Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Church of Shellac and Vinyl

I once came across a DJ playing a set in a small room above a bar. Like most DJs, he was nondescript in appearance: shaven head, scuffed trainers, grey t-shirt adorned with a logo signifying something mysterious. And like many DJs, he only played records, the CD decks staying untouched. But unlike any I had previously encountered, there seemed to be no logic dictating what records he played, at least at first. No genre was favoured; no period revisited; no taste catered for. Rather, he would jump from one extreme to another: playing heavy metal, followed by eastern folk, which would then segue into brass band music and to free jazz, novelty pop, classical, children’s, spoken word. In fact, the only thing that seemed to link what he was playing was the very fact of the medium itself. Phonographic records, new and old. Some very old indeed. Many of them were not even in good condition, the music barely audible over the sound of the crackle of the disk. He was the only club DJ I had ever seen using the ’78 speed setting on his turntables; the needle passing over the compounded bodies of dead beetles and their secretions that comprised the shellac material.

Despite the apparent randomness of his selection, he certainly had an ear for a mix. Although each record was as different from its predecessor as could be, I felt a naturalness to the sequence, every cut faded in and out at exactly the right moment. There was an art to it, certainly.

There was also an audience. The room was pretty much full, mostly with earnest-looking men of various ages: pale, some bespectacled, many long-coated. The odd eccentric-looking female in a granny’s cardigan or boa, or both, would sit like a queen amongst them, stared at and ignored in equal measure. Under many arms would be a clutch of records, which the owner would gingerly take up and show one by one to the DJ, slipping each out of its sleeve and holding them out to him. The DJ would squint as he inspected the grooves, and when one seemed to please him, he would nod, and the acolyte would place it in a plastic box to his left, crudely marked ‘playbox’ in black pen. Once spun, the record would be left in a second box on his right, from which the pasty owner would collect it with an awkward smile of appreciation.

As the evening went on, and no one danced, or tapped their foot, or nodded their head, it occurred to me that it was not music that was being appreciated. It was barely even being heard. This was something else. I puzzled for a while, and when the room let out an audible gasp, as the DJ slid another disc out of its sleeve, placed it on the turntable, and positioned the needle, I understood. It was the means by which the music was contained. It was the fact of the record, its record-ness. The warmth of its sound; the harmonic distortion; the compression; the sound-waves getting smaller and smaller before finally reaching the point of non-existence, and resonating long after they could really be heard; not rounded off to the nearest digital 0 or 1 as they would on a CD or mp3. This was what was being listened to. And not just heard, but celebrated. Quietly, and reverently. They were his disciples and were, quite simply, in a state of awe.

There was a call for last orders at the bar downstairs. The DJ seemed to have finished his set. All was quiet, save for the sound of glasses being clinked and the rumble of voices from below. Then I heard it, a something that was barely a something, a silence that was not quite a silence, but had the power to cancel out the bustle seeping up from beneath. It was the faint crackle of surface noise, rising and falling in volume and thickness as he mixed together the lead-in and lead-out grooves and the bands between the tracks of the records, flipping them on and off the turntables with calm precision and speed. No one said anything. Nobody moved. You could barely hear a breath. The listeners seemed somehow elevated, enraptured by the naked sound of the records themselves, unadorned of the veil of recorded sound. This was a communion of a new church. The church of shellac and vinyl.

The landlord of the pub forcefully pushed the doors open, splitting the silence wide apart.

‘Time to go home now please!’ he said to the room, sweeping down on uncollected glasses.

The members of the congregation started shuffling in their overcoats and talking quietly amongst themselves as they followed invisible slow spirals that led to the door. They seemed content, happy; enjoying each other’s company after the fellowship of the phonograph. Shy boys would feel oh-so nearly empowered to finally ask out the characterfully dressed girl they had been glancing furtively at all evening. But not quite. Maybe next week. Meanwhile, the DJ quietly packed his records away, becoming invisible, even to his disciples.

As if knowing how to hurry the crowd on their way, the landlord was playing a CD through the PA, its digital blare assaulting the room. After half a minute, the room was empty. Even the DJ had escaped, no doubt back home like the rest of them to a still, maybe lonely life; the divine gift of the sound of shellac and vinyl sustaining them through the pain, the warmth of the quiet crackle still resonating in their hearts.

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