In a desert of noise, the MP3 player is an oasis of quiet...
When I was a teenager, there always seemed to be time to listen to music. I'd built a turntable in kit form and filched the interior of an old Radiogram and six or eight speakers to create a 'hi-fi'. If I remember rightly, I had the speakers in various cupboards and controlled the level by opening and closing the doors as I could never get the volume control to work properly between off and LOUD. With this primitive system, I'd listen to music, uninterrupted, for hours on end and came to intimately know and love various albums and artists that still move me today.
Every event in my young life was accompanied by music — listening to 'Telstar' by the Tornadoes while making Thunderbirds out of Lego, my first kiss to the sound of 'These Boots Are Made For Walking' by Nancy Sinatra, holidays in Wales listening to Egg and Genesis, homework done to the clatter of Yes, ELP or the soothing sounds of Bread, and spending time with my first proper girlfriend in a tower block while the Sunday Top 40 counted down in the background. And there always seemed to be time to listen, carefully, to whole albums. I can't imagine when I found the time to eat or socialise — it just seemed to be endless winter evenings in my room amongst my albums. It was all low technology, not the greatest sound, but somehow none of that mattered.
These days the soundtrack to my life is work, sirens, drunken passers-by, cats vomiting, US Air Force fly-bys, the dishwasher, the distorted crap music drifting out of neighbours' windows on sunny days, and people mowing the lawn and hoovering. I've no desire to listen to those Industrial albums I bought in the '80s — all I need is to open my window to get the same effect as Einsturzende Neubauten. These days I have a decent Naim hi-fi, in a nice room, with well-placed speakers and a comfy chair. So I put on a record and sit down to listen. And what do I hear accompanying the beautiful beginning of the latest Sigur Ros LP or the Elbow album? Mopeds! I hate these things with a passion. You can hear them coming from about a mile away. Over the next 15 minutes the sound slowly builds up like a demented wasp, closer and closer until, as they pass right outside the house, the windows rattle with the roar of their 'customised' exhausts as the be-tracksuited rider passes, leaning into the wind, at 25mph. Then another 15 minutes go by until the noise dissipates completely and I realise I've missed a whole side of the record. Again.
So I put on another album. As the needle hits the vinyl and the piping trumpet of Miles Davis emerges from the speakers, I hear the buzz outside begin again and the whole pantomime repeats itself. Double-glazing doesn't help, as mopeds seem to emit a noise on a frequency that transmits itself on an atomic level through any man-made structure. I have considered putting my hi-fi in a nuclear bomb shelter but I'm not convinced even that would keep out moped noise, though it would stop my cats having to listen to the Art Bears.
Then I bought an iPod — and before any Apple haters turn away, this applies to any MP3 player. I've never been a fan of earlier Walkmen as I've always balked at the idea of carrying bundles of my precious CDs around with me — and the sound that emanates from cassettes is just too horrible for me to even consider listening to. I originally bought the iPod to audition my own mixes and to download plays and comedies from Radio 4 and BBC7. But of course I soon started transferring some of my CD collection onto the machine. Sure the quality isn't perfect but, as when I was a teenager, somehow that doesn't seem to matter. The iPod has allowed me to listen, uninterrupted, to whole albums in one go. Even 80-minute albums, previously beyond my dreams to even attempt to listen to the whole way through in one go without interruption in the living room, can be tackled on the iPod.
I take my iPod on walks, I listen in bed, in the bath, in the car and while working. I even started to buy CD versions of my vinyl albums, something I thought I would never do, just so I can listen to them on the iPod. The expensive hi-fi is now gathering dust while my listening has undergone a renaissance. I've rediscovered old friends of my youth and opened many new musical doors. Perhaps a new career awaits me as a personal music player evangelist? 'Buy one now and remember why you love music in the first place!' The soundtrack of my life has become a musical one again and for that, I am truly thankful.
Stephen Bennett is a musician, writer and film-maker. He lives in Norwich with two cats, four Apple Macs and a Swede. His ambition is to become the best duduk player in East Anglia. If you would like to air your views in this column, please send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to the postal address listed in the front of the magazine.