I'd Love to Turn You On

For over three decades, I have felt compelled to turn people on to music. Throughout my career as a DJ, all of my endeavors have been linked by the desire to spread the joy of listening to records, in the hope that people would feel something like the emotional resonance I feel. My Classic Album Sundays adventure—see www.stereophile.com/content/classic-album-sundays-bellwether— was born from this lifelong dedication to musical curating, and propelled by a eureka hi-fi moment.

My musical history began in the 1980s at a 10W radio station attached to the library of my high school in Holliston, Massachusetts. From my freshman through my senior year, I had a radio show on WHHB where I proudly swam against the stream of popular taste. Sandwiched between the classic-rock shows, Top 40 programs, and live basketball broadcasts, I played records by Sugarhill Gang, Black Flag, Grandmaster Flash, Elvis Costello, Brian Eno, and many other favorites that were relatively unheard of in my small New England town. I admit that this was done partially in teenage defiance, but also in the earnest hope that some of my classmates would join my musical adventures. Thankfully, a small handful came along for the ride.

I was already collecting records, and working in a record shop after school and on weekends. Each of my colleagues had their musical specialty—jazz, country, dance, post-punk, '60s psychedelic rock—and every day was a musical education. In addition to deciphering Christmas lists presented by confused parents (the most memorable: "Institutionalized, by Led Zeppelin"), I was able to recommend to customers the albums I loved. In turn, while digging the bins at Nuggets, in Boston, I often bought what was spinning on the store's turntable. I remember the clerks behind the counter being rather bemused when a teenage girl asked to buy the copy of the album that had been playing on the deck: the Roland Kirk Quartet featuring Elvin Jones. My experience working at four different record shops where I could develop a musical dialogue with each customer could not have been replicated through selling and buying records online. This was and still is the joy of record shops: turning people on to and being turned on to great music.

In New York City, I joined WNYU, where I hosted several radio shows and eventually became program director. At the time, WNYU was one of the most significant college radio stations in the country, due to its huge urban listening audience, and as we were located in the same town as a lot of record companies, artists like the Sugarcubes, Billy Bragg, and others could swing by for an interview or live set. I was a host on The New Afternoon Show, a three-and-a-half-hour program that featured new music such as the latest from Nick Cave, the Butthole Surfers, or the Pixies. I also hosted a '60s-psychedelic-garage-prog-rock broadcast called—get ready for this—Plastic Tales from the Marshmallow Dimension. Later, I was relieved to discover that my lofty pretensions had been shared by one of radio's greats: In the late '60s, John Peel, the eminent BBC Radio One DJ, had a radio show called The Perfumed Garden.


Although I was obsessed with music and worked in the biz, up to this point I'd heard my favorite tunes and artists only on less-than-glorious audio equipment. I had no idea it could sound better. The turning point and conversion moment—my initiation into the world of hi-fi—was a private dance party in Manhattan's Alphabet City.

At David Mancuso's Loft parties, I discovered how amazing music could sound. The first time I walked in, I saw a big wooden dance floor surrounded by ten Klipschorns wedged into false corners, the speakers' mid/high drive-units elevated above head height. There were Mark Levinson electronics, and two Mitch Cotter turntables with Fidelity Research tonearms and Koetsu Onyx cartridges. At the time, I didn't know what the hell all of this was, but it looked incredible—and sounded even better! I stood in the center of the dance floor and immersed myself in a musical world of the Orb, Jimi Hendrix, the Blackbyrds, Giorgio Moroder, the Clash, New York house, Detroit techno, and more. The music surrounded me, coursed through me, and I heard things I had never heard before.

The Loft's system was (and is) not purely audiophile: there's a splitter from the preamp to the numerous channels, and the side channels are delayed approximately one millisecond per foot. It can be described as a hi-fi married to an early prototype for a club PA. (David began his parties in 1970.) I was hooked, and David became a mentor. Soon after, he entrusted me with not only playing music for the most discerning dancers in New York City, but also with playing records on his Koetsus. Once, after finishing a 12-hour set that ended at noon, I worked a full day at the record shop Dance Tracks. Oh, the glory of youth.

When I moved to London, I was in demand as a DJ, spinning and mixing vinyl at clubs all over the world. I would play the cool and credible dance music I'd discovered to a small but packed underground party in Kagoshima, Japan, or to a 10,000-capacity amphitheater in Florence, Italy. However, I was unimpressed with many of these clubs' PAs, and frustrated that dancers had grown used to settling for less. So I teamed up with a couple of friends, took out a business loan, and bought equipment similar to the Loft's for our own Lucky Cloud parties in London. My husband and I stored two of the Klipschorns (which dominate our tiny cottage living room), and, after deciding that we needed to up our game, invested in Quad monoblock amplifiers, a Mark Levinson ML-1 preamp, a Nottingham Analogue Ace Space Deck turntable, and a Koetsu Rosewood cartridge.

It sounded sweet, and when friends came over for Sunday lunch, I asked which of their favorite albums they'd like to hear from my extensive collection. I was hoping they would hear it in finer detail and have a deeper listening experience. One friend asked for Brian Eno's Another Green World. After he'd listened to it in its entirety and been appropriately blown away, I turned to him and said, "It's like a classic-album Sunday." Voilà! It was time to communicate this experience on a larger scale.

I feel spiritually rich from a lifetime of sharing music, especially through playback on quality hi-fis—fans should have a more immersive listening experience. And when people scream with joy from a record I play at a Lucky Cloud party, or shed tears when they hear an album at a Classic Album Sunday, it makes the endeavor worthwhile.

Thanks for listening.

Lofty's picture

Great article. A tip of the hat to Ms.Murphy who brings into this hobby a sense of youth, vigor, excitement, and above all, fun! All to often audiophiles descend into snobbishness: dwelling on micro-points of difference that polarise rather than unite.

About ten years ago I was invited to one of Mr. Mancuso's parties (actually I tagged along with an invitee). It was quite a scene, a bit like a Truman Capote party in the 60's. Interesting but a little too hip for this square's comfort zone. The equipment was much like Colleen's description. But the old stodgy audiophile in me rose up  thinking that the system would be so much better without the mixer and, well, I never went for horns. Better some B&W 801's or best yet hugh SoundLab electrostatics.

Oh well, so much for forward thinking audiophiles. 

Bill Leebens's picture

...but does Ms. Murphy have a portrait hiding in an attic somewhere? ;->

john abramson's picture

just plain authentic, unaffected 'real' witing. a distinct pleasure to read. is there no place on staff for her to execise her writing talent? it sure would be fun to look  forward to her writing a monthly column!

Allen Fant's picture

Turn Me On! CM. Very well-written article about our wonderful hobby. I, too, am a Black Flag fan. Will you be writing more articles for Stereophile?

NeoVibe's picture

It has been written many times in stereophile that hifi/audiophile sector needs some fresh air to survive or hopefully flourish. 

I have followed Classic Album Sundays movement from the start as well as Colleen's healthy atittude towards music sharing. And it looks to be bang on regarding what I feel the audiophile culture needs: the sharing / communal listening experience plus a healthy no-nonsense atittude regarding hifi gear. 

The sharing part is a bit tricky for audiophiles. All the traditional audiophile products seem to me to be too focusing on a monitoring / solo-listening experience (how selfish is that 'sweet-spot' concept?) plus the old 'audiophile music' nonsense.

Anyway, the best part of great music and gear is in the sharing. Whatever happens, keep spreading the word Colleen. 

Ps: Stereophile, you really need Collen!

FSonicSmith's picture

When Foodnetwork went away from Sarah Moulton and Mario Batali and towards the likes of Giada Cleavage and Rachel Rea, it went from focusing on real cooking to food-lite. Where is the focus on music reproduction in this? Ms. Murphy seems perfectly cute and likable, but what exactly is the message? While there may be apocryphal tales of gear freaks with $100,000 systems who don't really appreciate music very much, I have yet to meet such strawmen. We Stereophile readers do appreciate (and know a fair amount about) good music and don't need an eighth grade music appreciation course with a cute young teacher dropping the needle. Sorry to be curmudgeonly. Carry on. 

Daddyad's picture

Do you have any concept of how offensive and arrogant your comments are? School boy behaviour in need of education on many levels. Ms Murphy, I applaud you!!

corrective_unconscious's picture

For music appreciation, per se, I suggest PS Audio's blog area. Look for the expert columns on classical music, complete with samples. There was virtually none of that here, just mentions of bands and performers and venues.

This was a fascinating, seemingly effortlessly written, bracing autobiography about discovering a love of music, of enjoying it communally, and the pretty okay geographic, party and career places it took the writer.

A most enjoyable travel column, as it were.