It’s National Album Day, which aims to remind us of the importance of the long-playing record in these days of digital downloads, playlists and streaming your favourite songs on your phone.
For many music lovers – particularly those of a certain age (40+ I’d reckon) – there’s still nothing like putting on your favourite album and listening to it from start to finish.
That’s why the message of this year’s National Album Day is ‘don’t skip’. CDs made missing out the tracks you’re not so keen on easy, without the risk of scratching your previous vinyl, while the more modern ways of ‘consuming’ music mean you don’t have to bother at all with the tracks you used to skip. Just press ‘delete’ and they’ll never bother you again.
But there are certain albums which just have to be listened to all the way through, and for me the first was the record I still regard as my favourite-ever album, Inflammable Material, by ‘70s Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers.
Released in February 1979, it’s a record which has its own place in music history, as the first album released on the Rough Trade label, and the first on an indie to sell more than 100,000 copies. It reached No.14 in the UK Album Charts – unheard of then for a record not on one of the major labels.
I still remember the first time I heard it. I was 12, and my school friend Trevor Hall’s older brother Geoff was to blame. Me and Trev were playing Test match cricket in his house, and Geoff, who was a couple of years older than us, put it on.
Within 10 seconds of the intro to Suspect Device blasting out of the speakers, I knew I had to have my own copy of this record. I’d never heard anything so angry, so energetic, so vital, so utterly fantastic. I nagged my mam to get me a copy, and we had to order it from the local record store in the small town where we lived. It arrive a week or so later, and I still have my original copy. And it’s more than just music, it’s a piece of art.
I love everything about the album, not just the music. It has a classic cover – nine grey flames on a black background, with the band and album names in a vibrant red. The black inner sleeve, with printed lyrics (a bugger to keep free of fingerprints), and then the lovely shiny slab of vinyl itself, with its bright red label. Except mine’s not shiny any more. I must have listened to it thousands of times, and it’s virtually unplayable now, grooves wrecked by weighting the aging stylus on my parents’ record player with a bluetacked 2p piece. I’ll never get rid of it though.
I’ve got another vinyl copy, bought second-hand for me by my sister a few years ago, as she knew how much I love the album. It doesn’t jump. Well, maybe once or twice, but it’s listenable. And of course I’ve got it on CD. Twice. And when I listen to it I never skip a track. I know every word and every note of every song, and the order they come in…
Side 1: Suspect Device, State Of Emergency, Here We Are Nowhere, Wasted Life, No More Of That, Barbed Wire Love, White Noise, Breakout. Side 2: Law And Order, Rough Trade, Johnny Was, Alternative Ulster, Closed Groove. And I don’t even skip the last song, which, by the band’s admission, they can’t stand.
When they played the album live from start to finish in 2009 for its 30th anniversary they didn’t do it, instead playing the recorded version over the PA as the crowd filed out of the gig. I don’t care for it particularly, but I do think the lyrics are thought-provoking, and it’s still part of the album which has been my favourite for 40 years, and which I don’t think will ever be topped.
Inflammable Material started my life-long love affair with punk rock, but I’m not going to review it here. If, by some miracle you’re reading this and have never heard it, you need to put that right at once. Suffice to say it’s an amazing record which shaped much of my outlook on life, and how I think about what’s right and wrong. To me, it’s a perfect record, and that’s why I don’t skip any of it – even Closed Groove.