Once upon a time, music came on black vinyl discs 12 inches across (okay, there were other sizes and other colors of vinyl, but stay with me here – I’m writing for atmosphere). This vinyl was fragile, more fragile than CD’s, and the very act of playing them wore them out because they had grooves that this thing called a needle rode in, and the tip of this needle was a diamond, the hardest substance known to man, so of course it was going to degrade the sound as it went. The needle picked up the movement of these grooves and sent them into an amplifier which made bigger vibrations on a speaker, and that produced something we heard as music.
And in spite of all it’s disadvantages, I miss it. I really do miss vinyl.
Not that I’m a vinyl snob, one of those folks who insist that there’s something missing from digital recording because it’s not a continuous thing, it’s series of samples – never mind that there are so many samples a second that our ears supposedly can’t tell the difference. I’ve never A/B’ed vinyl against a CD of the same recording through the same stereo, so I can’t give an opinion. No, there’s something else about vinyl I miss.
First off, I’m missing a lot of music because it never made it to CD. Just a couple of days ago I was ready to spend $130 – $150 on either a USB turntable which would let me plug into my iBook and rip some of my old vinyl, or else on equipment that would let me retrofit my old turntable with a new stylus (needle) and a black box that would let me do the same thing – the cost of doing either was about the same.
And I wanted to make this big investment because of… one album. That’s right. I haven’t heard fenetiks, an album by Jules and the Polar Bears in decades. It was one of my favorite albums when it came out, and it’s on my list of fifteen favorite albums. Lucky for me, I suppose, is that I discovered that fenetiks was on a lot of other people’s lists as well, because a company named Wounded Bird Records had the good taste to reissue it on CD along with some rare bonus tracks from the same period.
So I saved a ton of money, but the bad news is that fenetiks got me to thinking about what other great music I was missing from my still-consuming-space vinyl collection. A quick tour of my old vinyl rendered In The World by a pre-Saturday Night Live G.E. Smith; the Twisting by the Pool EP by Dire Straits; the Beat Surrender EP by The Jam; the three lives sides of Al Stewart Live/Indian Summer (available as Live at the Roxy, but that’s not the point), also Stewart’s Russians and Americans (rare on U.S. vinyl, rarer as a CD); You Won’t See Me the posthumous album by Triumvirat’s Helmut Koellen; Joe Jackson’s rare un-used soundtrack for Mike’s Murder; Strange Man Changed Man and Funland by Bram Tchaikovsky; I Advance Masked and Bewitched by Robert Fripp and Andy Summers (the former available on an out-of-print CD, but I’m not paying inflated collector’s prices for it) and Fripp’s collaboration with David Byrne God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners; Nash the Slash’s authorized bootleg Hammersmith Holocaust; North Star by Phillip Glass; Sound On Sound by Bill Nelson’s Red Noise (also an overpriced collector’s CD); Chaz Jankel and Questionnaire by Chaz Jankel; Stick Figure Neighborhood, Talkback and Bridges Over Borders by Spoons; and Woody Allen’s The Night Club Years (which features material cut from a later compilation).
This is not to mention old vinyl that has original mixes of material that’s not available on CD (the original pressing of Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge; bits of The Original Sin by Cowboys International); albums I have for only a couple of songs (Lake and Lake II by -who else? – Lake; Steve Hackett’s Defector; Sides by Anthony Phillips); and 12-inch singles with unavailable alternate mixes (Icehouse’s I Can’t Help Myself and Soft Cell’s extended version of Torch).
There’s some musical nostalgia here, but most of this is music that I’d like to have available. But there is a certain nostalgia to vinyl, and maybe that’s why I’m feeling so sentimental about it. It really does represent an era that no longer exists.
See, it used to be when you bought an album, you were getting more than music. There was this whole experience of going to a record store and browsing for albums – looking at these big 12″ by 12″ that had beautiful, cool, or intriguing artwork. Some was ingenious – like the cover of Ambrosia’s Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled, which folded into a pyramid (supposedly so the listener could harness this new age energy source for him/er self), the enigmatic work turned out by the art house Hipgnosis for the likes of Pink Floyd and 10cc, or Roger Dean’s turnips-in-space visions for Yes.
Aside from the art itself, the covers also contained vital information that might appeal to your desire to buy. Try getting the list of instruments Mike Oldfield played on Tubular Bells on the back of a CD, along with the other art, the bar code, and all of the legalese stuff that goes on nowadays (okay, I bought that one for more than one reason – the cover was also intriguing, and the clerk in the record section of the department store where I spotted it said that her rack jobber said it was the best rock album he’d ever heard. I think the sticker on the outside connecting the music with The Exorcist pushed me over the edge, too… the accumulating circumstances were too irresistible). I used to be so into synthesizers, that I used to blindly buy records if the list of personnel listed a guy who played “synthesizers” (not keyboards – there was a difference). That was how I ended up with The Dream Weaver by Gary Wright, which, once you get past the obligatory title cut/single, is a pretty good album.
I also picked up, during the height of my Who fandom, a white album cover with a thin line drawing of an artist on it – Pinball by Brian Protheroe. I almost dismissed it as a Who ripoff, but turned it over. All the lyrics were printed on the back. I read the words to the title cut and was hooked. I bought the record and have followed Protheroe ever since.
I used to find music other ways. Until I got to Oklahoma City and found a good record store (the late, great Wilcox Records, where I would end up working in college), most of my buying was done blind, because Gillette, Wyoming didn’t have a record store and only a country AM radio station. So I started reading Creem and Circus and Rolling Stone, making sure my folks didn’t see them in the house (my Mom once saw the cover of Edgar Winters’ They Only Come Out At Night and asked me to get rid of it – I just hid it spine-in under “W”). I got into Jethro Tull because my record buying buddy and I were listening to Moontan by Golden Earring, which has great prog stuff on it once you get past Radar Love. One cut featured Barry Hay playing flute and my buddy said, “This is what Jethro Tull is supposed to sound like, because Ian Anderson plays the flute.” He couldn’t have been more wrong about the sound, but inside of a week or two, I had my first Tull album, A Passion Play, which I still listen to.
I would also following certain record labels or imprints – Stiff and Virgin, the monsters of our era, with great punk and new wave, and great prog rock, respectively.
You know what it was? It was mining for gold. It was such a wonderful, reckless era… buying up records, hoping to find some gold in all the sludge.
And there are some great moments associated with just the records themselves that have nothing to do with the music. The day my son decided to put one of his Disney records on my turntable – but first he took off one of my Pat Metheny records – with fingers covered with peanut butter. The time in the dorm I decided, for some odd reason, to convince two of my friends that I was drunk. And I couldn’t do it until I took an album off the turntable and put my fingers on the vinyl. Vinyl was even responsible for my first date (of sorts) with the girl I would end up marrying. I was making a student film for a class, and my copy of the album I was to use for background music, Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre, was accidentally destroyed. In a rush to the record store, I ran into a girl I knew and on impulse asked her if she wanted to come along for the ride. For reasons she can’t explain, she said yes… and so it began.
I don’t know how this little obsession is going to end. I suspect I’ll eventually get the electrical plumbing I need to rip my vinyl, but I miss that whole experience of shopping for music. That’s not something you can do now unless you browse the halls of CD Baby (where I discovered the genius of Jim Bauer) – and there’s still no 12″ by 12″ artwork to go with.
Sometimes, compact isn’t better.
I once told Scoob, one of my die-hard music friends from college, that I had a plan for our retirement. What we need to do, I said, is find a city where we both want to live (he prefers state capitals) and both move there and start up a used and new vinyl store. No CD’s, no mp3’s, no bubblechips, or whatever the technology is when we reach retirement age. Vinyl. Just vinyl. And because this store would be the endeavor of our twilight years, I had the perfect name for the store…
I don’t know. Maybe I’m not so much still in love with vinyl as that I’m enamored of what it stood for in my past. In which case, I don’t think I’m living in the past. Not at all.
I just want to be able to listen to it.
They don’t want to see you dancing
Got their feet nailed to the floor
They say we’re moving somewhere new
But we’ve been there before
(via iTunes shuffle play)