When I was a boy, my family had had vinyl records and a “hi-fi.” My dad had a closet in the house with the “hi-fi” within it. All the equipment was silver and looked like this:
Big knobs. Glow lights. Dials. Under no circumstances could we touch or adjust the dials. I was in awe of this contraption. It also included a Technics turntable that looked like this:
These were wired to large wooden speakers in the living room. (Once as a child I pretended to the Incredible Hulk and smashed one of these speakers into the wall.)
The Mystery of Vinyl:
Most mysterious of all was the turntable and the vinyl records.They were mysterious and sacro-sanct. We kids could not touch them. Music was fragile. It could be scratched or broken. Here are the records I remember seeing stored away near the turntable:
- Beatles, Revolver
- Beatles, Abbey Road
- Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour
- Michael Jackson, Thriller
- Mannheim Steamroller Christmas
- Neil Diamond (I don’t remember the album title)
It was a big deal to “listen to music.” Forget about mp3s or streaming music. The only thing streaming near my home was an actual stream. There weren’t even remotes. Everything was manual.
My dad would take a record out of the sleeve, and gently set it on the turntable as we watched. The light would come on and the turntable would spin and the needle would move. A few buttons would send the music into the speakers in the next room. And then after a few songs, the music would stop. On Michael Jackson’s Triller, the song thriller ended Side A and you had to get an adult to manually turn over the vinyl in order to listen to Side B where you’d get “Beat It” as the lead off song.
Enter the CD and the Death of Vinyl
In 1989, my mom bought my dad a CD player and this whole “flip the record” arrangement ended.
However, I soon inherited my uncle’s LP collection and discovered Jimi Hendrix, Peter Frampton, Credence Clearwater Revival, and Bill Cosby comedy albums. Vinyl was no longer cool, but in a world without Pandora, Spotify, and the internet, this was the only way to have access to “unknown” music.
When I turned 16, there was a CD player in the car and I never looked back. And then as a young father I began “uploading” all my CDs in a Mac (circa 2005). Music no longer had a form. No vinyl. No cassettes. No CDs.
My Rediscovery of Vinyl and the Concept of an Album
A few years ago, I would begin hearing songs on my iPhone and begin to think of things like: “Oh yeah, this song was on such and such an album. It was the end of Side A.”
I remembered how I couldn’t just voice search my phone and listen to any song ever recorded (Spotify). It used to be a “listening event” where we sat down and listened together as a group. The pesky vinyl required a commitment. You even had to flip it over.
At Christmas, I put “turntable” on my Christmas list on a whim. My wife Joy got me one along with four vinyl albums:
- Richard Wagner, Die Walküre
- Beatles, White Album
- U2, Rattle and Hum
- Miles Davis, Kind of Blue
Four slam dunks. My wife Joy systematically mapped out the great corners of the music industry with those four vinyl albums. I set up my turntable, sat in my leather chair and listened. That’s it. I was there for the album.
I realized the glory of the album. Some songs are great. Some aren’t so great. But the album forces you to spend time with someone. You can’t just jump around with the “top ten Beatles songs of all time.” When you listen to, say Beatles’ Revolver, you are making a commitment to give them a fair hearing for the whole album – even turning it over. It’s saying: “I’m going to do the whole thing as if it’s 1966. A full hearing.”
The Lack of Temptation to Flip Around
With digital music, the temptation is to flip through songs, flip through artists, and flip through genres. The vinyl record is annoying. You can’t keep jumping out of your chair and changing records every song. You have to settle into the album and let it go.
You also start to see music as belonging to a set. “Blue in Green” isn’t just a fantastic Miles Davis song. It’s the conclusion of Side A of Kind of Blue and it sets you up to flip the record to Side B. In fact, getting up to flip the record is part of the audio experience!!!
Does Vinyl Really Sound Any Better?
There are audiophiles out there that say that vinyl actually sounds better than digital. I don’t really care about this. For me it’s entirely about nostalgia and the experience.
I like vinyl records because they are big and beautiful. I like looking at the sleeve of Derek and the Dominoes. I like the smell of vinyl. I love the sound that the needle makes when it first hits the record. And now that I’m older, I like sitting in a chair and spending 25 minutes listening. Then standing up and flipping the LP. And then spending another 25 minutes listening.