Amidst all the debates about how Spotify is changing music, and what the long term effects of this might be for the industry and consumers, one thing remains clear – it’s a brilliant way of discovering new music and re-discovering tunes you’ve loved and lost.
I’ve benefitted from this greatly in the last few weeks and have a stock of playlists that are providing new delights on a daily basis. For example, only yesterday my birthday was made all the more enjoyable by discovering Great Lake Swimmers, a band from Toronto I’d never previously heard of, whose album ‘Ongiara’ provided a great soundtrack to a relaxing afternoon thanks to my fabulous new Sony laptop speakers.
The only downside though, is that it’s all really easy. Type in the name of the artist or song, and a split-second later you either have what you’re looking for, or you don’t, because it’s not in the library yet. Despite the ludicrous convenience of being able to do this so quickly and for free it is somehow less satisfying than spending ages tracking down an obscure album yourself by trawling through the CD racks of whatever independent record stores you can find still in business.
I’m sure I’m not alone in revelling in the thrill of the chase, and the immense sense of satisfaction you feel when you finally corner your quarry and bring back the spoils. Here are three of my most pleasing ‘old school’ searches for albums/songs that would probably be filed under ‘obscure’:
‘Century Flower’ by Shelleyan Orphan
Many moons ago, during the early days of The Tube, Channel 4’s first and probably best music show, I saw a performance of a song by Shelleyan Orphan which transfixed me. An impressionable teenager with artistic tendencies, seeing a band named after a Romantic Poet and featuring a pre-Raphelite beauty playing a cello, on a song that sounded like nothing I’d previously encountered, it was bound to leave a significant mark.
I can’t even remember which song it was now, but I distinctly remember the many occasions over the following decade when I’d scan the shelves in any record store I happened to be in, hoping to find their album ‘Century Flower’. Once or twice I found it, but in those days the lack of a disposable income and any opportunity to ‘try before you buy’ resulted in me leaving my treasure unclaimed, just in case I’d end up blowing my meagre funds on a duffer.
So, the years passed, and the urgency faded. Then, on holiday in Toronto in December 1996, approximately nine years after the original search began I found myself in a small independent store in the downtown area and out of habit I did a quick flick through under ‘F’ for Felt (another occasional obsession) to no avail, and then on to ‘S’, where I found one copy of ‘Century Flower’. I remember being shocked, then excitement took over and I pounced to secure the purchase, all the caution of yesteryear cast to the winds.
Sadly, this is one example where the delicious anticipation of the chase proved more enjoyable and rewarding than the prize. It wasn’t exactly a duffer, but the fact that only one track, ‘The Silent Day’ appears on my ipod today tells its own story. As a footnote to this tale I should advise you that the four or five seconds it takes to type ‘Shelleyan Orphan’ and press enter, yields 34 tracks on Spotify – it may be time to give them another try.
‘The bushes scream while my daddy prunes’ by The Very Things
This was another classic Tube moment that gripped me around the same time. If you remember it, or have ever seen the video you will understand why. Being a words man from an early age, the song title itself struck me as a work of genius, and the cod horror film style delivery of the quite baffling lyric (reminiscent of ‘Monster Mash’ or ‘The Munsters’) amused me and my little brother no end. Incessant impersonations of the song ensued around the Cook household for weeks after, much to the bafflement and dismay of our parents.
This was a hard one to track down, because The Very Things did not really become a household name, as you might imagine – probably quite rightly if we’re honest. I don’t recall ever being able to find it in a record store, though I always checked the ‘V’ rack just in case an album containing the track was lying in wait.
Then early last year, 24 years after the song originally appeared, I decided to give the itunes store what I considered to be its ultimate test. To my utter amazement, there it was, and for the princely sum of £0.79 I had captured a song that had eluded me for the best part of a quarter of a century. This time there was no disappointment – I was instantly transported back to 1984 and recaptured my initial excitement at the slightly unhinged ‘singing’ and occasionally discordant accompaniment.
I just checked Spotify and although it took about seven seconds to type in the song title, that track and the whole album of the same name are available – I might be brave enough to check out ‘Shearing machine’ tomorrow!
‘The Forest is Crying’ by the Trio Bulgarka
This one is my favourite search story because it’s a real saga. I first heard the Trio Bulgarka on Kate Bush’s album ‘The Sensual World’ and fell in love with their magical, mystical vocals which were obviously complete gibberish to me, yet sounded strangely compelling. I bought their album ‘The Forest is Crying’ when it came out in 1988, and played it very often, especially the track ‘Mari Tudoro’ which was just hauntingly beautiful and became a firm favourite.
‘So where’s the search in that?’ you may ask. Well, let’s cut to the chase. Just over a decade later, someone borrowed some of my CDs to take to work, including that one. When they were returned, the case for this album was empty and the person concerned made no attempt to find it or even apologise. One might even conclude that they’d done it on purpose. Bulgarian folk music may not be everyone’s bag, but that’s just rude.
So, as it was a treasured album, the search for its replacement was fervent and relentless. And seemingly doomed. After putting in the usual legwork in record stores proved fruitless, I took advantage of access to the new internet technology and extended the search online. It was then that I discovered that the album had been deleted by the record label Hannibal, and was subsequently unavailable for purchase. Refusing to accept defeat I tried various other routes, including registering a reservation request on Amazon, which again, eventually proved to be a frustrating dead end. By this time (about four or five years later!) I was feeling like the online equivalent of J R Hartley from the old Yellow Pages ad, hapless and defeated.
So I gave up. Forgot all about it, and moved on.
Until this time last year, when on a week’s holiday to New York I was pottering around the Virgin Megastore in Union Square after a fabulous breakfast burrito. On a whim, I ventured into the World Music section which I hadn’t done for several years, and had a quick look under T. And there it was, in all its glory, with the same CD cover. Just one copy.
I instinctively grabbed it, to ensure no-one else beat me to it, before laughing out loud at how ridiculous the gesture was. I was so surprised by my find I had a job explaining the significance of it to Nic (my wonderful wife) when I found her in the Pop section. To her immense credit she didn’t look at me as if I was insane, and seemed to understand my joy, even if it would have been hard for her to share my enthusiasm for the album.
There was one further slight twist, when we got to the checkout and my credit card was originally refused (due to the over-enthusiastic fraud protection measures practised by certain British banks that fail to consider you might be legitimately buying things on holiday abroad). I was not about to let that prevent me from claiming my prize, and although I was prepared to get as dramatic as circumstances required, the cash machine in the shop had less scruples and paved the way to purchase.
Twenty years after I originally owned it, and ten years after it had been cast asunder, I finally had it back in my possession. As soon as we got back to the UK it was transferred to my ipod and I was enjoying the delights of those strange ethereal warblings once again.
Satisfyingly, you can’t get this album on Spotify …. yet.
The one that got away
There’s still one song that has eluded me over the past two decades, and I haven’t even got very close. That’s partly due to the fact that I can’t remember if it was called ‘Heavenly powers’ or ‘Earthly powers’ but it was by A Man Called Adam (that’s the real group name, not further proof of my dodgy memory skills).
I’ve scoured record stores, drawn a blank with Amazon and itunes, and Spotify has also failed me to date.
If anyone out there can point me in the right direction I will be ridiculously grateful.
The chase is on …….