Even in 2014 life has its minor irritations:
“Unexpected item in the bagging area”.
“Incorrect username or password”.
But it isn’t all bad news.
A few days ago I wrote down a few examples of how our lives have been made easier through the years, in particular relating to finding and listening to music. Examples 1-5 included how podcasts have replaced taping from TV and radio, iPlayer means we can catch up on shows we miss and the Internet can tell us what albums a band has recorded. Here are five more examples. All of these relatively simple 21st century tasks required Heath Robinson style solutions thirty years ago. Indeed, in the 1980’s even finding out who Heath Robinson was, required a Heath Robinson style method. Here are some more examples:
6. Watching a music video
Then: Waiting for the Chart Show to play the “Rock Charts” once every three weeks, staying in with finger on the VHS recorder hoping that a) the video would be one of the three they played a three minute extract from and b) you hadn’t miscalculated and it was actually the turn of the “Dance” chart. Imagine YouTube where you have to wait three weeks. Or, if you prefer, imagine watching YouTube with a dial up internet connection.
7. Finding out the name of a song on the radio when you miss the DJ’s introduction:
Now: 1. Google a small portion of whatever lyric you caught or 2. hold your iPhone against the radio using Shazam. 3. look it up on the radio’s own website or 4. Look at the display on your digital radio which tells you what’s “now playing”.
In the eighties: Completely and utterly impossible. You could only keep listening on the off-chance they played it again. Toyah actually wrote a song about her years of frustration trying to find out the names of songs playing on the radio in the eighties. She called it “It’s A Mystery”.*
8. Buying a reasonably priced CD.
Now: an album on iTunes costs the same as a record did in 1989, at £8. Spotify is just £10 per month.
Then: Actually it took until the introduction of CDs and the nineties before things got really out of hand. In the eighties, an album cost between £6-£8. CDs became popular from 1987 onwards and sold for £10 plus. Yet by 1997, CDs each cost more than an average sized studio flat (okay, not quite, except perhaps for certain streets in the rougher parts of Toxteth**) and it wasn’t until record companies began supplying supermarkets on the cheap that prices began to fall.
I remember a conversation I had in 2002 with a record store owner in Tottenham who told me the supermarkets were selling CDs for less (£10) retail than he could buy them wholesale which anyway you look at it was a disgrace.
It was especially bad in the UK: when I travelled to the USA on holiday in 1994, I came home with more than thirty (new) tapes and CDs – all bought at less than half the UK price.
9. Hearing lesser known tracks by famous artists
Now: Certain bands have great B-Sides. But if you want to hear, say, all of Suede’s early output, you don’t need to buy the singles any more – you can either buy individual tracks on iTunes or simply buy the remastered deluxe reissue of their debut album. Easy…
In the eighties: there was no option but to buy each physical single just for the B-side if still available, or tape it from a friend. Bands that had good B-Sides were rightly celebrated: That’s why many fans bought their singles even though they had the album. Still somewhat financially ruinous of course.
10. Listening to music on the go.
Now: 160gb iPods mean you can carry your entire music collection with you which you have lovingly ripped from your impressive CD collection / downloaded from illegal torrents. (Delete as applicable) In the eighties we had the Sony Walkman. Or, if, like me, you couldn’t afford a Sony you had an Aiwa or something similar which would eat batteries like Gary Barlow used to eat donuts and which would have variable speed according to what angle you tilted it.
Then there was the issue of what to listen to. You had to cart a handful of tapes around with you. And spare batteries. This required the strength of Hercules in his prime. If you owned an album on vinyl you would need to tape the record onto a blank C90 cassette, with the added complication that if the album was more than 45 minutes long, you would have to leave a track off. If you had borrowed the album that meant a lifetime of not hearing the album as intended. For this reason alone, there is still one track from Peter Gabriel’s “So” album (and a few others) that I have never heard. Things got worse when CDs came on the scene. Discman? They just remind me of those old adverts for record players in cars…
So there it is. When you break it down, listening to music outside the BBC playlist in the eighties could be pretty hard work. However, these difficulties also meant a couple of times I went to see a really good band without ever having heard them before. That probably only happens at music festivals now, or if you’re lucky with a support band. I had a good hit rate. The first band I saw without having heard a note was Kings X in 1989. The second band was in 1990: The Black Crowes in what was their first London show at The Marquee Club. I’ll talk about that next time.
* This is clearly something I just made up. “It’s A Mystery” was actually about the popularity of Dave Lee Travis.
**They actually cost around £16 each in the UK. CDs that is, not Toxteth*** flats…
*** With apologies to the people of Toxteth. A cheap shot, I know. I’m sure it’s lovely there now****
**** It probably isn’t.