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?
Fifteen years without a working turntable -- the day the belt on my old Technics gave up the ghost was it. I was a both-feet-in-never-turning-back CD guy from that point forward...not that I was giving my vinyl many spins after about 1990 regardless, but also not that I was giving away my vinyl either (that large-format aesthetic appeal never goes away).
Two years ago I started looking at turntables...the lure was the USB thing so that I could digitize some albums that I'd never replaced on CD (or were never released...Hello Neil Young! What's the deal with "Time Fades Away?" I know you hate that album, but lots of us love it..come on!). The USB turntables that I saw were kinda crappy to be honest, so I bought a decent mid-range turntable and the interface and software that I needed to rip my albums to my hard drive.
Two years have passed, and I've yet to even come close to digitizing any of my analogues. I found out that I really wanted a turntable so that I could listen to my vinyl again. This has sent me on the road to rediscovering my own personal "vault" and off to trolling the used vinyl bins for hidden treasures, a much more satisfying experience than thumbing the cd racks or surfing Amazon. Or iTunes.
And aside from all of the other points made here about vinyl v other formats, the listening experience itself is profoundly different with the shorter playing length of the vinyl format. In addition to "less filler," vinyl albums were sequenced differently from CDs, due to the side 1, side 2 thing. Remember the albums that had just one side that you always played? Wasn't it strange to listen to the CD version and hear the whole thing? Was it a better experience, or did you wonder, "Where did these other songs come from?"
So in addition to used albums, I'm buying current vinyl (with included CDs or downloads, so I don't lose portability) from bands that quite clearly love vinyl (Wilco, Drive-By Truckers, Elvis Costello, etc).
It's quite evident, for example, that Elvis Costello's 2-record "National Ransom" was sequenced as a double vinyl album. Each side is a short suite of songs, with a pretty well -defined beginning-middle-end, and it shows in the flow of the songs. That flow is severely compromised when listening to the CD version of the same album. The album plays much better as four sides of vinyl than it does as a listen-through-the-whole-thing experience.
I own about double the number of CDs as vinyl albums, but my current buying habits are closer to a 50-50 split. I'm glad vinyl is back, but I don't want to lose CDs either, especially to downloads. The available format choices make this the best of times for music lovers, IMHO. I'd hate to lose any of them.
Blair, you hooked me with this topic as vinyl is near and dear to my heart. Yeah, you have pops and ticks that are annoying but if you have a clean slab of vinyl with a good cartridge and turntable you can get to heaven. I also prefer tube amplification generally and use Klipsch speakers-the old kind which are now dubbed "Heritage". They are high efficiency, don't need a lot of wattage and go well with tubes and vinyl. You need a good quiet turntable that maintains the right speed consistently. I use an old Sansui direct drive SR 929 with a Nagioka cartridge. Now lets go run and see PS: glad to hear some Dicks Picks will be vinylized.
when i was younger, my favorite gatefold was eat a peach. i looked at that thing for hours! glad thing the music was good, too!!!
Vinyl does have a 'warmth' to the sound while CD's are crisp and bright but the volume is lower to allow for flux and flow in the sound.
Just to go to the record stores and spend hours going throught the racks and picking albums from radio listening, friends recs, general rumor mill twattal, and cool album art.
Best pick was some used store in a converted house, they had an first release of "From The Mars Hotel" and Reflections.
Still have the dead vinyl and the boots, (fillmore 2/13/70 Darkstar>OtherOne>Lovelight 4sides cool art work of a crashed starship)
But with new cd's every day it seems just have time to listen to the new stuff,
Hey new Neil today from International Harvesters (not on vinyl)
Commin in sept more Hendrix (will be available on vinyl)
Dicks Picks on vinyl ? uh - overkill
better to release the next Road Trips as a vinyl alternative to check the market.
Hey sailbystars I was at The Eel in '89 great Jerry show very Hot day so slow Jer tunes this should be released (not on vinyl) Missed the Dr. John opener, spent too long on the bus.
Reckoning was the best vinyl could listen to side three all day and night.
But LiveDead and WishYou Were Here are much improved by cd tracking. (no flip)
And Europe '72 : The Complete recordings are now 73 cds long what would that be in vinyl
hmmmm 20 minutes per side so 146 or so vinyl for the tour that's alot of flips.
The Sky Was Yellow And The Sun Was Blue
People Stopping Strangers Just To Shake Their Hand.
Downloading albums is SO not happening as an aesthetic experience...
is that in the olden days, we used to hike miles to the record store to buy albums on the day they came out and THEN spend days studying the album cover. These days, eh, download.
I'd say unequivocally all those albums you mention are bootlegs, so their "origin" is mysterious...
Spot quiz, everyone! On which Grateful Dead album is the phrase "Where's your stereo, Jer?" etched in the vinyl next to the label on the original pressings? (At least I think that's what it said...I no longer own the vinyl myself, so I'm goin' on memory here...)
Well not really. I have managed to hold on to about 6 feet worth of albums going back to 1967 with Surrealistic Pillow and The Doors debut as my first "cool" records. I don't miss the pops and scratches and an occasional inferior pressing, but I truly miss the artwork. In '77 I replaced all my Beatles albums with English pressings, in part because the jackets were like photo stock. Also found a British "Anthem" in a cut-out bin, and man is that cover purple! Soundwise my hearing isn't what it used to be and any "warmth" would be lost on me. I do consider my albums (and some old hissy tapes) old friends though, and I know I'll never feel that way about a CD or a download.
Can someone tell me about the origin of these GD albums I have in my collection. Not one of these appears in the GD releases and 3 out of the 4 have homemade drawn artwork.
1. Called: The Cowboy's Dead! Live at Harpur Spring "70
2. Mountains of the Moon, studio sessions, songs are from Aoxomoxoa,outtakes from the sprig of 1969, and Warlock's Demo 11/3/65. Big Bang Records ylem 1
3. Grateful Dead featuring Steve Winwood from Anderson theatre New Your 11/2/1970, made in Germany and Produced by The Stoneys with cover design by The Stoneys. It says it's a limited edition of 600 numbered copies, I have #0347.
4. Grateful Dead recorded live in concert '69 no other information.
No Hype, just love. There is a difference. A "warmth " if you will. Equipment does matter. If you have have low end equipment, the vinyl sound will blow you away. If you have higher end end, I have Marantz amp and cd player, then the difference is not as pronounced, but it is still a noticeable difference. With the intense focus and diligent work of the engineers on the digital work of the Grateful Dead, the difference becomes even smaller But that is what the Dead always stood for...the sound. Searching for the sound. That is what it is all about. They have done that from day one...and to the planets delight they are doing it to this day. The work that they do and have done in the past have pushed the boundaries of what we hear and more importantly ,what we feel when we listen to music, which by the way, is the gateway to the soul.