The last few weeks have been a curious process of learning not how to walk again but how to walk properly. I’d developed a perfunctory, flat-footed semblance of ambulation which allowed me to shuffle from A to B without too much of an ungainly wonk and minor discomfort in my recently rearranged ankle. When I went for some physio, it took them all of thirty seconds to explain what I was doing wrong and how I could get it right. The first day I went out without crutches was euphoric, despite cobbled streets keeping me at a shuffle and the headbutting of a light in the coffee shop as I focused solely on my foot and forgot about the remainder of my body. In the time since that day, each one has been better than the last and, this week in particular, I’ve been visiting some of my preferred haunts. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that they largely specialise in the retail of vinyl records.
When I couldn’t walk, shuffle or even attain any kind of vertical presence, it wasn’t just record shopping but also vinyl listening which went out of the window. Unable to browse the racks, retrieve the discs, dust off the records and cue up the turntable, the sizeable Expedit, crammed with all sorts of wonderful albums, would taunt me from the back of the living room. Wireless streaming of iTunes and Spotify filled the gap as best it could, but it was no substitute for the ritual which is at the heart of my enjoyment of music. This afternoon, as I listened to ‘Ceremony‘ from a recently acquired original copy of ‘Substance‘, it struck me just how much I love the actual sound of vinyl as a medium for transmitting music. Yes, I’ve said before that my return to the turntable was down to the chronically awful mastering of CDs which reached its peak in the mid-Noughties, but it’s not really that which I’m talking about here.
The sound of nascent New Order was floating out across the room, lodging itself in my head in the way I find vinyl so often does. It didn’t burst out at me so much as share the same space. I’ll pay the price of the odd bit of crackle to hear some Bert Jansch breathing between the speakers or Moby Grape pushing to the edges of the room. CD sound is still, largely anyway, pretty good, but it’s not the same. As Echo & The Bunnymen‘s ‘Lips Like Sugar‘ was playing from the ‘Crystal Days‘ boxset earlier, the sound was rich, bold and full but I could tell it wasn’t vinyl. It sounded professional and it sounded good, but it didn’t set off the same process in my brain that vinyl does. I’m willing to accept that this might, in some way at least, be due to personal experience rather than scientifically provable discrepancies between one method of playback and another. And any such emotional attachment goes back a very long way.
I hadn’t asked for it and I can’t remember where it had come from. It looked second hand and was almost certainly the sort of thing which destroyed everything it came into contact with. It was my first record player and it was given to me at the age of six, so the wall full of vinyl behind me as I type this is all my dad’s fault. It’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. It had a stacker as part of the spindle so you could line up five discs at once which would drop down automatically, one by one, as each finished. It made an awful noise, as vinyl crashed onto vinyl, but it was a fascinating and tactile experience for someone so young. This having happened in 1988, my first acquisitions included Kylie Minogue and Jive Bunny‘s many sterling megamix releases. They all came from the remaindered and ex-jukebox 7″ racks in BeWise in Newport, where such classic tracks could be added to your collection for 69p, if you didn’t fancy poorly made beige jumpers or shiny Eighties ties. I’d buy things that caught my eye, generally picking up one a week and having a fairly terrible strike rate. I have a vague memory of owning a Van Morrison and Cliff Richard duet and vague is probably the best way to keep it.
Since relocating last summer, I’m now blessed with having both an excellent independent record store and a wonderful second hand vinyl shop nearby. Thumbing the racks is one of life’s little pleasures, made all the more pleasurable by the knowledge that new stuff is getting added frequently and that, by and large, it’s all pretty decent. In many ways, the same palpable thrills that I got from swinging the rickety rack in Newport round in the late Eighties are present as I hunch over boxes of previously cherished records. Music by Emmylou Harris, Islet, Harry Nilsson, Gonjasufi, The Louvin Brothers, Michael Chapman, First Aid Kit, The Lovely Eggs, Mark Lanegan, Loudon Wainwright III and a number of others has entered this house on vinyl since the turn of the year. The combination of new and old is all part of the enjoyment, the purchasing of second vinyl rather more pleasant than rummaging through racks of scuffed, faded or cracked used CDs.
But let’s get back to that New Order record. I turned to the good lady at that point and commented that there’s something about the sound of a (well made) vinyl record which allows the sound to get inside your head. Nick Coleman, in his fantastic if terrifying account of losing the emotions surrounding music through hearing loss ‘The Train In The Night‘, talks of how he always associated what he listened to with architecture, the soundstage representing some sort of palpable 3D presence before him. I know what he means, and while a well-mastered CD can still be a pleasure to listen to, it’s often just there in front of you: an aural tart flaunting its wares. But, with so much of my vinyl collection, the music hovers above, around and inside me. New Order demonstrate this particularly well thanks to the nimble digits of Peter Hook producing basslines which pulse gently at my temples.
Listening to vinyl can be a frustrating experience at times, whether it’s the stubborn crackle worn into a record by equipment presumably rather similar to that which I received aged six or the dreaded and permanent blight of a skip. Tackling static isn’t always as easy as I’d like and off-centre pressings and warping can also present their own problems but they’re all things I’m willing to put up with for the emotional reward, the indescribable tingle, the very personal euphoria that a great song on a good pressing can provoke.
Why is vinyl’s popularity increasing? There are plenty of theories surrounding the need for a tactile involvement with music, the increased availability of new titles and the usual audiophile arguments, but I’d wager some of the rose-tinted, sentimental, misty-eyed waftiness I’ve detailed above has its part to play too. I’m sure I’d have found vinyl one way or another if it hadn’t been ingrained in me when I was young, but I remain incredibly glad that I was given that disc-destroying behemoth, instead of any number of gifts which might be bestowed upon a child only just starting to understand the world. I will forever remain both a fan and propagandist for vinyl, mainly because I hope that I’m not the only one who gets that familiar buzz from lowering the stylus into run-in groove and cranking up the volume. And then there’s the rhythmic and repetitive crackle of the runout groove, a firmly analogue reminder that there’s currently no music playing. And we can’t have that, can we?