Remembering the magic of vinyl
by Sharon Warr
The first record I owned was given to me on my 5th birthday. It was a Jim Reeves seven single with Little Ole You on one side and Guilty on the other. I still have it. I know this dates me a bit but we all know that 50 is the new 30 and just in case you are unclear on where I sit on the 'decrepit' scale, I don‘t quite have to drink my pizza through a straw with a bib tucked under my chin!
When I think of vinyl records I am aware that many readers will have no idea what I'm talking about. Until a while ago vinyl had no meaning for me either. Back in the day we called it LP, seven single (or just single), record, disc or album. Never vinyl - that was very American. Even the words album and disc only became popular in the late 60s and 70s - certainly in the South African context.
For those of us who grew up with the LP, the arrival of CDs on the scene aroused mixed emotions. There were those die-hard aficionados of the LP who just would not embrace the new technology, firstly because it could never match the quality of the tried and tested record and turntable and secondly, and I fell into this camp, because one's collection of LPs was so big, one could never hope to convert them to the new format as the cost would have been prohibitive. So that left us with a 'before CD' collection and an 'after CD' collection. Betwixt and between.
Being a bit of a Gadget Alice with my wonder of all things curious I soon however embraced CDs wholeheartedly. After all, they were just as their name implied - compact. No more lugging piles of weighty LPs around. No more searching for cuts or tracks as they are now called - you just selected one and, wonder of wonders, it played...from the beginning!. And best of all, no more clicks and scratches. Listening to Dvorak's Symphony to the New World sans clicks was amazing! You were able to know for certain that your Pink Floyd was not going to get stuck in the middle of Us and Them and you could say with certainty that your CD was not going to warp if left in the sun, thereby rendering it suitable for use only as an ashtray.
But for all the perks of the CD, for me, the magic of the LP still pips the convenient, slick technology of the CD any day. Why? Because listening to an LP required one's full sensual engagement. It required you to be present in the full sense of the word. It was not solely about the technology and technicalities of the devices but in the tactile, visual and auditory sense that made LPs such a full on experience. From the moment you picked up a record you became absorbed. Listening was more than cueing up two hours of music, clicking 'play' on a computer software icon and walking away. It required that you stay... listening to the mix with a critical ear and it required that you be there when the record came to the end of the side. Failure to do so would result in the stylus clicking ad infinitum in the locking groove with the real danger of wearing out the expensive stylus. I can't say I miss that part of the experience but there's a lot I do miss.
Another aspect of the LP was the branding. Record companies and their labels became part of the experience too. You couldn't miss the names RCA Victor, Atlantic, Parlotone, Trutone, EMI, HMV, Apple, Island, A&M - you'd recognise their logos the minute you took the record from its sleeve. And what about the covers themselves - who can ever forget the cover designs by Hipgnosis – think Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon or Led Zeppelin‘s Houses of the Holy amongst others. Another favourite of mine was the cover of Golden Earring's Moontan whose designer sadly does not get a credit. There was shock and horror when the nude lady appeared in the record stores in South Africa! LP covers still have a solid feel and visual quality that a CD cover can never hope to achieve simply because it is too small.
Although the golden age of vinyl has gone, it is still very much around as far as availability goes. I've been pleasantly surprised at how many young people I see browsing in vinyl stores. They want that same experience I tried to explain in the beginning of the article. Back to a time when things were a little more hands on and the music was vibrant and, yes, tuneful. But more on that another time.
So...for the lover of things old but good, the thing to do is to go to the attic or the garage and lovingly resurrect your turntable or find a good second hand little system somewhere. Give it a clean up just as you would a vintage car and wire it up to your current hi-fi. Then crack open those cardboard boxes of LPs you stashed away or better still, head for Mabu Vinyl at 2 Rheede Street, Gardens (off Kloof Street), Cape Town, to browse through a bit of history. The shop is like a time capsule, hinting at the hippy era with the smell of incense wafting out onto the pavement and the sound of classic rock pieces in the air. Brings a smile to one's face every time. Their prices are reasonable and generally the condition of the LPs is good.
Photograph by Nicole Danielle