Saturday, 10 December 2011

Stranded with an mp3 Player

I had just learned something that I should have known but didn’t: Rod Stewart’s monster hit ‘Maggie May’ has no chorus! So what? Well, this is extraordinary because, according to the experts, a pop-song without a chorus is a certain flop. So how could it have been so successful? I wanted to hear it again to assess its magical qualities (and, while I was at it, find out whether John Peel really had played the famous mandolin solo when the band appeared on Top of the Pops back in 1971, or whether I had been a little ‘confused’ at the time). Not possessing a copy of the record, I turned to the internet for fulfilment; which is where my trials began.
I decided to get myself a music-streaming account so that I could access “all of the music, all of the time”. Setting up an internet account involves a security procedure which requires answers to questions such as: What was the name of the first street you lived in? What was your first school? What was your first pet’s name? Producing answers is straightforward provided that you lived in a house, on a street, went to school and had a pet. Whoever compiled these questions obviously had a ‘normal’ upbringing and assumes that everyone else did.
But it’s not an insurmountable problem for the determined applicant whose early lifestyle was a bit ‘alternative’: these facts can be invented and noted down for later reference. What I found more difficult was the other set of questions: What is your favourite film/book/song? Suddenly I was expected to make instant value judgments on vast tracts of cultural output. Not so fast! First of all I needed to categorise everything into genres - possibly even sub-genres - and, especially in the case of songs, factor-in time, place and mood. Besides, how is it possible to have favourites before having seen all the films, read all the books and heard all the songs?
Pedantry of this order would make me an awkward guest for Desert Island Discs – a programme which I long to be invited on. I guess I would need about six months notice to come up with my shortlist, even though I have already given it considerable thought in anticipation of my invitation. I will divide my selection into two categories: nostalgic and inspirational. The nostalgic would indulge my need to reflect on the past and the inspirational would provide hope for an otherwise bleak outlook.
But it could be some time before my invitation arrives so meanwhile, back on the website, I came across a major obstacle: the sound is delivered in mp3 format - which is disappointing; all of the music, all of the time, but compressed, distorted and with some frequencies missing. I spent an hour or two reading on-line forums about the great ‘bit-rate’ controversy and was comforted to discover that there are people who are even more particular than I but, as one of them concluded, “There is no way out so get your head around the message and stop fretting about the medium”.
In the case of ‘Maggie May’ he may have a point. Researchers claim that the drummer’s bass pedal was not working properly during the recording session, yet this had no perceived effect on the sound quality and certainly did not diminish its popularity then or since. Nevertheless, when I am asked by the presenter of Desert Island Discs which luxury I would like to take with me I will ask for a super hi-fi system.
But I suppose that, by then, it will have become ‘Desert Island mp3s’ and I will have to make do with 260 kbit/s sound-quality. At least Maggie May will sound OK and I will have plenty of time to rake through my memory for evidence of John Peel’s mandolin solo.

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