regretted the passing of LPs and vinyl generally around the early to mid 80s. I
had been an avid collector of music since my late teens. I can remember the
very first pop record I bought in the mid-70s. No sooner had I left the shop
than I had the album out of the carrier bag to admire it. I would like to say
it was something really cool like early Velvet Underground or the Doors but it
wasn’t. Moving swiftly on… Really? Well if you must know it was Hot August
Night by Neil Diamond and as if that wasn’t bad enough it was a live double
album. For many years, as my tastes matured (if that’s the right word), I hit
it back to front so that the spine wasn’t readable among my other records.
Ironically some 45 years later, Neil Diamond is somehow fashionable again and
that particular album somewhat sought-after. I even played it myself the other
night, singing along to Sweet Caroline of course, to the amusement of the
neighbours. I had forgotten that the window was open and the nets were in the
back in the 70s I was at boarding school and couldn’t afford a proper hi-fi,
not that there was room anyway in my tiny little bedsitter room. I had a second
hand music centre with a couple of puny speakers that boasted a massive 6 W
output. I say ‘boasted’ but, if truth be
known, there was nothing boastful about my meagre music centre. I don’t recall
it even having a headphone socket. Definitely not proper hi-fi. And ‘proper’ in
those days meant an amplifier the size of a suitcase powering speakers as large
as coffins with 12 inch woofers or larger, capable of curdling milk or detaching retinas. My
enduring memory of that school was the end of prep each evening when the porter’s
lodge bell would sound and, practically in unison, all the biggest hi-fi
systems would blast out Smoke on the Water, accompanied by the sound of falling
especially remember buying my first ever classical record – Grieg’s Peer Gynt
music – not because I particularly liked this cold Scandinavian music but
because Morning had been used as incidental music in a production of Orpheus
and Eurydice in which my unrequited love Jackie V, from Summerfield House, had
starred. To this day I cannot listen to that music without thinking of her.
when I left school and went to university, I bought more albums, popular and
classical. It was still three decades before I would appreciate jazz. My degree
course incorporated a placement year. For many, this amounted to pressing the
pause button on their degree for a year, serving no really useful purpose other
than ensuring they had forgotten everything they had learnt in their degree on
their return the following year.
dispatched, initially reluctantly, to Glaxo at Greenford, it was a revelation.
Paid as a junior technician, it was approximately four times my student grant. I
had money to burn. And being only a temporary job, they paid me in cash. And
weekly. Each Friday I would collect my winnings (sorry I mean earnings) and
skip back to my room in the hostel, conveniently located 20 yards from the main
entrance and directly across the road from the Flying Horse. Senior management
drank there. The juniors walked a quarter of a mile down the road to the
company’s social club where the beer and food was subsidised and you could play
a game of pool without intimidation by local thugs.
more money than I knew what to do with. If I had been sensible, and who is at
that age, I should have banked it. As it was there were pay envelopes in every
drawer, cupboard and briefcase. I remember when I left at the end of the year
finding money in shoes, wash bag and lab coat. To this day I don’t know whether
I found all of it.
had been there perhaps a couple of months, I decided it was time to spend some
of this and what better thing to spend it upon than a hi-fi. By purchasing my
own system I would somehow exorcise all that embarrassment and teasing about my
puny music centre. Off to Laskey’s in the Tottenham Court Road, my jeans
bulging with money, to splash the cash.
remember your first hi-fi like your first girlfriend. Often more fondly. And I
can remember exactly what I bought: a Pioneer PL 514 turntable with a Shure
cartridge, a JVC JAS 11 G amplifier and a pair of Wharfedale Glendale XP2
speakers. I can’t believe it looking back but I actually carried all this kit
from Laskey’s to the Tottenham Court Road underground station and from the
Greenford underground station back to the hostel. We wrapped the packages
tightly together and taped them into one enormous structure. They must have
thought I was doing it for a bet but the truth was that to buy the XP2 speakers
rather than the earlier 3XP model, I had spent an extra £15, money I had
allocated for a taxi ride home.
I remember nothing of that journey between leaving the hi-fi shop
and unlocking my door back at the hostel. It was mid summer and I must’ve
sweated pints (this was before metrication). The sensible thing to do would
have been to drink plenty of water and lie down for an hour or so to
recuperate. I did neither.
Within 10 minutes I had extracted all the electronics I had
purchased from its cardboard and Styrofoam packaging. A Matterhorn of Styrofoam
as I recall but of course we weren’t trying to save the planet then. In fact we
weren’t aware it needed saving. That came later. A further 10 minutes to check
the electronics – yes, the mains lights all came on. Just needed to connect up
the speakers. It was 6:05 PM
Soon it was 6:05:01 PM. My heart sank. I had no wires to connect the
loudspeakers. The shops had shut, five minutes earlier. I briefly considered
dismembering a small standard lamp which came with the room. Nobody would notice.
Fortunately sense prevailed. The amplifier came with an overly generous mains
lead. Another 10 minutes of blundering with a Swiss army knife and we were in
business. Speakers connected, amplifier on, turntable ready. All systems go!
How do you baptize your first hi-fi? I chose the Berlin Phil, under
Lorin Maazel, playing Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. I looked at the record,
turning it to catch the light. No scratches, smooth as a baby’s bottom. Onto
the turntable, 33 rpm, arm extended over the record poised for action. A
careful wipe of the record surface with a velvet pad to remove any dust. Slight
rumble as I lowered the needle onto the lead-in groove. A few seconds seeming
like minutes before a flutter of strings and the rasping brass calls of the
Firebird. It was the sound I had dreamt of all my life. I heard sounds that had
not been there previously. The cavernous bass of Mahler’s third symphony, the
Stradivarius violins used by the Lindsay Quartet in the Beethoven late
quartets. That cigarette scraped voice of Janis Joplin’s song to Bobby McGee.
Lee Morgan’s in-your-face trumpet on The Sidewinder, the effortless top Cs of
Birgit Nilsson singing the Liebestod from Tristan. I hadn’t just bought a hi-fi
that afternoon. I had bought a new record collection. After an hour of frenzied
disc swapping, I had listened to half my record collection. It was like a
curtain being pulled back to let the light in.
For the rest of the weekend I did not leave my room. Except for
meals. A sunny day it might have been but I cared not a jot. I was listening to
my new record collection on my hi-fi. I even said the words aloud to savour
their unmitigated joy.
That weekend was the beginning of my love affair with vinyl. I
rather enjoyed the rigmarole, the ritual. Selecting the album from the
collection, gently removing it from its outer then innner sleeves, examination
for scratches or defects, cleaning it on the turntable, adjusting the volume,
releasing the arm and returning to one’s seat with the album cover to follow
the lyrics or to read more about performers. It was almost a religious ritual,
part of the many procedures to keep the disc’s in top condition over many
years. It wasn’t a chore it was an act of love. And I think also a largely male
state of mind. I don’t know of any women who showed the same tenderness to
their records or nurtured them with the same love. More than once girlfriends
had given me its-the-records-or-me ultimatum and been disappointed not only by
the polarity of the response but with its speed of delivery. Sorry, girls. It
reminded me of the words to Fleetwood Mac’s “Green Manalishi”. You know the
ones I mean.
Vinyl had everything I wanted from music. This seemed almost to be
a spiritual connection between the vibrations of a tiny diamond along a track
and the neuronal wiring that turned those sounds into music.
When the first CD was released in 1982 (an Abba album since you
ask) I was sceptical. Not least because I had, only three years earlier, bought
a pricey (well, for me) turntable and suddenly here was this new kid on the
block. Whereas some embraced the new format wholeheartedly, I was slightly underwhelmed.
Part of the enjoyment of the music was examining the notes in the album cover.
Something large to read and admire. In those days some bands (Yes, Genesis et
cetera) commissioned works of art for the cover of their rather overindulgent –
if we are honest – triple albums. You didn’t get that with CD. Those little
jewel cases were difficult to open and, despite what the manufacturers said,
fiddly. I mean:
“What have CDs ever done for us?”
take up less space. ”
“Okay, I’ll give you that. But apart from being smaller and taking
up less space, what has CD ever done for us?”
much stronger and difficult to damage”
“Fair enough. That’s a good point. But apart from being smaller
and taking up less space and being stronger and more difficult to damage, what
have CDs ever done for us?”
have much less distortion and the sound is more realistic”.
“Yes you have probably got a point. Still I ask you, apart from
being smaller and taking up less space, stronger and more difficult to damage
with much less distortion and a realistic sound, what has CD ever done for us?”
“Oh shut up”.
(With apologies to Monty Python).