Vinyl Worship - Record Store Day
It's ironic that I should be here, of all places, writing about a renaissance in vinyl. 'Here' is a cafe on the river in Chester. I used to come here years ago drawn, not by the food, but by the jukebox. It was an original Wurlitzer crammed with old rock n roll, Motown and beat-era 7"s. Now, unfortunately, the jukebox has been 'upgraded'. It plays CD's. A pretend 7" spins on a platter while the innards effortlessly cough out pristine ones and zeroes.
It's sacrilege, is what it is. But why do I feel that way? Why, after years of not giving a stuff what my music is delivered on, does it all of a sudden matter? Why are the most interesting Welsh bands increasingly turning to a format that was receiving the Last Rites when their parents were becoming their parents?
I'll begin my story about the renaissance in vinyl with my part in its upturn, minuscule as that may have been. This is the story of one man's volte face. A story told to coincide with this weekend's Record Store Day. Because now that vinyl is my new religion, the likes of Spillers, Cob and Diverse are my churches. With much better hymns and a better class of mustiness.
Most of what has been written so far about Record Store Day has been about the undoubted importance of these great, knowledgeable temples to music. But Record Store Day is also a titular celebration of the record. Let's, then, talk vinyl.
The very first music I bought was on vinyl: the Wombling album, Sgt Pepper, the Brotherhood Of Man. But I quickly progressed to CDs, from Back Alley Music and Crocodile Records in Mold.
The first CD I bought was the Cure's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me. My initial copy jumped like a pneumatic drill with a knackered off switch. When I got a copy that played, I couldn't believe the clarity: the damped, Chic-like guitar on Why Can't I Be You? sounded like it was in the room with me; I could hear Fat Bob's fingers strangling the frets on The Scream, and the cello on Catch sounded broad and complex, like a simultaneous equation of yearn.
In the same space that my dad had stacked a couple of hundred slabs of Dylan, Beatles, Sandy Denny and Bread, I could amass three times more. It seemed like a big deal at the time. The argument loses substance when you realise what it was that I was stacking. One of those CDs was Candy Flip's vile assassination of Strawberry Fields. Some of the others had Bongo (pretty sure my dad still calls him that) emoting his conscience all over them, like a man for whom irony was just something that got attracted to magnets.
I loved my CDs. Must have done. I bought thousands of them. It didn't bother me that I had to squint at the artwork. Back then my eyes worked fine. For me, the definitive artwork for Doolittle, The Stone Roses and Screamadelica was five-ish inches square. I bought a second hand, vinyl copy of Screamadelica the other day and it just looked wrong. Too big.
I got my first PC in '98, realising quickly that I could store music more 'efficiently' on the PC and that I could 'burn' my own compilation CDs. My work, both as a DJ and a radio presenter, was changed irrevocably. As a DJ, I was sick of numpties nicking my CDs whenever I went to the loo or fell into a rage of distraction due to someone with no ear/brain/heart connections asking for The Killers. Who cared if my CDRs got thieved? And I could take more tunes out with me. Some of the them - 13 on a good night - were pretty good.
And there's something to be said for (relative) monogamy in a musical relationship. 74,826 items in my iTunes library means an initial thrill of hot excitement, a few minutes of feral passion, but then on to the next track. On a computer they're items, files or tracks, business-like language, devoid of any love for what's contained therein. Like calling something by Matisse or Van Gogh a 'picture'.
So, a decade-ish after converting to digital music, I've got all those items on my RAID protected hard drive array, 225(.4) days' worth of listening. Too damn much, is what it is. I may as well be trying to find excitement and uniqueness in grains of sand. The download/digital file has turned music into little more than dandelion seeds.
My brain folds in on itself when it comes to choosing something to listen to 'for pleasure'. I used to stick the computer onto random play, eager to be surprised by hidden or forgotten gems, but where's the joy in spending four hours clicking skip every time a Mclusky b-side comes on and terrifies the cat, or in getting your ears choked by one of the many 'ironic' selections I'd picked to amuse a late-night, sozzled, Friday night crowd. There are only a handful of times you can stumble across S Club 7's Reach - especially when it careers headfirst into Desecration's black metal.
So I had already started to fall out of love with digital convenience. And my DJ mates, the properly musically-astute ones, would be ever so slightly sneery when I'd turn up for a set clutching home-burned Woolies CDRs.
"Can't understand why'd you lug all that scratchy wax around, to be honest. It's not like you've even got the Stone Roses or Arctic Monkeys when people ask for 'em," I'd say.
"Exactly," they'd say. And I still didn't get it.
They'd talk in awed whispers about mint copies of Marsha Hunt's Oh No, Not The Beast Day found at a car boot sale on a Sunday morning in Chirk for a pound, or something early and in Mono by The Shadows in a box behind the counter at Cob Records.
"It's only 79p on iTunes!"
It's a wonder my body wasn't discovered under a hedge, with 387 jumpy Woolies CDRs inserted in my bum as if I was a multi-plattered CD player.
Ashli Todd at the old Spillers Records
These DJ mates got attached, obsessive, elitist about a format that is difficult to store, a back-breaker to carry, likely to sound less than pristine, be hard to find and - generally - expensive to accumulate. Who in their right mind wants a second hand copy of a Stones single in a sleeve that looks like a chromatograph of every communicable disease of the last 50 years? Something that sounds like it has been gilded with a white noise crackle, as if it's being beamed in from the Dark Side Of The Moon.
But these are all the things I value, now. 'Difficult to store' means I don't buy rubbish like a kneejerk Elton John. 'Back breaker to carry' means I (occasionally) consider what I'm going to play in my DJ sets before I get there. 'Less than pristine' means suffused with warmth and humanity, not the gloss of numbers trying to emulate the impossible mathematics of the human soul. 'Hard to find' means you actually value something when you stumble across it: in Cob, at a car boot sale, in a charity shop, tucked behind Tubular Bells at your mum and dad's. And those stains on the sleeve are a history of mucky, musical love. Rock burns on Floyd albums, pre-adolescent names carefully ballpointed onto inner sleeves, dried Newcy Brown discolouring Black Is Black. These are all parts of the story vinyl can tell.
So, the packages that started turning up in office containing vinyl began to have a real allure. They weren't dimensionless. They weren't retro. And - over the last couple of years - many more of them have been arriving. The vinyl pressing of Future Of The Left's Travels With Myself And Another had a profound effect on me. On vinyl I'd give it the time and space to play itself out. Vinyl challenges the peripatetic rush of our times. It nobbles knee-jerk skipping, inviting you to listen all the way through something, rather than just consume what you immediately like, moving on the moment you get challenged.
In the last twelve months we've had wonderful Welsh releases on vinyl from Saturday's Kids, Islet, Jonny, Gruff Rhys, Strange News From Another Star, Didz and Chico, Y Niwl, Harbour, Vvolves, H.Hawkline... it's become a real gauge of quality. Home recording and the digital distribution opportunities offered by the likes of bandcamp and iTunes are wonderfully democratic - but a high proportion of the mp3s I receive aren't good enough to play. On the other hand, almost every piece of vinyl that turns up merits airplay.
I wonder how much of this apparent throwback to an old format is about offering an alternative to an easily-pirated file, about giving the customer something tangible that feels much more like a valuable artefact. Plus, vinyl sounds amazing. The Didz And Chico track I allude to above, Something New, has an added, multicoloured dimension to it when I play it through an 8K rig - far more 'there' than its digital equivalent, and that's a fact.
Vinyl's greatest satellite joy, whether it's newly pressed or second-hand, is that it gives you good reason to patronise Wales' fine independent record stores. The ones that are sticking more vinyl on their shelves - from local artists - in counterpoint to the high street stores that are - more and more - marginalising the floorspace they give over to music.
I've never once walked into HMV and had one of the staff recommend something inspirational to me. Every time I walk into Spillers, Ashli Todd will point something (and generally many things!) out to me that she thinks I will treasure. She's never been wrong. Neither have Owen or Alan at Cob in Bangor. Or Matt in Diverse.
Check this theory out on Saturday - heck, any day of the week! And let me know what you discover. And if you find a copy of Gorky's Barafundle or Mclusky Do Dallas on vinyl, give me a nudge. Thanks!