Sunday, August 14, 2011

In Record Time

The first long-playing record I ever owned was Elton John's Greatest Hits, which was issued in November 1974 and which came into my possession at the ensuing Christmas. The last new LP I bought was Bob Mould's Workbook, in 1989. I did continue to buy used record albums for some time after that, but for most purposes, I stopped buying wax by the 1990s.

So for me at least, the vinyl era lasted only about 15 years. For the rock-&-roll-music-appreciating public as a whole, the album era can probably be dated to around 1964, with Meet the Beatles. Prior to that, the most popular albums were things like the West Side Story soundtrack, which spent more than a year at the Number One spot on the Billboard album chart (no, really, 54 weeks) in 1962 and 1963. So if everyone else stopped buying albums around the same time I did, the era of the vinyl record album lasted around 25 years.

I was thinking about these issues whilst re-reading Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide to the Albums of the '70s (or whatever it's called; I'm reading it on his Web site). Christgau's work is thoroughly about the physical object, which entails writing about the music contained within the grooves, of course. But it also means he discusses the cover art, and differentiates side one versus side two, and complains once in a while about having to get up and flip the thing over, and even points out pricing issues on occasion. Fittingly, for something that calls itself a consumer guide, one never forgets that Bob (I get to call him Bob because I met him at a party once) is describing a physical product, a big black platter.

Many of us reading Christgau's work at the time didn't realize how doomed the LP was, what a short shelf-life it would end up having. It was the way we had always experienced our precious little rock & roll, and if we had bothered to think about it at all, we would have guessed that things would always be that way, although we didn't and it wouldn't.

By 1989, if the music-buying public was anything like me, we were buying compact discs. The first CD I ever bought was the Cure's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and the last new CD I bought was Traffic and Weather by Fountains of Wayne, in 2007. It is entirely possible that I will never buy another physical CD, although who knows. In any case, the era of the compact disc seems to have lasted roughly 15 years, which is even shorter than the era of the rock LP.

If I continue on reading Bob's reviews into the 1990s, I'm sure I won't read about the differences between the two sides of the album, or hear him whine about having to get up and turn over From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah in order to hear it in its entirety. Perhaps there will be other little telltale details of listening to CDs, although from my vantage point, I couldn't tell you what they would be. At the same time, in 1979, I wouldn't have been able to provide the telltale details of listening to vinyl, either.

There will come a day, you know, when people no longer listen to music on iPods or their phones or whatever else we're carrying around these days. All things must pass in the end.

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