Thinking inside the box

I don’t very often get to start blog posts with ‘when I was a lad’. Merciful perhaps. But something caught my eye in the flat today that got me thinking just that.

Between the age of maybe 15 and 17, I spent an absolutely indecent amount of time in places like this:

Vinyl Exchange

(fantastic Vinyl Exchange pic courtesy of  tootdood)

Manchester was going through the whole Stone Roses thing, which was great, but what I was searching for were the hidden gems of another couple of Manchester bands: The Smiths, of course and one of the first Factory bands The Durutti Column. The Smiths may well have been the best British group of a generation, but Durutti Column had other things going for them. First off, amazing music, of course. But they were also prolific, relatively unheard of, and you stood a reasonably good chance of actually bumping in to them (or rather him, the group’s driving force, Vini Reilly) in a record shop, or Dry bar – a particularly stylish Hacienda spin off-, or even, bizarrely, in the lumpen every-town mall of the Arnedale centre (as I once did).

But bumping into the band was by no means the main thing. The obsession was searching through thousands and thousands of albums in places like Vinyl Exchange, hoping to chance on an obscure rarity or dodgy bootleg. You would then take this hidden gem to the counter, full of thoroughly unjustified fear that the staff would spot that it was, in fact, a hugely undervalued collectible.

I vividly remember finding an old, and heavily scratched ‘Amigos in Portugal’, once of the quasi-lost recordings Vini had done with another label; and an original of Factory Quartet, both in the store above. Both fantastic recordings. Both great proof of my devotion to this somewhat esoteric musician. The quest was without end, as no one really seemed to have ever worked out what was in the Durutti Column back catalogue. And even then, there was the next group, that weird dance record Johnny Marr had produced.

It was (like Chirky’s concept of an cognitive heat sink) a thoroughly pointless way to explore Manchester and fill up adolescent afternoons.

And now I work in a company where a big part of what we do, is make this aimless collecting impossible. Go to  a modern music download site, type in the name of your favourite band and you will immediately be able to access every last piece of their history and have it delivered, brand new (or ‘mint’ as we sad geeks used to say) to your door the next day. Or, fuck it, don’t worry about all the carefully crafted packaging, just download it to your iPod and stick on random with everything else.

Or perhaps not.

I predicted a while back that artists and labels might try and re-invent packaging. I’d actually thought this would be more radical: Boyzone teddy bears with three free tracks or Girls Aloud Smirnoff Ice with a b-side stapled to the bottom of the bottle. Apple is clearly thinking very hard about electronic packaging alternatives for it’s new tablet and iTunes.

And below are the three amazing box sets that started off this reverie.

If I’d known about all this when I was 16, I could have saved myself an enormous amount of time and legwork. One is from today – a fantastic recording of Elbow playing the entirety of Seldom Seen Kid live at Abbey Road. The other two are a remastered set of  the first four Durutti Column albums, with extra notes, postcards, interviews and some very nice packaging (re-released because the original tapes were found after Antony Wilson’s death); and all of those Smiths singles I spent my adolescence trying to track down.

Box sets

Yes, I know, what would Morrissey say? ‘Reissue, Repackage, Reevaluate…’ But this stuff is great. It’s so much nicer to actually get something beautifully crafted along with the music itself. Even if it goes in a drawer, and the tracks go on the iPod, there is a real pleasure to the tactile elements and content of these packages. The only thing that would have made them better is if I’d found them languishing at the bottom of a bargain bin at Woolworths.