Vinyl is dead, long live vinyl

Reading time: 7 mins

How do you pronounce it? Vahyn-l? Vīnĭl?

The living room in my childhood home had a big wide bay window. Standing on either side of the windows were two tall white bookcases my Dad built. They had a deeper base section to house the record player and my parents combined record collection; my Mum was a screaming Beatles fan in her youth, my Dad tended towards folk, but both met in the middle ground of singer songwriters and rock bands.

My parents are both musical, Mum played the piano, Dad the guitar and banjo, both sang in choirs and my Dad still performs at the Royal Concert Hall. Music was a constant part of my upbringing and their record collection was a source of fascination and as I look back on music as part of my childhood it’s clear that it holds the key to my musical proclivities.

Somewhere in that collection was an album with an oddly hypnotic cover. I was around 9 or 10 years old when I came across it, around about the time I was starting to discover my own tastes. Top of the Pops was must-see TV, a radio a necessity, and later a tape deck so the Top 40 could be recorded and played over and over. Yet that album, and the subsequent discovery of other albums by this ‘old’ band called Queen (the joys of the local library music section), was one that would stick with me through the years. From the opening Arabic call it offers piano driven ballads, upbeat rock tracks and still one of my favourite Queen tracks of all time, Fat Bottomed Girls (ohhh those opening harmonies).

That said, music is always about fashion and 9 year old Gordon was doing his very best to ‘fit in’ although I always seemed to naturally veer a little off the beaten track. The first LP I bought was Adam & The Ants, Friend or Foe. It was 1982 and Goody Two Shoes was high in the charts. Yet it was the track A Man Called Marco that grabbed my ear, all minor keys, jangling guitar and in contrast to the new romantic pop the rest of the album offers it gave me an entirely ‘other’ musical landscape to explore.

For a while I collected LPs like everyone else until along came Compact Discs. Tiny silver discs you could smother in jam and they’d still play (no, they didn’t demonstrate that on Tomorrows World, take a look for yourself). My Dad has always been a bit of a tech gadget nut, the acorn didn’t fall all that far, and so we had a CD player pretty early on. The player came with a couple of discs as part of some promotion or another, one of which was Live at Marquee which featured a guitar shredding, monster riff of a track by some American dude called Jimi Hendrix who was singing about a Purple Haze and, whilst I didn’t understand what the heck he was going on about, I sure as hell knew that this noise was something I wanted more of. And I wanted it as loud as possible.

And then it was 1984. The year started with talk of Orwell and Big Brother and then along came a band I already knew, with a new album which gave me exactly some of the noise I was craving. Radio GaGa rightly got the headlines, but it was Hammer To Fall and Tear It Up that continued my path towards rock. Fast forward another few years and I’d rattled through early Iron Maiden, Saxon, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, and the like, switching my allegiance between vinyl and CD depending on what I could get my hands on.

A few years later takes you to the moment when I walked into the kitchen to the sight of my Dad washing the dishes to the accompaniment of Appetite for Destruction (on cassette tap I should point out). All the kids at his school were talking about it so he thought he’d give it a listen. I quickly snaffled it for myself.

My own CD player soon arrived, a mini-stereo. Just in time for Rage Against the Machine, and whilst the first track I played on it was The Silencers Painted Moon, Killing in the Name Of, was the one that got the “turn that down” shout from downstairs… (I slammed my door and turned it up in protest).

A few years after that, Smells Like Teen Spirit posted on my bedroom wall and a re-introduction to vinyl at Hospital Radio Lennox. 1000 LPs and 4000-odd singles lined the shelves, with regular additions every week. A mixing desk, microphones, even broadcasting live from the Balloch Highland Games (from a caravan, also known as our outside broadcast unit).

DJs never really left vinyl and whilst CDs were useful at times, the joy of getting that crossfade between tracks just right, teasing in the few opening bars before dropping THAT track that always got people dancing. To help raise funds for the hospital radio I used to DJ at parties (think local bowling greens, Aunties and Uncles getting their groove on) and over time you got to know what would work, disco classics for the 40th birthdays, 2 Unlimited for the kids.

Of course let’s not forget the humble cassette tape which was the format for the majority of my music listening through my teenage years. A double tape deck at home allowed for mixtapes, a walkman (my first Boots own brand still the best) gave me freedom to take my music with me everywhere. A habit that persists to this day.

I moved away from vinyl in those years and my CD collection grew and grew; the first CD I ever bought was Bananarama: Greatest Hits (1988), the last was Foo Fighters Wasting Light (2011). Somewhere in the latter half of those 23 years the ‘mobile’ part of my listening habits moved to mini-discs; I had a mini-disc component in my stereo, a personal player, and even a mini-disc player in the car (where it was an obvious upgrade over cassette tape). Alas it never really took off and I was left with a betamax solution in a VHS world. RIP Mini-disc.

Let’s speed things up, it’s 2018 and we’ve zipped on past MP3s, Winamp and Napster and I now stream all my music from the cloud. I have one only device capable of playing CDs in my home (a Playstation) and I’m not even sure if my car has a CD player as I just connect my phone via bluetooth, or listen to (DAB) radio. The future is here and it’s online, bye bye physical manifestations of media!

I should at this point mention that up until last year I still owned a record player and when my parents moved out of the family home their depleted vinyl collection came to me. I spent a few wonderful weeks reliving my childhood through Abbey Road, Andy Williams, Simon & Garfunkel and Queen. I revisited my own LPs – Deacon Blue, Martin Stephenson & The Daintees, Simple Minds – and let the nostalgia wash over me. Such great times and memories to be had.

The scratchy sound on the older Beatles albums, all recorded in Mono, the remembered skip part way through Bridge over Troubled Waters, to my first ever gig to the strains of Belfast Child.

Kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Time to flip the record over for side 2.

Kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Flip the record over.

Kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Flip the record over.

Kadunk, kad… ok that’s enough of that.

I had forgotten the downside to vinyl.

Unless you are playing through a stack of singles (who else had a ‘drop arm’ on their record player?) it gets a little monotonous flipping sides and whilst that can some churlish and, I think, for some it is entirely the point, a way to slow down and be ‘part of’ the listening experience for me it starts to getting mildly annoying.

A long bath is out of the question, kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Some music to accompany washing up? Kadunk, kadunk, kadunk. Want some background music whilst you tidy up a couple of rooms… you get the picture.

That veneer of nostalgia soon faded, I put the records away and returned to Spotify. I threw together a quick playlist to replicate the songs I’d been playing on vinyl and after a couple of (uninterrupted playback) hours it struck me that the physical manifestation of the albums are not where my memories are stored, I can access the same memories, same emotions just by hearing the music.

It will transport me to the same time and space – The Heat Is On is the drive to my grandparents in Rutherglen – regardless of format. With that mindset I suddenly had a few boxes of vinyl that were, essentially, worthless to me.

So I got rid of them.

I passed a selection to someone who I knew would appreciate them and the rest went to the charity shop. I have no emotional attachment to the pressed black circles other than a mild case of ‘things were better in my day’ nostalgia. My attachment is to the tracks, the music and the performances they held, music and performances which are readily available in other formats, other formats which are decidely less hassle to use.

Editors Note: He’s steering clear of any discussion about fidelity on purpose.

It was World Vinyl Day recently (technically Record Store Day but that just makes me think of the Guinness Book, Norris McWhirter, Roy Castle…) and given the queues outside the record stores it’s safe to say that vinyl is not dead. But why?

I ponder this fully aware that I’m challenging the progress of technology in another area (books) by resorting to paperbacks instead of my Kindle…

The very thing that ends up annoying me about vinyl is perhaps the very reason to embrace it all the more. I mean sure every 20 mins or so you have to get up, or stop doing whatever your doing, to flip the damn thing over but in our always-on hyper-connected world, is that such an onerous task? Is it so hard to tear ourselves away from our screens for those few seconds?

I’ve no doubt there is likely an element of rose-tinted viewing when some people, particularly of my generation, look back at their experiences of vinyl. Yet looking at the people in the record stores today and you’ll find the usual mish-mash of ages, so it can’t all be that.

Putting aside those whose argument is seated in fidelity (hey, I wrote that Editors note ya know!) is this, to coin a phrase from James Murphy, simply “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties” *, a harking back to something deemed to be somehow better without any substance to that argument?

I have no idea what the real answer is and no doubt there isn’t AN answer at all. I’m sticking to my take, vinyl is popular because it’s a way of taking some ownership of your time. In the fight against social media and the tiny electronic miracles we keep in our pocket, it seems that an ageing non-digital format, one that is prone to damage and can only do one thing at a time, is managing holding its own.

2 comments

  1. I love many things about this, but I’m still confused about any potential alternative pronunciation of “vinyl”.

    I prefer records and MP3s for the things I want to own a physical copy of, because it gives me the best of both worlds and generally lets me support the musicians and shops I love. Still buy the occasional CD though – a couple, most recently, in March – although, thinking about it, I have two record players and nothing to play CDs on anymore, just an external CD drive I can use to put tunes on my computer. That was a waste of twenty quid!

  2. The pronounciation question is due to my own confusion. One you put on a turntable, one you put on floors… my brain never remembers which is which!

    And yes, supporting artists is the one area that conflicts me. These days it’s largely through gigs and merchandise.

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