DISCLAMER: As I was effectively compare of this event for the full three days, my objectivity must be considered compromised. However, this does give a unique perspective on the event that might not be so readily available had I been simply an attendee. Please take both of these points into consideration when reading the following. AS
In 1951, in an attempt to lighten the burden of post-war austerity measures, the Festival Of Britain transformed London’s South Bank from a bombed out wasteland to a Modernist’s concrete dream. Sixty years later, in an attempt to lighten the burden of post-Credit Crunch austerity measures, London’s South Bank was once again transformed. The last weekend in July this year saw the Royal Festival Hall given over to the Vintage festival, run by Wayne Hemingway and honouring everything good, British and fun from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. Held over the RFH’s six floors, it was like a vertical Woodstock, but with less mud and more petticoats.
As a part of the celebrations, and sponsored by Bowers and Wilkins, Loud and Clear (a high-end dealer based in Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland), and Classic Album Sundays assembled a Best of British system to play some of the Best of British albums from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Classic Album Sundays is billed as a ‘Collective and Audiophile Experience’; the idea is to ‘respect the recording’, playing the album from beginning to end, asking people to turn their cellphones off, not to talk over the music and have that music played through a good system at ‘reasonable’ volume. There’s a brief five minute or so preamble about the music played and, in this case an even briefer introduction about Classic Album Sundays, a short history lesson and how Britain still makes exceptionally good audio equipment.
In order of presentation, the albums played were Lonnie Donegan 'The Lonnie Donegan Showcase' (presented by Pete Donegan), The Beatles 'Revolver' (presented by Dean Rudland) David Bowie 'The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars' (presented by Greg Wilson), and The Smiths 'The Queen is Dead' (presented by Danielle Goldstein) on Friday 29th July. This was followed by Billy Fury 'The Sound of Fury' (presented by Alan Sircom), The Beatles 'Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band' (presented by Greg Wilson) Pink Floyd 'The Dark Side of The Moon' (presented by Alan Sircom) and Joy Divison 'Closer' Presented by Mark Moore on Saturday 30th July. Finally, Tommy Steele 'The Tommy Steele Story' (presented by Jay Strongman), The Beatles 'Abbey Road' (presented by Greg Wilson), Led Zeppelin 'Led Zeppelin IV' (presented by Andy Smith) and Kate Bush 'Hounds of Love' presented by Ben Murphy were played over Sunday 31st. In addition to the complete album presentations, the intervening periods were filled with sounds from that decade.
The assembled system comprised a Rega P9 turntable with an Rega Apheta moving coil cartridge and a Rega Ios phono stage for the vinyl front end, a complete four-box dCS Scarlatti digital front end (for both CD and high-resolution file-based music from a MacBook Pro), Naim NAC 552 preamplifier, a pair of NAP 500 power amplifiers into a pair of Bowers and Wilkins 800 Diamond loudspeakers. The equipment all rested on Quadraspire stands, the system was hooked up with Chord Company Sarum interconnects and power cords and Signature loudspeaker cables and all of the electronics were being fed from two ISOL-8 SubStation LC and one SubStation HC power conditioners. The total cost of this system was around £130,000 (or approximately $210,000).
Of the albums played, three (Lonnie Donegan, The Smiths and Tommy Steele) were played on CD, one (Abbey Road) was played file-based on 24-bit FLAC and all the rest were played on vinyl.
In all, the albums from the 1960s to the 1980s were played to full houses (approximately 70 people, in a very long room) while the earlier 1950s sessions reached a smaller audience, and the moments between albums had the room part filled. As a rough count, the system was played to more than 1,000 people, hardly any of whom would count themselves audiophiles.
The fascinating aspect of this was just how many people stayed from beginning to end and did turn their cellphones off as requested. In an un-air-conditioned glass room pushing 100° heat at times, in a large concert hall filled with distractions of all kinds, in an event that cost £60/$100 admission, people happily sat down and listened to a whole album with a group of people they had never met before, applauded at the end and then spent the next half hour discussing their memories and feelings about that album.
As MC, I spent some several albums facing the audience and the collective experience is a remarkable one. For the whole of Ziggy Stardust, we had a complete air-band; air guitar, air bass, air drums and a room full of people who knew every last lyric. There was a waft of air – like the pump from a bass port – from 70 heads nodding in unison at those three drum beats before the chorus on Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds, a lot of headbanging and air guitar to Stairway and a powerfully cathartic experience (and some tears) after an album of Joy Division.
I took a chance after the first couple of sessions. When Ziggy Stardust had finished, I said “And that’s what a 39 year old album sounds like… on one-hundred and thirty thousand pounds worth of audio equipment.” I wasn’t sure if this would be met with incredulity, gasps, shock, or blank stares (this was playing to an audience with no preconceptions about audio, or high-end prices). The reaction was an understated smile, nod and a whispered “cool” (this was a British audience, remember; that’s virtually uncontrolled orgasmic pleasure by our standards). This sparked questions from a few freshly minted proto-audiophiles, mostly about the sheer number of boxes (“well that one’s basically an atomic clock” went down exceptionally well) and people wanting to know how they could get similar.
Even though the system was set up by John, Andrew and Jem from Loud and Clear this wasn’t there to sell the system; Londoners are like all big city dwellers and wouldn’t dream of travelling to visit an audio dealer in Scotland. It was to plant the seeds of playing music in the way it deserves to be played, and playing it on a damn good system.
All in all, this was something special. Criticisms were few and far between and all musically-based (“too many Beatles albums” and “why didn’t you play the Jesus and Mary Chain/Echo and the Bunnymen/Frankie Goes To Hollywood” being the biggest ones), and those of us on the event side of things got to play a lot of music we like to a lot of people we’ve never met before and mutually enjoy the experience. Plus, climbing out on the roof of the Royal Festival Hall gets you a great view of London!
Finally, we also saw this outside, as part of the Tracey Emin 'Love Is What You Want' exhibition at the Hayward Gallery opposite the Royal Festival Hall. It seemed spookily appropriate.