The thrill of collecting vinyl records
Aaron S. Bayley
Without record stores, there would be far less joy in our lives. We've tasted their transcendent buzz, and are now joyously, irredeemably addicted. To people like us, downloading feels like musical methadone.
-from the Introduction to Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again by Gary Calamar and Phil Gallo
Ever since I can remember, I loved collecting records. There was something about the look and smell of the black polished vinyl, and the delicacy that was required in the handling of it. I loved dropping the needle ever so gently on the outer edge of the disc and waiting for the first note of the first song to ring out. I loved gazing at the album artwork on the cover and gatefold sleeve, reading the lyrics, scanning the liner notes. One of my favourite childhood memories is sitting on the living room carpet of my grandparent's home in Danbury, Connecticut wearing a big black set of headphones, drinking orange pekoe tea and listening to the first two Van Halen records. Listening to records allowed me to escape into a world where the music provided the backdrop to my innermost thoughts, to a place where I could immerse myself completely in the waves of sound coming out of the speakers.
The first LP I ever owned was ABBA's Greatest Hits Vol. 2, given to me by my uncle and aunt for my fifth birthday in 1980. For my seventh birthday my parents bought me Elvis' Golden Records, released in 1958 on yellow vinyl and believed to be the first greatest hits record in history. The first LP I got that I actually wanted was the Stray Cats' Built for Speed--still one of my favourite records of all time--bought for me by my grandfather, after much searching, in a small, cozy record shop near Danbury in 1982. The first LP I got that I paid for with my own money was Motley Crue's Shout At The Devil, which I purchased for $9.99 in 1983 at the now defunct Music World that was located next to the Apache Burger near the Bloor and Dundas intersection in Etobicoke. These days, record stores are all but extinct, part of a bygone era replaced by digital downloading. Todays "record stores" sell mostly books, DVDs, and CDs, and specialize in pop culture kitsch like lunchboxes, toy action figures, and t-shirts; ironic, considering these items peaked in popularity in the 1970s and '80s, the same time that record stores thrived as the social and cultural meeting places for the youth across North America.
Back then, I only bought LPs. But I always had a nostalgic crush on 7" singles that played in jukeboxes. When I was five or six-years-old my uncle bought me a jukebox, but for some reason I never got to keep it. This past Christmas I bought my Dad a Wurlitzer One More Time vinyl edition jukebox, a replica of the 1946 model and the most popular jukebox in the world. It also looks and sounds fantastic. Since last summer I'd been purchasing 7" singles from an excellent Virginia-based website called Classic 45's; then I learned that Kops Records on Queen Street has the largest vinyl record selection in Canada--including most of 1050 CHUM's old records. For me, the tactile experience of sifting through alphabetized boxes in vinyl record stores in search of specific artists or singles beats conducting a virtual search on the internet and placing an online order. Whenever I make the trip down to Kops Records I feel like I've entered into a time warp. The people who work there do so because they love music.
At the start of 2011 I owned exactly zero 45s. Now I have over a hundred. I started collecting records from the late 1950s and early '60s, before the British Invasion. Stuff like Del Shannon, girl groups like The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Supremes, and The Shirelles, Lesley Gore, Bill Haley and The Comets, and Chuck Berry. Then I gravitated towards Soul, Motown, and '70s funk: stuff like the Drifters, Delfonics, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Stevie Wonder. I avoided classic rock but I did get some early Van Halen and a copy of "She's A Rainbow"/"2,000 Light years From Home," the 1967 release by the Rolling Stones. I also picked up a mint copy of Sweet's "Ballroom Blitz" in Chicago for a buck. I've got an original copy of Clyde McPhatter's 1958 hit "Lover Please" that sounds so good whoever owned it probably never played it much. Some of the reissues--like the Stray Cats' "Rock This Town" and Elvis Presley's "All Shook Up" sound great; other original releases, like the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me" from 1963, have seen better days. Finally, I started loading up on records that I grew up listening to in the 1980s. I picked up a copy of Prince's "Purple Rain" (on purple vinyl, of course), Janet Jackson, Steve Perry, and some stuff by the late '80s girl group Exposé. I learned that not all vinyl records are created equal: some of the earlier reissues by a company called Collectables were printed on cheap vinyl and do a disservice to the original recordings. Motown's "Yesteryear" reissues sound very good, as do Collectables reissues from the early '90s on. Original releases tend to sound good, unless they've been played so much that the the record crackles and pops.
A vinyl record is not like a CD or digital download: you cannot just play it on repeat unless you want to wear it out. Part of the reason I find vinyl records so appealing is that they are cultural artifacts; a song like the Phil Spector-produced "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes is like a precious gem, and once the sound captured on the vinyl disc is gone, it's gone forever. The song can live on in different forms of media (CD, digital download, film soundtrack, TV commercial) but the vinyl record has a definite, concrete place in history. Maybe it was owned by a teenager in 1963 who was in love. There is a history and a story behind every vinyl record. Whenever I select a record to hear on the jukebox, I always get paranoid that if I play it too much, it will eventually lose its sound quality. But that mentality makes listening to vinyl records extra special. It forces you to really listen to the song, to pay attention to detail and appreciate the song's nuances, its highs and lows and ebb and flow. How many people throw on a CD in their car and go mindlessly skipping through tracks? When people put a quarter in a jukebox, it's because they really want to hear a song. It forces you not to take the song for granted. It humanizes the song and the artist in a way that isn't possible today in our current age of mass consumption, where people expect music to be as ubiquitous and free as the air we breath. Downloading music is an anti-social interaction between man and machine that's just too easy. What I like is the research, the physical hunt, the archiving, the conversations, and the satisfaction you get from doing the legwork. Whether or not vinyl sounds warmer than CD is open to debate, but the joyful process of collecting vinyl is enough to keep me hooked on the needle for life.