By ProgBlog, Jan 11 2016 12:02AM
I’ve had an innate aversion to all things that instruct “Keep Calm and Carry On...”, including the almost acceptable Keep Calm and Mellotron T shirt that I spotted during 2014’s Resonance Festival in Balham, since these things began appearing in 2008 or 2009. I don’t like the juxtaposition of the font and the crown but it’s hard to pin down why it offends me so much. Fortunately, author and journalist Owen Hatherley has just done a piece for The Guardian in which he succinctly explains and justifies my hatred: probably resurrected as a joke this war-time phrase, seemingly innocent nostalgia, quickly took on a dark meaning as governments imposed austerity in response to the global financial crisis. From signifying that we should invoke the ‘blitz spirit’ and ‘we’re all in this together’ as the poor, ill and disabled had their benefits cut and many had to rely on food banks, Hatherley coins the phrase ‘austerity nostalgia’ and suggests that the message is a return of the nostalgia of repression, when there was public spirit in the face of adversity; the real world is of course currently geared towards greed and selfishness.
Keep Calm and Carry On in all its countless forms encourages us to carry on consuming as though capitalism hadn’t just taken a massive shock and I find it somewhat ironic that Past Times, a UK retailer based on the purveyance of nostalgia (and therefore just the sort of place you’d see Keep Calm and Carry On merchandise) went into administration in 2012. Austerity nostalgia transports us back to a time between roughly 1930 and 1970, encompassing a period before the decline of the Empire and the post-war revival and social revolution where health and housing were provided by the state and the call from Harold Wilson for ‘a New Britain to be forged in the white heat of technology.’ Though the Beatles, the swinging sixties and the birth of progressive rock are covered by this time frame, we don’t appear to have been too successful in creating a better Britain through technology – government spending on R&D slumped below 0.5% in 2012. The privatisation of iconic council housing is a major contributory factor to the national housing shortage. My son came close to sharing a flat in Keeling House, a former Tower Hamlets council tower block designed by Denys Lasdun (completed in 1957.) Hatherley name checks this modernist masterpiece, an early example of a public asset being hived off to a private developer, as an illustration of how the romantic notion of design classics form part of this austerity nostalgia. The clean lines of the building (and an array of other iconic modernist edifices) have now been turned into limited edition prints and crockery to adorn the flats of hipsters, sold off by the local council and redeveloped by private equity barons. The reality is that Keeling House was emptied of council tenants in 1993 because of safety fears and was threatened with demolition; it was granted listed status that year but there was no council money to affect repairs and return it to the public housing pool.
Is the resurgence of vinyl part of this wave of nostalgia? It just about fits into the time frame and many diehard prog fans are now able to live their audiophile dreams, including me. I may have not been without a turntable since 1978 but I chose to play CDs when there was sufficient material available on that format, eschewing LPs because of the convenience of their digital cousins. However, the miniaturisation of the artwork and sleeve notes was always a problem, most evident on dual format releases like the eponymous Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe album (1989); I bought the CD and struggled with the insert.
My short-lived semi-retirement allowed me to indulge in an upgraded hi-fi to fit in our upgraded dining room but the problem of the through lounge/diner, the inability for different family members to indulge in separate, different leisure pursuits (TV, and for me, music) meant that I needed a new pair of headphones...
I last owned a pair of closed back headphones between (about) 1976 and 1983. I don't remember the make but the sound quality was far better than that from the speakers that came with our Philips stereo deck. Like much of that record player, the speakers were housed in plastic and the slide volume and tone controls matched the slide volume controls on my cans! I can’t remember why I referred to headphones as cans, other than it was an adoption of a term used by professionals. I also assume that Rick Wakeman’s adaptation of Brahms 4th symphony is called Cans and Brahms (from Fragile, 1971) because of the headphone association with recording. My headphones may have originally been used for their designated purpose but in addition I used to take them to student discos to obscure the music and later used them in lieu of a microphone when making primitive recordings with friends. A few years after their demise I requested a pair of headphones for Christmas and my wife very kindly bought me a Sennheiser HD414 Anniversary Edition which are on their third set of foam pads but still going.
Towards the end of last year I noticed that the high frequency response of the 414s was causing a bit of distortion which is why I acquired a pair of wireless Sennheiser RS165s so I could listen to music while other members of my family watched TV; wireless because unlike in my youth where the comfy armchair was in easy reach of the headphone socket on the stereo, my new listening position, a gorgeous Barcelona chair, is on the opposite side of the room to my amplifier. I exercised some brand loyalty in my choice; I also have Sennheiser ear buds for my mp3 player and I'm happy with the quality of them, so the opportunity to buy the RS165s for £159 seemed like a good move. It was. The sound quality is exactly what you'd expect. Within the myriad forms of progressive rock are an amazing range of amplitude, frequencies and tones, all of which are handled with effortless clarity. Another reason for getting a good set of cans was so that I could follow the instructions inside Edgar Froese’s Aqua (1974) which features Gunther Brunschen’s artificial head system to produce binaural recordings, allowing the listener to perceive the direction of the sound source. The experience of listening to Aqua through closed ear cans was reminiscent of listening to Tangerine Dream through headphones in the dark when I was a teenager.
Headphones were helpful to discern song words when the speakers were located in shoulder high alcoves in a Victorian dining room which made putting your ear to the cone on the uncomfortable side of awkward, taking into account having to go back to the deck to lift and replace the tone arm to replay a section of track. Working out the words in the absence of a lyric sheet was something of a hobby, one that I don’t look back on with a warm and fuzzy feeling.