ASBURY PARK, N.J. - Vinyl records are a shrine, an altar. Sure, MP3s, iTunes, CDs, Internet radio . . . it all works. But the mystical gets lost.
I grew up with LPs around me all my life. But for a long time, like a lot of people, that familiarity led me to take them for granted, to overlook their significance.
A few years ago, a student of mine walks into his third lesson in my little studio and I must have mentioned a “record” he should listen to or something else that tipped him off and he stops me and points to the floor-to-ceiling shelves behind me and says, “Those are records, right?”
He had never seen an LP before. And I had never seen anyone who had never seen an LP before. So we just looked at each other for a long minute, the past regarding the future.
It didn’t make me feel old, really. More burdened. The way a chemist’s balance feels burdened. I was standing on the fulcrum, the scales tilting beneath my weighty collection in the direction of history’s abyss.
Okay, I felt old.
But that experience led me ultimately to think about albums more deeply, to ponder their significance, their mystical power.
For those like my student who simply don’t know, let me give you the 411: The world “album” can refer to any collection of music, but from the 1910s well into the 1990s the word meant specifically a phonographic recording pressed into a 12-inch-diameter disc. The pattern of air vibrations we hear as music is literally etched into the disc as a three-dimensional topographic image. The performance is captured alive and preserved.
CDs and other digital media don’t do that. They kill the performance, dissect it, imitate and approximate it according to some algorithm, storing the ones and zeros just like any other computer data — a disinterested, impersonal process.
With vinyl, the sound is literally there, shaped into the grooves of the disc like a living fossil.
Prior to the invention of the long-playing record in 1948, discs could only hold one or two short songs. The LP played at a slower speed – 33 1/3 revolutions per minute – had a better sound quality and held 25 minutes on each side, improving the experience and quickly becoming the standard for audio recordings.
Having many words to describe the same thing is a measure of that thing’s importance in a culture: “album,” “LP,” “record,” “12-inch,” “33 1/3” . . . all these words refer to those sacred relics shelved in my studio that my student didn’t recognize.
The cover or jacket for an LP is almost as important as the music. Artwork, notes and even long articles can be printed on the cardboard covers or paper sleeves. If the cardboard cover is a bi-fold, there’s even more space – photographs, descriptions, artist quotes, lyrics, track listings, production information . . . you name it, all easily readable.
The musical album became a stage for a more rounded cultural experience, an independent literary tradition in multimedia.
The Beatles’ White Album came packaged with an unfolding photo collage poster and the band’s “Magical Mystery Tour” cover was basically a photo album with color stills from the art film of the same name on its many pages.
Genesis’ 1973 live album had a hallucinatory short story by Peter Gabriel on the back cover. (The plot: a woman on a subway first disrobes and then unzips her body, which falls away like a suit, while the other passengers watch in horrified fascination.)
Some covers went on to enjoy a life of their own, apart from the music they were intended to support: the photo of a tomb on “Closer” by Joy Division; the crowd of famous faces on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; the whipped cream girl of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass’ “Whipped Cream & Other Delights.”
By comparison, the much-smaller real estate of the CD case offered only the merest nod to this rich tradition.
Most important of all, the 12-inch square document can be held in your hands. It’s substantial and sizable, its form perfectly matched to its function and that – it’s thing-beauty — is the key to its power.
Music is of the physical world, we relate to it through the experience of our own bodies. But it has no physical shape of its own that we can understand. It’s shape is in our minds, ephemeral. For this reason, I think, musical experience is often equated with magic and expressed through ritual.
The motion of the body of the musician/dancer or the body of the instrument inspires connection and understanding. But audio recordings strip that out, putting as at a remove from the real-world musical experience.
We lose the ritual. We lose our physical connection.
LPs lend a potent physical form to this magical experience, reuniting us in a vital way with the act of creation, a trace that brings us closer to the music.
It is this ritualistic aspect of LPs that I love. The physical preservation of the sound in carved vinyl has an ancient quality, like cave paintings or the hieroglyphs. The elaborate packaging elevates that etching like a jewel, like a sacred relic, enhancing and elaborating on its inherent beauty.
In their heyday, LPs also represented a better business model than the easily pirated digital formats, and they still are an important element in many artists’ merchandising strategies. In another article, I’ll talk about some of the people taking advantage of this, a list that includes the Dave Matthews Band, Dead Can Dance, the Melvins and a slew of others.
And I’ll lay out a few of my all-time favorite LPs from 40 years of listening.
Will there come a replacement experience for the LP? I can certainly see it from a technological standpoint, some interactive medium.
But creating a new standard for musical experience is too much to hope for. The Internet has splintered the cultural mirror into a million shards. I doubt any technology can reassemble those pieces sufficiently to become the new dominant form.
Asbury Pulp note: For a novelistic interpretation of vinyl, we highly recommend the just-published Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.