While travelling aboard a tiny ferry to the Isle of Eigg for Lost Map records’ Howlin’ Fling – a music festival that brings a broad array of independent artists (from folk singers to techno DJs) along with a few hundred music fans onto a Hebridean island with a population of about 87 people – I found myself sitting next to a group from Aviemore with this particular pop relic: a Philips Spatial Stereo 583 boombox. The boombox, while clearly a bit worse for wear over its three decade existence, and from having been found in a skip in the Highlands, was still functional and was being put to use by my new travelling companions.
“Definitely the best skip-dive find ever! I couldn’t believe that it worked when we tried it. The best part is that you can use it with your iPhone.”
And use it with an iPhone we did. There was no need for any invasive modification of the boombox to prepare it for digital music, as this particular model came with a number of phono-in sockets (including, bizarrely, one for a microphone to take advantage of the unit’s Public Address function), and a simple phono-to-3.5mm jack cable gave this outdated relic a new lease of life. Setting sail from Arisaig on Friday afternoon, we departed to a rousing sing-along of Andrew Stewart’s 1963 rendition of “Campbeltown Loch”, ripped from the original His Master’s Voice 7” single, streamed via YouTube on my sailing companions’ iPhone, and amplified via this somewhat decrepit, but still remarkably functional, boombox. It was a sensory experience that straddled over five decades of music and technology, and we revelled in it, our giddiness at the novelty of seeing this old technology re-appropriated in such a way mixing with our excitement at the festival to come and the cans of lager and cider that were being steadily consumed. I remember thinking at the time “you need to get a note of this, ask these people what they think about this meeting of technologies, what attracted them to the boombox in the first place, how they would normally obtain and listen to music in more conventional circumstances”. It seemed significant that, at this stage of my PhD research, I had happened upon this trifecta of music format materiality, playing out in front of me in this very unusual situation. Unfortunately, while planning and packing for the weekend, my main concerns had been something along the lines of “is this tent still watertight?” (the answer, it turned out, was no) coupled with “how am I going to carry this camping gear, my backpack, and all of this drum equipment?” (the answer being with considerable difficulty, and a little help from some friendly strangers). Ensuring that I had suitable materials available for field notes wasn’t a priority, and, as asking my new friends to turn off the music and put down their beers so I could ask them some questions about their music consumption habits wasn’t really in the spirit of the weekend, I resigned myself to taking a few photos, taking a couple of mental notes, and sharing a drink with my travel companions, vowing to come back to this later.
Now back on dry land, and having had a few days to reflect, I decided that I wanted to come back to this experience and interrogate it a little more, taking some of the questions that I wished I had asked my travelling companions, and instead reflecting on them myself – what was it that I found so exciting about the boombox and its presence in that particular situation?
I think, in retrospect, that what was so exciting to me about this particular artefact in this particular situation was the combination of narratives that it embodied. With regard to its macro-narrative, the boombox as an object itself has considerable cultural resonance, the boombox being symbolic even now of recorded music’s migration from the home as a private listening experience and into social spaces, its implicit connection with musical subcultures in the 1970s and 80s such as hip hop and punk, and its associations with abstract notions of freedom and rebellion that have always been synonymous with youth culture. It is the Clash, the Beastie Boys, and Run DMC all rolled into one cultural artefact. However, it is in the micro-narrative that these abstract associations of the object come alive. The fact that this object has been rescued from a skip by a group of twenty-somethings on their way to a music festival on an island 120 miles away, and fused with both new technologies (the iPhone and cloud-based streaming services) and and echoes of old (a digital representation of an analogue recording now over half a century old) made this object interesting to me. The synthesis of different technologies, formats, and snapshots of musical history, all playing out against a wider backdrop of independent and unconventional music in an independent and unconventional setting had a pleasing sense of symmetry and purpose to it.
Mixed in amongst these high-minded ideas of narratives and meetings of technologies is also the ever present spectre of “Retromania” to use Simon Reynolds’ term from his synonymous book, particularly the idea that “retro sensibility…tends neither to idealise nor sentimentalise the past, but seeks to be amused and charmed by it” (Reynolds, 2011). There is no doubt that the retro, kitschy nature of the boombox contributed to our enjoyment of it, illustrated by the way that we lightheartedly poked fun at it – “it has ‘Spatial Stereo’ – isn’t all stereo spatial?” or setting the ‘tape counter’ to 666 to demonstrate how rockin’ this particular pop relic actually was. That said, Id be loath to dismiss the whole experience that I accounted above as being retromania, or regressive fetishism of an out-of-date technology. I argued recently in a conference paper at the University of Sussex’s Musical Materialities conference that the resurgence of old music formats such as vinyl, or in this specific case the cassette tape, was not simply a rehashing of an old cultural form, or a nostalgic yearning for a bygone era, but instead a revaluing of an old artefact in a new way, coupled with new sets of social and creative practice that were serving to redefine these objects within this era of digital and cloud-based music. I see this experience with the boombox on the boat to Eigg, and the actions and practices that it facilitated, as being related yet distinct to that argument. In my paper I was talking about the release of new music on a old format, highlighting differences between the ways in which music cassettes are being used and valued by music consumers now in opposition to how they may have been used in previous decades by original adopters of the music cassette. The boombox sits apart from this argument in that in that it itself is a relic of those bygone decades, but is being re-appropriated by subsequent generations, and redefined as part of a wider system of current technologies. While it may have been enjoyed on a level that is retromaniac in nature, the events that I described above (in my opinion at least) go beyond a desire to be amused or charmed by the past – instead trying to redefine and revalue this relic and absorb it into music listening and consumption practices of the present. It is this act of revaluing and redefining the ways that we find value in music-cultural artefacts both old and new that intrigues me, and that I hope to explore further in this online space.