Saturday, November 12, 2011

Four Decades of Love and Vinyl

I'm not sure I have it in me to write the way I used to but I'm going to give this a shot because I need a distraction from the plethora of one-sentence stream-of-consciousness status updates I do on Facebook.

For the past several weeks I've been seriously into vinyl records again and rediscovering some old classics that I had when I was in my teens. It's bringing back a flood of memories.

Music has always been such an important part of my life. In fact it was the most important part until love came along and bumped it into the #2 slot.

It really amazes me how much the world has changed since I was a teen. I always had a number of pen pals -- mostly in Europe. We would exchange letters and occasionally cassette tapes so we could speak to each other and share music. It was a slow process and is positively archaic in this day and age when I can connect with Europeans, or anyone else, in real time.

During the 70s I had a friend in the Netherlands who gave me my first introduction to Queen. I came to love the band and quickly had collected their first 6 albums -- News of the World from 1977 being the sixth and my least favorite thanks in no small part to the opening tracks "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions." The two prior releases, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races were hard to beat.

In 1978 I left home and went off to college with a stereo system and crates of records in tow. The University of Arkansas had a radio station on campus and one day I noticed they were in need of some DJs. I went to a meeting which was sparsely attended and was given the opportunity for 2 hours per week during a night shift, from 12a -2a if I recall correctly. This was such a great experience! I had access to a vast library of music and being able to share what I wanted to play with a lot of other people was a dream come true. (OK, so the reality is there were probably not more than 15 or 20 people listening to the station! And even though it was FM, they were not even broadcasting in stereo at the time.)

Prior to each shift, the DJs would go in early and start assembling the records for their playlist. New releases would arrive frequently and those were always targeted. I will never forget sitting there at a table flipping through a stack of albums and suddenly my heart stopped for a second. There it was: the new Jazz album by Queen! I have no recollection of which song I played from it though.

From 1979 into 1980 I was discovering punk and new wave music. And I'm not sure who wrote the rules, but I was under the impression that all old stuff had to go to make room for the new. It was no longer cool to be a fan of Queen, Deep Purple, Rush, Jethro Tull or the countless other icons of the 70s. All of that got unloaded and suddenly I was starting over with bands such as the Ramones, Gang of Four, Sex Pistols, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. And I eventually had a collection that would rival what I had collected during the 70s!

Little did I know while I was spinning records over the air in 1978, in five short years my musical tastes would have changed drastically and I'd be living in London working at the HMV Shop -- one of the world's greatest record stores -- on the 3rd floor though, where VHS tapes and computer hardware & software was sold, along with a couple of racks of these new things called "compact discs."

I bought my first compact disc there before I even had a CD player! Scores of LP records were also purchased. Suffice it to say that whatever I was earning at the store was getting pumped right back into the tills and then some! I didn't actually have a hi-fi system in London so all the LP records were just being accumulated for when I returned to the States. However, I did buy a Phillips CD player (in 1984 that was $400, by the way!) into which I could plug headphones and get my music fix that way.

Right before I left London, I acquired a top-notch amp and set of audiophile speakers to go with my CD player, and arranged to have this shipped to my home in Arkansas. There it was united for the first time with my turntable and I had the best of both worlds.

By 1986 hard rock and heavy metal were making their presence felt in my soul again. (Lord, do I even need to go down this road?) Suddenly I was losing interest in so much of the music I had been collecting since 1980 and was fondly remembering all the records I had collected during my youth and wishing I had so many of them back such as the early Led Zeppelin releases.

It was a strange era as I was still straddling the technology fence. I still had a lot of vinyl I knew I'd never want to get rid of, and I was also buying new releases in the CD format when I could find them.

In 1987 I set up a big yard sale of LP records and CDs, as well as my London-purchased CD player since I had recently acquired a new one. The technology was still relatively new at the time so most of that stuff sold pretty quickly and for a decent price. I raised enough money to fly back to London for a couple of weeks and visit the old stomping grounds.

By this time the HMV had expanded their CD selection considerably! In fact, vinyl records only comprised a small section on the ground floor!

I look back with some level of embarrassment at my actions through the years. It's fine to get rid of things if you are sure you no longer want or need them, but in so many cases I was unloading music because I didn't think it was cool to own it, not because I had really lost interest in it. (I have never regretted selling the Controversy CD by Prince; that I can assure you.)

After 1990 I had found love in the form of another man, and music started to ride in the back seat. Not long after we met, when we were still living in our first apartment, my beloved audiophile amp got spiked during a rare electrical storm in Hollywood. Not having the funds to replace it, I bought a basic run-of-the-mill SONY all-in-one tuner & amp. That probably wasn't the best pairing with my $1500 speakers but it worked. And I was strictly in the CD realm by this time, and did not own a turntable. Yet I clung to 400 vinyl LP records like they were family jewels. Thankfully I never had to move them much since we only moved twice in Los Angeles before coming to Austin in 1997.

Another revelation was hitting me during the decade of the 90s: it's OK to like multiple genres of music. Wow! You mean, no one is going to think I'm uncool because I like punk and jazz, hard rock and Joni Mitchell? Even a little country here and there? The CD collection was soaring and probably surpassed my vinyl LP collection during that time.

I'm thinking it was around 2000 when I started hearing a buzzing in one of the tweeters. My prized audiophile speakers from London were dying. I can't help but wonder if this wasn't in some way related to me pairing them up with that SONY amp/tuner for several years.

The man who lived for music was suddenly reduced to listening on a Bose Wave desktop CD/radio or on the CD player with this surround-sound system used with the television. And it seemed OK since I'd already lost my high-end amp a decade earlier.

A couple of years went by and I decided I wanted to take steps to get back to the original audiophile sound I had enjoyed so much from 1984 - 1991. Being unsuccessful at getting the English-made components repaired in the US, I bought a new amp and a short time later a new turntable, both made in England like my original setup. This did not get used as much as I expected because I was still lacking speakers, and this setup was not compatible with the Bose stuff. I would occasionally put on headphones and listen to a record or a CD, but that clearly was not the end result I was so desperately craving.

It's been less than 2 years since I finally bit the bullet and ordered two high-end speakers to complete my heavenly system. So to put this in the proper perspective, I, Mr. High Fidelity snob, had gone from 1991 all the way into 2009 without an optimal listening apparatus! And it was even more astounding when I was able to compare the new system with the sound that was coming from the Bose system. I had no idea how much sound I'd been missing! To be fair to Bose, that system is just fine for movies and other television programs; it just wasn't delivering the music as well as I wanted. (I've since completely disconnected the Bose system and I'm even running TV programs through the hi-fi speakers now.)

From 2009 until the present I was enjoying some of the vinyl from my collection but I was mostly still playing (and still buying) CDs because of their "superior sound" and because no one makes records these days, right? After getting the new speakers, I did splurge one last time and got a truly high-end CD player. You can argue amongst yourselves whether that was a wise move, and whether the sonic difference is detectable versus a $100 unit. If nothing else, it'll likely last a lot longer. And I'm a high-fidelity snob, remember? How would I ever impress another audiophile snob if I had a fantastic system hooked to a $159 Onkyo 6-disc CD changer -- even if it features Vector Linear Shaping Circuitry?

The real irony here is that I've also become reunited with the act of purchasing vinyl again, and not just used vinyl, but some new releases. Among my recent additions are: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix, the debut by Vampire Weekend as well as their Contra LP, The Chemistry of Common Life by Fucked Up, and some oldies such as a reissued box set of the first five Grateful Dead albums, Hemispheres by Rush, A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera by Queen, and Alice Cooper's Muscle of Love. How's that for uncool diversity?

Thanks to vinyl I have also added another genre to my favorites list: rap/hip-hop! Some NWA and Public Enemy that would absolutely be among my top-10 albums of all time! I have more to say about this but will save it for the next post.

And did I mention I just found an original issue of Queen's Jazz? Sadly, it was missing the big original poster of the naked fat-bottomed girls preparing for the bicycle race, but we can't have it all.

They all sound positively mind-blowing on vinyl. In fact, I may never buy another CD if at all possible. What a long strange 40 years of musical transformations this has been.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great to read this. I can so relate. I was obsessed with Queen and David Bowie in my teenage years, I nearly wore my copy of Night at the Opera right out. I fell in love with Freddie when he sang the sweetest love song ever, 'Love of my Life'. What a voice! I still love him, but like you got rid of all my old vinyl in the 80's. Poor Queen were sooo unfashoinable. But I am pleased to see a resurgence in popularity. I saw the musical 'We Will Rock You',a couple of years ago, written by Ben Elton. Go if you ever get the chance. And I am looking forward to the Biopic on Freddie coming out next year starring Sasha Baron Cohen. I hope he can do justice to that voice.
Great to have a meaty read from you. Thanks
Kiwigirl!

KUAF alum said...

Dude! I care nothing about Queen, I do love old records,but I read this because I worked at KUAF in the same era -- and this brought back a whole fresh flood of wonderful memories. Which one were you? When was your show. If you don't want to take the stream in this direction contact me at voorhies@uark.edu.

konagod said...

Voorhies....that name I've definitely seen and remember it from somewhere. Yearbook maybe. Didn't live in Yocum Hall did you?

I probably got into KUAF in the fall of 1978 or spring of 1979 at the very latest. Pretty sure I was in the midnight to 2a slot although probably filled in for others whenever I could. Loved that gig!

I just open up my 79 yearbook and don't see any Voorhies in the index but there is a huge photo in the index of a dude pulling a record out of a huge rack!!

Margot said...

I remember having that revelation about multiple genres at about the same time! Ah, the embarrassment of youth...

I admire your devotion to vinyl and kit. You would decry my listening methodology, now paired down to just mp3s and Bose. Truly the lazy-arsed fan. Or maybe I just have a tin ear.

Marj.

Margot said...

pared. Sheesh!