There may be debate about the monetary value of music, but there seems to be little doubt about its cultural significance. No matter where, or through which device, we listen to music, it still holds our attention, it still seems important. Does it matter whether we get it via a jukebox or Beats by Dr Dre headphones? Does it matter whether it arrives digitally and bare-butt naked or in a thoughtfully designed gatefold sleeve with all the songwriting credits and production details an avid fan might wish for?
101 Essential Rock Records: The Golden Age of Vinyl from The Beatles to The Sex Pistols argues that while the music is by far the most important thing, because we connect with it, what comes with it in its vinyl form is an enhanced cultural experience that digital delivery cannot offer. The book also argues, persuasively, that digital's instant delivery has not only neutered the sense of expectation about a musician or band's forthcoming material but has also, effectively, prohibited the future collecting of records. Or, in the context of this very fine coffee-table book (the exquisite production of which, like the cultural artefact it praises, might well be a dying art form), the collection of vinyl albums.
There is hope, however, inspired not by nostalgia or sentiment but by cold, hard sales figures. The book has been overseen by the American music collector, dealer, label executive, historian and writer Jeff Gold, who claims that the US at least is experiencing a resurgence in sales of vinyl albums. “In 2010,” he writes, “vinyl was the fastest growing music format. In 2011, US vinyl sales topped 3.6 million units, 37 per cent more than the previous year.” Vinyl, says Gold, “is the format that just won’t die.”
101 Essential Rock Records
presents, chronologically, albums from
Please Please Me
, by The Beatles (released in March 1963) to
Never Mind the Bollocks
, by The Sex Pistols (October 1977). In 1979, writes Gold, Sony introduced the Walkman, and shortly after that cassettes started to outsell vinyl. The decline of unwieldy vinyl as a mainstream format for music began. Vinyl's "golden age" was over, laments Gold, and portability became a consumer demand
There was a simple rule for inclusion in Gold's book: all the albums had to be deemed classic rock. Subjectively chosen – with very few surprises – for their originality, quality and influence by the likes of the music critics and tastemakers Gene Sculatti, Jon Savage and Geoffrey Weiss (you can lodge your complaints or plaudits at 101essentialrecords.com), the albums unfold, page by page, in informative and beautiful detail.
The visual format for each album is standard: the left-hand opening page is taken up with the album cover and up to 200 words of informed critique; the right-hand page features the album’s back cover, an image of the original vinyl record and some sidebar information. Boring? You might think so, but the variety and the often breathtaking imagery and design of the album covers make the book seem an immensely adventurous page-turner.
Breaking up this standardised format are engaging essays by musicians about their favourite albums. These include Graham Nash writing poignantly on his former lover Joni Mitchell's Blue ("she touched my heart and soul in a way that they had never been touched before"); Suzanne Vega commenting astutely on Songs of Leonard Cohen ("I felt he was my good friend and that he understood the world I lived in – a complicated, mysterious, dirty world of intrigue, sex, religion and politics"); and Johnny Marr waxing excited on Iggy and the Stooges' Raw Power ("It delivered exactly what was on the cover: otherworldly druggy rock'n'roll, sex, violence, but strangely beautiful somehow. From then on, I just climbed into a world with that record").
Other musicians' entries include Iggy Pop, on Them's Angry Young Them ; Robyn Hitchcock, on Pink Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn ; David Bowie, on Velvet Underground's The Velvet Undergroun d and Nico ; and Devendra Banhart, on Davy Graham's Folk, Blues and Beyond .
As a love letter to a physical format, 101 Essential Rock Records is an aesthetically satisfying piece of work that highlights, perhaps even more than the music, the inextricable links between pop and visual art and design. It's impossible to think of Patti Smith's Horses without also thinking of Robert Mapplethorpe's daring cover photograph of an androgynous Smith in shirt and tie, or of The Beatles' Revolver without becoming immersed in Klaus Voorman's surrealistic drawings. There are 99 other similar examples.
Flaws? Just the one, but it is, unfortunately, a big one. Gold, in an inexplicable lack of editorial (if not geographical) judgment, has decided to designate the album’s country of origin as that most often identified with the artist.
Which means that Jimi Hendrix Experience's 1968 album, Electric Ladyland , is identified as British, Them's 1965 Angry Young Them as British, and Van Morrison's 1968 Astral Weeks as American. Gold does likewise with The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen – they are all, apparently, American, not Canadian.
This absurdity aside, this book is a deep well of pop culture, designed, presented and produced with loving care. Make sure your hands are clean before you open it – then dive in.