words :: Existential Musings
Place it in Your Memory: the Vinyl Experience
Existential Musings by ROBERT JARRELL | 02. SEPTEMBER 2012
In 1975, when I was seven years old, me and a friend found my parent’s record collection in a closest. My parents only owned a handful of records, which were worn and covered with dust. I had, in fact, never seen my parents play a record. I was only familiar with radio music and its elements of disc jockey personalities and memorable commercials. I didn’t know what to do with records, but my friend knew how to play them. He showed me how to power on a turntable, put a record on the platter, and use the tone-arm. When the needle touched the vinyl for the first time a static hiss emerged from the speakers followed by warm music that changed my life forever.
The first record my friend and I listened to was The Beatles’ White Album (1968). There’s a tinge of nostalgic happiness when I think back and realize it was my first vinyl experience. I wouldn’t want it any other way. The oddity, however, and something I never forgot or can explain to this day, is that while I listened to that masterpiece it seemed old. I thought the music was dated although it was only released seven years before. It was like listening to music from another century, another planet. Beatles’ music doesn’t sound old now; it sounds like The Beatles: Timeless. I wonder if my youthful perception had to do with just that—youth. It’s a matter of perspective, vantage point. When you’re young someone thirty years of age seems old. When you’re thirty you don’t feel old. Actually, The Beatles’ White Album was released the same year I was born. We are the same age.
The Beatles’ records belonged to my parents. I didn’t start my record collection until the mid-80s when I was a teenager and got a job at a record shop in Riverside, California. The name of the record shop was The Mad Platter and they specialized in imports and used records. It’s still around, located near the University of Riverside, and caters mainly to college students. When I worked there it was at its original location; a small, intimate storefront tucked away in a strip mall near the Tyler Mall. The original store was quaint with red brick interior and display cases that offered underground zines, home-made tapes, and other collectibles. The benefits of working there was employees picked two records a week to add to the shop’s playlist. Plus we got a discount.
Working at The Mad Platter was a magical experience; it was like working at a carnival. Regular customers stopped by and would shoot the shit and blow a hundred dollars a week on music. We told each other stories about music, sex, and drugs. Everyone was a music geek. There were dead heads, goths, new-wavers, metalers, rappers, speed freaks, hippies, preppies, jocks, djs, skas, mods, stoners, preppies and punks. In the outside world these diverse music lovers would never recognize each other, but inside The Mad Platter everyone was not necessarily friends but amicable because we all had something in common: the love of music. To this day, out of all the places I’ve worked, it remains my all-time favorite job.
Listening to a record's intended song sequence and division of sides affects your memory. A pattern is created. You remember how each side begins and ends and which song follows the other.
One reason I’m an artist and graphic designer is because of vinyl records. I’ve always been drawn to the artwork and would study a record’s packaging while I listened to the music. I would read the lyrics and liner notes and could smell the cardboard, ink, and vinyl. I was fascinated by the grooves in the vinyl and how the patterns looked different between songs. There were other surprises: the hypnotic spin of vinyl on the turntable and how scratches caused audible pops and hiccups. At a young age I immediately learned there was a personal relationship with vinyl records—they demanded you handle them with care. This vinyl experience is more profound than other formats such as CD or cassette tape. The latter’s small format can’t compete with a record’s visual strength and intimacy. A record is large, calls for attention, and creates a longer lasting sensory experience.
At the time I worked at The Mad Platter I was into British new wave music. Some of the best album designs were by 4AD and Factory Records, by designers Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville. Oliver’s designs for The Cocteau Twins were lush and layered while Saville practiced a restrained aesthetic in his designs for Joy Division and New Order. The album designs and the music were indistinguishable. They visually matched the music the same way Hipgnosis designs for Pink Floyd’s Darkside of the Moon (1973) and Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy (1973) became a visual metaphor for the music a decade earlier.
Depeche Mode album designs were another favorite of mine. Their first five studio albums in the 1980s followed a signature style of photo surrealism by the photographer Brian Griffin:
- Speak and Spell (1981): Ostrich wrapped in cellophane.
- A Broken Frame (1982): Peasant woman holding scythe in a cornfield as she approached an incoming storm.
- Construction Time Again (1983): Railroad worker alone in the Swiss Alps.
- Some Great Reward (1984): Wedding couple celebrating their union in front of a factory.
- Black Celebration (1986): Collage of a mysterious skyscraper uprooted by a bed of roses.
All the images contained an otherworldly tension, which aptly suited Depeche Mode’s themes. The album designs offered enough visual information to point the listener in a certain direction while allowing them to fill in the blanks. All great album covers do this.
Vinyl records can be conceptual, a factor of its media constraint. A record has two sides. Musicians can treat each side differently and because of vinyl’s time limitation (30 minutes per side) consideration is taken in the sequence of songs as well as the economy. Many musicians have designed music and themes around the format. I’m thinking of Pink Floyd’s Meddle (1971), which contained five songs on side A and one 23-minute song on side B; or Frank Zappa’s Freak Out (1966), a double album (one of the first), that included "The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet," a 12 minute improvised jam session on side 4. Listening to a record's intended song sequence and division of sides affects your memory. A pattern is created. You remember how each side begins and ends and which song follows the other. CDs destroyed that division of "sides", but provided more play time (80 minutes total). Now that most music is released digitally the format has changed again. Time constraints are no longer a factor and it’s common to see more tracks and bonus songs.
I remember a time before I switched to the CD format how I disliked having to stop what I was doing (usually napping while listening to music) to turn a record over when it reached the end of one side. But now I see the task as the vinyl record calling you back to the experience, an anchor that demands your attention. An iPod is different; you can let it play for hours without interruption. My habit is to play an iPod set to random. Because of this I do not pay attention to a singular album’s form. Can you imagine listening to songs from a This Mortal Coil album set to random? When you pull apart the form you destroy the composition and concept. The memory pattern is lost. Random play is like watching one scene from a movie followed by a scene from a different movie, ad infinitum.
I have so much music on my iPod I don’t know what I’m listening to half the time; I don't know the titles of most songs or albums and can't picture the album covers (although iPods display cover art). I have a decent mp3 collection; probably around 20,000 songs; that’s an estimated 1,300 albums. It beats my modest vinyl collection, and honestly, I wouldn’t trade the new technology for the old if I had to. But vinyl records provide a different experience. The format is intimate and allows you to have a closer relationship with the music. One thing is certain, I know the titles and songs of the first Depeche Mode albums and I know what the covers look like too. One of their songs, the B-side to the single People are People is "In Your Memory." The chorus goes like this: Place it in your memory / Leave it in your past / But don’t forget. Listening to vinyl records captures that experience.