Analog: collecting records is part of a low-fidelity way of life

 My cubicle at Sun Newspapers is near the front door, so if someone comes in, I hear what’s going on whether I want to or not.

A customer came in a few weeks ago to place an ad for an estate sale. I tuned out until I heard the words “stacks and stacks of old records,” and was soon involved in a conversation about trying to figure out what some of those old LPs might be worth.

As someone who has spent the last 15 years collecting records, I was prepared, making sure to ask if the cardboard mustache inserts for the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” were still in the sleeve, or if the group’s “White Album” had a serial number stamped on it. I must have talked to the guy for 15 minutes. He promised to come back with some of the records so I could give him an idea of their worth.

I’d almost forgotten the conversation a week later, when the desk bell rang on a Tuesday morning. Rounding the corner, I saw the man standing in the foyer with a large stack of Beatles and Jimi Hendrix LPs. It was like Christmas in September.

Old records speak to me. They are minor pieces of history – disposable pop culture artworks that decorated the lives of their owners. With inherent audio imperfections and playback limitations, old LPs have an abundance of character. Listening to an LP requires the patience and commitment to stay in the same room for the entire run time. It’s music from an era when music wasn’t portable, when it was something more than a background soundtrack on earbuds.

My fascination with records started with my dad’s collection of old Rolling Stones and Doors LPs. They just seemed so much cooler than the cassettes and CDs that my music came on. Hearing “Paint It Black” on an original mono London Records LP seemed like a more authentic way to experience the music.

Collecting records has provided some unique experiences.

I found part of my great-grandparent’s record collection gathering dust in the family barn. Some of those 78 rpm records are in Polish. Another is a song called “Goodbye Broadway, Hello France,” about World War I.

Have you ever heard Gene Autry sing “You Are My Sunshine” on a 78 playing from a hand-cranked record player? I highly recommend it.

Here’s the weirdest record I own: “The Child Seducers,” a 1969 LP of the actor John Carradine (“The Grapes of Wrath”) narrating about how sex education in schools was (is?) a United Nations conspiracy.

Some of the best records I have ever heard are those most people have never heard. I converted part of a relative’s amazing ‘80s alternative rock collection to digital files, and along the way discovered inside jokes and messages etched in the space between the label and groove on some of the vinyl discs. Examples: “Where the (heck) is Racine?” (Bad Religion); “The chicken’s still dancing,” (Joy Division), and my favorite: “Two eggs and bacon,” etched into Black Flag’s “Six Pack” EP.

Years later, a friend was able to ask one of the guys from Black Flag why that was there, and the man laughed, replying that the band members were starving while mixing the songs for the EP, and wrote what they wanted to eat at the time. It’s little touches like that which give vinyl records their character.

It’s an interesting time to be into vinyl. According to an article in the Washington Post, vinyl records cued up $171 million in global sales last year, up 52 percent from the year before. It goes without saying that I’m not alone in finding the medium’s charm, but from a personal standpoint, I enjoy the challenge of finding a vintage album versus buying a new one.

There’s something about the hunt, the thrill of the find, that is almost as good as the sound of what’s on the disc.

One of the things I told the guy who brought the records in was that about 90 percent of the vinyl ever made has no value to collectors. Still, it all boils down to taste, which is what makes collecting fun. One person’s “Rumours” is another person’s Beatles’ “Yesterday and Today” with a butcher cover (Google that – it’s a funny story).

 

Joseph Palmersheim is probably listening to Leonard Nimoy’s “Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space” at dangerous volume levels, but he can be reached at joseph.palmersheim@ecm-inc.com

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