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?
Been collecting for a few years – spent too much money than I care to add up. I do agree that LPs sound “warmer” than CDs, but really I’m in it for the whole experience (mostly what has already been discussed – the artwork, the tactile pleasure of slipping out the platters and dropping the needle, the whole nostalgic aspect of it, etc.). Also, digging through LPs at record stores, garage sales, and thrift stores, is a fantastic way to discover treasures you didn’t know existed. Just a few neat finds:
--3 Mustaphas 3, British world music group --Tubeway Army, early Gary Numan --“Between the Tides” by Roger Eno (Brian’s brother) – gorgeous instrumental album --An Asian import of CCR’s Golden Hits with hilariously-translated lyric sheet --Spanish import of “Sticky Fingers” with the severed hand in the can of treacle (still kicking myself for not buying that one) --Bhagavan Das - Ah --Madhouse – jazz-fusion Prince offerings from 1987
Favorite gatefolds: Bitches Brew and Dead Set (used to gaze at that sucker for hours on end back in college – ‘nuff said).
Weirdest purchase: Lou Reed’s notorious double LP “Metal Machine Music” of which Reed once remarked “Anyone who gets to side 4 is dumber than I am.” When I paid for it, the clerk said to me, warningly, “You HAVE heard this thing before, haven’t you?” While another clerk said “When I saw that LP on our wall I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” Guess the beauty of vinyl is in the eye of the beholder….
whereas one would probably never PLAY those vinyl picture discs, and they'd probably sound like hell if you did, they sure did look trippy. True, you can print anything on a CD these days, but it's not the same.
I'm not sure I own a single one, but they sure were fun to gawk at on the walls of the record stores.
It's true that DJ pressings were sometimes different and "hotter" than what was released commercially (a month or two later). The downside is that there are also records where the bands/producers did NOT like the initial DJ/promo pressings and in fact improved them before the mass pressings were done... Ya just never know...
Hey Man, I am running a Bang & Olufsen turntable that I bought in 1986.Recall those first CD long boxes in those days.Folks were dumping all of that rich wonderful vinyl,cashing it in for the almighty CD. Thanks to an older sibling we always had some cool records kicking around our house. Entertained for hours with the stuff. Today,the thrill of the hunt in record shops is a pastime that I cannot do without.Some of those older DJ copies just blow out the speakers with low volume setting.Closer to the master source I believe.Who wouldn't want that? *My Holy Grail LP: They Call Us Wild by the Wild Magnolias (Barclay# 90033,1974- French Import)
When it was time to separate out seeds, I always reached for my Canned Heat "Living The Blues" album. The cardboard jacket was overlayed with paper that was just slick enough to keep any little bits from being trapped and lost in the grain, and just textured enough to keep the good stuff from sliding down to the bottom with the seeds. Real "grass" roots technology! -Tommo
I'll be darned, there it is! Yikes, another collectors item. Regarding Aoxomoxoa, I was disappointed with it initially, and with What's Become Of The Baby in particular. Over time it grew on me and when the remix was released in '71...that I really hated. All the little weird things that had become endearing had been removed in favor of a more "commercial" sound, I guess. Still haven't replaced my LP with the "original mix" CD. Someday maybe. Steal Your Face is and always will be my least favorite Dead album. I think it sounds even worse than the old board tapes. Thin vocals, annoying kick drum, why go on. Don't know if the CD version is any better. The remix for the movie however is fantastic and one day I hope to get the soundtrack CD set. To the eternal question "don't you have enough Grateful Dead already?" my answer is finally down to a simple "no".
Some great sounding LPs: Garcia first solo-esp. "The Wheel", " Blows Against the Empire", David Crosby, et al "If I could Only remember my name", the first Doors album, the first Dead album, Hendrix, "Electric Ladyland" , Cream, "Disreali Gears", Mountain with "Miss. Queen" , Airplane, "Surr. Pillow", just to name a few. now lets go run and see
I no longer have a vinyl collection anymore (they were "donated" to a friends college aged nephew), however, I LOVED albums. LOVED THEM! I too loved the artwork, the occasional inclusion of the lyrics. I remember after smoking a Marley sized rasta joint, picking up the "From The Mars Hotel" album and staring at it. There was some funky looking scroll work at the top of the album cover (as well as some funky looking renditions of the band members on it as well). After staring at it for 15 minutes or so, I realized that the scroll work at the top actually looked like letters, upside down. I picked up the album and went to the mirror and held it up. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I clearly read "UGLY RUMORS" as the scroll work message!!!! The grin I had on my face froze there for hours! Just a truly stoned instant classic memory for me!
I religiously took care of my albums. I spent some pretty good cash on a Disc Wash cleaning system for them. Cleaned them when I put them on. Cleaned the stylus of the turntable. Used the "Anti-Static" gun on the surface of the album. To this day, I'm sure many of them are still in pristine playing condition.
As soon as I got my paycheck, I would get it cashed, hit "The Music Shack" in downtown and quickly spend every cent I earned on new music. It got so that the owner knew my name and would tell me as soon as I walked in what was new and would show me stuff he knew I'd be interested in. He bought me (meaning he purchased it for the store, but knew that I'd buy it) an import of "Wake of the Flood/From the Mars Hotel" double album. Basically two albums in a special double album cover. I bought a live Hot Tuna album that was pressed in Blue vinyl! One of my most prized possessions was Frank Zappa's "We're Only In It For The Money" album gifted to me by my older brother, who was broke and couldn't afford to buy me a birthday present one year. One of my all-time favorites for sure!
I too went over to CD's since they were more portable, but I truly miss my vinyl collection.
~Don't lend your hand to raise no flag atop no ship of fools!~
how about a complimentary copy of the Europe 72 boxset?
how about telling the powers that be that an GD Orpheum 76 box set is a GREAT idea?
any other Orpheum afficiandos out there?
things are so different. I'm 29, I belong to the CD era and, in fact, I've got no turntable. Nevertheless, that process of buying the album and studying it for weeks it´s not completely dead. I still do that with the new Dead releases. You can bet I will be completely submerged into another world when my Europe 72 Box arrives in September! Furthermore, when I was REALLY short of money and could only buy a couple of CD's per year, I studied deeply each one I bought. I clearly remember listening "Uncle Meat" by The Mothers Of Invention over and over again and reading its booklet for SEVERAL weeks, and I am talking about the era of CD. But, I agree with Blair Jackson: the sleeve art was bigger, booklets (when included) were generally full of photographs and liner notes and lyrics you could read all night long, and having the album divided in sides was really interesting, wise artistic decisions had to be made.