What to do when you move to a new place and decide against keeping cable?
Any number of things spring to mind: Take long, humid evening walks, listening to crickets and sniffing the local flora. Take up gardening. Perfect your Jack and Coke ratio. Or, you could decide to listen to your entire vinyl LP collection in alphabetical order by artist—with each artist, in turn, organized chronologically. That should be easy, right? Start with Bryan Adams and end with ZZ Top.
Nearly two months into what I am dubbing #vinylproject2014, I have listened to roughly one quarter of my 440-odd record albums. At this rate, the project should only take another four or five months to complete.
For two decades I have been collecting records. I started in earnest in late summer 1994, right before beginning sophomore year of high school. Records were cheap. This was back when little plastic disks encoded with tiny digits seemed ready to dominate the aural landscape for generations to come. Many people, otherwise totally rational, were essentially throwing away their vinyl. At Co-Op Records in East Peoria, Illinois, there was a bargain bin full of $1 records right up front. Five bucks plus tax would get you six black vinyl platters. For a high school kid who loved classic rock, this was practically paradise! I couldn’t afford to shell out $10-$15 for every compact disc I wanted, but investing that same amount for 10-15 LPs was a no brainer.
A few of my purchases in fall 1994 included Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Cheap Trick’s Live at Budokan, Styx’s The Grand Illusion, and REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity. The list could go on. Occasionally I splurged on a more expensive record, like a near-mint copy of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, which cost upward of $6.
Besides my ingrained thriftiness, there were other things to like about used vinyl, like the cover art. CDs were certainly better than cassettes in this regard, but nothing like an LP. The artwork practically jumped out from the cardboard sleeve. Several late-1970s Kansas releases—say, Point of Know Return and Monolith—are worth owning for the covers alone. One doesn’t get the same visual immersion from a jewel case.
I also liked that the records weren’t new. The sleeves were crinkly in some places and worn smooth in others, fading where the LP wore a ring into the cardboard. Each album seemed to have its own character, prompting curiosity about previous owners. What caused that pop and hiss on side one? Was someone in a hurry to get out the door when they scratched side two? Who wrote “To Peggy—our #1 Fan, [Heart] Tommy” in Sharpie inside the gatefold of Styx’s Pieces of Eight? Was it really Tommy Shaw? Why did Peggy let such a prized possession slip away?
You never knew what you were going to find at Co-Op—or at the discard sale where I picked up a really nice copy of Derek and the Dominoes’ masterpiece Layla for a quarter in November 1995 or 1996. (Thanks, Pekin Public Library!) I ended up with some great finds, but also some head scratchers. Does anyone really need a vinyl copy of the Scorpions’ Crazy World? I don’t know, but I still have it, and “Wind of Change” still sounds like a fresh spring breeze ushering out decades of Cold War paranoia—mixed with circa-1992 junior high dance awkwardness.
There were a few slim vinyl years at the turn of this most recent century, but then in 2003 the addiction hit again. I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois when I stumbled upon the annual WILL used record sale. One magnificent Saturday every June, the local NPR affiliate rented space in downtown Urbana’s nearly defunct Lincoln Square Mall. Each record was a dollar; double sets were $2. The Concert for Bangladesh? Three bucks. Score! This was Paradiso to the bargain bin’s Purgatorio. I bought a secondhand turntable for $30 and a stack of records like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River and the Rolling Stones’ 1966 Big Hits compilation. In subsequent years, I stocked up on more Stones, Beatles, and Dylan. You had to line up early in the morning, though, because the good ones were wiped out in five minutes.
In the last decade, I have picked up many records in Atlanta and Middle Tennessee. In ATL’s Little Five Points, those beloved institutions Criminal Records and Wax ‘N’ Facts fueled my obsession with Poco, Little Feat, and Capricorn label-mates Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker Band. More recently, regular trips to Grimey’s in Nashville and Little Shop of Records in Murfreesboro have added to the collection. But bargain-bin pricing, alas, is mostly gone in this era of vinyl resurgence.
Each record has a unique provenance to go along with the sounds locked into the grooves. As Amanda Petrusich notes in her rumination on 78 rpm collectors, Do Not Sell at Any Price, shellac devotees see vinyl collectors as myself as mere dilettantes. Perhaps that is true. Maybe if I could spin old blues and jazz disks from the 1920s, labels like Paramount and Black Patti would take my sonic life to even richer heights. Until that day arrives, I will happily enjoy my 33 1/3 rpm tunes—and share a few of the stories on Matters of Sense.
Brian M. Ingrassia teaches American History at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012).