The Long-Player Goodbye, By Travis Elborough

An absorbing study of the life (and death) of vinyl – until we get to John, Paul, George and Ringo, that is
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The Independent Culture

As befits a writer with a name which sounds like a 1950s family car, Travis Elborough's two books both have a pronounced nostalgic bent. His tender appreciation of the Routemaster, The Bus We Loved, has now been followed by a personalised history of the LP, subtitled "The album from vinyl to iPod and back again". Time will tell if he is merely softening us up for a heartfelt study of the Murray Mint, but readers concerned that The Long-Player Goodbye might offer nothing more than a slew of rose-tinted reminiscences will find much to allay these fears in this book's opening chapters.

The abundance of physical detail which is requisite in any memoir of a 1970s upbringing is certainly present and correct: the "woodlouse dampish" smell of a record sleeve, the "biscuit-crunch bump" of the tone-arm hitting the edge of the disc. There are also jokes about the confusion caused in impressionable young minds by early encounters with the sleeve to Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here ("This man shaking hands was obviously on fire, why had no one called 999?"). But there are other things too, which elevate Elborough above the massed ranks of Nick Hornby wannabes, vainly trying to cobble together something universal out of the specific cultural conditions of their own extended adolescences.

The first of these vital attributes is actual research. Not just the kind of research which allows you to inform people that shellac was made from a resin secreted by Asian tree insects, or that Indiana's limestone reserves helped to make that state the centre of early LP production, but the expansive general reading which gives a whole book a reassuring air of cultural authority.

There is also an impressive depth of perspective. Elborough's starting point is the everyday sight of a young girl on the bus, "Lilliputian album sleeve after album sleeve whizzing by on the screen of her iPod". But rather than just wallow in a sense of generational changeover, he opts to revisit the moment when the advent of the long-playing record offered just such an unprecedented increase in potential listening time.

If the album offered the listener's imagination "a chance to become entangled in a narrative", what happens when the boundaries which defined that narrative vanish for ever? Elborough's forensically detailed investigation of the process by which those now distant parameters were set maintains an admirably persuasive grasp of the broad sweep of cultural history, balancing clear and focused accounts of technological innovation and corporate infighting with thoughtful consideration of the album's developing aesthetic hinterland.

There are excellent chapters on the evolution of the album sleeve, the way social mobility helped to define the character of the record collector, and the extent to which the classical market set the tone for subsequent developments in the world of pop. (I especially enjoyed the clear foretaste of the Milli Vanilli miming furore in the rogue producer Walter Legge's controversial decision to let his wife supply the top notes in Kirsten Flagstad's recording of Tristan und Isolde.) Elborough moves easily and persuasively from classical to jazz, from comedy to documentary history, from the sleeve-notes of Glenn Gould to the impact of alcohol on a studio encounter between trad-jazzer Chris Barber and skiffle prophet Lonnie Donegan.

Then, just when The Long-Player Goodbye is starting to feel like a definitive work, the Beatles come along. It is hard to be sure exactly what it is about the cultural dominion exercised by the Fab Four which causes Elborough to lose his grip. But the fact that his Beatles chapter begins with the words "A music journalist friend of mine" – a phrase guaranteed to induce despondency in all readers (even those who actually are music journalists) – is definitely not a good omen. It's as if the passage from the distant realm of Sinatra and Mort Sahl to the cultural terrain that John, Paul, George and Ringo define as Elborough's own, removes his obligation to add to the store of human knowledge.

From this point on, the book stops being a bold and intriguing synthesis, and starts to be a rather casual précis, increasingly reliant on a sequence of set-texts to sustain an ever more familiar narrative. There is nothing wrong with deferring to established authorities, especially those as persuasive as Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head (on the Beatles), Jonathan Coe's The Rotters' Club (on prog rock), Julian Cope's Head On (on punk) and American Psycho's Patrick Bateman (on the CD era). But it's frustrating to find Elborough submerging worthwhile insights on, say, the impact of the cassette on the development of hip-hop, in a shopping trolley-strewn canal of received wisdom. It's instructive that the challenge which the digital era sets the 21st-century listener – how to edit a seemingly infinite stream of data into an experience as coherent and meaningful as a 40-minute LP – is the same one that the second half of this book can't quite face up to.

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