I started collecting LPs when I was 15. I can remember the record in question (Hot August Night by Neil Diamond) and the first classical album I bought shortly thereafter (Peer Gynt by Grieg). At first I bought infrequently – I was only a schoolboy and my pocket money went only just so far. But I listened to a great deal of music and consequently bought discerningly.
By the 1980s, when I was in my early twenties, with four years of university behind me, I found myself drawing a salary as a research assistant. In terms of stacking up the vinyl I had money to burn. Almost literally. It was an opportunity to buy all those albums I had coveted. No more months of grim self-denial. It was time to splurge.
Almost every Saturday would find me skulking amongst the racks at the HMV Shop on Oxford Street, The Virgin Megastore at Tottenham Court Road or Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus. And for classical music, nothing could beat the Music Discount Centre (formerly Ron’s Music Shop) opposite Charing Cross station. Occasionally I would dive down into the back streets of Soho in search of rare jazz recordings. The shops got to know me and would keep me abreast of anticipated shipments of specialist live recordings as they euphemistically described what everyone else knew as bootlegs. And I walked everywhere, connecting the dots between the tube stations, piecing together a retail homunculus of London’s West End.
One might suppose this to be a young man’s indulgence, put aside or curtailed by each sequential life event – marriage, children and so on, with their associated dips in spending power. Wrong. Although I never quite ever topped the unfettered retail assault of my twenties, the habit continued unabated. I am now in my early 60s and the record (LP and CD) collection stands at a giddying 4000 discs. 4000 discs in 48 years is 83 albums per year. That’s a disc every 4 1/2 days. On average. I don’t know whether I should be ashamed or proud.
The truth of it is I love music. Almost every form or manifestation of music. From the Taiko drummers of Japan to the Fado singers of Portugal. From unaccompanied folk singers in Northumbria to the Symphony of a thousand by Mahler. From the jingle jangle of Javanese gamelan to the woody resonance of a solo cello. A cornucopia of music.
And it had to be on LP or, latterly, CD. I was never a huge fan of cassettes. The quality was never adequate despite the weight of advertising trying to persuade us otherwise. Cassettes flattered to deceive. I started with LPs and postponed the decision to swap over to CD (or not) until the late 80s. I’m not sure why I was so reticent. The price differential between LP and CD was certainly offputting, with CDs essentially double the price of LPs. That wasn’t the sole cause of my caution.
Mixed messages seemed to emerge from the CD lobby. “Perfect sound forever” was the courageous claim of the CD manufacturers. Forever is a long time. And this kind of perfection was difficult to reconcile with those bizarre adverts showing CDs daubed with butter, strawberry jam and whatever. There are surely better ways of demonstrating the durability of this then new vehicle. In any case, it hardly a fair comparison. I have always taken my LPs neat – no butter or jam.
CDs were easy – put them in the tray, press play. That was it. All of it. What could be easier? I guess that was another attraction for many listeners. They didn’t need to worry about any rigmarole.
Okay so the the sound seemed better on unbuttered CDs – brighter, clearer and more detailed. You really could hear one of the trombonists quietly break wind in the seventh bar of Mahler 5. On LP, his blushes were spared by the background rumble, snap, crackle and pop of the LP’s groove. For classical music, the pleasure of hearing the music emerge from silence, apart from the occasional flatulent brass player (why is it always the brass?) was worth the premium. For rock, the claimed advantages of CD were less obvious. And certainly you would have been hard pressed to detect any trouser coughing against the backdrop of John Bonham’s drumming.
I think my reticence in changing over completely to CD was twofold. Firstly and most obviously perhaps, I liked the physical presence of LPs much more than CDs. In the early days of CDs, often the cover design was little more than a scaling down of the equivalent LP and whilst the writing on an LP sleeve was readable, the same could not be said for the minuscule text on the CD booklet. Call me picky but I quite like being able to read those background notes. Especially on jazz albums where documentation is everything – “Jellyroll Morton played this with a sprained thumb causing him to miss the entry in the second bar of Cold Ravioli Blues”. That sort of thing.
But the real root of my reticence is what I called the rigmarole. Secretly I think I quite enjoyed it. Putting the record on the turntable, carefully wiping it down with a carbon fibre brush to clear the surface dust, brushing the stylus with isopropyl alcohol before slowly lowering the arm down onto the disc. It was my way of showing my respect for the music and for the record itself. If I looked after it then it would look after me. So many of my friends paid little attention to such preparatory ritual and paid the price with records that showed their age in the ingrained surface debris and compromised sound.
And what of my LPs, mostly 30 or more years old and largely unplayed for most of those three decades? How do they sound? well, pretty good if I’m honest. With a decent if not state-of-the-art turntable, they have aged well. Protective sleeves have helped. The sound is bright and musical and whilst the flatulent trombonist is inaudible, the rest of the brass section rings out clearly.
I haven’t failed to notice the recent resurgence of LPs. And whilst I was reticent 40 years ago to change from LP to CD, I’m in no hurry to change back again. Sonically I think CDs hold the edge unless competing with the kind of turntables that need a mortgage. Pound for pound, CDs remain superior (in my humble opinion). No end of side distortion, more limited dynamic range and ever so slightly muddier sound quality. Plus, most remarkably, they often cost more than the equivalent CDs. That seems to me particularly paradoxical.
And when it comes to streaming, don’t get me started. Well at least not for the moment.