I saw a post by Uncle Crappy yesterday about his long-time love affair with record stores. As I was considering my comment to his post, I realized that writing about records and record stores has been on my Blog Idea List since forever. This was the perfect opportunity to have at it.
I know I’ve written extensively about my time working in record stores and for my record retailer’s home office. (See my “Brushes with the Great and Near Great,” a series in 10 parts about meeting various famous people, posted in March of 2010.) But long before I ever got paid to work in a record store, I would haunt them like Tony Siragusa haunts the Fox Sports buffet table.
Even before I could buy my own albums, I’d hang out at my local mall record store and spend a couple hours browsing through the records. At the time, (mid 70s), that was my primary source of information on the bands I’d hear on the radio. To me, it was a “win” if the band’s picture was on the album cover, because otherwise, I’d have no idea what they looked like. (Remember… no MTV, no Internet, no YouTube, etc.) And if there were lyrics on the back, that was the holy grail. Then, just like now, it was often impossible to figure out what the singer was saying.
Eventually, my little weekly allowance would afford me the means to buy a 45-rpm single or two, if I hadn’t already blown my dough on candy at the drug store. So after I’d peruse the records, I’d hit the 45s bin and prowl for favorite songs.
The most trying part of the experience was that so many of the 45s I’d buy would skip. A lot of that had to do with the fact that we had a really crappy home stereo. Sometimes I could jerry-rig it so that the song would play if I put a quarter on top of the needle, but that solution was iffy, at best.
So I would go through every copy of a 45 that I wanted and peer intently at the grooves, trying to avoid anything that looked like a possible skip. Unfortunately, that process was as iffy as the quarter on the needle. So consequently, I’d just get used to the skip being there. It got so that years later, when I’d acquire the song on a CD, it would sound weird to me without the skip. 35 years later, I still expect a skip when I play certain Stevie Wonder or Ringo Starr songs. Once the skip is in your head, it’s in there for life.
It was always such a cool atmosphere to me in the record stores, especially once I got a bit older and got out of the malls and began frequenting the smaller chains or independent stores. Those were the ones with the cool posters, buttons, sheet music and other music paraphernalia. (In other words, just like my current apartment décor.)
I never really dealt with the people that worked there. Then, as now, I just wanted store clerks to leave me alone, but be available in case I had a question or couldn’t find something.
Once we moved up to Toledo, it was like I was surrounded by record stores (once I drove the 15 miles into town). At the mall, we had a Camelot and a National Record Mart. Nearby, there was Boogie Records, the Head Shed, and my favorite, the enormous Peaches Records. Peaches was a 64,000 square foot record store that could have easily housed a bowling alley. I could hang out in there forever, and of course, I did just that, especially once I got a job there while I was in college.
When I started at Peaches, they still actually sold 8-tracks, albeit at cut-out prices. Cassette tapes were still pretty new and they had them on a giant tape counter, under glass. You’d have to get a clerk to get them out for you. Unfortunately, they no longer sold concert tickets there. I don’t know if word ever spread about that, because for as long as I worked at that location, (which was about 3 years), people were always coming in for tickets and would look crestfallen when we told them we didn’t sell tickets any longer.
The best part about working there was the employee discount! Between that and the free promotional albums (or “promos”), my album collection exploded. It seemed like every other month, I’d have to buy a new Peach Crate to house them.
I remember being there the first day we ever got a shipment of CDs. They seemed so exotic. There was so much debate about whether CDs could ever sound as warm and inviting as LPs did. I never had any problem jumping from LPs to CDs. To me, the sound quality was perfect and the odds of the CD skipping were almost nil. That alone was enough to make me a believer.
But as much as I’ve loved amassing CDs since 1986, I still miss the immersive experience of the LPs. There was just so much more going on. I miss the excitement of sitting down in the living room and slitting the cellophane at the open end of the album jacket. Usually inner sleeve was packed with pictures, song lyrics, credits, liner notes and special thank you’s.
I’d get the record on the turntable, gently ease the needle down, (I always did it by hand, never using the automated startup), and as the record would play, I’d pore over every detail the album sleeve and jacket provided. I always wondered what someone would have to do to get mentioned inside an album jacket. (You can read about how I actually accomplished this feat, in Brushes with the Great and Near Great, Part 8.)
Sometimes the album contents were a disappointment, like with ZZ Top albums. They rarely had more than just the names of the band members and the producer… no pictures, no lyrics, no notes… nada.
But other times, the album would be packed with goodies. Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellowbrick Road” comes to mind. That was a double-album that had a “duel-fold” jacket. On the inner surfaces, they had the lyrics to each song, along with the musician credits and a small graphic artwork inspired by the song.
The Yellowbrick Road album versus the CD. Because the CD is very old too, (one of the first I ever bought) the fold-out booklet is generous. Suffice to say, if you buy it now, you get diddley-squat in the jewel case.
CDs just don’t compete with that. If you’re lucky, it will come with a booklet but more and more, the extras are fading away. (Also, with my aging eyesight, I wouldn’t be able to see the freakin’ print that size anyway.)
I remember in the mid-70s when I was really into KC and the Sunshine Band, (don’t judge, it was the disco era), I would arrange the floor speakers and lay down on the floor with my head in between them like they were giant headphones. (I’d do this because we didn’t have any real headphones.) I’d put on their album that had “Shake Your Booty” and “I’m Your Boogie Man,” open up the gatefold album jacket and stare at all the “live in concert” pictures contained inside and imagine I was seeing a live performance. Boy, was I ever glad when they invented MTV. It made things so much easier.
The other great thing about LPs is that they are perfect for getting autographed. Granted, even though you have to have access to a rock star, it’s much easier to get a CD booklet signed then an LP jacket. But after that, what are you going to do with it? If you’re like me, they just end up in the CD rack with all the others. But signed album jackets? That’s art. That’s something you can put up on your wall. And I know from which I speak…
My “Wall of Fame,” of autographed album covers, which also includes a couple of picture discs. I’ve had a version of this ever since my record store days.
When I moved to Cleveland in 1986, to manage my own record store, I learned that there was a hall nearby where a couple times a year, they’d have Album Swap Meets. This was where record dealers would set up tables full of used albums, picture discs, bootlegs and all kinds of music memorabilia. God, I loved those. I used to drop WAY too much cash there, but I’d always come away with treasure, like AC/DC bootlegs, Joan Jett picture discs, or out-of-print albums for which I’d been searching.
This is a small selection of the picture discs I’ve managed to acquire over the years.
Later, as CDs became the dominant medium, used record stores began popping up all over the place. I loved those too… they were like permanent swap meets. Any time I’d go to visit a new place, I’d try to get my host to help me scope out some used record stores. Always looking for a score, I was. Used records were the perfect way to pick up that album that you never bought because you only liked one song.
Anyway, time marches on. Like I said, I totally appreciate the upgrade in sound quality and the ease provided by technology. I love that I can download individual songs so that I don’t have to lay out more money just to get stuck with a bunch of songs I don’t particularly like. Sometimes I’ll still buy the physical CD, like when there’s a new one out by an artist that I know I like and want to support. The new Meat Loaf CD comes to mind… I bought that from Amazon when it came out two weeks ago. But you better believe that I listened to snippets of all the songs first. If there had only been one or two that I liked, I’d have just downloaded them.
As soon as the CD comes, I rip the tracks I like to my PC and then load them onto my MP3 player. That is now my primary method of listening to music. Then I just have to wait for the tracks to surface via “Shuffle-play Mode.”
Downloads are fine but they’ll never replace having that physical entity in your hands. But for all the convenience and efficiency, I still miss the old LP ritual.
The skips… not so much.