Vinyl & the Endless Ping-pong Match

Here in Chicago the other day, I was on my way to an appliance store, so audio was the last thing on my mind. But, as if by some miraculous intervention (or just stupidity), I parked and went in the wrong store: "Why does this appliance store have bins and bins of CDs in it?" Realizing my mistake, I found the stoves and ranges I was looking for next door—but not before noticing bins and bins of used LPs behind all those CDs.

As Agim Perolli suggested recently in "Letters" (June 1997), the LP vs CD debate is wearing a little thin. It's become an endless ping-pong match: I say musicality, you say pitch stability; I say listener fatigue, you say surface noise; to-may-to, to-mah-to... But this room-full-o'grooves reminded me that there are really several different ping-pong games being played here, and they're not all so old and tired.

Usually, the sonic potential of the two formats is on the table. The question is, If the best recordings were mastered by the best engineers and pressed by the best plants, which version would sound better: the LP or the CD? By releasing recordings in both formats, John Atkinson, Wes Phillips, and the rest put some meat on the table so each of us can perform the experiment ourselves (see "Cutting Up: the Sonata LP," March '97). But there are other reasons to collect LPs that have less to do with sonic potential and more to do with what kinds of recordings are actually available on LP and CD. I think we've lost something to the CD revolution that has little to do with sound quality.

These were LPs with a difference. Unlike most used-LP stores, the popular bins weren't filled with Kenny G albums and umpteen copies of Genesis's And Then There Were Three... And the classical section wasn't overrun with Dvorák's "New World" Symphony, Bernstein's Mass, or the Pachelbel Canon, either. I'd never seen half of these LPs, mostly because they were old—from the 1950s and '60s. Not everything was in great shape, and they weren't cleaned, scrubbed, and sorted like they are in some toney vinyl boutiques. But, at a buck apiece, I was in heaven.

Where did these LPs come from? I kept looking for clues. They didn't have radio-station call letters stamped on them. They didn't have From The Collection Of... stickers, either. I took my selections to the counter and discreetly pried the truth from the clerk: "So, how 'bout them Bulls, and exactly where do you get all your records?!"

He just mumbled. "Blah blah Pippen blah blah Jordan blah blah..." But I did catch "blah blah garage sales in Wisconsin..."

Aha! Bring 'em on down!

Just as I was checking out, another clerk came over. He saw that I was buying classical LPs and asked me if I'd seen the "dollar-fifty pile."

"What's the dollar-fifty pile?"

"C'mon, I'll show yuh."

I followed him back to an off-limits area. "These are the classical new arrivals," he said. "They're a dollar-fifty each. And over here, we have some sha..."

Time slowed down.


I felt like Keir Dullea listening to HAL sing in 2001.


Rapt in visions of unplayed Scheherazades and The Reiner Sounds imported from Wisconsin, I stared blankly at the box he pointed to. I must have looked confused.

"You know," he explained, "the shaded dogs? The old RCAs that some people like? When we spot 'em, we put 'em in this box here. But they're three dollars each."

"Oh, okay," I said casually. "I'll be sure to take a look." I thumbed through the dollar-fifty pile until he left, and then dove into LSC Central. Unfortunately, there wasn't much there. So I can't tell you mouthwatering stories about sealed 1S/1S shaded dogs and all their sonic delights. While I did find a clean copy of the Dorati/Mercury Overture 1812 in the buck-fifty pile, and a few six-eye Columbias in the bins, the records I'm having the most fun with don't even have a sonic reputation.

The Hoffnung Interplanetary Music Festival (Angel 35800) caught my eye. But what the heck is it? I bought it to find out. Gerard Hoffnung was a British tuba player who, in the 1950s, organized several "extravagant evenings of symphonic caricature." No one-man show, Hoffnung enlisted a roster of notables (such as Malcolm Arnold and Norman del Mar) to write, perform, and conduct pieces like Concerto for Conductor and Orchestra (with tempos like Allegro commerciale in modo televisione). Opera gets most of the ribbing, but the high point is a "serious" academic discussion about 12-tone pioneer Bruno Heinz Jaja. In one of Jaja's more notable pieces, we learn, there are three bars of silence. But, Herr Professor explains, "zee zekond bar of silenz iss in ¾—und ziss gives zee whole verk a quazi-Viennese flavor."

Comedy albums are nothing special. But there's more than humor on this album, more than a performance. It documents a particular social and cultural scene. The LP is really about (as a liner-note review put it) "the 6000 odd music-lovers who attended the two performances...and the many thousands unable to gain admission." As I listened to all this silliness, I felt as though I liked these strangers in the audience. I could identify with them and their willingness to laugh at a parody (or is it?) of "high" art and its critics. I can't think of any recording marketed today on CD, most likely, that would have the same kind of effect.

Another LP I found will surely never see the light of day on CD. Why? Because the baton would never fit inside a jewel case. The sleeve of Music for Frustrated Conductors (baton included) (RCA LM-2325) announces: "Music conducted by Arthur Fiedler...Morton Gould...Robert Russell Bennett...and You." This is a 1S/1S shaded dog, but it's beat. Somebody with a record changer, some pennies, and cellophane tape really really wanted to be a conductor.

More than entertainment, these recordings could help you define yourself and express your socio-cultural aspirations. Don't be one of the thousands who couldn't get into the Hoffnung Festival—bring the event into your own living room! Impress your friends at tea. ("Did you hear the one about Schoenberg?") Don't be just another Furtwängler wannabe. Almost as if it were your cold-war effort, the liner notes explain that in "the adult male population of the United States of America," one in ten has a "a secret yearning" to conduct. Don't be a statistic. Take action. Be "a real maestro."

All this comes together in For Hi-Fi Living: I Could Have Danced All Night (RCA RAL-1001). In 1957, RCA marketed this LP as the first in a series that would convey you, Dear Consumer, into the wonderful life of hi-fi. What's Hi-Fi Living like? On the cover, Chuck and Doreen just can't stop dancing. Back from the prom, they glide gracefully across a black-and-white tiled floor while "Getting to Know You" and "All the Things You Are" drift through the air. On the back cover, things are more relaxed. Several couples are dancing, sipping punch, and passing around album covers. Meanwhile, back at the console (the electro-mechanical heart of all Hi-Fi Life), sparks are flying. Our hostess effortlessly adjusts the records on the changer while the captain of the football team offers her a shiny, new LP. "Hi there. Why don't you put this one on."

Leisure, work, dining, and pre-copulatory symbolic gift exchange. RCA covered it all. These recordings were designed for modern living—for dining or conversation, for parties or play, for dancing or dreamy listening, to give you a lift while you work. Hi-Fi Living will add a new dimension of pleasure to your home. This isn't "perfect sound," it's perfect life: postwar suburban domestic bliss.

From life to sound. Since the golden age of the LP, the music industry and the culture it feeds seem to have narrowed their focus. These LPs were marketed to transform your life and home. Others would turn your apartment into a swingin' bachelor pad or a Polynesian paradise. In the '60s and '70s, the right choices would put you in tune with the counterculture (share the wealth...) or turn your pad into a Leary-esque exploration center (...and pass the bong).

But in the 1980s, as CDs were ascending, the goal became narrower and more specific: sound without complications. CD means no more fluids and brushes, no more skidding tonearms and record wear. CD means never having to say, "I'm sorry, but I need a new needle." You don't even have to handle your CDs (but once) if you store them in a mega-disc carousel. For the audiophobes I know, the ideal system would be one that's invisible and self-operating. If it's true that someone killed classical music, as Kyle Gann suggested in the May '97 Stereophile, I bet convenience was an accessory to the crime:

"What's that playing on your stereo? I've never heard it before."

"I dunno. Something in the carousel."

These old LPs are different. They demand that you live a full-blown, maximally inconvenient Hi-Fi Life. Of course, you can fuss over CDs and transports and cables and green pens if you like, but LPs leave you little choice. These records knew that. As I pawed through the bins, and each thwap of cardboard on cardboard puffed more dust and mold into my lungs, they began to tell their story...

Help! We're relics of Americana and nobody wants us. But you're an audiophile. You understand us. You know that if you take us home, clean us up, wipe off our covers, put us in new sleeves, and place us in the center of your Hi-Fi Life, we'll improve it. Otherwise...we'll die here!

They were right. Though it's said too often, it's true: half the fun of collecting and playing LPs is that they seem more human than their CD successors. Like friends, lovers, and spouses, they require a lot of work, you can tell what condition they're in usually just by looking, and each is more or less unique. Despite their (sonic) flaws, you can still love 'em. They even have a life-cycle. They're born, they live, they get worn and scratchy, and then they die. When they do, their music goes with them.

Not so with CDs. Sony was right about the "forever" part. The Kenny G and Phil Collins recordings that dominate the bins today will never need to be rescued from anything. These recordings can live forever by jumping from DAT to RAM to DVD to whatever media become available. Not only does this make bins and bins of used CDs about as exciting as a truckload of old floppy discs, there's something strangely disturbing about it. Just imagine: When Jesus comes back, Kenny will still be toodly-toot-tooting on his horn; and when all the world's styrofoam finally biodegrades, Kenny will still be toodly-toot-tooting; and when the entire universe collapses and time stops, the very last sound any sentient creature will ever hear could be toodly-toot-tooooooo... It's scary.

Where are my LPs? I need a hug.