This month The Vinyl Countdown is back; Michael Dwyer contemplates five of the Sony releases available in the sale: Elvis Presley's 30 #1 Hits, Bob Dylan's The Essential Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson's Off The Wall, The Wu-Tang Clan's Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), and Jeff Buckley's Grace.
The dude is plugged into something. He sees the universe through the little hole in the middle of the black plastic disc he's holding up to the lava lamp. In his head, the whole thing makes sense, like an epic family tree coded in countless microscopic concentric circles. He lands the needle with a reassuring thump into the groove of Ground Zero. "Well since my baby left me…" ching-ching! Heartbreak Hotel. "'Before Elvis there was nothing', man," the dude says. "John Lennon," he adds in parentheses. Vinyl junkies are always quoting somebody.
Sure enough, side one of 30 #1 HITS is rock'n'roll's big bang from eight angles, from the swooning croon of Love Me Tender to the rude holler of Jailhouse Rock. From there to side four – cue the gospel hum of Crying in The Chapel, the tumbleweed soul of In the Ghetto, the reckless melodrama of Suspicious Minds, the hiccupping hip-shimmy of Burning Love and Way Down – practically every song is a beacon for everything to come.
The dude lurches out of his beanbag now, spilling his Twisties, hoisting another hefty double- LP set: THE ESSENTIAL BOB DYLAN. He throws in a few more quotes for context: "Hearing Elvis for the first time was like busting out of jail," Bob once testified. "Bob freed your mind the way Elvis freed your body," Bruce Springsteen added. "And so it rolls," the dude says, dropping into the folkie dreamtime of Blowin' In the Wind.
These four sides turn out to be as complete a cross-section as you could hope for in 23 tracks. Side two is detonated by Like A Rolling Stone and soothed with the Nashville murmur of Lay Lady Lay. Knocking On Heaven's Door, Forever Young and Tangled Up In Blue usher in the '70s.
The last side seals any argument about the master's currency: between the curled lip of '99's Things Have Changed and the withering divorcee's kiss-off of 2012's Long And Wasted Years is a wordsmith, bandleader and singer at the top of his game. Singer? "One of The. Greatest. Singers. Ever," the dude intones as he slides the next record from its sleeve in a sweet crackle of static.
"They called Elvis the King, why not me?" He actually does a pretty good Michael Jackson impersonation. But never mind the jokes. In the racially segregated year of '79, OFF THE WALL made history by stealing pop back to the black side without frightening the children of the dawning MTV revolution. Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough, Rock With You and Off The Wall will fill any dancefloor anywhere to this day. She's Out of My Life? "Schmaltzy AF!" the dude can’t help noting, though he does seem to have something in his eye as he hides behind the iconic full-body gatefold of the artist, resplendent from solid black afro to glowing white socks.
"Revolution, evolution, poetry and funk…" The dude seems like he's fully tripping as he slips on ENTER THE WU-TANG (36 CHAMBERS), still following those family tree lines that maybe only he can see. "Even the Wu-Tang worshipped Jacko," he reminds himself. Nearly 25 years on, it still feels like an initiation. Old Kung Fu movies and boxy beats, street hassle vignettes and agitated spits and snarls scare up a lo-fi urban landscape woven with a (still) disturbing thread of homoerotic ultra-violence. It's the cornerstone of '90s hip-hop, no less; the sound of some hardcore underground a million miles from compromise and just one more shove from flames. "Too much, man?" the dude cackles. "It should be."
But it’s getting late. The last sleeve surrenders its treasure like a prayer book retrieved from a church pew. "Tragic, of course," the dude mutters, sucking orange Twistie fingers as he cues up Jeff Buckley's GRACE. But to vinyl mystics like this guy, there will always be something impossibly perfect about a talent that lives and dies on two sides of a long-player. They're not even flawless. The wilful clamour of Eternal Life is the bum note that brings the human frailty to a debut/swansong of otherwise uninterrupted genius. Harmonically outrageous in Mojo Pin, rhythmically alarming in So Real, classically gorgeous in Hallelujah and Corpus Christi Carol. After Dream Brother, the click of the retiring tone-arm jerks the dude from slumber. "To be continued," he says to no one in particular.