Friday, October 08, 2010

The Vinyl Comeback

Slithers of plastic in
cardboard sleeves. Mmmm...
It’s not often that middle-aged bores welcome prevailing trends, and when we do they’re usually revivalist in nature. That’s why the comeback of vinyl is to me the perfect atavistic riposte to my daughters’ way of collecting music by pressing a single button on a computer. After years of watching my favourite record and second hand shops close down one by one, my tender heart is fortified by the sight of the expanding LP sections in the few worthwhile remaining DC area music outlets. These are heavyweight, artfully manufactured items of beauty to be handled like precious antiques. They’re way too dear as well, of course, but you pay for what you value, and they could be just what the surviving emporia need to remain in business.

And so I’m slowly ceasing to buy CDs and switching back to vinyl instead. You get the MP3 download coupon into the bargain, so if you’re really anal, you never have to actually play the LP, you just preserve it. But that’s not right. When records were prematurely written off two decades ago, we purists tediously cited the ritualistic joy of carefully removing the record from its sleeves before executing with immaculate precision the act of dropping the needle on to the opening grooves. Even those of us who’ve developed the shakes find that our hands become miraculously steady when faced with this hushed ceremonial moment.


A couple of days ago, while reading the excellent Document And Eyewitness: An Intimate History of Rough Trade by Neil Taylor, I fetched out an early RT release, The Fall’s magnificent Grotesque. I’ve played this LP dozens of times down the years, yet it bears not a single scratch or scuff mark. Most of the records I bought 20-30 years ago are the same. I had a strictly no-loans policy – if anyone wanted to tape them, they had to give me the cassette. I’d then record them on my Mum’s Grundig music centre, despite the electric fence and 10-yard no-entry zone around it, before she came home from work. But it was my Mum who had taught me so well how to respect records, so I knew there was never any danger of my discs damaging her expensive needle (she thought that any record not recorded with a full orchestra would somehow sully her German hi-fidelity set-up).

The picture above, take in my bedroom in Bearwood, Birmingham, in 1985, well reflects my fetishisation of vinyl, to the point where I’d scatter my collection out on to the carpet and lovingly picture it, as though it was lying there spreadeagled and waiting for me to fall upon it. I remember even at the time feeling aware that this was self-indulgent, but now I love to study this snapshot of what I was spinning as a 19-year-old. Twelve inch records are not just made for listening, but to be caressed and cared for as well. And for hording audiophiles of a certain generation, they’re our history too.

17 comments:

Gorilla Bananas said...

Yes, indeed. Those smooth discs must have felt great when you rubbed them on your adolescent chest. I didn't quite follow why records are making a comeback now?

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Because there's a market - nostalgic old farts like me. Ain't capitalism beautiful?

No Good Boyo said...

This is excellent news, and a lovely post. My parents surprised us recently by volunteering to visit. The real motive was to dump my entire vinyl collection on our groaning shelves, and what a treat it's been to re-acquaint myself with those early (pre-bollocks)Simple Minds 12"s. All I have to do now is get a turntable.

Anonymous said...

Hate to potentially ruin it for you, but most new vinyl is sourced from digital. So you're paying a premium for a vinyl version of the digital file, not an analog master. That's why newer records sound oddly like newer cds. Bass heavy, brick-walled sound intended to make earbuds sound better. It's tough being an audio enthusiast in the era of MP3, but most new vinyl really is just a way for record companies to squeeze the consumer.

There are exceptions, normally from the smaller labels but even they end up using one of the handful of remaining record manufacturers. It should be an indication that almost all new released vinyl is 180 gram or higher. It's the size of the easiest available blanks since nobody makes them thinner anymore. There aren't a lot of people left with the patience or knowledge to really work the lathe to cut the master, and the remaining pressing plants are like the remaining film developers.

And one other thing. Most record companies refuse returns on vinyl. That means any returns the record store gets they eat. Considering how often even new vinyl can have issues, it's a cost of doing business issue that means most stores not accepting returns. So that $20 slab that somehow managed to warp or was miscut to begin with might start looking a little frivolous when you're stuck with it, even for a fetishist.

Or - to put it another way - buying new vinyl might need to be included in your More Ways To Spend It.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Luckily I'm half deaf, and never could hear the difference between analog and digital. Too busy lubin' to the groove, dude.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it's your cash. I just think it's worth knowing that it's an ahem... business model that's basically the labels' last great money grab. They'd be running off cassettes if there was a hipster market to prop it up.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

Cassettes? Count me in. I still have two tape decks and 400 fine little plastic boxes filled with sonic candy. In fact when I was in Grimey's record shop in Nashville a couple of years back, there was a whole 'hipster' shelf of cassette-only releases by local bands.

Don't think those guys were in it for the cash-grab, though. And I don't think most of the labels bringing out the records I buy are in it for the cash either. Or are you going piss on my strawberries again by telling me that Thrill Jockey and Asthmatic Kitty have been bought up by Warner Brothers?

Dear, shy Anonymous, I do genuinely appreciate your concern about the way I spend my pocket money, and am thrilled to have been enlightened. But this was a piece appreciating records as artefacts, not a techie's scientific dissection of sound formats. Though I'm sure there's a site for that out there somewhere.

No Good Boyo said...

I've also got a cassettee thing. C86 was never released on CD in its original glorious form - where else can you hear The Age of Chance's "From Now On This Will Be Your God"?

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

I never thought C86 aged that well, but I have made a back-up copy of C81 in case it ever breaks. It was very much The Tape That Changed My Life.

Congratulations on getting your vinyl back, by the way. I still have a few hundred LPs stored in the wardrobe of a psychotic London cabbie. Every time I pop by he wearily unearths them and I pack up another couple of dozen to lug back home. You must educate the baby Boyos on how to operate a turntable.

Tim Bradford said...

Lovely post and a great photo. Oooh, look - I can see The Stranglers' 'Walk On By' EP at the back of your pile.

Mark Sanderson said...

Great pic, Ian. You're quite right about the no loan policy. I'm still waiting for my copy of Wowee Zowie by Pavement to be returned, after introducing a record swap club at an office job some years ago.

Nathan said...

Some of the points made by Mr. Anonymous are relevant, but the idea that vinyl is a "business model that's basically the labels' last great money grab" is preposterous and ahistorical. Vinyl never went away. It is essential to DJ culture and the major labels have never known their asses from third base when it came to making money from records. Allow me to go back to 1992, when Interscope decided to let Amphetamine Reptile release Helmet's Meantime on vinyl without having the faintest fucking clue that most of their hardcore fan base would buy vinyl. You think majors have become smarter since then?

And sound quality? Listen to Burial's Commix remix on lazer-etched 12" vinyl and compare it to an MP3.

No Good Boyo said...

Young Arianrhod and Bendigeidfran will be no strangers to the groove. Bendi already thumbs through the records thoughtfully, muttering "duck!" to himself.

Julian has your vinyl? He's like the Oskar Schindler of 80s indie.

Elina P said...

Hey Ian,
It's Elina- been trying to get in touch with, but all your mails just come back, plz send me a working e-mail address, hope you're doing all right, Germany is doing well and Dortmund even better...so I'm all happy!
Elina
feel free to delete this comment!

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