Thursday, March 29, 2012

Breaking Records

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.


Unapologetically Mundane said...

My general comment to this is: yep.

My best friend and I used to haunt the record store of our local mall every weekend and then go home and tear open the liner notes of our CDs, hoping for lyrics. When the Internet came along, my most-visited site was a lyrics one with an early 90s blue bubbles background image. I loved buying bootleg rarities from my favourite bands and almost regret that it's so easy to find everything online these days. I don't think I'd be hanging out in music stores today even if the whole CD ritual still existed, but there's a new satisfaction I get from downloading MP3s and then buying the same albums on LP just because I like the sound.

Uncle Crappy said...

1) Holy crap, I forgot about Camelot. That was one of my favorite chain stores, too. There was one in Dublin, at Sawmill and 161, and it was my go-to store for new stuff once the Buzzard's Nest chain shut down.

2) I need a turntable. I'm like you in that the music is more important to me than the medium, so I'm not especially involved in the LP vs. CD debate. But part of me misses my old records, and I want to listen to them again.

bluzdude said...

I’m sure that to you, and anyone else that never lived during a time when there weren’t CDs, my post looks like a time capsule exhibit, but as you said, there are many similarities. Excitement about music transcends generations.

bluzdude said...

First off, thanks for providing the inspiration and jumping off point of this post. I love it when ideas like this come waltzing down the pike!

I vaguely remember that area… I used to ride my bike to a lake off 161, to go fishing. Can’t remember the name… that was back around 1974. But I remember the Buzzard’s Nest stores.

I still have my turntable that I bought in 1986. I sure hope the needle doesn’t break because I don’t like the odds of finding another one. But it’s not likely to get worn out any time soon… I still have it hooked up to a mixing board, along with a couple of CD players and a tape deck. That used to be my primary music source… mix tapes… but I’m all digital now. Someday I’ll have to get some software to allow me to blend songs digitally and burn them to CD.

Or not… it sounds like a lot of work, and I don’t even play CDs any more. Got my MP3 player for my daily commute, and a flash drive full of songs for longer trips.

sherry stanfa-stanley said...

My 22-year-old son has started a vinyl collection--and not just oldies. Several new indie bands are releasing albums in vinyl.

Have you read the Neil Young interview, in which he talks about Steve Jobs' listening to music on vinyl?

We've had a resurgence of record stores the past couple years in Toledo. Let's go and check some of them out when you're in town this summer!

Anonymous said...

Is/was Peaches part of the Strawberries/Coconuts family of record stores? I spent my teen years buying cassettes and CDs at the local Strawberries, pre-Napster/iTunes. God, I feel old :(

Your 'wall of fame' is awesome. Nothing displays like vinyl. I saw an article about the steep decline in physical album sales over the past few years, and it said that pretty much every format of music sales (including downloads?) has gone in the shitter over the past few years...except vinyl. Vinyl record sales are UP. How cool is that?

Anonymous said...

I SO want to get back into records. Am starting to research a decent system for doing so. Not top of of the line expensive, but not chintzy either. Now that I'm flush with all the electronic gadgets I really need, that will be my next luxury expenditure.

No judging KC and the Sunshine Band. I'll raise you the Commodores, Earth, Wind, & Fire. and pre-Saturday Night Fever BeeGees.

bluzdude said...

Deal! I’m always game to scope out the record stores.

No, I haven’t seen the Neil Young thing.

bluzdude said...

Strawberries was unrelated, but the Peaches stores (the ones owned by my company) changed their name to Coconuts. At first, Peaches were coast to coast, but owned by different companies. When the store group (Midwest and Northeast parts of the country) that I worked for went belly-up, they were bought by a larger company. But they lost the right to the Peaches name, which was retained by another ownership group operating in the South, so my Peaches changed to Coconuts.

That meant that we had to get rid of everything in the store that said Peaches, from Platinum Album awards to the famous Peach Crates. (Which meant that we employees benefited greatly from this shedding of assets. That was how I got my first Platinum Album… for Bon Jovi-Slippery When Wet. Eventually I actually earned one, that has my name on it, for buying, promoting and selling a buttload of “Whoot! There it is!”

I’ve been meaning to do a post feature my various bits of music biz swag… maybe this is the jumping off point.

Also, of course vinyl sales are up… they were so low they were almost non-existent, so there was nowhere to go but up.

bluzdude said...

While I remain wistful for the Record-Buying Experience, that’s mostly for the ‘marketing’ aspect of it. I miss the artwork and graphics of a good album presentation. The records themselves were a pain in the ass to play and maintain. If I appeared to be a Records Nazi back in the day, it’s because I had to be, otherwise, due to our Barn Parties, I’d be the proud owner of the largest beer-stained and scratched up record collection in the state.

One thing I’ll say about the 70s… dance music sure was a whole lot better than the hyper-bassed, over-synthed, auto-tuned mess we have today. KC, the Commodores, EWF and the Bee Gees featured real people playing real instruments, who could rock a groove to death.

KC and the Sunshine Band might have been nothing but disco fluff, but they were very good, very entertaining disco fluff. His band rocked like they were Temptations, with horns.

It’s too bad that the youngsters today only know EWF from the Seinfeld episode when Elaine dances. (And I swear, every time I hear that song, I get the urge to stick those thumbs out and start kicking.)

Jessica R. said...

When I started appreciating music, it was the transition time between cassettes and CD's, but my parents had tons of albums. I loved pulling them out and looking through the covers and the insides. They had all the Beatles albums and tons of Pink Floyd. They were going to get rid of them all a few years back, so we took them off their hands. So while I never had the record store experience, I did so love looking at the covers when I was a kid.

bluzdude said...

Thanks for the backup. A properly prepared, fold-out album jacket could be a brilliant marketing maneuver. It’s sad to think that if they made them now (in any great number) there would probably be advertising inside. (mmmmmph!... covering mouth…)

Mrs. Bachelor Girl said...

The Guy and I were talking the other day about those giant wooden stereo cabinets people used to have in their living rooms to house their record players and albums. My grandparents had one, and I'd sure love to have it now.

bluzdude said...

I remember those... we never had one. But I'll never forget the day when we finally ditched our beat up old 1960s-era record player for a slick LP/cassette/8-track player. No more balancing quarters on the needle arm. We were living large!

Marlene said...

I caught this blog today, searching for the inside art for GYBR, and when you said you once lived in Toledo, it was great to read this!

I lived in southern Wood County, and generally went to Finder's Records and Tapes in Bowling Green (which is *still* in operation, working out of *three* storefronts in BG!) not to mention Rink's Bargain City in Findlay. I'm *still* kicking myself for not buying the original cover to the Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Soul Survivors".

I'm also a radio DJ who made the slow transition from LPs/45s to CDs back from the late 70s to late 80s. I still say for broadcasting LPs are far superior to digital.

As to the questions regarding transferring LPs to CDs, there are a number of decent turntables with a USB plug to input directly into your computer.

bluzdude said...

HI Marlene, thanks for stopping by!

Bowling Green, huh? That's my alma mater. I loved it there... worked for WBGU for 3 years, on-air once a week.

I have one of those LP/Cassette converters... it's great for getting the old stuff onto the PC and my MP3 player. Not crazy about the quality though. The LPs come across a little "tinny", although I probably need to better learn how to modulate the tone with the control program.

I've seen that Street Survivor cover in the swap shops, I just never bought it. I think they were asking a bit too much for it, considering my meager means at the time.