Back to Black



The original gramophone records were made of dust and beetle poo. It’s true: shellac is a secretion of the Indian lac bug, which was mixed with pulverised stone to make the first platters. They played well but broke easily and, in the mid-1920s, the unfortunately named Waldo Semon patented a potential substitute – plasticised polyvinyl chloride. It wasn’t until the mid 1940s that the almost unbreakable vinyl (or, as I often see it misspelled, 'vynil') was extensively used to make music discs. And there was a time when vinyl itself looked set to follow shellac into the dustbin of history. But it now seems that it is a passion that’s still alive and kicking, with some of the biggest albums of the day getting special vinyl releases (often with free mp3 download thrown in) – and a booming market in secondhand or pre-loved discs.

Mp3. Aac. (And that’s not a spasm of disgust at the digital onslaught but Advances Audio Coding to you.) Neither are words that trip off the tongue, but you only have to murmur the sound 'vinyl' and some people get misty eyed, teary even. In today's world of instant gratification, instant fame, instant soup et al, isn’t it nice to pull out your old records once in a while, lift the lid of your Dansette, pop one on that little centre widget and get into the groove? Of course the older 'early adopters', who replaced their entire collection with DVDs and junked their vinyl in an orgy of 80s consumerism, are playing their part in the resurgence in the popularity of vinyl in the record stores (those that remain). But it is also fuelled by a younger generation beguiled by a kooky way to consume (that's ‘listen’ to us older folks) music. Much like the gourmet burger chains springing up to remind people that food was once cooked, and not only as an instant download into a cardboard carton, there are now more places to digest the good old stuff. Sunday morning vinyl sessions – in which a group come together, reverently to listen to a whole album, are springing up on both sides of the Atlantic. And music journo David Hepworth has dubbed his Saturday mornings ‘Platterday’, regularly tweeting his followers snaps of the artwork of this week’s choice from his extensive personal collection.

Vinyl’s resurgence has come, ironically, on the back of the death of physical media. We no longer believe in the promises of the tape – be it spooled, cassetted or, God forbid, eight-tracked. The ‘indestructible’ CD, like the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic, has also been seen to have its shortcomings. And both have suffered under the ascendancy of the iPod. More than a decade on from its first appearance, I wouldn’t want to argue that there aren’t some advantages to the Thin White Juke.

But is it really the big step forward that everyone bought into – or have we lost something along the way? Something that only vinyl can re-supply? (Word is, even Steve Jobs preferred listening to his music on vinyl when he was kicking back at home.) What the younger generation have missed out on is both a physical pleasure as well as a musical one, which can still exercise its grip on oldies like me. Does anyone these days remember the very first mp3 they downloaded with the same vivid, physical delight that the first ‘45’ can command in ladies and gentlemen of a certain age? Go into one of the country's vintage stores and you can leaf through old classics and rare memories; become re- beguiled by the glorious artwork on the covers; be reverent as you slip the disc out of the inner sleeve to check for scratches (There never are any on discs on my racks!). Who can resist reading all the liner notes helpfully provided by the band/record company about this recording – even, sometimes, the lyrics so you can sing along?

‘Pull out your old records once in a while, lift the lid of your Dansette, pop one on that little centre widget and get into the groove’

And what artwork the vinyl era engendered – a whole world of graphic design that turned an accident of practicality into a new form of art. Mentioning just a few can hardly convey how much they burned into our souls, but who can forget Peter Blake’s iconic Sgt. Pepper's eclectic crowd scene? Nirvana’s floating baby on Nevermind – now adorning thousands of T-shirts all over the world? The Rolling Stones lascivious tongue; Wings’ Band On The Run escaped convicts? See the cover! Hear the music! (Iconic One Direction cover anybody? Anybody?)

You could compare Mp3 and vinyl to the e-book and the hardback, with the paperback squeezed between. I'm no Luddite and I’ll read all three but it’s horses for courses. Some moods, and some music, only suit one medium.

What the Mp3 revolution has done that e-books haven’t and maybe never will is change what we get to choose from. The vinyl LP was, at its best, a structured and thought- through performance with a start, a middle and an end – no one was going to dicker about skipping track 3, or shuffling the order the songs came in. But with the coming of the CD, and even more so now with downloads, people only listen to the song they came for. Bands, catching on to this, now front-load all of the best tracks on an album to encouraging us to listen and, above all, buy, the whole thing. Too often, though, this front-loading removes context, blurs the light and shade of an artist’s work and denies us the pleasure of uncovering hidden gems.

From the Inkspots through to Iggy Pop. Wonderwalling through Oasis to One Direction, have lost something without even realising it? We may never halt pernicious front-loading, but we can make a choice to ‘back-load’ those vinyl treasures that are still around. So get down to your local vintage store, lose yourself by leafing through almost forgotten classics and take some home today! All but the real collectors’ items are pretty cheap – mine average £5 a pop. Then you can take your vintage vinyl purchases home, and play them on your record deck (If you threw away that old one in 1982... I stock these too!) Companies like TDK (no they don’t just make cassettes) are making fine turntables that match modern aesthetics and offer great sound quality. Time to go back to black!

Taken from VE Magazine - Aug/Sept 2012

Woo Gilchrist