Ed#456: Black Magic

24 April 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#456: Black Magic


A couple I know well were relocating overseas just under 20 years ago. Moving is always a stressful time, especially when the move is from one side of the world to the other. Things got tense when decisions had to be made about which things would be put aside for shipping and what would be left behind in storage. This was when he looked at her and asked (perhaps with an insufficient amount of respect and affection): “You’re not taking that glass stuff, are you?”

“They’re vases,” she responded. “Of course they’re coming… But please tell me you’re not taking all your LPs.”

“I certainly am.” Packing continued in silence for a  while after that.

These days, that LP impasse might have been avoided.  It’s possible that one iPod could have contained all the music on all those LPs (which are, by the way, extremely heavy when packed). The thing is, of course, that LPs – good old-fashioned long-playing black vinyl records – are only partly about the music they contain, although purists still insist they sound warmer and more authentic than CDs and, especially, compressed digital formats. The allure of LPs also lies in their size, the cover designs, the often-bizarre notes on the back, and all the extras: gatefold sleeves; fold out bits and pieces; posters… All of which made some LPs the Jumbo Show Bags of the music world. LPs demanded effort: they had to be kept clean (though some still insist that crackles and pops are part of the LP-listening experience); they had to be physically placed on a turntable – which meant a choice being made between Sides 1 or 2; and tracks were meant to be played in order. Finding, say, track three on a seven-track side was always a bit like parachuting into a forest at night while hoping to land in a particular clearing. It could be done, but seldom without that tell-tale scratching sound.

‘Shuffling’ was a foreign concept. The result of this was that records tended to be actually listened to. Constantly distracted people who, these days, listen to randomly selected songs – while texting someone else and walking down the street – may find it hard to believe that, once, it was not considered odd to sit (or lie down) while listening to a record from start to finish and studying the cover, as if the answers to all of life’s questions might be found there.

But then LPs went the way of the dinosaurs. CDs arrived, those supposedly indestructible small silver circles packed with more music than both sides of one LP, and vinyl’s days were numbered. Well, so some thought. But we all know what’s happened. After falling out of favour, vinyl has been steadily making a comeback. Now it’s cool again. It even has a day (Saturday 19 April) to call its own: Record Store Day. And in our latest ‘Roving Eye’ we celebrate what US-based photographer Eilon Paz describes as “this beautiful obsession” – vinyl collectors. This is something I understand.

I have, and still listen to, LPs. And for a few years I hunted one in particular. It was a game I’d play whenever I happened upon a store or a record stall at a fete. This LP was elusive, but that was half the fun. (Had it been a record by Barbra Streisand or ELO or Olivia Newton-John the hunt would have been over quickly.) And then I found it. I was delighted…but also simultaneously deflated. For I knew what would happen. I’d play it a few times and then it would become just another record among lots of others. No, I’m not going to say what it was. A little mystery is a good thing. Same goes for that couple. Who are still together. And still have their vases and LPs.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article appeared in Ed#456 of The Big Issue magazine.