November 2004

Ode to an archaic technology

By Gail Binkly

They didn’t stay good for long. They weren’t easily portable. You had to physically turn them over to hear all of them.

But there was something special about vinyl records.

Oh, I know, modern technology is vastly superior. CDs and DVDs and iPods and MP3s have it all over those clunky 45s and LPs. Not so much in terms of sound alone, because a truly fine stereo system and an old-fashioned record can produce a warm analog sound that’s still richer than digital. But little discs and music units are so much more durable they deservedly have driven the LP into extinction.

Nevertheless, I retain a deep fondness for vinyl, just as someone might admire a 1971 Chevy Malibu even while conceding that today’s vehicles, with air bags and cruise control and anti-lock brakes, are safer and smarter.

Records that you set on a turntable and played with a needle had a tangible quality that isn’t present in discs, and certainly isn’t in music you download off a computer onto an iPod. Maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe music belongs to the ether; it should float through the air without substance or form.

But I miss the solidity of the big old album in its square jacket. To walk into a record store and buy a copy of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” with its intricate, psychedelic cover, to carry it triumphantly home and pop it onto the turntable, was like owning a little piece of the Beatles.

And often bonuses came with the LPs, like the prize in a Cracker Jack box – photos and posters and elaborate liner notes. The cover art alone was often worth the price of the album, and even when the covers weren’t artistic, they managed to be distinctive. I once owned a Raspberries album that had a scratch-and-sniff patch that smelled like raspberries.

And who among us Baby Boomers didn’t eagerly pull down the real zipper on the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” to see what was underneath?

LPs conveyed a sense that music was as delicate and rare as a piece of fine art. That’s because the damned things were extremely fragile. The early LPs were heavy as china dinner plates, while later ones were thinner, but no matter — they were all fragile. It took a steady hand, the hand of a heart surgeon, to put a needle to their surface without allowing an infinitesimal bounce that would create a pop.

But, careful as you might be, your records didn’t stay pristine long. Play them a couple times and the first faint crackles would appear, an annoying counterpart to the music. After a lengthier period the record would sound like a Rice Krispies commercial.

You’d try to minimize the damage, sternly ordering partygoers not to dance too hard for fear of jiggling the turntable, but before long there would be a scratch, right through your favorite song. Your best-loved albums would have to be replaced, again and again. But that was part of the mystique of the LP – the battle to care for your records just right, to keep them “pure,” unsullied, maybe even unplayed.

Anyone who had the foresight to squirrel away a copy of the Beatles’ “butcher cover,” for instance – forgoing the delicious pleasure of opening or listening to it — would today own something worth, oh, about $20,000.

Modern musical technology, by contrast, scarcely lends itself to the collectors’ market. “Hey, buddy, I’ve got a pristine copy of Britney Spears’ first CD.” “Yeah, so what?”

I was not one of those with foresight. I played my LPs till their covers were as faded as old Levi’s and you could barely hear the music through the snapping. Then I bought new ones. When I could no longer find replacements at music stores, I sought them at yard sales. Once I found a barely touched copy of “Woodstock” and another of U2’s “War” for one dollar each. It seemed like a tremendous bargain.

Each generation eventually grows to be nostalgic for the music and culture of its youth. I’m sure the current crop of adolescents will be no different, looking back with fondness upon the bland cooings of Jennifer Lopez or the bump-and-grind videos of. . . well, every hip-hop star out there.

But part of the nostalgia phenomenon is that each generation believes its own culture to have been the best. So I can’t help it if I think “She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)” is vastly superior to, say, “Oops, I Did It Again.” Or that Bob Dylan is fathoms deeper than Avril Lavigne. Or that even a scratched-up copy of “Are You Experienced?” possesses more magic than anything Tommy Lee ever wrote.

In fact, my wistful feelings about LPs are probably a longing for the music more than the medium itself. The older I grow, the more I realize that life is intrinsically sad. Joy is fleeting; losses are permanent. But there’s comfort in the fact that I can still haul out an old LP, put the needle to its scratchy edge, and hear my favorites, like Paul McCartney crooning, “Hey, Jude.” “Take a sad song and make it better,” he tells me. It’s good advice, and I firmly believe that it sounds more heartfelt on vinyl.

Gail Binkly is an aging Baby Boomer with a lot of old LPs she just won’t throw away.