Saturday, 26 January 2013

Vinyl is Final

Besides listening to the radio in the back seat of the family car, my earliest memory of recorded music is the vinyl record. I remember tagging along when I was about six or seven with my dad when he went to visit his friend Ron. They hung out and listened to records and chatted about things. Wow... It's almost like they were real people! I would casually listen to the records they were playing, but never really approved. I came to realise that before you can discover your own music, first you have to suffer through what your parents are listening to.

My dad wasn't really much of an audiophile, but seeing as I was a kid in the 1970s, I distinctly remember dad having a very large and cumbersome brown wood-grain quadrophonic audio system featuring speakers that he had made himself. Of course, having a system like this meant you had to own music that could be appreciated on such a system, which unfortunately meant that my dad owned a lot of records that had very lofty ideas about their own importance by bands such as 'Yes' and 'The Allan Parson's Project.'

Yes 'Tales From Topographic Oceans' cover

As a Star Wars fan, I was in two minds about these records. I loved the fantastical sci-fi and fantasy imagery that appeared on a lot of Yes albums by artist Roger Dean that spread out in multiple gatefold sleeves, but the po-faced seriousness and pretentious virtuosity of the music itself mostly left me cold. There were musical exceptions, of course, that to me seemed to have the whole package. Pink Floyd had great artwork by Storm Thorgerson and their music had enough surrealism and Monty Python-esque English quirk to make them a little more accessible to my young ears. I also don't mind the Allan Parson's song 'Eye in The Sky'. He produced a lot of Pink Floyd albums and it would appear that some of their pop sensibility rubbed off on him (at least for this one song).

Pink Floyd 'Animals' cover

When I finally started buying music myself, I didn't really buy vinyl. By this time it was the 80s and the cassette tape seemed to be the way to go, with the Sony Walkman being the technical marvel of the day. Mix tapes and portability seemed more important than the ritual of sitting down and stroking your chin whilst contemplating intricate sonic tapestries. The only drawback with cassettes is they just don't last long and there's nothing more depressing than hearing the weird frequency modulation of a favourite cassette that has just been played too many times.

When the compact disc came along it solved this problem because the sound was a digital file and couldn't be altered from being played too much (unless you scratched the disc). Audiophiles lamented at the time that the sound quality was nowhere near as good as vinyl, but I couldn't really tell the difference. The square shape of the CD cover did, however, remind me of the once-great importance that album cover-art had as part of the overall package and how it had become emasculated by this new medium.

It was only when MP3s came on the scene that I really started to think about how I listen to music. Being the capitalist that I am, I felt kind of cheated by having to pay for music that just existed on my computer or iPod and I didn't feel like I physically 'owned' it. I think it might just be a psychological thing, but to me MP3s didn't sound as good. Once again, though, I'm no audiophile and all I can say is there seemed to be a 'vibe' missing.

One thing that I know is true is that a lot of modern recordings are over-compressed or 'brickwalled' so they sound louder on the radio. For this perceived payoff, the result is less dynamics in the music. This is why if you buy a vinyl recording of something like The Rolling Stones' 'Exile on Main Street' it's going to have a lot more dynamics than a version that has been remastered for CD or MP3. They didn't brickwall recordings in the 70s and vinyl recordings sound more like the artists originally intended - with more 'air.'

A lot of vinyl detractors will say they don't enjoy listening to vinyl records because of the surface noise and the pops and scratches detract from the listening experience. I disagree with this. I love the sound of surface noise because it feels like the record has been enjoyed. I would even go so far as to say I love how every time I play the Blondie album 'Eat to the Beat' it always skips during the song 'Union City Blue.' This song is my all-time favourite Blondie song and to me the fact that it skips during this song means the last person that owned this album also loved this song. Sure - it is annoying not to hear my favourite song all the way through - but at least it's an interesting loop!

The other great thing about vinyl is that now I can cheaply re-purchase vinyl versions of all those cassettes that I destroyed in the 1980s. These mostly consisted of artists such as Roxy Music, David Bowie and T-Rex, which are all readily available from second hand record stores throughout the western world. I can also purchase things on the cheap such as Dr Hook records and claim that I was being 'ironic', when, in fact, I would have happily paid full price for them! One of these days someone is going to cotton-on to how truly ground-breaking 'The Hook' were and re-issue their albums at full price, but until then it will be our little secret (*wink*).

Since getting back into the turntable it occurs to me that I've been trying to educate my daughter about what I consider good music by playing her things like Devo, David Bowie, Kraftwerk and Roxy Music. She's almost the same age now as I was when I first listened to music with dad and Ron. Maybe I should be playing her the same stuff that I was subjected to so she will end up having similar tastes to me... 

Maybe Yes weren't that bad after all... 

I wonder what dad and Ron are up to these days?...  

We should hang out!


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