Buying vinyl


Yesterday, I mentioned that I'd set up a borrowed turntable. The next step, of course, was to buy some vinyl. I haven't had a turntable of my own since I was a very small child and had a plastic, two-part turntable on which I played the hits from Disney films, so I needed to go out and start a collection. My brother kindly started me off by giving me the excellent album 'Riot on an Empty Street' by the Kings of Convenience on vinyl for my birthday. As a newly-recorded album, this was rich and detailed, and the warmth and presence of the medium showed off the delicate vocals and intricate acoustic guitar playing to their best advantage. This was an excellent start.

I headed out to Birmingham's finest second-hand record shops in search of bargains. There are several good shops, which all have slightly different markets, but my favourite by far was The Diskery, the very place where Steve Winwood used to buy American R&B albums. They have a huge selection in all kinds of genres, their stock seems to generally be in excellent condition, and they are very reasonably priced. After much shuffling through the £1 bin and 'general rock' sections, I came away with four discs for a grand total of £11. Another advantage of vinyl is that you can get a lot of music for your money if you stick to second-hand, non-collectable discs.

If you promise not to laugh, here are my choices:

  • Kate Bush - The Kick Inside and Never For Ever. I have both of these albums on cassette, but as I don't have a tape player anymore, I haven't listened to them for years. That's a great shame, as there's some great material on these albums, as well as wonderful, bizarre artwork by Nick Price on 'Never For Ever'.
  • Japan - Quiet Life. I have fond memories of this album, but for some reason I've never bought a copy myself.
  • Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon. An original 1973 pressing. What more do I need to say? It's a classic album, and still sounds deeply innovative even today. I think that "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way" from 'Time' might get may vote for Best Song Lyric of All Time. In fact, the [entire lyrics][4] for 'Time' are pure genius and an excellent reminder that life is fleeting and mostly happens while you are waiting for it to start.
  • Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band - Clear Spot. This was a special 180 gram vinyl pressing that I bought from another shop. I hadn't heard this album and took a wild chance with it, as Beefheart creates — in my experience — either sheer musical genius or completely unlistenable noise. Happily, Clear Spot fell into the former category, with 'Big Eyed Beans From Venus', 'Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles' and 'Sun Zoom Spark' as standout tracks.

So there it is. Having a turntable is encouraging me to seek out formerly beloved music from my adolescence, and to take risks on music I haven't heard before. It has also reminded me that there are many different ways of listening to music. Using a turntable is quite labour-intensive, with the fussy ritual of cleaning the records, carefully positioning the stylus, and turning the record over half way through. I'm finding that this makes me actually sit down and just listen. With CDs — or worse, with MP3s — it's so easy to just shove an album or two on and do something else, that you often find yourself doing something else with music as a background.

There's nothing wrong with that of course, but sometimes it's good to do the music proper justice and concentrate on it. You could do that with CD, but I find the the need for more attention to the equipment with vinyl enforces a different kind of listening environment. I'm not about to give up my CD player or iPod (in fact, I chose my CD player because it had a vinyl-like quality), but there's also something intensely engaging about vinyl, even with a fairly budget turntable. Despite the occasional pop and crackle, with properly recorded material it just sounds more intensely alive than a digital player.