Even the great can be mocked for overstatement. Introducing a song at a 1984 concert, Liam Clancy poked gentle fun at James Joyce for attributing profound philosophical significance to a street ballad, a drinking song:
“It was a Dublin street ballad of the last century that found its way into the music halls of Dublin – a song called Finnegan’s Wake. James Joyce, the author, was fascinated by this song. Most of us just thought of it as another drinking song. A fellow dies, he is is laid out, whiskey spills on him – the water of life – and needless to say he rises from the dead. What else would he do? Right, the rest of us could see it as a pleasant little song sung at a party. Joyce saw in it the entire cycle of life, death and resurrection of the whole universe!”
If such a genius as Joyce can be accused of making too much of a moment in popular culture, then it probably would not do to suggest that a BBC report on the resurgence of vinyl records points to a trend with profound implications, that it says something about human society. Explaining the phenomenon, the British Phonographic Industry said, “Respondents praised the enjoyment of the process of playing a record, the quality of sound and the cover art as the main reasons”. I could have told them that.
Vinyl records were facilitators of social interaction. Boxes of singles could generate hours of conversation. Going through friends’ collections and picking out ones to be played was a staple activity for those who did not dance and who had not yet found their way to the kitchen at parties. Occasionally, obsessives would worry that the right record would not be returned to the right box, but mostly it was good humoured stuff.
Albums had the capacity to inspire even more interest. As the BPI notes, there was artwork on the album cover to be discussed, but there would also be the cover notes and there might also be an insert with all the lyrics, and that was before there was any thought of actually playing the thing. Connoisseurs would look for particular editions of the album; cognoscenti would have imported copies, from the United States, or Germany, or Japan.
There was something tangible, tactile, visual, in paper and card. Digital downloads offer nothing comparable; nothing more than a few words on a display. Doesn’t reversion to a technology many thought obsolete say something about a human need for the concrete and actual? Doesn’t it say something about a desire to buy a product from a person in a shop rather than engage in online transactions with a virtual shop?
The BBC report says that 3.7% of those who bought vinyl did so despite not owning a turntable – there is surely something significant about such behaviour.
The symbolism of a desire for vinyl records is hardly equivalent to that of Finnegan’s Wake, but it does suggest a feeling of a need for the sort of interactions and experiences that cannot be digitised.