Musical Madeleines: On “Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them”

November 8, 2021   •   By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them

Tom Gatti

IN 2017, the editorial team at the New Statesman had an inspired idea for a series for the Christmas issue, a sequel of sorts to “Killer Serials,” which had appeared the previous year and in which famous authors riffed on their favorite television shows. The idea this time would be to ask a mix of authors to write about the music that mattered to them. Tom Gatti, then culture editor (now deputy editor) of the magazine, took charge of the project. Rather than go the BBC’s Desert Island Discs route of picking a range of selections, he invited a mix of writers to each write about a single album. Their goal, he said, should not be to select the LP they thought “best” but instead to focus on a “cherished” album. The result was an engaging series that has now been plumped out to become the marvelous book under review here. 

Long Players: Writers on the Albums that Shaped Them includes the original 2017 commentaries (some modified in small ways: e.g., David Mitchell’s piece on Joni Mitchell’s 1971 album Blue has been expanded) and about an equal number of newly written pieces. It also benefits from an excellent introduction by Gatti that is filled with interesting tidbits of information on various topics, including the history of the album form.

Most contributors take up Gatti’s charge to engage with a single beloved album, and the result is often that the music chosen serves to unlock the gates of memory in the way that the madeleine does in Proust. In a chapter titled “Kind of Blue by Miles Davis (1959),” for example, Ben Okri conjures up “a rainy morning in Lagos, in the seventies, when for the first time” he was “alone in the house.” It was then, according to him, that the album “first made itself real” in a special way. He describes how some sounds become a “part of the decor and mood of a life,” as eternally familiar and evocative ever afterward as “the fragrance of your mother’s hair, or the street where you first fell in love.” For Kate Mossman, Paul Simon’s 1990 album The Rhythm of the Saints evokes memories of her parents winning a trip to France in a lottery when she was 10. This was the “most exciting thing that had happened to the family,” and the album served as the trip’s “soundtrack,” since it was played over and over again as they drove.

Other essays engage with totally different sorts of artists and genres — from folk to funk, rap to Rachmaninov, British invasion rock to the B-52’s — and we are whisked by words to other locales. But there are recurring themes — families, for example, and “firsts” (first album bought, first encounter with a musical style). In addition, experiences that authors had just before, during, and just after their teen years figure centrally. (Okri does not give his age, but he was born in 1959, so during the ’70s, he would have been in that range.) This emphasis on youthful experience made perfect sense. For an album to be a “long player” in both senses of the term, it needs to be one a listener keeps coming back to over the years. Youth is also often a time — at least it was for me, as for so many of these writers — when music matters in a way that it rarely does later in life. While this book is more than just an exercise in nostalgia, I often felt a desire, when reading it, to be able to listen to music with the intensity I did when I was 12. That was the age when I shifted from believing that, to be my friend, someone had to root for the same sports teams as I did to feeling that they needed to appreciate at least some of the musicians I venerated.

Not all the contributors play by Gatti’s rules, and the book is the better for their questioning or completely bucking his notion of a single album standing out for them. Ian Rankin is one of the questioners. He begins by telling readers that his preferences can change “every week or maybe every month,” so he might have written about a different album if asked at a different time. He does, though, settle on John Martyn’s Solid Air (1973), writing that he didn’t really care for it when he first heard it at 17. He tended to go for rougher-edged artists then, and the fact that his mother seemed to like it was another “mark against it.” He gave the record a chance, though, because a “pal” he thought “knew his music” insisted that it was good. And it grew on him. (This was a very relatable story: there are records I grew gradually fond of via the same process, and I like to think that Warren Zevon had a few more fans than he would have otherwise because I stubbornly insisted to friends that, if they listened to his eponymous album one more time, they would see him for the tortured genius he was.)

The best rule-breaking chapter is by Ali Smith, who completely refuses to zero in on a single disc. Her offering — which closes the book and is titled simply “Various artists” — has the feel of a Desert Island Discs episode recorded during a rowdy party — or maybe a magic mushroom trip. Gatti’s invite made a “week-long mutiny happen inside my head,” Smith claims. As she sat down to write the piece, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Court and Spark (1974) were “already swinging boho punches at each other about which matters more,” while Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s self-titled debut was “giving me a sidelong witty French-Canadian look.” We also hear about other works, such as Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 album Sounds of Silence (brought into the mix because she happened to pass a busker playing the single “I Am a Rock”) and Elvis Costello’s 1977 debut My Aim Is True (which, she says, pointed at her and shouted her name). By the time she was done writing, Smith asserts, all sorts of records were “playing at once,” and “the best part of four decades lost and found” kept “going round and round.” I like that Smith, who writes lyrics among many other things, sneaks a rhyme in there.

One attraction of Gatti’s introduction is the loving attention he pays to the physical aspects of discs and devices, with astute comments about many material objects: cover art, phonograph players, vinyl as a substance, the book-like holders of multiple discs that preceded LPs (the root of the word “album” itself), and CD cases. There are also many discussions of objects elsewhere in the book. In his piece on the 1971 album Fragile by Yes, for example, George Saunders refers to the LP’s allure as being the way it looked so “different from other albums,” with a “gorgeous and strange Roger Dean painting on the front (the abundant Earth, cracking open).” As befits a project so concerned with physical features, enormous care has gone into the book’s packaging. It comes with a cover illustration that evokes, in clever ways, the mesmerizing and boldly original cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), and many other aspects of its design are geared to evoke the layout of an album.

The image on the cover is fun to go back to after reading the book because of the Easter Eggs it features. Stevie Wonder is there because of Tracey Thorn’s touching description of a shared appreciation for his 1973 album Innervisions, which created a transitory sense of a “whole family” in “unexpected accord,” a “communal musical high-point” that she and her closest kin “never bettered.” David Bowie is there both because Deborah Levy describes The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) as having an effect like “throwing petrol at the naked flame of teenage longing” and because Neil Gaiman calls Diamond Dogs (1974) the album that “fed the part of me that made things up, that fell for dystopias and mutants,” and that generally “shaped the inside of my thirteen-year-old head and made me who I am.”

In aesthetic terms, the cover works beautifully, but the book-as-album conceit seems off in this case. There are books that are like albums, of course, with chapters that function like tracks in a sequence. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), for example, feels like a concept album to me. Gatti’s book, though, is just not that kind. For starters, it has far too many chapters. There might be albums out there (aside from compilations) that feature 50 tracks, but I’ve never come across any — and can’t imagine listening to one straight through if I did.

As I pondered this issue, I realized that there’s a different musical metaphor that works for the book, especially as it could make a good beach read. If you, dear reader, are old enough for this to mean anything, please think of Long Players as a transistor radio, one with access to unusually good stations. When I was young, I’d listen to song after song on the same station, but sometimes I’d switch stations if a song I’d never heard before didn’t grab me. Later, I might listen to that song when it came around again and find that I liked it. With Long Players, I started out reading it through but then began skipping over a couple of chapters that didn’t grab me. In some cases, I later went back to them and liked them. I felt comfortable getting to entries by three authors I was familiar with and admired — Rankin, Gaiman, and Colm Tóibín — and glad but not surprised that I liked their new cuts. And there was a special reward, which gave a new twist to the radio idea, related to Tóibín’s piece on The Johnstons’s 1969 album Give a Damn. I had never heard of this work, which made a much bigger impact in Ireland than in the United States (and came out when I was eight, so not yet music-mad). Reading Tóibin, I found his passion for the group’s tight harmonies infectious, so I put the book down and searched online for samples of their songs. I really didn’t think I’d ever be blown away by a version of “Both Sides Now” I hadn’t heard before, but I was.

I’m glad I came away from the book with a new group to listen to, but it was even better to come away with two new authors to read (and admittedly, I’m late to both these parties). One is Ali Smith, the other is David Mitchell. I’ve given a sense already of why I liked Smith’s chapter, but I won’t even attempt to explain what makes one Mitchell’s take on another such a memorable mini-memoir. That’s because attempting to convey what’s in that chapter on Blue and why it makes me want to rush out and read Cloud Atlas would be fruitless, a bit like, as the Lovin’ Spoonful lyric puts it, “trying to tell a stranger about rock ’n’ roll.”

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Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s latest books are, as author, Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink (2020), and, as editor, The Oxford History of Modern China (2022).