Marking World Record Store Day

Yesterday I was a bit distracted by things sciency, so didn’t get to acknowledge World Record Store Day! Usually I would try to be at home and play records I haven’t played for a while. But better late than never.

World Record Store Day is of course a marketing initiative, and has been going for over ten years now – how time flies! Although I haven’t bought any new vinyl for a long time, I have happily held on to my collection across many house moves, and through the advent of CDs and iTunes, despite the derision and scoffing of others. “The recording in digital is so much better, the sound production perfect,” I was told. “Records take up so much space …” Well, yes. But so does sports gear, or children, or books.

While I can accept the arguments, that is not what it’s about for me. This is my collection (and I use the term loosely. It’s not a regimented collection as some of my former radio station colleagues would have built, with every record ever made by an artist, 45s and 33s). I do not have every album by say Fleetwood Mac (although we do have two copies of Rumours). I do not have every Elton John album. But I have what I like – such as Elvis Costello’s Imperial Bedroom, Kate Bush’s The Kick Inside,  Blondie’s Parallel Lines, Flowers’ Icehouse, and Hall & Oates’ Bigger than Both of Us. The opening saxophone strains of their Back Together Again transport me to the adolescent bedroom in the inner suburbs of Newcastle, where the only knowledge of Philadelphia was the cream cheese sold in blocks in the supermarket. And that is what it is about – this music, the album covers, even the plastic sleeves from the record stores where I bought them – all contribute to a memory that is somehow tangible. I was there when I heard it.

These pieces of rotating vinyl are the soundtrack of my life’s formative years, and it is not by co-incidence that when I am feeling low or disconnected, that I turn to this collection. Some have crackling and jumps (not too many), but it is those very imperfections that I like, remembering when I flogged a particular track or side, or why it jumps there. Sometimes I put a record on to be surprised by the tracks on a second side because I hadn’t ever flipped the disc.

At the Patti Smith concert in Sydney recently, they were playing the whole of the Horses album live. After playing Free Money, she quipped wryly, “And that is the end of side 1 of Horses,” knowing that a large part of the audience would understand her reference.

A 2016 YouGov study indicated that the recent resurgence in vinyl record purchasing is driven by midlife nostalgia. The research found that, “Those who have recently purchased a vinyl album are most likely to be aged between 45 and 54.” Ironically, many are re-purchasing albums they previously discarded.

While there are some albums I can see myself discarding in the future – bits and pieces that I picked up along the way – playing records is such an important part of my life, I can’t ever imagine not having them. So I am glad for World Record Store Day – it means I won’t have difficulty getting a new stylus for the turntable (it was a bit tricky for a while in the 90s) for some time yet.

The good Oils

I am standing in a dark cupboard – about the size, shape and build of a polling booth. A black curtain is pulled closed behind me. On either side of me at waist height are two plastic arms, elbows sticking out, attached to the wall.  Apparently they are meant to move and jostle me around, as if we were standing in the audience of The Antler hotel in Narrabeen in the late 1970s. But the elbows remain static in the dark, inversed Vs, props in some weird Halloween party. In front of me is a largish screen playing a video of a Midnight Oil gig, circa 1982 – and the elbows are irrelevant because I don’t need reminding what a Midnight Oil gig is like. I do remember.

The Making of Midnight Oil retrospective exhibition is in Canberra at the moment at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre and is well worth the hour or so spent down memory lane. First mounted by the Manly Art Gallery and Museum in close consultation with Oils band members, the exhibits cover the life of this iconic Australian band, from its genesis as Farm, through to the early 2000s when they wound up shop. There is plenty of video content to see, as well as clothing, tshirts, album covers, 45s (!), and a stage set up complete with drum kit. The height of Peter Garrett’s microphone stand gives an idea of the size of the man but I suspect they would have needed more room on a real stage to accommodate him, his movement and dance style, and three guitarists as well.

Midnight Oil image 3 stage

Stage set up

The first time I saw Midnight Oil was at The Ambassador nightclub in Newcastle. I was 16 (checking ID wasn’t much of a thing in 1979) in year 12, and had convinced my friend Melanie to come with me. I didn’t see much of her that night, but she knew where I was if she needed me. I didn’t move from my perch on a stool at stage right, mesmerised by the driving energy of the sound and, if I am honest, Rob Hirst’s biceps. Yes, Garrett’s presence was overpowering too, but it was the music that stayed (and stays) with me, and I straight away ordered Head Injuries from the CBS record club – a well-loved piece of vinyl that I retain today. By the time I moved to Sydney the following year (and eventually to North Bondi the following year ), they had taken off and were playing all over the place.

Midnight oil image 2 Ambassador

Poster from gigs at The Ambassador nightclub in Newcastle, complete with surfing and steel-making visual references

The exhibition is very comprehensive – it tracks through the key pinch points of their career – the Oils on Water Triple J concert on Sydney Harbour (somewhere in the garage I have a cassette tape of this, recorded from the radio), endless tours in the US, travelling and touring through the Australian outback – unheard of in the 1980s, the Sydney Olympics and the Sorry suits – politics was never far away and it’s fair to say that it was not the sole province of Garrett. He’d have been given short shrift if the agenda were only his and this comes out in lyrics written by all of the band members.

The high points of the exhibit for me are the personal items on display – the guitars and drum sticks, the Casio keyboard used for song composition, and a tattered set list left over from a gig – perhaps kept by chance but encapsulating the band’s life-time output. And the handwritten lyric sheets – complete with copyright tags – are fabulous to see.

Midnight oil image lyrics

Handwritten lyrics for Run by Night

The film of the making of the 10-1 album is also running on a loop, and features interviews with the brilliant Jim Moginie and producer Nick Launay and illustrates the technical brilliance and musical knowledge that sits behind the unique Oils sound.

The exhibit will be touring elsewhere in regional locations, which is great, but if you are in or around Canberra, I can recommend it.

The Making of Midnight Oil exhibition  is free and runs in Canberra until 14 May – http://www.tuggeranongarts.com/the-making-of-midnight-oil-2/