Tom Gatti is the Deputy Editor of the New Statesman in London, a weekly politics & culture magazine. 360°Sound interrupted Tom’s holiday to discuss some of the excellent essays in his new collection Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them. In his introduction, Gatti mentions that Stanley Donwood described his cover photo for Radiohead’s The Bends as “an android discovering for the first time the sensations of ecstasy and agony simultaneously.” That’s an apt prelude to these essays, as the contributors describe the albums that were the soundtrack to formative experiences in their lives.
360°Sound: Is this a collection of essays that appeared in the Statesman, or is this new writing that you solicited for this collection?
Tom Gatti: We had the idea to ask writers to talk about a favorite record. But the key thing was not to make it a favorite record or the best record of all time. That kind of thing tends to lead to dull choices or people not wanting to play the game. We asked people to pick a record that changed them or shaped them or that was important at a particular time or place.
Most of the time in my job, I’m trying to get writers to stop doing something important, like working on their novel, and do something infinitely more frivolous. And often it requires quite a bit of cajoling. Sometimes it can be a bit like pulling teeth. But everyone has one of these records that’s really important to them. They were all really keen to write about them. That’s where it started.
When I sent out the invitations for this project I immediately knew I was on to a good idea. The emails came back so quickly. People were kind of biting my hand off to take part. We had these twenty-odd essays that were [originally] published in the New Statesman. In the aftermath of publishing, I had quite a few writers getting in touch saying, “Is this a series? I’d love to do one.” Readers were asking about it. I had a literary festival asking if they could do an event around it. Also, I enjoyed putting it together so much. That’s where the idea came to turn it into a book and commission another 25 writers and put it between hard covers.
Marlon James, commenting on Bjork’s Post, describes the record as “relentlessly present tense.” What do you make of that?
Marlon says preemptively in that essay, “This isn’t an act of nostalgia.” For several of the writers, the records have an effect of enhancing the present.
Sarah Hall writes about [Radiohead’s] OK Computer that, even though she has very specific memories associated with it — it’s her first visit to New York and she describes the plane coming down to JFK as “Let Down” is playing, and then gets tattooed on Coney Island — but she says that whenever she listens to the record it’s not going back through a nostalgia flip-book. It’s a record that takes whatever she’s experiencing at the moment and enhances it. It brings out something new for her, and gives her some heightened experience, or gives her access to some extra emotional level.
Rachel Kushner writes about the Gun Club. She has very specific memories of her college years, but also locks into that idea that the record creates its own time that you exist within, if that doesn’t sound too mystical. The best of these records are sound worlds that you have access to while you’re listening to them. They take you to a slightly different place. That place can be in the past or it can be in the present or it can be in the future. It’s what’s so magical about them, really.
Billy Bragg, in his description of Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, describes taking a recording project to a residential studio in rural Britain. The place was operated by some people he recognized from the handwriting on the cover of that Ronnie Lane recording. When he meets them he feels like he knows them.
I love that! Billy actually wrote a piece for the New Statesman. There was a government report recently in the UK regarding streaming and its effects on the music industry, and do we need to do anything to regulate it and to improve the payouts that artists are getting. Billy’s main problem with streaming revolved around the way in which the information of a record — by that I mean both the visual information, the photography and the imagery and the illustrations, as well as the metadata — is really downgraded or packed away. He was writing as a fan of music and describing that information as the bread crumbs that lead you to other music. He was saying that it’s much harder to recreate that in the online streaming environment. Of course the streaming services are supposedly doing a lot of that work for you, using their incredibly sophisticated algorithms to point you toward things you might like. But nothing can quite match the discovery that Billy relates in this piece. Recognizing someone from the photo of an album — you can’t get more real and more analog than that.
Anyone who grew up with physical-format music of any sort will have had a relationship with music that is partly predicated on all that information. I talk in the book about Thriller, and the music was a big part of it, but so much of it was all the stuff on the sleeve, weird drawings and over-deep credits and incredibly accurate [lyric] transcriptions. It all adds to the idea that this thing is more than 45 minutes of music. It’s a whole world in which you can reside.
I liked Kate Mossman’s essay in which she describes driving with her family to a holiday in France that they won in a sweepstakes, and the only thing they had to listen to was Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints. She brings up an interesting point about the amplification of music’s power through repeated listenings.
That’s potent, and it’s an edge that music has over some of the other art forms. The albums that you fall in love with, you do listen to them repeatedly. You don’t normally re-read your favorite novel a hundred times a year. In the physical-music era you would find yourself in a situation where you’re stuck with one or two things to listen to over a protracted period of time. You’ve got no other choice than to get to know this piece of music really, really well.
I remember drives out to the west of Ireland as a kid with my Walkman and I’d have my three tapes. Probably Michael Jackson, Guns & Roses and the Beach Boys. I knew these records absolutely inside out, to the point that it didn’t really matter if I liked them or not; these were my records. They were part of my identity. It’s only really later when you get that critical distance of deciding what you actually like and why that might be. In the very early days, when you only have a couple pieces of music, they very much become a part of you.
I really appreciated Sarah Perry’s essay about Rachmaninov. It’s delightful how she apologizes for it, like it’s not appropriate or something. When in fact, it couldn’t be more appropriate, because you point out in the introduction that the running length of most recorded music formats was inspired by classical music pieces.
Yes. When I came up with the idea [for Long Players] I imagined it as a collection of pop music writing. I told the writers that classical albums were OK, but I wasn’t sure if I’d get any back. I also loved the detail in Sarah’s essay that her first album was a free CD taped to the front of a magazine — the Best of Chuck Berry.
I really related to her description of being thirteen and coming downstairs and hearing this record and then announcing to everyone that this [Sequeira Costa’s Rachmaninov recording] was her favorite record and that she’d never listen to anything else. So much of falling in love with music, in this case albums, is when you encounter it.
Absolutely. Ian Rankin misquotes Miss Jean Brodie in his essay, saying, ‘Give me an album at a certain age and it’s mine for life.’ And that’s the key through-line in the whole collection, because it’s particularly those teenage years where you’re still working out who you are or who you want to be. Music can just tangle itself up in your sense of self in a way that it perhaps doesn’t later on when those parts of your identity are more fully formed. Everything is emotionally extreme at that age.
Deborah Levy, writes about listening to Ziggy Stardust in her bedroom in West Finchley in the suburbs of London. She describes Ziggy as ‘throwing petrol at the naked flame of teenage longing and desire for another sort of life.’
David Mitchell describes his first encounter with Joni Mitchell’s Blue at 17 or 18. It’s crushingly obvious to say, but when you’re listening on a Walkman the music is literally in your ears. I do think that there’s something in the shift to the portability of music that may change how we interact with it. It gives us that real chance to connect to it in a solitary and intense way. That was my experience, with long commutes to school at the beginning and end of every day. Those were the times that I would just lock into music. It’s an experience that you can’t replicate later in life, because there’s too much else going on. The teenage years make you uniquely susceptible to the influence of these really formative records.
I also appreciated your discussion in the introduction about how the likes of the Beatles, Zappa, Dylan, the Beach Boys and the Stones made their contribution to this coherent whole, the album. Bringing the concept of the novel to recorded music, as opposed to a random collection of songs. The Beatles really helped open other artists’ eyes to the potential of the album format.
I was thinking about that and I guess it does apply to some of my favorite records, and to many that are written about in the book. Bowie’s albums definitely have that feel. Ziggy and Diamond Dogs are written about by Deborah Levy and Neil Gaiman. In terms of the way they create character and narrative, they’ve definitely got that novelistic feel. Bowie was very well read and interested in fiction. Blue as well and Tori Amos’s Scarlet’s Walk and her journey across America.
Sometimes I think it’s not exactly a novel but a really coherent collection of short stories or poems. But either way, it makes it a slightly more literary experience. Which makes it particularly interesting to read novelists and poets writing about them. That’s something that they instinctively tap into. George Saunders is the key example in the book, writing about Yes and taking from it this really key lesson — you don’t have to understand what you’re doing at the outset, you can just create and then the meaning finds its way out. Or David Mitchell talking about Joni. He picks up a whole bunch of creative writing tips. Her use of vocabulary, those amazing “figure skater/ percolator” rhymes that she comes up with on Blue. Or it’s the idea of recurring characters. There’s a lot to take from these records in that writerly way.
It’s cool to hear how excited these writers were to participate in the project.
Everyone seemed to get it straight away. And there were records that bubbled up that I personally was very pleased to see in there. Like Warren G, this west coast rapper that I was obsessed with at 13, 14 years old. And this Anglo-Indonesian poet [Will Harris] who’s a decade younger than me, writes brilliantly about how it informs his thinking about poetry. That was a complete wild card; I would never have expected [Regulate … G Funk Era] to bubble up in this collection. Or indeed Tricky’s album Maxinquaye, a very strange, dark ’90s trip-hop record, which I absolutely loved but it wasn’t something that I would have imagined a Canadian Booker-nominated novelist would fire back as a life-changing record.
Similarly you have that sort of agony and ecstasy kind of thing. There are some very dark moments like what Marlon James went through in terms of coming to grips with his faith and sexuality. It was obviously a very tough time for him. And how Will Self writes about being strung out on various illegal, and then prescription, drugs living in this cavernous house going out of his mind and listening to Van Morrison.
Then you’ve got slices of pure joy coming through. The most recent choice in the book is Lizzo, selected by a very young novelist called Daisy Johnson. And for her [Cuz I Love You] evokes something purely celebratory. Even Mark Ellen writing about The B-52’s — I’ve always liked the B-52’s, but it’s not a record that I’ve thought very much about. I was pleased that people were able to hit that note of records being purely, uncomplicatedly fun.
These writers are writing from the heart about their own experiences. Luckily, that made my job pretty easy. The book’s been pretty well received, and it’s been particularly gratifying to me when people have taken it on its own terms and understood what it’s trying to do and gone along with it.
Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them is out now and available through major booksellers or order direct from Bloomsbury Publishing.