Classic albums: the art of noise
July 14, 2011 | By:
After just nine months, Classic Album Sundays have redefined the art of listening in London. As they spread to the festival circuit, New York and Manchester, could such groups become the new book clubs? Richard MacKichan went to lend an ear
Vinyl records

All that scratching’s making me… nostalgic. Photo by Merrick Brown (Flickr)

Does a classic album deserve to be treated as a single work of art, to be heard from beginning to end? Have we sacrificed sound quality with low-res digital formats?

Are most of our listening experiences confined to isolation with our iPods? In our busy lives, have we lost the art of listening?

The answer, at least for Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy was yes, yes, yes and yes. Her friend and famed Hacienda DJ Greg Wilson had long been blogging about the lost art of proper listening. If the two of them had the same thoughts, perhaps there were others? And with that, Classic Album Sundays were born.

The format is simple: each month, like-minded audiophiles gather in a room to listen to a previously selected classic album.

The room in question is atop a wood-panelled gastro pub in suburban Islington, selected as much for its acoustics as for its wood-fired pizza oven below. A world away from the spiritual struggles on Bob Marley’s Exodus, the album we had gathered to appreciate.

Two hours before the needle is dropped, the place is abuzz. Murphy spins some reggae classics of the time to set the mood, and not on any old hi-fi either, but a vintage turntable and Bowers & Wilkins Diamond Series speakers. The best in the world, we’re told.

After Murphy gives an enthusiastic and insightful introduction to Exodus and its history, the record is ceremonially placed on the turntable and incense lit in the corner, not Marley’s smoke of choice but slightly less irksome to the local constabulary. Rows of people stare forward in hushed reverence. Feet tap, eyes close and knowing glances are exchanged, but the audience remains silent and bass rumbles through the garden furniture drafted in for the occasion.

The sound is the star here. I know Exodus as well as the next music fan but for those 37 minutes and 45 seconds it sounds better and somehow more moving than I ever imagined it could.

The album built on the success of the 1975 live version of No Woman No Cry, which had introduced Marley to a much wider audience. Recorded predominantly in London while he recuperated from an assassination attempt in his native Jamaica, Exodus propelled him from acclaimed reggae artist to international music icon, with hits including ‘Waiting In Vain’, ‘Jamming’ and ‘One Love’.

In fact – as Murphy revealed in her intro – the songs were so good, it got the band kicked off a tour with Sly and the Family Stone for outshining them after just four shows.

Time magazine voted Exodus best album of the century in 1999 and it continues to reside in the top half of most Top 100 polls. The thoughts in the room were that, while side one retains some of that early Wailers grit, side two sounds brazenly chart-friendly but a milestone record nonetheless.

Afterwards people clamour around a whiteboard to suggest some classics for next month and, having pushed my case for Closing Time by Tom Waits, I speak to Murphy –  a charming New Englander – about her drive.

“The purpose is to take the listening experience to greater heights and attempt to take the listener as close to the studio recording of the album as is possible,” she says.

“A 22-year-old journalist came to interview me and I asked whether he had ever listened to an album from start to finish. He paused and said ‘no’ so I played him Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on this kit. He couldn’t speak for ten minutes.

“Most people will never get the opportunity to experience music this way, never mind a generation brought up on MP3s and crap headphones.”

It seems that more people want to, though. This was only the ninth Classic Sunday to be held, and there are already plans for events in Manchester and New York. The likes of David Byrne and David Gilmour have lent their support and, in a busy summer, the Classic Sunday team will be at Camp Bestival and the South Bank’s Vintage Festival, among other events.

“Not bad for a small gathering of music fans in a North London pub,” says Murphy.

Not bad at all.

  • Classic Album Sundays returns to The Hanbury Arms, Linton Street, London N1 7DU in September
  • Go to www.classicalbumsundays.com to vote for your favourite albums through the decades and other information
  • Later this year, high50 hopes to launch its own record clubs nationwide. If you want to participate, please email support@high50.com and put ‘record clubs’ in the subject line