Against the odds, the most primal of vinyl formats is competing with the heaving, streaming monster that dominates music on this connected planet.
The simple act of placing a small sphere of flat, moulded plastic onto a turntable for 3 minutes or so and mixing it into the next 45 rpm nugget, is the most satisfying way to play music for these aficionados.
The labour of love reaps rewards of community and inclusiveness with the ‘Singles Going Steady’ (SGS) format, and its like-minded offshoots. Open decks encourage anyone with a collection of grooves and a desire to share them to deliver an abbreviated set at selected bars and venues.
The concept is growing and has recently celebrated New Zealand Music Month, and its third birthday at the Northern Line Bar and Social in Auckland, with pure Kiwi sets of 20 minutes for a hip swivelling ten hours (here’s a Spotify playlist of tracks from the birthday bash).
Like every aspect of the arts and entertainment, there’s been the untimely arrival of the pandemic’s most wildly infectious phase so far. Thankfully Omicron’s nationwide restrictions have finally eased for the battered events industry. The convivial singles gigs have surfed the wave - with some safeguards.
While there have been setbacks, and cases, you don’t have to wear masks to dull the appreciation of the eclectic mixes booming out of the sound system.
The singles craze defies our world of convenience. You have to clean them regularly, and maintain the needle and delicately balanced mechanisms on the turntable. There’s also the sweat of cueing and cramming in a bunch of tunes for 15 to 25 minutes.
It would be so much easier to veg out on the couch, scrolling through excerpts of the millions of options on Spotify, Apple, Bandcamp and the overabundance of digi-powerhouses.
Who are the protagonists behind this unique form of retro entertainment?
The originator of the Kiwi version was Mike Hodgson, the visionary behind electronica legends Pitch Black, during his extended time in London. The transporter is Justine McLisky, a respected arts professional who brought the idea back to Auckland and made it sing. And there’s Dom Nola - aka “Miss Dom” - a passionate music lover and collector who’s an important cog in the alternative and corporate DJ scene in Auckland.
The Big Idea discovered why and how the humble 45” spun this formidable trio into action.
After a typically busy week, McLisky elaborated on the theme of inclusivity from her home in central Wellington.
“I don’t know how to do the difficult mixing or scratching, but I can cue up a record. Once you get the hang of it, anyone can do it.
“There will always be misfires and wrong speed wonders, but I mean I’ve done it, Mike’s done it. It’s not about having a smoothly mixed set, it’s just having fun with it and playing whatever the hell you want.”
Justine McLisky at Singles Going Steady. Photo: Supplied.
Yes, regular folks (known as selectors) can have a lot of fun behind the turntables without being overwhelmed by the more technical aspects left for the likes of the professional DJs.
There are synergies in McLisky’s professional career too. After three decades developing arts and education projects in museums and galleries in Wellington - then Sydney and London before returning home to Auckland - she’s now taken on the challenge as Director of Children, Young People and Community Engagement with the Experience Wellington umbrella group. It was a bit of a wrench.
“The ‘Singles Going Steady’ crew up there didn’t want it to stop when I came down to Welly,” McLisky explains, so she passed the role in Auckland to another natural born organiser and vinyl fanatic, Denise McEneaney-Kirkland.
”She said she'd take it on, and it’s going great guns still. People didn’t want to lose it. We learn from each other. We did a few (Alert) Level Twos up there, and I’ve done a lot down here. You’ve got to make adjustments.”
It’s a territory for mature enthusiasts who were kids during the punk, new wave, dance and rap explosions way back when. McLisky believes the demographic can stretch beyond the usual suspects in their 40s and 50s.
“I hope that people feel they can just rock up and have a go. You’ll get people who actually go a couple of times before having the courage to get up and have a go. You also get people regularly come along just to listen in. They’re part of the experience as well .. our appreciators.
“It’s so cool people coming along to ‘Singles Going Steady’ with five records and play them all. The next time they come back they’ve bought another twenty. I’ve got way more singles than I’ve ever had, because you start looking out for them.
“I think it’s a great format.”
The incentives for the more seasoned music lover are myriad.
McLisky muses “I think it was because we were into vinyl the first time around, sometimes still with record collections and a personal connection to that.
“It requires quite a bit of confidence to stand up and play something in front of people. There’s a new generation getting into vinyl.”
She’s positive about SGS taking on a new lease of life, and like her demanding full time job with the arts in the capital, it is about encouraging creative types to give it a go.
“I can see it growing in New Zealand. There’s people who might come to a ‘Singles Going Steady’ or a ‘Vinyl Tap’ or a ‘Vinyl Decision’.
“They’re pretty easy to do. You’ve got to have a decent relationship with the venue, and I reckon the venue has to have the right feel about it. If you get that and you can agree about what you do - then it’s reasonably straightforward to run.”
Hodgson (pictued above) created the unofficial blueprint in London.
He’s made things happen with as part of the pioneering Pitch Black and a wealth of electronica and dub musical projects alongside stunning audio visual productions as featured in The Big Idea last year. He sensed an opportunity to develop something unique after witnessing a vinyl event at a pub there.
“I thought this is a really fascinating concept, but it’s in the wrong venue.
“People aren’t getting the best of what people are playing, people aren’t appreciating the DJs. The guy who’s running the bar is kicking them off if it doesn’t fit his taste.
“I thought about it for a week or so and I came up with an idea that it can be far more inclusive and do it in a venue which is just a room with a sound system in it.
“It’s more like a book club - so it’s people sitting around and it’s not like a dance party and people can play whatever they like.”
For him, it was an audiofile happening rather than a night out at the boozer. His venture gathered steam, and was swift to adapt when the pandemic shut down one of the liveliest cities on the planet.
Hodgson recalls “all of a sudden, there were all these seven inch open deck nights - as well as twelve inch nights - all over London. We ended up forming this big posse between all of us and we were all cross pollinating, publicising each other's events. People from South London were coming up to ours and bubbled into about a dozen happening every month all over greater London.
“Then COVID hit and we thought ‘we can’t go out, what can we do?’
“Someone told me about this gaming, streaming network called Twitch. I set up an account and figured out how to do it. I said ‘everyone send out a set’, and the graphic designer who’s part of the group came up with a look and feel for it.
“We’d compile all the sets and we’d all sit in the chat room and talk to each over the course of five or six hours.
“The great thing about that is we could invite people from all around the world because it wasn’t in a space.”
Michael Hodgson on the tables in London. Photo: Supplied.
It was here that he formed a friendship with McLisky, and the seeds were sown for the export of the singles format to Aotearoa.
Hodgson states “she’s been a really big part of our crew .. she’d seen the good nights, the bad nights. She’d seen what had worked and how to build a community from scratch.
“She was armed with the right attitude to start something new. It might be that the timing was perfect, because the attitude is predominantly late 40s and 50s and people who’ve got really good collections.
“A lot of stuff is geared towards young people. Going out when you’re a certain age can be a pain in the arse.
She (McLisky) was able to adapt really quickly in a really amazing scene of people who all loved the idea that could come along to spin. She gauged it correctly and built it from the ground up, the flame of it was really powerful and then it grew. Then she had to change cities (to Wellington) and she’s been able to find a group of people that have got the same spirit and kept it going.”
As you'd expect from a creator from the darker side of the musical spectrum, Hodgson’s own tastes veer into unchartered territory (check out a specially curated set at the end of this article).
But it doesn’t matter.
“I’m strictly experimental dub music. I like art noise .. I like dub,” he underlines.
“It’s opened my ears .. You just know you’re getting an extraordinary diverse amount of music you wouldn’t have heard, wouldn’t have been appreciated.
“It’s been amazing to have my narrow minded attitude towards music expanded,” Hodgson laughs. “It’s definitely made me a better person, to be more accepting of other styles.
“One of the loveliest nights was a TV producer who’d been in Jamaica .. who just randomly bought a whole lot of reggae from a record shop. We showed her how to DJ and she played a really wicked set of great tunes.
“Then later in the night someone else came down who’d never played a record, and she showed him how to do it. We all thought that was so cool.”
Nola is a mover and shaker in Auckland’s music scene, who has embraced and advanced the open decks concept.
The former Programme Director and Music Director is a regular at SGS and actively promotes the gigs. She’s also still committed to bFM both at a board and alumni level as well as a Jazz Show host.
“I’m involved in all of the Record Clubs, including one at the Clare Inn on Dominion Road, which I do with a friend. We bring our own gear in & set it up upstairs once a month - newcomers are welcome.
“We sort of decided it would be cool to have a local one, something in the area to hopefully encourage people to maybe walk past and look in the door and think ‘wow, I’ve got records at home and just go and bring them down.’
“The whole idea is we guide them through that process. The nervous newbie with their little stack .. it’s sort of like a ‘growing-up in public’ thing. It can be any genre of music - it doesn’t matter”.
Dom Nola AKA Miss Dom grooving at a Singles Going Steady event in Auckland. Photo: Supplied.
Nola is especially proud of launching a venture called ‘Hey Ladies’ which showcases female selectors. They’ve become a popular choice at art gallery events & brewery establishments.
“The concept was to celebrate the female DJ - the female selector - because DJing is such a male dominated area, as well as radio.
“Females tend to shy away from these roles because it’s probably a confidence thing - I’m not sure why. My whole thing is to encourage the female selector, provide a platform to shine .. to own and not feel intimidated to play the music she loves and connects with in a non-threatening way.
“The age range is incredible. We have Lucia (Taylor) from bFM who’s 21, then we have the older .. the more senior ladies.”
The wider format of open decks and a love of vinyl from a golden era for music remains the definitive force for Nola.
“People now in their forties and fifties that’s all we did - we collected records then. They’re re-nerding and buying new stuff.”
But this is an expensive obsession for a serious collector or even part-timers who want to impress at an event. You need deep pockets and commitment. Nola’s partner and fellow selector Kevin McAvinue has spent a fortune on rarities from his favourite bands, the Ramones and the Stooges.
Nola concedes “probably over Lockdown, I’ve spent more than I normally would. I sort of needed the retail therapy over Lockdown. A lot of these are reissues and re-edits. Limited editions too.
“I’ll see something like a New Orleans style of Good Life, totally played in the big band style, I thought I can’t go past that. It just sounds great.
“There’s a place I buy in the UK - I’ll go on this site every few months - I’m lucky if I come out of there spending around 300 dollars. They have loads of Sevens … that’s my crank.“
The renewed popularity of vinyl has been surging for years.There’s virtually no pressing plants in New Zealand and internationally, they can’t keep up with the demand.
But for all the expense and difficulties securing vinyl gems, Nola - like McLisky and Hodgson - is certain the ideal of SGS, open decks and more inclusiveness is going to grow.
“The boards are full at all these vinyl events. In fact, you have to get there well ahead of time to book a slot, otherwise you’ll miss out.
“There’s a huge interest still across all ages. One of the Vinyl Club members that comes out, his daughter plays a much better set than the dad does. She’s 18.
“Parents that are our age, the kids have grown up with vinyl in the house and they’ve seen us play it. I mean it’s frickin’ amazing.”
The singles resurgence is an unlikely art form. It encourages and attracts enthusiasts, professionals and vinyl tragics to participate, perform in public, to put their spin on the event and believe in themselves.
They’re accessible gigs for folk to enjoy a resurgence in their abilities, their tastes and their obsessions, in front of an appreciative and like-minded audience. They might even get really good at it.
Coming to an understanding venue near you.
Mike Hodgson compiled a mind-blowing set of dub and alternative 7" singles for The Big Idea.
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