Wednesday, July 27, 2011

For the Love of Vinyl

Dr. Disc's vinyl
In recent months I’ve noticed a strong resurgence in the availability of vinyl. For instance, this month Dr. Disc, a local record store in Hamilton, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. They are quite chuffed about it; after all, the news from many places is that record stores are closing. Dr. Disc is doing quite well thanks, in fact, they throwing a month long party for all. Everything in the store is “Buy one get one free” (or BOGO if you will), and I’ve been down several times to take advantage of the deals. They’ve even booked a succession of local bands to play live concerts on the roof of the building. Last Friday night, we stood in the parking lot below enjoying the hot blues of the Steve Strongman Band and the cool breezes of downtown Hamilton.

After the set, before the next band stepped up, we had to go inside to have a look.  Strongman has encouraged us, “What better way to celebrate a birthday than by spending a couple hundred bucks!?!” I looked through the “Used and New 45s” section. There were oldies on the Apple label, plus some Stax records, but most of the records there were new releases. Sealed in plastic bags with warning stickers saying “Please Do Not Open” these little treasures looked magical. There was a series from Third Man Records, the label started by Jack White of the White Stripes. They featured unfamiliar names and faces shot elegantly against a blue background; inside black vinyl, in a white sleeve, one song per side. The attraction?  Most of the songs were produced by Jack White III. And many featured him on guitar or drums.

There was a Rolling Stones 45 released last year on Record Store Day, in honour of the reissued Exile on Main Street, a Bruce Springsteen disc from this year’s RSD. And there were other things, odd things, punky looking, independent records by people I’d never heard of. So I bought a handful. Twice as many as I would have without the sale. Elvis Costello’s last couple of albums have been released on vinyl, Steve Martin’s latest banjo opus, Roky Erickson’s comebackwith Okkervil River, and even Ry Cooder’s upcoming Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down has been announced on vinyl. Twelve-inch albums are a blessing on vinyl, not least because the format is far more conducive to great artwork. But what’s the deal with 45s? These singles, once a workhorse of the industry for many years, faded away a long time ago. But here they are again, at a price far beyond the 39 cents I recall paying at the beginning of my obsession with recorded music.  And I’m buying them. 

In some ways, the single is the perfect format. One great song (it used to be the best song from the album) backed on the B-side with a tune that didn’t appear anywhere else, all for under a dollar. (And if it had a picture sleeve, so much the better.)  It was how we bought “Hey Jude” b/w “Revolution” way back when. I recall picking that one up at Melody Lane, at 9:30 in the morning on the day of release, and meeting my friends back at my house to play it, first the A-side, then the B-side, then A, then B, then A, then my Mother yelled down the steps, “You guys’d better get to school!” After school it was more of the same. There were no weak tracks on a 45, no “Revolution #9”s! 

So I took the 45s from Dr. Disc home and got out the Crossley record player that my son had bought me for Christmas. It perfectly simulates the audio quality of my first record player, on which I had enjoyed the Beatles and the Animals, and all the rest so long ago.  The first thing I noticed was the distinct lack of cracks and pops. This vinyl is purer than the stuff we used to get. The records are heavier, flatter, no wobbles. The music, by Wanda Jackson doing “Shakin’ All Over,” or Dylan’s “Thunder on the Mountain,” rocked. Sure I had all four songs from those 2 discs on the CD, and I had transferred them all to my iPod for convenience, but there is just something about having the hands on experience of placing a 45 on the turntable as it spins, and then dropping the needle. And the ability to admire the photos and credits on the picture sleeve simply added to the joy of playing records. 

I listened to Dex Romweber’s rockabilly, folk from First Aid Kit and Secret Sisters, blues from Seasick Steve and the bluegrass of Michael Daves & Chris Thile. It was all thrilling taking me back to a time I remember in the past, when we had to do this. There was no such thing as iTunes, or downloading. You went to the store, and there was a wall full of black vinyl. You chose a song or two and went home to play them. All killer, no filler.

Van Dyke Parks
Another artist who has recently committed to the single format is Van Dyke Parks, co-writer with Brian Wilson of “Surf’s Up,” and other Beach Boys classics, and one of popular music’s real renaissance men. He announced on his new website that he was recording again, but recording songs that did not fit together on an album. He has put together a subscription series of six singles, with cover art (on fine heavy card) by Art Spiegelman, Ed Ruscha, Frank Holmes and others.

Parks proclaimed: "This is it! I've decided to record! Of course, I'm totally redundant to the record business, but I love the song form so much. It is my obsession. It meets my need and my attention span very well. Now it's time to put out some product and I'm putting these records out on my vanity label, Bananastan. Well, I don't have an album in me. Also, I don't believe people have any patience for a through-line or an exposition. They want it now. A shuffle mentality, that's what I'm dealing with. Perhaps people will just listen to part of a song. The times have changed and in this staccato environment, I decided to put out some music. I think art has an obligation to agitate as well as to console and entertain. I try to do all those things, without any premeditation or malice. And just trust that my best work is ahead."

Bananastan logo by Art Spiegelman
Attention span is a fascinating reason to go to vinyl. After all, the seven-inch record only holds so much material; usually one song on the front and one on the back. Artwork is another perfect reason. Art Spiegelman, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, designed the logo for Parks’ label, and did the cover art for one of the first two singles. I contacted Van Dyke Parks to ask about pricing of the subscription for these 45s. I thought with the strength of the Canadian dollar, we in the Great White North should be paying the same as those South of the border…he responded, “All the Chairman has to do now is just recover musician, studio, and pressing costs. $20 per unit is the fair figure for the modest sales projected. Not always a Luddite in the golden age of Analogue, I was a pioneer in techno R&D. I celebrate that age in this ‘retro’ effort in superior sound repro on virgin vinyl. 

I sent my order immediately. I also bought the songs on iTunes and carry them on my iPad. The musicians need to be paid. And the listening audience needs to hear. Do I collect vinyl because I have an audiophile mania?  No. So it’s not simply that the pure vinyl gives the best response. I listen to the music, not the presentation of the music.  Sure I have mp3 players, an iTunes account, CD players, and a Crossley turntable, I even kept some old cassettes to listen to in the car, but I recently began supporting this vinyl renaissance because I have a short attention span. I love obscure music and I enjoy having something real to hold in my hands as I listen. Vinyl 45s fill all the above. There are unreleased songs on singles from Ben Harper. Steve Earle concluded his book and CD set I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive with a note perfect version of the Hank Williams song on which the whole set is based on a 45!  More than a music delivery format, or a disease, vinyl is just simply a way of life. 

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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