Record clubs

© The Book Club
Posted: Mon Jun 6 2011

Record clubs have been called the new book clubs. Kate Hutchinson and Alexi Duggins investigate London's latest alternative trend

When was the last time you listened to music? Really listened? Not while you were ducking and diving on the dancefloor, away from spilling drinks and sweaty pits, while the DJ dropped your favourite Skream track. Not while you were answering 702 emails at your desk with the radio on. We're saturated by music every day, but a new wave of alternative clubs are drawing attention to the startling realisation that very rarely do we appreciate music together - and nothing else.

The best known of these clubs, DJ Colleen 'Cosmo' Murphy's 'Classic Album Sundays', has been drawing a monthly mix of audiophiles, anoraks and 'young, trendy types' since October. Each time Murphy brings her unique audiophile system - the same one they use for David Mancuso's party, 'Journey Through the Light', in London every year - to the Hanbury Arms in Islington, on which to listen to a classic album in its entirety. The speakers alone are worth £12,000, so you can imagine the sound quality.

'It's definitely touched a cultural nerve - we've lost the art of listening,' explains Murphy. 'All of us listen to music in isolated situations; people don't really listen to an album together anymore. No one sits down for 45 minutes unless they're watching a movie. It's really fun to share it and experience the same thing, as if you're out in a club and feeling it as one.'

In Soho, creative music agency Tonic holds an invite-only record club with a mixture of tastemakers, musicians and 'bonafide music nerds'.Participants are asked to bring along one song they think fits the theme that month and there is banter between each track.

'We always joke that on the outside, Tonic Record Club must look like the strangest dinner party: total silence followed by vivacious conversation, then silence again, repeated all night,' jokes Susan Stone, Tonic's creative director. 'But at each event, we learn so much about how people listen to music and why and where they discover it. It's impossible not to connect with new people by the end of the night and feel a little fuller in your soul.'

This idea has so far captured nostalgic music enthusiasts: 'Classic Album Sundays' has had a wealth of positive press, which hail record clubs as the new book clubs. It is headed to music festivals Bestival and Camp Bestival this year to encourage more to do the same. Back in London, others are experimenting with the format too: Speed Listening, which started at The Book Club and has now travelled further east, is another club that plays with how we share sound.

Are they just a chance for snivelling music journalists to wank on about heptatonic scale in post-bop-influenced dubstep rhythms? Alexi Duggins and I went to find out.

The Note Well's Speed Listening
Alexi: 'Apparently I've given Mercury Rev short shrift. 'There's much better stuff than “Goddess on a Highway!”', eulogises an excitable indie kid, as his earphones pump delightfully wonky noisiness into my brain. Thus far, Speed Listening is working well. We've been told to turn up with an mp3 player laden with a themed six-track playlist of songs people hopefully haven't heard (tonight's theme: date music). We then get 12 minutes to exchange playlists with a stranger, and hopefully come away with new musical interests, and maybe new friends.

'“All change!”comes the cry, and I move onto an enjoyable selection of obscure post-rock. Although not all encounters are as successful. While I enjoy one woman's Bobby Womack, she's less convinced by my choices. An obscure Wiley freestyle? “Nah, don't like that.” Fol Chen's “Cable TV” (well, it was meant to be stuff people hadn't heard…)? “Hmm, I might dance to it in a club…”

'Given that despite 40-odd attendees, you strangely get a max of six speed listens, experiences like that are a bit frustrating. Mingling time afterwards is a good way to meet new music buddies, although less so for hearing music. A fun, largely successful event, then, but would benefit from more actual listening time.'

Tonic Record Club
Kate: 'I'm sitting opposite producer Justin Robertson and Olly Dixon from the Filthy Dukes. I'm immediately embarrassed about the singles I've brought with me and feel my face redden at the thought of having to discuss them with people whose record collections wouldn't fit in my bathroom.
'The bizarre theme for this evening, “Music to Improve Production in a Factory”, is designed to make me go purple, I'm sure of it. But I hoped that Chilly Gonzales' 'Never Stop', with its ear-worming, plinky-plonky piano melody would suffice anyway. I start to relax after Tonic's Sarah Bridge kicks off with Sleigh Bells (and I, a glass of wine). “It can be any piece of audio, not just traditional songs,” she says. “Once someone brought along a field recording of a female elk's mating call.”

'The music tonight isn't as experimental, but it's still completely diverse and each choice is a great talking point: Lead Belly, Can, Heaven 17 and Alexandrov Red Army Choir all get a look in, as does early analogue synth recording “Tillicum” by Syrinx (Justin's choice). And, crucially, it's digestible: we keep schtum while each song plays and discuss how it relates to the theme afterwards, which sounds pretentious, but it's actually a lot of fun - the kind of thing you could try at home with more friends and more wine. You can listen to all of the playlists from Tonic's Record Club on their website at tonic.fm/play-music.'

Classic Album Sundays
Alexi: '“You should be able to appreciate the album however you want”, smiles DJ Cosmo, indicating the small area set aside for dancing in this room above an Islington pub. Fair enough, given that in Primal Scream's “Screamadelica” we're essentially listening to a dance album. But as we take to the theatre layout of seats, grab our info sheets and listen to Cosmo's brief talk, it becomes obvious that not everyone agrees.

'I am quietly discussing the album with the die-hard Scream fan I've brought along when she nudges me saying, “The guy next to you is glaring at me!” I whisper that if we want to appreciate the album in our own way we should, but for the next 45 minutes, we sit in silence. As it gets dark, swirly projections become visible on the ceiling, but otherwise there are no distractions. Given that this is supposed to be party music, it's a bit much.

'A “suggest the next album” sign-up sheet at the end inspires hope for future choices more appropriate to quiet, studied listening, but attendance is best based upon a love for the album in question. And be prepared to take it very seriously indeed.'