@stuherbert started it: “Portishead’s Dummy is 18 years old next week, and it is still one of the most beautiful albums to listen to. What classic albums are you listening to that are older than you might suspect?”
Dummy came out in 1996 (see, I can do mathz); I remember buying it - from a record store (HMV - what happened to them?). But hey, I can go further back than that: for my 18th birthday, I received the recently-released Floodland by The Sisters of Mercy, probably one of the first contemporary albums I owned. Around the same time, I would still have been listening to ‘old’ albums like Foxtrot by Genesis, which came out sixteen years previously.
Floodland is now twenty-four years old, half as much again.
Keep going like this and pretty soon you’re at the “jumpers for goalposts” stage and grumping that “kids now don’t even know what a vinyl record is”. (Actually, my daughter was playing happily with a vintage Fisher Price toy record player yesterday, but then she can already use her dad’s old record deck - she calls LPs “big CDs” and loves the Ghostbusters theme on 45. Absolutely no interest in compact cassettes though, whereas I would spend hours absorbing my own father’s mix tapes from his twenties. Really weird stuff like this, which I’ve only just discovered was by Roger Moore, or the truly wonderful Sugar Me by Lynsey de Paul.)
But the thing is, ‘old’ albums like Dummy and Floodland haven’t actually aged. I don’t mean in the sense that they’re timeless, which is arguable - although you wouldn’t mistake either for recent productions. I mean that their age and the distance from their original release dates no longer matter.
Twenty or thirty years ago, the available music was still ‘now’. What you heard was generally what was currently being released, or had been released in the past year or, occasionally, was a ‘classic’ track of the sort that fills those compilation albums in the service station. Listening to anything older was comparatively harder, unless you had an older relative or friend who already owned the disc and happened to bring it to your attention. You wouldn’t generally hear that stuff on the radio, let alone see it on TV. Sure, you might be able to find it in the shop racks (remember when WH Smith sold records, eh?) if you knew what you wanted, or you could always ask them to order it if you had a few weeks to spare (who did that?). That’s assuming you wanted a whole album - individual singles were usually deleted fairly swiftly once out of the charts. But as record store listening booths were long in the past by this time, you had little chance of listening to it first. Oh certainly it was possible if you made an effort, but you were unlikely to encounter it on a casual basis. Overall, the past was a closed book.
Compare with today: the entirety of recorded musical history is happening NOW. It’s like that Doctor Who episode with the mammoths and dinosaurs stampeding beneath the elevated steam railways of Churchill’s technological Roman Empire. Whatever you want to hear, whatever you discover through blog posts and twitter mentions and ‘retro’ magazine references, you call up instantly from Youtube or Spotify. There’s no divider between new music being released today and ‘that stuff your parents listened to’ - “it’s all good, man”. The MP3 charts, assuming anyone still pays attention, which I doubt, can be the most unholy mix of the latest X Factor singles and vintage choons that popped back on to the radar via an ad campaign or soundtrack appearance (which used to happen anyway, but generally required someone in a record company to spot an opportunity and go to the trouble of sanctioning an official rerelease - now, we just hit iTunes en masse and download). The fact that the retail audience for music has been steadily whittled down so that it now comprises a higher proportion of people who really love it, as opposed to the casual consumer who’s as likely to buy a game or app, only amplifies this effect.
No wonder contemporary acts have difficulty shifting units. They’re no longer competing with just their peers; they’re now up against everyone from the past too. I might buy the new Pineapple Thief album next month. Or I might postpone it in favour of finally picking up a copy of Caravan’s classic “In The Land Of Grey And Pink”, especially as it has a slick new 40th anniversary remastering with extra tracks - yeah, of course I’m already familiar with it. Or I might download that track from 2007 that I only just heard for the first time on someone’s Youtube fan montage the other day. Sorry, Bruce.
Not surprisingly, this mélange feeds back into the creative act. A band today are just as likely to be influenced by the Canterbury scene as by hip-hop, and they’ll probably throw elements from both into the blender (if they’re not quoting entire phrases anyway via samples). Genre categorisation has become even more esoteric: “it’s a kind of jazz/reggae/psyche thing with a soulful undercurrent and metal vocals”. Why wouldn’t it be? Who listens to only one style or period of music now? Contemporary is whatever pops up next on your mobile device (and note that it took the most advanced magic to get us to this point).
“We’re all looking at a different picture
Through this new frame of mind
A thousand flowers could bloom
…For this is the beginning of forever and ever”