Several weeks ago I began rediscovering the contents of my vinyl record collection, which had remained stacked and silent on my shelves for several years, until the arrival of a working turntable in late 2008. I wrote about that experience here.
Since then I have continued to pull out records at random, dust them off, give them a spin, and reminisce about where I was when I first (or last) heard them, or what I was doing, or who I was with. And, not surprising, this bout of nostalgic curiosity has quickly become an obsession. I find myself during the daytime, with no one around to disturb but the ghosts, putting on Deep Purple’s Machine Head and filling the ears of my geezer of a house with the sounds of ringing guitars and plaster-cracking bass lines. I’ve tortured my wife and children over dinner, extolling the virtues of obscure jazz recordings — my six-year-old can now identify Big Joe Turner’s shout within a couple of bars of “Kansas City,” the poor thing. I even interrupted the flow of a very nice dinner party recently by turning it into an ’80s nostalgia night — “OK, guys, what do you want to hear next, Translator or Psychedelic Furs?” I’m not right, I know, but I can’t help it.
And, after seeing a recent report by CBS New Sunday Morning correspondent Anthony Mason about how the sudden rise in vinyl record sales may help revive the dying music industry, and encountering some encouraging statistics — for example, according to the site Coolfer, though CD sales continued to plummet last year, down 20% from 2007 levels, vinyl sales were up 92% — I’m beginning to think I’m not alone in feeling this way.
And I wonder what’s going on. What’s rekindling interest in this outdated medium? Is it the long-held notion that music played on a record player sounds better than on CD or mp3? I hope so, but I doubt it. For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to win that argument — I know, I’ve tried. Most memorably during a long cab ride with a former colleague, and though we managed to save the better part of a wasted business trip for an execrable job by engaging in some good palaver, I never convinced him. And I agree with Joe’s comment from last time that the “warm pops and scratches that only vinyl can give up” are part of what makes the experience so enjoyable, but I know lots of people (and can point to millions more) who dumped their record collections and repurchased everything on CD specifically in reaction to this issue. Of course, I’m an incurable romantic, as we all know, and I take comfort in remembering exactly where the skips occur in each song, the way George Bailey comes to find joy in all the familiar flaws of his “wonderful life.”
No, even the people Mason interviewed thought sound quality had nothing to do with it: kids, they said, can’t tell the difference. So why would anyone (other than a nut-job like me) want to shell out $20 or more for a large piece of petroleum-based plastic that can be played only on a stationary device in the home, when you can spend $1 or less to buy virtually any song from any album you can think of, almost at the moment you can think of it, and begin playing it within seconds, anywhere at any time?
Two reasons: the sense of touch and the limits of time. As Mason pointed out in his piece, having the ability to literally thumb through the bins at a Tower Records store during his lunch break allowed him to “feel” the music with his own anatomical digits before making a purchase, something that is lost in the transaction with online vendors like iTunes or Amazon and the resulting electronic digital download. I can relate to that experience, and I will add the sense of smell, which is reawakened each time I open the bottle of isopropyl alcohol I use for cleaning my LPs. Its distinctive odor smells not like teen spirit but teen angst, and reminds me of the many Saturday mornings I spent alone wandering the stacks of used record stores, working late nights as a DJ in college, or the hours in my room listening to music.
Time, or its lack, is the key ingredient that makes LPs so unique, at least to me. I previously mentioned the importance of the “album side,” which I have always felt was just the right amount of music for any situation. CDs, on the other hand, can seem interminable, especially when they contain “extras,” like alternative versions of the same songs. And digital playlists can be programmed literally to run forever, which can be a good thing sometimes. But I rarely ever played one side of a record then flipped it over and played the other. Often one band or one song made me think of another and, once the arm went up, the chase was on.
Such was the case during this recent foray into my collection. Although I’m choosing the records at random, moving alphabetically through the stack, this single-side limitation has proved liberating and provided some interesting and pleasurable combinations. I hope you will agree.
Dire Straits, by Dire Straits, Side 1. I can still remember when I first heard “Sultans of Swing,” the first single from this record and likely their biggest hit. I was riding in a carpool full of siblings, cousins, and neighborhood kids, on the way to school. It was nothing like what had been playing on the radio that morning, circa 1979 — “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by The Buggles; “Sad Eyes,” by Robert John; “Ring My Bell,” by Anita Ward; “My Sharona,” by The Knack; “Hot Stuff,” by Donna Summer, etc. And, in a way, it was like nothing I had ever heard before. Shortly after, probably that weekend, I went to the store and bought the record and listened to it all the way through, several times, mesmerized by it all — from the mysterious, Edward Hopper-like cover art to Mark Knopfler’s plucky finger-picking and storyteller’s lyrics. Although “Sultans,” which starts Side 2, reigns supreme, the first five songs on the LP always make me stop and hold everything.
Infidels, Bob Dylan, Side A. I’m not a huge fan of Bob Dylan but I have especially enjoyed his last few studio records, the trilogy of sorts that began with Time Out of Mind and ended with Modern Times. I like the former the best and own it on CD, and have borrowed and dubbed songs from the other two. All three are representative of classic American roots music, with an edgy, folk-meets-Fender quality that only Dylan can muster. But 1983’s Infidels is the last vinyl record of his I bought, for whatever reason, and listening to it again reminds me of his newest recordings and why I like them so much. In fact, this record seems like the seedling from which the others grew, almost a quarter century later. Dylan has always been ahead of his time, possibly in ways even he doesn’t recognize, because he just does what he wants and plays what he likes. The four songs on Side A (my favorite is “Sweetheart Like You”) are rocking, draggy, rousing, bluesy, personal, full of high-lonesome wanderlust, at times both tight and sloppy, and as similar to or different from anything he’s done before or since. If memory serves (and it usually doesn’t), many critics panned this record for exactly the reasons I stated. But what do they know?
For the Country, Dumptruck, Side 1. I know what you’re thinking — who the f**k is Dumptruck? And that’s not an altogether unreasonable question to ask. It’s a friggin’ shame you have to ask it, but one of the unavoidable consequences of the fickle music business. As with a plane crash, there is never one reason why a band will reach a certain level of success before suddenly veering off the radar for good. Dumptruck was a superband-in-the-making during the late 1980s and early ’90s, a power-pop foursome with a heavily layered, double-barreled guitar sound. I’m sure there are plenty of bands who claim these guys as an influence. But for one reason or another — the pressures of constant touring, poor album sales, infighting and jealousies, bad management, legal battles, all of the above — who knows — they never became a household name. They made a handful of records, and this is the third and strongest. The two opening cuts, “Island” and “50 Miles,” are a remarkable guitar tour de force. I remember buying this record and then seeing them shortly after at the old 9:30 Club in DC. The show was electric — meaning there was a powerful force running through the place, generated by the two guitarists as they moved apart and back together, flinging sounds out into the audience like a shower of metallic confetti, laughing and smiling the whole time. I often wonder what happened to them and when (and if) they stopped getting that feeling from their shows.
What’s the Word, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Side Two. I went through a phase in the early 1980s where I all listened to was American roots rock and R&B — everyone from Albert Hammond to Muddy Waters, Lonnie Mack to The Long Ryders, Root Boy Slim, Mojo Nixon, and everything in between. Didn’t everyone go through this phase? It seemed so to me; there must have been something in the air then — even bad boy Elvis Costello caught the fever and released King of America, one of may all-time favorites from his canon. I eventually overdosed and moved on, following new paths branching out from this tradition. But I still get a craving now and then for the real thing, and I always come back to the T-Birds and this recording in particular. You may know the band — which includes Jimmie Vaughan, the older brother of the late Stevie Ray — from cuts like “Wrap It Up” and “Tuff Enuff,” which were their first and biggest hits, made so by the help of early MTV (when it still played videos, from all genres). But they were already on their way out then, bloated and overdone in so many ways, including singer Kim Wilson’s head pieces. This is their second record and it’s got a nice innocent, energetic, straight-ahead, way-they-used-to-play quality to it. I like this side because five out of six songs are originals, and they make great grooves for a Saturday afternoon on the porch, beer in hand, surrounded by good friends. That’s the word.
Galaxy 500, Fetchin Bones, Side 2. Explosive, wild energy. Quiet, contemplative melodies. Touching lyrics full of bizarre non sequiturs. Fetchin Bones had it all and more on this 1987 recording, including producer Don Dixon, who only a few short years earlier had helped R.E.M. catapult onto the college radio scene. It’s hard to describe their sound — hillbilly-hardcore? country-funk? folk-punk-pop? — which was comprised of an oddball mix of instrumentation and playing styles: speedy guitar runs, slap bass, a coach’s whistle, bells, drums, cymbals, horns, etc. Even singer Hope Nicholls was a strange combo of characters herself, part Janis Joplin, part Siouxsie, part Dolly Parton. I have several of their records, all of which are surprisingly very listenable, melodic, and hold up well after all these years. This one is my favorite, and Side 2 feels a little more complete and has some unique, memorable touches — for example, only a gal from North Carolina could find three syllables in the word swim — “swee-yah-em.” They were even more fetching in concert: pick up the 2007 release Live: Dead Band Rockin and judge for yourself.
Visions of Excess, The Golden Palominos, Side B. I have to confess that I sought this record out in 1985 solely because it packed three songs featuring Michael Stipe, including the stuttering “Boy (Go),” which I spun often as a DJ, and a break-neck cover of the Skip Spence song “Omaha.” I was bit of an R.E.M. fanatic back then (I know, was…?) and wanted to hear Stipe trying something different while his band was between recordings. Luckily I liked everything else on here, a rattle-bag of songs with guest appearances by rock superstars and sidemen, including John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols), Jack Bruce, Richard Thompson, Chris Stamey, Arto Lindsay, Carla Bley, Bill Laswell, and Anton Fier. Excess indeed. The biggest reward for my purchase, however, was Side B, which featured three songs by an unknown artist (to me, at least) named Syd Straw, a back-up singer with a beautifully rich, clear voice that reaches out from the background. Like her contemporary Sheryl Crow, Straw managed to transform her career as a session musician into a fairly successful solo act. I wouldn’t be surprised if her record Surprise finds its way into an upcoming chronicle.
The Vintage Goodman, The Benny Goodman Orchestra, Side 1. This is another successful vinyl rescue from certain obliteration. It’s an original (the $3.98 price tag from Melody Music still intact) issued by Columbia Records in 1956 to mark the silver anniversary of Goodman’s first recording as a bandleader for the label, and it’s in great shape. And so was Goodman during those pivotal years (1931-34), playing near his peak and surrounding himself with some of the finest musicians working at the time — Jack Teagarden (and his bother, Charlie), Gene Krupa, Joe Sullivan, Teddy Wilson, and Glenn Miller — and a few up-and-comers, like a 16-year-old Billie Holiday, whose 1933 debut, “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law,” is included here. But you wouldn’t know it was Lady Day — she hadn’t found her distinctive voice yet or the needle and the bottle, which ravaged everything in her brief life. Other stand-outs on here include two blues numbers that have become classics, “Basin Street Blues” and “Beale Street Blues,” the latter of which, according to the liner notes by George Avakian, was the greatest version until Louis Armstrong’s 1954 version topped it — not a bad way to go down.
The Steve Howe Album, Steve Howe, Side Two. Despite what you may think of the whole art rock/progressive rock era, and the “supergroup” Yes, which typified this baroque (bombastic?) style of music, you must admit that Steve Howe, the guitarist for much of that band’s 40-year history, is a virtuoso. In addition to his work with Yes, he’s played and recorded with a half-dozen other hugely successful bands, including Asia, Lou Reed, Queen, and (incredibly) Frankie Goes to Hollywood. He’s also released more than a dozen solo albums, ranging in style from progressive rock to jazz to a Bob Dylan tribute. He was voted “Best Overall Guitarist” by Guitar magazine for 5 consecutive years. And — OK, I’m tipping my hand here — I’ve always wanted to be him, or to at least play guitar like him. Yes, I loved Yes, bought all their records and went to as many shows as I could — but always because I wanted to hear Howe’s solo pieces, like “Mood for a Day” and “The Clap,” which were unlike anything the rest of the band was producing: intimate and intricate, without all the trappings and heavy-handed “art.” Just one man, six strings, and four fingers dancing up and down a wooden fret board. I listened to this album, his second, over and over, with headphones on, absorbing every nuance, imagining myself like my idol playing all 14 of the guitars and guitar-like instruments (what exactly is a Danelectro Coral Sitar Guitar?) pictured on the inside sleeve. On Side Two, Howe seamlessly switches styles, from the jaunty jazz of “The Continental” to Vivaldi’s sublime “Concerto in D (Second Movement).” My favorites are the quiet “Surface Tension” and the dramatic “Double Rondo,” on which he is accompanied by a 59-piece orchestra. When I played this LP for my family at dinner the other night, there was silence as they chewed and nodded and listened. Yes, yes, yes.
I plan to continue to explore my vinyl collection and record my experiences here, later in the year. In the meantime, let me know what you think. Do you disagree with my observations? Have I overlooked anything? What is lurking silently among your LPs, waiting to be heard?