The desire to collect runs deep in my family as the sideboards filled with thimbles, Russian dolls, cat figurines and little pottery teddy bears in the memories of my childhood home would attest and somewhere in a long forgotten cupboard languishes a treasure trove of tupperware containers filled to the brim with a cornucopia of slowly decomposing erasers and mouldering rusted badges. Having been previously displayed proudly on window ledges, shelf edges and door frames, in an already stuffed shared bedroom they are now banished to this dark recess along with a broken ironing board and a jigsaw only attempted once, never to be finished.
Everyone collected erasers at my school – or rubbers as we knew them then, leading to much knowing hilarity even if we weren’t even quite sure what we were knowing about – and badges just seem to fall into my lap from all directions, jumble sales, charity shops and gifts from aunties and uncles, some of whom I was actually related to. Collecting them was more of a default position rather than an active choice. Both these collections were quickly abandoned, however, with the arrival of Garbage Pail Kids into the playground arena of swaps, needs and gots. Having never had even a passing interest in football the yearly adrenalin rush of the panini football stickers had passed me by but these grotesque perversions of cabbage patch kids spread like a particularly virulent disease through my class and for a short time in the 80’s seemed to be the most important things in the world to squander my meagre spends on. The golden prize was ahead of us all, the peak we climbed towards – a complete set. Then, just as the possibility twinkled tantalisingly ahead of us, Garbage Pail Kids series two was released and we were deposited back to the base of the mountain like some kind of pre-teen Sisyphus. A lesson learned – there is not necessarily an end game to collecting.
After trading cards I paddled in a few other shallower pools of collectibles such as money boxes and comics but, frankly, I was just treading water until something bigger and more all consuming would come along. When it arrived I felt I’d hit the motherlode. I quickly learnt the arcane ways of record collecting from one of the very best – my older brother. Not for him the simple amassing of a collection of records he liked the sound of, neatly filing them all away in additional archival sleeves with perhaps a fully annotated inventory system on record cards backed up on computer. Frankly, that would have been pedestrian; after all that kind of record collecting is just the same impulse as train spotting, just with a better haircut and a more interesting taste in all-weather outerwear. Completism and specificism were the name of the game here and his sights were set on one band and one band only.
Pet Shop Boys have and still do release a lot of records. To the casual observer an album every three or four years, with a few singles released to promote it, may not seem that many. But it’s what appears in the cracks between the standard releases that leads my brother down this particular rabbit hole to a collectors wonderland. A promo of the lead single on 12” vinyl; a promo of the house remix on 12” vinyl; the official single on 12” vinyl; CD1 of the official single and CD2 of the official single… all these released and hunted out before the album has even been released in its standard and limited edition vinyl and CD formats, along with the Japanese import CD and then followed up by two more singles in all their multi-formatted remixed glory.
The only way to stop with this kind of collection is for The Pets themselves to stop. Even if they release something that my brother isn’t keen on it still has to be diligently procured, because the power of the collection is in its very completeness, and a gap in the library negates everything that has gone before or comes after. Even a copy of the 1977 edition of The Dairy Book Of Home Management, edited by PSB’s singer and one time journalist Neil Tennant, is slotted onto the already heaving shelves and brings a whole new meaning to having everything they have ever released.
My badge of allegiance to the club of record collecting is something I’ve worn with pride on numerous occasions, as the frankly bewildering number of Manic Street Preacher and Mo’Wax records in my house will attest to (although I think I have managed to scrape those particular monkeys off my back). Yes, I own every song ever released by Belle and Sebastien, but I draw the line at buying a compilation of all the singles I already have, perfectly arranged in chronological order, just for the sake of completeness. I have convinced myself that this is an improvement on my own previous blind compulsion to acquire it all and on every format. Baby steps, maybe, but it has definitely been made harder to avoid the alcohol impaired necessity to just get that one final item to complete the collection, since Ebay has granted us all access to ‘things’ 24/7 rather than just being able to sweat it out and think more clearly the following hungover day.
The only way to avoid waking up surrounded by an incriminating digital trail of self loathing is to take a stand against this modern day ‘convenience collecting’ and say it loud: “buying things on eBay doesn’t really count as collecting”- it’s just acquisition, the thrill of the chase replaced by the ease of the internet. Whispered rumours of a record shop in Highgate with a mint original pressing of Dennis Wilson’s “Pacific Ocean Blue” and the possible wild goose chase of a pilgrimage north on a Saturday morning cannot be eclipsed by a moment spent tapping a search into your laptop. A single slightly dog eared copy of “Penguin Modern Poets no.10: The Mersey Sound” from a charity shop in eastbourne will forever be worth more to me than a pristine set of no.s 1 to 9 arriving in the post after a quick Paypal transaction on Abe books (although, just to confound my own argument, I am ridiculously proud to own that particular set…)
Collecting is also not just about having all these items in your possession, there is a sense of care and attention to the holy artefact that can’t be underestimated. In his novel The Liar, Steven Fry depicts a teenage scholar horrified by his lecturers disregard for the books he has piled up around his dimly lit rooms being used as coasters, or to level a chair with a missing leg, and is reprimanded for caring more for the medium rather than the massage. It took me a long time to get past that idea though and I’m not sure I ever really have or will. I love the vessel of delivery for any kind of culture. I even hold a little sliver of affection for the oft-maligned CD and their visual little brother the DVD, whilst books have a hold over me that I can barely explain. The heady ageing paper aroma of the second hand bookshop or the pristine unblemished spine of a virgin paperback are as alluring to as any golden sunset. Yet even in a tattered woe-begotten state, broken backed with pages barely held together, dog-eared and stained, missing half a cover and filled with the notes for some long forgotten dissertation, a book still fulfil its destiny and deliver its message to the reader. But a record, as I have learnt from bitter experience is oh so fragile, look at it the wrong way and you will forever be reminded of your careless gaze by a hop and skip across the grooves. The meaning of whole songs changed with the loss of just one crucial lyric or transforming the most innocuous pop tune in to an avant-garde abstract masterpiece that The Beatles ‘Revolution no.9’ can only dream of being.
If you are going to collect records – and by that I mean the actual physical objects, not just music itself – and you don’t show this level of cherishing care, then to me you are in to hoarding territory, but, where is the tipping point? For many years, every time I moved house I was forced to haul an increasing volume of music magazines with me. A tower of Selects, Voxs, Qs, Faces, Words, Mojos, Uncuts and other random publications teetered vertiginously in the corner of every bedroom I have ever had. Convinced of their worth as some kind of pop culture Tower of Babel, I even arranged them into cover artist piles. This testament to the musical 1990s lost its allure after the very real possibility of crushing a meandering toddler reared its ugly head and was swiftly rehoused in the recycling bin. The purging of this particular collection was like the lancing of a boil – painful in the moment but a blessed relief after; a burden was lifted both metaphorically and physically. The collection had stopped making me happy so it was time for it go.
I’m not a fool though, I kept all the issues of Grand Royal and the Cool Britannia copy of Vanity Fair – some things do need to be retained for the sake of future generations after all. Now I only have a few cherry picked magazines they actually feel more like a collection than they ever did piled up en masse because the application of a little discernment legitimises the collection, giving it an air of curation.
“No matter how many records I buy / I can’t fill this void” sings Wesley Patrick Gonzales of Let’s Wrestle’s on the song ‘I won’t Lie to You’. ludicrously prescient, these words dismiss collecting as way cocooning yourself against the world. It’s not that the void can’t be filled but that objects just aren’t the right thing to plug the gap. Still I’m not sure the message is getting through. Even though I’ve stopped obsessively collecting records and got rid of that life threatening pile of magazines little collections continuously pop up around me. I have a selection of vintage pin-up girl playing cards, a loft slowly filling with art and a burgeoning interest in cigarette packets from the 1960’s.
Looking for salvation and a definition of self through surrounding myself with stuff is probably not going work, but I don’t think I will ever be able to stop myself taking up the chase once more. In fact, someone did mention to me that there is a second hand bookshop hidden in the Brunswick Centre , in Bloomsbury, that has a stash of Penguin crime novels from the early ‘60s that needs checking out at the weekend.
(originally published in The Saatchi Gallery Magazine Art & Music issue 36 – Winter 2016)