Friday, July 20, 2012

Vinyl days

I hate it when the teacher's right.

I thought I didn't have any answer for Fuji in his latest contest question. He wanted to know what kind of memorabilia we collect besides cards. I don't collect any memorabilia besides cards. I stopped doing that when puberty hit. I have a thing about too much clutter (a gene inherited from my mom). At an early age I discovered the rush one gets when the garbage goes to the curb. Spring cleaning is a special kind of high that too many collectors never experience.

So when I was young -- as I've mentioned a few times -- I collected Matchbox cars and stamps and bottle caps and coins and stuffed animals and baseball yearbooks and newspaper comic strips. Yes, I would cut out the daily Peanuts or Blondie or Hagar the Horrible from the paper and stack them up in desk drawer until I decided after four months that this was stupid and tossed them out.

But I hadn't done any of that kind of collecting in years. Decades in fact. I just collected baseball cards and that was it. Sorry, Fuji, that's all I've got for you.

And then I saw other people's posts about what they collected other than cards. Some of them made reference to items that they USED to collect, items that are still hanging around today. I think I even read someone mention that they didn't even think of the accumulation of a particular item as a collection, that it just happened.

And suddenly the words "RECORD ALBUMS!" popped in my head.

I have hundreds of old record albums in the house. When you combine the albums I accumulated with my wife's old albums, it's a pretty impressive statement -- well, back when that kind of thing was impressive. Now, storing a million songs on a device the size of  a paper clip is impressive. But back then, possessing so much vinyl that you could literally form a library -- and probably hire a librarian to oversee everything -- was impressive.

But I never considered my albums as a "collection." I accumulated albums because I loved music. My ear was in charge, not my eyes. If I wanted to listen to a lot of music, I had to purchase a lot of vinyl. That's just the way it was. But I never poured over my albums the way I do my baseball cards, admiring the style and look of each album. The album was merely a house in which the music lived. It wasn't a collection. It was a vehicle.

Today, I appreciate albums for what they are -- art. Collectible art. I still have all of them -- many of which were purchased during one five-year period between 1981-85. I barely play them today, but I often think about doing so -- and then wonder if I even know how to operate a phonograph anymore.

(I described for my daughter yesterday the concept of "33" and "45" records -- she looked at me with that "you poor, poor man" face).

I was actually part of the last generation to purchase record albums on a regular basis. The process of playing and purchasing music had been the same for decades until cassette tapes and compact discs came along during the late '70s and early '80s. So the time period in which I bought albums wasn't very long in comparison to others. By 1985, I had a compact disc player and a cassette player and a tiny living space that couldn't accommodate long-playing albums.

Also, by 1985, my taste in music had grown into what was called "alternative rock." I listened to Canadian radio stations out of Toronto and the local college radio station, playing bands like REM., Husker Du and the Violent Femmes.

But during the record album days, I was trying to figure things out. I was in high school and the music scene was changing. Disco was dead. Arena rock was dying, and if you wanted to be anything at all in popular music, you had to be British.

The cool bands in high school were British -- The Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. But the kids who said that were just mimicking their older brothers and sisters. I didn't have any older siblings. And those groups seemed too old to me. They were from the '60s, man! Sure, they're awesome in retrospect, but I needed to stake new territory.

And this is what I chose:

Yeah. An orchestral-themed British group that was more violin than guitar. (You have to admit the album cover is cool, though). But, I told you, my ear has always been in charge. I never cared what kind of street cred a group had. You never heard me claiming I only listened to Motorhead or Devo. I lived in a small city hundreds of miles from The Latest Thing. All I knew was what the local radio station played.

All I knew was what sounded good.

ELO sounded good.

And so it started with this:

And I just kept adding on.

Until U2 came along, I had more ELO albums than anything else. I've always had a thing for melodic rock groups with classical influences. Music has to sound good -- I can't listen to discordance just because someone who "knows" says it's cool. The ear is in charge. Not the critic.

Two more albums in the "collection." Another British studio group known for using a few string instruments. There's more APP where that came from. Stereotomy, Pyramid, Vulture Culture, Ammonia Avenue are all sitting in the attic somewhere.

From these relatively radio-friendly groups, I graduated to harder-edged fare. The bus ride to school was filled with music from Loverboy, Rush, Styx and Genesis. I thought Loverboy was stupid. Rush was kind of interesting, but didn't please my still developing ear at the time.

Styx, however, was awesome. Every Styx album seemed like an event -- because there was some sort of rule at the time that every rock n' roll album had to have a concept, from the start of the album to the end. Styx embraced this more than anyone.

I still remember the day I brought this album home from the nearby Kmart. My folks had no appreciation for rock n' roll (they still don't), so I'd wait until they were out of the house and then power up "Too Much Time On My Hands" or "Snowblind" (the one that was supposed to have a backward message on it) in order for the neighbors to hear.

THE concept album of the 1980s. I read the liner notes on this album more than I ever had in my life. Kilroy!

But the group I embraced the most out of the ones I heard over and over on the bus was Genesis. By the early '80s, the group had been around for years and its leader, Peter Gabriel, had departed. But I didn't know that. I thought "Abacab" was the newest, most innovative thing I had ever heard.

I went out and bought "Three Sides Live".

I went out and bought "Genesis" (I still don't understand when groups about 9 albums into a career title their albums by their group name).

I went out and bought "90125" from Yes.

And "Alpha" from Asia.

I was a disciple of prog-arena-rock. Unfortunately, all of these groups had been around in one form or another for at least 10 years. None of it was really new.

That would change for me around 1982.

I knew a girl at work. She was 3 or 4 years older than me. She wore skinny jeans and dark eye makeup. Her hair was long and braided. She was as confident as any female I had ever seen. And she loved to rock.

She liked The Cars. And so did I.

The Cars were the first cassette tapes I ever owned. That's a bit unfortunate if you know the Candy-O album cover.

But The Cars made up for it when they put out Heartbeat City in 1984.

The girl I knew said, "That looks like something I'd draw."

And I believed it. And I bought it. And I showed her I bought it.

From there it was ...

Men at Work

 The Police

Joan Jett

The Fixx


The Pretenders

Depeche Mode

And some group called U2.

A lot of these groups don't seem all that innovative or cutting edge today. This was before rap and heavy metal hit the mainstream. But they were interesting at the time, back in a period when there was no worldwide access to any kind of music that you wanted to hear.

The point  is that at this time I didn't buy a single album by Michael Jackson or Madonna or Bruce Springsteen or REO Speedwagon, the "popular with the masses" musicians of the day.

I had found a home in something called "new wave."

During those years I let my ear do the talking. I bought some stuff that I still like, and I bought some albums I'd never buy today.

But it was all about finding my musical direction -- and the direction is: listen to whatever sounds good. That's why my ipod jumps from Judas Priest to Mariah Carey to Cage The Elephant to Amy Winehouse to The Black Keys to Nelly Furtado. No, it's not the most eclectic or diversified music out there, but I listen to what I want. If I want to download a Karla Bonoff song, then I do it. Right after the Motley Crue song is finished. Nobody is there to tell me that "nobody listens to that."

I owe my all-over-the-board pop tastes to the record albums I bought between 1981 and 1985.

From Pat Benatar ...

... to ZZ Top

In very early 1986, I bought the last record album I would ever buy. It was by a group that most people today have never heard of, and it's not because it was an obscure group that only the most privileged know.

It was a British group called The Dream Academy, which was known for their use of string instruments. (Sound familiar?). Their hit was "Life in a Northern Town."

That album was the last one in the collection. "Life in a Northern Town" used to include album purchasing. But not anymore. The ipod is going right full speed right now (listening to "Dirty Work" by Steely Dan at the moment).

Here was the first album in the collection:

Yup. Another head-scratcher. The Little River Band (it wouldn't be the last LRB album I'd buy). I liked "Lonesome Loser."

My grandmother gave me the money to buy it. I remember bringing the record carefully to the checkout clerk and holding it for dear life, afraid I'd snap it in two by mistake. My grandma was asking me all these questions about what kind of music it was and who it was. And I said, "Grandma, it's rock n' roll. You wouldn't know."

There are so many albums up there in the basement. Robert Plant, Tears for Fears, The Human League, Big Country, Toto, Foreigner, Tom Petty, Simple Minds. (Very "white" music, if you haven't noticed).

I don't know what to do with them. There they sit, hoping to be played again. But most of them probably never will again.

They are no longer a house where the music lives. They're just art now. A collection.

Yup, it turns out I do have a collection other than baseball cards.


  1. I've always thought that if I didn't collect baseball cards, I'd be a record collector. My two passions have always been music and baseball.

    As I mentioned in Fuji's post, my dad is an avid vinyl collector. It's always struck me as an interesting hobby.

    Because of that, I might be the only twenty year-old in the world that actually owns a few 45s. I picked them up at the flea market a few years back for a few cents each. Mostly '60s garage rock bands, one of my favorite eras of music.

    Also, I'm big into the '80s "alternative" scene. The Violent Femmes and R.E.M. are both in my top five favorite bands, and I'm big into Husker Du as well. The Cars have been growing on me lately too, their first album is one of the greatest I've ever heard. "Magic" and "You Might Think" off Heartbeat City are a couple of their finest tunes.

  2. Very nice...taste and collection. I no longer have any 33's. I still have a box of 45's in a closet. I've acquired two record players over the past two years, but can't get either one of them to work, so I won't buy any more 33's until I find one that works. The antique mall is a treasure trove for record collectors.

    JT, The Writer's Journey

  3. its too uncanny, brother..the way our lives parallel so many times.

    i thought i was the only guy who cut out comic strips. and collecting records..yup me too - and the exact same years. i think we were the last generation to appreciate album art.

    we differed a bit on the music till you mentioned the cars. they were myabsolute favorites of the era.
    i loved new wave and some of the same albums as u, but where u went face to face, i went dead kennedys and the jam.
    i do still love the femmes first album.

  4. I've got the Dream Academy album as well! Does that earn me any street cred?

    You should explain to your daughter the significance of the album name "Three Sides Live". I think she'd really appreciate that.

    The original Asia lineup has a new album out, in case you're interested...

  5. I think Brothers in Arms is the 2nd to last album I bought. After that was only a Warren Zevon album, which I only picked up because the CD was unavailable and I was going to be away for 6 weeks which seeemed like an unimaginable time to wait to hear the new album.

    I don;t have a phono hooked up right now, not sure I ever will. BUt I retain the albums.

  6. I knew most of the albums that you showed in this post, and my favorite band (Asia) just released another "album" a couple of weeks ago. They still sound as good now as they did 30 years ago.

  7. I still have all my vinyl out in the garage. I have not listened to any of it since... well, since probably late 80's. I have a 12 foot shelf in the garage, 11 feet of LPs, and a foot of 7" singles. I have no idea how many that is. For some funny reason, I remember the first CD I ever bought was Dark Side of the Moon, and the first new release of a record I bought was Joshua Tree. Back when CDs came in a box, still have the box, too. Last vinyl I bought was Butthole Surfers, because they didn't have CD releases.

  8. Great album covers, N.O. And some fine music as well. I was a big fan of the Pretenders. Oh, that Chrissie Hynde! I still think she's fine.

    After I got rid of most of my vinyl I found a turntable that usb's into a computer for recording the tracks. Wish I had found it before the purge.

  9. Thank you. I hadn't thought about "Lonesome Loser" in I don't know how long. I listen to metal, but there's always a place in my list for Loverboy, ELO, and of course Rush.

  10. Heh, I LOVED ELO's album covers when I was a little kid. Especially Eldorado even though it didn't have the spaceship on it. The one cover that fascinated/horrified me the most though was Animals by Pink Floyd. I stared at that one for hours in terror.

  11. guess I"m boring in that my vinyls are from the early 80's and consist of bruce springsteen, madonna, whitney houston, michael jackson. ;)

    I'd say instead of just being art, get yourself a USB turntable and enjoy that music again (and rip some of your obscure favorites from those albums to MP3s that you can put in your ipod player).

  12. Damn... this is exactly why I hold this contest. This post was awesome. I haven't seen some of those album covers since I was in my teens.

    Thanks for sharing!

  13. I'm a huge record nerd. If you ever get around to making a list of what you've got, I'd happily trade you cards for records! -Andy