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?
As a long time vinyl nut who has been working diligently for forty years to build the best system for listening to music I can, I have to remind myself that it is the music that matters. That said, pops and clicks are not a necessary part of the vinyl experience. I have many LP's from the 1950's that play without a pop or click. The trick is to treat your purchases with respect. Keep the records clean and/or buy a record cleaner.
My biggest beef with digital recording is that it allows the mastering levels to be so great that the dynamic range has been lost. It is not the fault of the medium but the execution. CD's mastered really loud sound initially better on low fidelity playback devices such as a MP3 player playing low res files. As I understand it, the problem with digital is not with turning an analogue signal into a digital signal, it is turning a digital signal into an analogue signal that is very difficult. I've read it referred to as trying to turn hamburger back into a fine steak.
I think that if you like to listen to music at home with undivided attention then vinyl is the way to go. Unfortunately, as with everything else, quality doesn't come without a price. Both in money and your time spent to keep things working to the best of their ability.
... and I don't dispute most of 'em, but I still say there are many GREAT-sounding CDs; you guys are selling that medium short... Nothing will ever convince me that ticks and pops are OK; they pull you out of the music and were the bane of my vinyl existence back in the day...
love them, the rich sound from vinyl will never be replaced by cd, I challenge anyone to find a cd that compairs to an Original Master Recording from Mobil Fidelity Sound Labs, I have many and the cd sound doesn't come close to these beauties. It takes about 4 or 5 playings of these fine recordings for the needle to sit into the groove completely and after those playings, you will hear and experience sounds that will never be reproduced on any cd. I purchased the 5 lp box set last year and couldn't be happier, original mixes, fantastic sound and the wonderful fullness of an lp. As far as clicks and pops, if you take care, keep them clean and don't drop them after a night of partying, lp's will last a lot longer than cd's. Back in the early 90's I did get the cd fever and did replace several of my over 2000 recordings, but stopped short of replacing them all when the ease of a cd did not compare to the sound of an lp. I also use B&O turntable with nakimachie amp and altec speakers, which is undoubtably why the lp's sound so good, but I also run a nak cd player, so without a great source, you won't get the sound you want. My advice, get a turntable, plug it in, buy a record and experience what music really sounds like.
I am still an avid vinyl buyer, with thousands of records. Much of what I listen too exists only in the vinyl format. As for the relative sonic virtues of the format as compared with cds, well, thats a long story! When the cd format first came out it was hailed as perfect reproduction. Of course it sounded like shit, easy to hear with voice or piano, in particular. The quality has improved with time, as has the quality of cd players. It really depends on what we are comparing---what a wonderfully recorded record sounds like on my $5000 turntable compared with a cd on a $200 cd player? Or on a $5000 cd player? And what is the rest of the system like, can it resolve the differences? And are we talking about a source material that was from the early days of digital (total shit) or a fine recording? In general what many folks are now discovering is what others have known all along, vinyl sounds great, and there is no myth to it if you look into the science of sound reproduction. Another point, as for ticks and pops, I prefer them to what happens to cds when they get damaged, they just don't work at all! For me the cd is a FAR more fragile media than vinyl, which takes a lickin' and keeps on, well, ticking! Now of course the great advantage of the cd format for us Heads is the fact you do not need to flip a cd. Very few live bootleg recordings (boards or otherwise) have a signal with a quality that makes much of a difference cd or vinyl (all else equal, which it rarely is!), so if you listen to a lot of live recordings, you might not have much opportunity to hear differences between vinyl and cd. Also the differences often concern sonic features that are often more or less absent in recordings of electronic amplified music, subtle imaging issues, natural harmonic series, and so on. For me most Dead records were write-offs anyway, and the digital age was, and is, a great improvement over all badly presses bootleg records of dead shows, both w.r.t. quality and availibility. What can I say, I am an audio nerd, but then again, I used to bias my Nak before recording live!
was scratched into Neil Young's Tonight's the Night album
right up by the record label.
Grate cryptic messages in those daze.
The Truth is realized in an instant, the act is practiced step by step.
i had an amazing record collection- i was a record buyin' fool-- i tucked ticket stubs and treasure into the sleeves- i alphabetized them...
alas, when i left my then-husband, i took nothing with me. everything else i could replace, but not my records or my dog... i learned to live without both and went on with my life and replaced many many records with cds, but it -- the sound the feel the texture the art the tactile thrill-- isn't the same...
NICE MD outta space.
blair's "where's your stereo, Jer?" question made me think of other "messages" etched into the vinyl.
The Clash had one on each side of London Calling ("In space...no one...can hear you...Clash!") i think. there are others.
any of you know any?
vinyl is good, but not essential. I have many old records that I would be hard pressed (no pun intended) to find on CD. besides, i wouldn't want to replace any of them on CD.
GD is GD.
...we used to have time to listen to records and now we don't? Cranky old man voice: "It's the damn Internet, I say!" Sucks away our free time... Or maybe I'm projecting (again)...
It was a big change of heart. What? I have to be rational about listening to music? Reggae suffered the most - those big, fat juicy 12" dub plates, they just made you feel the bass in your chest and soul. Haven't yet heard/felt that sound in the digital format. I didn't know classical on LP but it certainly sounds fine to me. I love the silence that is so important to the genre and, obviously, you don't have to flip the CD after the 2nd movement of a four movement work. Jazz is right at home in the digital mode for me. The Rudy Van Gelder Blue Note remasters in 24-bit just have the best sound world of any genre - yes, warm. Again, I didn't listen to jazz on vinyl, but my ear tells me the two formats are on a par.
I do love to spend mucho tiempo at a pair of our towns shops going through the jazz vinyl as if I were at a hands-on art gallerey. And this is what's the hardest to have had to give up. I have three LP's framed and on the wall in my listening space at home. Derek & the Dominos, 10-23/24-70, at Fillmore East (a nice, glossy import), Eat A Peach, & ABB, Fillmore East. Each has a story. But whenever I look at these, I'm reminded of the backs of each and, of course, the gatefolds. I, however, must remain positive and be reminded also that to be able to hear Whipping Post into Mountain Jam, uninterrupted, is reason alone to rejoice every time that there is such a thing as a CD. On the other hand, who has time to be uninterrupted?
How 'bout an expanded DP 4 in 24-bit? Or Harpur as is? It's scary to think about!!!
" Steal Your Jazz "