45 Revolutions – Mario Panciera
Discussing musical encyclopaedias recently reminded me of what is probably the ultimate reference work I have ever encountered; Mario Panciera’s completely mind-boggling 45 Revolutions. I wrote something suitably pompous about it a while ago but never did anything with it. So here’s an updated review.
Synonymous with the great works of Titian and the Renaissance, alongside some of the world’s most exquisite architecture, Venice is now home to a modern wonder of publishing. Titian was known among his peers as ‘the sun amidst small stars’, a derivation of Dante that could be readily applied to the somewhat more obscure constellation inhabited by the author of 45 Revolutions. Mario Panciera’s book features a depth of research and labour that, in its own way, evokes comparison to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
It is one man’s obsessive quest for perfection. Panciera has spent 20 years compiling his catalogue of the UK’s often vulgar but ultimately resplendent DIY, punk and independent singles. It is an exercise in indefatigable enthusiasm, and quasi-religious in scope. Yet the subjects of his canvas are Sid Sideboard & The Chairs and The Fred Banana Combo, alongside the completely esoteric (Ford Workers On Strike’s protest single, the Fruit Eating Bears and their doomed attempt to conquer Eurovision with a punk record). There are even a few records you may have heard of.
It is a devotional enterprise rendered in exquisite detail. Can such a volume possibly stand comparison with ‘the masters’? The tenets and homilies of Christianity likely have far broader appeal than, for example, the 20 different picture sleeves that accompanied the release of the Twilight Zoners EP. That didn’t stop Panciera meticulously collecting each variation and having them individually photographed. Perhaps a better comparison might be made with legendary trainspotter Ian Allan’s ABC manuals, or Stanley Gibbons, although the latter’s first stamp collecting catalogue had its share of errors and inconsistencies. Panciera would have despaired at any such lack of monastic diligence.
The project has taken on a mythical status among record collectors. Panciera missed his original deadline by the small factor of eight years. Many speculated that this Holy Grail would never be completed to the author’s satisfaction. But it is, and despite costing a hefty 85 Euros, the first print run was completely gobbled up, prior to any reviews or promotion, simply on the strength of word of mouth.
Genuinely charming in person, Panciera bridles at the thought that others would submit to the pressures of fiscal prudence and pragmatism, and selfishly thrust on the world something that isn’t perfect. Consequently the production values of the book – in terms of paper, cut, binding and cover – evoke the gravitas of a Gutenburg Bible. Some bare facts: it’s 1,200 pages long, and includes over 7,000 photographs, the majority in colour. Over 3,000 singles by more than 2,000 artists are documented, each accompanied by a reproduction of its sleeve or label, alongside exhaustive biographical notes and a survey of contemporaneous reviews.
Panciera has afforded his subject the reverence the great painters might grant Biblical allegory. The stories are legion. Did he really employ scientists to carbon date a disputed release to establish its authenticity? Yes, even though the matter at hand was a single by critically-disregarded Manchester punk band the Drones, which is hardly the Turin Shroud. On another occasion he re-set the entire book days before publication, after the discovery of a slight variation in a John Foxx single came to light.
This is arguably madness, or a remarkably unyielding expression of obsession. Panciera is actually a successful composer of contemporary classical repertoire, albeit under a guarded identity. Beyond 1979, when the book’s brief closes, he rarely troubled himself with popular music at all, electing instead to complete and curate his record collection, on which the book is based. Sit him behind a piano, and he can explain nuances of tonal shift and the intricacies of modern musical theory. Yet he has dedicated the majority of his adult life to documenting vinyl records produced, in the main, on a budget that wouldn’t buy a round in the 100 Club, by teenagers for whom more than three chords was deemed heretical profligacy. But then if you’re Mario Panciera, the devil may be in the detail, but you can also find God there too.
45 Revolutions has been re-pressed and is available here