Blair’s Golden Road Blog—Vinyl Memories
By Blair Jackson
The recent release of Audio Fidelity limited edition vinyl versions of two more Grateful Dead albums—Blues for Allah and Shakedown Street—in beautiful gatefold editions (both were in conventional single-album sleeves when they came out in 1975 and 1978 respectively), got my mind wandering to memories of how much I loved buying, playing and sitting around staring endlessly at what we quaintly called “records.”
A few weeks ago, my Golden Road Blog headlined “Hello-o-o E-Bay” was “hijacked” (as one reader put it) by vinyl record junkies expounding on their love of the format with the fervor of true believers. I was, frankly, somewhat dismissive, noting that I didn’t miss the skips and pops, and that in general CDs sounded fine to me. However, CDs evidently don’t sound fine to a growing minority of music lovers. Vinyl is one of the few segments of the record industry that actually has been on the rise the past few years (even if it still represents a relatively infinitesimal portion of the biz), and the number of places devoted to manufacturing this ancient medium has increased tremendously.
Why? Well, vinyl devotees believe that tape or digital masters cut to lacquer and then pressed on high quality vinyl (180 gram “virgin” is now the minimum audiophile standard for new pressings) sound warmer, deeper and “truer” than CDs, because there is no conversion to binary digital code, where some of the mysterious audio “glue” that analog recording advocates say adds an indefinable je ne sais quoi can be lost. And there is that whole aesthetic matter of the larger packaging—the album cover as art form, which has been mostly lost in the CD age.
This past weekend, visiting my son in his apartment right off the UCLA campus, I was struck again by how cool it is to slap a disc on the turntable and sit there with a record cover in my lap, gazing at pictures or reading lyrics, having a tactile accompaniment to listening to vinyl, which is my son’s favorite format, by far. A lot of the records he has sitting around in bins and piles on his living room floor are ones that had been gathering dust in my garage in Oakland, and the turntable had been mine, too, before we refurbished it for him. But he’s picked up all sorts of cool old albums on his own, too—he loves record stores, just like his old man—and also managed to find the money to buy the more expensive modern vinyl pressings of some of his favorite current bands, such as Animal Collective.
Of course, in the era before I started collecting and trading concert tapes—which for me began in earnest in early 1977, after I befriended David Gans, who was already well-connected in that world—I was limited to listening to the Dead’s official vinyl releases and a few live bootleg records I’d bought through the years. And you know what? I loved them all (until Steal Your Face, which, to this day I dislike). I remember buying Live Dead at Korvette’s in the Bronx (right over the border from my hometown, Pelham, NY) for about $4 on sale, taking it home, plopping it onto what I later learned was a patently mediocre stereo setup (no separate amp; speakers were not fully detachable from the main unit) in my basement lair and being instantly transported by this band whose previous album, Aoxomoxoa, hadn’t earned much more than a “meh” from me, and as a result sat on a shelf largely ignored.
When night would fall, I’d switch on my crude self-made “light show,” consisting of a cardboard box full of independently flashing Christmas lights that projected onto a big white sheet on one wall, and imagine myself digging the Dead or Quicksilver or the Airplane or Cream or Jimi in some San Francisco ballroom. And when the light show wasn’t being used, chances are I was sitting around examining the covers of my albums — checking out the collage on Disreali Gears or the studio pics from Electric Ladyland, the crazy-stoned “newspaper” on the back of Volunteers, the beautiful calligraphy on the partial lyric insert of Live Dead : “Eight-sided whispering hallelujah hatrack”?!
The “Skull & Roses” album came out right around the time I arrived at Northwestern for my freshman year in college. I loved the cover so much I put it on the wall next to my desk in my dorm room and kept the discs themselves in just the paper sleeves they came in. I was a (perhaps annoyingly) proud Dead Head, and everyone in Elder Hall was gonna know it. That album got so many LOUD spins on my turntable that fall, just as Europe ’72 did the following autumn in a different dorm. I loved poring over the photos in the booklet that accompanied that album, wondering who the people were — “Ooh, look, that’s Robert Hunter! He’s almost never been photographed!”
A year after that, in the fall of 1973, I moved from New York to the Bay Area to go to UC Berkeley and I stopped at Northwestern on the way, to say hi to some of my friends there. There was a wild party in somebody’s apartment that night, partly in my honor, but my only memory from it is someone handing me a copy of Anthem of the Sun and my jaw hitting the floor when I saw that it had a white background instead of the purple one I had spent untold hours examining the past few years. I was even more amazed when I heard what was clearly a remix of the original album, so the next morning I went to downtown Evanston and bought a copy of this strange “new” version of the album. Alas, I lost it many moves ago. But it was great while it lasted!
Reckoning and Dead Set must have been the last vinyl Dead records I bought, because with In the Dark in 1987, we were already a few years into the CD age for new releases, and I wholeheartedly embraced that format. Needless to say, I purchased the entire Dead catalog on CD as it became available. What a thrill it was finally getting all four sides of Live Dead and “Skull & Roses” on single discs! Did the CDs sound better? Worse? Frankly, I couldn’t tell (unlike with some CD transfers, like Born to Run, the first version of which was clearly inferior to the vinyl version). But I dug the convenience, and when the first wave of amazing-sounding new CDs came out—remember hearing Brothers in Arms or Aja for the first time on a great system?—I was hooked, and there was no turning back for me.
But it also didn’t take long for me to start missing things about vinyl records, such as the larger artwork (and readable lyric sheets), and the sense that the artists and producers had put some thought into choosing the best 35 to 39 minutes of material they had, and then carefully selecting what was going to open and close each side of the album. Though I was at first thrilled by the larger capacity of a single CD, I quickly learned that many (most!) bands didn’t actually have enough good songs to warrant the longer available playing time, so I was often listening to more weak music, or tiring of an album much quicker than I did when there were sides that I loved (or didn’t care for).
I don’t currently own a turntable, but my 17-year-old daughter does, and like her brother, she listens more to vinyl at home than CDs. I suspect she might cart it off to college with her in the fall of 2012, carrying much of the rest of my old vinyl with her. Sniff, sniff. I’ll miss seeing those records lying around her room.
It might be too late for me to fully embrace vinyl again — I’d want to re-buy everything for a third or fourth or fifth time (a lot of CD remasterings keep coming down the pike; gotta save for the expanded Pink Floyds this fall!), but I’m happy to know that Vinyl Love is still a big part of the Jackson family.
Are you a vinyl record fan? What about it gets you off? Or is it all hype?
I was one of the weekly winners during the 30 Days of Dead promo. and took the LP box set. It's really cool, and is a conversation piece. The 45 that came with it brings back a lot of ofnd memories.
It may not have been the last "new" record I bought..Ibut I sure do remember getting the 3 album set Without A Net with its sticker claiming to be the grandest biggest Best Live recording Ever!!!I Up until then It may have been the longest...I played this album thru an old Harmon Kardon "Quad" receiver with a Technics SL1200 turntable from 1978(The first year they made them)...What a Treat....!!!! I remember BM's keyboards coming out of the left rear...It sounded very cool.....My girlfriend and I had enough records to go along a 16 ft wall in our Apt. What a bitch when moving!! I too have fully embraced CDs and have gone to having Flac files on my PC about 1 1/2 terabytes worth .This way I can look at artwork on my 26"monitor...some company's are starting to include a PDF file for the art work which is very cool because I think I speak for everyone when I say WE MISS THAT 12"ART!!!! They may soon have interactive art with vids and everything else a head could desire. The thing i miss with just having files is really owning something..not a virtual something ;-)
I am a generation from the Tapes, Im 35 now, and when i first got into the "boys" Maxell was king.
I just always thought that records were big and something my mom had lots of...
Then come CDs, i finally received a player as a gift and started the phase out.
recently about a year ago i got turned onto vinyl and yes it is very warm and new to these tape to CD ears. I guess i have to thank the genius of MP3s for helping to bring back this very stylish medium where CD's had (and at the time, rightfully so) almost left records to die, it is truly about the music again, looking at the record, cleaning the record and then listening to sound in its purist form. It is amazing that something i had listened to a thousand times sounds new to me, i cant believe the clarity fullness and yes as so many state the warmth....
Thank you MP3 for your flatness which brought us back to vinyl. FYI: CD i still love you when flipping records isnt my gig, but wow my mom was onto something. And yes all of you parents out there, i finally understand why you got so mad when i played with the needle, but come on... the moving parts, the sound that it makes happen how can a child resist.
So....I just got the two new vinyls and was listening to some potentially new speakers and i threw in Bears Choice (remastered CD) and thought how cool would it be to re-release this on Vinyl and then comes news that this is actually a real possibility, with the first three songs you get sarenated by Pig, Bobby then Jerry...."ON VINYL" holy crap... the idea of putting out some of the Dicks Picks is even better, isn't it so cool that Bobbys building space ships of sound and recording, tapping into the newest technologies and all the while they are keeping the basics of it all in tact with some good ol' fashion vinyl, what a great band...Thank you, seriously most people would have been done at "wall of sound" but these guys are in another rhelm of getting it.... so, Awesome, thanks for doing whatever it is you do:)
I have not had a working turntable in years but have not brought myself to divest of albums - someday I will get a turntable... I listen to CDs, cassettes, and MP3s and I do not think I can tell the difference in sound. Perhaps that is the upside of having abused my ears to the point where the loss is quite noticeable.
But I rouse myself to comment on Blair's "I quickly learned that many (most!) bands didn’t actually have enough good songs to warrant the longer available playing time..." Amen, brother! I have a new appreciation for the selection process, and editing, when I hear the added material on re-releases. I get the same feeling from deleted scenes and director's cuts on DVDs. They were usually right when they left things out.
But remember the three-sided Johnny Winter, Second Winter album? There wasn't enough good material for four sides, too much for two, and Johnny was not willing to cut quality or volume to fit it in two. So Side 4 was blank. Predictably, the new version has lots of added material. More is nor always better.
I love vinyl, but also have been continually blown away by what I hear in my car via satellite! BASS, the big sniff at the beginning of Casey Jones, parts of Touch of Grey like I never heard before, and live shows I can instantly save by pushing the little heart on my sirius receiver gizmo...then putting on the headphones and hearing it all again...
If the puppet makes you smile
If now then you're throwing stones
Throwing stones , throwing stones
de de de de de de de de de de de de de de
throwing stones...a premonition, man! far out.
here's a call for 4/19/82 as a vault release.
good stuff, maynard.
bee, bee bee bee, bee bee, bee bee bee bee bee, bee bee
fanny, be tender with my love (or is it love, be tender with my fanny)
I started a joke that started the whole world crying
ah, the Bee Gees.
That was totally not called for, Blair. Please don't go dark on us again!