Oxfam Jams #5

by Liam Hill


As a genre, classical music, in particular opera, has a stigma of being uncool or unlistenable. I have to admit from the offset, its not often you’d see me listening to Bach or Beethoven, though that’s probably from the hours of classical piano lessons when I was younger putting me off. But I have always felt an appreciation for classical music. The way in which a piece, sometimes played only by one instrument, can evoke such deep feelings and emotions without words or context has always resonated. So this week, I’m going to encourage you to visit Oxfam and pick out something you might not normally listen to.

A culprit myself, whenever I enter shops, I typically head straight to the section I am interested in, without daring to leave my comfort zone and see if there is something out there that might interest me. In Oxfam for example, I head straight to the back right where the rock and pop records are, I feel safe knowing there will be something I like whether it be Talking Heads, The Beatles or The Stones. I know that Blondie will be there for comfort or at least, there will be something I am remotely familiar with, even if it wouldn’t be my first port of call.

But this week, I actively avoided that side of the shop in an endeavour to somewhat help the shop. Poor sales in classical vinyl is somewhat of an epidemic for the shop as it leaves the shelves full and no room for new stock, the donations lacking and the back room full with purged vinyl ready to be taken to waste. This to me is the saddest parts of the whole picture. Music that has inspired artists throughout the ages that has inadvertently got us to the music we cherish now, is now literally being thrown away as interest has slowly slipped away.

In an attempt to resurrect interest within the shop, Oxfam are offering 50% off certain classical releases. That means for as little as £1 you can immerse yourself into a world of musical heritage and lose yourself in a wall of orchestral sound.

For some pointers, my limited experience with classical has lead me to bare two things in mind when I’m buying. Firstly, the record label. Though this is simply a rule of thumb which has no serious grounding, I have found that with English releases, HMV and Decca are the best two labels to buy. That’s not to say other labels are objectively bad, I have just found that with English releases, I’ve had more luck with these. Secondly, condition is key. As the sound is generally cleaner with no distortion, reverb or other backing as disguise, in my opinion, the condition plays a greater importance with classical records than with rock, folk, reggae or any other “typical” genre.

Whilst there are a great range of 12” and box sets available in store, it was the 10” records that I was drawn to in the classical section. One of the first to catch my eye was Tchaikovsky The Sleeping Beauty, Ballet Suite, Opus 66. Initially it was the cover that drew me in, the deep purple with spiralled stairs, the reassurance of Tchaikovsky (a name I think we all know) was even more reassuring and to tick a third box, it was on Decca. Inside, a circular plastic sleeve encased a near perfect copy of the Paris Orchestras rendition of the suite. Whilst there was the odd hairline scratch, these went through the grooves rather than along them. Again, simply as a rule of thumb, I have found if a scratch goes from the outside to the inside of the record, it causes less trouble than if the scratch runs round the grooves. Even more enticing is the price. At a mere £1.99, a piece of musical history in material form is hard to refuse.

Flicking further through I found a second that took my fancy, though this time somewhat because of a comical factor. I’m not sure why, but the childish side of me found something quite amusing of the image of Italian opera singer, Beniamino Gigli clad in a green suit leaning against a marble fireplace.

I then turned over and found a track by track guide to each song on the album. This, I thought, was quite unusual and out of sync with the regular things I’d buy, but I also found it reassuring. It said to me that I wasn’t the only person that naively had no idea what Beniamino Gigli was all about and it gave me the opportunity to see if this was something for me. This I’ve found is quite common with the classical and operatic releases, so if you, like me, are quite intimidated by the prospect of dipping into unknown territory, then flip over to the back, have a read and let the experts give you the details.

Although I have been slightly vague this week, I have somewhat purposely been vague. This is my open invitation to you to explore. Even if classical music is definitely not for you, go and have a look. Maybe try something else, be it jazz, heavy metal or Japanese pop, try something new. As I have stated before, the staff in store are always more than approachable and willing to help wherever they can, so if you’re not sure, ask. And if you find something different, let me know so next time I can try it myself.