One of the benefits, I believe, of being a teen in the 1970s was that we bought records- vinyl LPs and singles. Teens today have endless choice and accessibility to their music, but in digital downloads they don’t have the sheer physical pleasure of an album. In that, they lose tremendously, I would argue.
At several points in my fictionalised autobiography, Freak or smoothy?, I discuss aspects of record acquisition and ownership. I’d like to explore those again here. Endless time was wasted in the record shops of Barnsley on a Saturday, flicking through the racks of albums to see what there was and to compare prices between vendors. Like all towns, we had Smiths and Boots selling vinyl, but there were three independent record shops as well, including Neal’s Music in the Arcade; I felt some obligation to buy from there from time to time as ‘Uncle Derek’ and ‘Auntie Win’ were our next door neighbours; sadly, though, their shop was just not cool as ‘Casa Disco’ and ‘Scene and Heard’. I know that now kids can fritter away equal amounts of time on i-Tunes- with the added advantage of being able to sample tracks- but it doesn’t compare to the social activity of wandering round the town centre with a friend and bumping into others from school- and it got me out of my bedroom too.
The choice was tantalising, but the pocket money was limited. Decisions had to be made and you had to make a gamble on the investment of your £2.99. My first ever album purchase was Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield (I should confess that it was not the first ever album I had owned, but I’m discounting here the soundtracks to The Jungle Book or Winnie the Pooh: Disney classics had their time and place in my life, but at 14 I had to progress…..).
Machine head- the front cover
The Oldfield album was good to listen to, but it lacked some of the essential material qualities of the best albums I recall. Subsequently I went wild one Saturday and bought (from W H Smith) both Dark side of the moon by Pink Floyd and Machine head by Deep Purple. These two purchases much more accurately represented the ideal record experience: the vinyl of both was thick and heavy- and there is something impressive and encouraging about a weighty slab of music. The cardboard of the sleeves was likewise thick and slightly coarse, once again suggesting solidity and quality. Slipping the album out of the sleeve, there was the indefinable and unique smell of a brand new vinyl disc: it is a special memory of my teens and many others I’m sure.
Part of the love of records, I think, is to do with the more intense physical sensations of youth. I keenly remember how other people’s houses always smelled different and strange. In our earlier years we are more keenly alert to taste, scent and touch, I think; sometimes, still, I will recapture the scent of an early girlfriend’s perfume and it is an intense transport to times more intensely felt. The smell of music shops- the new guitars and the hot valve amps- was a contemporary and similarly evocative memory.
Putting the record on the turntable was a ritual in itself: there was the great care involved in lowering the stylus so as not to skip or scratch your new treasure; there was the anticipation of the intro groove with its pops and crackles. Probably you were shut away, absorbing the moment of discovery alone. Perhaps there was the excitement of some message scrawled on the vinyl around the label by someone at the pressing plant (a ‘Porky Prime Cut’ for example); on occasion, the labels would be on the wrong sides, making the album that little bit more collectible. My copy of Dark side of the moon came with a double sided poster too, something else to help transform my room from playroom to personal domain.
Then the music started and you would be absorbed by your new possession; yet it wasn’t just the music. The sleeve was a listening companion too. Tubular Bells had disappointed because it was just pictures front and back; Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Deep Purple offered the inner gate-fold with photos and information; details to absorb whilst you became deeply acquainted with the tracks. The sleeve would be a communication from the band as well as a work of art. That sense that time, care and creativity had been invested and that you were handling a piece of considered craftsmanship rather than mere ‘product’ was definitely a significant part of the experience. Here was a complete message from your idols and it rewarded prolonged study.
Albums, then, could be a complete package of sensations. You had a precious item, something encapsulating an aspect of yourself, an expression of your growing maturity, a symbol of admission to adulthood, but you also had something that was beautiful and vulnerable. It demanded your care and protection- you needed to keep it flat, preferably in an album case, so that the sleeve wasn’t creased and the vinyl wasn’t cracked; you couldn’t lean it against the radiator or prop it on the window sill in the sun or it would be warped. You had to guard against putting cups and glasses on it. The record repaid all this care with abiding memories- tunes and lyrics that became embedded in your psyche.
That’s why I still have my album and single collection and why I don’t bother with downloads. It may be my Luddite tendency, but I still crave the physical interaction with my music. It took me the best part of a decade to renounce vinyl and swap to CD, too; indeed the only CDs I really like are the ones that come in cardboard sleeves with inserts- mini albums, if you will- the ones that suggest again that thought and care have been invested in the issue.