Parker Burwell Toop credit Jak Kilby

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Vinyl vs. CD:  The NATO Label

So here I am, as instructed to do by our flummoxed-looking PM, at home in partial self-isolation (owing to my immuno-compromised condition, having had a liver transplant ten years ago). At least I have some companions-in-misery, i.e. my wife and youngest daughter, but, like most people, I would imagine, I’m thrown mostly back onto my own resources. In my case, these are dominated by music, films and books, and digging into the arcana of my collections of these media. Delving into my vinyl, I rediscovered an obscurity, released on the French NATO label, and, by a circuitous route, dug out my only compact disc on the selfsame label. I found myself comparing, in microcosm, the two formats. This is what Covid-19 has reduced me to.

I briefly discussed NATO in the chapter of my book about 70s free improv, Convergences, Divergences & Affinities, which concerned the music’s record labels.in which it was described thus:”Founded in 1980 and still producing music today, it specialises in conceptual and literary albums”. It also featured plenty of material by English musicians such as Steve Beresford and Lol Coxhill, who put out several discs in the early early eighties period on NATO. One thing that I didn’t mention in the book was the high quality of its album presentation and artwork. This particular (and only) NATO vinyl that I have was donated to me by the late Jak Kilby (one of whose photographs is featured inside the sleeve), and glories in the title Erik Satie: Sept Tableaux Phoniques, and features adaptations of Satie compositions by the likes of Beresford and Coxill, as well as Tony Coe, Dave Holland (the other DH), that is) and Phil Wachsmann. It makes an interesting comparison to the Vienna Art Orchestra’s The Minimalism of Erik Satie, especially as both were made in the same year,1983. I’m not here to review the album, just to comment on what a pleasure it is to look at and handle its 12″ gatefold sleeve (most vinyl lovers are fetishists really), its front and back covers protected by a cellophane sheen, with a strong visual heft (inside there are artist photos, a Picabia portrait of Satie and a 1921 photo of the composer playing golf with John Quinn, and lots of other goodies to pour over), reminding me of time spent as a teenager obsessing over album covers by the likes of King Crimson and Pink Floyd. Also,there are loads of text explaining the project, in French and English, by the musicians. Much thought obviously went into these covers.

My only NATO digital product, Deadly Weapons, is by a postmodern dream team of John Zorn Steve Beresford, David Toop and French chanteuse Toni Marshall. As can the Satie tribute, this project risks being accused of po-mo clever-dickery, but, if so, it’s still a reasonably enjoyable and entertaining experience, and, again, the presentation is first-class, for the same reasons outlined above. It might appeal to the Zorn completist (although the notion of ‘completing’ the discography of John Zorn is as ludicrous as that of having every Merzbow product!),and would fit comfortably next to some of Filmworks or Naked City or the likes or Spilland, with their jump cuts and stylistic pin-balling .But the much reduced size makes it much less of a commanding item, even if it is encased in a durable gatefold format, with, once again, a cellophane laminate protecting the cardboard, making it much tougher than the dreaded jewel-case. And the jiggery-pokery of having to squeeze the admitted-comprehensive text sheet from out of the main body of the sleeve? Too much hassle, man.

It’s no contest, really, is it? I really want to avoid sounding like those YouTube vlogers, mostly middle-aged white men like myself, who bang on about the superiority of vinyl BUT…in terms of the packaging as a whole, never mind the sound quality, vinyl wins hands down. We have to remember, having said all this, that not every label has the exacting standards of NATO. Many pop and rock album sleeves were, and remain, lazy and  complacent, and certainly don’t bring the joy that this small French label engenders.

Another self-isolation project is reading the Dan Davies biography of Jimmy Savile. I’m sure that I’ll have something to say about that particular door stopper.

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Banner and book cover photo credit: Jak Kilby