In the early nineties I was just reaching adolescence. This was obviously a momentous time for me in many areas, and I will spare you all of the glorious physiological details, but what I remember most fondly was the receipt of the most influential gift of my life. My father’s friend, Mark, an engineer with more than a passing interest in late night acoustic guitar jams, was discussing music with my Dad.
“It’s such a shame that I have all of these records and never listen to them,” Mark said. He glanced around our living room, which proudly displayed my father’s impressive vinyl collection. “Do you want to hold on to them for me?” He asked Dad.
“I barely listen to mine as it is,” Dad told Mark. It was true. It was 1993, and dad’s Nick Drake, Velvet Underground, Leonard Cohen, Beach Boys, The Kinks and Bruce Springsteen albums were gathering dust, flanked by glistening new Compact Disc racks.
“I’ll take them,” I said, glancing up from the Bulls game I was watching. If anyone would listen to them, it would be me. As long as I could remember, I’d been hauling up a stool, putting on headphones, and spending hours sorting through my dad’s jazz, soul, folk and rock records. I would wake up on Saturday morning and spend the entire day making the best damned mixtapes any sixth-grader had ever heard. I was interested in the compendium, not the genre: I’d veer from Smokey Robinson to The Go Gos to The Who in three short moves. Audacious, I know.
“Do you have a record player?” Mark asked me.
“No, I don’t, but I could play them on Dad’s.”
“Uhh, no you can’t,” said Dad, who was under the impression that I was too careless with his equipment.
“Hell,” Mark continued, “if you take my records, I won’t need my player. I’ll give you both.”
So it was that, at the age of 13, already vinyl obsessed – vinyl sick, really – I came into possession of my very own Technics-210 turntable. I hooked it up to a Sansui AU-999 amplifier and Mark IV speakers and I was rocking. My initial collection consisted of a couple dozen 70s country-rock albums, highlighted by the entire Neil Young catalogue, some John Prine, Allman Brothers, Emmy Lou Harris and Leo Kottke.
The next day, I took whatever savings I had and removed it from the bank in the form of a crisp $100 bill. I strolled up to the dingy, smoky confines of Iowa City’s Record Collector. Already, the used CD racks dominated the space with their Salt-n-Peppa, B-52s and Crash Test Dummies albums priced at ten bucks a pop. I walked right past and sidled up to my new home: the record rack. If my world had changed the day before, my mind blew a circuit with what I saw next.
Abbey Road – $4. Blonde on Blonde – $6. Notorious Byrd Brothers – $3. London Calling – $6. The Heart of Saturday Night – $3. I had stumbled into the very bottom of a commodity bust, and was able to buy up the most delectable items at foreclosure rates. I did the quick math. I could walk out of there with 20 records that day, choosing from the best works of popular music of the last 40 years. (Incidentally, I still remember the conversation I had with the leather-clad, dreadlocked, sunglass-wearing, chain-smoking clerk. I walked up with my tower of records and my $100 dollar bill. When he looked askance at the Benjamin in my 13 year old hand I said, “it’s a long story.” He replied, “It’s just cool you’ve got it, man.”)
In 1993, records were not cool. It would be another ten years before they were fetishized by hipsters from Portland to Austin to Brooklyn. In 1993, people would look at you like you were either a total cheapskate or some weird, misguided antique collector. Both of which, of course, I was. I used to savor walking past all the college kids holding their eighteen-buck Skankin’ Pickle and Aphex Twin CDs. “Suckers,” I’d think as I strolled back to my five-dollar oasis that had been virtually untouched since I’d been there last.
Around 1997, with the release of DJ Shadow’s Endtroducting, I started to notice that I had company at the record racks. These kids were a new breed, wearing oversized hoodies that said “Phat Farm,” Phillies Blunt beanies, and speaking in the patois of a hip-hop inspired vernacular. They were looking for records to sample in order to emulate the brilliant analog breakbeat that Shadow created in glorious, genre-bending ways (by the way, if you don’t own Endtroducing, you need to close this window, open up www.undergroundhiphop.com right now and buy it – seriously, just buy it). These DJs were after an organic sound in response to the highly digitized and cold sounds of Orbital and Roni Size/Reprazent.
And they were snatching up my tunes. The good ones too, because I had moved on from the sixties and seventies stuff in about ’96. Even in the mid-nineties, records from the punk and new wave eras were far more expensive than records from the psychedelic/country rock/prog-rock era. The reason for this was twofold: 1) there were far less of them, as many had been released on cassette and 2) people who owned them were not getting rid of them. But this type of record (the Stooges, Depeche Mode, Front 242 and Joy Divisions) created the first scarcity in the used vinyl market. Fourteen bucks for The Head on the Door? What the hell?
But the roof didn’t blow off the market until about 2006, when it was clear that Mp3 was in and CD (thank God) was out. The aural limitations of Mp3 were immediate to anyone with a high quality stereo. The fact that Mp3 is a compressed format took away the fullness of sound, to the point where people who had minutes before transferred their music from CD were asking, ‘why does this all of a sudden sound really bad?’ Which, for the first time in generations, caused people to ask the inevitable question, “what format sounds the best, anyway?”
It has long been known that a vinyl record, played on a high quality system with correct RIAA calibration, sounds better than a CD (however, on lower quality systems, CD sounds profoundly better than record, so if you listen to your music on a boombox and have a Wal-Mart record player, you would probably do better with a portable CD player or an iPod). So, the inevitable answer to all of those interested in finding accurate sound replication was: get a good record player and buy some high quality records.
Additionally, this renewed interest in sound coincided nicely with the burgeoning aesthetic movement Steampunk, whose tenets extol the virtues of all things analogue and low-tech. As we become further removed from our technologies (can you change a spark-plug in your car?), pleasurable experiences become increasingly dulled (I don’t know about you, but I would rather test drive a ’65 Mustang than a ’11 Lexus any day).
Because listening to music is such an intimate experience, we are constantly in search of ways to break down walls that separate us from the bands we love. On a CD, music has been fed through a computer, altered into series of 1s and 0s and reproduced on…whatever that crazy mirror looking surface is. On a record, the band played into a microphone which created a vibration that scratched itself onto a lacquer, which is then transferred to metal grooves. My record was then pressed from this metal master. Only two steps from the band’s playing to my record, and I can watch it spin around and play in real time. Additionally, the artwork on records is amazing. Holding a record jacket in your hands, reading liner notes and flipping the disc makes music a participatory activity, not just songs on “shuffle.” Finally, they are literally precious items. If you don’t obsess over them a tad they degenerate into something less powerful and less intricate; the flower fades. It’s nice to literally care for something so glorious as music.
So it was that hipsters from across the country cracked the vinyl code. Gone are the days of three dollar Dark Side of the Moon and Purple Rain. Now, we drop 25 large on 180 gram pressings of The Moon and Antarctica and Illmatic. But, you know what? It is totally worth it. Those of us who were fortunate enough to build complete record collections on pocket change understand that the early nineties were a freakish moment in time. Hell, we knew it then: “This is insane!” we’d say. It was like being the only one awake in a lucid dream, like being drunk on power, like living in the wild west, and we knew that it couldn’t last.
Today, every record store worth it’s salt has a vinyl section. New vinyl, used vinyl, audiophile vinyl and picture vinyl. The bright side is that because records are so much more expensive, people are liquidating their collections to make some cash. Those previously scarce punk and new wave titles are now increasingly available. For us old school guys, there are some untrodden terrains: Jazz records are still cheap (and magnificent. Why, oh why, have I not been listening to Dexter Gordon my entire life?), Folk records are affordable (for the uninitiated, track down The Best of Richard and Mimi Farina). You can also find records anywhere on the internet.
Happily, I’ve recently discovered a different kind of market where the sellers are unaware of their record’s value, offering a huge amount of quality titles at those old “1993” prices. Just last week I picked up a sealed INXS/ Kick for $5, Souixsie and the Banshees/ juju for $4 and Kraftwerk/ Computer World for $4. All near mint, and playing great. So, what is this oasis of awesome, cheap wax? No offense, but some cats are meant to be kept safely in the bag.