01.01.20 - 31.03.20
Dr Alan Dunn
This Research Station extends my PhD 'The sounds of ideas forming' (2008-14)1 which explores different ways in which challenging sounds and designs enter our living rooms.
Like all my research since 2003, this new presentation begins with thinking about The Beatles’ White Album (1968), audaciously designed by Richard Hamilton and trojan-horsed into millions of living rooms across the UK. With its sleeve stripped bare, the White Album is released for a white Christmas and is our bassline for pondering post-1968 album sleeve design. Once Hamilton introduces a minimalist sensibility into the history of album sleeve design, where do we go next? This Research Station deploys détournement, the Letterist International technique that ‘appropriates and alters an existing media artifact, one that the intended audience is already familiar with, in order to give it a new, subversive meaning’2 to ponder this question. Simply, I’ve been going through my own vinyl collection and physically and digitally removing words and/or images to reveal hidden cultural threads. In this manner COVER (VERSIONS) is itself a cover version of other key projects, most notably Harold Offeh’s COVERS (2008), John Oswald’s Plunderphonics (2001) and Christian Marclay’s Bodymixes (1991).
This is the Waste Recycling Centre in Bidston, Wirral, and it’s on my mind a lot. In 2013 I throw half my record collection into these skips over a period of weeks. Plastic in one, sleeves in another. I don’t donate to a charity shop, sell on Discogs, give to a friend nor give to you, dear reader and possible record collector. They aren’t put in storage, but inconceivably crushed. At the time, I probably have around 1,000 records and make choices to keep 500. As we are packing to move to a smaller house very quickly, I make two piles and discard those records that have done nothing for me and that I’m sure I won’t listen to again. I reject expensive discs that have let me down with their lack of magic and I abandon dross bought in charity shops that I haven’t even listened to. Why think back to it then, if it’s only junk that is culled? After getting the vinyl bug back again in 2016, it’s inevitable that I recall those weeks and since beginning The sounds of ideas forming, Volume 2 on Instagram in July 2018, I wonder if the full story strikes a chord with the vast vinyl community out there. Some may already be thinking what an inconceivable waste, but please hear me out because the reasons are clear and important and will include the revolution of the CD format, the Liverpool Art Prize and problems with some Birkenhead drug gangs that I can’t go into in more detail in this particular text. What happens in 2013 is private and not on the scale of Michael Landy’s Break Down (2001) nor The KLF burn a million quid (1994) but you’re reading this because vinyl matters. It defines us and sucks us in. It makes us look cool and makes us remember. It reminds us we have developed the technology to convert sound into solid form that presents itself at 33 or 45rpm to reflect who we are or remind us who we are not. It gathers scratches and dust as traces of each revolution on the turntable, it makes us think about being in bands (not that I ever am, but I’m open to suggestions despite not being musical) and invites us to consider square format design dating back to Kazimir Malevich Black Square (1915). From Black Square to White Album, it’s about the tangibility of records as designed artefacts that cannot be identically replaced like MP3s. Ultimately, as the Instagram project celebrates, it is about a fragile and disposable cultural medium that can become part of our lives through the calm and the storm.
I grow up in the east end of Glasgow in the 70s with a dad who has what I consider at the time a colossal vinyl collection. There are no Beatles nor Stones (my gran didn’t approve) but plenty of Lonnie Donegan, Abba, BBC Sound Effects, Shirley Bassey, James Last, Top of the Pops and The Shadows. Each record is treated with kid gloves and we’re not really allowed to touch them. My mum has about five records and prefers radio, but it’s as normal to have vinyl in your house as it is to have tables, chairs and heating. And here’s an excuse to share the only picture we have of my dad in a band (he’s on the right) and the mock sleeve I make for his birthday. I acquire the first vinyls of my own in late 1980 at the age of 13 and the rest of the decade is consumed by consuming vinyl. The first are bought at a school flea market and include an Otis Redding (still have) and a Boston one for its airbrushed cover (crushed). These are soon followed by my first real purchases in HMV and Virgin on Union Street of Toyah, Adam & The Ants and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. In my PhD, I describe the importance of fellow pupil Graeme Ainslie and how he introduces me to an alternative world of sounds. I can draw really well and he lends me records to copy the sleeves in pencil for him, my payment being listening to them all: Sex Pistols, The Doors, T-Rex, Buzzcocks, Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop (but never really Bowie who I consider over-rated), Kraftwerk, Joy Division, Devo, New Order, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Killing Joke, Echo & The Bunnymen, Dead Kennedys and the Birthday Party.
An article mentions John Peel and soon his nightly programmes are providing more obscure names to track down and David Henderson’s Wild Planet feature in Sounds introduces me to Einstürzende Neubauten and Cabaret Voltaire. Edwin Pouncey’s reviews in Sounds are filled with expensive imports but through fanzines and mail order I build up my psychedelic, garage punk, Paisley Underground, The Cramps, Dream Syndicate, Fuzztones, Nuggets, Ramones and Thirteenth Floor Elevators until East Kilbride provides its own mutation in the form of Jesus & Mary Chain whose debut 7” is bought the day it comes out (and is later cut). I start my six years at Glasgow School of Art mid-decade and dive straight into C86, Smiths, Soup Dragons, Shop Assistants and most things Festive 50 until Underground magazine arrives with the more culturally diverse JAMMs, Sugarcubes and Pixies.
My art school soundtrack gets noisy around 1987 courtesy of Swans, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jnr, Foetus, Big Black, Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Septic Death and all things Maximum Rock’n’Roll. Peel is still a go-to and, looking back, this bleak black vinyl machoism reflects the nihilism and confusion of a young art student. We make a pilgrimage to the Rough Trade shop in London where I buy the cracking early-Plunderphonics Culturcide album and each Friday I pop into AK Records for Crass, Nightingales, Christ on Parade, Talulah Gosh and Annie Anxiety. I start doing photomontage and in 1988 I’m asked by the year above that includes Douglas Gordon, Craig Richardson and Louise Scullion to design their Degree Show poster. There are seven of them so I cut up the sleeve of Madness’ 7 (1981) and stick their heads on the bodies, the first time I ever lay a blade on a precious album sleeve.
As the decade draws to an end, I shift through a two-year MFA including time studying in Chicago buying as many second-hand records as I can carry home. I return, finish my studies, fall in love and leave Glasgow and then the records dry up, ironically as I begin earning disposable income. I blame dancing. I’m never a fan of it and hate it when it creeps into Peel and then into our art school studio via Happy Mondays and Primal Scream and the rave music that soundtracks many of the community art projects I work on. As the 80s finish, my relationship with a particular style of vinyl, what Hüsker Dü poetically define as melody, aggression and intelligence, comes to a standstill and throughout the 90s I buy very little vinyl, staying loyal only to a few. I listen to Radcliffe and Riley and pick up big expensive double-albums from Beastie Boys, Spearhead, Wu-Tang Clan and Public Enemy but they are all later crushed with disdain. They feel as extravagant and decadent as Rick Wakeman does to the punks. It’s my music and I can reject it if I like. They feel empty and I feel empty in relation to new music. It says nothing to me about my life, not even grunge nor Britpop, although they have some good tunes. I’m mentally somewhere else as I spend ten years working on art projects with people, listening to them, letting them speak and hearing their stories rather than music. I still listen to Peel but feel more like a tourist than an insider. Work brings us to Liverpool in late 1994 and its pop atmosphere draws me to its many second-hand record shops, picking up some good new stuff from Tricky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and rediscovering Scritti Politti. I meet the Bluecoat’s Bryan Biggs, an avid record collector and crucial advocate of art-pop-football crossovers and in 1996 he invites me to curate an exhibition of football record sleeves within my FAIR role (Euro’96 Football Artist In Residence) that we call The Vinyl Whistle, borrowing amazing sleeves from artist broadcaster Roger Hill and The Institute of Popular Music at University of Liverpool. A year later, I release a 7” sound collage picture disc single with the Bluecoat that is given the blessing of Bill Drummond during its development. It’s listed on Discogs under Alan Dunn & The Junkyards but doesn’t feel as world-changing as it should; I learn how records are made, produced, designed and delivered yet the mystery, already under threat as the 80s end, is most certainly gone.