The Vinyl Countdown
By JOHN KRYK — Toronto Sun
I miss the album-listening experience. If you’re over age 30, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’re under 30, you probably think I’m from another ice age. Or another planet.
This month marks the quarter-century passing of the heyday of the 12 1/4-inch x 12 1/4-inch vinyl album — the ’70s. (Cue: Funeral For A Friend.)
For me, and I suspect for tens of thousands of Sun readers, spinning a new album on the turntable and gawking at all corners of its dazzling, shiny, pristine, cardboard cover (and, if you were lucky, the paper sleeve, too) were inseparable experiences. Listening and looking. Couldn’t do one without the other.
I understand and appreciate the advantages of compact discs: Better portability, better durability, no crackles and pops, and they take up less storage space.
But when I sit down to listen to a new CD, I get fidgety. I find it harder nowadays to concentrate on the music. I think it’s because in order to read something about the album, or scan the lyrics (if they aren’t redirecting me online to get them), I have to struggle to pull out (from the inside flap of the plastic, soon-to-crack-and-bust-at-the-hinges CD case) some 10-times-folded little accordion-like paper insert — which I can never seem to fold properly again. And I have to squint to read or scan anything on it, even though I am not far-sighted. So I look around and get distracted.
You’d think that selling music in big honkin’ packages would be in vogue today — to placate the more visually dependent plasma/PS2 generation. But no.
With few exceptions, I stopped buying new albums in the mid-1980s. It was my way of mourning the demise of such wonderful things in music as the acoustic guitar. It’s only now that I realize that the phasing out of the vinyl album itself played a large role in that decision, too.
Today’s young music buyers don’t know what they’re missing. Maybe this will help. Here are 12 1/4 things we miss about vinyl records:
1. THE SMELL AND feel of a new LP. Pristine. Not a scratch on it. And, if it came in a plastic sleeve, static cling galore. Priceless.
2. TWO SIDES TO every record. Wasn’t it cool the way Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Brain Salad Surgery LP faded out at the end of Side 1, then once you flipped it over and dropped the needle back on, Side 2 began with the same music fading right back in with “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends…”? Most bands in the ’60s and ’70s put a lot of thought into sequencing and double-grouping the songs on their albums. That art is long gone. Many bands began Side 2 with the second-best song on the album, but now it’s just a middle-of-the-pack song on CD. Makes you wonder how drastically songlists on old albums would have changed if there were only one side back then, as now.
3. FOLDING OUT A double-album cover and staring at it for hours on end as you listened to the record. It was like opening up a pizza box on your lap, without the grease stain. But, oh, what a sight to devour. Some double albums folded out twice, such as Woodstock. How many albums did we buy as much for the album cover as for the music? And who ever does that with CDs?
4. ALBUM-COVER gimmicks. There was no end to the creative things bands and labels did with album covers. Led Zeppelin spent a small fortune on theirs. Physical Graffiti had mini album covers for its two LPs instead of paper sleeves; and In Through The Out Door came in a sealed brown paper bag so you wouldn’t know which of the six versions of the bar-scene cover photo you got. The Stones even had a real working zipper sewed into their crotch-shot Sticky Fingers cover. Thank The Beatles for all that. Their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967) was not only the first album to have lyrics printed on the back, but the first with gimmicky extras such as colour photos or paper cutouts.
5. ATTEMPTING TO unravel the deep mysteries contained in the artwork or lyrics. What messages were the bands trying to secretly pass along? Was it code for something? Was Paul really dead? Half the time, I felt like I must have been the only one who wasn’t getting the point. Or the joke. Damn you, King Crimson!
6. THE ABILITY TO play a record backward. Try doing THAT on your CD player or iPod. If you couldn’t decipher hidden messages from the artwork, surely there had to be something else imbedded in the music. Sometimes you’d swear there was. All would be revealed if you spun the record counter-clockwise on your turntable — once you removed the elastic band from the around the drum, of course. The gibberish at the end of Glass Onion on The Beatles’ White Album does indeed sound like Lennon is mumbling, “Paul is dead, man — Miss him, Miss him, Miss him.”
7. THE RIDDLE wrapped in a mystery inside in an enigma: How do you properly clean dust off an album? Do you press the brush harder, or does that scratch it? A friend once suggested that the best way was to spin the album on a pencil in a sink of soapy, warm water. Tried it. Big mistake. Ruined my Rolling Stones Hot Rocks best-of double album. I never figured this one out.
8. ARTISTS STANDING up for their art. Before the ’80s, artists put as much thought into the artwork adorning their album covers as they do now on music videos. And they defended it vigorously, against critics and label bigwigs alike. The Stones delayed for almost five months the release of their 1968 killer album Beggars Banquet because their label, Decca, refused to release the album with the picture of a dirty old gas-station toilet on the front. Decca won that battle, issuing Beggars Banquet instead in all-white front and back, but the Stones won the war two years later, when they concluded the terms of their Decca contract by leaving the boss with one last single, the unreleasable C***sucker Blues.
9. RARE COLLECTIBLES. Rare versions and recalled pressings of LPs back in the ’60s created the very bootleg market we know and love today. Famous ones include the original cover of The Beatles’ Yesterday And Today album (1966), in which the Fab Four were adorned variously with chunks of raw butcher’s meat and baby-doll body parts. Yes, that was quickly recalled and replaced.
10. GOD BLESS THE guy who discovered that plastic milk crates — the ones in which you still find bagged milk at grocery stores — were perfectly sized holding containers for LPs. Getting the stores to, uh, part with them was the difficult part. Sorry, Sealtest.
11. FLIPPING THROUGH records at the music store. I used to love just flipping records from the front of the bin to the back, row after row. Who does that now with CDs? What’s more, when record stores made the transition from stocking vinyl to CDs, they somehow lost the ability to alphabetize them properly. It’s a simple concept. A before B, etc., but I find it a lot harder nowadays to locate my favourite music.
12. THE SOUND OF unspoiled vinyl. It beats CD, period. I am one of those people, such as Neil Young and Lenny Kravitz, who swears he can hear more warmth, more depth — more crispness — from a song pressed on vinyl compared to that on digital compact disc, even a specially remastered CD. When I’ve got the headphones on, I love being able to “locate” the various instruments: The organ is up there to the left, the electric guitar’s over there, the bass and drums are way down here, the piano is over there to the right, and the vocals pierce right through the middle. I find it harder to do that when listening to a CD. Everything sounds somehow muted and muddy (hello hello, U2). Maybe it’s just the way they produce and mix albums now. I’m pretty sure that’s why Kravitz always records his albums in old studios with vacuum-tube recording devices; he feels something sonically gets lost in the digital process.
1/4. SINGLES. DON’T forget that “45s” came in their own paper sleeves that sometimes were no less visually dazzling than the LP they came from.
The Vinyl Countdown