Revisiting vinyl, for better and for worse

Last fall, shortly before I left for India, I acquired something that I haven’t thought much about in at least twenty years. I bought a phonograph.

I carried it home, took it out of the box and cleared a space for it on my bookshelves next to the old tuner/amp that, for many years, has been used only as a device to transmit either CD or iPod (and occasionally DVD or CBC2) signals to my large speakers.

atlp60_img3I plugged in my new phonograph, hooked it up to the amp, turned it on, and watched the rubber mat with the Audio-Technica logo spin. Alas, I didn’t have any records to play (I disposed of them all years ago), so I watched the tone arm swing out over the mat and hang there, impotently.

I’m not typically prone to feelings of nostalgia. The past is the past, and the more distant the past, the less connected to it I feel. Frequently, when I think of this or that incident, person, or characteristic of my history, I can easily imagine that it’s someone else’s life that I picture, like a character in a novel I once read. I’m neither troubled nor excited by this. It’s just interesting.

Nevertheless, when I turned on the phonograph, a flood (okay, maybe a goodly trickle) of memories returned to mind. People, places, things, directly or tangentially related to records in some way. It wasn’t an especially emotional experience, just images, physical memories. I remembered phonographs of the past – in my houses, other people’s houses, in glass booths over dance floors. Album cover images that I hadn’t thought of in decades came to mind.

I didn’t buy a phonograph with nostalgia in mind, at least not that kind. I bought it because I want to get re-acquainted with the excitement of a new record that I’ve never felt when I buy a CD, excitement I’m even less likely to feel when I click “buy” on a digital music retailer’s website. I want to bring a record home, remove the plastic, and slide out the envelope. I want to smell the fresh vinyl as I gently put it on the platter. I want to watch the needle lower onto the record and I want to hear the little scratchy sound as it makes contact. And then I want to sit back, and do nothing but listen. I want music to be more than (just) commodity again. (Or do I want it to be more of a commodity again? Hmm…)

I suppose I could experience something similar with other formats, but I don’t. I download music on my phone and then I listen to it on the crappy computer speakers in the kitchen while I do the dishes. There’s something about the ritual of playing a record, about the relative effort required to play one, about the physicality of a black plastic disc in a cardboard folder with a stupid band poster – especially when it’s a brand new record – that makes the whole experience somehow more satisfying than clicking “buy” and then, a minute or so later, “play”.

Okay, maybe it is nostalgia. But at least it’s nostalgia for records and not, say, platform KISS-boots, elephant pants, and menthol cigarettes. (Though I make no promises about next autumn).

Anyway, all of this got me thinking about my first record. The first one I bought of my own volition. What was it? Probably a 45, but what was the first album?

m-eAs far as I can recall, it was a record I ordered by mail. It was probably K-Tel‘s Music Express. “As Seen on TV!” Likely, 1975. Not the high point in my musicology by any stretch – though I confess, not the low point, either. But an eleven-year-old has to start somewhere.

Here’s the whole track list – with links, should you feel the desire to torment yourself.

Side A:

1. Captain And Tennille – Love Will Keep Us Together

2. Frankie Valli – Swearin’ To God

3. K.C. & The Sunshine Band – Get Down Tonight

4. Elton John – Philadelphia Freedom

5. Harry Chapin – Cat’s In The Cradle

6. Barry Manilow – Mandy

7. 10cc – I’m Not In Love

8. Phoebe Snow – Poetry Man

9. Sammy Johns – Chevy Van

10. David Geddes – Run Joey Run

Side B:

1. Austin Roberts – Rocky

2. Ozark Mountain Daredevils – Jackie Blue

3. Mike Post – The Rockford Files

4. Jigsaw (3) – Sky High

5. Ritchie Family – Brazil

6. Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes – Get Dancin’

7. Doobie Brothers – Long Train Runnin’

8. Frankie Valli – My Eyes Adored You

9. T.C. Bazuka – Dynomite

10. Johnny Wakelin & Kinshasa Band – Black Superman (Muhammad Ali)


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