Setting the records straight

The Browsers Ecstasy

Is this partly nostalgia? It probably is — they return to me a memory of a time and a place and a mood from my childhood so sharply, it is as though I never left it. I grew up with records and turntables and I am still nostalgic for the rituals that went with it: Taking the record out of the album, gently slipping it out of the paper sleeve, wiping it till you could see your face shining back, carefully setting it on the turntable, and with practiced precision, dropping the stylus exactly on the groove.

There’s more than nostalgia here; there is true desire. You don’t go through this ritual until you really want to listen, unless you’re really in the mood for music. And you sit and hear the whole album. No skipping tracks. Nothing by remote; the pleasure is tactile. My father was, and is, a connoisseur of sound and changed turntables and decks every other year, updating for the best sound output. My brother bought most of the records. It was commonplace in my parent’s house to hear discussions on hoofers and tweeters, with my mother raising an exasperated eyebrow and rolling her eyes.

My father made us familiar with changing the diamond needle (using both sides of the stylus so one won’t get more played-out than the other) the correct way to wipe a record clean, stack the records, finely adjust levels of bass and tone. I was too young to afford my own records and didn’t actually have a defined taste in music yet. I was content with whatever my father and brother bought, mostly Euro-pop: James Last, Kai Warner, Pussycat, George Baker, Hugo Montenegro, Nana Mouskouri, Demis Roussos, The Shadows, Paul Mauriat, The Ventures and of course, Abba.

And though I left these bands and singers way behind (when I discovered Simon and Garfunkel), I now find myself hunting for these records because they represent my childhood. And except for a few tracks on YouTube, I can’t find them anymore. I feel bad every time I think of how we lost sight of them: No one in my family can remember what happened to the records we had (my favourites were the Vinyls in orange and red). My brother would wait impatiently for his salary at the end of the month, so he could dash off to HMV house on Marks Road to buy two of the records he’d been wanting the most out of several new releases.

The rest of us would wait for him to show up later in the evening and then sit silently and reverently before the gramophone, as he took his time (usually ages) about wiping the record, shooing the invisible dust off it, and finally dropping the stylus on the first track.

No one would move until the whole record had played out. After that, a second listen would follow, but this time only the hits from the album. I distinctly remember from those vinyl-haunted childhood days that we all had our favourite sides on those 45 rpm records. I usually liked the song or the music on the B side, which was always a bonus to the hit which was on side A, which I never took to. So I’d play side B and never turn it over to the hit side. At home all of us were familiar with those bespoke record labels: Capitol, HMV, EMI, RCA, Polydor.    

Like many children, I thought it had to be magic, staring at a turning record, puzzled how music could come out of those groves when a stylus went over it — and though it was explained to me that it had something to do with amplification and vibration, it remained a mystery (it still is). If the speakers suddenly went dead (mostly a loose contact) you could hear the music faintly coming directly from where the needle was scratching the record.

On the automatic record player my father had just bought, I liked stacking the records, and watching each one fall as the stylus beautifully lifted up and alighted gently on the first groove.

Do you even know or remember the sound of mono? We dumped it as soon as everything became stereo, but I’m nostalgic for that too! There’s something singular and pure about mono; if sound were celibate that would be it. I remember making an electrifying discovery accidentally with an early Simon and Garfunkel album, ‘Wednesday Morning 3 AM’.

This was when S&G were totally acoustic-harmony voices and plucked guitar. When trying to turn the volume knob, I fiddled with the speaker knob. The knob would usually rest in the middle, balancing both speakers, but you could turn it left or right and have sound come out from just one speaker.

When I did this by chance with ‘Wednesday Morning’, I heard only Paul Simon’s voice in seconds. The song sounded different. I turned the knob the other way and heard only Art Garfunkel singing straight. I discovered to my delight and astonishment that for ever song on the album, if I played just one speaker, I could hear the same song differently: Just the straight melody or just the seconds. Here’s to mono. I roam the streets, looking for record album covers. The records inside these albums are old and scratched, but the covers are worth collecting.

So far, I’ve been very lucky and found a Joan Baez (‘Diamonds and Rust’) Fleetwood Mac (‘Rumours’) Al Stewart (‘Year of the Cat’), Emerson, Lake and Palmer (‘Works’), S&G (‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’) and Cat Stevens (‘T for the Tillerman’). But no Tull or Dylan or Beatles. By the time I began to form my own taste in music, decks and cassettes had replaced records. I stayed with analog music longer than others (making compilation mix tapes was an obsession) turning to digital only when I had little choice.  

The first record was pressed in 1894, and vinyl collectors swear that there is a way of finding out which the first press of records (like first edition/first printing in books) were, and how the sound on that is virgin.

Vinyl has been a fetish in the Nick Hornby book and movie, ‘High Fidelity’, and in the documentary, ‘Vinyl’, where collectors speak of their love for records and record players.

Sound engineer Bill Inglot speaks of the romance of a vinyl, that it is more ‘textural, tangible’. And CDs, he says, “are like sex with a condom…I really like CDs, they make good coasters.”

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