I really want to start a regular vinyl LP review, but I thought I’d better put it in context and answer the question: Why am I so attached to vinyl?
Probably the answer is really simple, but it is made up of many parts and it’s been a long and winding road to get there. Before you judge – it’s got nothing to do with being a hipster.
In the dark and distant past, I remember the parents and all associated family listening to vinyl on their child-unfriendly stereo systems. You remember those: massive hulks with thousands of dials with the record player at the top, encased in a smokey glass box – all children strictly forbidden. If we wanted something played, we had to ask – often this request was denied (Why? Why?? Possibly because it was the 1000th time we wanted to listen to a single naff Christmas song in July. God bless the modern age where I can now do that).
I can thank the parents for my music taste. I always remember listening to music as diverse as Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, The Carpenters, right down to Demis Roussos and ELO. And they sounded good, the crackle and hiss was comforting, exciting even. Something good was going to happen after those first pops. A rich sound would come booming out of the old speakers and we’d get up dancing, or curl up and watch the adults listening, chatting along whilst they smoked and drank whiskey with ginger ale. For me vinyl is about being a child, being up later than one should and feeling terribly adult at the age of 4 or 5. It was an innocent age where listening to an LP was a magical protective bubble, an event where I would be transported away to a different land by the tunes.
As a complete aside, was it me – or were the colours of life until around 1986 all brown, gold and yellow? I know that after that there seemed to be chintz explosion.
Then cassettes happened, and we slowly drifted away to something more portable. I was allowed to put a tape in the player (there was no danger of wrecking it), we could go out in the car and keep on listening. I learnt how to fix a cassette with a pencil. The parents slowly moved their collection over to the new technology (but only after saying they would never get a duplicate of what they already had). We had to squint at album covers, and get a magnifying glass out if we were unsure of the lyrics. Album covers just didn’t have the same wow factor (If you still have one of those cassette blighters hanging around, especially a Sgt Pepper, try and spot Alastair Crowley – dare you), they had become a by-product of portability. Vinyl was part of an older age and we were marching on to a different, forward looking beat.
Music was being made to be on cassette, but something always felt slightly wrong if I tried listening to the old favourites. The richness and the comfort – that magic bubble of an event was missing. It didn’t have that sense of occasion. It was then that I stumbled into a musical wilderness, music wasn’t the same. I couldn’t really listen to it, it meant nothing to me (oooohhhhhh Viennaaaaa…). Yes, I had a walkman, but the music I listened to was classical, and even then I rarely used it. I promise I tried. I wasn’t interested in keeping up with my peers on the latest cool song, it just didn’t interest me. 2 Unlimited, Whigfield, Boys to Men have all passed me by. I did try though.
I was 13 when I inherited my first Hifi with a record player on the top. This was also the sweet age of boot fairs and no one caring about their vinyl collections. I spent most of my Sundays being dragged around numerous boot fairs with my pocket money, ready to root out LPs I remembered from my childhood. I was lucky, most weekends I would come back with a new Beatle’s album, or David Bowie, all playable and bought for a couple of quid. The adults at the fairs thought I was odd, most of the kids at school thought I was weird (I bet they wish they had a record collection now!). I wasn’t listening to au courant music, I was using a record player: Freak. But I was able to retreat back into that bubble. I could get home from school, stick an LP on and get lost in the sound. Saying that, even the parents would think it slightly odd – we were now moving into a world of readily accessible CDs.
Anyway, I thought I was cool.
Ah yes, CDs. I bought my first one in 1998, Catatonia’s Equally Cursed and Blessed, you may judge me now. The wilderness was over. My music taste was developing, I was getting older and I didn’t have to be dragged around the fairs, I had discovered cigarettes and alcohol, and boys were grabbing my attention. CDs just became easier. I could take them anywhere (and all this before I actually owned my own stereo with a CD player in it). Yes, most of the important milestones reached in my life I can equate with what album I was listening to – on CD. For some reason vinyl had turned against me, or I, it. I wanted the ease of sticking on CD. I didn’t have to get up from what I was doing to change sides and life could continue for 55 minutes uninterrupted. Life was moving too fast to sit around. With the advent of MP3s and then Spotify that only became worse. I can find all my old favourites there (give or take The Beatles and Led Zepplin) and I can jump from a song by The Rolling Stones to Dave Pearce’s Dance Anthems with a flick of my finger. I can create a playlist that encompasses all my tastes, and often doesn’t make sense to anyone but me. I have access to millions of songs and the massive CD collection is now collecting dust in the corner. Yes, I know technology marches on – I’m not a complete Luddite and I make full use of it; including Christmas songs in July.
But something has changed.
I’ve gone back to vinyl.
I crave that listening event, I want to hear an album where the songs come as a complete package and make sense together. I listened to The Beatles’ Abbey Road album in its entirety a couple of weeks ago for the first time in 15 years. Suddenly that event was there. I was five again, curled up on the sofa and hearing it for the first time (that I can remember anyway). This was how it was meant to be heard, with every snap, crackle and pop, wow and flutter. I sat down and listened to it all – something about vinyl makes you want to do that. I hungrily got up and changed it over to side two. It was no longer just background muzak, it felt intimate, encompassing. I felt involved with the music. That and for the first time in years I could read the lyrics along with the song without having to google them first. I want to hold an album that’s tangible, stare at the effort someone has put into the album artwork, sing along (when no one is listening. I sound like a dying cat). I don’t know about anyone else, but each time I listen to an LP, it’s slightly different – you hear a note in a different way, you react differently to a song on each listen. Something I don’t get with a CD in all its perfect glory.
So that’s why I love vinyl. I love the imperfection.