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Tim's Twitter Listening Party: A peek behind the curtain

Tim's Twitter Listening Party, a chance for fans to listen to music together and hear from the makers, has grown into a digital museum of sorts

The album wall on the Tim's Twitter Listening Party website

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Every song has hundreds of stories, told and untold, waiting gently behind the music. They are passed down generations as oral histories and folk tales. Often, they are complete fiction, acute inanities created to spread some good old moral panic or build a mythology around an artist. We have lost far too many generations, for instance, to the rumour that Stairway To Heaven by Led Zeppelin, when played backwards, references Satanic verses.

Occasionally they are just mutated interpretations and Chinese whispers. I remember talking to a friend about one of my favourite albums, Nevermind by Nirvana. He mentioned how the drummer, Dave Grohl—then a no-good punk rock troublemaker, now the wizened, affable rock star fronting the Foo Fighters— had never played along to a metronome, a click track that helps you keep time, before. But then the band got to the recording studio and he nailed Smells Like Teen Spirit in the very first take. “It was bang on, man!” Grohl was a genius. An idiot savant. I didn’t know where my friend heard this story—probably from another friend who heard it from an older cousin who heard it from an NRI uncle who made it up—but I believed it to be true for 15 years. It sounded cool enough.

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Last year though, during a Tim’s Twitter Listening Party to mark 30 years of Nevermind, Butch Vig, who produced the album, revealed the particulars of this legend. The band had been struggling with Lithium during the recording as they kept speeding up during the song. A frustrated Kurt Cobain, Vig wrote, launched into a different song after yet another attempt. “I have never seen so much rage in a person’s face, it was scary. At the end of the song Kurt smashed his guitar to bits. And that was the end of the session.”

That’s when Vig pulled Grohl aside and asked him if he had ever played with a metronome. He hadn’t. So Vig lent him a drum machine, Grohl took it with him, and the next day they nailed it on the second take. Bang on, man. So, in some roundabout way, the story my friend told me was actually (somewhat) true.

This is what Tim’s Twitter Listening Party is. A community activity—a take on the classic physical listening party concept where you gather around with friends and kindred spirits and listen to music together, talking about it in breaks—started by Tim Burgess, frontman of popular British rockers The Charlatans. He invites bands to live-tweet about the albums they have released; fans can follow in real time while listening to that album. Bands will share stories, real or made up; annotations and throwaways; little sketches of the time; notes and photographs; jokes; trivia—a glimpse into history.

You just have to follow the artists or the official account, and you get all the tweets detailing the making of said album, a reliving of it. A hashtag allows fans to share their thoughts and memories of it too.

Burgess had been doing these parties for his band’s (and his own) music for years but he turned it into a broader concept, where he would invite other bands to share their stories, in the spring of 2020—a surreal, uncertain time when our whole world was spinning off its axis. But unlike all those other goofy lockdown activities that people became weird about—remember sourdough?—this one stuck around. It had meaning.

Really, these listening parties are a treasure chest of trivia, anecdotes and titbits, a director’s cut of music that lives with us each day. Burgess has been hosting them every day, from obscure British bands trying to gain a foothold to all-timers and Hall of Famers, letting fans of all sorts reconnect with music they love. Iron Maiden, Blur, Oasis, Coldplay, Mogwai, Wolf Alice, Joy Division, everyone’s there.

The Listening Party website (timstwitterlisteningparty.com) houses all the past sessions, over 1,100 of them at the time of writing, that you can “replay” directly on the site, without a Twitter account. Just find an album you like from the list (or pick one at random from the top 100 replays), start playing it on your little 2-in-1 or Discman or Spotify or iPod when the site prompts you to, and read the tweets about the album as the songs play in order.

It has grown into something resembling a digital museum, perhaps. A chronicle of rock ‘n’ roll history, a documentation, preserving the past in a uniquely modern exhibition. You have Paul McCartney tweeting about his “Mustel Harmonium from Abbey Road”. Shakira sat in her apartment clutching a thesaurus, in her first attempt to write songs in English on Laundry Service. Yoko Ono revealing the reasons for her loving smile at John Lennon in Imagine, as past quotes about songwriting by Lennon or George Harrison flash on the screen. “Next time you meet a ‘foreigner’,” she writes later, in her inimitably elliptical manner, “remember it’s only like a window with a little different shape to it and the person who’s sitting inside is you.”

What we get is a magical insight into the process behind the art. How musicians think about music, if at all they do, during the process of creation.

In a way, artists you admire are talking directly to you about their songs. How things went FUBAR from time to time; the tantrums and disagreements, the roadblocks, the silly escapades. Kevin Shields, of My Bloody Valentine, wrote, in a wry stream-of-consciousness incantation, about a song on the era-defining shoegaze classic Loveless: “This was first take on guitar, it was lucky as the engineer passed out around 2 minutes in while I was playing it, it put him in a mild coma basically, he had to go home afterwards, he was also smoking too much weed.”

Of course, none of this is actually important. The primary way in which people receive music is emotional, physical. Little invisible aliens entering the control room of your brain, pulling at random levers, pressing all the buttons, rotating knobs for fun like imbeciles. A kind of anarchic ecstasy. There’s very little sense to it; you like something because it moves you, it stays with you; at the end of the day, it just sounds and feels nice. That’s why it’s always so endearing to look at old aunties and uncles with troublingly insufficient limb coordination grooving their backsides off at weddings with not a single care. The bliss is inexplicable.

I don’t necessarily need these tchotchkes, these bite-size memoirs, to like the music I like. But they are embellishments, a layer of gloss on top of already pristine memories. Listening parties perhaps add a secondary coat of appreciation to the music that’s resting within me. The intellectual joy of it, where you feel a sense of community with other fans who are similarly captured, or get to build a human connection (even if a parasocial one) with artists who have created things especially for you. Once that primary experience of music settles in, we as listeners often look for reasons behind it.

The process is inevitably intellectualised—why do I like Lennon and Ono’s Imagine so much? Is it the words? Is it the eccentricity of its creators, the personalities they presented to the world? Maybe the memorable piano melody? Or the time I heard it first, and the visions that evokes? Maybe it’s all of these—the Listening Parties, then, are just one more adornment, a glaze of silver polish on the puzzling, misshapen monument of personal nostalgia.

Akhil Sood is a Delhi-based writer.

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