Before music vanished into the digital ether its means of delivery invited collaboration with the visual arts. David Whetstone explores an exhibition which pays homage to the vinyl record.
A fascinating new exhibition at Baltic 39 sets the mind in a spin – which is highly appropriate, as it happens.
The Curves of the Needle is dedicated to the vinyl record, that old fashioned music delivery format that went round and round and round... unless you accidentally jogged the turntable and the needle did a hop and a skip (and occasionally, if you had the volume high, shocked you out of a woozy reverie with a noise like a plummeting Stuka dive bomber).
You can age a person by their response to the word ‘vinyl’ – assuming it doesn’t crop up in a discussion about floor coverings which, in my experience, are seldom the catalyst for misty-eyed nostalgia trips.
Vinyl records, though... that’s another thing altogether.
Alison Brown, communications assistant at Baltic, is just too young. I wonder, a bit mischievously, if she has a vinyl collection. She smiles and says carefully: “Well, my dad does.”
Dads’ record collections, which are likely to be vinyl, tend to go with dads’ dancing and dads’ denims which – dammit! – were trendy back in the day and still have a bit of life in them. Dads’ stuff, among fresh young folk, tends to be regarded with a mixture of fond indulgence and suspicion.
The writer Harry Pearson is clearly of the vinyl generation. He wrote a brilliant essay called Sleeve Notes to go with The Curves of the Needle and it is contained – a desirable collector’s item, this – in a bespoke record sleeve.
Unashamedly it begins nostalgically, with the observation: “People deface the books you lend them, but they never write on your record sleeves.”
And with that he’s away, off down the memory lane leading to Hamilton’s of Teesside, “near the United bus station on Newport Road, Middlesbrough”, where records were on offer for money – if you were lucky.
“Back then,” notes Harry, “shopkeepers took perverse delight in not having stuff in stock, as if by refusing your money they’d scored a moral victory.”
Another who owns up to a vinyl collection – a scruffy-cornered original one, rather than a modern one comprising the expensive limited editions produced for the trendily alternative – is Baltic curator Alessandro Vincentelli whose idea this was.
“In a way the fact that there is a revival of interest in vinyl was one of the triggers for the exhibition but I think for artists and sculptors it’s never gone away,” he says.
“It has always been part of their working lives. In the North East in particular there has always been a close association between artists and musicians and I really wanted to reflect that in this exhibition.”
Here is an array of work by North East artist Graham Dolphin, a name well known to Baltic audiences.
Painstakingly, he decorates specially selected vinyl records with tiny, intricate inscriptions.
The exhibit called 15 Songs by the Velvet Underground is described as “scratched record” and it is precisely that. But rather than a vinyl disc spoiled by careless handling, this represents an act of homage – the lyrics of the songs engraved onto the surface.
Ironically, of course, this means the records can never be played, even though you could argue that they contain the music twice over.
Records by Leadbelly, The Sex Pistols and The Beatles have been similarly transformed. As well as being vehicles for great art, these discs have become works of art themselves.
That’s the thing about this exhibition. It is an illustration of how the vinyl record, in its paper sleeve, became an art object in its own right – something the digital download can never hope to be.
North East underground band :zoviet*france: are represented in the exhibition by discs meant to be handled and treasured rather then slung on a turntable in a dark room and forgotten. The group’s electronic music has a following across the world but here we see that the medium is as important as the message.
Early on, we learn, :zoviet*france: adopted a principle of making each copy of every new release themselves, setting up temporary production lines and making thousands of record sleeves by hand with materials including hessian, aluminium foil and hardboard.
There are reminders in the show, too, of alt.vinyl who used to have a shop on Newcastle’s Waterloo Street but are now online purveyors of rare and deleted vinyl records.
“New out!!” they shriek on their website. “Flexible Pooling 7" ep white flexi by :zoviet*france & fossil aerosol mining project!! a collaborative release by alt.vinyl & Baltic contemporary art gallery.”
And that, we can presume, is going to make some people very excited indeed – while making those of us whose vinyl collections reflect youthful folly (all those Top of the Pops cover compilations) ahem quietly into our sleeves.
One thing I glean from the exhibition is that those who now favour the vinyl record are likely also to favour music that lurks well away from the mainstream.
Here, on a looped film, is David Toop reflecting on his vast vinyl collection as he selects a disc, carefully removes it from its sleeve, places it on a turntable and settles into a chair with a look of serene contentment as the air is riven by the sound of pebbles being rattled in a bucket.
As professor and chair of audio culture and improvisation at the London College of Communication and one-time member of experimental rock band The Flying Lizards, perhaps anything else would have been a surprise.
One wall of the exhibition was given over to Graham Dolphin who used it to create Ra Is Rising, a display dedicated to the extraordinary African American jazz pioneer Sun Ra (born Herman Blount) whose life path was set after an imagined trip to Saturn.
All the record sleeves displayed were borrowed from a UK-based collector. A world away from mass production, some of them are decorated simply with felt pen scribbles suggesting that every single copy sold was unique.
Northumberland photographer Julian Germain is represented by a photograph he took of Charles Snelling, an old man who loved Nat King Cole.
“Occasionally,” recalled the photographer, “he would ask if I’d like to listen to some music and then he might play, for example, just three songs from a Nat King Cole LP – but we would really listen to them. Music was never something to have on in the background.”
Poignantly, the same Nat King Cole box set we see in the photo is displayed next to it, the context bestowing iconic status.
My eye is also drawn to a disc by Jonty Semper, an artist who has worked a lot with Newcastle-based art group Locus+.
You could say he records counter-intuitively. Here is his recording, made in London’s Hyde Park on September 6, 1997, of the one minute’s silence at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales – a supposed absence of sound captured for posterity and made tangible.
In the adjacent room are films and projections.
Christian Marclay’s Looking for Love, from 2008, is a 32-minute film in close-up of a stylus bouncing all over a scratched disc while Vinyl Requiem, by Philip Jeck and Lol Sargent, made in 1993, features a massive banked orchestra of Dansettes (1950s and 60s record players) lamenting the supposed imminent demise of the medium.
Perhaps most extraordinary of all are the exhibits of X-Ray Audio recalling the lengths people would go to to circulate banned western music in the old Soviet Union.
Here are discs pressed into disused hospital x-rays by ingenious people who knew how to buck the system. The sheets, still bearing the negative images of fractured bones or tumours, were cut into circles and a hole burned in the middle with a cigarette.
Thus the pelvis-shaking hits of Elvis and his ilk where distributed to a repressed people sick of a diet of sturdy Soviet folk – their delight, you can imagine, akin to that of the young Harry Pearson finding what he wanted in Hamilton’s of Teesside.
The Curves of the Needles is at Baltic 39, Baltic’s sister gallery at 31-39 High Bridge, Newcastle, until May 17. Entry is free and the gallery is open Wednesdasy to Sunday, 12 noon until 6pm (8pm on Thursday). Check www.balticmill.com/39