This afternoon I’ve been on a bit of a nostalgia trip. It’s Mothering Sunday, so I went to Mother’s for lunch. Afterwards, we spent an hour or so going through our old family photo albums (and I mean old!)
I haven’t seen some of those pictures for many years. There are photos of my parents’ wedding, and my grandparents holding Phil and me when we were very young, and the caravan we stayed in in Oxwich one year. There are a great many blank spaces in the albums, where the sticky corners must have worked loose and allowed the pictures to fall out. I must get a scanner sorted out, so I can back them up to my hard drive.
On the subject of backing things up digitally: Yesterday I copied a few CDs to my external hard drive – just in case someone borrows anything, and I get another sudden craving to listen to Kind of Blue at one in the morning. This afternoon, when I got home, I decided to listen to some of my old LPs.
I haven’t done that for ages. I think the last time I switched the turntable on was late one night about a year ago, when Matt H. and I listened to David Bedford’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. (Actually, we only listened to the first half, because it’s quite an intense piece.)
And it’s been an odd experience. Handling a physical artefact with two distinct sides, and a label, and an inner sleeve, and an outer sleeve, is quite different from placing a CD in the tray. True, you’ve got to be just as careful not to get fingermarks on the playing surface – but for a very different reason. This is analogue technology, pretty much unchanged for the best part of a century.
I had the turntable itself for my twenty-first birthday, as part of a combo with a CD player (separate). At the time, CDs were very new and innovative. In fact, for a while, hardly any companies were issuing CDs. It was pretty much Dire Straits or nothing. I remember the latest technology being showcased on breakfast TV, with PR people claiming that you could smear them with jam and they’d still be perfectly playable. As things turned out, you just needed to fart in the general direction of the stereo and the bloody thing would skip.
Fortunately, by my birthday the Beatles’ backlist had been issued on CD, so I had a copy of With the Beatles as part of the package. Immediately I was blown away by the clarity and quality of the reproduction. That was an analogue recording, rendered digitally.
Modern studio technology allows the entire recording process to be digital from start to finish. Listening to Pink Floyd’s final studio LP The Division Bell enables one to see just how far we’ve come. Now, of course, the CD itself is more or less redundant, as mp3 downloads become the order of the day. I wonder how many of the students I know (except those who go to dance parties, where vinyl has made a surprising recovery) appreciate the lightning pace of this technological revolution. But there were some nice features about vinyl which escapes people’s notice these days. Let’s have a quick look at some of them.
Vinyl had an extraordinary lifespan. It used to hang around for ages. Long after the original release date, you’d be able to come across singles and LPs kicking around in bargain bins, on market stalls, in charity shops, and at that twentieth century institution, the record fair. It’s not the same when someone’s got an LP you fancy, and they just burn a copy for you.
Vinyl was subject to market forces in a way that books never were. Books were sale or return, for the most part. Records were firm sale. Once it was on the shelf, it sat there until someone bought it – whether at full price, or when it had been marked down to within an inch of its profit margin. Some stuff knocked around for years. Considering how volatile the market (especially for singles) used to be, buying in new stock for record shops must have been either a fine art or a fool’s game. I’m not sure which.
Vinyl was plentiful. Usually, the minimum pressing for a single was one thousand copies. Bands like my friend Mike O’Sullivan’s old popular beat combo City Giants (who released a self-financed single in the late 1980s) found themselves inundated with the bloody things, trying desperately to convince their local independent retailers to take some off their hands. (Yes, there were still independent local retailers in those days.)
I’ve still got about half a dozen copies of the City Giants single somewhere in the house. I tried selling them to a couple of likely punters at the Polytechnic of Wales, but by then the rave scene was starting. Not for the first time, ‘Guitar bands were on the way out.’ I might give it a spin later, just for old time’s sake.
Vinyl was rare. Now, this might seem to contradict what I’ve just written, but I’ll explain. If you try and imagine the Top 40 singles and the bestselling LPs as the outer limits of most record buyers’ universe, you’ll see why places like the old Virgin Megastore in Cardiff (more or less next to Forbidden Planet), and of course the legendary Spillers Records, were such vital places for Valleys music fans. They were the places where the small labels had their openings into the market.
You’d never have found Metallica’s debut LP Kill ‘Em All in your local Woolworths in the early 1980s. Phil bought his copy in Virgin, along with Fistful of Metal by Anthrax. (He ended up lending them to friends of mine in school – guys four years older than him. That gave him serious kudos amongst the rock crowd, I can tell you.) I bought LPs by Einstürzende Neubauten and SPK the same day. Not even Touch of Gold, at the top end of Aberdare near Caradog’s statue, would have attempted to shift these oddities!
Vinyl was elusive, for the same reason. This was why the bus trip to Cardiff, every three months or so, was such a vital part of my musical journey. It was very much like birdwatching. There was no guarantee you’d spot what what you were after, but you took the chance all the same. And occasionally, just like a birdwatcher, you’d stumble upon an unexpected gem.
This happened to me when we went to Stratford-upon-Avon, many years ago. I was browsing in Our Price when I chanced upon The Tower by the Legendary Pink Dots (see Just a Quick One). I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but it suited me to a T. Similarly I found their LP Brighter Now on a visit to Gloucester. Frequent visits to Rough Trade in Ladbroke Grove provided me with the picture disc of A Pagan Day by Psychic TV, and a signed copy of Horse Rotorvator by Coil, who’d called into the shop a few days earlier.
In Rough Trade I also picked up goodies by the Fall, Current 93 and the Very Things, as well as a number of singles on the Crass label, still marked up at their original ‘Pay no more than …’ price. And it didn’t stop there. I once found a single by Honey Bane in a box outside a junk shop in a back lane in Gloucester. The guy only wanted 25p for it. Job done. It made these journeys across the country worthwhile.
Above all, vinyl was beautiful. Artists and designers could do great things with the sleeves. Peter Blake’s iconic sleeve for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was even re-enacted on the back cover of one edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell by Bruce Alberts et al. The same team of authors also re-enacted the sleeves of With the Beatles and Abbey Road on other editions of the same book (see Adventures in the Book Trade (Part 9)).
In the 1970s, Roxy Music, Pink Floyd and Yes elevated LP sleeves into works of art in their own right. Roxy Music, in particular, were as creative visually as they were musically, as the cover of their eponymous debut LP shows:
Bryan Ferry, asked about their plans for the second LP, told one journalist:
The cover would be Kari-Ann one year older, and trying to adopt the same pose. Each year we’d do the same numbers, and the lines would start appearing on her face … (Quoted in Lazell, B. and Rees, D. (1982) Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. London: Proteus Books).
In the event, of course, they settled for this moody, seductive, almost monochrome image of Amanda Lear and the panther. Art-rock indeed!
In December 1984, on the way to a Lou Reed gig, I took my friend Darren B. to an inconspicuous cul-de-sac near Soho – Heddon Street – the very street where the sleeve of David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was photographed. The phone box was different, but the sign for K. West Furriers was still there. It’s difficult to believe that these fantastic images were captured just off Regent Street, in the very heart of the West End.
Post-punk, things got extremely creative. Public Image Ltd released Metal Box in – well, a metal box. Crass Records used their record sleeves to disseminate information on nuclear disarmament, feminism, animal rights, and ideas for setting up community centres, amongst other things. Factory Records used to do some very bizarre designs: sandpaper sleeves (The Return of the Durutti Column by Durutti Column); rubber sleeves (which might have been a record by A Certain Ratio); cut-out sleeves (various singles by New Order and others); and even something resembling a hardback book (Still by Joy Division) – which suited their peculiar business ethic.
It was about this time that vinyl went technicolor. I’ve got records on gold, green, blue and red vinyl. Sometimes, the record replaced the sleeve image altogether, a so-called ‘picture disc’. I’ve got a number of these curiosities, but I’m particularly fond of this one:
Records could even be manufactured in unusual shapes, like this weirdly shaped release of ‘Fetish’ by Vicious Pink. Obviously, the playing surface still had to be circular, but outside that perimeter, anything went.
Possibly the zenith (or maybe the nadir, depending on your point of view) was this odd artefact from the late 1970s: a hardback book, lavishly illustrated, and packaged together with a double LP:
When the musician and songwriter Andy Tillison (then of Gold, Frankincense and Disk Drive) visited me in 1990, he spotted my copy on the shelf. He admitted to having the same LP, and ribbed me mercilessly. However, the idea must have had an impact, since his current band The Tangent recently released a CD/book package (see Our Friends in the North).
Employed sensibly, the vinyl creation was a total experience. The pictures would be at least 7″ (17.5 cm) square, sometimes 10″ (25 cm) square, and (best of all) 12″ (30 cm) square. This gave the designers an ample canvas on which to work their magic. You’d sit on the bus and study the sleeve in minute detail. Then you’d get home, place your new acquisition on the turntable, lower the needle, and sit back to read the lyrics while the music swelled around you, complete with snaps and crackles every so often. Then you’d gently remove it from the turntable, flip it over and go through the whole process again. Finally, you’d replace it gently in its inner sleeve, place that into the outer sleeve (with the slots at right-angles to keep the dust out) and file it carefully with the rest of your collection.
Finally, vinyl was disposable. This is probably the saddest aspect of the whole scene. I’ve lost count of the number of people in the past five years or so who’ve said, ‘You can find anything online these days.’ It’s not true. In spite of the CD revolution, the growth of file-sharing, and the market dominance of iTunes, it’s simply not true.
When the Cambrian in Aberdare first had its internet jukebox, it claimed to have ‘Over 2 million songs’. All well and good, but Nick B. asked me one day if he’d just imagined a song. It was ‘Since Yesterday’ by Strawberry Switchblade, a number 5 hit in November 1984. He hadn’t been able to find it. Over the next few weeks, he and I spent some time searching fruitlessly for songs that we knew perfectly well existed, but were beyond the reach of the new technology.
Similarly, the jukebox in the Prince of Wales in Aberdare boasts ‘Every Top 40 hit since 1952.’ Up the road, Elliot’s has a different jukebox which makes the same claim. Neither of them have ‘Shifting Whispering Sands (Parts 1 & 2)’ by Eamonn Andrews with Ron Goodwin and his Orchestra and Chorus. I know – I’ve checked. I didn’t particularly want to listen to this long-lost No 10 UK chart hit from January 1956; I just needed to prove the marketing people wrong. That’s the kind of guy I am.
If you fancy a similar challenge, here it is. I’m holding a copy of ZigZag magazine from November 1985. (Actually it’s on my lap, but you know what I mean …) Next time you’re in a pub with an Internet jukebox, or playing with file-sharing software, or even browsing on YouTube, see how many of these songs you can find:
THE PLAYN JAYN ‘I Love You Like I Love Myself’ (ABC)
BLYTH POWER ‘My Lady’s Games’ (All The Madmen)
IN EMBRACE ‘This Brilliant Evening’ (Cherry Red)
THE NIRVANA DEVILS ‘Secret Agent Girl’ (Exile)
THE LEGENDARY GOLDEN VAMPIRES ‘Gone For Good’ (Exile)
ROBERT WYATT ‘The AGE of SELF’ (Rough Trade)
LATIN QUARTER ‘No Rope Long Enough’ (Rockin’ Horse/Arista)
JUST A DRUMMER ‘Saturation’ (Correct)
Y CYRFF‘Ar Goll’ (Recordiau Anhrefn)
JAZZ BUTCHER ‘The Human Jungle’ (Glass)
THE INCA BABIES ‘Surfin’ in Locustland’ (Black Lagoon)
Those were the featured single releases in that month’s edition alone. And if you think I’ve made these up, I haven’t. I saw Jazz Butcher supporting the Fall in March 1985, at Hammersmith Town Hall. There are photos of him (them?) in Zigzagging Down Memory Lane, just to prove the point. I also have a number of Blyth Power records, but sadly not that particular release. (I’ve got the song, though, on a 12″ single.) The Wyatt song is probably on the recent compilation, His Greatest Misses. As for the others – go find! Let me know how you get on …
Some years ago, my good friend Paul Richards was working as a publisher’s rep. He and the rest of the sales team were in London, and had gone for a meal with some colleagues. One of the party was a girl who had recently graduated from university and was working in their head office. Over drinks afterwards, the conversation turned to the subject of music.
Paul said, ‘I always thought side two of Dark Side of the Moon was better than side one.’
The young girl looked at him blankly. ‘What do you mean?” she asked. ‘They’ve only got one side.’
And now, of course, you can’t even say that about an LP. They’ve reached the stage where they’ve ceased to have any physical reality whatsoever. Of course the shops are still full of CDs, but the sales figures suggest that they’re heading the way vinyl went in the 1990s.
A few years ago, a friend of mine set a quiz in the Cambrian, where the picture round consisted of LP covers. Obviously there are some classic covers (like the Beatles and Bowie sleeves I mentioned earlier). However, if (like me) you haven’t been into a record shop for a number of years, no longer read the music papers, and can’t be bothered trying to sync the album artwork within iTunes, the recent releases may as well come in the plain bags which singles used to come in back in the 1960s.
The major problem, as I hinted in Pick’n'(Re)Mix, is that you no longer get the experience of listening to a whole LP from start to finish, as the musicians themselves intended it to be heard. I admit that sometimes I’ve questioned the running order on an LP. I accidentally played side two of Not Born Beautiful by Shock Headed Peters the first time I listened to it, and I still think I subconsciously made the right decision. Opening with ‘Parabola’ and finishing with ‘Bad Samaritans’ is the perfect way for the music to flow. It doesn’t seem to work the other way round.
But you can’t even contemplate breaking the flow of Sgt Pepper or Dark Side of the Moon. Just the fact that nowadays you don’t have to get up to flip the disc over half way through somehow detracts from the intended experience.
My CD player gave up the ghost in about 1996, only ten years or so after I had it for my birthday. I bought a new one, but I’ve hardly used it, to be perfectly honest. By contrast, my turntable (which has been flogged for nearly a quarter of a century) is still going strong. Even if the needle does need replacing, I daresay a search online would provide a replacement within a short space of time. In the meantime, I’ve still got my vinyl collection dating back over thirty years. Actually, it’s nearer forty years, if you count the Led Zeppelin, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Roxy Music, Free and Savoy Brown LPs which my cousin Christine passed on to me.
Most of it probably isn’t replaceable by any digital means, unless I buy one of those USB turntables you see in the papers and digitise everything myself. But almost nothing is as pleasing to the ear as the soft crunch of the needle into the run-in groove, and the few seconds of silence before the first track gets going.
And just remember, kids – you can’t roll a joint on a download.