Tony Clayton-Lea – Joining The Dots

Having the knowledge and experience to write and compile a guide to some of the greatest Irish albums ever made is an indication of that love for music in itself. There are people out there (myself included) who have a thirst for all kinds of Irish music who may not have been around when many of these records were released. Was that a factor at all, not just to keep the flame of great music burning but also to inform a new generation of music fans of great records they may not otherwise encounter?

“No, not really. I wanted to write about some of the albums that I felt were lost. I certainly didn’t write the book in order to facilitate anybody’s academic knowledge of Irish music. It was simply that I felt even at the age that I am with the experience and the love I have for Irish music, so much is getting kind of lost in the storm of digital downloads. So much is getting lost: it’s just fuzz. Because I’m a fairly linear, disciplined person, my album collection is from A-Z at home. I have thousands of CDs. I have no vinyl albums whatsoever and I’ve never downloaded an album digitally. So all I’ve got are the physical copies. I listen to music digitally, but I don’t get any huge enjoyment receiving an album by digital means. I love that a CD or a vinyl album – although vinyl hasn’t disappeared, I do know that – I love looking at CD sleeves and flicking through the credits listings and seeing various bands thank this person, that person, the various producers. I love all that minute detail of the making of the album.”

The appreciation and attention to detail has carried through from CD inlay cards to the pages of 101 Irish Records. Compact but brightly coloured and well laid-out with album artwork, release details and a foreword by each band before Tony’s own words, the book is instantly appealing to the eye and so complements the content within as engaging to the ear. It seems like a material partnership committing these records, new and old, to immortality of sorts in the pages of a book at a point when some major retailers have announced they will phase out CD stocks, just as devices such as the Kindle and iPad now threaten the trusted format of books and newspapers.

“I hope the CD format isn’t over but I think it’s on the way out. Having said that, people said the same about vinyl 15-20 years ago, yet bands are still releasing albums on vinyl. I like the tangibility of the product, for want of a crass term. I just like looking at it, in the same way I like reading and flicking over pages.

“I love the artwork. What I’m absolutely delighted about with this book is that each album has a page devoted to its artwork. I’m not just trumping it up, but it’s a really well-designed book and I thank the publisher for that. I think artwork is essential to my love of music, almost as much as the music is. Some of the covers are just total works of art, no question.

“There are some covers, like the Swell Season album, that are just incredibly scary. I think it’s just got Glen Hansard’s eyes peering out, the first Swell Season album. You’ll see it in the book. It’s a scary picture. That’s not a work of art but it’s an interesting image. So I think if the physicality of what we’re talking about disappears and all we’ve got left is files on your computer, a USB key or on your phone. An integral part of the cultural impact of what it means to me will go. Is it inevitable? Maybe but I just can’t see it, not in my lifetime, as they say. I think people react to visual images and they’ll never stop doing that until we’re all blind.”

Tony Clayton-Lea writes for the Irish Times. 101 Irish Records (You Must Hear Before You Die) is published by Liberties Press and available to purchase now for €15.

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