Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reprise: The Golden Age of Vinyl

Because it's the holidays, I'm having too much fun being lazy, and so once again I'm repeating a blog post. I will be retiring my other blog at the end of this month, so here's one of my popular posts from January. In case you haven't seen it, enjoy. If you've already read it, I'll have something new for you tomorrow.

I loved music on vinyl. I remember saving my allowance for that trip to the record store, buying that new release or that addition to my collection by a group or artist that I just couldn't live without. I remember getting that album home, tearing off the cellophane wrapper, pulling out the sleeve, opening up the cover (if it came in a book-like format). The smell of the new vinyl as you pulled it out of the sleeve, sometimes hearing the crackle of static electricity as the plastic and paper rubbed and made a mini charge. That static would get me charged as well.

In those days, I would make time for my new purchase. I would turn on the stereo, place the record on the turntable, and gently lower the needle on the edge of the spinning disk. I would have my headphones on: I always used headphones for the first play. I wanted to devote my full attention to the sound, undisturbed by other sounds from within the house. The last thing I wanted to hear was my mother, shouting: "Turn that music down. I can't hear myself think." The music, I thought, was all I wanted to think about. And with a new record, listening to the clean sound was important: you wanted to take in all nuances before the inevitable scratches would add that snap, crackle, and pop that isn't limited to Rice Krispies.

The music, though, was not the full experience. That jacket, the sleeve, the inside of the book, was part of it. Sometimes, albums came with posters or other surprises—Alice Cooper's Billion Dollar Babies and Led Zeppelin's In Through the Out Door come to mind. While my ears were treated to the sounds that came from my headphones, I perused every part of that cover, that sleeve. If the album came with lyrics, I'd follow along with each song. During instrumental interludes or between tracks, I would read about the members of the band, about the instruments that were being used, about where the album was recorded. I'd enjoy the artwork and photographs, getting to know the faces associatied with the sounds flooding my ears. If I had to listen to the album two or three times to read and examine everything, then so be it. That was part of the experience too.

By the time I was finished with the material that came with the record, I would know the songs well enough. I could play the record through the speakers and know the title of the song, who played which instruments, and would know some—if not all—of the lyrics. I could sing along. When the music wasn't playing, I might just sing around the house, feeling confident that I knew whatever song I chose to sing.

To say I loved my music was an understatement. That music became a part of me. It has probably shaped the person that I have become. I wore the grooves out on some of that vinyl. There are a couple of albums that I had to replace two or three times. And each time I did, I would bring the replacement disk home, slap on my headset, and listen to the clean sound all over again.

I miss that.

Music, today, is different. We now live in the digital age, and music, though still good, isn't quite the same. It's like you've been making coffee all your life by buying the whole beans, roasting them yourself, grinding them, and preparing them for your cup. And then one day, you switch to instant.

When CDs became popular, I reluctantly made the switch. And, at first, I only bought CDs of the vinyl albums that I already owned. To me, I was just updating the format to the music I already knew through and through. My first CD, it's no surprise, was the first vinyl album that I ever bought. I was eight when my stepfather took me to the local Sam the Record Man. He was buying some music for the house—most likely, the latest Cat Stevens album. When we entered the store, he sent me to the kids' section and told me to pick out something for myself.

"Oh, no," I said, "I'm too old for those baby records. I want a real, grown-up record." Amused, Greg told me to knock myself out. He probably figured that I would have no clue what I wanted and would give up. He might recommend something; at the time, his tastes turned toward the aforementioned Stevens, but also Neil Diamond and ABBA. Hell, I still listen to those performers today*.

I went to the front of the store, where the new releases stand displayed a wall of colourful covers. My eyes scanned them all, but one jumped out at me. An orange sky with strangely shaped rocks stretching to the horizon. And crawling across the rocks: girls. Naked girls. Not women, but girls, about my age; perhaps a little younger. There was no writing on the cover, so I had no clue as to who the artist or artists were or the name of the album. All I knew was that I wanted it.

It was Houses of the Holy, by Led Zeppelin: a classic rock album if ever there was one.

I didn't replace all of my vinyl with CD versions. Only the best ones, and only the best that I could actually find. And when I wanted to purchase new music, I didn't buy any more vinyl. I stuck to the compact disc. It was the sign of the times.

At first, I would treat the CD much the same way that I had handled vinyl. I would pop the disc into my player, put my headphones on, and read the miniature booklet that slipped out of the jewel case. Gone was the fresh smell of new vinyl. Gone was the crackle of static electricity. Gone were the added goodies—no more posters. But that was just the beginning.

Over the years, I have purchased hundreds of CDs. Thanks to iTunes and other online music centres, I have downloaded music. I even go to the library, check out a handfull of CDs at a time, and rip them onto my computer. Life has become busy with a home, wife, and kids, but even when I have free time, I don't spend that time getting to know the new music. I almost never read the booklet, if indeed there is one: some CDs come in a mini version of the vinyl jacket, without a booklet. I no longer keep the cases that hold a CD. I have a mega CD storage album, in which I store the lone CD, any accompanying booklet and the back paper if there's interesting artwork or a list of the songs. With the new sleeves, I cannibalize them, taking whatever I can and discarding the rest.

It's the instant coffee of music.

These days, I take my music in digital form, add it to my computer or to my iPod, and mix it with the rest. My music isn't pure anymore; it's blended. New songs will come up as random, individual tracks that are shuffled with the thousands—dare I say, tens of thousands?—of tracks in my digital collection. I have digitized music that sits, stored on an external hard drive, that I have never listened to. So sad. The only time that I will listen to a CD in its entirety is when I have the forethought to throw it on my portable boom-box or, even more rarely, take it with me in the van and listen to it as I drive (I prefer to listen to the CBC when I'm driving). But when I do either, I'm not focused on the content of the CD; instead, it's become background noise to whatever it is I'm doing. Like cleaning the house. Or trying to negotiate traffic.

At work, I listen to the music that I have downloaded onto my office laptop. It's a greatly abbreviated collection of old and new music. Shuffled randomly through iTunes and played through headphones, lest I have a co-worker shout: "Turn that music down. I can't hear myself think." I'm generally busy with my work, but on occasion, if I hear something with which I'm not overly familiar, or a classic tune, I'll stop, close my eyes, and enjoy the music.

And I'll lament over the loss of the golden age of music appreciation.

Great Albums That Deserve The Full Vinyl-Album Experience (in no particular order)
  • Houses of the Holy, by Led Zeppelin
  • peter gabriel (the first, second, and third releases), by Peter Gabriel
  • Close to the Edge, by Yes
  • First Base, by Babe Ruth
  • The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, by David Bowie
  • Vienna and Rage in Eden, by Ultravox
  • The Wall, by Pink Floyd
  • Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy, by The Who
  • Louder Than Bombs, by The Smiths
  • Life's Rich Pageant, by R.E.M.
  • The Colour of Spring, by Talk Talk
  • War, by U2
  • Crime of the Century, by Supertramp

* Even today, my iPhone contains songs by Cat Stevens, Neil Diamond, and ABBA. They will always be a part of my music makeup.

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