A return to vinyl

By Caitlin Kelly

“The digital era gives us everything to own,  but nothing to touch” — Stephen Witt, writing in the Financial Times

 

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Do you own a collection of vinyl, aka records aka LP’s — short for long-playing?

I do, but hadn’t been able to listen to it for a long time after ditching my college-era sound system more than a decade ago. They sat, forlornly ignored, in a pile in the hall closet, and I longed to hear them: Genesis, lute music, koto music, Juluka, Joe Jackson, Rickie Lee Jones. All of it!

For Christmas this year, my husband finally bought us a turntable and all the digital stuff needed to listen to my music again and I’m so happy!

But it’s also been an odd and sometimes deeply poignant experience, because my vinyl, which I haven’t added to since the 1980s, is a mini time capsule. Listening to it whisks me back to my 20s and the jumble of complicated feelings — intense, professional ambition, wanderlust, moving within six years from Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire, unrequited love — I felt throughout most of that decade.

When I put on Hejira, Joni Mitchell’s 1976 classic, a gift from someone, I’m back in my second year of university, living alone in a tiny, ground-floor studio apartment in a not-very-good-neighborhood of Toronto. I’m scared, broke, starting to freelance for national publications, even as a sophomore attending a very demanding school full-time. I have an answering service.

I eat a lot of tunafish and can still remember all the clothing I then owned, as there was so little of it. Her songs of one-night stands echoed my life at the time, flailing about romantically and wondering when I’d ever feel safe.

I discovered the terrific South African band Juluka and have never tired since of their anthemic music. I went to see Johnny Clegg performing near me about two years ago and danced non-stop through the whole show.

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Listening to the legendary French chanteuse Barbara brings me back to the house lent to me by a friend there at the end of my Paris-based journalism fellowship, and where I savored her eclectic music collection. I had never heard of this singer, and love this live double album.

One of my favorites is American guitarist Leo Kottke, who I interviewed many years ago. His voice is a bit of a foghorn, but his music is timeless.

And Canadian Bruce Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn), who morphed from gentle folkie to rocker and is still performing  and touring 40 years into his career. I love his early work, like Salt, Sun and Time — and the first track, All the Diamonds (2:41), makes me cry every time.

If you live in Colorado, he’s playing two dates there later this month.

I’ve been a huge Genesis fan since high school — prog-rock anyone? If you’ve never heard their double album, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, give it a try. Many people have since heard of Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel, both of whom were initial members of this seminal group. It’s an astounding set of music, based on a story about Rael, a Puerto Rican kid living in New York City. Voted one of the best prog-rock albums ever by Rolling Stone and NME.

Anyone remember Kate Bush? Apparently thousands of people, as she performed 22 shows in London in 2014 — and her last ones had been in 1979. If you haven’t heard her music, check it out. I love Running Up That Hill — which was chosen for inclusion in the closing music of the 2012 Olympics in London.

And Joan Armatrading, another British singer, who recently played the music hall in my town.

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It’s a totally different physical experience playing vinyl again after years of cassettes, CDs and downloads. Only cassettes, like LPs, had actual sides, and you had to participate in turning them over, as I now have to do again. I love the rituals of turning on the turntable, sweeping the grooves smooth and gently lifting and dropping the needle.

Here’s a recent story about the best new record shops (!) in my hometown, Toronto. Can’t wait to get in there and stock up once again.

Do you own, love and play vinyl?

What are some of your old and new favorites?

 

30 thoughts on “A return to vinyl

  1. I have both ‘Hejira’ and Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ albums on CD. I got rid of many of my vinyl LP’s years ago because they were worn out. I replaced some with CD but abandoned the rest: my tastes were changing. But I kept the Brit prog – the vinyl was so worn as to be virtually unplayable, but the LP format artwork was irreplaceable, and the CD versions of it simply didn’t have the impact. It’s intriguing how vinyl has made a comeback – and the CD is vanishing amid the assault of solid state storage and MP3 format.

    1. Yay! I could literally play Hejira all day every day and never tire of it. So glad you know and like it as well.

      I’ve been lucky so far that much of my vinyl is still OK — although there’s a bunch more in the garage that I hope will be good. Now there are so many vinyl stores again, I can replace them…or buy more.

      So excited to be back to this. Silly…But liner notes! Cover art! Serious musical credits you can actually read.

  2. I have a decent collection of vinyl and listen to it all the time. I play it on a Technics turntable I bought in the ’90’s, when it started looking like a good turntable might get hard to find. I run that into a monstrous JVC receiver I got from my father in law and a pair of Bose speakers. All in all a good setup for spinning some hot wax oh yeeeeeah.
    But what to play? My first album was Dark Side of the Moon, It’s still a favorite. The Moody Blues, To our Children’s Children’s Children and Seventh Sojourn both log a lot of playing time. My wife introduced me to the genius of David Bowie but I don’t delve too deeply into her collection. I think it’s more fun to let her pull something out of the stack and see what I get.
    Thanks for an entertaining post. I always like to read your stuff. Before I go I want to say something about cassettes. The cassette tape, or “Maxell Medfly” as the music industry liked to call it, made a serious change in the creative approach to music. This change would prove to outlast the technology that spawned it.
    How did you miss this? Don’t sweat it, you probably didn’t. Ever make a mix tape? You bet. Did the ten second intervals between the songs tend to rough up the groove in your Beach Jam Mix or Everlasting testament of love? No doubt about it. Did you know what to do? You know it. Straight to the kitchen junk drawer, repository of one of everything, to get a pencil. Not a round one, gotta be a hexagon, but you know that. Now, time for the manual rewind.
    So, you couldn’t do that with an LP or an 8-track. If you had the cash for a reel to reel player, you could, but those jokers aren’t making mix tapes, they’re busy Rollin’ in the Maserati. In the meantime we, the mix tape makers, are taking the music into our own hands. All of a sudden there’s Anne Murray mixed in with Cheech and Chong, Motorhead and the Carpenters, sampling, looping, the world is your oyster.
    Sure anyone can do that with a disc and some downloaded mp3 files and the ancient ways have faded into obscurity and obsolescence. Can’t help that, it was just nice to be there at the beginning.
    Thanks again for a great post and for inspiring a big fat comment. Maybe I’ll write something of my own now.

    1. Love this! 🙂

      MIX TAPES!!!!!! OMG, the best. I used to make them and get them and loved every minute of them, timing them, mixing them, making my choices. Such a fantastic pleasure.

      And, you know, the sexiest gesture any guy could make was to create a great mixtape just for you. SWOON/ 🙂

      I know you loved the movie High Fidelity, right?

      1. I’m glad you liked my comment and really flattered that you would say so. Thanks a lot.
        I liked High Fidelity, along with most of the works of John Cusack. My wife told me once that I reminded her of Lloyd Dobler, or that Dobler reminded her of me, I forget which. It felt like I had achieved something great.
        It would seem that I have forgotten to mention new vinyl. Can’t have that. I’ve been liking this thing called Mondo Zombie Boogaloo. It’s the Fleshtones, Los Straitjackets and the mighty Southern Culture on the Skids in kind of a themed compilation. It’s like a 180 gram mix to help you party all night.
        I’m thinking my next purchase will be more along the lines of Hayseed Dixie, a red hot bluegrass band that likes to play all your classic rock favorites the way they were meant to be played: With lots of banjo and Mandolin.
        These guys are HUGE in Europe, especially in Scandinavia; which makes no sense to me, given the intensely dark and brooding sounds generally associated with the region. The good news is they play all over the place, so go see them. Be sure to wear something you can sweat in and be ready to hear some testifyin’. You’ll believe you’re in an Appalachian snake handling church service but you’ll wonder where that beer came from.

      2. What a hoot!

        Yes, having any resemblance to Lloyd Dobler is a VERY GOOD THING. 🙂 Love that movie.

        I once danced so hard at a Dr. John concert I twisted my ankle.

      3. You have to be careful, no doubt. Keep an eye out for a Southern Culture show, they’re incredible. If you go on the right night, they throw fried chicken (is there another kind?) into the crowd so you might get some free dinner. Just remember: The five second rule does not apply in the club. If you didn’t snatch it out of the air, you don’t want it. Yes, I know how remote the possibility is of you ever scrambling among the shuffling feet of a hundred strangers in pursuit of an errant drumstick. Still it was fun to think of it and who knows to what ecstasies one might be transported in an eight piece box?

  3. Like many others I still have a vinyl collection both single and LP. I was lucky enough when Johnny Clegg and Juluka came out with Scatterlings of Africa to get a single shaped like the African continent. A little later I had a Tanzanian girlfriend whom I gave this to as she gave me a tape of African music. I looked for the single again and all could find was a CD of Johnny Clegg and Savuka, which sounded different though still good.
    I must get the LP’s out as it’s a while since I heard my Judy Collins.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

  4. Like you the vinyl is a bit of a memory box. Unfortunately it sits dusty and unloved in the basement with no turntable to play it on. This post inspires me to do something about it! Janis Ian, Judy Collins, Crosby Stills and Nash (before Young!). Thanks for the memories!

    1. GO! 🙂

      I am so happy now to have this music, literally, at my fingertips. It was a bit of a hassle to find and assemble the gadgets to transmit it through a computer (less $$$$ than a whole new sound system, which would be ideal) but such a joy.

  5. I LOVE vinyl…everyone thinks it’s ridiculous since I was born when it was all about cassette tapes and then CDs… But my Dad never got rid of his turntable or his collection and I remember him putting on records (so delicately) and getting cranky with us if we were too crazy in the back room and made the needle skip. He showed me so much good stuff on that record player and finally, when I was old enough to be trusted, gave me permission to go through his collection and listen to whatever I wanted.

    I remember listening to all these amazing albums by everyone from Peter Gabriel and the Police, to The Beatles and Zepplin, to Aretha Franklin and Miles Davis, to Bob Dylan and Bill Munroe. And he has this AMAZING album of orchestral arrangements of Debussey that is possibly my favorite classical record of all time. I can’t find it anywhere else.

    Now I buy all my fav new albums on vinyl. The National’s “High Violet”, Lucius’ “Wildewoman”, Noam Pikelny’s “Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Munroe”, Doomtree’s “No Kings”, AND most recently (and most OBSESSED) EL VY’s “Return to the Moon”.

    I’m with you on the beauty of that tradition. It’s so magical. 🙂

    1. What a great gift he gave you! Love all your recommendations (thanks! I need new tunes, for sure).

      I’ve been listening to the version I own of the Four Seasons (cliche, but) and I know that piece so well that I now — having heard many others through the years — know why I like this one best. I forgot how much classical music I own, so am looking forward to playing it again.

      One of my favorites is a REAL oldie — try to find it! — A Bell Ringing in the Empty Sky, shakuhachi music. It’s a Japanese flute, so haunting.

      1. I will check it out! I love the Four Seasons…no shame there. We have a version of Mozart’s Requiem that I revisit every few months…it’s the best one ever. 🙂

        If you really do want new music recs (especially for new releases) you can check out my music blog…I’ve been shitty about posting regularly, but I usually throw up the occasional playlist and song of the day. 🙂 But seriously, if you like Genesis, give EL VY a try…just be sure to give it a couple of listens before you make up your mind…it can be a little challenging in the beginning, but Brent Knopf is a genius.

        (www.myheadsounds.com)

      2. Cool! I am always in search of new music and have very eclectic tastes — obviously.

        The only genres I don’t really make time for: hip hop, rap, country, heavy metal.

      3. You will find very little of any of that on my lists…occasional indie hip hop and I do listen to some bluegrass and country, but I’m off Americana for the time being so we should be good! 🙂

      4. Would this be the Goro Yamaguchi release from 1969? I’m listening to it now on you tube but I bet the sound is far more clear and open coming off a nice clean record. Still, I read the title and one minute later I was listening to it. It’s like going to Sam’s Club and trying all the little sausages and stuff without leaving the house. I LOVE living in the twenty-first century.

  6. i love vinyl too, though i no longer own any. my eldest daughter does however, and we love to go through her collection, teaching each other things and listening to music together. one of my favorite parts of albums were the art on the covers and the liner notes. i would spend hours reading them and trying to guess at the hidden deeper meaning of the cover.

    1. Right?

      I am so enjoying the cover art once more — and lyrics! The Barbara album, especially, being tout en francais, which I get some of while listening but not all of it. 🙂

      I love the inter-generational sharing of music. So cool.

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  8. Funny, was just listening to Joan the other night as I cooked dinner:). But not the old school way–on a playlist off of my iPhone. I am hoping the swing toward vinyl again (record store opened in my town last year!) is part of a broader swing toward a balance of digital and tactile. I want to read a real book, not a Kindle. I want to visit a real library that is a hub for the community. And I love knowing you’re at home spinning the vinyl:).

    1. 🙂

      I think tactile is the new black…I really liked the quote in the FT. I think we’re at an inflection point — I see stories about film cameras, pocket watches, fountain pens…:-)

  9. My mum had a huge record collection, but I think she has given some of them away and others are stored in boxes. I should really talk to her more about the type of music she used to listen to. I know she was a Rolling Stones fan and a Bowie fan, and that she didn’t join in the ’60s Beatlemania…

    I’m too young for vinyl, but I prefer buying CDs rather than digital MP3s. Digital stuff is too ephemeral…if your computer crashes and you haven’t backed up your iTunes, you lose it. But a CD can always be copied onto iTunes again.

    I go through phases of listening to certain artists. Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Yasmin Levy. She’s an Israeli-Spanish singer who mostly sings in Spanish, with Sephardic Jewish influences in her music. Her voice is stunning and it transports me to southern Spain, with its Moorish history and fiery flamenco. I recommend her songs Una Noche Mas, Adio Kerida and Firuze.

    I’m heading off to check out Barbara’s music now. 🙂

    1. This is so cool! I love how you went down the rabbit hole to find Claire…

      I spent Christmas Day cooking and baking and listening to two of my favorite albums ever — Selling England by the Pound and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis. Heaven!

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