Book Reviews - Review 405
A Fabulous Creation: How the LP Saved Our Lives
Category: Music | Published: 2019 | Review Added: 04-10-2020
Another good book by this elder statesman of British rock journalism. A Fabulous Creation is a personalised history of the long-playing vinyl record, beginning in 1967 with the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, and ending in the 1980s with the advent of the compact cassette and the compact disc.
Hepworth picks out Sgt. Pepper to start his history on the basis that it was the first long-playing record to be conceived of as "an album" rather than just a collection of songs. This criterion is rather arbitrary, given that the 33-rpm record was invented way back in the late 1940s. Groundbreaking though the Beatles' album was, there was nothing novel about its medium. Hepworth's criteria are essentially personal: what he records in this book is not the era of the LP, but the era of his relationship with it.
As with Uncommon People, the account is structured chronologically. For each year, Hepworth relates what sort of life he was living, and how the LP fitted into it. Like most young people who are serious about music, he was not quite as hip as he wished:
Music was Hepworth's drug, and he devoted his life to it, starting out working in record stores, and edging his way into rock journalism. His own taste is broadly representative his generation's, but as well as his own favourites, he selects for analysis albums whose interest is in the story of their making or their concept. Clive Davis, producer of Janis Joplin's hit album Cheap Thrills, despairing of her band's musicianship, decided the only option was to go with the wind and "make a record that was almost an artist's impression of a night out among the freaks of Haight Ashbury". It worked, and the sow's ear Cheap Thrills topped the US charts for the summer of 1968.
Then there was Roxy's Music's eponymous début album, sold to both the record company and the public on the strength of a cover featuring a seductively posed model, and an inside spread inset with cartoon-like portraits of the band members. The artwork's intriguing mix of glamour and kitsch was reason enough to want to own the record, regardless of whether you liked the music.
Hepworth is wry about his occasional struggles to reconcile his gut feelings about music with the tug of peer pressure. He relates the watershed incident of listening to Pink Floyd's Ummagumma: "For the first time I admitted to myself I didn't like a record I was supposed to like". He returned sheepishly to the record shop and swapped it for something by Fairport Convention.
With the fluency of a man who knows his subject inside-out, Hepworth fills A Fabulous Creation with interesting anecdotes. Donna Summer's song Love to Love You Baby was sixteen minutes long because a record company executive wanted something that could soundtrack an orgy. The Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive was the first hit single to use a single looped bar of drums to create a suitably hypnotic beat. ZZ Top were a journeying blues band throughout the 1970s, who rose to the challenge of the video age by becoming a comedy act. They grew enormous beards, had themselves built a garish vintage-style car, switched to purveying commercial hard rock, and became superstars.
Only towards the end does Hepworth's book lose its way somewhat. Here he expresses regret over the demise of the vinyl record as a medium. One can agree that there is something uniquely intimate about the format of the LP - it is physically fragile, and its large sleeve makes a personal statement about its owner, whether it's being carried in the street or leaning against a hi-fi stand. According to Hepworth, the small-format compact disc "reduced the music as much as it reduced the package. Compact disc demystified music and in so doing reduced the status of those who made it."
But not everyone would agree with this. Many great albums have been released since the late 1980s that were never impressed upon vinyl. However, they were made by people a generation or more younger than Hepworth. Their music could never be his music in the same way as Randy Newman's or Steely Dan's was. He comes close to acknowledging that his lament is not for the age of the LP, but for his own lost youth - ending the book with a comment on the recent niche revival of the LP: