The last few years have seen a resurgence of interest in vinyl records, as opposed to Compact Discs. I do not have enough technical music knowledge to comment on the relative sound quality produced by the two formats, beyond a belief in the idea that music can sound warmer on vinyl, compared to a clinical sound from a CD. I was recently reunited with a lot of my old vinyl LPs, which I had put in storage, and have been enjoying listening to them, with a sense of nostalgia.
I bought my first LP in 1979, as a teenager, and continued to acquire music in this format until 1992, at which point I upgraded from a record player to a CD player. I abruptly stopped buying records, and within a few years most record companies seemed to abandon vinyl. We were told that CDs were better, due to clearer sound and durability, as they did not scratch, jump, or hiss. I liked the idea of durability, and the convenience of playing a typical 35 to 45 minute album without having to get up and turn the record over half way through – indeed the capacity of CDs could provide over an hour of uninterrupted music. Another advantage of CDs was the facility to skip an unfavoured song, and go straight to the start of the next track, without fiddling with the stylus on a record player. On the other hand, CDs came in small packaging which lacked the impact of the covers for 12 inch records. LPs and their sleeves are better to hold look at, and hold. I wonder why CDs do not get sold in LP-sized packaging – presumably it is cheaper for record companies to distribute, and shops to sell, music in small packages.
Recent listening to old LPs has prompted me to produce a list (I like lists) of 10 old favourites.
The Beatles – Revolver (1966)
For some reason I did not acquire this one until 1984, five years after I first became a fan of the Beatles. Over the years, my mind has hopped in assessing the relative merits of Revolver, Sgt Pepper, and Abbey Road, but Revolver has generally been my favourite Beatles album. Indeed it is the only record I have felt inspired to review on Amazon – perhaps I should do more reviews. In the piece, posted in 2012, among other things, he said he said: “I cannot give the Revolver album anything other than five stars. It is acclaimed (by the experts?) as perhaps the Beatles second-best album, behind Sgt Pepper. The overall quality of songs is better on Revolver, with great variety, building into a showcase of the brilliance of the Beatles. Besides Paul’s majestic Eleanor Rigby, and the novelty of Ringo singing Yellow Submarine, there is an amazing trio from John – I’m Only Sleeping, She Said She Said, and Tomorrow Never Knows. George offers a couple of great songs in Taxman and I Want to Tell You. The studio experimentation of Sgt Pepper began a few months earlier in the Revolver sessions. The flaw is the brevity of Revolver, at just under 35 minutes. This may have been standard for the time, but Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, released the previous year, clocked in at 51 minutes”. Four years after the review, I should add that a notable part of the appeal of Revolver is the way in which it displays an eclectic mix of styles, but also has a unity, powered the guitar and drums sound common to the uptempo numbers, and dreamy lyrics, that flow from Eleanor Rigby to Tomorrow Never Knows. The album title is a clever reflection of the way in which records revolve. There is also the original cover, with the psychedelic collage by Klaus Voorman on the front, and a photo of the band on the back – both in stark black and white. Revolver still sounds, and feels, modern – 50 years after it was recorded.
The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
The Velvet Underground were managed at one point by Andy Warhol, who (supposedly) produced their debut album, and (definitely) contributed the front cover banana design. The Velvets sold few records during their creative peak, but have built a legendary reputation, as innovators who influenced countless other artists. The band. led originally by Lou Reed and John Cale, went through several changes of line-up, with the mysterious Nico (a German actress turned singer) being a guest vocalist on their debut album. By the time of their fifth and final studio album, Squeeze – released in 1973 – none of the original Velvet Underground remained in the band. The debut album contains some of their greatest songs, including I’m Waiting for the Man, Heroin, Femme Fatale, I’ll Be Your Mirror, and Venus in Furs. I believe in the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame, a concept introduced by Andy Warhol. As an alternative, fleeting moments of recognition may occur across several years. I modelled the front cover design of my book Fifteen Minutes of Fame on the cover of the Velvets’ LP, without breaching copyright – using a public domain banana, designed by Telrunya, inspired by Warhol. Fame has not come my way, in case any readers think that is where we are leading. It was more like fifteen seconds of fantasy. The number of books I have sold so far is only a tiny fraction of the amount of records sold by the Velvet Underground, whose seminal banana album leapt to number 171 in the USA’s LP chart during 1967. The album originally only had Andy Warhol’s name as the only wording on the front cover – the title of the album started to appear after it was released on CD in 1986. I have a 1987 pressing of the LP, without the album title on the sleeve.
Pink Floyd – The Dark Side of the Moon (1973)
One of the most famous albums ever made, and among the biggest sellers – worldwide sales have been estimated at 45,000,000 – this made it to the list just ahead of Wish You Were Here and The Wall. Back in the days when late I started buying albums, there were quite a lot of imports from the USA and Canada for sale. I recollect hearing that record shops would bring these in as cheaper alternatives to British pressings, although the quality of the vinyl was slightly inferior. I remember acquiring a Canadian version of The Dark Side of the Moon, which was virtually the same as the British version, from an independent record seller with a stall at a market in Basingstoke. Besides the striking design on the gatefold cover, there were big posters inside. In the space of 43 minutes, Pink Floyd tell a story that moves from birth to death, via a lot of experiences, including the fear of madness – prompted by the mental breakdown of former band member Syd Barrett. There is also a quite a bit of people talking to themselves. For me the highlights of the album are two long songs, Time plus Us and Them.
Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks (1975)
How many times has the question been asked, which is the best Dylan album, Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde? For a long time I thought the answer was Highway 61, but then I discovered Blood on the Tracks. A decade on from his supposed peak, Dylan released the greatest record of his career. Blood on the Tracks is a thematic collection of songs about failed relationships, thwarted love, and disillusion (with an allusion to Watergate on Idiot Wind?). Tangled up in Blue plus Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts are extended narratives about flawed, but engaging, characters. The unfocussed photo of Dylan on the front cover adds to the mystique. I guess that the picture on the back cover represents fractured relationships. The album was recorded in 1974, and released the following year – with the copyright date showing as 1974 on the cover. The inner sleeve is plain blood red paper.
Patti Smith – Horses (1975)
One of the most famous rock debut albums, in which Patti Smith takes us to a land where poetry merges with the spirit of punk rock. Having discovered Patti’s music a few years after the release, I bought the album in 1980, at Paignton in Devon, during a family holiday. Opening with a radical re-working of Van Morrison’s Gloria, Patti weaves tales of lesbianism, alien abduction, love and death, with references to Arthur Rimbaud plus Jimi Hendrix. The record was produced by John Cale. The front cover has a black and white photo of Smith, sporting an androgynous look, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe. The top right-hand corner of the picture has a triangle of light, deliberately captured by the photographer, but since lost in CD packaging. In 1996, fully 21 years after the release of Horses, I saw Patti Smith give a concert, in London, during which she performed three songs from the album – Free Money, Redondo Beach, and Gloria.
Bruce Springsteen – Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)
Bruce is my favourite artist, and this is the first of his albums that I bought, back in 1980. I still remember the shopping trip to Croydon, along with my brother, and three of our cousins, after research in the Yellow Pages informed us of the names and locations of the town’s several record shops. I bought the Bruce record at the town’s Virgin shop, and listened to it on an almost daily basis for several weeks. As an uncertain teenager, I drew comfort and inspiration from the album’s story of a life in which struggle is combined with optimism. Thirty six years later, it is still my favourite album. The lyrics are amazingly evocative, bringing a direct sense of the lives of the characters Bruce writes about. Extensive cross-referencing of key words across the 10 songs gives the album a great unity. This is reinforced by the musical backing, which sounds very similar throughout the album. Bruce spent an enormous amount of time in the final selection from dozens of songs recorded during the sessions. This coincided with a lot of thought about the sequencing of the album. He was influenced by what his manager and producer, Jon Landau, called the four corners approach – with the strongest four songs being used as the first and last tracks one the two sides of the record. The pressing of the LP that I own says it was made in Holland – I think CBS meant the Netherlands says Mr Pedantic. Besides the timing of each track appearing on the label, there is a second figure, showing the length of the instrumental introductions. I have not seen this on any other record – and presume it was for the benefit of radio stations, where DJs might talk over the start of a song.
Blondie – Parallel Lines (1978)
Long afterwards I can still recall walking home from the centre of Fleet, my hometown, on a cold day in early 1979, with lots of snow on the ground. I had just bought Blondie’s Parallel Lines LP, this being the start of a record collection, which grew rapidly in the next few years. I was attracted to the album by the hit singles, Hanging on the Telephone, Picture This, and Heart of Glass – the latter of which was at number one when I bought the album. Sunday Girl soon followed as a single, and was another number one. Blondie were fronted by Debbie Harry, singer and adorable illusion, who was joined by five blokes. The black and white lines on the cover design were mirrored on the inner sleeve, which contained lyrics, and a poem. Then there was a second inner sleeve, which was plain white. I remember that whenever I put the record away, this had to be done in a certain order. The label of side 1 of the record would show through the transparent part of the inner sleeve. This side 1 would then be aligned with the side lyrics on the inner sleeve. I did not realise I had OCD until many years later, but here was a clue from a 14 year old. Ever since then, I have been meticulous about putting the record into the inner sleeve of any LP in the right order, and then following suit when inserting the inner sleeve into the outer sleeve. There was also a clear method of ordering of LPs in a record rack, alphabetically by artist, and then chronologically within artist by release date. I used to say I would be able to find a particular album in the dark during a power cut, even although I would not be able to play it. Strangely I have not got around to organising CDs logically – perhaps I just do not feel so much affection for them.
Elvis Costello – Imperial Bedroom (1982)
For many years, Elvis Costello – lyricist of genius – was among my favourite artists, and I bought all of his albums through to the mid-1990s, following which I kind of lost track of things as he increasingly moved into various genres besides rock. For me Imperial Bedroom is Elvis’ finest work, as a consistently strong collection of songs about difficult personal relationships. The cover features a painting inspired by Picasso. The inner sleeve features most of the lyrics, rather awkwardly set out without any gaps between the songs. A few of the words are printed on the label for side two of the record, and can be matched up with the rest of the lyrics by moving the disc to align them in a gap in the inner sleeve. I do not know why the record company did that – or whether my explanation of the strange format makes enough sense. An earlier album by Elvis was entitled Almost Blue but the song of that name did not appear until the Imperial Bedroom LP. Then the song Imperial Bedroom was absent from the album of that name, was released as a B side of a single, and later as a bonus track on a CD reissue of the album. I could not recall where I bought Imperial Bedroom, but a sticker inside the cover says it was Woolworth – I bought a lot of records at Woolworth in Fleet in my youth. In the compilation of this list, Imperial Bedroom narrowly edges out Spike, an album including several songs that I saw Elvis perform at the Albert Hall shortly after its release in 1989.
Pretenders – The Singles (1987)
Over the years I have bought many greatest hits / best of albums, and this one remains among the most notable. Having followed the Pretenders from the early days of their career, I already owned most of the songs on this album when it was released, but it still seemed a worthwhile purchase. Here are the 15 singles released by the Pretenders between 1979 and 1986, plus the guest appearance by their singer, Chrissie Hynde, on a version of I Got You Babe by UB40. At 57 minutes long, it is a collection of depth. The Pretenders consistently released great singles, with Brass in Pocket being their biggest hit, but my favourites are the haunting Kid and the enigmatic Hymn to Her. The packaging of the LP is simple, but attractive, with the black and white blocks logo of the band featuring on the cover, inner sleeve, and record label.
Lou Reed – New York (1989)
After many suggestions, across the 1970s and 1980s, that Lou Reed might have a new album to rank alongside the brilliance of his work with the Velvet Underground, this finally happened in the last year of the latter decade. New York is a celebration of Reed’s home city, and a lament for the way in which its people had suffered the effects of the Reagan presidency. The album includes the brilliant ecological protest The Last Great American Whale, plus the rawness of Romeo Had Juliette and Dirty Blvd. The latter is one of two songs on the album to include the original phrase Statue of bigotry. A few months after the album was released, I saw Lou give a show at the London Palladium (a venue that looks better on television than it really is). He started by playing most of the songs from New York, before going back to earlier material, including Rock and Roll plus Sweet Jane, from the Velvet Underground days, and Walk on the Wild Side. Reed, who died in 2013, was a great role model, with the gift of self-parody (too often under-rated). The back cover of the New York album had a note from Reed, advising “It’s meant to be listened to in one 58 minute (14 songs!) listening, as though it were a book or a movie”. I have listened to the album many times, and think it will soon be time to spin this again.