It’s my birthday today.
I am 45.
That’s 45 revolutions around the sun.
When I turned 44 I had a party - decks in the house, dancing, that sort of thing - and I decided then that for my next birthday I’d have a party where we’d only played records at 45 revolutions per minute.
I know. Niche. I’m not sure it would have made much difference to anyone else but I do love a conceit.
But now that next birthday has arrived and it’s today and today is at the arse end of 2020. This means it’s very much NOT my party and though I’m not crying there are of course tiers and I can’t leave Tier 3 all day even if I want to.
But since it’s 2020 this might also be a Good Thing, because it has spurred me to do the next best alternative and make a birthday playlist. Inevitably it’s called LIFE AT 45 and is compiled from 45 of my favourite records that happen to spin at 45 rpm. Otherwise known as 7 inches. Singles.
45s are amazing things, aren’t they? We call them singles but they contain multitudes. They are ephemeral yet eternal. Treasured artefacts bought with pocket money. Record hunter currency and hit parade memory. Punk artefact and teenybopper dream. A song powerful enough to stand on its own but re-produced by the million and, depending on what happens to be invisibly etched within its grooves, cherished by anyone from teenagers to hipsters to grandparents. A one-off that demands you consume it repetitively.
Somehow the format, so contained, so specific, can accommodate endless invention yet distil any genre to its essence. Freed from any context, a single can be placed and played anywhere and work on its own terms. The success of a single is measured not by comparing it with others but how well you could say this single is itself. Every single is unique and so, simply by existing, every single is the platonic ideal of a single.
And so, appropriately, there’s no theme to the 45 45s I’ve chosen. No genre takes priority, and no phase of my life dominates. I could say that foundational texts sit alongside songs from the forgotten corners of pop but really they’re just my favourites. I picked the records that widened my eyes when I held them. They do that, y’know, singles. They dilate things. Eyes, naturally, but also minds, and time. That’s why they’re so small. They quietly slip into places and spaces then slowly expand and eventually take over. Actually no, not expand - explode. If they slip themselves into record collections it’s so they can lie in wait like landmines. If they burrow into your memories, dormant for years, it’s because they’re timebombs ready to blow when you hear the song for the first time in decades but still know every word. Singles are shrapnel, they shatter and shard into tiny pieces and lodge themselves everywhere: in the gaps in your floorboards, or in the spaces between other songs on the radio, or in the gaps between albums of the groups you love, or perhaps in the gap between you and a person you stop loving and fight with over who bought what before you merged the singles together.
In this way something flimsy becomes something indelible. How do they do it?
Albums gives us a clue. Albums are the unread libraries of music - when you buy them, it’s on trust. You expect them to deliver value in the future but you don’t know what kind. Albums contain a richness you don’t yet know, a landscape waiting to be discovered. The good ones still bear exploration years later.
But singles are not albums. They aren’t an investment, or a bet you think will pay off in the future. They’re a commitment right now to just one song. A pledge of allegiance to just one song that, most likely, you already know and perhaps already love. Buying a single is an act of devotion.
So is listening to one. Singles are not and cannot be background music. There’s no time to do anything else other than be with them, present, attentive. The buying and playing of singles gives them an intensity that isn’t possible with albums, a kind of everythingness compacted into something potent and pure. Over time these small plastic discs stamp themselves onto our consciousness and they become ours. In turn we stamp ourselves on them. We are attached. We’re faithful to them, instinctively, reflexively, as we are to memories.
Singles are indelible because singles do not need context because the context is you.
I have bought all the singles on this playlist and in the buying and listening them have been or become the person they need me to be. I have been the teenager, the antique scavenger, the limited edition hipster, the completist, the sentimentalist. And as I listened again, the memories of these people and the artefacts and the act of playing all fused into one.
Here are the first two singles I ever bought and the 13 year old who still glows when I play them. Here are limited editions and reissues and dusty things I found at antiques fairs and car boot sales. Here are records with beautiful gatefold sleeves and brown card sleeves with titles crossed out in furious biro and labels with girls’ names on and sometimes only thin paper that’s creased and worn and falling apart. Here are discs that crackle and some that pop and one or two that sound like the MW radio station I used to listen to at night aged 15. Here are some records I have with me whenever I DJ and others that are only for me. Here is jazz and soul and punk and disco and rocknroll and hip-hop and indie and funk and dance and whatever the fuck you’d call Kevin Shield’s remix of Primal Scream and pop.
Here are my memories; a jumble, strewn across the floor:
These are the 45 45s that made the list. Turning them into a playlist meant putting them in order, and so the other Friday night I played one as I was making dinner, and followed it instinctively with another, and then I rifled through the stack for about three more until I had a queue, and I realised I was doing what I do when I DJ, which is a kind of improvisation, the laying of one stepping stone in front of the last and feeling for the connections between each step as you go.
As I removed each 45 from the turntable I stood them against a shelf in order. Soon without even thinking it went Green Onions Ali Baba Cut The Cake Finders Keepers and that was a chain and suddenly it was Friday night, like Friday nights used to be, and I was dancing and smiling and switching between the rush of each record and the pressure of deciding the next one as if people were actually listening which they would be in time because the sequence I improvised then is the order of the playlist here.
I had a ball.
So yes, these songs are memories, plucked at random, strung into an arbitrary tip-toe path you may or may not care to follow. But listening to them is also to stake a claim in the here and now, and not just because they are the party I cannot have. Singles come alive when played. They meet the present and the person who is playing and listening and in doing so take on new meaning. Who knows what’s been lying dormant.
The first single I ever bought is the first song on this playlist. It meant a lot to me then and it’s still a thrill but I did not expect the words to grab me now as they have. I have changed, the world has changed - there’s a new context in which to hear the song. This single has travelled 30 years into its future, has burrowed its way into me like a timebomb only to explode into the present - a present that is the arse end of 2020, a year where we’ve lived apart but tried to stay connected, where there can be no birthday party and where I cannot see my friends or family but I can, instead, send something out into the world and connect in a different way, knowing that music has the power to do this and anyone who clicks may hear something that connects with them too.
We'll be together
And nobody ain't never
Gonna disconnect us
Or ever separate us.
We'll be together again.
Party or not, we can all celebrate that.
A single is indeed a joy in itself - no love for Erasure here I’m afraid but then my first single was Super Trouper so what do I know? Happy birthday big man!
I think you know Jim that I also hold a torch for Erasure. My old best friend - and the girl who I went to see them with at Wembley arena years ago - now has a son who I teach GCSE Photography to. I did not know this until parents evening and in she walked. In fact I didn't recognise her and she had to tell me. Time. Bloody hell. Happy birthday, immaculate selection of tunes as ever xxx