March 29, 2014

Were you into vinyl before it was cool?

By "being into," I mean that it was a conscious choice among alternative formats. And browsing through the NYT archive for articles about "vinyl," it looks like it became cool during the 2000s. Before then, when it was also a conscious choice, is roughly the mid-to-late 1980s through the '90s.

Today I was reminded of the two main things that turned me on to records in the mid-'90s: selection and price. Nothing romantic.

Not the sound quality — it sounds great, and distinct from CDs, but not a difference that would make me want to convert my CD collection into vinyl. And not the status points — back then, there were no status points to be gained, and even now I would gain little once I revealed what it was that I bought on vinyl (not classic rock, punk, grunge, or indie).

I'm visiting home and stopped by the local thrift store, which had several dozen crates full of records. I hadn't even gone there looking for them, I just figured why not browse around after having scored something that I did come looking for, a vintage afghan (black with gold and cream patterns). Right away they started popping up, and within ten minutes, I had a handful of albums that are difficult to find on CD, let alone for a buck a piece in mint condition. The Bangles, David Bowie, Bonnie Tyler, The Go-Go's, Paul Young, Bryan Adams, and Stacey Q (only a 12" single, but more than I've ever seen on CD).

The only one that I've even seen before on CD ("in the wild") was All Over the Place, the debut power-pop album by the Bangles. I have that on CD, but the hits from the others I only have on compilations or greatest hits: "Blue Jean," "Total Eclipse of the Heart," "Every Time You Go Away," "Two of Hearts"... and I don't think I have "Head Over Heels" or "Summer of '69" on anything. Yet for the price of one crappy download on iTunes — with 95% of the sound compressed out — I got the entire album that each hit song came from.

It may be new wave and synth-pop today, but 15 to 20 years ago I was still bored by contempo music and looking back for something entertaining. As now, it was mostly the '80s, a decent amount from the '70s, and a handful from the '60s. Only more on the avant-garde or experimental side, compared to more well known stuff that I dig now. Starting in college, you should be getting over your adolescent insecurity about needing to prove how obscure and unique your tastes are, and that's the only real change in my vinyl-buying habits — who the groups are, not the larger reasons of selection and price.

Some of that stuff was available on CD back then, but it was expensive. On the CD racks at Tower Records, there were several columns of just Frank Zappa, but they were closer to $20 than $15. If you dropped by any used record store, though, you could find them used and in good condition for about five to ten bucks.

And other material was either not released on CD, was out of print, or was otherwise damn rare to find on CD. Yet I had no problem finding a couple albums and a single by Snakefinger, the guitarist who frequently collaborated with The Residents. But unlike the most famous obscure band in history, Snakefinger was actually a working musician instead of a performance artist, and was a superior songwriter and performer.

As an aside, if you're looking for something unheard-of, but can't stand how weird the typical weird band sounds, check out his stuff from the late '70s and early '80s. He recorded a cover of "The Model" by Kraftwerk that's more uptempo and danceable yet also more haunting than the original. (None of his own music is very dance-y, BTW, in case you're allergic to moving your body.)

Anyway, it struck me as odd that someone would be into vinyl for practical reasons. There really is a lot out there that can be had for cheap if you buy records, without compromising sound quality.

It's not an analog vs. digital thing either. Tapes are analog, but they sound pathetic compared to either records or CDs. Video tapes are the same way. Does that make laser discs the next target for hipster status contests? If so, better hit up your thrift stores soon before they're scavenged by the status-strivers. At the same place today, I found a perfect copy of the director's cut of Blade Runner on laser disc for five bucks. Don't know when I'll be able to actually play it, but...


  1. Johnny Caustic3/29/14, 4:28 AM

    "Head Over Heels" is a great song, but the hidden gem on the Go-Go's Talk Show is "Yes Or No". Love it.

    I'm Gen X, maybe a decade older than you, and got into vinyl when it was the only hi-fi choice. Now I keep it because I've accumulated a lot of obscure import and classical records that I think never made it to CD. The prize being Lazar Berman's 1963 recording of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, which I think is the best recording of those pieces ever; amazing that it's never been transferred to CD.

    Before "Two of Hearts", Stacey Q fronted a band called SSQ whose debut single "Synthicide" is my favorite thing she ever did. (Stacey Q was just SSQ rebranded.) Grab it if you find it. (It's on both the SSQ album and Stacey Q's Greatest Hits.) SSQ/Stacey Q's songwriter/guitarist Jon St. James also did another female-fronted band named Bardeux whose album "Bold as Love" gave us a pop hit "Magic Carpet Ride" in the same vein as "Two of Hearts", also worth picking up. That album was more consistent than the Stacey Q albums, actually.

  2. They had a ton of classical records there, too, but I have no clue which ones are better recordings than the others, and left them alone for the moment. If new wave sounds gutted and hollow on mp3, I can't imagine how bad Beethoven must sound on an iPhone.

    When I re-discovered "Two of Hearts" on a compilation, I looked up what she'd done before. I only checked out the video for "Screaming in My Pillow" because, well, Stacey Q naked. "Synthicide" is one of the coolest song titles, though, I'll have to keep my eyes peeled. I didn't even touch the boxes of 45's yesterday because I was pressed for time and none had identifying covers, just white paper sleeves.

    That's another lure of vinyl -- the cover art is way bigger and beckoning. It makes you more willing to take a chance on something you've never heard. I almost picked this one up just for the cover that looks like the VHS packaging of a rent-only horror movie:

    Invitations by Shakatak

  3. Movie buffs should check out laserdiscs while they're still cheap. I've been buying them for 2 years and it's amazing what you can score at a Rasputin if you've got thirty bucks to blow. Like LPs, their image quality isn't as good as the disc counterpart (though apparent the sound is better than DVD, if that matters), and there are no status points to earn, since people don't even know what laserdiscs are anymore, but some LDs were never released on DVD, and the astronomical pressing price of the LD format makes for a narrow history. Nobody printed Laserdiscs of their home videos, or their indie movies. If they did, then that LD is rare. And you can usually bet that only one person ever owned the laserdisc you just found, and often the receipt is still in the box ($80 for Jurassic Park in 1994!?). Plus you get a 1 sq ft piece of poster art as the case.

    Amoeba recently tripled the prices of their laserdiscs. The hipsters are catching on. Rasputin is slow to raise the price though, so go there.

  4. I saw "Drowning by Numbers" recently, the only Greenaway movie I've seen. It has a great modern classical soundtrack from Michael Nyman, apparently based on the second movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante. I've been listening to it over and over. Puts me in a good mood.

  5. I'm a bit of an audiophile (and a little older than you, I think - real Gen X), and can shine some light on this. Vinyl never went out of style in Germany and parts of eastern Europe. Communism froze things in those societies, and when the Wall came down, you can imagine the caliber of music that was discovered in basements from East Berlin to Budapest. Today, people spend between $2000-$100,000 on turntables, especially German ones. Vinyl is being produced in new pressings; retail between $20-30 for the classic-classic rock albums.

    I inherited a wonderful collection of classical music vinyl from my father and now have enough $ to buy a good turntable. Let me say this: not only does serious music sound feeble on mp3, but unless it's SACD, and even then, vinyl is warmer and more full-bodied. It is more immediate. I routinely buy treasures for $3-6 each at NYC bookstores - I mean Deutsche Gramophone, EMI Historic Recordings, etc.

    If you have space and can afford $2000 on a turntable and phono stage preamp, perhaps even less, vinyl is a good thing to have around. I use all three formats, but nothing beats the ritual of putting on a record. besides, reading the back cover is the best way to learn about classical music...and there's also the tiki lounge, Martin Denny record covers, but that's a different discussion.

    @Johnny Caustic:
    I have a 1965 Lazar Berman record of Schumann's 1st Piano Sonata - so I know where you're coming from. With classical in particular, there older performers from the golden age are not always available on CD.

  6. Vinyl was the format of choice amongst hip hop and dance music folk all through the 1990s, and never really went out of fashion, for the obvious reasons that they're DJs and had decks and that's the format they played. And hip hop and dance music fans cared a lot about warmth of the sound over sharp high end fidelity (its largely bass and beat driven music) and spent a lot of time pouring over old funk vinyls (for samples and inspiration).

    I tuned out of that scene at around the early 2000s (was never really much a member), so I don't really know how it was then, but they were very militant about it at during the 1990s.


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