“How do they fit so many songs on something so small?” the customer enquired. He was holding a copy of The Beach Boys Greatest Hits, a twenty-track compilation, on compact disc. It was the late 80s , and although compact discs were still relatively new, the man was in his late twenties, so it was fair to assume that he knew what they were and, more or less, how they worked.
At that stage of the game, we music shop assistants were encouraged to politely enquire of the older customers, prior to taking their money, whether or not they in fact owned a CD player. It often saved a bit of bother later in the day when they’d return product they couldn’t possibly use. The best response I ever received was from a matronly old biddy in her lawn bowl whites. Her response to “have you got a CD player?” was to announce, “I have a washing machine!” Rather than listen to her list her whitegoods, I just let her go. She didn’t return disappointed, but the man in his late twenties did. “It’s not a record,” he explained, handing tThe Beach Boys Greatest Hits back to me. “No it isn’t,” I agreed. The proof, had anyone required it, was etched into the lacquered surface of the disc: an engraving that spiralled from the centre to the edge, left by the stylus that had skidded across its spinning surface.
Not that such a scratch should have interfered with the sound quality of the disc, if the initial news reports hailing the dawn of the digital music revolution were anything to go by. Early ‘Ripley’s Believe It Or Not’-style stories – like the one about the surfing piglet and the rattle snake slithering across the desert with its head stuck in a beer can – appearing in the ‘human interest’ slot after the weather would show how you could smother a CD with tomato sauce, towel it off, bung it into the CD player and still enjoy perfect sound reproduction.
We soon learnt that CDs weren’t so indestructible, but they did prove more durable: by the mid-90s records were phased out in favour of the new format that took up less space, and, it was argued, offered better sound quality. It didn’t take long for the old format to be widely considered obsolete. I remember overhearing a little boy on the other side of a music shop counter trying to convince an incredulous playmate that his grandpa had “heaps of those big, old, black CDs that you have to stick needles into!”
By the mid-90s, a whole generation that had never bought or played a record was coming of age. Here was the first bunch of people in living memory whose vocabulary did not include terms such as ‘gatefold’, ‘flipside’ or ‘inner sleeve’; they were ignorant of the differences between seven- and twelve-inch singles; their hearts didn’t race at the at the merest whiff or trace of the heady and addictive smell of freshly pressed vinyl in a laminated cardboard cover. A whole generation who didn’t know the pleasure of collecting records. Meanwhile, their parents were busy updating their collections, replacing records with the equivalent CD titles.
Of course, vinyl enthusiasts disagreed that CDs offered better sound quality. If you took care of your records and had a decent sound system (ie a turntable, an amplifier and a set of speakers, each of which cost more than a CD player), your records sounded better than CDs because, they argued, the sound records produced was “warmer” – whatever that actually means. Besides, some instruments – particularly acoustic ones – had a tendency to sound “sterile” when recorded digitally.
Afforded the opportunity of hindsound (the aural equivalent of ‘hindsight’) it now can be said that, given a pressing in good condition and good equipment on which to play it, records can produce a comparable sound to compact discs. Furthermore, we are now allowed to admit that there were times when CD mastering left a lot to be desired – capturing and reproducing the limitations of the original recordings, such as tape hiss and signal loss, with the highest fidelity. It took a lot of technological jiggery-pokery to actually recreate that “warm” sound of a record. We know this, even if we still don’t quite know what “warm” means, because, in the case of some artists, their entire back catalogue has been or is being re-released for the third time with alleged better sound quality. By the time you’ve listened to your third copy of your favourite David Bowie, Elvis Costello or Rolling Stones album on CD, you really ought to know whether you’re actually getting your money’s worth this time. However, where vinyl enthusiasts have been vindicated most openly is in the case of original mono pressings of some classic albums. Listen to original mono pressings of Velvet Underground albums, or the Beatles’ ‘White Album’, or early Dylan, and if they don’t quite jump through the speakers and rip your bloody arms off the way Aunty Jack once promised to, they certainly box your ears – in the nicest possible way, of course.
While record collectors stuck by their favourite format, their lives were made difficult by the fact that new records had become an expensive indulgence stocked only by certain specialist stores, imported from overseas as the Australian dollar continued to lose ground on the foreign market. At least, for a time, they could find sought-after titles in second hand shops at a decent price. Meanwhile, a lot of other music lovers have subsequently started to come to their senses, realising that there is more to recorded music than just the music: there is also the packaging, and the sentimental value invested in it. While Japan has begun to reissue CDs in miniature replica album sleeves, complete with facsimile inner sleeves and posters, there are people who are keen to just own their favourite records again, with the cover art and sleevenotes they don’t have to go blind trying to enjoy, and – if pressed to admit it – that “warm” sound they still can't quite define. However, re-purchasing the records you once owned and loved is now an expensive exercise, and often a work-intensive one, taking place either on-line or in specialist collector stores. Demand has ensured that they are no longer as cheap as they were when you were replacing them with CDs. Despite this, discerning collectors turn down those compact discs because they still know full well:
“It’s not a record”.
Thinking about the habits of record buyers, and an unfortunate addiction to this here blogging business, led me to dust of this piece of writing that has been kicking around for a couple of years. It was composed during the lead-up to one of the Glebe Record Fairs (inaugurated and run by Egg Records) with the encouraging information of the owner that “we know people at newspapers and could maybe get you editorial”. As usual, it got me didley squat – but I’m quite happy with the writing that resulted, apart from the fact that after such a good start and an excellent (for me) series of gags, it ended weakly with no real conclusion. And in the end, even as a minor record collector, I don’t think that I agree with my ‘findings’ as such. I don’t particularly care much for mono first editions of anything, although mono editions of Beatles records interest me when the mixes or edits differ markedly to their stereo equivalents (the mono Sgt Pepper’s, for example, features a shorter version of ‘She’s Leaving Home’, in a higher key – well, it doesn’t really, it features the same one sped up a bit – as well as a number of other anomalies and variations; the mono ‘White Album’ has a shorter version of ‘Helter Skelter’ because it doesn’t fade back in after it fades out – unfortunately depriving monophiles of Ringo Starr’s shouted statement, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”).
In addition to collecting Beatles song variations, some albums must be owned on vinyl purely for the packaging. The original pressing of the compilation album Monty Python’s Instant Record Collection, for example, came in an elaborate cover that could be folded and inserted in such a way as to resemble a whole pile of records. The Japanese ‘LP replica’ CD reissue has yet to be released.
Apart from that, I’m usually interested in owning different editions for the variations in artwork or content – there’s an English pressing of Cream’s Wheels of Fire, for example, that saw fit to ‘improve’ upon Martin Sharp’s excellent psychedelic artwork by printing it in negative and reversing the front and back covers. Thus, collecting vinyl mostly seems to come down to the medium rather than the music, but to explore this properly would require a whole other piece of writing.