Learned #33: RPM

In which we collect some records.

Record collecting is a ridiculous hobby and I love it.

When I was ten, my dad got me the best birthday present ever: It was a double cassette, AM / FM, 33 1/3 & 45 RPM record player, combination stereo system. It was off while with pastel buttons and it was awesome.

Fortunately, because I had no records of my own, he also gave me access to his and my mom's record collection. Dad had lots of 70s rock - Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, etc. Mom had the same era's folk hits: Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul, and Mary, The Irish Rovers, etc. And then my mom's younger sister came over with her early 80s pop and rock hits collection: Adam and the Ants, the Clash, AC / DC, and on and on. I devoured all of it.

Then, around the time I was 14, I got a CD player and stopped listening to records. CDs were better. Higher fidelity. Easier to record from. Easier to find the right track. Easier to store.

But records weren't done with me yet. When I was 16, I got a job at a radio station. Their library was still mainly vinyl. It was glorious. I could, and did, spend hours browsing through the stacks, searching out deep cuts and B-sides I had never heard before. And it was there, in those musty aisles, I started to figure out that I was a collector.

Because here was a vinyl only release. And here was a track that was 32 seconds longer than the CD version. And this one had alternate lyrics. And this one had never been collected to the band's Greatest Hits record and the back catalog was not yet available on CD. And on and on.

Over the next couple of decades, record collecting would occupy way more of my brain than I am comfortable admitting in public. And for reasons both good and bad. This week, we're figuring out why.

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Record Store

  • What We're Reading: 33 1/3

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: How to Be a Record Collector

Let's get to it.

Photo by Wesley Gibbs on Unsplash

What We’re Learning:

Record Store:

So, as I said, record collecting is a ridiculous hobby. It’s expensive, storing a collection properly takes space and time, and finding records to add to your collection can be time consuming. To further that, records are easily scratched and warped and their sound quality is nowhere as good as an Mp3, much less a CD. So, why do it?

How Much Now?

The last time I was in the U.S. I stopped in at a Barnes & Nobles - once bookseller, now purveyors of all things pop culture - and was pleased to see that they had a full stand of records out front and center. They had lots of classics, sure, but they also had plenty of modern pop, rock, hip-pop, and dance records out. The soundtrack for the just-released Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 got pride of place and several cheap portable record players were tucked in around the bottom of the display. One stop shopping for all your birthday and Christmas gift giving needs, right?

The thing that got me was that some of these records sold for upwards of $40 brand new. The same recording on CD would cost less than half and the digital download less than a fourth. And old man Me wanted to shake a fist at the sky and rant about the damn kids these days because it used to be just the opposite.

In the late 80s and early 90s, vinyl had already been surpassed by cassette tapes. They were smaller, lighter, more durable, and far more portable. Soon, though, the CD arrived and drove prices of all previous media formats into the dirt. It wasn’t too long before any new release, if released on vinyl at all, would be half the price of the CD. For all but two small sectors of the market, that was just the way it was. Portability and durability outweighed any price considerations.

Unless you were into punk or hip-hop. Punk celebrated lo-fi and DIY culture via quick, rough albums played live to tape, replete with mic noises, echoes, and other audio detritus that was normally edited out of mainstream released. And hip-hop celebrated samples and breakbeats pulled from the depths of a DJs record collection, to the point that producers began releasing albums of their own beats and loops for other producers to use.

Listeners to both genres kept records alive for a couple of decades until digital technology made even vinyl pressing an expensive process, driving prices back up to their current highs.

As I said, it’s a ridiculous hobby that is too expensive for all but the most affluent of collectors.

Deep Cut / Ritual

Except, record collecting is fun. Seriously, take any music fan and dump them into one of the small, dingy, dusty record shops that litter the back alleys and transformed garages of the world’s major cities and watch them go nuts over a 7” pressing they hadn’t previously known existed.

Granted, you could say the same thing about any group of enthusiasts and any particular fetish item and it would still be true. But. Record collecting goes beyond the hunt and lands in ritual territory.

For many collectors, of whatever, once they have sourced and acquired their treasure, there is a feeling of letdown. You’ve won. Now what? You can put your picture or object on display. You can lock it down in glass or plastic. You can take pictures of it and stick them on your website. But then…it’s off to the next item on the list!

Records, on the other hand, and like books, retain a rare pleasure to be had even after the acquisition stage. You get to play it. You start with the album art. It’s big, bigger even than a CD and, my God, so much easier to read than trying to squint down at your phone for the thousandth time that day and it’s interesting. It’s as much art as it is information and it shows you what you’re going to be hearing.

You slide the record out of the sleeve and examine it for scratches. You might need to brush it down, using one of the special felt brushes you’ve got with your supply of extra needles and armature bands. But then you place it on the splatter, gently drop the needle into the groove and just…listen.

You can’t skip tracks. Not really, not easily. You can’t jump to a new artist and a different record in anything under 90 seconds and so you just…listen. You let the record unfold over the twenty-five minutes per side you get with vinyl and you let the music take you where you need to go.

Call it a meditation, call it a prayer. What it is, is a ritual. It is a deliberate act, one in which enough care is required that attention has to be paid. It is something you do, not something you let happen while your attention wanders. It is taking stock and willfully consuming something. As I said, a ritual.

And that’s what gets me, again and again. I’ve collected other things. I know lots of collectors of lots of things, but it’s the enjoyment of the collection, not just the collecting that makes record collecting worthwhile, even in spite of the ridiculous costs.

My first record player: The Yorx Newave Stereo FM 2100. Boo-yah.

Addendum:

If you’re over 30, you can skip this part: We call them 33s because they’re played at 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Minute. This differentiates them from 45s and the much older 78s. 78s could not hold as much information on a single side as later formats and so were sold in sleeved collections called albums. Which is why we still use the word “album” to refer to a Long Play recording (“LP”, “record”) today.


What We're Reading:

33 1/3

By now, it's no secret how much I love the 33 1/3 series of books; I've recommended at least two so far here in Learned. But, in case you've forgotten, here's a quick recap - each book in the series is the story of a classic album and how it came together. That said, there's no formula. Each writer uses their own style and skill to make each book a unique take on the recording in question, be it interviews, oral history, deep research, or critique. Some are more or less essays on the impact of the record. This week, I'm going to recommend three more volumes in the series, each with a different take on the format:

Let's Talk About Love

Carl Wilson did not care for Celine Dion's record when he set out to write about it. The thing was, although he didn't care for it, it was a massive hit, which meant that someone else - a lot of someone else's - cared a lot. But why? Wilson's book is more analysis than history, but that's what makes it so fascinating. He delves into what makes a hit record, why so many hit records are schmaltzy, and why this record, in particular, made Dion so rich.

Facing Future

Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's take on Somewhere Over the Rainbow is damn near a cliche at this point. Something emotional happens in a movie or t.v. show, like a farewell or death, and here comes Brudda Iz's sweet crooning of Judy Garland's classic - cue the waterworks. But the story of how the song, and the record, came together is no less affecting. Dan Kois tracks down interviews with Iz's surviving family, the engineer who recorded the record, and many others to paint a picture of a man who has become an embodiment of everything Hawaiian.

Low

Low is one of the lesser known David Bowie records. There are no hit singles, there are no tracks that made it to the greatest hits records, and yet, Hugo Wilcken makes the case that Low belongs high on the list of best Bowie records. Tracing the exacting production of the record, replete with all manner of technical details, as well as some of the more demanding aspects of Bowie's personal life at the time, Wilcken lays out the thought processes that showcase Bowie and collaborator Brian Eno's experimental genius in full bloom.


Elsewhere:

joeldavidneff.net | joeldavidneff at gmail | @smileytoad | @joeldneff | coffee

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Down the Rabbit Hole:

How to Become a Record Collector


One Last Thing:

So many things I didn’t get to this issue: Jack White’s 3rd Man Records, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, and so much more. But…

I've just come out of seeing the Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. (It's wildly inaccurate, but the performances are stunning.) It also reminded me that as much of a visionary and incredible frontman as Freddie Mercury was, the other three members of Queen were and are incredible musicians and songwriters in their own right.

I had several Queen records on vinyl, back in the day. Rather, my parents and my aunt had several records that I borrowed for months at a time. I loved A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races for their artwork and the sheer absurdity of their production. But my favorite Queen song, hands down, all time, is a damn near unknown Brian May song from The Game: Sail Away Sweet Sister.

According to Wikipedia, Queen never performed it live, and that's a shame. I would have liked to have seen that. Such is life. In lieu of that never-done live performance, here's the song itself:

That's it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.