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Ruth and Martin’s Album Club

18 December 17 words: Gav Squires
illustrations: Mark Leary

Ruth and Martin's Album Club is a blog that’s had runaway success. Guests including JK Rowling, Richard Osman and former leader of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron, are asked to listen to an album for the first time, and wax lyrical about their thoughts on the bogger. A book has now been released featuring the best guests, so we sat down with founder Martin Fitzgerald to get the lowdown...

Each entry in Ruth and Martin's Album Club begins by asking the guest what their three favourite albums are, so it seemed only fair to pose this question to Martin. “Highway 61 Revisited, by Bob Dylan, Benji by Sun Kil Moon, and Perpetual Motion People by Ezra Furman.” Nice.

The idea for the blog came when Martin finally listened to Cassadega by Bright Eyes for the first time and, despite its earnest nature, enjoyed the album. He then sought out the biggest Bright Eyes fan that he knew, Ruth Lockwood, and asked her, "Why didn't you just sit me down and make me listen to that album at some point in the last ten years? It would have been the right thing to do." From there came the idea to make people listen to albums that they haven't heard before. But this wasn't just about getting people to listen to "classic" albums, nor was it about whether people liked the albums or not, Martin was "interested in their reasons for opting out, and what happened when they opted in."

When looking for guests, Martin was interested in "people that were good writers, or if there was a juxtaposition between who they were and the album they were going to listen to. Whether that's someone in the House of Lords listening to Public Enemy [Lord Stewart Wood] or an African-American civil rights activist listening to The Beach Boys [Bonnie Greer]. I wanted people, by and large, who were aware of, and had a bit of love for, the project. I always felt they made better guests." Then, each week, the new guests brought along new followers and the whole thing grew organically, with Martin wanting everyone to feel like they were “part of the gang."

Each guest would be sent a shortlist of albums to choose from, but the preparation wasn't always a straightforward task, as Martin had to suggest some 200 albums to Ian Rankin before the author chose Madonna's eponymous debut. Martin says that Ian "has listened to more music that anyone I've ever come across in my life, and some of the stuff he’s heard is pretty obscure."

Martin also wanted to challenge musical prejudices within the blog: “Young people don't listen to stuff from the fifties and sixties, because there’s a sense that it’s what their parents listened to and it’s not cool. I think that a lot of older people don’t listen to hip hop for the reverse reason."

The blog has so far featured a total of 82 guests, of which the best 23 have been included in the book. Martin told me that the crown for both the best and the worst guest goes to Peter Hitchens, writer for The Mail On Sunday, who listened to The Kinks’ Are The Village Green Preservation Society. Hitchen’s original piece was too short, so Martin had to send him a follow-up email. What ensued was an incredible discussion about the sixties: “What he was writing was pure gold,” says Martin. “They became the postscript to his piece. I think it’s one of the best pieces in the book.”

One of the guests that got away was Mike Joyce, the former drummer from The Smiths. Martin wanted to get him to listen to Vauxhall & I, one of Morrissey's solo albums, and use it as a jumping off point to talk about the good times they had together in the band. However, he could only get through the album once as the memories of the court case between Joyce and Morrissey came back to mind, and the idea was scrapped because each guest had to listen to the album three times.

Martin also wrote about each of the albums, or the bands that made them. This is where the love and the joy of the book comes from, and we discover some amazing facts: Neil Young listened to the first playback of Harvest while floating on a lake; Stephen Malkmus from Pavement was a security guard; Flavor Flav only got into Public Enemy because he was good at "your mom" jokes; and in-between Bleach and Nevermind, Kurt Cobain and Kris Novoselic from Nirvana ran an office cleaning company. "I was into Nirvana when Bleach came out,” Martin adds, “but had I lived in Seattle, I could have got them to come round and clean the office. It was called Pine Tree Janitorial. Look it up. It's mad that they did that."

There's also a wonderful piece on R.E.M., which isn't really about R.E.M. but the woman who formed them: Kathleen O'Brien. “She got them together, made them do their first gig, then made them do their second gig to pay back the money she lost on the first gig,” Martin adds. “She even made them change their name to R.E.M." And the story doesn’t end there, as one of the blog’s readers tracked Kathleen down. Kathleen emailed Martin and they would message each other regularly, with Kathleen telling him tales about the early adventures of R.E.M. Martin still can't believe it: "It was those things that along the way made me pinch myself and think, 'How did that happen?'"

One of the book’s highlights is the chapter on Setting Sons by The Jam, which points out the fact that the song Down in the Tubestation at Midnight makes no sense at all. Why does the wife have to stay up so late for dinner? Why is she opening wine and setting the table for a takeaway curry? "I think The Jam piece is really good for fans of The Jam who are slightly embarrassed by modern Paul Weller, and of mod culture and the sort of things that entails," says Martin. Someone sent a link to the article to Paul Weller's wife on Twitter, and she said that sometimes it's best not to analyse art. In Martin's words: "I wanted to avoid any sense of reverence."

The book is an amazing new entry into the world of music criticism, spicing up what can often be rather dry. Martin's passion for the albums that he writes about really leaps off the page. "I wanted my writing to deliberately not be nostalgic; there’s been thousands of articles written about these albums and I tried to keep it jovial and have a certain lightness of touch. I didn't want it to have the whiff of unaired rooms or cynicism, I wanted to tell adventure stories."

Ruth and Martin's Album Club website

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