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  , 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…?)