Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A whole lot of vinyl the last few months

Sometimes, rather than write reviews or get all excited about any particular topic, it's nice to reflect on the music I have.

As I've said before on this li'l blog of mine, I own a lot of music and I love just about everything about it. The hunt is always fun, of course, and being able to hold it and examine it closely is one reason why digital music is never going to be my primary source of collecting. Sure, I buy a fair share of stuff on iTunes and Amazon mp3. But I just prefer the physical formats.

Combining the hunt and the thrill of inspection isn't hard ... some albums are just hard to find. Try to locate Harry Chapin albums that aren't compilations at your local Target, Best Buy or Walmart. Find any? Didn't think so. Harry Chapin's stuff DOES exist on CD, but it wasn't produced in large quantities. If you hit eBay or Amazon or assorted online vendors, you can track the stuff down. But most vendors for that stuff know how rare the discs are, and the prices are far from modest.

But vinyl? Well, that's another beast entirely. And it is very much worthy of the hunt.

See, the great thing about vinyl is that there is still a lot of it out there. Sure, there's a lot of crap sitting in stacks in record stores and pawn shops. Chances are, your grandparents have plenty of it in boxes in the attic or in closets. Garages nationwide (and worldwide) have stuff stacked all over the place.

Some of it is, well, garbage. But some of it is gold. I think it's safe to say that a lot of people who have vinyl piled up in nooks and crannies, not near working stereos, probably don't know what they have. This also has the unfortunate side effect of the records not being taken care of. More on that in a bit.

When cassette tapes were introduced, a lot of people started neglecting or throwing away vinyl. Cassettes were smaller, taking up less space. And they were easier to play (you just pressed play, you didn't need to clean the record, replace the needle, play it on a level surface ... and you could record on them easily, making  your own mixtapes). Many people were willing to sacrifice the larger art on vinyl records for the benefits of cassettes.

And then CDs came out. For folks who still went with vinyl over cassettes, well, the compact disc revolution weeded most of them out (though this wasn't always by consumer choice ... many albums never got released on vinyl, they went straight to CD ... and vinyl began to be dramatically reduced as an available option). With CDs, listeners got bigger art, cleaner sounds and a format more resilient to temperatures and constant use (cassette tapes wore out).

Of course, CDs were also very easy to copy in high quality. You didn't have to worry about tape degradation, and you could rip the discs to digital files. Of course, this in turn launched music sharing on sources like Napster, and "music piracy" went from bad quality bootlegs to a massive international network ...
And the search for digital copies of so many classic albums (or new in-demand albums) definitely drives a lot of traffic to my blog. Sorry folks, I don't share links to albums here!

And now record companies and musical artists are looking to use file downloads, mp3 players and iPods to resuscitate their fortunes (to mixed success). Compact discs are still the norm for physical releases ... but vinyl began to see a revival.

Why is that, exactly? Well, the answers are many and vinyl enthusiasts have their own reasons. Some people prefer the warmer, fuller sound of vinyl to the cold, flat sound of compact discs (notice how many albums have needed to be remastered in the last 5-10 years to give the music a better sound on CD ... yeah, see, there are reasons for that). Some folks prefer the mixes that were released on records to what producers and artists did for CDs (a lot of material, even by untouchables like The Beatles, got mixed in the 1980s and 1990s that didn't follow their original mixes). And many like the bigger art, the "ceremony" of playing vinyl and the history represented by the very existence of vinyl records.

Me? I like vinyl for all of those reasons.

When I was a kid, my folks didn't have a ton of money. They had a turntable with a cassette player built into it, but they didn't own many official cassettes. My dad had a good thirty or so records, not a HUGE collection ... but not bad, either. He had several Beatles albums, so that's a start! (Sadly, when I was but an infant, I managed to put a large scratch across my dad's copy of "Abbey Road" ... it's a scar I regret as I get older.)

My folks would tape stuff off the records or off the radio onto cassettes to listen to on drives or at school or at work. When I was a kid, it was a weird thing to see: My dad would grab a record, take it out of the sleeve, take a black cleaning bar across it to safely remove dust or whatever from the discs, then lay the record on the turntable. I'd watch the tone-arm drop on the disc and this music just jumped from the speakers. Or my dad would plop these heavy earmuff headphones on my head, and the music would sound so vibrant and alive that you could have sworn the music was being played in that very room. I listened to Mike + The Mechanics "The Living Years" so many times in just this way.

I thought the process and the payoff of listening to records was pretty cool. It definitely left an impression on me.

Years later, when I was getting into music for the first time (probably about the time I was 9), my grandmother me a walkman and a couple of cassettes (I got a Michael Jackson cassette single of "The Way You Make Me Feel" and a Vanilla Ice single ... one of those remains pretty cool, you can guess which one). This was pretty awesome! My brother also got a walkman and some tapes (I can't remember what both were, but one was MC Hammer ... yeah, that was going on when we were that age), and we'd ride around on our bikes with our headphones on. Later, my folks got me "Chronicle" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and my brother got some Beach Boys cassettes (that group would become one of my big obsessions in later years).

When you're a kid, all you want to be is an adult and do the cool things you see adults do. We felt pretty grown up with this. We were out, listening to tunes and spinning some wheels. Not too shabby.

When I hit the age of 13 or so, I started getting really obsessed with music. I moved my dad's record player over close to my bed and I'd listen to "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" every night on headphones. Then I'd listen to other albums. Queen's "A Night at the Opera." The Styx album "The Grand Illusion." The music kept building on me. I loved the atmosphere of it, the imagery, the artistry. Music basically kicked my butt.

By this point, CD players weren't grossly expensive anymore and my brother and I got our first players, then our first stereos. I went nuts for The Beatles and for Pink Floyd. My brother didn't get as crazy about stuff, but he did have a handful of albums (including Queen's "A Night at the Opera," which he loved to listen to ... I think he can still recite the lyrics to "The Prophet's Song" if he tries). Me, I was buying Beatles albums left and right. I had to have more and more and more!

That habit has basically stuck with me. I own all the Beatles albums as they were originally released on CD (not sounding the world's best, but still great music). I own the mono and stereo remasters of their works, too.

And if that's not enough, my dad gave me his vinyl ... which included a handful of Beatles albums (the aforementioned "Abbey Road" and "Sgt. Pepper," plus "The White Album," "Magical Mystery Tour," "1962-1966," "1967-1970," "A Collection of Beatles Oldies," "Hey Jude," "Rarities" and a selection of 45 RPM singles).

My musical obsessions continued to grow, and were not limited to The Beatles. I got into Pink Floyd. I developed a huge passion for The Beach Boys. I grooved to The Doors and rocked out with Led Zeppelin. I got hooked on Weezer. I stumbled into Bob Dylan. I dove into Queen. I spaced out with David Bowie. I jammed along with The Rolling Stones. I mellowed out with Simon and Garfunkel. Later, I got deep into Eminem and then started to get absorbed by Johnny Cash. I could get down with Jimmy Buffett, then wail along with Billy Joel. I'd blast some Metallica, then cruise to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

My tastes were expanding. I was buying a lot of music. I found that just about every genre and every artist had some really good stuff out there. It was an expensive discovery.

(Remember how I was talking about vinyl? Yeah, we're getting back to that now.)

Around 2004 or so, I got into My Chemical Romance. Whew. Good stuff, man. Forget labels like "emo" or faux punk or screamo or anything like that. This sounded like Green Day and The Ramones got together with Brian May from Queen and thrashed out a hell of a sound. Truly awesome. I got into the "The Black Parade" album in a huge, huge way. And one day I found out I could get the album ... on vinyl.

Well, folks, that pretty much opened the flood gates to my purchasing vinyl as a format, seeking stuff out, "duplicating" albums I already had in other formats. Why? I liked the sound, the fullness, the dynamics. I liked the albums as visual art. I liked seeing the album art in full scale. I liked how they felt, the heft of them.

I started filling in gaps in my collection. I'd hit eBay every once in a while and buy a record here or there (like Weezer's "Pinkerton" before it got the deluxe vinyl treatment), or I'd come across something at garage sales (a couple of Queen albums, like "Queen II" and "Sheer Heart Attack"), or I'd wade through the used vinyl at my local record store (man, I've bought SO MUCH stuff there ... it's frightening AND awesome).

After scoring the vinyl "The Black Parade," I kept my eyes open to magazines, website and stores. I started paying attention to things like "Record Store Day." I noticed how many artists were starting to release their materials to vinyl in addition to CD and digital formats. It became pretty noticeable that vinyl was coming back into vogue. There was interest in the format, and demand for new material on it. Artists were releasing things especially on vinyl (heck, the Beach Boys even released "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains" on 78 RPM vinyl!).

With the renewal in interest in the format, people have started to dust off their piles of records and sell them for whatever they can get. Folks are going through musty boxes, mildewed cardboard cartons and crates stored under leaky pipes to see if they've got stuff that people will pay top dollar for. (I bet you thought I'd forgot about the promise I made earlier about getting back to how records were cared for!)

Bundles under their arms, folks have gone to record stores and record shows and tried their best to sell off the old vinyl. This has been both a blessing and a curse to vinyl enthusiasts like me. On the plus side, rare albums (or just cool albums) have been put back out into circulation. I've been able to fill in a lot of gaps in my dad's Beatles collection (I now have most of The Beatles' albums on vinyl, and many of them are the original UK versions with the original full song sequences). On the bad side, well ... A lot of the stuff is in poor shape. And there is a LOT of garbage out there, and I don't just mean condition-wise.

Walk up to any record-store employee and ask them how often someone comes in with pure garbage for records and expect that they'll walk out with big bucks. "What do you mean my 'Paul Dillard and the Farting Flutes' record is only worth $2? That's an insult!" Or, "What do you mean my copy of The Beatles' 'Rubber Soul' is only worth $3? The torn cover, the taped edges, the scratched vinyl and the faded color all show history! That stuff shouldn't count against it!" Not every record made is worth anything, and not every surviving piece of vinyl by major artists is worth anything (as with everything else in the world, condition is everything).

But you do get those good hauls, from people who either inherited a good collection or they need to sell stuff to make ends meet (the economy sucks ... people will sell what they have to sell to pay the bills). Or someone will buy a load at an auction and hope to turn their $10 investment into $100 or more. Things happen, sometimes you get a big score when you least expect it.

I've had the good fortune to come across good loads of records at my local record store. And I've made friends with some vendors throughout the midwest. Sometimes I score a copy of a cool album that isn't in the best shape. If the price is right, I'll still pick it up. It's all about filling in the collection for me. I love the music. I love to listen to it. I'll spin a record if I buy it, it's not about keeping it pristine and hoping to resell it for thousands of dollars in the future. I love music, I collect music, I listen to music. And when I come across a copy of an album I already have, and it's in better shape, I'll upgrade (again, if the price is right).

I did this with a copy of The Beach Boys' "Holland" album. The indie record store in town had a guy who was selling some records and he had a copy of "Holland" that was in really rough shape (and it was missing the 45 RPM record that came with "Holland" that had a sleeve designed by Brian Wilson). They offered the guy a buck for the album, he accepted that price, and then they sold me the album for a buck. I've since gotten a much nicer copy of the album that has the 45 AND the full-color sleeve with it. When you're a fan and you love the stuff, that's what you do.

And I've even entered into some contests that have paid off for me with vinyl.

A handful of years ago, Queen had rereleased their albums to vinyl. In addition to that, they were releasing a new (remastered) greatest hits collection ("Absolute Greatest") and were promoting it pretty heavily. As part of the promotion, they had contests going on Myspace (and presumably Facebook, though I wasn't on Facebook at the time ... so I can't vouch for that). I entered into a competition where I listed my five favorite Queen songs, with brief essays on why each song was a favorite. To my surprise, I was selected as a winner and got a selection of six Queen albums on 180 gram collector's quality vinyl ("Queen," "A Night At the Opera," "News of the World," "Flash Gordon," "A Kind of Magic" and "Innuendo"). Free records? High quality vinyl? An awesome band? Sweet!

As you are no doubt figuring out by now, vinyl and I are pretty good friends. I don't have unlimited funds, so I don't do much on eBay or Amazon (just the occasional buy). So coming across goodies at record stores, the Salvation Army, Goodwill and garage sales really gets my heart pumping. Excitement ... all from the hunt. Sometimes that hunt pays off, and you find some really good stuff without breaking the bank.

To wrap up this mammoth entry, I thought I'd list some of the vinyl I've managed to score in the last six months (mostly from finds at the record store, though some of it was eBay or gifts or stuff I found here and there).

Prepare for awesomeness.

Beach Boys: "Surfer Girl," "Little Deuce Coupe," "SMiLE" bootleg, "Surf's Up," "Wild Honey," "The Little Girl I Once Knew" 45 RPM single.

Beatles: "Help!" U.S. soundtrack, "Something New," "Sgt. Pepper's" picture disc, "A Hard Day's Night" (UK edition with 13 Beatles songs), "Revolver" (UK edition with 14 Beatles songs), "Rubber Soul" (UK edition with 14 Beatles songs), "Yesterday and Today" (butcher cover!)

Boomtown Rats: "A Tonic for the Troops"

The Clash: "London Calling" (yay for cool double LPs!)

Billy Joel: "Turnstiles," "52nd Street," "The Nylon Curtain," "The Bridge"

John Lennon: "Plastic Ono Band," "Imagine," "Some Time in New York City," "Mind Games," "Walls and Bridges"

Queen: "Live Killers," "The Game," "Hot Space"

Rolling Stones: "Sticky Fingers" (with an intact and working zipper!), "Exile on Main St"

Wings "Wings at the Speed of Sound"

As a wedding present, my good friend Mick gave me two dozen great records (including some Elvis Presley, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone and many others). Not a clunker in the bunch!

At this point, if you take the records my dad gave me, the records I've received as gifts from friends and family, and the records I've scored on my own (including new records, online purchases, Record Store Day purchases, etc.), I've got a collection of about 200 records. Not mammoth, not daunting ... but still, pretty good. Add that to the couple of thousand CDs I own and the digital collections I have and you get quite a library.

No matter the format, music is just that important to me. But I'll always have a fondness for vinyl ... and I'm always keeping my eyes open for good stuff!

If you come across some great finds, or you have some cool record stories (selling, buying, giving away or finding it), please feel free to share them in the comments! I'd love to hear them.

Well, that should about do it for now. Talk to you next time!

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