The first proper LP I ever owned was Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother – I say proper, because I don’t think stuff like “Tubby the Tuba” or Charle Drake’s “Hello My Darlin’s” really count. When I was 14, there used to be an underground FM station in London called Radio Aquarius, which I could pick up in stereo on my dad’s radiogram while they were out. This was after Radio Caroline had been closed down, before Radio One, FM stereo, and most people listened to the degraded signal of Radio Luxembourg, or the more recent Radio North Sea International. The program broadcast once a week, and listening to The Doors “Riders on the Storm”, when it was still new, just blew me away. I forget all the things I heard on Radio Aquarius, but Riders on the Storm stuck. During the summer that year, a friend of my parents from Swansea University came to stay for a few weeks, and he bought a box of LP’s with him for me to listen to. There was John B. Sebastian, The Band’s “Stage Fright”, and amongst others, Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother”, which at the time was their latest LP. I could not get enough of it, I had never heard anything like this – it was like a cross between pop music and a classical concerto. When their friend left, he said I could keep one of the LP’s, I had trouble choosing between the Band & the Floyd, but went for the Floyd, which kind of established my musical tastes for the next decade. That was how I came to own my first ‘real’ LP.
There was a time when going to the local record store and spending the money earned on a Saturday job on a new record was an exciting thing – I still remember the wait for Meddle to come out, getting to the shop, getting home, and unwrapping pristine vinyl, and playing an LP for the first time. The need to build a system that would reproduce the sound as clearly as possible, and to preserve the fidelity of the vinyl. The need to keep the vinyl clean and free of scratches. There has never been a suitable replacement to the LP sleeve when it came to certain (then) counter-culture rituals. And the LP sleeve drove a whole genre of cover art, that you don’t really get the opportunity for with CD’s.
I have never not owned a record deck and amplifier since those days. 8-track, reel-to-reel, cassette have all come and gone, as will CD’s. But vinyl will always endure. My latest record deck, about 5 years old, has a drive spindle which allows me to shift the drive belt so i can play 78’s, with a 78 stylus. I am always moved when I listed to a 1930’s recording of Paul Robeson singing “Ole’ Man River” – only on the 78 does the sense of oppression he sings about in that song come across. It was listening to 78’s that gave me access to people like Artie Shaw, and only the other day I added to my meagre collection with some Jelly Roll Morton. It cannot describe how it feels to listen to an original recording by the first person (supposedly) to transcribe jazz to music. These records, some over 75 years old, send shivers down my spine – but even more recent artists like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, do not fail to please when listened to on a 78. The key is the proximity to the artist. When 78’s were recorded, there was very little between the artist and the finished product, little production, little electronics, it is as close to unplugged as you can get. And because of this, these people were professional, they could not rely on post-production enhancement, they cut a record, and they had to perform in a way that it would sound as good as could be. So, when I listen to Paul Robeson, or Artie Shaw, or Jelly Roll Morton, and their bands, I am really listening to them – not some bank of producers and electronics, I am listening to their voices, playing, as it was all that time ago, as it was meant to be heard, and any scratchiness simply fades into the background, and they are there, in the room with me. And I can think of few greater joys than discovering a dusty old 78 in a jumble sale that hasn’t been played for years, cleaning it up, and bringing the artist back to life.
I still have some of my original LP’s, although I sold the Pink Floyd collection some 25 years ago, when I needed money – At one time I had collected all their LP’s and singles, which would now be worth a fortune, but not when I sold them I am sad to say. I still have some early Rolling Stones LP’s and singles, as well as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Gong & Bob Marley. The change over to CD was a good time for vinyl – whole artist catalogs were available really cheap for a while as record labels and stores shed stock. Once that ran out, Oxfam was a good place for old vinyl, until they cottoned on and hiked the price extortionately. Nowadays, the search through charity shops tends to yield few finds, poorer quality records, less desirable artists. So, apart from the find that turned up the Jelly Roll Morton, presumably an estate disposal, my collection will remain pretty much what it is now.
I started to buy CD’s of some of my favourite vinyl recordings – Thomas Tallis, Anton Bruckner, Led Zeppelin, Fairport Convention, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and so on. But then a few years ago, I heard somebody talk on the radio about the loss of quality between digital and analog – the inevitable compression in converting analog to a series of 0 & 1’s meant a loss of dynamic range. So, I put it to the test. Now, I don’t consider I have a very good ear for this kind of thing, but I definitely noticed there was an intangeable something lacking in the digital recordings. They are good enough, but there was definitely some quality missing compared with the vinyl. It wasn’t the range, but it sounded less full somehow, almost tinny, but that is not the right word for it. Listening to CD’s, I honestly don’t notice it, but as soon as I play a record, I do. Somehow, listening to a record is more relaxing, while with digital I am always looking for the next thing to play while something else is playing, it is not as satisfying.
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