Colleen Murphy on Classic Album Sundays – ‘a unique listening experience’
What started as a small gathering of music-loving friends has grown to become an expansive worldwide network events. Classic Album Sundays founder Colleen Murphy tells us more…
It was a chance encounter in the school playground that led to Colleen Murphy launching her first Classic Album Sundays event in London in 2010. The radio DJ had held a few low key listening events for friends at her London home, playing records on her sound system (Modified Technics 1100 with Koetsu tonearm and Koetsu Rosewood Signature Moving Coil Cartridge, Mark Levinson ML-1 preamp, Quad Mono Block Amps and Klipschorn Loudspeakers).
“I had friends coming over and my husband would make lunch and I have a hi-fi and 10,000 records and we would sit and listen to a record and it was our Classic Album Sunday, friends would say I should do something like this as a proper event.” – Colleen Murphy
One of Colleen’s DJ friends, Greg Wilson. had a blog called ‘Living To Music’ which encouraged people to listen to a particular album and he’d write about it and then people would talk about it, in a similar vein to the Sunday sessions and it got her thinking as she was listening to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ revealing she had a eureka moment of ‘let’s just do this, as a labour of love, give others the chance to experience an album in this way’.
Colleen got chatting to some friends as she picked her daughter up from school and it turned out they ran the Hanbury Arms, a London pub which included a wooden clad function room where the acoustics were quite good so Colleen unleashed her Classic Album Sundays on the world – and hasn’t stopped since. Within months of the launch, the concept had been picked up by the media – first Kate Mossman at the late Word magazine, then the BBC and a whole host of music and mainstream press.
“I didn’t realise what the impact was going to be at first. It put it on the map, it was the first audiophile listening experience out there and it ticked a lot of boxes around music format, music equipment, listening to an album in full, shuffle culture, artists intentions.” – Colleen Murphy
At its heart Classic Album Sundays is listening to a great album in a great space with great kit surrounded by a great community of music lovers – intimate listening events with a ‘living room atmosphere’. Thanks to her existing network of music lovers across the globe, Colleen’s helped to launch events throughout the UK, US, Europe and even as far afield as Japan with more in the pipeline. She says it served to amalgamate her entire career – with writing, with radio, with record shops, with DJing, running events, running a record label.
The concept of Classic Album Sundays draws upon Colleen’s unrelenting love of music and the knowledge and experience she’d picked up working in record shops in New England, New York and London (including Strawberries, which was owned by notorious music mogul and gangster Morris Levy) and in over a quarter of a century working in radio. Raised in the suburbs of Boston in the 70s and 80s, Colleen grew up listening to records on a hand-me-down GE Trimline given to her by her dad and has gone on to develop a huge record collection and impressive selection of sound equipment.
She said: “After a year or two of raiding my uncle’s record collection, I started collecting vinyl seriously when I was 15 and my first job was in a record shop when I was 16 so I was completely obsessive. Basically I started like all girls did in 1974 behind the cash register, behind the till and they were like ‘actually, you know a lot about music’, so they put me out on the floor with the guys selling. I worked my way up to assistant manager, but we had to lie because I was still 17. I learnt a lot about music when I was there. If you work in a record shop, you don’t work there for the money, you work there because you love music. Everyone was obsessive about their tastes and I was just a sponge, like I still am.”
“Record shops are amazing places to learn about music, because even customers turn you on to stuff. I do shop on Discogs because I know what I want, but you have to go into record shops to get stuff you don’t know that you want.” – Colleen Murphy
Colleen’s shelves now house an ever changing collection which includes multiple copies of the same classic albums – including five copies of ‘Pet Sounds’ by The Beach Boys some of which are destined for record dealers and others for her almost teenage daughter.
Classic Album Sundays deliberately tries not to wed itself to one genre or one demographic, not in a contrived way, but because Colleen’s tastes are so genuinely varied. We start the conversation talking about Britpop bands, moving onto the 60s British Invasion via rave culture, grunge and Latin music.
Most recent albums of the month
Bjork – ‘Homogenic’
Radiohead – ‘OK Computer’
Michael Jackson – ‘Off The Wall’
Kraftwerk – ‘Trans-Europe Express’
The Rolling Stones – ‘Exile on Main St.’
Lauryn Hill – ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’
The Velvet Underground & Nico – ‘The Velvet Underground & Nico’
John Coltrane – ‘A Love Supreme’
Van Morrison – ‘Astral Weeks’
D’Angelo – ‘Voodoo’
My Bloody Valentine – ‘Loveless’
Billie Holiday – ‘Lady in Satin’
The music obsessive says she tries to tick a lot of boxes – making sure that both genders are represented and the style of music is diverse, from pop to classic rock to something more proggy to hip-hop to soul, jazz, something kind of folky. They also try to represent different eras, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s – making sure it’s pretty expensive and all encompassing. This approach has led to an amazing selection of records featuring in the Classic Album Sundays, from ‘Ege Bamyasi’ by Can and ‘Chronic’ by Dr Dre to ‘Pet Sounds’ by The Beach Boys.
“People make assumptions that it must be a lot of guys in their 40s, 50s and 60s sitting around. And yeah there are certain albums that do attract that audience, like Crosby Stills Nash & Young, but then you do Kate Bush and you’ll have a lot of women and gay guys. It just differs.” – Colleen Murphy
The latest stats reveal that women make up almost half of the Classic Album Sundays community, with the majority of people being under the age of 45. “I like the fact that it appeals to so many different kinds of people,” said Colleen, who is one of the 10-15% of the Classic Album Sundays community over the age of 45. “That’s massively important to me because I don’t want it to be elitist, I’m very much into social progress. It’s about creating a great experience – a musical experience, an emotional experience but also an educational experience.
“I didn’t want it to be like you come in, listen to the record and leave, but more like ‘hey. come in, have some pizza, have some beer, I’m going to play some music while you guys chat’. When the main record is played the room usually falls silent. As my mum always said ‘if you’re talking, you’re not listening’. We’ve seen people transformed. We get a fair few tears, with Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell and ‘Wish You Were Here’, where one woman had to leave. And there are also ones where you laugh, like Beastie Boys; and others where you’re like: ‘oh my gosh, I didn’t realise the sonics were so amazing on this, like Massive Attack’s ‘Mezzanine’.”
Thanks to the quality of the equipment used at Classic Album Sundays (the London event uses Rega P-9 with a Dynavector D17D3 Moving Coil Cartridge, Rega IOS Reference Phono Stage, Audio Note UK Jinro Amplifier, Chord Signature Speaker Cable, Klipschorn Loudspeakers and Klipsch SW-115 subs), people hear things they’ve not heard in an album before.
“It’s about experiencing an album in the way you haven’t done before. With the musical context, with the story behind it and sonically in more detail. As close as you can get to the artist’s intention. And sometimes now we have the artists and producers there, we interview them beforehand so people can get even closer to it.” – Colleen Murphy
Colleen has purged around 10,000 records from her 10,000-strong collection over the years, always in search of the best pressing for the highest listening experience. “Vinyl can be a superior listening experience,” says Colleen. “When you have an album that has been mixed properly, mastered properly, pressed properly and then you’re listening to it on great equipment that is the highest standard for me, it is magical.
“I can listen to my great original pressing of Jeff Buckley ‘Grace and the vinyl album is always superior to the CD album; I listen to it on my Nottingham Analogue Ace Spacedeck with my Koetsu Rosewood Signature Moving Coil Cartridge through the Mark Levinson ML-1 preamp powered by an Audio Note UK Conqueror Silver Signature valve amplifier, through the the Chord Signature speaker cable to the Klipschorn loudspeakers. I’ve done radio broadcasts with my CD and it’s just a completely different experience.”
As much as Colleen loves her contemporary sound kit, she is a huge advocate for vintage equipment too and reveals that her 25-year-old Bozak DJ mixer remains one of her most prized possessions. “This Bozak was one of the first ever and I’ve just had it reconditioned twice, recapped and everything, and nothing compares – there isn’t a better DJ mixer. These are workhorses.
“Obviously you have to get in a position to be able to buy it in the first place, but if you go slowly and buy used stuff you can do it pretty economically. The cheap stuff is made to break after a few years, it’s not environmentally friendly, and what worries me more is that cheap turntables can wreck your records, causing permanent damage to the vinyl.” – Colleen Murphy
Colleen concedes that there are two sides to the music listening experience now – the digital side and the analog side. She insists that the online experience and digital music has an important role to play, dubbing the Classic Album Sundays website ‘a hub for classic albums and high end audio and vinyl’. Spotify playlists accompany each event, featuring music to help tell the story of that album. It covers a range of topics – it could be the artist’s earlier work, the musical landscape at the time or music that influenced that artist. This music is also played at the Classic Album Sundays events and features in Colleen’s album of the month show streamed online via Worldwide FM.
Colleen added: “I use my Sonos system when I don’t have a record, it’s convenient – I can put it on in any room I’m in. I can do a lot of research that way, when I’m writing a documentary and bouncing through songs or discovering new things. But overall, I can see why vinyl is growing again and I’m so behind that. I never stopped buying records, as a DJ I play records on vinyl. It never went away from me. It’s not like I got everything on CD and then had to start buying it again on vinyl.”
More on Classic Album Sundays at: classicalbumsundays.com
Colleen’s golden anniversary picks – records turning 50 in 2017
Love – ‘Forever Changes’
Jimi Hendrix – ‘Axis: Bold as Love’
Moody Blues – ‘Days of Future Passed’
The Velvet Underground – ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’
The Beatles – ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’
Pink Floyd – ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’
The Doors – ‘The Doors’
Captain Beefheart – ‘Safe as Milk’
13th Floor Elevators – ‘Easter Everywhere’
The Red Crayola – ‘Parable of Arable Land’