Vinyl: Once and Future Music

I was surprised to read recently that the vinyl analog record is making a comeback in this digital age.

It was in the late 70s in New York City when I first heard an album (I think it was one of the Talking Heads’ LPs) that bragged it had been recorded digitally.  It wasn’t many more years until digital bypassed the old form completely and vinyl records became as unlikely to find in a modern music store as 8-track tapes.

But they’ve always been made, even at their lowest ebb.  And now, with the CD withering, people are playing vinyl records again at home and putting mp3 tracks on their iPod when more portability is required.  The new turntables have USB ports and can be plugged into a computer, perfect for making mp3 tracks. 

victrola The new vinyl records are heavier, with sound reproduced more faithfully.  The records may even turn at 45 rpm rather than 33 1/3, which apparently also improves the quality.

Audiophiles have always preferred the warmer, more real sound of the analog LP to the crisp (brittle?) sound of digital recordings.  CDs have apparently fallen victim to what’s been called “the loudness war” in order to make an impact, and as they get louder, their dynamic range decreases.

I’ve missed the liner notes and the artwork from the old LPs.  It’s just not the same in the smaller CD format, although some artists have tried valiantly, enclosing booklets and posters, tightly folded, inside.

Apparently Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd have started releasing vinyl.  A new release from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, is available as a vinyl LP as well as a CD.  (That unusual collaboration, Led Zep and bluegrass, really sounds good by the way.  Krauss has a beautiful voice and it blends surprisingly well with Plant’s.)

All of this gives me an opportunity to reminisce and wax nostalgic over my own LP collection.  I’ve never got around to moving them over to digital, but now with these new turntables it could get much easier.

Many of us, I’m sure, if we’re of a certain age, will have an LP collection dating back to highschool and college.  In my case, I still have some of the LP’s my mother loved, and that her three boys listened to at the threshold of our teenage years.

joshwhite In our move to the wilds of northern British Columbia from Washington State when I was eleven years old, my father even saw fit to take up several boxes of fragile 78s, old even then.  Of course to play them we lugged along an ancient wind-up Victrola with steel needles and a sound trumpet.  We were nothing if not completists.  I still have a few albums of those 78s, full of foxtrots and Josh White, 45 years later, somehow gathering them to me though I live now in southern and urban British Columbia.

But it was the 33 1/3 LPs that we played on a small battery operated record player in a log cabin during long nights of 30 below weather outside that I remember well.  After my father passed away in the early 60s, the records helped to mitigate our brand-new condition: what would happen now?

Weavers What happened was we listened to The Weavers at Carnegie Hall (from 1956), and the enthusiasm they pumped into The Rock Island Line and Good Night Irene.  The folk music revival was full upon us, and so we had LPs from The New Christy Minstrels, The Limeliters, and Harry Belafonte at the Greek Theatre in 1963.  Belafonte sang that immortal classic, Zombie Jamboree:

Back to back, belly to belly
I don’t give a damn, I done dead already
Oho back to back, belly to belly
At the Zombie Jamboree

The brothers and I enjoyed chanting that one a lot.

My mother liked an odd assortment of music from My Fair Lady to PDQ Bach to Paul Horn’s Inside.  The latter, especially, of the jazz flutist’s soulful playing inside the echoing acoustics of the Taj Mahal, was a favorite until she died many years later of multiple sclerosis.  It always moved and even, perhaps, spiritually sustained her.

She especially enjoyed Anna Russell, the comedic classical pianist and singer, who seemed to be almost always as out of tune a singer as my mother agreed she herself was.  Another classical comedian, Victor Borge, was also on a LP we listened to often.

Another favorite were the Swingle Singers who won a Grammy in the Sixties for a swinging jazz choir rendering of Bach and baroque composers, and who are still performing today.

imagesIf you’re old enough, you may remember how incredibly popular Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass were for a few years.  They were popular with us, too.   I am still the proud owner of A Treasury of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, a multi-album set in a presentation box by The Longines Symphonette Recording Society.  This was a music label owned by the Longines watch company which hawked its wares as kind of a high class LP of the Month Club. 

Of course, as my brothers and I entered our teenage years, what my mother liked became much less important to us.

The Rolling Stones and the Moody Blues, along with the Beatles, began to appear on our little turntable, with Neil Young and Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks not far behind.

We never thought in those days that technology would pass us by — we were modern, after all — although our grandmother talked about having lived from the horse carriage to the moon walk.

Perhaps horse carriages are in our future now as well, given the coming energy crunch.  But I am looking forward to buying my first LP in many years, whatever it turns out to be.

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7 Comments on “Vinyl: Once and Future Music”

  1. emalyse Says:

    Vinyl sales here in the UK surged last year by 40% I believe whilst CD sales declined. Fightstar are to release their next single as a new VinylDisc format (one side is CD the other is vinyl ref:http://tinyurl.com/2c8qhg). I think the punter wants a physical product that they can treasure. The physical size and fragility of vinyl may make the experience special and oddly appeals to a generation that never experienced vinyl 1sat time around so it has that retro appeal. There is also a rise in artists recording on analogue albeit esoteric high end analogue equipment.


  2. My oldest son discovered all my vinyl stored in a box under the bed a few years ago when he was fifteen, and fell in love with it, hunted until he found me a turntable. He’ll be thrilled to know Dylan’s coming out on vinyl. In the meantime, we’ve been, as my kids say, ‘doing it old school,’ round here, Dylan, Pink Floyd, CCR, The Eagles and The Beatles, and of course, the one who brought me to your blog in the first place. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers :-) Have you caught the documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream, on the history of Petty and his band?

  3. fencer Says:

    Hi emalyse,

    Nice to hear from you…

    That VinylDisc is pretty bizarre: 70 minute CD on one side and 3-minute vinyl disc to play on a turntable on the other.

    I think we’re onto a trend here!

    The vinyl is coming around again, but refined and updated it seems like.

    Regards

    ———–

    Hi soundofbuilding,

    Thanks for dropping by…

    That’s kind of a turnabout isn’t it, the younger generation taking a serious interest in their parents’ music, including the format it came in. It’s positively life-affirming!

    Yes, that was the documentary on Tom Petty I bought as part of a package on DVD. For some reason only available right now at Best Buy stores…

    I remember as a kid being forced to sit around with my parents and watch Perry Como and friends sing on TV. Talk about boring, watching people sing… But now I’m hooked on DVDs of my favorite bands, although I would argue they are all a bit livelier than Perry and none wear cardigans.

    Regards

  4. qazse Says:

    Great post fencer. I remember that time when the parents were the ones who had the coin and made the music purchases which in turn became part of the collective family culture and vibe. Burl Ives, the Limelighters, Spike Jones, the Buffalo Bills, Mitch Miller come to mind. We were fortunate to be exposed to people who appreciated the unique value of music.

    Thank you for turning me on to the USB ported turntable. At $99 it is very covetable. I have over 500 LPs which I cherish. I even have a Dan Hicks! I also have Fugs, MC5, David Bromberg, Steely Dan, Beatles, Gerry Rafferty, Parliament, Lee Michaels, the Stones, Paul Kanter… I gotta stop… Flip Wilson, Ray Charles Singers, Johnny Mathis, … here, I must stop here… Aretha, Stevie, Curtis,… Beac….

  5. qazse Says:

    Brian Auger, Oregon, Julie Tippets, Credence, J. Geils,..slap… Black Sabbath, Humble Pie, Roxy Music, Chick Corea, Stephane Grapelli, …please help me stop … Muddy Waters, Boz Scaggs, Charlie Rich, Hot Tuna,…Savoy Brown…slap!

  6. fencer Says:

    Hey, qazse,

    Now that’s a record collection! I think your tastes are even wider ranging than mine… I don’t even recognize some of those names. Give me a hint… Brian Auger, Julie Tippets?

    I remember we listened to Burl Ives quite a bit as youngsters too.

    My brothers, and their friends, and I just loved Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks (along with The Lickettes) when we first discovered them.

    Let me know how the USB turntable works out if you get one… I still have my old Kenwood turntable which I used to get out to make mix tapes (haven’t done that for awhile).

    Regards

  7. qazse Says:

    I have mixed many a tape in my day. It took a lot of work to keep all those sundry albums flowing from one to the next at a consistent decibel level.

    Brian Auger played the organ and was one of the pioneers in jazz-rock fusion (with overtones of world and funk). Julie (Driscoll) Tippets sang with him off and on through the years. His music is in the social consciousness joy spring school.

    Julie has had her own gigs. I believe she was more into the avant-garde aspects of voice.

    When I do get around to getting a USB table one I will give you my reaction.

    Best


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