Book review | Every record tells a story – a vinyl handbook by Steve Carr

A few weeks ago we were having an Italian meal out and I attracted questioning from the family as to why I was pocketing a number of toothpicks from the table as we left. Ah, well.. I explained, I’m reading a book by this guy called Steve Carr and he explains how you can mend jumps on records using toothpicks. They all look unimpressed, 14YO daughter did that eye rolling they have perfected by the time they reach that age, but I continued on with my quest to test it.

Steve’s book ‘Every Record Tells a Story‘ does indeed cover this topic, reviving an old £1 copy of the Rolling Stones’ High Tide and Green Grass (nothing makes a collector more happy than reviving a copy bought at this price). I did also attempt this with a £6 bargain copy of the Cocteau Twins’ Blue Bell Knoll. It is quite tricky but I did also get the offending jump out. I think you’re either in or out at this point…

So, here is my review of Steve’s brilliant journey through the world of record collecting – what to collect, what avoid, stories beyond the records and wry observations on where our obsessions can take us.

The book also comes with a seal of approval from fellow traveller, Pete Pephides, who has written a lovely foreword. You can see them both in the BBC four doc, Pop Charts Britannia, repeated just a few weeks ago, and still on iPlayer.

I came across Steve’s writing via his blog, also called Every record tells a story. In particular, his three part run through Beatles cover versions breathed some new life into my love of the Beatles and will be a compilation I always return to. I also love his blogs on his favourite music books.

The book is made up of relatively short chapters on different artists or record collecting themes, but has a real depth of knowledge about music, without being showy. You can see what Steve has just soaked up. He has a real knack of distilling an essential story about an artist into just a few pages and you learn much more than you might do from whole chapters in a run-of-the-mill biography. As Pete Pephides says in the foreword, his overview of collecting the first six Rolling Stones albums, and whether they are worth listening to, is masterful. I even finally took the plunge and found a copy of Satanic Majesties’ last weekend (and agree with the verdict).

I’ve put some of his advice into practice, and have become more resolute in tracking down first pressings since reading this book – it gives you the confidence to keep plugging away and that they can be found at the right place, and that the reasons for wanting them, in terms of the sound, are valid, and not just in my head!

The book sums up the love of record collecting, why buying the physical thing from a shop, market or fair, just adds something to the enjoyment. I loved collecting Panini football stickers as a kid and something of collecting bug, hunting things down, just stays with us. For the generation born on the 60s and 70s, like myself, that time we spent with the radiogram, or music centre when things got posher, stuck with us but laid low for many years while we were seduced or pushed towards CDs. And it’s great to see such a revival of interest in vinyl and so many shops still going strong to service the interest. I’m so pleased I kept my vinyl from the 70s, 80s and early 90s before CDs took over and didn’t have to start again. They did have a sad period in the garage for a while but happily survived. I was also lucky enough to sell records behind an indie store counter for five years in the 90s (and receive a fair amount of free vinyl in those still profligate years for the industry).

Back to the book… In amongst insights into more familiar artists, we get directed to an absolute gem of an album that I’d never heard of before. I’d been interested in the late 60s/early 70s genre of Tropicália, particularly Os Mutantes but never delved that far. Steve tells the story of Milton Nascimento and the album Clube da Esquina from late 60s Brazil. This is one of my favourite parts of the book – sharing the story of this hidden classic. Some music transcends the need to instantly understand the lyrics and you can still deeply immerse in this album given the sublime backing and vocals from Milton. Steve’s excellent backstory helps bring it to life further. It’s a story of making music in times of political oppression, how psych, jazz, other 60’s influences all merged with traditional Brazilian. It is also capped off with a great little story about the two boys on the cover. My footnote to this is the usual record collector’s lament – hindsight – I was actually in Sau Paulo for a work trip last year and went to a few record shops, why didn’t I know to look for this….

The other bit of the book I really like is on modern day record clubs and whether they are worth it. This gives Steve a great opportunity to delve back to hey day of the 80s and the Britannia music record club. I had almost completely forgotten about my dalliance with Britannia in the 80s and this chapter brought it all back – how we probably never saved any money, the fear of forgetting send to back the ‘album of the month’ card or otherwise being press ganged into purchasing No Jacket Required. And the astonishing fact about the millions of Hootie and Blowfish albums that entered into the American market in the 90s via a similar club’s album of the month scheme.

The book can also prod you to think again – I’ve never been much of a fan of Elton John or owned any albums – Steve’s chapter on Elton has nudged me to check my prejudice and see what is really there in those early albums. He’s right – that early period has some real gems and I’ve unfairly written it off, too blinkered by my view of 80s Elton. And he’s certainly right on price – last weekend I found a £2 copy of Tumbleweed Connection.

With other artists I know well, like the Flaming Lips, Pink Floyd and Mercury Rev, the book manages to find a new side angle and bring new life into understanding what makes that artist’s story so compelling and how it informed the records they produced.

I’d obviously love to see another book, I’m sure there could be plenty more to come, given the infinite music universe still to be mined in this vein. Would also be great for a larger publisher to snap Steve up and give him a bigger budget and perhaps indulge in a more multicolour affair, with photos etc. But this is really a minor point, it’s the words that matter. I’m also sure Steve would do a great set of interviews with some of the key players in the story of these albums if he wanted to go down that route (I’ve found that bit an unexpected joy in writing my blog).

Do dive in and snap up a copy of Every Record Tells a Story, a great investment for any vinyl obsessive. Buy here.

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