Clarkson on: gadgets
Let me talk you through the gadgetry on my desk. There’s a laptop on which you can play CDs, receive all sorts of radio stations you’ve never heard of and steal music from the internet.
Then there’s a CD player, should none of the Canadian west coast FM transmitters be playing what I want to hear at a particular moment. And there’s a television which can play music with pictures or gospel chanting or hymns or any combination of musical notation not covered by the interweb.
In my sitting room I have much the same sort of arrangement, plus there’s a record player which can play all my favourite songs, but with a selection of crackles and hisses that men with terrible pullovers and halitosis will tell you is “authentic” and “real”.
In the car, I have a CD autochanger, a cassette player and a
radio, and for those moments when
I’m between my front door and the door of the car, I have a portable radio and CD Walkman.
So, really, it’s impossible to conceive any situation anywhere in the world where I cannot avail myself of The Doobie Brothers. I even have Long Train Running as a ring tone on my phone, except when someone sends me a text: then it’s China Grove.
This is not unusual. I think that all but the very poor have a similarly limitless access to music these days; so why, you may be wondering, it is so essential that we must all have an iPod now?
When it first emerged into the world, I was pretty dismissive of the whole concept. “I’m sorry,” I’d tell younger people, “but a bit of sand organising a bunch of ones and noughts can in no way be worth £200.” Especially as I already own all the songs I like. And I don’t have time to read yet another instruction book.
I was told, of course, that an iPod can store half a billion tunes, but again I scoffed. Why in heaven’s name would I need a device which has the capacity to store half a billion songs when The Doobie Brothers have produced only 68?
The thing is, though, it’s a cool-looking gadget. So now an iPod has come to my world, and eaten into my life like a... actually, I don’t have the time to think of a metaphor because I want to get this column finished; then I can get back to my downloading.
It’s a time-consuming business because the choice of songs available on the iTunes website is immense. Have you ever heard of a band called 7 Year Bitch? No? Well, what about A Minor Forest or the Pernice Brothers, or Tokyo Sex Destruction?
You have to wade through an electronic swamp of recordings of teenagers banging bits of garden furniture together to get to the jewels. But they’re there. The Babys. Steely Dan. And even Wichita Lineman from the very dead Glen Campbell.
There are so many nuggets, in fact, that I’m running amok, which – when you consider that each song costs 79p – is a frighteningly expensive way of passing the time.
“Why have a device with the capacity to store half a billion songs when The Doobie Brothers only made 68?”
And, to make matters worse, I keep finding the tune I want, and then discovering – after my credit card’s been nibbled by Mr Apple – that I’ve ended up with some obscure live version, which is crap.
In the Top Gear office, this is causing much amusement since they are all convinced I’m a technological luddite, and that every time I try to send an email, somewhere in the world a plane crashes. This is true. I’m useless with email, because I’m not interested. Whenever I have more than four messages in my inbox, I just delete the lot.
But the iPod is different, because I am interested. So interested, in fact, that I’ve started buying all the accessories. The glass sound sticks for the sitting room and a base station for the kitchen. I’ve also begun burning CDs and transferring songs onto my telephone. And I’ve even started a complete redesign on the interior of my soon-to-be-delivered Ford.
You see, it’s no good just having a radio, because radio stations have a nasty habit of playing songs I don’t like, and a CD player is similarly outdated because, with the exception of Hunky Dory, Pretzel Logic, Who’s Next and Dark Side of the Moon, all albums feature at least one track which is fairly poor.
That’s what the iPod eradicates – even the slightest possibility that you might encounter a moment of unpleasantness over which you have no control. Now, because I put the songs in it, I am in charge. And no-one need know what those songs are.
This is fantastic. Sitting there, with two white wires coming out of my ears and everyone thinking I must be listening to 7 Year Bitch. When, in fact, I’ve got dead Glen warbling away in my head. And in a minute, he’ll be replaced with The Moody Blues.
But Ford didn’t think about that with the GT. They were so busy with the styling and the supercharger, and what ratio should be fitted to the steering rack, they forgot about what is now the most important part of a car – its ability to mate with an iPod.
I’m aware, of course, that you can buy a cradle which broadcasts your personal music library on the FM frequency for a range of about 30 yards. So you can listen to Tokyo Sex Destruction, with only mild interference from 7-Up Cabs.
I’m also aware that, thanks to Mr Blair, we now live in a police state – just this month, and I’m not joking, I was stopped for driving while smoking – so obviously we can’t have personal radio transmitters.
They are therefore illegal – just like they were in Soviet Russia – so somehow I have to wire my iPod into the stereo which, it turns out, is a bit like trying to wire a toaster into a lemon meringue pie.
How can this be? How can we have reached a stage where even I know how to download songs from the interweb, and yet the world’s car makers cannot supply some kind of cradle into which the future of music can be slotted?
I rang BMW, which claims its cars are iPod compatible. But a spokesman said he didn’t have a clue how the two technologies are physically mated. Someone at Toyota thought the new Aygo might have some kind of docking port, since “iPods are for young people”. I see. Well, on that basis, why don’t Lexuses have wax cylinders? And to finish, a man at Mercedes said that from next year all Mercs will be able to talk to iPods.
Next year? What good’s that? In the immortal words of Robert Cuprinol Silk; “Why not tomorrow?”
I thought, as I made the calls, that the car industry is a bit like HG Wells and all the other early 20th century science fiction writers. They believed the future was mechanical engineering. They were wrong.
So now I’m talking to Alpine, the hi-fi people who are busy studying photographs of the GT’s interior and working out how their modern equipment can be blended into the steamship technology of yesteryear.
There will be a way, they reckon. But until they find it, and until car makers adopt it as standard, I simply wouldn’t buy a new car. Because it’d be like buying a video recorder for today’s Sky+ world.
That’s not the worst part, though. The worst part is that when we all have iPods, Terry Wogan will cease to have a point. He will, I’m afraid, become a casualty of progress.
This article was first published in July 2005.