Around the turn of the new year, I began a voyage of rediscovering, if you will, a process of returning to and continually seeking (and finding) new things within my vinyl record collection. It all started when I received a newfangled turntable last Christmas, which allowed me to begin pulling records off the shelf again, cleaning and playing them, all the while reminiscing about where I was when I first (or last) heard each, what I was doing, or who I was with. I have written several times about my experiences so far (here and here, for instance).
I made another foray into my collection recently, still moving alphabetically through the stacks, choosing records at random, sticking to my single-side limitation, and uncovering some long-forgotten treasures. (I hope you will agree.) In addition to hearing favorite musicians and songs again for the first time in years, I’ve also had the chance to muse a little about the curiosities of long-playing records (or LPs, for short), enjoying the unique traits that allow them to stand out from other classes of audiophilia.
Consider, for instance, that unlike the unified CD-ROM (or, heaven help us, the infinite mp3 playlist), the vinyl LP has two distinct sides, or dimensions. This might sound obvious, but it’s no tautology. It used to be (or, at least, I assumed it to be) that the songs on each facet of an original studio album were arranged purposefully. In other words, the songs were ordered — whether sequentially, thematically, sonically, etc. — with a purpose, like chapters in a novel, or the items in a still-life painting: to tell a story, to create contrasts, to bewilder the audience, and so on. Whether it was a classical, jazz, or rock recording, each side of a vinyl record had a narrative arc of sorts (a beginning, middle, and end) that often differed from its complement.
Take Side One of Wish You Were Here, by Pink Floyd, which opens with the subdued, bluesy, spaced-out synthesizer and guitar lines of the first few movements of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” the band’s homage to Syd Barrett, their former lead singer (and madcap recluse). The music then builds slowly, without interruption, to a driving, sax-wailing crescendo before slipping into the thudding dissonance of “Welcome to the Machine.” It’s truly haunting. Side Two, in contrast, begins with the upbeat, slightly funky “Have a Cigar,” then moves to the strumming, pop-leaning title song, and closes out with the last four movements of “Shine… ,” which are more rousing and soulful than the opening cuts. On the whole, then, the two sides of Wish You Were Here offer a robust, wide-ranging collection of songs and sounds that both hang together under a central theme and — and this is the key — played separately, could stand on their own and feel complete.
The guys in Pink Floyd were lucky they made their Wish when they did. In 1975, it was nearly impossible to play “Welcome to the Machine” and “Have a Cigar” back-to-back, which would have been a buzz-killer, for sure. The pause inherent in the physical act of picking up the platter, turning it over, placing it on the turntable, swinging the stylus arm back out and placing it on the tracks would have provided enough time for the strange, maniacal laughter that ends Side One to clear the listener’s ears before the jaunty, playful bass steps in on Side Two.
I’ve often wondered what it was like for musicians working in the days when record labels began making the switch from the two-faced and limited LPs to the single-sided and virtually endless CDs. How did the bands who bridged the gap approach their recordings in the new era? Did they spend more time or less deciding how songs went together and in what sequence. The advent of the “program,” “shuffle,” and “repeat” modes on a CD player was incredibly empowering for the listener, who gained the ability to control the order in which songs get played. However, I imagine the change was devastating to musicians and the folks who helped them make records — it no longer mattered what songs went on which side. There were no longer any “sides,” in fact, or contrasts, no need for a predetermined “order” or sequence, because everything was “flat” and one-dimensional: all the songs, or only a few, could be played, and in any manner, and however many times that the listener wanted.
Perhaps it was liberating, but I suspect the new technology produced the opposite effect. Musicians often enter the studio with more songs than they plan to use, usually weeding out the ones that don’t seem to fit within the framework, during either the final rehearsals or post-recording production time. But with the restrictions lifted (CDs have a run time that’s nearly double that of a vinyl LP, for instance) bands were required to make fewer choices and could include more material, such as last-minute (and presumably less polished) compositions, outtakes, hidden tracks, etc. This is great for the fans but, I think, can be damaging to the artistic integrity of the LP and the band. I suspect the technological advancements of the mid 1980s contributed to the demise of many established acts and curtailed the rise of new ones.
Luckily for me (and, perhaps, not so lucky for you, dear reader), I was there to pick up the pieces, and I have stashed them in neat, narrow 12″x12″ cardboard containers that line several shelves in my bookcase. And here, once more, are some recollections on some of these items in my collection.
Burl Ives, It’s Just My Funny Way of Laughin’, Side One. Most of my memories of Burl Ives involve the childrens’ records he made (and I listened to endlessly) more than 40 years ago. Along with Pete Seeger, Marlo Thomas, and some others, Ives and his shimmering tenor shaped the soundtrack of my childhood. I can remember listening to “The Little White Duck” with my two sisters, dancing or “doing what we oughter” in the playroom of our house on many rainy Saturday mornings. Ives is probably best-known to my generation as the voice (and visage) for “Sam the Snowman” on the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, though he was a versatile, accomplished actor, both onstage and on the big screen (for instance, you can see a clip of him playing Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” here). I inherited this collection of “contemporary folk and country songs” a few years back, when a relative cleared out some cabinet space, and it’s this Ives — as “celebrated singer and song-stylist” — that I’ve come to appreciate most in recent years. Side One features tunes written by top Nashville recording artists of the day, such as Mel Tillis and Roger Miller, that are, according to the rather purple liner notes, “destined to find their way into the repertoires of those … who will musically pattern themselves after the discerning taste and ever-fresh originality that are the essence of Burl Ives.” (That makes me laugh in a funny way.)
Elmore James, Greatest Hits, Side 2. During my junior year in college, I spent the month of January on a solo trip to England, staying with friends in and around London and taking a number of day trips to the countryside. I carried little with me on these excursions except a copy of Let’s Go, a book or two, a pad and pen, a Sony Walkman and about a dozen cassettes. Along the way I picked up several more tapes, often live bootlegs of favorite bands or new releases on foreign labels that were (I assumed) unavailable back home. One of my favorite finds was an incredibly rich compilation of “original blues recordings” by at least two dozen musicians and singers, many of whom I had never heard. One of these was Elmore James, whose driving, bottleneck-slide wailer “Dust My Broom” I listened to over and over — often stopping at the final note and immediately rewinding the cassette to the beginning of the song — both draining the batteries and wearing out the tape. I knew I needed more James, so when I got home I found this LP (a Dutch import!) in the cut-outs bin at the Bucknell University bookstore and promptly set to wearing it out, as well. Although the record opens with the familiar “Dust” (which has skipped after the first chorus for almost 30 years), I think the second side, which contains “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” and “I Believe” (two of the many James tunes to be made famous by others), is just more joyously mournful.
King Crimson, Discipline, Side 1. I’m not exactly sure how I first got turned on to King Crimson. Maybe it was because I was a fan of Emerson, Lake and Palmer in the 1970s and sought out recordings made by its individual members (yes, I was a music geek even as a teenager), including bassist and singer Greg Lake, who contributed to several King Crimson records, including the deliciously dark and disturbing debut, In the Court of the Crimson King. But the band had a revolving door, and many talented musicians moved in and out over the years, leaving only guitarist Robert Fripp at the hub. I was a fan, but it wasn’t until I saw them live at Merriweather Post Pavilion one summer, touring in support of this 1981 release, that I truly appreciated what incredible music Fripp (who looks like Liev Schreiber) could make. He sat onstage, slightly to the side of the lead vocalist (who in this case was Adrian Belew), surrounded by all kinds of devices that he called “Frippertronics” — tape-drives, effects-makers, recording machines, etc. — looping, layering, and riffing on himself (much like he does in this video). It was brilliant and wildly entertaining. The line-up remained constant for the next two recordings (Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair), which played off of and revisited some similar themes. But Discipline — and especially Side 1, which features the word-worshipful “Elephant Talk,” the soothing “Matte Kudasai,” and the jarring “Indiscipline” — is Fripp’s crown jewel.
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin, Side One. I have to admit that picking the Zeppelin LP to write about here is a little like making Sophie’s choice (though, thankfully, I’m only choosing a favorite record and I get to hold onto the runners-up). I own all the original studio recordings on vinyl, have listened to them continually over the years (I even played them all again in preparation for writing this), can still sing most of the lyrics, and at one point could name the track listings in order. (And, yes, my children laugh at my air-guitar solos.) In the end, though, the first is the one I go to the most. Why? Mainly because I think it’s one of the most daring debuts I’ve ever heard. From the opening of the radio-friendly “Good Times Bad Times” straight through to the romping closer “How Many More Times,” it’s hard to top the sheer energy and creativity of a band one musician reportedly predicted would go down in flames. Instead, these guys burst onto the late-1960s music scene fully formed, gained altitude quickly, and never looked back. In fact, many of the songs on this first record established the multifaceted sound that they would polish and refine over the next two decades — from blues-oriented rockers (“You Shook Me”) and Middle Eastern-influenced acoustic compositions (“Black Mountain Side”) to the long, wailing psychedelic numbers that became their signature sound and gave flight to so many imitators (“Dazed and Confused”). Although I gained it second-hand and can’t claim to have heard it when it hit the stores (what I wouldn’t give to have been there when people first heard Robert Plant’s crazy, unmanly falsetto moans for the first time) — and I was exposed to many of their later tunes (such as “Black Dog” and “Stairway,” for sure) long before ever dropping the needle on Side One — I can remember feeling after the first time I played it (and the many more times afterward) that this was all the schoolin’ I would ever need. No foolin’.
Maria McKee, Maria McKee, Side One. As a DJ, I liked playing “Ways to Be Wicked” by the ’80s cowpunk band Lone Justice. So much so that I bought a copy of the album for myself and gave it as a gift to people that Christmas. Several years later, when I heard that the band had split and its lead singer, Maria McKee, had released a solo record, I bought hers, too, on a lark and unheard. What a lucky break: I have no idea where my Lone Justice vinyl is, but I have kept this incredible LP close by for 20 years. Although not a “great” record, as singer-songwriters go, its virtue lies in capturing McKee’s indescribably perfect voice at a career high. There are several stand-outs on both sides, such as McKee’s cover of Richard Thompson’s woeful “Has He Got a Friend for Me?” which closes out the LP. But two songs on Side One are so strong — “Am I the Only One (Who’s Ever Felt This Way?),” which The Dixie Chicks remade for their highly successful album Wide Open Spaces, and “Nobody’s Child,” which she co-wrote with Robbie Robertson — that it’d be wicked of me not to admit it’s my favorite.
So, there you have it. As I continue to explore my vinyl record collection, and record my thoughts as I go, I will continue to report back here, so stay tuned. 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?