I remember trying to work out the difference between my music consumption and that of normal people. How come they weren’t bothered by having just a couple of dozen records and a box of cassettes? Why didn’t they avidly study the backs of the sleeves and where was their curiosity about how the music was made? Why did their eyes glaze as mine lit up with LP passion?
One theory arose from noticing the different patterns of record usage. Up until the digital age, your everyday music consumers, who we’ll call Norm and Norma, seemed to follow a pattern.
Norma hears a record at a friend’s place
Likes it, buys it (or gets given it if there is a birthday or other occasion imminent)
Plays it a few times
Forgets about it, because Norma has a life.
Or perhaps, this:
Norm gets given a cassette by a friend and told, ‘Listen to this!’
He does, and likes it
Norm plays it so often the tape stretches and the sound starts to distort
Replaces this tape with the next one.
Now what your music tragic does is a little different. After hearing something they like, they often ask ‘Where can I get something like this but different?’ Fans of progressive music are particularly partial to this approach. It forms a key part in what makes prog-heads completely insufferable, even to other fans of the genre. Having been a certifiable card-carrying prog-head (club logo by Roger Dean, of course) I’ve been working on my own elitist pseudo-intellectual ‘plonker prétentieux’ persona for several decades now.
An example might help. It used to puzzle me that everyone knew Tubular Bells (at least two parts: that co-opted by the nasty film, and the section where instruments are introduced by Viv Stanshall) but almost no-one seemed to follow this up with further Mike Oldfield albums or, even less likely, look for other records that captured whatever it was they liked about the debut.
So I entertained myself imagining an even more extreme version of my own inner pretentious prat approached by a hapless ‘Norm’…
SCENE: (INSIDE, DAY) Man wearing 80s gear enters Record Shop carrying a battered copy of Tubular Bells
NORM: I’d like to update this to a later model please.
SALES ASSISTANT (in the supercilious style of the waiter in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe): Certainly sir. Sir is presumably well acquainted with Mr Oldfield’s next two albums?
NORM: Er, no.
NORM: Good, are they?
SALES: Hergest Ridge was a Number One album and well-known in [beat] some parts, sir. And Ommadawn has great musical charm.
NORM: Omma…? Haven’t heard of it.
SALES: That much is evident, sir. May one suggest returning after investigating these fine albums?
NORM: Ah, sure. Why not?
SALES: (Putting albums into carry bag and plucking notes out of customer’s wallet) Why not, indeed?
Cut to Man re-entering. Time has passed; he has a beard and is carrying a CD of Hergest Ridge.
NORM: Hey, Captain Compact Disc. [Arthur Dent seems to have unexpectedly morphed into Zaphod Beeblebrox here, but we’ll fine tune before production begins] Good to see you! Remember me?
SALES: (Utterly unchanged) How could I forget, sir?
NORM: You were on the money Mr Music. Loved the Mike discs and I’ve discovered that I really like progressive music. Is that cool or what?
SALES: Positively arctic, sir. How may I be of assistance today? A slice of Univers Zero? Some Egg, perhaps?
NORM: Huh? No, I’ve had breakfast thanks. What I want is something like Oldfield, but… NOT Oldfield! Get it?
SALES: Like a photon express, sir. You want something that has the melodic and structured instrumental long-form pieces Mike Oldfield specialised in during the mid-70s, containing a variety of instrumental textures and with seasonings of English folk and rock subtly infusing the Western composed music tradition.
NORM: YEAH! You have something like that?
SALES: Naturally, sir. Here is the debut album by English musician and composer Stephen Caudel. It was released on the Coda label under their New Age imprint in 1986, which did the work no favours as it was erroneously and unfairly lumped in with tedious tinkly-bonk massage music. Written in linked sections, it has variety, invention and an accessible melodic through-line that will engage without unduly challenging. Wine Dark Sea was produced by Tom Newman—
NORM: I’ve heard—
SALES: [cough] —the same person who produced Tubular Bells and many other Oldfield albums, and is performed by the composer on some seventy instruments, just like the other fellow… I think sir will enjoy.
NORM: Epic! Let’s get this adventure happening!
SALES: Positively heroic, sir.
NORM: [Hesitates] But what if I don’t like it?
SALES: [As he again removes money from customer] Then we would be pleased to provide sir with detailed instructions on what to do with the offending disc.
Wine Dark Sea, its title a phrase appearing in both of Homer’s epic works, has sides entitled ‘The Outward Journey’ and (can you guess?) ‘The Return Journey’. When it was performed live with orchestra in 1983, before going into the studio, it was described as a ‘symphonic rock poem’. In 1985-86 it was one of a clutch of albums released by Coda on both vinyl and the relatively new Compact Disc format. Described by the label as ‘a new form of music somewhere between classical and pop’, New Age is a term also applied to the American label Windham Hill: instrumental music that is not jazz, aimed at an audience who are not (or no longer?) rock dogs, something suitable for driving in heavy traffic or chilling out on the couch. Or for your next elegant dinner party.
Writing in the brochure enclosed with early LPs, label founder Nick Austin endorses the music as having ‘an appeal that is broadly speaking from Eno to Elgar but with one important difference, all New Age artists are still very much alive’. Doubtless Brian Eno would have described reports of his demise as ‘somewhat exaggerated’.
I first discovered the label and its music via a budget sampler called Standing Stones and have quite a number of the titles. To round out this post, a few words about the most famous artist to release an album on Coda’s New Age label.
Taking a break from writing soundtrack music and touring (Live at Hammersmith, 1985), Rick Wakeman said a big acoustic ‘Yes’ to the invitation to write an album of pastoral piano music. Following the ‘classical’ tradition of programme music seeking to evoke a narrative or setting, Country Airs aims to create the feel of a pleasant walk in the country. Given the romantic richness and lush melodies, clearly the English countryside. Others must have thought so too: Country Airs reached the number one position in the British New Age Chart. (Who knew there was such a thing?).
Wakeman’s album is beautifully played and very nicely recorded. The pieces are uniformly tuneful and compact; they almost feel hummable on the first listen, as if you’ve walked with Rick before. I really like ‘Stepping Stones’, ’Waterfalls’, and ‘Ducks and drakes’, despite the last piece sounding somewhat reminiscent of the Vangelis theme to Chariots of Fire. The whole thing is tasteful and most relaxing. Just don’t doze off while you are driving.