Once Upon A Time There Was Magic In The Air…

In a galaxy far, far away…NO! STOP! Actually, right here in America, there once existed a real magic. It was well-known and openly practiced by multitudes of anxious practitioners. It brought love, happiness, and empowerment to everyday people. Sadly, with the passing of time, the magic faded into obscurity. Today, the knowledge has become scarce and the secrets are privy only to the enlightened few. This magic surrounds an object known as the phonograph record a.k.a. the album, LP, or vinyl.

Step into my time machine for a moment. It’s 1980. The golden years of 70’s rock and roll have ended, but great music is still being made. MTV hasn’t arrived, nor has the CD. Though cassette and 8-track tapes have existed, vinyl is still king.

I am living in Houston. I have a good job with good pay, and I have a weekend ritual. My son and I are heading over to the local record store where we will spend considerable time checking out the new releases, the imports, and the cut-out bins. We will also be searching for “lost gems” that may have fallen through the crack over the years. Al Gore has yet to “invent” the Internet, so we learn about music by word of mouth and frequenting the record store for study.

This is my first time to live in a city the size of Houston where the record store is nearly as big as the grocery store. This is also the first time I have a serious amount of disposable income to invest in this “first love” of mine. So here we are at music heaven – the record store! I have money in my pocket and excitement flowing through my veins. There is so much to study, so much to discover. Where do I begin? There, before my eyes, stands rack after rack, aisle after aisle of intriguing beauty. Organized alphabetically are thousands of albums containing 144 square inches of pure art, both audio and visual.

The Weekly Ritual

Phase One of the tripartite ritual has begun, and my purchases today will be based upon certain immutable “Cripps factors.” First and foremost, if one of my favorite bands has a new album out, I will snag it without hesitation. Getting this out of the way quickly leaves more time for the discovery of something new. There always has to be something new. I call it my “Captain Beyond” treasure hunt. I’ll hunt through the imports because there are many albums that are huge hits in the UK that barely hit the radar here. Bands like Status Quo, T. Rex, Ziggy-era Bowie, and Judas Priest were “underground” bands in the US and I loved them. Other factors included cover art and song titles. I often bought an album because I admired its cover art. While certainly not a perfect test, it usually proved itself out. I also hit on some really good albums based merely upon song titles. Oh, and what is that album playing on the store’s sound system?

What is a “Captain Beyond” treasure hunt? Like Coronado searching for the fabled Lost Cities of Cibola, I was on the hunt for “secret riches.” Over the years there existed albums that were very good but, for one reason or another, did not get promoted well by the record company. They fell into obscurity, and the black hole of cut-out bins. Captain Beyond was a supergroup of sorts founded by former members of Deep Purple and Iron Butterfly. The album was phenomenal, but it was released on Capricorn records, a label that produced Southern bands like the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker. Captain Beyond didn’t quite fit in with their prog rock elements and lack of “the formula.” I am not alone in counting Captain Beyond as one of the greatest rock albums ever made. And so, if Captain Beyond could fall through the cracks, what else existed out there yet to be unearthed in my “archaeological rock dig.”

Moving on, my son and I have completed the first phase of the ritual. I have a minimum of three albums to process at the cash register gleaned from careful consideration of the aforementioned “Cripps factors.” Anticipation leads to a mad rush for home to begin Phase Two. There are several solemn steps which must be strictly adhered to. I first remove the sacred vinyl from it’s sleeve being careful to avoid the oils from my skin touching the grooves. I then take out my record cleaning device and give it some circular motion to prepare the album for stylus touchdown. I lift the tonearm which has been adjusted to achieve perfect balance and anti-skating, and place it at the outer rim of the record. From there the pure analog magic begins.

Excitement grows as I hear the tracks for the first time. I have the album cover out, as well as the inner sleeve. I am studying the artwork, band photos, liner notes and lyrics. I am slowly developing an intimate relationship with this masterpiece. After the album has completely run through one time, I have viewed the artwork and read everything more than once…it is time to being Phase Three.

Hang out the “DO NOT DISTURB” sign because the final phase is set to begin. The time has come to dissect each song and learn each part separately. Collectively, I’ve got the groove, I’ve taken in the melodies and I’ve read (or strained to figure out) the lyrics. Now I must become the drummer, the bassist, the keyboardist and the guitarist…not necessarily in that order. I hear the instruments separately and before long I are picking up a broom and playing air guitar, or pulling up a stool to play air drums. I am slowly becoming one with the songs. I feel they are somehow entering into the fiber of my being. I am high but I’ve done no drugs. I feel empowered like I can conquer the world. I feel wealthy as if other material things are insignificant. I find that I even pity the rich.

Dust in The Wind

Well, nothing lasts forever. The weekend is over and a new work week begins. I hate going to work but I have to earn money for more records. Immediately upon returning home from work, the turntable stands beckoning and I must decide what flavor of magic will give me the daily booster shot that I require to make it through the work week until the next adventure with my son. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Damn time machine just exited 1980 and brought me back to 2013. Crash and burn! What a different world in which we live! That record store on Westheimer Road in Houston no longer exists. CDs ended up replacing LPs and MP3s have worked to supplant CDs. The empire built by record companies has been annihilated. A lot of the artists are still around, but the radio stations do not play anything new by them. There are a lot of new rock artists, but it is difficult to discover them. Without record companies sorting through thousands of demos and bringing us the best of them…we are left to sift for ourselves. A lot of really good bands are being lost in the noise.

Gone are the mornings of getting dressed up and heading out for record store adventures. Now you just download music in your pajamas. Gone are the intimate love affairs with whole albums. Now you just have songs. Gone are the delightful brain functions that caused you to choose what you wanted to hear based on your current mood. Now your iPod shuffle decides for you. Gone are the hours of studying new music. Now you have modern replacements to occupy your time.

Music was once a tangible object, but in modernity it is just invisible computer digits. You once had to take time to pull out an album, run your disc cleaner around it, place it on the turntable and set the needle. Around 15-18 minutes later you had to flip it over, or put on another album. You had to work, you were part of the process of listening to music. It was an active pursuit. This lead people to listen to entire albums, not just individual songs.

Now you load up your iPod with individual songs and press play. And what are you hearing? Compressed versions of digital music. Often it is low bitrate pirated copies of songs downloaded form the Internet. It is distorted noise in comparison with vinyl. But who really cares? Do people even “listen” to music anymore? Has it become merely a passive event? Is it more akin to elevator Muzak, just background atmosphere? After all, isn’t the attention span rather devoted to texting, or facebook, or video games…the modern replacements?

Does anyone actually study music anymore? Do young folks today attempt to know the bands? Do they attempt to know the albums, not just individual songs? Have they studied the, albeit tiny, artwork and read the liner notes. Have they tried to memorize the lyrics? Have they dissected the songs to hear all the instruments? DO THEY EVEN NEED NEW MUSIC TO BE PRODUCED?

Besides the necessity of time, music also required money. My mother probably shouldn’t hear this but, as a kid, I used to skip school lunch and pocket the money. I would save it up until I could buy an album. Unlike the Houston “days of plenty,” I would only be able to score one album every couple of weeks. Talk about becoming intimate with an album, I literally wore out the White Album, Machine Head, Paranoid and Dark Side of the Moon…just to name a few. I later had to replace them. Music cost, and I was good with that. It was often a sacrifice, yet a very rewarding one.

A lot of people today believe music should be free. After all, it costs nothing to transfer some computer files over. No vinyl has to be pressed, no album covers or sleeves have to be printed, and nothing has to be assembled and shipped. Never mind the artists had a lot of time and expense in producing the music. Never mind the laborer is worthy of his hire. How about you put in a long day at work and let someone else step in and nick your pay? How about you spend years developing your craft and skill, and realize no profit from it. Whoa! Unjust you say? You will never stand for that, right?

People rejoice at the demise of the record industry and the “greedy” record execs. People rejoice that they can get free songs off the Internet and rob “greedy” musicians and bands of their royalties. It is very expensive for quality bands to rent quality studios to record quality albums. How are they supposed to pay for it all? “It’s not my problem,” says the talented multitasking teenager as he texts away on his cell phone, while chatting on Facebook, as his PS4 game is loading up.

The world is in a great big mess and how do we fix it? Admittedly, this magic can’t save it. However, I do believe it can make it a more pleasant place in which to live. Thankfully, vinyl is slowly making a comeback. Every year sales are increasing. A lot of young people are suddenly “discovering” how awful cold, compressed, digital files sounds up against warm, ambient, analog records. Beginning in 2008, there is now an annual Record Store Day held the third Saturday of April. A lot of artists, both old and new, are getting on the bandwagon and supporting the project. Is there hope? Can the magic return? I dare say it will probably never fully recover. In the meantime though, it is still kept alive by the enlightened few. Taste and see for yourself…and by all means supports the artists and indie record stores that keep it alive.