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 have love for it now, but didn't at the time. SYF still feels "wrong" to me...sequencing, performances. Just not that good...
Hey, Stolzfus, is it really Terrapin Station that has the message etched in it? I thought it was Blues for Allah. Guess I should know the answer before I throw out a pop quiz! ;-) But I don't own either on vinyl any more...