Had fun capturing the passion for all things vinyl in his short film.
When electronica duo Daft Punk released their 2013 Grammy Record of the Year, Random Access Memories, 6 per cent of its first-week sales came from the vinyl record format (Kozinn). Despite the current dominance of relatively convenient digital audio formats, compact discs, downloads and streaming, some music enthusiasts continue to favour traditional vinyl phonographic recordings as a means of collecting and playing music. As illustrated by the Daft Punk sales, collectors are not just seeking out iconic recordings from the era when analogue technology was the standard, and vinyl was a dominant means of listening to recorded music, but also contemporary music. While CD sales fell 14.5 per cent in the United States in 2013, vinyl sales grew 32 per cent to reach 6 million units according to Neilson Sound Scan. In the United Kingdom, vinyl sales have increased by over 270 per cent over the last five years. Of note, is that one third of purchasers were under 35 years old (Morton-Clark). Clearly the attraction of vinyl is not only limited to baby boomers wishing to reconnect with the listening practices of their youth, but it also appeals to people raised in the period dominated by the CD and mp3 player.
Let’s consider the dynamics that have seen the survival and revival in the production of the long player vinyl record. When I talk to record collectors and ask them why they prefer vinyl most offer that it sounds “warmer” and less harsh than digital. They focus on the listening experience and are adamant that vinyl is the most authentic way of listening to music. But the attraction of the format goes beyond the sound that vibrates from the player’s speakers.
The attraction of vinyl records to collectors is not only a sonic experience, but pleasure derived from owning the material object, the act of performing rituals, satisfying of a desire to collect while belonging to an imagined community. In a nod to the LP format this essay consists of two sides. The first side is concerned with the materiality of the record, the second looks at record stores and their role in the vinyl experience. While record collecting has been around since the advent of Victor’s 10 inch 78’s in 1903, I’m interested in understanding the appeal of vinyl in the context of purchasing new records in a environment where digital technologies are now dominant.
Side One – The LP as a desirable object and the rituals associated with playing a record.
The 33rpm, double-sided, long-playing record (LP) format was first introduced to music lovers in 1948. It dominated the market in the 1960’s and 1970’s before a trend of declining sales volumes set in during the 1980’s. For almost 40 years it was the LP, and its smaller sibling the 45, that were the standard means of distributing music, before the cassette tape and eventually the Compact Disc became favoured by the general public. By 1989, CDs had eliminated LPs as the mainstream format, generating US$2.69 billion compared to vinyl sales of $232 million (Shuker, 60). Thirty years on and the CD is now in decline and most digitalised music is shared by computer-based systems through downloading or streaming. For the majority of society vinyl records remain a thing of the past, replaced by the more portable and convenient MP3.
However during the period of commercial decline a diverse range of communities continued to embrace vinyl as a means of playing and creating music. The turntablism of Hip Hop employed vinyl to manipulate sound and create new mixes of existing music. It was an integral part of the performance and the iconography of the genre. DJs continued to use turntables in clubs to play and perform music. This kept vinyl visible in the popular culture as a format, reinforcing a fascination with the groove, both in the sense of the physical cut in the record and the style of music, especially one that is “swinging” or regarded as good (Osborne, 17). The owner of the largest record manufacturing plant in the U.S, Jay Millar of United Record Pressing, says that the market for 12 inch singles and 45s for jukeboxes sustained production, at a lower level, during the 1990’s (Flanagan). Also the aesthetic of Punk culture, a do-it-yourself attitude combined with limited production runs of recordings, meant that bands independent of major labels still produced 45rpm singles of their music. Some audiophiles, people who it could be argued value achieving a particular quality of sound over the affect of the music, did not prescribe to the view that digital sources were of a higher quality and kept preferring records. Seasoned vinyl collectors maintained their compulsion to keep collecting while some new comers discovered a pleasure in seeking out second-hand records in thrift-stores, garage sales, record fairs and a dwindling number of record stores. The behaviour of all these groups signalled the ongoing appeal of the format.
It wasn’t until 2007 when more artists began offering current titles that vinyl could be considered as a viable means of acquiring new releases of popular music. The almost absolute adoption of digital means of distributing and consuming music has, over time, redefined vinyl from being a mass-market item, found in most homes, to a more exclusive object that needs to be sought out. Vinyl has gone from retail obscurity in second-hand stores to find a home in newly established independent stores promoting new releases. It is also being stocked in limited quantities by mass merchandisers such as JB HiFi. However buying new vinyl is considerably more expensive than the digital technology alternatives. The Black Keys 2014 release Turn Blue sells for $19.99 on CD, the cost of acquiring it on vinyl is $49.99, a $30 premium, well over twice the price. Alternatively it can be downloaded using iTunes for $20, streamed in Spotify as part of a monthly subscription or illegally acquired through peer-to-peer sharing at no direct financial cost. Listeners are prepared to pay a considerable price premium to own the record. Most new albums come with a digital download or CD, so the extra value is derived from satisfying a belief that vinyl sounds better and the enjoyment the material object brings. Perhaps also the enjoyment of the shopping experience, which I’ll come to later.
An interest in vinyl could be seen as catering to a desire for the “reappearance” of music. In 2001 Auslander argued that digital information in the form of MP3’s allowed a hypercommodification of music “in which musical sound becomes a commodity in itself, unmoored from physical support in a way that was never previously possible”. (Auslander) His concern was that without record covers and all they entail music would “disappear”. At the time music videos had become the primary means of promoting albums and attaching visual iconology to the recording. Perhaps, at least for a group of people, a large part of the appeal of the LP is in the visual representation of the recording along with its aural attributes. Reissues of classic LPs are popular with Abbey Road by the Beatles appearing as the top search of the 65,871 items available at online retailer Amazon, followed by albums by Bob Marley, Boston, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Grateful Dead (Amazon). Terry Stewart, chief executive of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame says of visitors purchasing records at their store “Half the kids are buying them to listen to: half are buying them as artefacts” (Furchgott).
Part of the attraction of the long player record, in the culture dominated by digital formats, is its physical manifestation as a desirable object. Digital music files sit as clusters of computer code hidden within a hard disk while a vinyl record can be held in the listener’s hands. I agree with Osborne when he states that “the virtual world of downloading and streaming has made the packaging of physical products seem more precious. It is therefore natural that some customers have gone back to recorded music’s most beloved container: the sleeve for the vinyl record”. (Osbourne) Record covers make an impact visually. The album art on a record cover is 500% bigger than a CD insert and the small images and digital booklets on computers, phones and tablets do not have the same presence. Renowned sleeve designer Storm Thorgerson, who created cover art for Pink Floyd writes that “Album cover design is not enslaved to product and therefore doesn’t need to show the record itself but can instead illustrate the emotions and themes explored in the music” (Thorgerson, Dean 7). A cover becomes part of the listening experience as it is considered, read or simply placed by the turntable and admired while listening to the music. Comparatively the LP provides considerable artistic real estate to present the recording’s identity. Record covers are celebrated in popular culture. From the elaborate construction of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Peter Saville’s graphic design of Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, covers are remediated on T Shirts, Posters and even tattoos (Robertson).
Books such as 1000 Record Covers (Michael Ochs) celebrate designs, while Sleeveface (Carl Morris) curates images of people with their faces obscured by an image from a LP cover. The social media platform Instagram reveals over 160,000 images of mostly LPs alongside turntables with the hashtag #vinyl junkie. This provides a framework to discover new or treasured titles, celebrate the virtues of the format or communicate with fellow collectors. A product branded as “Art Vinyl” is a frame system that allows people to display their favourite covers on the wall in their home. Since 2007 the manufacturer has been running polls enabling people to vote online for their album covers of the year. The covers are also displayed in an art gallery environment to highlight their artistic merits and help promote frames. All these are examples of celebrating an enjoyment of, and association with, vinyl (Art Vinyl).
This supports the idea that records are “aura-laden objects that…facilitate a series of emotionally charged rituals and experiences on which various communities thrive” (Bartmanski, Woodward).Creative choices beyond the cover imagery such as the paper stock, gatefolds, fold-outs, die-cuts, embossed images and boxed sets also communicate the intention of the artist and enhance the value of the object. Famously the Alice Cooper album School’s Out opened like a school desk and was wrapped in a pair of girls panties (BurnSilver). Picture Discs have long been a popular novelty with most echoing the original cover art, so that imagery and carrier become fused as one inseparable object. Some recent releases have been created as limited edition art pieces. The Pet Shop Boys 2013 release Electric comprises of “five heavyweight LPs housed in an astonishing custom-made, fluorescent-edged, multi-coloured acrylic box” and sells for 500 pounds (The Vinyl Factory). In 2013 New Zealand band The Chills released a triple album, Something Beautiful, that contains specially commissioned prints by the artist Shane Cotton. Karl Steven’s band the Drab Doo Riffs have released two 10-inch discs. One comes complete with 3D imagery and 3D glasses consistent with the retro sensory experiences in one offering. “We chose the 10 inch size because it’s less familiar and therefore draws attention to the physical format. It also tapped into a design sensibility of a period that we thought worked well with the music” (Karl Steven).
For a listener the enjoyment extends beyond the cover to the record platter inside and the rituals associated with playing an LP. The record needs to be safely removed from its sleeve avoiding leaving fingerprints on the grooves. The disc is studied for any signs of dirt. It may be cleaned with fluid, cloths and brushes. A fastidious audiophile may even use an anti-static gun in an attempt to further improve sound quality. Despite the level of sophistication in the listener and their stereo equipment, there is a craft element to the preparation of the record before it is played. The platter itself presents a representation of what the recording may have in store. The listener can review the number of tracks on each side, the intensity of the grooves and will draw an impression from that tactile moment. A continuous groove without breaks indicates a long period of music, while several tracks suggest short pieces. Auslander makes the point that “In handling a record, one is handling a chunk of time” (Auslander). When one holds a record there is the pleasure derived from the anticipation of the time you’re about to dedicate to an enjoyable musical experience. The listener has a sense of holding an artefact of a particular period, even if it a contemporary release. It may even have an association with recently created memories, concerts attended, events or relationships. Other information will help you form an impression of a recording. The inner sleeve may contain lyrics, recording production notes, messages from the artist that are not available on a download. The label may be a signifier of the type of music, for example Blue Note for Jazz, Stiff Records for New Wave and it trigger associations with important artists. The weight of the record can denote the potential quality of the reproduction, or situate it in a time period. As a cost saving, most records produced in the 1980’s were lighter than those of the 1970’s. Many of the current releases are manufactured and promoted as high quality 180gram vinyl and this is promoted on the cover. Albums that are distributed as single CDs, are reproduced over four sides of vinyl to ensure better reproduction. Even the sense of smell, a cocktail of paper scents, printing inks and cleaning fluid is part of the experience. It is possible to scent the vinyl itself as evidenced by Dead Sara’s Lemon scented release Lemon Scent (District Lines). Alternately all CD’s seem to weigh the same, and I’ve yet to find one that smelled noticeably different to the others I’ve encountered.
The rituals involved in playing LPs draw attention to the object itself. It must be flipped at the end of each playing side and therefore “sensitises listeners to both overall structure and playing of a record”(Bartmanski, Woodward 6). The act of lowering the needle into the groove requires attention to avoid damaging the record. Unlike touching a screen on an iPod or a button on a CD player one observes the physical interaction as the record meets the tip of the stylus and is involved in the process. As vinyl collector Michelle Wauchope says “Handling the platters is such a romantic, sacred exercise, as opposed to wrestling with and breaking those stupid, cumbersome jewel boxes” (Shuker, 69). The surface noise that plays prior to the first track helps form an impression about the condition and quality of the LP and then the music is heard. Given the comparatively easy access to music today, it is likely that this is not the first time the listener has heard the songs. It might have been streamed or downloaded and listened to prior to the investment made in the purchase of the album. The listener may then assess the quality of the sound emitting from the vinyl source compared to what he or she has heard earlier in other formats. This again draws attention to the object, the source of the sound. The sound of the needle dropping and the crackles and pops bring enjoyment to some listeners. Celebrated English DJ John Peel once said “Somebody was trying to tell me that CD’s are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said “Listen, mate, life has surface noise” (Chassanoff). Karl Steven makes the point “vinyl is a format you can hear… it does a great job at highlighting the quiet, which is great for folk, rock, blues… but when it comes to soundtracks or orchestral music you don’t want to be distracted by emphasing the difference”.
Recording artist Beck recognised the enduring interest in vinyl by announcing his 2014 album Morning Phase by producing a YouTube video showing the vinyl record manufacturing process. The album itself is accompanied by a digital download of the vinyl version complete with the sound of the needle dropping into the groove at the start of each “side” and therefore drawing attention to its intended structure and placing it within the cultural context of the expectations of a vinyl record. However, what is not replicated in the digital form is the individual nature of every LP. Given the nature of the manufacturing and playing process each LP, even purchased new, will have its own idiosyncrasies that make it unique. The pops and clicks will appear in different places and over time the LP will acquire further characteristics as a result of the care and handling practices of its owner. Through wear and tear a LP changes in its physical form and the way it sounds over time and becomes distinctive in its own right. Names written on covers or labels, stains from accidents with beverages, damage from bad handling are all elements that make each LP a unique item and add to a sense of ownership. This relationship is not replicated with digital files.
The nature of the LP record itself encourages close listening, rather than casual background music. A listener has flicked through their collection to excavate the album they wish to listen to. They’ve made a commitment to the pre-listening process I’ve outlined. They understand one side will run for up to 25 minutes, maybe half that time for some releases, so if they want to hear one hour’s music they will attend to the turntable 3 times. Digital devices offer more convenience through longer uninterrupted playing time and portability. An Ipod can be put into shuffle mode with the device randomly selecting tracks from a library, so little thought goes into preparing for the experience of the music. The iTunes interface shows the capacity and length of music in the library. Those using streaming can select collated playlists from their friends using the service so no effort is required in sourcing and selecting the music. CD’s can provide up to 74 minutes of uninterrupted music. So by choosing vinyl a listener is selecting a more involved means of playing music. They may listen to the same music, in other formats, on other devices, at other times, after all most new release LPs come with access to a digital version. But vinyl is associated with close listening and a more considered experience. As Karl Steven says “Vinyl is interactive, the way you prepare to play a LP. The music isn’t stored in a database, its stored on a shelf where you can see it. There’s nothing exciting about flicking through an excel spreadsheet, which is like using iTunes. With vinyl there’s more fun”.
Side Two – The revival of independent record stores in a digital, downloadable world.
I’ve outlined the attraction of the LP as a material object and the enjoyment people derive through the rituals involved in playing records. Given the importance of the tactile attributes of the LP, high street stores where albums can be discovered, viewed, listened to and purchased, provide an important dynamic in the vinyl experience. Prior to the adoption of digital formats in the 1980’s there were more than 2,200 Record Stores in the United Kingdom, in 2012 the number of independent stores in operation was 274 (Channel 4 News). The documentary Last Store Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop concerns itself with the decline of the specialist store and its revival through a renewed appreciation of vinyl over recent years. Through featuring interviews with store-owners, and their perspectives on the industry, the film presents a broader context to the dynamics of the change that occurred in the market. The film traces the decline in the viability of the independent store to before Napster and the widespread adoption of the download. It presents the position that the record companies during the 1980’s became conglomerates focussed on sales volume and as a result the smaller neighbourhood stores became less of a priority to them. The introduction of the more conveniently packaged Cassette and then Compact Disc saw music being sold by supermarkets, service stations and mass merchandisers at lower price points. When file sharing and legal downloads became options for people to acquire music pricing strategies became even more aggressive. Independent record store owner Piers Garner says in the film “ I have been known to go and buy off an supermarket so we could sell it at the same price, just to compete with them”. So independent stores were losing potential sales to other larger retail competitors and former customers opting to download at home rather than visit a physical store. Concurrently a behaviour change was taking place with listeners and how people were regarding acquiring music. Paul Holman of Square Records says “You know we grew up listening to albums, and now, kids can pick and choose, and cherry pick and download odd bits and pieces. Also kid’s impression is that music is kind of free really”.
However over time this created the environment where vinyl as a format, to some listeners, became redefined as an attractive alternative to the mass-market digital options. As Sterne argues “Instead of completely displacing the analogue medium, the digital technologies helped recontextualise it” (Sterne, 2012). I would contend that as music in a digital form became more accessible and in a financial sense, less valued, acquiring vinyl became a means to demonstrate a passion for music. Musicians raised in digital culture, through discovering their parents or friend’s collection of twentieth century LPs, recognised that records are a material object that provided a broader canvas to express themselves, an additional means of differentiating their music and deriving income. Karl Steven believes “The current wave of interest in vinyl comes from the same motivations when it used to be previously popular, it’s just that the record companies confiscated it”.
Like many independent artists Karl has carried boxes of his band Heart Attack Alley’s LP Living in Hell from gig to gig all over Europe, selling them directly to fans. LPs are produced in relatively small production runs and apart from their physical appeal, have the attraction to listeners of having more cache than other formats. As Osborne points out “vinyl is more exclusive than other formats… the analogue disc stands alone in offering no home-recording function to the amateur musician” (Osborne, 184) and therefore a release of an LP indicates the artist has achieved a degree of professionalism. So by producing a LP, bands tap into a tradition of making records and a path followed by the authentic dedicated artist. By purchasing a LP, maybe direct from a band “young people attempt to mark themselves as different by rejecting widespread practices of consumption maintained by the music industry’s capitalistic framework” (Hayes 58).
So new release vinyl appeared at gigs, the place where listeners can be closest to musicians, and then flowed through into stores, initially to be stocked alongside second hand product and CD’s. “In the last five or six years the younger generation are coming in because of new bands, indie bands, are releasing stuff more and more on vinyl and download, rather than CD.” says Debbie Smith from the store Intoxica in London in the film Last Store Standing. Major record labels have noticed the practice with more contemporary popular music being released in the format. Johnny Chandler, head of A&R at Universal Music says “Now we’re able to ask…almost every time of an artist’s catalogue “What’s the vinyl offer, is there a vinyl offer” “It doesn’t surprise me that people have returned to something like vinyl… the idea that you want to physically get something for the money you spend, I kind of get that.” (Morton-Clark). Some records may be hand numbered, highlighting the edition size and can be personalised through artist signings.
An increase in awareness of vinyl as a format option has also been attributed to the success of “Record Store Day”, an annual event that originated in the United States and is now held in stores around the world on the third Saturday in April. Michael Kurtz a co-founder of the event, established in 2008, describes its role as placing “focus on the culture of record stores and a celebration of their place in their neighbourhoods” (One Louder Magazine). Its introduction coincided with the recovery in vinyl sales, although Jay Millar of pressing plant United Records says “I would say Record Store Day is a result of the rise in vinyl. It’s people wanting to have that “deluxe” experience. I compare it to going to the movie theatre versus the DVR”. To mark the event limited editions of LPs, 45s and promotional products are released on the day. According to Jay Millar the success of the event has impacted on the production capacity dedicated to new music. “Right now, we have 20 plus manufacturing jobs in production, all of which have to come to a grinding halt while the pressing plants make hay pressing umpteen thousand Oasis LP reissues, Abba 7’s and REM Box sets” Smaller bands now need to compete for production time with the major record companies reissuing titles. However, the event continues to create an impact with American record-store owners opening their doors to hundreds of people waiting in line and reporting sales for the whole week in 2014 were more than 50% higher than those in 2013 (Economist).
The Southbound Record Shop in Auckland’s Mount Eden has been a participant in the Record Store Day concept since it opened in 2011. The owner Jeffrey Stothers returned to New Zealand after spending nine years as a music buyer for HMV in London. Initially, he established a distribution company selling CDs and vinyl to retailers and that business continues today. But soon Jeffrey became concerned by the lack of depth in stock that his customers would commit. “If someone buys one Judas Priest album, there’s a good chance they’ll want to collect other titles. However retailers would cherry-pick, and not stock the entire catalogue. That would frustrate me. I saw an opportunity for a store that had a significant range”. The store is unusual as it opened only stocking new vinyl, whereas many stores stock second (or third) hand LPs. It currently stocks over 2500 freshly pressed LPs along with a few boxes of sought after second hand titles and a limited range of CD’s. While it’s situated on a busy city road, it is not an area that attracts a high number of pedestrians and car parking during the week can be challenging. Therefore, it is a destination store with customers seeking it out, rather than being discovered as part of a retail precinct. Overcoming these hurdles to visit the store adds to the atmosphere once inside, as customers understand that others flipping through the bins are interested in music and vinyl rather than casual shoppers. “We had a great Record Store Day this year, but interestingly 80 per cent of the sales were back catalogue, rather than the special items. People who came in wanted to participate, settling on an item we may have had in stock for a while.” The renewed interest in the format means some vintage titles are being rereleased with new copies being available for the first time in decades.
While Southbound Record Shop stocks many reissues of albums often deemed by industry magazines such as Rolling Stone as classics, the biggest selling LP in store since its inception is not Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon or The Beatles Abbey Road, but New Zealand artist Lorde’s recording Pure Heroine. For many purchasers of the album it was the first time they had visited a record store. For others it reactivated their interest in vinyl after a long lapse. Jeffrey says “I vividly remember one woman coming into the store seeking out Lorde, aghast, saying I can’t believe a store like this still exists!”. Beyond the possible parochial support for the New Zealander’s album Arctic Monkeys AM has also been a big seller. By placing these titles directly alongside the classics, the store appears confident about and committed to the format. A display wall at Southbound provides the catalyst for conversations with customers for introductions and recommendations. As a customer, I’ve observed people join conversations when one of the staff is talking about a particular album with a customer. With about 40 objects on display it provides a gallery of cover art and reinforces that these are attractive objects worthy of being admired. Photographs of this wall are regularly posted on social media as a means of displaying the range and enticing customers into the store. It reinforces the idea of collecting and the spectacle of a record collection. The second focal point of the store is the sales counter. This is a place where knowledge is dispensed from the staff, orders taken and items purchased and bagged. A group of frequent customers are welcomed to the store by their first name. A loyalty programme rewards regular customers with discounts once a number of records have been purchased.
As Roy Shuker points out “part of the appeal of such shops is the relationship with the staff, which frequently involves trusting their musical knowledge and recommendations, along with a reciprocal recognition, often hard won, of the collectors own expertise” (Shuker,119). For new or infrequent visitors record stores can be intimidating with a concern that staff may judge the taste of the customer. Nick Hornby’s novel and the subsequent film of the same name High Fidelity captured and amplified that insight. However Jeffrey reinforces that “the shop has a customer base that ranges from teenagers buying their first record to long time collectors. Yes it is predominantly male, but we do have a lot of younger couples coming in on the weekends”. Today record stores provide the site for people to leave their digital devices at home and enter a physical environment where music can be heard and the material object, can be seen and touched. Friends can flick through bins find forgotten or unfamiliar new records and discuss music. Even if you visit alone knowledge can be gained or imparted by being in the same physical environment as other humans that enjoy music. As Rene de Guzman, curator of the Oakland Museum of California 2014 exhibition Vinyl. The Sounds and Culture of Records says “the record is a catalyst for social interaction and community. Records are passed from one person to another. In record stores, we don’t think twice about speaking with a clerk or another customer for recommendations” Oakland Museum of California). Through walking into an independent record store, and “digging through the crates’, an individual is participating in an imagined community where the material object they associate with music is valued. The object therefore is the means to bring people who are passionate about music together, to share knowledge, discover new aural and artistic manifestations of music culture and build their collection of material items further.
My examination of both “sides” of the dynamics that have seen the survival and revival of the production and consumption of the long player vinyl record is almost complete. In this essay I’ve argued that the involvement in the vinyl experience goes beyond listening to music. The digital age has ushered in more convenient means of accessing and listening to music. Over time the physical media shrunk, until through downloading and streaming the format becomes almost invisible. The revival in the viability of LP as a format for new releases in 2014 signifies a reappearance of the material object as a carrier of music. Despite the price premium over digital formats, some listeners are prepared to pay for an object that comprises of the recording, packaging and the platter. They choose an object that commands a defined physical space and holds a period of time. Listeners are again, albeit in small numbers, visiting independent record stores. In those physical spaces they can be part of an imagined community of people who may regards themselves as music aficionados. Once at home with their material objects, listeners can engage in the rituals associated with preparing, playing and hearing music. Those passionate about vinyl relish the total sensory experience associated with the format. To them LPs encompass elements that are aural, visual, the tactile and, yes on some occasions, aromatic.
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Spanning several years I’ve attended over a dozen Bob Dylan concerts and I am always intrigued by a group of people who leave the concert demonstratively disillusioned with the performance. They are often openly expressing their disappointment to anyone in the crowd who’ll hear their opinion. I’ve heard people complain about the quality of his singing, that he didn’t chat to the audience and they couldn’t recognise the songs. For them decades of new music have gone by unnoticed. Maybe this group are attracted to the event by Dylan’s “star power”, the fame and mythology that has been reinforced in the media over fifty years. Beyond listening to his music they’ve seen and heard various mediations of the musician. For at least one evening they take the opportunity to be close to “the voice of a generation”, as he was lauded in the 1960’s, and see him with their own eyes. Journalists have paralleled this quest to reveal the authentic, a “real” individual behind the construction of the “star” since his emergence in the 1960’s. Bob Dylan manifests in many different personas including composer, poet, singer, musician, actor, radio announcer, visual artist and author which makes their task more complex than most profiles. Beyond the newspaper reports, magazine articles over 150 biographies have been written about Dylan. He is a figure who continues to intrigue many.
I agree with Scobie when he contends that “Bob Dylan” stands not for any imposed role but for the very act of resistance to imposed roles” (Marshall, 77). My hypothesis is that Bob Dylan constructs a star persona through participating in screen appearances where he actively deconstructs his persona. The ongoing movement in he how he presents himself allows him creative freedom rather than being consigned to single genre. Maybe because he believes once he is defined, he will be static and consigned to a particular time and place. Nostalgia acts are destined to constantly reliving the past, something Dylan is clearly not interested in, as he famously wrote “that he not busy being born is busy dying”. (It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding)
In this post I analyse the on-screen mediation of Bob Dylan through television interviews and how he resists being typecast. Here we see and hear Dylan talk directly while journalists quiz him attempting to reveal the “real” persona of the folk, rock and pop star. His evasiveness proves constantly frustrating for journalists but reinforces perceptions to his fans as being an authentic innovator and above being categorised. To provide a framework to my analysis I have selected three television interviews that span almost 40 years of his career to examine what has changed and what remains consistent. The first took place in 1965 when Dylan was being lauded as the spokesperson of a generation, the second in the 1980’s when he was viewed as a “rock legend” past his prime and the third during the early 2000’s when his career was on in a state of resurgence.
Interview 1 – 1965 “San Francisco Press Conference”
In October 1964 concert a 23 year-old Dylan engaged in banter with the audience at a Philharmonic Hall concert remarking “It’s Halloween. I got my Bob Dylan mask on”. (The Bootleg Series, Volume 6: Live 1964) The comment alluding to his evolving identity was greeted with applause and knowing laughter the crowd. The question the comment raised is, if it exists, what is hidden behind that mask? Since his emergence Dylan’s persona had been a topic for consideration. Earlier that year the editor of folk music magazine Sing Out! , Irwin Silber had published “An Open Letter to Bob Dylan” complaining that Dylan’s “new songs seem to be all inner-directed now, inner probing, self-conscious – maybe even a little maudlin or a little cruel on occasion”. Silber feared that Dylan might turn into “a different Bob Dylan than the one we knew.” (Wilentz, 89) An earlier Newsweek story titled “I am my words” had revealed the artist had been raised in Minnesota as Robert Zimmerman and questioned his authenticity by citing a rumour that he had not authored Blowin’ in the Wind. (Shelton,194).
In March 1965 defining Bob Dylan became more difficult when he released Bringing It All Back Home, his fifth album that included his first recording using an electric backing band. As Marshall points out “Stars have a representative function… individualism and democracy, but a star always represents something more than him – or herself”. Until “going electric” Dylan was seen as a “folk star” being portrayed “as virtually singlehandedly providing popular music with a political awareness.” (Marshall, 54) Folk meant “natural” acoustic music that was thoroughly anti-commercial. Many read his transition as an abandonment of his association with social causes and a move into the music business. Dylan was, through the media, seen as a representation of the restless ideals of the generation under 30 during a period of turbulent social change. If Dylan was abandoning the ideals people took from his folk music would his generation follow? Consistent with the times, social change was coming rapidly and Dylan was in the process of transforming into, and defining the representation of a rock star.
The 1965 San Francisco press conference was televised in full, reflecting the curiosity in Dylan and discovering further what the artist represented a that moment. He sat alone at a table in a tailored tweed suit, chain-smoking. His sartorial choice signalled a departure from the everyman image of workingman’s shirt and jeans in his folk club years. To use a word from the period he presents himself as “hip” and sophisticated. Dylan is introduced irreverently as “a poet who will answer questions from everything from atomic science to riddles and rhymes”. Although once questioning starts he deflects the “poet” label famously saying “Oh, I think of myself more as a song and dance man, y’know.” This is an idea he will return to later in his career as he highlights his persona as a performer toiling on the road in the tradition of the original Blues artists. Dylan playfully challenges his questioner to consider the definition of poetry through listing his favourite poets as “Rimbaud, I guess, W.C. Fields; The family, you know, the trapeze family in the circus; Smokey Robinson; Allen Ginsberg: Charlie Rich – he’s a good poet.” By doing this he combines High culture perceptions of poetry to suggest sublime poetry can be found elsewhere, including physical movement. He is rejecting the label of being a poet through questioning an established perception of what defines poetry. The irony here is that Dylan is denying being a poet, in what could be considered a poetic manner.
As a historical artefact the interview is important. The grammar of the rock musician interview is in the infancy of being formulated, so viewing it today the dynamics seem strange. There is obvious tension as the press struggle to ask questions based on an understanding of Dylan’s work. It seems the questioners are primarily hard news journalists with limited knowledge of music. One reporter asks “Mr Dylan, I know you dislike labels and probably rightfully so, but for those of us well over thirty, could you label yourself and perhaps tell us what your role is? Dylan, without defining his role, smiles and replies that he labels himself as “well under thirty”. Through this period Dylan’s word play would continue to entertain and confuse people.
Later in the interview he is pressed on his political beliefs and deconstructs the act of protest into a form of performance art. He states he thought about staging a protest where 25,000 people “perhaps carrying cards with pictures of the Jack of Diamonds on them and the Ace of Spades on them… just picket, carry signs and picket in front of the post office.” Here Dylan is resisting the imposed role of being the political spokesperson by taking by presenting a creative way of interpreting the act of protest. He highlights the theartre of protest and the potency of symbols and signs. Dylan is constantly probed for the meaning behind his lyrics trying to build on the agenda that everything he created had a deeper hidden meaning. Throughout his career he attempts to unshackle his lyrics from his own persona and with that a political message. Later is career he would say he created “songs not sermons” (60 minutes interview) but as pointed out earlier, audiences hold to the dynamic that stars represent a wider cause or point of view.
Interview 2 – 1987 “Getting to Dylan”.
The 1980’s are period when Dylan is cast as a star belonging to the past. His contemporary work is viewed as no longer being vital as it once was and Dylan later defined himself during this period as “a 60’s troubadour, a folk-rock relic. A wordsmith from bygone days. I’m in the bottomless pit of cultural oblivion.” (Dylan, 147) During this period interviews on-screen were rare. While Dylan is on set for the film “Hearts on Fire” he concedes to having a conversation with a BBC documentary crew. It’s shot with one camera inside Dylan’s trailer on set. We never sight the interviewer Christopher Sykes as he tries to charm his subject into revealing insights. Unconventionally Dylan turns his gaze on the interviewer as he starts sketching a portrait of him on the back of a sheet of proposed questions. He seems to be making a statement that if you can study me intensely I can study you too. Sykes finds this disconcerting but gradually Dylan gets engaged in the conversation.
Over twenty years on from the San Francisco interview society has moved on from the idealism to neo-liberalism of the 1980’s and work is a topic of conversation. Dylan attests it is the act work that is important, more so than any money that it may generate. “Just, to work, is … er… to be able to work is, is what a person should strive after, you know?.” He reminds Sykes that when he started his career the music business was not of the financial scale of the 1980’s. Dylan casts himself apart from an industry where music is made by “machines” has a sameness and is “synthetic”.
Interview 3 – 2004 “Sixty Minutes”.
The final interview I wish to consider occurs at the start of this century and coincides with the release of Dylan’s biography Chronicles: Part One. His career was on the ascendancy again as his last two albums have attracted critical and commercial success and he had been awarded multiple Grammy awards for the recordings. Dylan and interviewer Ed Bradley are seen within opulent, stately surroundings. This helps project the impression that this is an intimate, special occasion as a voiceover intones that this is “the first television interview in nearly 20 years.”
A key dynamic that has changed from the last interview, and mentioned in the 60 minutes piece, is that Dylan now constantly tours, playing 100 concerts a year. Andrea Cossu sees this strategy as “Dylan’s own attempt to move his work concretely beyond time and the burden of his image…and creates a performance space for creativity and transformation of songs.” (Cossu,133). With so many concert dates, access to Dylan, the performer, has been increased dramatically. He is physically constantly on the move and his performance evolves with radical re-workings of his songs and set list. Lee Marshall believes “I think the NET (Never Ending Tour) has been relatively successful in redefining Dylan’s star image. In particular, the NET has repositioned Dylan as a performer rather than a songwriter, characterising him as a modern-day troubadour.” (Marshall, 226). From the evidence of my own experience of Dylan concerts I would agree with both scholars. For Dylan fans the performer creates an enjoyable tension as the listener untangles the arrangements of familiar classic songs, which often change the lyrical emphasis sometimes offering new readings of the material. Fans now have the opportunity to attend a number of Dylan gigs over a week or so and be treated to different experiences. The same cannot always be said of many acts that have a predictable, baked-in set list and cannot draw upon such an extensive back songbook. The interview is intercut with archive footage reminding viewers of his status while a pensive Dylan asserts that his success was determined by destiny. Born Robert Zimmerman he was always going to be Bob Dylan. “Some people – you’re born, you know, the wrong names, wrong parents, I mean that happens.” Here he subjugates his own agency to the influence of a spiritual, mystical power. Asked what that might be he replies “the Commander in Chief”.
“It goes back to that destiny thing. I mean I made a bargain with it, you know, long time ago. And I’m holding up my end… to get where I am now” says Dylan. His thoughts echo folklore of the Faustian bargain that Blues legend Robert Johnson made with the devil on the crossroads, success and fame in exchange for the soul. Given Dylan’s earlier public embracement of Christianity one could assume his understanding is with his God rather than the force Mr Johnson is said to have encountered. Dylan reinforces the idea of a divine destiny by saying his early songs were “magically written” and repeating that feat to the same level attained in his youth was no longer possible.
Through implying he tapped into a mystical creative wellspring Dylan is constructing an image of a supernatural influence defined his career rather than his own agency. On one level he is saying he is simply a musician, ”I never wanted to be a prophet or savoir. Elvis maybe. I could easily see myself becoming him. But prophet? No.” However while Elvis Presley reached iconic status in pop culture he did build his career as a lyricist. The expectations of a singer songwriter from an audience are that the words belong to the artist and reflect their own outlook on life. When asked about his songs being viewed as anthems, a voice for the sixties generation Dylan replies that his audience “must not have heard the songs”. Bradley presses him on the point “It’s ironic, that the way that people viewed you was just the polar opposite of the way you viewed yourself”. Dylan replied “Isn’t that something”.
In each of the three interviews considered here, Dylan rejects the representation of his identity presented to him by the interviewers. He dismisses the label of poet by contending he is a “song and dance man” and challenging the perceptions of what constitutes poetry. In the 1980’s he contests the idea of him being cast as a rich rock star by drawing a picture of a hardworking musician whose paid his dues. In the most recent interview Dylan once again rejects the label of “spokesperson of a generation” and it’s political associations and contest his own role in his career compared to a larger force of “destiny”. In all mediations Dylan avoids being cast as static, defined and through that relegated to the past. It seems that Dylan understands that the persona of a star requires an element of mystery that sets them apart from the ordinary. If everything is known and predictable the audience will go elsewhere in search of something new. It appears that survival, defined as relevance in the contemporary market, requires constant movement. This has manifested physically in his Never Ending Tour. Over fifty years on and off screen we have seen many Dylan’s so maybe the pursuit of the one defined, authentic persona is futile. Better to take his lead, keep moving and to enjoy them all for the entertainment, inspiration and music they offer.
“Bob Dylan talks about life and art on the set of “Hearts of Fire”, 1987”. Dangerous Minds. n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2013
“Bob Dylan Interview” You Tube. 12 March 2013. Web 19 August 2103.
“Bob Dylan: San Francisco Press Conference (Dec 1965) Parts 1-6. You Tube. March 11, 2011. Web 20 August 2013.
Cossu, Andrea. It Ain’t Me, Babe – Bob Dylan and the Performance of Authenticity. Boulder, CO. Paradigm Publishers, 2012. Print.
Dylan, Bob. Chronicles: Volume One, Simon & Schuster
Marshall, Lee. Bob Dylan The Never Ending Star. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2007. Print.
Shelton, Robert. No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan. Melbourne, Vic. Hardie Grant Books, 2011. Print.
Wilentz, Sean. Bob Dylan in America. New York, New York. Doubleday, 2010. Print
Reading “The Meaning of a Format” by Jonathan Sterne was valuable in providing a greater understanding to determining the characteristics of a “format”. A format consists of how the media is created, shared, played along with its physical manifestation. The book outlines the relationship and importance of telephony in shaping audio formats and why the 128kbps standard was first adopted.
His example of the CD being developed with the brief that it should approximate the width of the cassette was a revelation to me. Legend was that the length of a classical piece determined its form. In retrospect, I would argue that 74 minutes playing time of the CD turned out to be longer than was required. Up to that point single long player records delivered two sides of music totally around 45 to 50 minutes of sound. The advent of the CD saw artists and record companies attempting to ultilise the extra 20 minutes to deliver “value” to the listener. This often included remixes and alternative versions of what might be considered the primary work… the first 10 to 12 tracks. The CD in the end did not redefine expectations of what was culturally acceptable as playing time for an album as most new releases today conform to the practice established by vinyl. I mention this to echo Sterne’s argument of how the characteristics of legacy technology influence formats.
This has flowed onto the commercial distribution of the MP3 with online stores organising music in albums and providing a price benefit for downloading the album, rather than individual tracks. It’s interesting that despite the lack of the presence of a physical item, the album has survived as a concept from the analog age, the single, with it’s A and B side has not. Listeners download groups of tracks, individual tracks, but not paired tracks. This reflects a perception amongst most that except for a small pool of notable artists, the B side of a 45 single was dispensable.
The widespread adoption of the MP3 has been driven by the convenience in sharing, storing and playing the format. What we have seen over time is the continual increase in the number of devices that play music. Where the radiogram/stereo might have been the entertainment hub where the family listened to audio, today the household contains multiple devices that are capable of playing music. The MP3 format can travel from car audio, phone, tablet, ipod, dvd player, game console, home computer to the stereo system. Each of these players are associated with different expectations of sound “quality” and what is acceptable within that environment. It is undeniable that people have more opportunity to access the music they want to hear. It would be interesting to establish whether the format has led to an increase in personalised, individual listening occasions, rather than communal listening. That may have been the biggest influence the MP3 format has had on how people listen to music.
Twitter allows artists to communicate directly with fan audiences. The platform can also be used as a tool to build a more complex “star” persona.
In pre-digital days, fan magazines and fan clubs would be the prime medium to satisfy the desire to know more of a star’s back stage life. This would be produced as articles, photo spreads, posters or question and answer sessions. “Intimate” details such as favourite colours, pets, heartaches would be revealed. Fans had to wait to be satiated with their monthly fix when it arrived in the mail or was purchased at a book or grocery store. This slow moving old media iceberg (we really got to see the tip) meant that building a star brand required significant resources. The publications were produced as commercial items, most often, separate from the artist or their record company management.
Web 2.0 and the arrival of social media changed that. Twitter has provided Stefani Germanotta the opportunity to message her 41 million followers directly with the frequency of her choosing. From the mundane to the spectacular, every tweet adds to a construction of the ‘Lady GaGa” while giving the fan a greater sense of intimacy. On-stage and back-stage content mesh together in one stream. “Fan mail” can be remediated immediately providing free images and insights that adds to a sense of “community”. As Marwick & Boyd are quoted “The fan’s ability to engage in discussion with a famous person de-patronizes the parasocial and recontextualises it within a medium that the follower may use to talk to real-life acquaintances”.
I sought out her missives to her “Little Monsters”and attempted my first close reading of tweets.
Lady Gaga’s status as a maternal figure provides the opportunity for an outpouring of messages of acknowledgement on Mothers Day. Her reference to God suggests a divine destiny, a spiritual influence, brings GaGa and her fans together. By highlighting the number of tweets received she is drawing attention to her role as Mother. But she also reveals her back stage persona by mentioning she spent the day with her own mother and sister, just like any good “ordinary” girl would.
The second tweet here shows when signing on to being a “monster” you join a democratic movement. Money and power (except GaGa’s) are swept aside as fans can be reseated in VIP spots at concerts. Her retweet of a fans tattooed back highlights the commitment of her monsters and provides an opportunity for approval declaring the effort “Bad Ass”. The reading mentioned impressions of fans that her tweets were less commercial than other artists, but sensibly she does promote upcoming shows in her stream.
The final tweet I’ve selected shows her as vulnerable, stripped of makeup and costumes, cuddling soft toy. This selfie could have come from any young women suffering from wisdom tooth extraction and posted for empathy. Except not every person is about to go “on tour”.
Two years ago I was in Dallas and ended up stranded due to snow, sleeping on the airport floor with the cowboys, cowgirls and other interstate interients. So it was with a sense of contented anticipation when I escaped the sprawling airport’s tentacles. Arriving in Austin it was uplifting to hear a Lucinda Williams track seeping from the airport P.A. system rather the moozak or the chatter of competing flight calls. The last time I had an enduring impression of an airport was several years ago in New Orleans where a portable bar dispensed cocktails as you waited for your bags…for many that may have been the last thing they remembered. Anchoring my 36 hours in town was a pilgrimage to catch John Prine in concert. For the first time I’d secured the tickets through Twitter… a good thing as it turned out, sitting in row 5, centre in the three level auditorium.
Opening for Mr Prine was Jim Lauderdale who got a toes the twitching and tapping with his Bluegrass tinged jangle. A major Nashville songwriting talent, he has filled his cowboy boots with the proceeds of songs like Twang which is the title track from the latest George Strait album. I especially enjoyed “King of Broken Hearts” which he wrote as a tribute to George Jones. Jones hasn’t recorded it yet but Strait has. Talked to him after his set and he has played Tamworth as wants to play Bluesfest. As I took my seat for the main event I noted that unlike earlier in the week there was not a beret in sight, just lots of beards and denim. Then in a sign that I had spent too much time in planes in the past week I then went through the motions of fumbling for a seatbelt. It wasn’t required for this trip. Prine walked out to a returning hero’s welcome, thunderous applause and whistles before he had the chance to spin one of his yarns. Part of his story is surviving throat cancer so a husky quality to his voice comes from physical suffering. While his eyes sparkle, yours start to glisten as he sketches portraits of loneliness, ageing and quiet despair. What makes all this palatable is his wistful wit, distinctive phrasing and elegance of delivery. That is way Dylan rates him one of the best.
This is how you become lost in Texas…
Maybe it’s time to buy a beret. You know the kind Samuel Jackson made cool.
I would have been very much in sartorial step at last night’s Richard Thompson gig. “RT “ wears one and so too do many of his tall bald fans. I watched the raindrops cling to beret flannel of several retired professor types as we waited to enter the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
While I’ve dabbled with RT for quite some time but it was only after seeing his son Teddy live in Bangalow, of all places, that I set about tackling his considerable back catalogue. Volumes of muscular folk is what I discovered. Guitar licks crafted with precision and intensity…. dark lyrics worthy of late night whiskey and brooding. I’ve secured most of his LP’s now… vinyl collectors get very excited about original copies of “Bright Light’s Tonight” & “Shoot Out the Lights”.
The first half of his show we were treated to a complete run-through of an album he’s yet to record. So now instead of plundering the past I have an RT album that doesn’t exist rattling around my head. While he also played an hour or so of classics with his full band, including violin and brass, it’s the new songs that haunt me this morning. I want to hear “Stumble On” again, along with “Brother Slips Away” and “Haul it in”… but I’ll have to be patient and wait for several months before I slip the wax from the jacket and hear this bout of songwriting brilliance again. Waiting is rare in this downloadable age.
It’s worth the wait. By then it will be summer and a case of bugger the beret, pass the beach hat and Balvenie.
Setlist Anticipation – A condition where one becomes slightly preoccupied with the desire for an artist to play a particular song at a concert or event you attend.
Will he do “Into the Mystic”? (yes he did, first Van pilgrimage Fort Lauderdale) “Tangled Up and Blue”? first gig, no… second nah… a decade later at the third…BINGO! (thanks Bob).
A Set Ant© condition could be mild or very intense. If you have only a rare chance to see someone then the condition can become heightened… internal monologue running…”There must be only 10 minutes to go and they still haven’t played …”
So it is luxuriously liberating to attend concert by an act you care about and not experience a bout of Set Ant© at some point in the evening. Maybe this may comes with seeing an artist play many times… or you simply become enraptured in a performance.
Watching Elvis Costello solo the other night I found myself not being inflicted with any condition other than sustained bliss. Much is written about his songwriting prowess, but he is also a master of the cover. He rolled out George Jones (Roses), Van (Jackie Wilson Said), Bruce (Brilliant Disguise), Charles Aznavour (She) even his take on Ron Sexsmith’s version EC (Everyday I Write the Book).
This was my fourth visit to Elvisdom, each trip being radically different, from angry young man pumping it up, Garage Band Rocker, New Orleans sideman to Dylan tinged Song & Dance Man. “Alison” sounded sweet at all.
But who cared what he and his guitar played next? With such a deep and diverse back catalogue to call upon and his ability to reinvent songs best go with the flow for 130 odd minutes.
Elvis & Me…
1980 Sweetwaters… Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
2003 Tokyo… Elvis Costello and the Imposters.
2006 Cape Cod… Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint.
2009 Sydney… Elvis Costello Solo.