Saturday, May 27, 2017

Record albums (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

We’re talking about music on the blog this month, and I thought I’d tackle a piece of musical history that will reveal how old I am:

Record albums.

Actually, by the time I was in high school, the major form of music delivery was the cassette tape. They were handy and more portable than records, and you could make your own mix tapes. But records were still around.

(And for those of you who don’t know what a cassette tape is, it’s the form of music delivery that preceded CDs, which preceded MP3s.)

Anyway, we played records on our stereos, which were big clunky appliances with speakers the size of microwave ovens (not that many people had microwaves yet), and there was a whole feeling around the ritual of playing a record. First, to get a record, I had to save up my allowance, so it wasn’t an impulse purchase. Then I’d buy the album in its shiny shrink wrap, admiring the cover art. I’d peel off the plastic wrap and pull out the record in its paper sleeve. I’d read the liner notes, if any, pore over the list of songs and try to imagine what the ones I hadn’t heard yet sounded like.

A brand-new record was glossy, black, grooved. I set it on the turntable and moved the needle over to the outer edge and gently set the needle into the outer groove. Through the speakers would come a hiss (and if it was not a new record but an older one, there would often be a crackling staticky noise too, before the music started). And then the music would pour out. The songs played in the order selected by the band, the needle moving ever closer to the hole in the middle of the record. I’d turn it over and play the other side, the remaining half of the album.

There was a ceremony, a specialness, around playing a record. An album was more than just the music: it was the cover art, the liner notes and lyric sheets, the order of the songs. A record collection was tangible: it consisted of visual art, cardboard covers, paper sleeves, vinyl discs. Every part of it mattered, down to the band’s logo and the title of the album.

Access to music wasn’t as easy then as it is now. This story may strike anyone today the way I felt reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories of getting an orange for Christmas and what a splendid, exotic gift she thought it was.

That’s okay. My whole life has been a challenge to accept change. I think of record albums, and the distance between “back then” and “now” seems vast. I play a digital file and hear a song I heard when I was fifteen, and the distance shrinks again; some part of me is still the same, still here.

6 comments:

  1. Boy do I identify with this. When I was in college (dinosaur era) I'd stop in one of the department stores every payday (I worked in a restaurant when not in class) to treat myself to a new album. I bought more because of the cover art than the songs. Ended up with some really strange stuff, too.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's one thing I think we've largely lost: the sense of an album as a distinctive package of music and art and a unifying vision or theme or idea. Someone like Beyonce can still create an album with its own discrete identity, but I think mostly music has become more of a streaming smorgasbord. Which is good in some ways and bad in others; just different.

      Delete
  2. I soooo connect with this one, Jennifer. One of my favorite things in life was shutting the bedroom door and diving into a new album. It was an EXPERIENCE.

    ReplyDelete
  3. We had a family conversation about buying music. My sons were taunting me because I never buy albums anymore. Instead, I purchase a single song. I love that best about iPods -- that I no longer have to waste $10 on a whole album when I like only one or two songs on it.

    But discoverability is gone... I agree, there was a whole process around playing a record -- holding it by the sides, blowing dust off the needle, maybe weighing it down with a coin so it wouldn't skip, anticipating that first note after the hiss sounds through the speakers. I don't have the album notes, the song lyrics, the history that went into the production of that song.

    You've inspired me to buy an album again!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. :-)
      With every change, something is gained, and something is lost. I'm guessing musicians today focus more on the single, but when they could count on an album to be experienced as a whole, they could create it accordingly.
      One thing I liked to do with albums was get one when only one hit from it had been released so far, and trying to guess which two or three other songs from it would be released as singles.

      Delete