiophile’s delight. (But so what?). There are very few bass notes to speak of – it’s mostly midrange and treble. I urge you to give it a listen but don’t expect spectacular sonics.
Thirty years after its release, played live in Sydney IODOT is a more ramshackle affair. With an audience presenting for entertainment the ethereal detachment of the record is lost. Time has eroded the acerbic bite of Hitchcock’s pre-song monologues; he doesn’t seethe as much as he used to. It’s to his credit that the trappings of soft middle-age didn’t strike sooner – Hitchcock is 61 years old.
In late August, Britain’s most enduring eccentric singer-songwriter ™ returned to Australia for more pop-up gigs with Swift and Pickering plus a turn at Repressed Records’ birthday party. The man is giving ubiquity a red hot go.
Whilst we’re talking omnipresence, Hitchcock’s latest solo album is entitled the The Man Upstairs (out this week). Joe Boyd, he of Nick Drake, Fairport Convention and R.E.M. associative fame handled the production. Gillian Welch did the painting that adorns the sleeve.
Clocking in at less than forty minutes The Man Upstairs captures couch-comfortable takes on five Hitchcock originals and five covers from The Doors, Roxy Music, The Psychedelic Furs, Grant Lee-Phillips and (little know Norwegian outfit) I Was A King.
There’s a broader issue here. The Man Upstairs is available for lossy streaming on Spotify where huge gaps in his extensive catalogue quickly become evident. That’s fine for the casual fan but less than ideal for the completist wanting access to EVERYTHING. Completists cannot trust the cloud. Ownership of CDs and vinyl still has a place, albeit a niche spot in the corner of the mainstream’s peripheral vision.
The recording and mastering quality of the The Man Upstairs are mighty fine but ordering the vinyl is a brain-free exercise given that it also ships with a complimentary CD copy of the album. Hitchcock’s label Yep Roc did similarly with his previous long-player Love From London.
Elsewhere, a CD copy shipped with the vinyl edition of David Bowie’s The Next Day and Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas. Next week’s re-issue of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan sees a bonus CD bundled into the bargain.
Surely this isn’t exclusive to ageing white male artists? It’s a practice that more labels could adopt in coercing the more committed fan to part with (more) cash.
Think about it: if a vinyl release came with a CD – or at the very least a FLAC download – there’d be no bitching about MP3’s convenience-over-quality, freeing the consumer to play ‘analogue’ or digital versions without sonic penalty. CDs in their own right are essentially worthless. Nowadays, you can’t give ‘em away. But a CD thrown into a vinyl release would better justify its price premium over the soon-to-be-obsolete tiny silver discs.
If the music industry’s intent is to continue selling physical releases then why not combine the niche (vinyl) and soon-to-be-niche (CD) formats of yore in offering the consumer a more compelling physical media package tomorrow?
I will buy Robyn Hitchcock releases in a physical format a) because I always have and b) because I demand ongoing access to his entire catalogue. And with more disposable income available for discretionary purchases than during my student years I’ve taken to buying the Hitchcock catalogue on vinyl…
…which I’ve now commenced ripping to DSD. In the context of why I gave up on records the first time round, that’s hugely ironic.