It seems incredible now to think back a few years to life before the internet (or at least before Amazon, Google, Wikipedia, iTunes and Spotify), when buying music was very different to the way we do it nowadays. Making judgements on what to buy required much more dedicated research, or in some cases, a total leap of faith.
Nowadays, there’s no excuse really for making impulse purchases of albums by artists you don’t know very well. There’s a dozen or more ways to hear their songs before you hand over any money, even if it’s just listening to samples on Amazon or iTunes. But back in my day, you couldn’t do any of that, so it was very possible to buy something by a band you’d never even heard play a note. And sometimes that was a really good decision.
An example for you comes from around January 1996. Amazon.com had been set up as an online bookstore in America, but hadn’t introduced its UK version yet, while Google, Wikipedia and all those other places we now use to find out about music were just flickers of ideas in the heads of soon-to-be-rich geeks in Silicon Valley. Instead, we had magazines.
At that time I religiously bought Kerrang! and would anxiously await its delivery on a Wednesday morning before school so that I could read it on the bus and get my weekly update on the bands I loved as well as guidance on new bands that I might want to get into. Sometimes this came from the articles and reviews, but other times it was from the adverts placed by music catalogues, those precursors to online music shops.
They’d present their wares often using little more than the album cover and the odd line from a favourable review. Sometimes this would be enough to tempt me, and one album I bought from the cover, the cool name (of band and album) and a promising-sounding soundbite of a review was Scream, Dracula, Scream by Rocket From The Crypt.
A few months later they’d be on Radio 1 and Top Of The Pops playing On A Rope, but I’d never heard of them before and it was a gamble to buy the cassette (!) but I went for it. It took a while for it to arrive, but I remember being very excited when it came, poring over the liner notes (written with typical panache and humour by frontman Speedo) and putting the tape in my Walkman.
From the opening blast of Middle to the glorious Born In ’69 and the ubiquitous repeated chant of On A Rope, I was blown away. It didn’t sound like anything I’d ever listened to before, with Speedo’s swagger, the pounding drums, roaring guitars and blaring horns all creating a sound that seemed entirely unique to me. Even now I still can’t think of any band who did what they did half as well, and obviously over the years I’ve collected all of their albums and EPs.
Obviously it was a risk to spend money on something I’d never heard before, but there was something magical about the discovery, and there were plenty of other triumphs like that in those days. Even if you heard a song by a band on a compilation CD or free giveaway with a magazine, unless they were played on the radio, it was still a gamble getting a whole album on the basis of one song. Usually it paid off, but not always.
Now we don’t have to take that gamble. We don’t even have to buy the whole album if we only want one song, though that’s not something I choose to do very often. We can be much smarter consumers (and don’t even have to pay if we don’t want to, for now anyway) and this is a good thing. But still, I miss that sense of magic that I got from opening up Scream, Dracula, Scream without any preconceptions of what it would sound like, and then pressing play.