Boys listening to weird records together

May 17, 2012
5 mins read

IT’S A SAD guy thing to admit, but for most of my life, listening to music has been a singular pleasure.
That is, it’s something I’d done alone – just me, myself, and eye-and-eye.
When I got seriously into pop music as a pre-teen, it was something I had no-one to share with, because my parents thought it was all a mind-bending racket, and my brother and sister were too old to share my burgeoning enthusiasm for Herman’s Hermits, the Cowsills and the 1910 Fruitgum Company. (I jest, but you get the picture).
Then when my hormones began to explode, and I fell in love with my sister’s records – Hendrix, Joplin, the Doors, Led Zep – she had already as good as flown the nest. Within a year or two, my journey by long play music album had become obsessive, and even my sister had no idea about the artists I was besotted with. Captain Beefheart? Henry Cow? Frank Zappa? Emerson, Lake & Palmer?
More disappointingly, neither did my school chums. One of my few friends teased me with a story he had heard about Frank Zappa shitting on stage, and insisted that he was worthless because of this (fictional) event. Too weird, they all said.
Sometimes I would listen to theirs if they’d listen to mine. I would always listen intently to the interminable jams on Deep Purple’s Made In Japan, or the pleasing but unchallenging nonsense of those Uriah Heep epics, but somehow, when it was my turn to spin the record, they either talked loudly through my selections, or decided it was time to do their homework.
With no internet, no social media, feeling like I wasn’t quite alone in the world meant that reading NME and Creem became really, really important, and when it came along, the same thing applied to local mag Hotlix. In fact, I subscribed, and they printed my letter, signed ‘Captain Beefheart’s Greatest Fan’ (cringe). It was the first time my rancid prose was ever published.
My lonely fanboy behaviour continued until I left for flatting life in Wellington, started writing for Rip It Up, became the music columnist for the Evening Post, and started my own lousy free music rag. With new music fanboy friends and long-suffering flatmates, I could finally inflict my favourite selections on other members of the species. (Not girls though, you understand).
What I quickly realised during listening sessions with friends, however, was that it was pointless boring them with things they’d never, ever get into, let alone appreciate. So I learnt to, most of the time, pick selections that I thought they might like, and that I liked, too.
Happily, by this time it was the New Wave era, and a lot of good stuff was coming out, which meant that my listening taste was as close as it would ever get to the zeitgeist.
With my new friends, we would sit around for hours, imbibe suspicious herbs and chemicals, and play very, very loud music through ridiculously expensive stereos that we had bought on stupendously long and lousy HP contracts.
The thing is, every new record we spun in those sessions between 1979 and 1981 was another chance to blow our collective heads off. Tracks from albums by groups like Pil, Gang of Four, Chrome, the Cure, Simple Minds, the Pop Group, Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire.
None of these bands sounded anything like each other. They all had their own sound, their own way with music, a distinct vision, but they all made for a psychoactive listening experience.
But that’s not exactly the point of this piece. As the ‘80s went all feathery and sequined and ridiculous of haircut, there’s a perception that music died. But of course we know that’s a lie. Certain scenes calcified, others bloomed, but there was always good music to be had, and what was great was that an arid pop scene made me explore the greater world of music, including music from around the world.
The listening sessions with various friends continued, and with a few, they became an enjoyable tit-for-tat, where each of us would do turnabout and we would have to give a short assessment of what we thought of the other’s selection.
Okay, that sounds incredibly dweebish, and it is. So what, it was fun, and I miss it, and that’s the point. Last weekend an old chum from Melbourne stopped in at our rural idyll for a couple of nights, and amidst the usual ruminations on the meaning of it all, we fell back into old patterns, and had several long listening sessions. I had a ball.
Some might say that’s what DJs were invented for, but I’ve always found DJ-ing a disappointing experience. It’s entirely one person’s perspective, but that perspective is almost always compromised by the need to woo a crowd. I want people to listen, not dance. And I want a dialogue. And I want to stretch my own perimeters.
That happened during the eight-year reign of the Parallel Universe on bFM, a show I did with the assistance of a couple of other oddball electronic-and-oddness freaks. But its 11pm start was always too late for me. I’d get home at 2am, buzz for another three hours and be a mess the next day.
Some of the most meaningful listening sessions I’ve had were with people who spun roots rock or alt-country or traditional folk or oddball quirky shit… just about anything that challenged me to listen and believe. Understanding why someone likes what they do opens you up to new experiences, even if they are ultimately not your cup of tea. At least some of the time, you can appreciate them for what they are.
I try to apply the same principle to reviewing records. It’s not important that I like the genre, or even the artist. Each album should win or fail on its own merits, not my taste. I’ve given many five star reviews to albums I listened to only a couple of times and then gave to friends who would appreciate them more than me; likewise, I’ve given negative reviews to albums I love, or artists I want to collect, just because.
Last weekend’s listening session included some contemporary releases, but because we hauled out plenty of dusty vinyl, it did turn into a bit of a nostalgia festival and time for reassessment. We played lots of things I hadn’t listened to for decades: Joy Division’s Closer (not as morbid as it used to be), early Human League (better than I remembered), John Foxx (impressively dark synth-pop), OMD (my friend loves ‘em but they never quite worked for me), Chrome (their twisted psych-sci-fi world still impresses me but didn’t quite work for my friend) and many more. But the one disc that floored us both was Cabaret Voltaire’s 1980 masterpiece, Voice Of America. It’s a pre-sequencer synthesiser work that primarily uses collage, in the most amazing ways, to build up a sense of apocalyptic dread. Sonically, stylistically, it’s almost without precedent and it hasn’t aged one jot.
I’m not big on nostalgia, but if it means reassessment, and you’re willing to accept that old favourites might not keep their charms all these years later, then it can be a useful experience. Especially if it means rediscovering something as astounding as that one Cabaret Voltaire album.
We’ve seldom got time for leisurely listening sessions for one these days, let alone several friends, but given the chance, I’d do it every other week. GARY STEEL

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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