The CD is dying, but it will not be missed nearly as much as vinyl records, and it has nothing to do with music. While having a CD collection might be construed as more convenient than having a big, space-gobbling record collection, the truth is that they just don’t mean as much. The CD experience simply never transcended the clinical. Maybe it sounded better, but one scratch and it was garbage. An LP or single could be nudged back into serviceability with a simple goading of the mechanical arm riding it. Moreover, though, from a personal standpoint, purchasing albums was like purchasing pieces of my own future brain.
It was an experience. A weekly ritual. And even though some folks are trying their darndest to hang on to the tradition of releasing music on vinyl, and even releasing some on vinyl only, for me it will never be the same. Back then there was no way to know, even if a record had been around for years and years, what sort of goodies were waiting for one inside. Was it a gate-fold? Was there a poster? Postcards? Did the inner grooves bear some cryptic inscription scratched out by a spy? Is there some secret sonic message in the run-out groove?
How would it smell?
In my youth, major artists could be counted on to release albums every year. And even if they didn’t (but they usually did), I had so much catching up to do that there would never be any dearth of mysteries to unravel. What did Pink Floyd sound like before Dark Side of the Moon? What did they look like? Who was Syd Barrett? What did Genesis sound like/look like before they hit it big in America, and why was it that all their old stuff was only available on import? Will I ever catch up with all four solo Beatles? What’s a King Crimson? Why are Lynyrd Skynyrd such a big deal, and what could Jaco Pastorius possibly have to do with Joni Mitchell?
But I’m not talking about discographies. I’m not even talking about sound quality. I know some people yearn for the old days when music was mastered to be punchier with more dynamics. I’ve been listening ravenously to music for 40 years and I refuse to immerse myself in that argument, since I can’t say I’d notice the difference, to be truthful. Moreover, I don’t care. What I’m talking about is the ritual. The sense of wonder. The love. The mutually sympathetic disciplines of graphic arts, intricate fonts, trademark handwriting, photography, the indecipherable (to a young man like myself) cluster of credits and in-jokes that must have taken weeks of patient thought and inner turmoil, band arguments, lawyers, etc. And how we all wished, me and my musical buddies, that that could be us someday. Countless amateur renderings of what our band would look like. Who would we thank? Who would be credited for what? What would we call our publishing company? Who would take our picture? Which brick wall would we use?
My son Harrison (named after George, who, like all the ex-Beatles, would generously provided posters with his records now and again, for free) was holding a square picture in his hands in the back seat on the way to school this morning, looking at four tiny figures dressed in crazy circus outfits, holding various antique wind instruments while something called “She’s Leaving Home” played in the car. He was trying to name all the objects and living things he saw on the tiny cover. Though I felt a little sorry for him, I also felt a deep sense of gratitude that I lived in the era where the album was king.
There was a record chain in Western New York called Cavages. They could be found in every mall, usually at the busiest intersection of the main artery of pedestrian traffic. I would get my mother to drive me or I would walk, in rain or snow, to buy or just to browse. Like a teenage meditation. Reverently. Over and over, alphabetically, from A-Z, slowly. Meticulously. Flipping the rows, from the front to the back. Trying to complete the discography in my mind, artist by artist. And the best were generous, with an opening gate-fold or two. Lyrics (sometimes on a separate sheet of paper or usually on the album sleeve itself) were often included, and big enough to read easily.
You’re going to think this is strange, but one of the things I used to love about record albums, particularly the ones that folded open, was cutting open that sheath of cellophane from the top with my thumb-nail. How delicious it was–the sense of newness, the exacting nature of the inner artwork finally revealed to me, the person it was made for. Maybe a scatter-shot assemblage of band members engaged in various stages of production/recording, or one frame-able photo of heretofore reclusive band members (Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” comes to mind) or a sparse rendering of sloppy handwriting, a cursory pass at grudgingly administered credits (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” comes to mind) or an exciting array of live shots if it was a double-live album.
For people like me, this was the first portrait of Pink Floyd we would ever see.
When that plastic coating fell away, you knew that record was YOURS. And no one else in the world was gonna be the first. You know? Often, at such an age, the credits were secondary. A cursory examination of the liner notes to “The London Chuck Berry Sessions” would have told me that the same guy who played drums on “Pick Up The Pieces” by AWB (another record I deflowered) also played on “My Ding-A-Ling”. Who cared? And if a sheet of stickered plastic (the price of the thing was stickered on, bearing the name of the store and the price, often $6.99) sat on my bedroom floor for a few days while I devoured “Skylarking” over and over and over again, trying to decipher its meaning in a larger sense, who was gonna argue?
Another thing that I miss in music packaging is the smell of the ink and cardboard and paper. You could really tell who was a class act (Steely Dan’s “Aja” is still the best smelling album I have ever encountered) and who was cheap (the Gentle Giant American re-issues could have come from McDonalds, as could any American hits package of English groups like The Move). Stevie Wonder was generous, Led Zeppelin was pretty stingy in regards to credits and informative packaging in general. The shinier the paper, the better the sensory smorgasbord. ELO usually included a poster or some other elaborate graphic chicanery. Their 1975 album “Face The Music” even included some whimsical humor. Which I didn’t get. Referring to their faux-country tune “Down Home Town”, the liner notes inform us: “The band on this track have since grown third eyebrow.” Heh?
After taking in the visual themes therein, the photography, the artwork, the scent and thickness of the package (still talking about albums, btw), you removed that sacred disc from its paper prison, the commingling of which often created a little static electricity perhaps. That first time you were careful not to touch the grooves at all. The shine. The sheen. The blackness. The groove, delineating each musical statement with a little circular black band that denoted silence but also made the needle move a little faster. Gently put the needle on the inside ramp of that outermost, slightly raised edge, and then lie on your stomach with your headphones on, a teenage zen. As the lyrics were sung, they passed by you on the floor, and you followed along riveted, as Justin Hayward or Frank Zappa sang their latest private thoughts to you. Maybe a series of clicks and pops, but nothing too obtrusive. Perhaps a little ball of lint from the dust in the room gathered beneath your needle as you reached the end of Side 2. But it’s Chicago VII, so no stopping now. You blow it away or wipe it off, and the “phwoom” punches into your phones.
And while this was happening, we gazed at the pictures of our heroes. We imagined looking like them, or maybe picking up the phone and having Hipgnosis or Michael Doret whip something up for our band’s next cover.
We took in their messages in 20-minute doses, with only the limits of the technology to break the spell. A deft flip of the plastic, and we’re on to the next.
The spine of the cover was the first thing to lose its integrity, unless you were a real collector and handled the entire package with kid gloves, or if you didn’t like a record and only listened to it once. A friend of mine let me go through her parents record collection (the first thing I do on a date, natch). It contained, among other things, a pristine copy of “Odessa” by The Bee Gees, red flocked cover in perfect condition against gold lettering. Had I known its worth, I might have shaved more often for her. But to hold it–to feel the history, the bold attempt at relevance (timelessness?) on every inch of the thing. There’s just nothing like that now. Snapshots of a craft long ago engulfed by its own success.
I don’t know enough about today’s music marketing, but I know that the smaller real estate afforded CDs has to be more obvious, more aesthetically cookie-cutter. No Roger Dean landscapes to trace while trying to count jagged time-signatures, no promises of sweet Stevie Nicks fantasies, and no more “Freak Out” seances, trying to glean every single thing Frank Zappa is trying to tell the youth of 1966 in those scatter-shot liner notes as “Help I’m A Rock” , like a twisted mantra-in-reverse, bores its way into the young man’s psyche forever. Sure, you can HEAR it any time you want, and the effect is still jarring, for any of the albums I’ve mentioned here and countless more.
However, the experience has been muted, dumbed down by commerce and technology. While I don’t mourn having to lug crates of albums from apartment to apartment (I owned 300 at my peak, about 10 after the last move. See, I paid people to help me move by giving them record albums.), if I could go back, I would have been more respectful of these pieces of art, social archaeology, and of history, theirs and my own.
CDs just never smelled as good, looked as good, or made one feel that there was a real permanence to the investment, however small. The young completist has no challenges ahead remotely akin to the wild west-nature of the industry’s many blind spots of days past. When CDs die out, nobody will lament its passing. There was nothing inherently special about it. It served as a clumsily packaged, ergonomically wasteful bridge between the divine and the sterile. Between Mozart and reality television.
CDs might sound better, but I’m not even sure that that was the point.