As I sit here writing this, I have another couple of tabs open on my browser. One of them is a window onto the DJ gear section of Juno, the mixer section in fact. Occasionally I’ll swap over to it, gazing with longing at an Allen and Heath Xone 92 six channel mixer and imaging the fun we could have together. A while ago I mentioned to my girlfriend that I was thinking about buying a new mixer and she asked how much it was. When I told her she simply asked another question: will it make the music sound any better? Well, no, I grumbled, but that isn’t the point.
The other tab opens onto a YouTube demo of Elektron’s brand new drum machine, the Analog RTYM. It sounds amazing. It looks amazing. It has the price point too – I could comfortably buy a crappy second-hand car for that. My brain keeps telling me about how much fun it would be but I know that I don’t really need it, not least because I already own an Elektron drum machine, the Machinedrum which I bought second-hand a couple of years back and still haven’t fully and permanently introduced into my production set up because I simply don’t have the space to do so.
My list of toy wants is as long as it is unobtainable: At the top are a 303 and 909. Below that are CD decks, half a dozen synths of various sorts and assorted other gubbins that would simply devour vast amounts of money from my bank account. I’m happy enough with the day dreams, solvent enough to occasionally indulge myself (after months of ‘research’ that is simply a way of convincing that nagging doubt that I am actually right) and positive of one thing: I know none of it will turn me into Theo Parrish or Pete Namlook, just as I knew when I bought a butterscotch coloured Fender Telecaster for my 21st birthday that it was never going to bestow the strutting, hollow-cheeked cool and arrogance of Let It Bleed era Keith Richard upon me. I still played the hell out of that guitar, though. That was the important thing.
There are terms for it, chief amongst them G.A.S, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. It’s the name for the inexplicable need to hunt out the Newest Shiny Toy. The more sanctimonious souls out there are always ready to smugly point out that the latest equipment isn’t going to make you any better at what you do, that its – at best – a panacea and at worst an expensive way to attempt to buy your way out of a lack of talent. The names of producers who are known to rock it with a couple of third hand sound boxes are always dragged out as if this is the damning evidence, the magic bullet that can kill any argument dead. The problem is, everyone knows this. Nobody seriously believes spending 5 grand on an antique piano is going to turn them into Beethoven. Nobody thinks that purchasing a room full of rack mounted modular gear is going to transform them into Van Gelis. A new bit of equipment might, at best, allow you to overcome some mental barrier, forcing you into some change to your workflow that might be beneficial. But this is just an outside possibility. Probably not something you’d want to throw a couple of grand at.
The thing is that all of this misses the point. None of this cuts to the heart of the issue. In fact, the explanation for the desire to buy some new gizmo is much simpler than all of this, and its to be found in many of us: It’s all about kit.
Kit is the great obsession of men and boys. Kit has been at the centre of the psyche of the human male since we first twatted a rabbit with a bit of wood for our dinner and wondered aloud whether we should get a bigger and shinier rabbit-twatter, before Ugg from the cave up the hill told us that his brother had just got a new rabbit-twatter that he could also use on ducks and it was the dogs bollocks.
My Father and his best friend are well into road cycling. They’re shortly going to be cycling from one end of Ireland to the other. They’ve already done Lands End to John o’Groats and France from the North Sea to the Med. They know their stuff, they’re both adults, but put them in a bike shop and it’s like taking my little nieces to Hamleys. They can probably talk for hours about the ergonomics of a bike seat that cost several hundred quid but does little more at the end of the day but stops you sitting on a sharp sticky-up piece of metal.
In his brilliant book ‘The Angry Island’ the writer and journalist AA Gill writes in passing about his time with a bunch of Soldiers at the Army’s sniper school. They talked incessantly about their gear, about their kit; all the little extra bits and pieces they had spent money on over the years – some vital to what they do, others not so much. Soldiers are famously obsessed with kit for the simple reason that it might help save their life or, just as importantly perhaps, might add a crumb of comfort in a situation that would otherwise be unbearable.
The bulk of the chapter (called Memorials, if you have read it) is about a statue at Paddington station called ‘Soldier Reading a Letter’ by Charles Sargeant Jagger which was commissioned to commemorate the Great War. A picture of the statue is at the top of the page. The striking thing about it is that it breaks with tradition. This is no memorial to the glory of war, this is a remembrance of ordinary men thrown into the horrors of a war that should never have been allowed to happen. This is a statue of a man reading a letter from home as he waits for a train back to the Hell of the Front. This is a man weighed down by his scarf, the heavy greatcoat, his boots bound tightly against the mud and the filth. This is a man weighted down by his kit, by the things small and not so small that might just give him enough hope to survive what he knows is to come.
I don’t suggest that buying a Moog Voyager is going to save your life, that a Minibrute is as important as a warm coat to a soldier in a trench but that too is to miss the point. What I do suggest is that it’s something within all of us – an ancient, inherent call that has been translated into modern language. In its tiny and unimportant way G.A.S is about survival. It’s about finding that distraction and that crumb of comfort that will help you get through the day regardless of what flavour it comes in.
So next time someone has a go at you for buying kit, wagging their finger at you and telling you it that synth won’t make you Juan Atkins, you can strike a flinty pose and tell them that what you are doing is nothing less than remembering the sacrifice of those ordinary men, with ordinary interests who fell in combat to secure our right to buy overpriced soundboxes from boutique Swedish electronics companys. That should shut them up.
Or get you punched.