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Boards of Canada are so obviously the most important band to ever come out of Scotland. The account that Scottish music usually gives of itself is of being fey and cheerful and rather minor in its soul and of passively complementing whatever is happening in the mainstream. Think of Orange Juice and Belle and Sebastian and Franz Ferdinand. The entire history of Scottish music might be told in the single name Orange Juice, in fact, in that it denotes something that is wholesome but without any real power within it (i.e. any alcohol) with which to break through into seriousness. I wrote about this passivity a few years ago when reviewing Rip It Up, an exhibition about Scottish music at the National Museum of Scotland:

I am not sure that Scottish pop is capable of producing a Nirvana or a Radiohead or the soaring solemnity that usually fills the world’s football stadiums. If Nina Simone was Scottish, she could have made “My Baby Just Cares For Me” but she couldn’t have made “Sinnerman.” If the Pixies were Scottish, they could have made “Here Comes Your Man” but not “River Euphrates.” Nevertheless the frivolity of the periphery is not bad as a consolation.

The best joke in this review is actually decoupled from it and blowing around freely in the background. When I was writing these words I was playing “Happy Cycling” by Boards of Canada in the bar where I work, without realising that these musicians were Scottish. I had assumed that they were from Los Angeles or somewhere like that. What a raspberry in the face of Scottish music! BoC’s startling originality is perhaps the point where Scottish music finally rears its head as genius. Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin, the brothers who comprise BoC, had grown up in Moray and they are University of Edinburgh alumni.

I generally refrain from writing about music because I don’t believe that it is ever possible to explain its appeal objectively. Somebody whose preceding experience of music is limited mostly to listening to the Beatles will find BoC’s electronica to be apocalyptic. Somebody else who has spent the last ten years touring Berlin’s nightlife might find it less remarkable.

But this isn’t an article about music or even about BoC. It’s about YouTube. Dan Fingerman is a YouTuber who makes electronic music. This March he uploaded a video called, “Thrift store-found VHS tape with weird music on it (archived from a deleted channel).” It is the most popular video on his channel today with over 158,000 views. His second today has 617 views.

The video of cloud footage is only the doorway to “Thrift store-found VHS tape” and the music becomes a vast room behind it. This music is electronica in the style of early BoC with a couple of canonical BoC tracks – or else expert facsimiles of these tracks – twinkling within it. These two pieces, “Boqurant” and “Seeya Later,” are from a time when the brothers were releasing homemade music in small batches for friends and family, as though they were distilling moonshine. Two albums from this period possess the official status of “lost” whilst others are only “partially found.”

To say that “Thrift store-found VHS tape” is atmospheric is an understatement. Everything is atmosphere and there is nothing else that the music is really committed to. It is at once nostalgic and eerie, at once childishly simple and unnaturally wise. The visuals contribute their own bit to the nostalgia. A camcorder has been set up in what you somehow feel must be a back yard and it has been left running. Sun-drenched clouds pass overhead. Summer in a back yard, lying on some ticklish grass perhaps, and watching the clouds pass by is surely the capital city of nostalgia. And having this experience preserved on VHS and bought in a “thrift store” will make it an official souvenir from the capital city of nostalgia.

Fingerman describes the video thus:

I found this video on Youtube through a Discord server about Boards of Canada. The original uploader claimed to have found this video on a thrifted VHS tape. People went nuts over the fact this could be unreleased Boards of Canada tracks, but I doubt it … Turns out the original uploader deleted the entire channel (probably due to hate from people saying it’s fake)…

He has also captured the description that was provided by the original uploader. Here it is:

A few or more years ago I used to work at a local Red White & Blue Thrift center and the employees would always get first pick on any of the items that were dropped off. There was a box full of VHS tapes, some of which were horror movies. I grabbed four of the tapes. The tapes have remained on my shelf and never watched any of them until recently over the pandemic when the entire world was in lockdown. I went to go watch The Shining. I took the tape out of it’s [sic] box and noticed there was no label on the VHS tape. I popped it in and to my surprise this is what was on that tape…

The story that this tells is almost too perfect. If it is meant to explain how a long-lost BoC album could have resurfaced on YouTube, its details already sound too innocuous to be plausible or tasteful.

The album had needed to travel from some mythical VHS tape and onto YouTube. Well, here we have a person who still actively watches videotapes but without being so old-fogyish that they cannot convert the tapes into digital form. The album had needed to be appreciated sufficiently for it to be shared online but without its value being recognised to the extent that it could be sold for a king’s ransom on EBay. Well, here we have a person who freely demonstrates that they are too crass to have ever understood what they were handling: “I figured, some jack-ass decided to over dub cheesy music over some boring video footage of clouds.”

Nonetheless this person could still draw upon some mysterious custodial instinct to shepherd the video online. Our self-proclaimed blockhead was about “to throw the tape away” but then luckily they found it “interesting” enough to deliver up to us, the YouTube community who will ascertain its true value.

A great deal of suspicion had descended upon the original uploader, until he had begun to appear beleaguered and hapless. The thrift store has been identified as being a real place, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. winterbird, a commenter who had also encountered the original channel, gives us what might be a corroborating glimpse of the uploader’s world:

There was a video on his channel that was posted after this one. It was basically him driving around explaining that he is not a musician, and also showed the location of the thrift store he got it from. He even went in to his closet and showed ‘The Shining‘ VHS sleeve with the blank tape inside of it.

One can imagine a clever musician hatching an early BoC album, as a pastiche or a whimsical hoax, and then trying to see how far they could push it. One factor that would allow them to push it a long way is the heavenly aloofness of the BoC brothers themselves, who seldom communicate with the public and never directly. 

Yet if “Thrift store-found VHS tape” is a hoax, its superb quality somehow does not quite square with the fluffing of its uploading and the ostensibly guilty behaviour afterwards (when the entire channel was deleted). Considerable confusion today reigns over whether the potential hoaxer is merely a prankster and a timewaster, or so talented as to be to all practical respects a second BoC.

Some commenters are trying to flush a conventional Alternate Reality Game (ARG) out of the thrift-store narrative, one that might anticipate some future, surprise BoC release. According to The AL Music Experience, “a day ago a channel emerged with strange coding on it. when you decipher the coding in the first video, it decodes into a link to another video and in that other video is gps coordinates…” and so on. But since the original video was deleted and its rescue was entirely accidental, any ARG is so far rather a wallflower.

Down in the comments section of Fingerman’s upload, a community gathers and they together try to settle the video’s status. Between them these commenters never decisively establish who had created the tracks, what the tracks’ names are, when they were created, where they were created and how many copies of the album were ever in circulation. The comments section nonetheless expands into a glorious, meandering landscape of ideas and memories. Fingerman finds that his little corner of the internet is lately the venue for a kind of pop-up museum of donated nineties bric-a-brac. 

The album stands altogether free of capitalism, in that it was never sold by any record label or created by an identified professional musician. The peril that it incurs with this self-reliance is that it ends up floating unfixed within a broad spectrum, between the irrelevance of total amateurism and the possibility that it might hold extraordinary value. And I feel that how people respond to this album is determined largely by nostalgia or by their own memories of the nineties.

One theory might go like this. People of a certain age, for whom the nineties had seemed more mundane than previous decades, are more likely to be dismissive of the album. By contrast, people who were children or teenagers during the nineties are more likely to decide that the album is a masterpiece.

The nostalgia is always ripening across these comments and the hothouse aromas become ever headier and more intoxicating. BandolierBoy19 harks back to a time when “low quality picture/sound in videos was still a thing. Something about it is just so comforting to me.” Gerald Keaney disagrees on the very same point of nostalgia, in that “even in the 1990s it was common to put music on VHS as the sound format was actually really good.”

The less nostalgic commenters are reminded of juvenilia, of late-night college radio, of “my old roommate experimenting with his new electronic sound machine” or of “my weird art boyfriend from the early 2000’s.” Karl Sadler notes that, “I’ve got a few video tapes like this in my garage from when I was at art college and made little mix tapes to stick on at events before I played live.”

There is clearly an enormous gulf between these interpretations and the insistence that the album might be instead some canonical release from artists of global significance. On the latter front, nordsun, another electronic musician, has authored a comment that runs to over a thousand words (in contrast to the numerous one-liners that fondly dismiss the album as a student experiment). For nordsun, there are compelling grounds for welcoming a long-lost BoC release. He proposes that “it’s just really improbable that out there is an unknown talent that is able to create a vhs tape like this.” His technical arguments about “tonal character” eventually give way to a yawning emotional reality: “some tracks… are resonating deeply with my soul and triggering weird feelings in my subconscious which only Boards Of Canada is able to.”

Running alongside the idea of a recovered BoC artefact is a related fantasy about a more modest creator being out there somewhere. One day when this person remembers the video and they take it out of its box, they will find a tape of The Shining that they thought they had donated to charity. For a long time the tremendous gift of this videotape was languishing in a charity shop, like a haunted lamp in a bazaar from the One Thousand and One Nights. Now it is leading its fabulous new life online, with hundreds of thousands of people in on its secret and with the creator remaining beautifully oblivious to their newfound fame and success.

In yet another variation upon this fantasy, the original creator of the album continues to be an elite artist but it is just that they were always overlooked during the nineties. In an era before the freedoms of the internet, they had been exiled to some trivial commercial activity where their genius had languished hopelessly unappreciated. A Mozart of Muzak, if you will. Here a commenter called Dong is confident that he has solved the mystery once and for all, in a dramatic flourish:

I know what this tape is!  I used to have a copy of this exact one as a matter of fact!

These tapes were used to provide an audio/video “live background” on large, internal, cable broadcast systems like those used for resorts and hotel information channels.  These are the channels that all the TV’s in the hotel default to when they’re turned on. This tape would play continuously, while live information was displayed on the screen.  Back then (1990’s) the info would consist of simple text, images, logos, etc. and the info would be organized like a slide show with this type of video and audio playing behind it.  The slides would contain things like “Visit the resorts newest dining attraction, The Prime Steer Steakhouse” and the restaurants logo would appear, along with photos of steaks over an open flame…

With this we might begin to wonder once again whether we are participating in an ARG. Not an ARG in the limited sense of the term – with silly clues and codebreaking – but more in the general sense of it veering out in unexpected directions as an anarchic multiplayer narrative game. Certainly the more that you move around within the debate about the album’s origins, the more paranoid that you grow about each incoming piece of information.

Has nordsun’s expertise – or Dong’s insider knowledge – been just assumed really as a mischief-making tactic? The apparently nonsensical story about local restaurants being advertised in sync with this eerie electronica inspires obvious mistrust. The picture that Dong presents is dreamlike and deeply nostalgic, in evoking some now incomprehensible, bygone cultural practice. A comment, that is to say, that could be successfully set to BoC’s own music.

Moving on, Jeremy Landry reasons that the television might have been instead in a clothing store:

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this was a tape loop at some hip clothing store in the area, something that the owner created themselves to provide a ‘shopping experience’ for their customers. I remember going to stores now and then that would have televisions playing random stuff in the corners of the store… if they were into the local music scene, there could be local acts on it and that’s why it’s hard to ID the tracks.

The album might act as a unique ray of light that can pierce the murk of the nineties – the areas where this decade was too trivial to be practically documented – and reconnect us with these highly delicate, perishable experiences. Consulting with the philosopher Walter Benjamin yields a particularly lyrical approximation of this process, one that Benjamin had rooted out from the writings of the Surrealist Pierre Mabille:

The other part of the unconscious is made up of the mass of things learned in the course of the centuries and in the course of a life, things which were conscious once and which, by diffusion, have entered oblivion… Vast submarine fund, in which all cultures, all studies, all proceedings of mind and will, all social uprisings, all struggles are collected in a formless mire…

Contrariwise, the most shocking comments are those that try to explode the assumption that the video was ever at home in the nineties. Bruno Bailly wages that, “the music (excluding the vocal samples) doesn’t sound at all like something that could have been done before the mid-2000’s.” If he is right then all that we have left are the emotions and memories of the nostalgia and these are no longer reliably connected to anything. The dreaming judders to a stop and we know then that what is being signified by this music was all the time beyond recovery.