Growing up, our family were generally late-adopters of new technologies. While I remember having a color television throughout the 1970s and beyond, we also had a small B&W set in the kitchen that pre-dated it. We didn’t have to get up and tune the dial to get our 13 channels on the main set; we had a converter box, but that was hard wired to the TV set. For a time, my parents had an 8-track player in the station wagon, but for the most part long car rides were accompanied by Light FM/AM stations that to this day gives me a reflexive dislike for the music of John Denver, The Carpenters, and Jim Croce.
We got our first VCR in, I believe, 1983. It was a Betamax. Recommended to as the superior format (which it was), but made finding movies to rent a little difficult as the decade progressed. We didn’t get our first VHS player until 1988 or 1989. Though to be fair, the Beta player lasted well into the 90s, and ended up being used, for the most part, for recording TV shows (because, yes, the picture and sound quality of a Betamax tape was noticeably superior). The Beta resided in the rec room downstairs, hooked up to a 19 inch Sony Trinitron. It sat in an entertainment unit built by my uncle, along with our stereo and record player. There were more than a few jokes around my home in the early 90s, mostly from friends who said descending into the Abraham rec room was like taking a trip back in time to 1981.
So what does all of the above have to do with Vinyl? Keep reading.
Our music collection was, for the most part and for a very long time, strictly Vinyl. It was my parents’ record collection from their formative years. My dad’s Beach Boys and Chicago and Billy Joel albums; my mom’s Beatles and Ray Charles ones (and my then and still-favorite, the American Graffiti soundtrack album). Our home stereo had a tape deck, and both our family cars – Volvos, natch – had cassette players, so most of those vinyl records were recorded to tape to be played in the car. If there was an album we wanted to listen to in the car and at home, we bought the vinyl and made a copy to listen to. This was how I experienced Purple Rain and Seven And The Ragged Tiger, and the Miami Vice soundtrack. This always meant the sound quality was lesser than what you got on the radio tuner, so by and large pre-recorded music was saved for when you traveled outside the range of any decent radio stations, and had to choose between static and crazy-fire-and-brimstone religious radio (we preferred static).
We never made the transition to CD though, and through my high school years and into college, I was still buying cassettes. This was for a number of reasons. Portability for one, cost for another. In the early 90s a CD would run you close to 20 bucks. A cassette could be had for half that. You could score two cassettes for the price of one CD. Were I to buy a CD I’d have to take it home, copy it to cassette, then listen to it on my Walkman. A cassette I could pop into my Walkman outside the store or in my car tape deck, and be listening to new music before I was out of sight of the store.
I didn’t transition to CDs formally until 1995, when I got my first Laserdisc player, which could play CDs as well as LDs. Once hooking it up and running the audio through a roommate’s stereo system was I able to start buying/borrowing CDs and making my own copies on cassette.
I still buy CDs, though my new music purchases have dropped off in the last five or so years, picking up one, maybe two new-release albums a year. Yes, there’s MP3s and streaming audio, but I prefer to have a solid, non-digital backup of my albums of choice. Yet coinciding, roughly, with the beginnings of a global pandemic of which, right now, there is no end in sight, I began to take a deeper dive into Vinyl records and Vinyl collecting.
Why Vinyl? There are arguments for and against. Most audiophiles will tell you it’s superior sound-wise to CD. It’s warmer, you can pick up nuances with vinyl you can’t with digital downloads. For me though it’s a little more complex, and gets to the heart of my long preamble to this post.
Example: I own Jack White’s Lazaretto on both CD and Vinyl. And I will concede that side-by-size, I can’t quite hear much of a difference. But with the Vinyl, if I want to listen to Lazaretto the album, I have to commit myself to spending the next 40 minutes or so doing just that. I can’t skip tracks, I can’t pause, I can’t do dishes or make dinner, or do work while spinning the vinyl. I have to L I S T E N to it and nothing else. I make a tea, I sit in my comfy chair, I drop the needle, notch the groove, and just sit there and listen to it. Side A. Side B.
Usually I won’t stop at just one either. As one album is nearing the conclusion I’m already flipping through my collection and deciding what comes next. Do I keep with the Third Man Records theme and put on The White Stripes: The Peel Sessions next, or do I backtrack to one of the White Stripes (and Jack White’s) bigger influences – the garage rock pre-punk sounds of The Kinks?
Another band whose work I only own on vinyl (outside their Greatest Hits collection from 1985 and one of the first albums I bought for myself with my own money – cassette, natch), is The Cars. If I want to spin their self-titled debut it’s pretty much a given I’m going to be at it for a while. I’ve more than once killed a weekend afternoon spinning The Cars, followed by Candy-O, Panorama, Shake-It-Up, and Moving In Stereo (I don’t yet own Door to Door; I’m working on it). If I want to listen to the Cars or The Kinks, I need to listen to the Vinyl. As a result they’re both in my top pantheon of favorite bands, despite only really “discovering” their back catalog in the last couple of years. To listen to either requires a commitment of time. I can’t do anything else but listen.
It’s quite easy to collect vinyl these days too. I’ve scored some great finds at yard sales, at Church fundraisers, and at used bookstores. And eBay has also been a great source for affordable copies of some classic (and not-so-classic) albums. While you will pay through the nose for The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, I scored Preservation Act I and II together for eight bucks with shipping. Big bands and big albums will command big dollars wherever you look, but there’s always going to be some more interesting stuff lurking in the margins if you know where to look.
The other thing about Vinyl that draws me to it, is because it’s not a perfect format. There’s always going to be a hiss, a crackle, a pop, maybe even a skip. I’ve been able to restore some 50 + year old records with a cleaning kit, but they’re never going to sound pristine, which I kind of like. Those little imperfections are what makes vinyl such a better listen, particularly used records. Used albums have a life to them. Those little crackles are signs of a long life. They may be well into middle-age, but they have lived their lives. How many times were they spun on some bedroom briefcase turntable in the 60s and 70s? Did they have a long life of use, or did they spend the intervening decades sitting on a shelf, waiting to be played again? Old vinyl can be magic; the simple act of playing one releasing its music to fill your room and your heart. The little flaws in them are just that bit of grit or sand in the gears of a machine; the imperceptible flaws that give its engine a unique thrum that can be recorded but never duplicated.
That’s why I limit myself to used vinyl. Records with a history. They may hiss and pop and skip, but they have a life to themselves. I also won’t spend more than $8.00 on a single record album. I haven’t splurged on those deluxe vinyl reissues with bonus tracks and booklets and the like. If I may use a cooking metaphor, a good used vinyl record is like a good cast-iron skillet you’ve been using for ten plus years. It will retain the flavor of everything ever cooked in it, and and if you take care of it, it’ll last forever.
Collecting vinyl, also, gets to the heart of Why We Collect Things. Why? Why do we keep old books, old albums? Why do we still buy DVDs and Blu-rays? Why do we collect old toys? Why do we (okay, just myself) create a comic book about mixtapes? I think it’s because these things, these objects, possess a meaning beyond their physical form. Toys are just wood and plastic and metal. Mixtapes are just recordings on tape. Records are just grooves carved into vinyl disks. Books are words on wood-pulp wrapped in a slightly sturdier cover.
But a box of old paperbacks isn’t just words printed on slowly moldering paper. It’s the aged creases in the spine of that Stephen King you bought brand new. It’s every time you read that book and re-read it. It’s the smell. My copy of Different Seasons pictured below isn’t just a paperback; it’s the Caribbean vacation I took it on and read cover-to-cover. It’s the ocean breeze, it’s the sandy beach, and it’s the sea-salt from the waves crashing to shore.
Same thing with old comics. It would be easy to sell off my old collection and just repurchase them digitally or in trade paperback form. Yet I have seven or eight long-boxes full of comics taking up space in our storage unit. As a semi-regular contributor to the G.I. Joe: A Real American Headcast comics podcast, once a month or so I get to pull another issue out of the long-box, slide it out of its Mylar bag and hold, in my hands, the very same comic I bought at the corner store spinner rack 35, 36 years ago. I still own it, but “it” isn’t just the story. It’s the slowly fading pages of artwork, it’s the creases in the spine and it’s the old ads I used to gloss over but now instill a nostalgia for things I never appreciated at the time.
We collect things from our past, from our childhood, for many reasons. But I think it’s during times like the ones we’re living through at present that make collecting, that make nostalgia and its pain of remembering all the more essential. There’s a tangible quality to those things that made us happy a long time ago. The 60s had Vietnam and civil unrest. The 70s had the oil crisis and national malaise. The 80s had the cold war and nuclear saber rattling and exploding space shuttles. The 90s had the Spice Girls (sorry). Every era has its ups, it has its downs. It has its struggles. We’re currently in the middle of the next one. And I think if you look around you’ll find people are pining very strongly for a time when things felt simpler.
You can dig through your memories for those seemingly happy moments, but that dig is a lot easier having something tangible tying you to that point in your life. It’s why when I sold off my collections of old Transformers and Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys, I made sure to keep a select handful of items from each line. I wanted to retain something of that old era; something I could pick up in my own hands, and feel beneath my fingertips.
Vinyl is the same thing. It’s not sequences of 1s and 0s on a CD. It’s not music recorded onto ever-deteriorating magnetic tape. It’s not an internet-connected audio stream. Vinyl is a tangible thing. It’s grooves carved into vinyl plastic creating vibrations that are translated into music, and from music into feeling and memory.
So as we enter month three of this uncertainty I think we’re all trying to find things to distract us, to keep our minds off the current predicament by submerging them in the memories of a time and place when we felt safer. Where the world felt like it still made some sense. So I can be expected to keep spinning my vinyls until this current crisis ends and probably beyond it too. To the day when, years from now, I’ll give my by then VERY old records a listen and remember a time when they became a life-raft and kept us all going while we waited for the tide to wash us back to shore.
How about you? What was/is your favorite album, Vinyl or otherwise and why? Sound off in the comments below!