Saturday, 14 July 2012

Record shop memoirs, part three (Roll up! Roll up! CDs are here!)

The arrival of  the first CDs in the record shop where I worked in the mid ‘80s was quite a momentous occasion.  The invention of those tiny shiny discs has been referred to by some as the ‘Big Bang’ event of the digital audio revolution but, at the time, many of us were still cynical.  In his excellent book, ‘Lost In Music’, Giles Smith (who happened to work for the same small regional chain of independent shops as I did) describes this perfectly:

‘That Christmas [1984] , a few rather serious-looking people came in to choose from the extremely limited range of items in the shop’s plastic tray of Compact Discs.  (Fools! We thought.  It’ll never catch on.)’

 Lost In Music by Giles Smith (Picador 1995)

I have a memory of a little frisson of excitement as we unpacked and examined the new format.  I think there were just a handful of titles and I can’t recall exactly which but I think the artists included Billy Joel and Jean Michel Jarre.  I’m sure I probably held one up and looked at it from all angles under the harsh fluorescent lights, mesmerised by its sparkle and eager for it to somehow prove itself.  Would it sound amazing, like nothing I had heard before, nor could even imagine?  And was it true that you could set them alight and gouge your initials into them and dunk them in vinegar and it wouldn’t make any difference?

I sold my first CD to a regular customer, Mr Sexton (he liked to keep our interactions formal).  Mr Sexton was one of those ‘rather serious-looking people’ as Giles Smith describes.  He was a technophile.  In fact I’m sure he’d probably told us about compact discs even before the record companies did.   He’d come into the shop and refer to the list of record requests that he’d previously typed into his little Psion Organiser (they’ll never catch on either, we thought).  Prior to the availability of these new-fangled CD things, he was very meticulous about his vinyl purchases.  He’d inspect them thoroughly before parting with his cash, pointing out any tiny marks and asking that we check them specifically on the in-store record deck for possible accompanying audible flaws.  In spite of his perfectionism, he did make small allowances: “Two clicks per side per album,” I seem to remember.  Two clicks but no hisses, no jumps and definitely no pitch-altering wobbly warps.

So I think it was probably the Jean Michel Jarre CD that Mr Sexton bought first.  Grinning like a simpleton I took the little disc out of its cardboard master bag. I deliberately held it between my thumb and forefinger in the way I would never do with vinyl (having trained myself to be quite an expert in the barely-touching, edges-only grasp that defines you as a true respecter of records).  Thinking I was being funny, I made some gauche remark about smearing honey on it.  I’d seen that BBC TV item where they’d done just that and the disc had still played perfectly.  (And you can watch it for yourself  here . Honey AND coffee!  I can see why conspiracy theorists maintain that these sample discs were far more resilient to maltreatment than the later production line output, because their indestructibility doesn’t make any economic sense…)  Mr Sexton was a nice man but I don’t think he was too amused at the honey quip.  He took several minutes to thoroughly examine the disc, holding it in the barely-touching edges-only grasp and I couldn’t help wishing we had a pot of Gale’s under the counter.  Anyway, he went away very happy, and came back for more, from his short electronic list that quickly lengthened over the ensuing months. 

Gradually the shelves of twelve inch cardboard album masterbags made way for more five-and-a-half inch replacements and the racks of LP sleeves dwindled.  The revolution had started. I left my job there before the transition from vinyl to CD was complete and of course I realise this all shows just how old I now am.  (But will downloading ever catch on…?)


20 comments:

  1. I remember those long boxes CDs first came in, they were insane.

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    1. The long box was a US only innovation and from a store display perspective it made a lot of sense. You could display two rows of CDs in one old LP bin with no shop re-fitting necessary. In the UK we just got the 5½"x5" CD from the record companies, not even shrink-wrapped. I remember the discussions about how we were going to market this new format within the company for which I worked, and the initial solution wasn't great - a 12"x12" sheet of card with the CD booklet inserted into four slits in the middle, like a very primitive photo frame, housed in a PVC sleeve and standing (read, flopping about) in an LP bin. We had a long way to go!

      Excellent post C. You have a great memory for the interesting characters you've encountered on your travels and Mr Sexton is no exception.

      (Surely there would've been a Dire Straits CD in that first box? I seem to recall the whole format launch revolving around one of their album releases, or vice versa!)

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    2. You know, I'd forgotten about those long boxes Dr MVM (that I only recall seeing later when we got some US imports). I'd also completely forgotten about the dilemma - and the innovative temporary solutions - we had over here with how to display those first CD covers, as you say, The Swede. And yes, of course you're right, I'm sure Dire Straits must have been in that first box, probably Brothers In Arms?

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  2. Memories. As a music obsessive who had spent a life-time collecting vinyl, I was ultra resistant to CDs for many years. I didn't get my first one until 1991 because they just seemed to lack the excitement of the old LP. Of course, my house is now full of the little things and I'm clinging on to THEM and resisting the iPod revolution instead. Luddite, I know. I have never ever been an audio snob, though. I have idiotically mistreated my vinyl over all the years that I have lugged it through my life and have never owned any top of the range audio equipment (due to lack of funds more than anything else). For me, it's just about the visceral excitement of music itself and you can throw it to me in a brown paper bag if you want. I love your record shop recollections as I always wanted to work in one myself. The one time I came close to getting a job the manager told me I was utterly unsuited to retail work as I seemed to lack any notion of the need to make money. Nothing changes.

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    1. I feel the same way about moving on any further than CDs, SB! Mainly because I like the tangibility of them somehow. The most obvious thing I miss about vinyl LPs - which I know is shared by a lot of people of similar vintage - is the sleeve artwork. It was the whole package, not just the music, that was part of their appeal, the whole feel of an album as an item you'd probably saved up for and deliberated over adding to your collection, each one had its own character. But I know everything changes...

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    2. PS - Well everything changes apart from where you say nothing changes!! I also think I have that 'lack of of any notion of the need to make money'... unfortunately it doesn't make life easy!

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  3. OK, off I go at a tangent, but you got me thinking about the fact that record companies have gotten us to buy the same old recordings in different formats at least 4 times in my lifetime alone, cassette, vinyl, CD and now MP3, and they moan about dwindling profits! OK, so cassette quality wasn't always brilliant and they were prone to being chewed up and spat out (and of course you got to hear the music at whatever speed the little cogs decided to spin at! Sometimes many different speeds in one song) but Vinyl had such a wonderfully obese sound that CDs just didn't quite match for me. Don't get me wrong, I loved their slimmer, more precise sound quality... but I missed the hiss and crackle from the word go. This is coming from someone whose introduction to having music on demand was from recording the radio with a microphone though!

    I remember buying my first CD player in the 80's, it was part of an Aiwa stacking system that included a tape to tape recording facility and was topped off with a multi speed record deck. I LOVED that big ugly thing and lugged it through SO many house moves over the years. It was always the first thing I would set up in my new home so I would have a suitable soundtrack to unpack the rest of my belongings to. If there was ever a house party (and there were many) my trusty Aiwa was always the one chugging out the music, usually so the whole street could join in (and once or twice, the police, who were not as impressed by it's bass quality).

    First to die were the cassette players, one by one, sometime in the late 90's but not before chewing up some of my most beloved tapes. Then, oddly, considering the alleged indestructible nature of CDs themselves, the CD drawer got stuck and had to be prized open with a screwdriver, that eventually became a thread which I used to physically pull the drawer open and more recently my brother put a bolt into the front of the tiny drawer so I could pull it. Two years ago Tom Waits "Rain Dogs" went into that drawer of doom never to return. The drawer remains resolutely shut. The record deck finally gave out this Christmas, it still turns and the little arm still wanders nonchalantly over the the spot where the grooves start but it refuses to drop onto the vinyl. I am trying to gather the strength to finally take the poor thing to the tip, but we have shared so much over the years, it's hard to let go :o(

    I am told these things are unrepairable due to lack of parts, and after extensive internet searches I have admitted defeat and rarely listen to music at all these days. I even bought a relatively expensive pair of speakers for my Mac but I'm sorry, MP3's just sound anorexic to my aged ears!

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    1. Yve, yes it's weird to think of all the different formats we've lived through (and that's just so far...) I get what you say about the equipment and that attachment you can get to things. I guess none of it would make much sense to anyone much younger reading this, and that doesn't make it right or wrong, just different! I'm glad things no longer get scratched or chewed up...that was so frustrating. But I still liked their tangibility...

      Btw - we're having a similar problem with a CD drawer of doom! It's started doing an impersonation of the cash till in 'Open All Hours', opening up and then shutting immediately before you've put the CD in or got it out and threatening to crush the disc halfway in its uncontrollable jaws...

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  4. First CD Best of Van Morrison....and now adays I only listen to MP3/4 format.....thousands of LPs/Cds/tapes all in boxes in garage hundreds of miles away....MP3 is just so convenient. You got to move on folks!!!

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    1. Convenient, but just not the same! I think maybe best solution is to have both in tandem? A nice rack full of records/CDs/tapes (whichever format tickles your fancy) for something to pore over, touch/hold, be sentimental about and commit yourself to! Downloads for convenience, boring train journeys, songs you might like for five mins then change your mind about, etc.
      What d'you reckon??!!

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  5. We held out desperately against CDs until 1997, when we were beaten into submission by a particular Fall album which didn't come in vinyl. The best we could do was buy a relatively groovy CD player where instead of a drawer, the top flips up like a small Starship Enterprise, for you to pop your horrid little disc beneath it. It felt like cold comfort, frankly.

    The first time I remember registering the CD was when Pete Murphy and Mick Karn used one as a symbol of the future, in a Dali's Car video. Mick Karn used it to reflect the light into Pete Murphy's eyes. It was almost certainly a metaphor for the inherent weakness of the capitalist system, or something.

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    1. So quite a latecomer to CD then, but as you say re. the Fall album not being on vinyl, there came a time when the choice was made for us all...

      I don't think we could have waited that long but mainly because we were running out of room for album storage. Always a bit of a downside of living in small places, especially when eventually the only places left to stack them were in front of radiators :-(

      Love the Dali's Car scene, very arty!

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  6. I also resisted CDs for what seemed like forever,a friend (who worked in a record shop....) gave me some of the early promos they got in on CD, (Style Council I think.....), but I still had nothing to play them on until many years later. When I did I wondered what the fuss was about and still do. But, the one bonusn of them is that there's something quite nice about burning a mix cd that just edges it ahead iof the mix tape - probably heresy around these parts I know.
    Funnily enough those early promo cds still play perfectly whilst anything newer hardly ever does - I always wondered if we were suckered in with superior product and later ones came with built in obselescense....I've even had some that despite being pristine just seemed to allow the sound to decay until they sounded like old reel to reel that had been left in the sun....
    Just sign me up as another vinyl junkie (and I'm so pleased to hear that I'm not the only one who treats vinyl badly and still loves it !)

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    1. Yes, like you, getting the CDs themselves was one thing, getting something to play them on another. It seemed such a big commitment at the time!
      Agree v much about the mix CD / tape: something special to create, to give, or to receive, I'm a big fan.
      (Imagine the fun people like us could've had if we could've burned our own choices to 12" vinyl platters! I'd have loved doing the artwork for those...)

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  7. But I went into local store in central London recently - lined with vinyl! Some of which I have the originals still at home !

    Downloading I think is popular amongst the young folk... I still feel I've not bought anything! But my CD is now available via download you have to roll with the times don't you :-)

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    1. I think vinyl is making a bit of a comeback. Is it just because it's got retro status I wonder?
      I think you're right, you don't feel like you've bought it if it hasn't got some more physical presence. But I think you're also right to make your own available in any way you can - keep the options open... Lots of luck with it!

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  8. maybe to further clarify....I call it my 'Ghandi thang'....no possessions...I could get up, take my staff and move on to anywhere....and in my pocket my trusty portable hard drive. What more does one need.

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    1. That, I can understand, and I admire and envy it. Part of me wishes I could be like that - no (or few) possessions, a life uncluttered by material things, unburdened. The other part of me likes to surround itself with 'stuff'! Not status stuff or valuable stuff but just stuff that makes me smile. The ongoing internal battle results in this compromise I suppose!

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  9. Me and that record shop in Tallahassee grew up together. The first time I ever went there it was a tiny spot in a ratty strip mall. The next year it was a tiny spot in a smaller but better strip mall...then it was two spots, then three before it took hope the whole strip. A few years later they built their own building.

    The place owed its success to CDs...people were dumping their record collections. It was a flood of vinyl. It was a collectors market for a while. Then everybody figured out what a horrid mistake they'd made and it became the record shops market.

    Records are coming back (same with hardback books) mark it down. After all these years the only medium worth owning is a vinyl record. There's no need for cds anymore and there's nothing to love about those cheap peices of plastic but, many people sitll love objects.

    Remember those long boxes they used to sell cd's in to make them fit the bins?

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    1. Your shop in Tallahassee sounds good. Vinyl and hardbacks making a comeback? Isn't it weird how things go round in circles. Someone said to me the other day, "just because it's an old design doesn't mean it can always be improved" - and went on to remind me of the wheel :-)

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