My earliest recollection of the concept of records came at the expense of a 45 rpm by Little Richard, a big hit for him (and earlier for Louis Jordan), “Keep A Knockin’.” It was a single owned by my Mom and Dad and I never remember them giving it a whirl on their stereo console, but they allowed me to ‘play’ with their singles collection as much I wanted on the portable record player my younger brother Chris and I shared. In case you’re wondering I was quite young – probably 6 – and LPs were off limits. I’d say my parents made a wise decision there.
I played this single over and over again and I believe it’s when I discovered rock ‘n roll, and what would later become a fascination with and love for music in general. But, back to Little Richard and that 45 rpm. I somehow managed to break the single and I’m not sure if it was an accident or just a 6 year old testing boundaries and smashing it for fun. The passage of time can certainly dull such incidents and give credence to selective memory…which can come in hand as we grow older.
Speaking of growing older and as far as I can recollect, possibly at the age of 10 or so, I was allowed to explore my parents LPs. Each and every moment was a sublime ritual which went like this: carefully taking the record sleeve from the jacket as my father had shown me, gripping the record as he so artfully did, allowing the vinyl to slide from the sleeve into the palm of my hand, and placing my index finger from the same hand into the hole where the spindle went. No fuss, no muss and certainly no fingerprints. I’d then carefully place the chosen vinyl on the spindle, clicking the start button and watching the tone arm drop into place, waiting for the first sounds to come from the speakers.
While the music played I’d often look at the record sleeve to see what music the record company was promoting. This was a soft pitch, showing the latest album covers that were destined to be ‘hits’ – most were not, but for a kid enamored with the concept of music it was a bonanza. Maybe if I save up enough of my allowance I can buy the new record from Sly & The Family Stone in 3 months! It was a dream and silent conversation often taking place in my head while listening to releases from Columbia, Motown, Atlantic, Kama Sutra, ABC, etc. You can imagine your own favorite labels or different performers – the conversation remains the same.
The record jacket was another treasure trove of musical gold. Not only was there the album artwork, for the most part a lost art today, but it was here that I read liner notes from radio jocks, show biz personalities, or other musicians. They’d write about how moved they were listening to the artist, and why we, the consumers, were about to make a brilliant choice (or had done so already). Take these words from Rory Guy, who wrote the liner notes to Nancy Wilson’s “Just For Now” LP:
Such a talent is Nancy. Give her outstanding
material (“Born Free,” “That’s Life,” “Mercy,
Mercy, Mercy,” Winchester Cathedral”). Give
her great backings (eight by the superb Billy May,
two by Oliver Nelson, one by Sid Feller). Leave
the rest to Nancy. In her hands, a fusion of
creativity occurs that makes each song a dramatic
new entity, thrillingly fresh and original.
Hey – I’m sold. Guy goes on to say that Ms. Wilson’s version of “That’s Life” is a “short essay in philosophy” and belongs “alongside Schopenhauer, Sartre and Santayana.” Okay…a bit over the top for me, but nonetheless you get the point. The liner notes served a grand purpose giving us observations about the artist and record that we needed to know, regardless of hyperbole.
And often we’d find out more subtle and pertinent details: song credits, producer, length of each record, mono or stereo. Even tidbits we didn’t realize were important: confirmation of RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) membership and warnings such as, “ THIS STEREO RECORD SOHULD BE PLAYED ONLY WITH A STEREO CARTRIDGE AND NEEDLE TO AVOID DAMAGE.” The last was enough to scare even the most casual record listener to abide by the rules.
All was grand and glorious with vinyl despite the scratches and nicks that happened along the way. This was a part of life that we accepted and we really didn’t mind that much, did we? If need be we could just buy another record and voila! a fresh copy was on hand to enjoy over and over again.
Then something funny happened along the way to the future and the LP’s significance began to wane as our music was made even more portable. Beginning in the 1950s, reel-to-reel players began finding their way into our homes. Next it was the cassette player and 8-track player. Now we could play music in our cars! But, none of us could imagine the revolution to come when the CD supplanted the record. This began the decline of vinyl which only recently has regained marginal ground for the sake of its unique sound. Then our music was given ultimate portability by the mp3 format.
And yet, in the midst of the new technology something was lost: the type of information that records had provided. With reel-to-reel, tape boxes gave us decent artwork, but due to size limitations the liner notes were necessarily minimized. Cassette and 8-track recordings did little to nothing to enlighten. Compact disc packaging has done a better job overall, with both artwork and written information (but frankly most of the time I have to pull out a magnifying glass to read the work). And then there’s the mp3; for better or worse it’s the main mode of transportation of music these days. It’s affordable and easy to carry around on our phone/mp3 player, or store on our computer or tablet of choice. But – and this is a big “but” – in this age of information we’re not privy to so much of the very thing that defines this age: information. Some record companies have begun releasing digital booklets which include artwork, liner notes, and song credits, but it’s a practice that hasn’t caught hold of the industry – perhaps because the younger generation just isn’t interested. For their information they turn on MTV, BET, Huff Post Entertainment or music reality shows.
One thing that appeals to me with mp3 music available via iTunes or Amazon, is that it allows me greater access to music I use on Sunday Morning Sunshine. Much of the remastered music from core artists like Sinatra, Ella, Count Basie, etc. on mp3s sound better than what’s available on those vintage LPs. Also, I’m able to tap into a greater bank of artists who, because they aren’t as widely known, may not be available on CD, but whose music nonetheless is offered on mp3 by the aforementioned leaders in digital sales.
With that said, there’s another aspect of musical enjoyment absent in this digital era – the tactile. Things like holding the vinyl in our hands, reading the liner notes, taking in the 13”x13” beautiful artwork. For me there’s a missing link that continues to resonate since the days I was first allowed to play one of my parents’ LPs. This is what drives me (literally) more and more to record stores in an effort to regain a sense musical equilibrium. I want to lose myself in the artwork and read on the original sleeves what artist’s records were highlighted 30-60 years ago, noticing from hindsight which became hits and which didn’t.
During record store visits I’ll carefully pull an LP from its sleeve, inspecting the grooves for imperfections caused by needles gliding across the record (possibly a mishap as the result of a 10 year old who, much like myself, really was trying to be careful). Despite their presence I feel joy. So often I’ve found a ‘lost’ classic that is unavailable CD. In my book that’s what the experience is all about.
Perhaps once home, I may find other issues: a mushy and/or high-end distortion, or static causing the snap, crackle and pop we equate with older records. Yet, would I – would you? – rather have the pristine sound of a wonderfully remastered mp3 album from Tony Bennett from 1965, or…have that vinyl LP in my hands, a record cover with a coffee stain across the back, a record sleeve littered with advertisements of other Columbia Record offerings, liner notes from a New York, Los Angeles or Chicago radio personality reminding me in no uncertain terms why Bennett is a treasure, along with the warning that you’d be wise not to play this stereo recording with anything other than a stereo needle? What would you choose?
– Bill Quinn