Kevin Pearce: A Cracked Jewel Case

Here’s something worth checking out.

Kevin Pearce has assembled what amounts to a budget guide to the nineties. Kevin, who has a shadowy indie pedigree of sorts and was the writer behind Paul Kelly’s lovely Finisterre, summoned the courage to contact me after my string of delibidinizing pro-CD posts. The book depicts the nineties seen through the prism of “A Cracked Jewel Case” - the very title defining it as celebration of the CD. And there is something very refreshing about his embrace of the format in the face of today's choking, retro-vinyl fascism.

I never considered buying records to be about the acquisition of status (that affective social disease which has crippled our epoch like consumption). Records were easier to make sound better. They had big picture sleeves. But more than anything, certainly during the nineties vinyl was at the axis of culture. This might seem contradictory in the light of my recent pronouncements and I suppose I’d better clarify.

While it seems logical for me to say that, for instance, Hip-Hop in the nineties was all about CDs, one couldn’t deny that the white-hot epicentre was all about 12” club bangers sold in boutique emporiums. Even Soho had at least four stores of that ilk. And by the same measure, while to my mind there is something authentic about the nineties electronic music CD, the coalface was always the twelve-inch. Basic Channel’s “BCD” CD compilation came emblazoned with a “buy vinyl” sticker.

Nowadays the original Hardcore CD single, with its promise of clean 16bit/44.1khz WAVs, does exert a powerful fascination - but there’s no getting away from the indisputable fact that back in the day the twelve inch was everything. Only bigger labels like Reinforced, Suburban Base, Moving Shadow and Production House put out CD singles. Lovely things and in these digital times certainly now highly covetable - but in their day most they were most probably an afterthought.

However, I do believe that Pearce is entirely aware of the historic centrality of vinyl. That’s simply not his game. I mean it respectfully when I say he comes across rather as the flâneur or dilettante. Not for him the blind cultural embrace of the generic disciple; he’s about as far as one could get from the catalogue number trainspotter devouring a label’s every release (be it poster or egg-timer concept). This is a widescreen vision of the nineties as though from the window of a passing Intercity train.

Seeming to pivot around Massive Attack’s catalogue the book takes in an absolutely huge amount of territory. Roughly then: Hardcore/Buffalo/Bristol/Soul II Soul/UK Hip-Hop/Talking Loud and the Jazz Dance nexus/The Dub Revival/Asian Underground/Neo-Soundtracks/Trip-Hop/French Disco/Chicago Post-Rock/Tricky/WuTang/The 99 records revival/Stereolab/Basic Channel/Crammed Records/Detroit long-players/Jazzy Ambient Jungle/Terry Callier/Jazz Rap real and fake/The MPB revival/Goldie/2-step long-players/Roots Manuva.

The minutiae of sleeve note shout-outs are dissected and rendered meaningful and the criss-crossing social and cultural interactions of key players are closely examined. If Paul Morley’s writing is nowadays the torrential frenzy of a marking of influence (a delineation of that old chestnut the “seminal”), Pearce delights in spinning webs of interconnectedness. In his mind it is the spiders at the centres of their webs (Gilles Peterson, James Lavelle, Goldie, Bjork, Tricky, the three-headed Massive Attack) who set the agenda of that decade.

Certainly it’s a compelling argument, and most importantly for the erstwhile scholar of pop culture it’s a notion he fleshes out with an almost dizzying amount of information. Indeed it is as a repository of lovingly-compiled and intelligently-parsed data that “A Cracked Jewel Case” excels and is instantly recommendable. I drew up a large list of things which piqued my interest: seeming blind alleys which I’d neglected to explore at the time, CDs which as a record-collector I’d been oblivious to, and artists I’d dismissed out of hand. Certainly there is also a fair amount of drek which you’d still have to hold a knife at my back for me to re-encounter (oh, go on then, naming names: D*Note, Red Snapper, Kruder and Dorfmeister, Technical Itch and Decoder and even Nicolette (yeah, sorry, this was always annoying)). But that’s understandable within Pearce’s omnivorousness and at the end of the day it is this very generosity and inclusiveness which wins the reader over.

I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting his charming, wistful conclusion verbatim:
“Far more quickly than expected, compact discs would also be widely discarded, with the value of many secondhand copies becoming negligible. The abandoned nature of CDs from the 1990s, though, provides an odd, almost contrary, incentive to listen attentively to music in that format, detached from the time in which it was made. This, additionally, allows opportunities to catch up on things missed at the time, partly through those prohibitive pricing policies. 
Time and economics change the critical game. If a CD, which when it was released cost around £15, has only a few exceptional tracks on it, the consumer might feel cheated and could dismiss the whole thing. If, 20-odd years later, someone can pick up the same CD for a pound, then those few special tracks may feel like a revelation and the rest really would not matter much. This offers a whole new perspective on proceedings. 
So, take a selection of compact discs, some dearly loved, some cruelly overlooked, others brand new or second hand. Sit back and consider carefully, get below the surface, beyond memories, stumble around on the sidelines and consider things anew, at length, at leisure, to see what emerges, what is revealed, when working through heaps of cracked jewel cases and dog-eared digipaks. And when one pile is finished, there will always be another which might tell a completely different story and form new patterns. “So amaze me, so amuse me,” as the song seems to say."