The Unidentified Record that Changed How I Listen to Music

The sun was beating through the dusty, fingerprint-covered glass of the narrow corridors of Stirling University on what could only be described as a regular Thursday afternoon. The previous night, I had been up late finding new music to add to my Spotify, exploring the just-as dusty but more inviting avenues of 60s and 70s music, to create a sense of identity for the tender and confused 18 year-old self that I was.

As I walked along, humming the melody of Al Stewart’s ‘Year of the Cat’ in my head, I was stopped in my tracks as the front cover that I had remembered from that very same song the previous night stood before me in a see-through plastic box, amongst a cart of others. What are the chances, I thought and instantly my eyes were invited in for a chance to explore what Stirling Uni’s Thursday record fair had to offer and forgive me reader (spoiler) – it had more than I could have ever imagined.

Often I find what begin the most ordinary of days seem to transpire into monumental moments in time that trigger a domino effect of opened-up little extraordinary avenues for the rest of my life. It’s a bizarre state of affairs and probably one that I’ll never fully understand but there’s a sort of beauty in the unknown, a rush in the unexplored and a marvel in the unidentified, and that’s exactly what happened on that Thursday afternoon.

From the array of injured, battered and decaying records that sat scarred and etched with stories, that if they could speak, would most likely say too much, one mysteriously pristine record seemed to speak almost a little too loud. So loud that I couldn’t unhear it. With a Daryl Hall and John Oates and a Sutherland Brothers and Quiver album propped firmly underneath my arm, I halted the ‘untitled’ one from the box. Shy and timid with the influx of curious students around the stall, I left with my unfamiliar and out-of-place looking friend with a 3 for £10 deal, heading for my halls that bore the residence of only 4 other girls and no record player.

The anticipation of returning to my hometown to finally play the completely unidentifiable record was getting all too much. It would sit on the shelves of my tiny bedroom, almost begging for its mysteries to be unlocked and that day, it finally came. My musical itch had well and truly been satisfied. The series of events leading up to the moment were completely forgettable, but there is something securely imprinting on my memory from the sacred moment I removed it from its protective armour for the first time. The static crackled from my dad’s record player when the needle caressed its grooves and just like that, all the secrets of this ‘little white album’ were set free from its withholding grasp.

From my dad’s speakers burst through one of the most instantly recognisable strumming of a tinny acoustic guitar followed shortly by a complimentary back-up from the power of its fuzzy and guttural neighbour – the electric. “That’s Sniff’n’ the Tears,” my dad’s voice strained competing with this 1978 one-hit wonder known as ‘Driver’s Seat’. This single had long been known as one of my all time favourites (and I wasn’t alone), even before I picked up the record, but the extraordinary thing about this album turned out not to be the love of the song that I had already known but rather the wonder of the songs on that record that I didn’t.

After 4 minutes, a harmonic-scale-encapsulating track with its clear experimental flexibility raised a few eyebrows in the room, including mine. The musical genius of Sniff’n’ the Tears had far surpassed my expectations, with their capacity to create atmospheric melodies in a variety of different styles. I was nothing short of stunned and couldn’t help but think what a great musical injustice it was that this, briefly-remembered (which is arguably worse than being forgotten)one-hit wonder band, were known solely for ‘Driver’s Seat’ and little else, especially with a smokey Rod Stewart/Chris Norman-esque voice like Paul Roberts.

Most, if not all of the tracks on this album were lead by thick, sooty folk vocals and easy-listening but equally as powerfully atmospheric tracks that you can’t help but imagine finding in a 70s period movie like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (1998) where ‘Driver’s Seat’ resides or even better, one that’s a product of its own times. With its auditory running theme of exoticism and experiment as well as its fusional contrast of lyrical complexity and simplicity – it’s an album that has unjustly slipped under the radar.

This ‘little white album’ that tantalized me with mystery for months before its eventual liberation, changed the way that I choose to listen to music forever now. There is something to be said as a music junkie to propel yourself outside of your comfort zone and delve into the depths of the unknown. Stop reaching for the familiar and the comfortable and start reaching for records that pose you no interest or better yet, one’s that draw you in from their complete lack of traditional elements- like an album cover, or a track listing. Expand your musical horizons and start treating record stores as a place of adventure and discovery. However, be warned, it can be addictive yet it’s a habit that I will continue to testify that is worth forming, especially for full musical enlightenment.

“…it’s far easier to put on those feel-good tunes we know and love than it is to expose ourselves regularly to something completely new,” Marc Henshall writes in a 2019 article for Your Sound Matters, telling us that as creatures of habit, it’s important to buy random records for the expansion of our musical horizons.

My ‘little white album’ is known as Sniff ‘n’ the Tears’ 1978 ‘Fickle Heart’ album, one that should harness a cover with smooth, silky long legs and a black cat hunched beside them. Yet, this only serves as symbolism to me of the album’s own personal mystery that I have never erased still to this day. It sits proudly in my collection in all its blank, unfaltered glory and though people looking through my collection are often just as puzzled and mesmerized by its mystery, to me, it will always be the album that changed the way I listen to music. I’ll forever value ‘Fickle Heart’ as my monumental enigma and the catalyst for my own delve into the unexplored world of music.

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Ailsa Gillies

23 Years Old. MSc International Journalism. BA (Hons) Film, Media and Journalism. Freelance Journalist and Content Creator for BBC Scotland's 'The Social'. Former Columnist and Music Feature Writer for The Weekender.

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