About once a year I get hot and cold tingles running up my spine and then I know that something that has been preying on my mind for a long time is about to get settled. So I clench my teeth, grit my eyes and change my life radically. It happened when I got a TV set. It happened when I threw away my electric shaver and got a razor and a shaving stick. It happened last year when I finally gave up buying Sunday papers. Now it has happened again, and I know in my bone of bones that during 1970 I shall get rid of my mass-produced gramophone and build up a modern sound system.
But this time it is different, because I feel very unhappy about the whole business. I had no regrets about the electric shaver. The TV set made no difference because I had always felt as if I had one. The absence of Sunday papers caused a few withdrawal symptoms, even a relapse for a fortnight, though now I can face spending the weekend with my family without any pangs. But when it comes to playing records, I know as certainly as I know that I shall never go to the moon that I shall never take to a really good record-playing system.
I also know that there’s not one word of truth in that. I shall fall so in love with being able to hear my records perfectly well at last, with floating in a constant Gulf Stream of warm sound, that I shall forget I ever had doubts about it. So before I go out and buy the first component, I want to get down on paper my total and unanswerable objections to my doing so.
First of all, it’s got nothing to do with loving my old gramophone. It’s quite a new one and I loathe its guts. It keeps going wrong: if you listen carelessly you can hear the whirr and grinding of machinery inside it; at its best it’s no more that upper-middle-fi and its best varies like gas pressure. Last weekend, after I’d put a new needle in it, it went crazy and started skating across new records (not, for some reason, old ones). This morning it rejected itself during the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and all the family dived for cover. I sometimes have a vision of marching into the managing director’s office where they make the things and smashing it on the floor without comment.
But I also believe that anyone who really loves music must hate his gramophone a little. If he has a really fine gramophone he must hate it a lot, because an enormous fraud is being practised on him. He is being asked to believe that music, the most spontaneous, ephemeral and fragile of all arts, can be locked up on a thin black platter and released at will through a series of wires. This is clearly rubbish. What a hi-fi addict hears when he puts on an LP is not music but an improved, cleaned-up, perfected, idealised form of music. It’s foolproof, wonderful, better than music, and therefore quite unsatisfactory.
The traumatic experience that first gave me this precious insight was first hearing Ben Webster in person. For years I had known Webster on record as the most ravishing tenor saxophonist in jazz, with a tone and fragrant vibrato that made his playing the musical equivalent of a Japanese drawing. So when I went along to Ronnie Scott’s about five years ago and saw a plump, middle-aged, not entirely sober American negro playing these same ecstatic solos, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt sure that this fellow, whoever he was, must be miming to Ben Webster records. Suddenly and shamefully I wanted to be at home listening to him on the gramophone.
(I had a friend at school called Barnard who summed this up for me in an eloquent nutshell. We were listening to a Dixieland record together, which I found rather boring in the middle and took off behind his back. Barnard sat rapt for five seconds, then leapt up shouting: ’For God’s sake, someone take this break!’)
This sounds like an argument against all records, whether played on £550 worth of technology or grandfather’s wind-up 78rpm-disc-eating machine, but it isn’t. My case is not that records represent a musician inadequately but that they do it too well. Therefore it follows that if records can be a bit scratched, not too well recorded and played on a slightly raddled machine, they convey the truth more faithfully than a perfect LP on a perfect system. It’s the same principle whereby a film, which is coloured shadows cast on a white wall, seems more real than flesh-and-blood actors in the theatre. It’s the same idea that caused Jack Yeats, W.B.’s artist brother, to refuse permission to reproduce his paintings and to tell an American publisher who promised him startlingly faithful reproduction of his work: 'The better the reproduction, the worse it is.’
Jazz is both a good and a bad music to argue this from. Bad because records ruin its spontaneity anyway – all jazz lovers know thousands of solos by heart which without Edison’s invention they would never have caught more than an inking of. They listen to recorded jazz completely differently from live jazz and some day someone will write a book about jazz which takes this into account. It’s good because most jazz records have missed notes, messed-up ensembles or awkward moments which have been preserved for the sake of good passages and which restore the balance. (Especially when, as on some, you can hear mikes being moved, the leader shouting orders or the pianist humming loudly. On one early Louis Armstrong you can distinctly hear a door being slammed. On a recent Earl Hines LP there is a strange noise which is identified in the notes as a whisky glass falling into the piano.)
What’s wrong with hi-fi, wide-stereo and all-frequency equipment, though, is that it leaves nothing to the imagination. I like music because it is full of human failings. I like it because piano sonatas are written by bad-tempered composers and played by squat unlovable pianists, because jazz musicians tend to get drunk and have no stage presence, because going to a concert can be wet and demoralising and because it’s worth getting through all that to the music. On perfect hi-fi everything is done for you and that’s no fun at all. It’s a musical package tour.
Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed that the same applies to some kinds of concert – the sort where hundreds of famous jazz musicians are pushed quickly on and off, or the choicest gems of the classical repertoire are put on display, or the latest supergroup is flown from America to the Albert Hall like an LP being rush released. This isn’t music so much as communal listening to records, and the demeanour of people listening in concert halls sometimes seems to be approaching the way they listen at home. Even pop audiences are unexpectedly respectful and dignified these days, especially in London.
Logically this should all collapse when pricked by one argument - that the better music is recorded, the better it sounds and the more one enjoys it. But it’s a fallacy. The better music is recorded, the less it needs a human listener and the more it needs another machine to appreciate it. I enjoy records most when the recording or reproduction leaves room round the edge for the imagination to decorate. The best moments I have had listening to recorded jazz were in my youth, when I tuned in fuzzily to the Voice of America Jazz Hour via Washington, Munich and the bedclothes. And the best jazz records they ever played were when I had lost the wavelength in a welter of German weather forecasts and was desperately trying to retrieve it, knowing that unimaginable trumpet solos were being lost forever over the English Channel.
So tomorrow I go out and start negotiating for a new super-stereo, larger-than-life, record-playing installation and say goodbye to real music. It’s been fun, but I know that when I get those hot and cold tingles there is nothing I can do about it. In a year’s time I shall read these words again and wonder what on earth I was talking about. This is just to let me know that I really believed all this rubbish.
PUNCH April 1 1970