Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Low Fidelity

Nick Hornby's High Fidelity brought into very sharp focus the fact that chaps of a certain tendency take inordinate pleasure in ranking things in lists. In the book - and Stephen Frears' excellent, John Cusack-fronted film adaptation of it - protagonist Rob augments the apparent boredom of running his own record shop by compiling lists, such as:

  • Most Memorable Break-Ups [in chronological order]
  • Top 5 Films (a predictable but nonetheless endorsable parade of The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs)
  • Top 5 Subtitled Films
  • Top Five Elvis Costello Songs
  • And, for the vinyl-obsessive - Top Five Best Side One, Track Ones - Janie Jones (from The Clash), Thunder Road (Born To Run), Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nevermind), Let's Get It On (Let's Get It On) and Return of the Grievous Angel (Gram Parsons' Grievous Angel).

I once worked around the corner from an actual record shop in Islington run by a Rob. At the time, I was also working with a bunch of Robs. I was a Rob. We'd spend entire lunchtimes in pubs inconsequentially discussing unimportant items such as the relative merits of Scritti Politti's first and second albums and whether or not Haircut 100 were the new Beatles (they weren't, by the way).

Most Robs have now grown up and become respectable fathers, husbands - regular folk. Regular Robs: the kind of people who appreciate the lyric of Pink Floyd's Time: "And then one day you find/Ten years have got behind you/No one told you when to run/You missed the starting gun." The kind who find being English, middle-aged and melancholy are, apparently, part-and-parcel.

This week sees the 20th anniversary of Nirvana releasing Nevermind, an album whose perceived importance in the history of rock music meant that it - or at least its opening track - was, unsurprisingly, mentioned in one of Rob's lists.

The anniversary is being marked by being re-released as both a 'Deluxe Edition' and a 'Super Deluxe Edition', packaged by record company marketeers to add a few unreleased bits and pieces to one package, and even more bits and pieces to the other.

The album in its original form was fine. Adding in a pile of DVDs, bootlegs and outtakes doesn't really add anything, unless you are a Rob who has grown up to have a respectable job and a mortgage on a house with space for such paraphernalia.

So in the same week we read that EMI is re-releasing everything Pink Floyd ever released - on vinyl and amongst an eye-boggling array of formats, box sets and even - gasp - downloads. Same exercise - let's exploit the forty/fifty/sixtysomething's appetite for nostalgia while pulling in the completists who would probably buy up David Gilmour's broken guitar strings (or any other personal refuse, come to think if it) if it could be endorsed and sold.

Such gripes aside, are any of these exercises in repackage marketing worth it? For now, I'll spare you treatise on the Floyd releases, but will happily say that Nevermind was - is - a good album. Now regarded as the standard bearer of grunge, it's release on September 24, 1991 did for the so-called 'alt rock' movement what the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks had done for punk in 1976 - and with an eerily similar title. Neither are exactly the best albums of their respective ilk, but they carried important flags.

Thanks to its riff-heavy opener (Smells Like Teen Spirit successfully replaced Smoke On The Water - until Seven Nation Army came along - as the only song you would ever hear coming out of a guitar shop on a Saturday afternoon), Nevermind became the most talked-about album of the year...and perhaps the following decade, playing a leading role in blowing away the poodle-haired cock-rock and over-produced, lip-glossed and gelled-up pop of the late eighties.

But as with all these things, Nevermind didn't change as much as musos might think it did. Punk was the same: three years after the Pistols broke through, Pink Floyd released The Wall, as bloated an anti-punk record as there could ever wish to be. Three years after Nevermind, Nirvana came to a bloody end as Kurt Cobain became another successful applicant to the 27 Club (founding member, Robert Johnson, most recent admission, Amy Winehouse).

One of the problems with the Robs of this world is that once they arrive at convention, it's hard to break that convention loose. Nevermind is a good album, but like an unelected hereditary peer, it seems to guarantee permanent place in the upper reaches of many a Rob's Top 10 list.

Such lists, The Word (and former Smash Hits and Q) editor Mark Ellen told The Independent in 2007, have become predictable. "The list I can stand the least is the 100 greatest albums of all time. It makes my blood boil, I know what they're going to be," and lists Revolver by The Beatles, Radiohead's OK Computer and, of course, Nevermind. "It's utterly meaningless," Ellen added. "There's a vast orthodoxy that has built up around rock music where there is a consensus view of what is officially recognised as being classic."

And he's right: one Rob's Top 10 should be as individual as the next Rob's list. Because if all the Robs agree with each other on Top 10 lists, there would be nothing for them to talk about.

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