Thinking About Starting a Record Collection? Think Again…

tpHard Promises
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
BSR-5160 (MCA 2446)
Backstreet Records

Looking at the prices of new albums (new artists and reissues), I’d rethink collecting LPs if I were you.

But if you’re willing to dive into the proverbial rabbit hole and understand that there is no end game for collecting, by all means jump in. But keep this in mind – collecting is an addiction and you’ll always be chasing the dragon.

You need to first ask yourself why would you want to collect LPs in the first place. Collecting records is a major pain in the ass: they’re a physical medium that require care and maintenance; you need a turntable and a stereo to listen; you can’t take records with you like you can digital downloads; you can’t listen to them in your car; they’re easily damaged; they take up a lot of room; and they’re a bitch to move.

My first marriage was doomed when, on the second day of living together, the ex told me I had to put my records into storage. Now I’d been collecting albums since 1973 or so with my heaviest collecting years between 1978 and 1986 (the year I bought into the CD lie and started collecting those fucking things). Between that period I amassed close to 1,000 records — all of which traveled with me from my parents’ house to my first apartment to a move down to St. Petersburg, FL, and then back to IL. Carried like a penance, my albums are the only material items I’ve held on to since I was a kid.

When I got embroiled in my first marriage, I was told to store the records because, to my ex, they took up too much room. And worse, to her, they were an eyesore. So to keep the peace, I put them in a storage cage in the basement of the condo building we were living in. I was smart though, I carefully placed the records upright in plastic bins and on a riser in the cage to keep them off the floor in case of flood. And, fortunately the basement was cool and dry.

When I locked them up, I turned my back on them. But, some 16 years later, I got divorced. My ex, who didn’t miss much, took half of everything I owned (including my salary) — but she missed my vinyl. One early Sunday morning I let my records out of prison and loaded them into my SUV and started a new life.

The point to all this? Had I lost all of those records, I probably wouldn’t have mustered the courage to start collecting from scratch.

That said, because I’ve kept my records, my ability to collect has been easy. And, having gotten remarried to someone who is very tolerant and encouraged me to set up a ‘record’ room in our basement, I’ve been able to rediscover the utter joy of listening to music on vinyl, which is far superior to CD pressings and digital downloads.

Just trust the legion of vinyl enthusiasts – records sound better. But this depends on the shape the vinyl is in (is the vinyl dirty, scuffed, scratched?) and your sound source, particularly your turntable, cartridge and needle, as  well as your amplifier and speakers. Grinding an album through a cheap Crosley turntable unit with sound skittering through its built-in amp and trashy speakers will never give you the full sonic experience vinyl has to offer.

But all I can share, when embarking on this frustrating and often futile past time, is the following:

  1. Don’t start collecting by purchasing expensive 180 gram reissues. You’ll go broke. I recently saw a reissue of Pink Floyd’s The Wall at Barnes and Noble for $60. That’s right – 60 large. I purchased this classic double album back in 1979 for $9.99. People will argue that inflation is inflation and that almost 40 years ago, $10 was pretty close to what $60 is now. Maybe – but $60 is a lot of dough to lay down for a record.
  2. Buy used. Find your local used record store (for me its Purple Dog Records in Naperville, IL) – most towns have them. Or go to your local Half Price Books or 2nd & Charles. Both these stores carry healthy supplies of used vinyl at decent prices. I just purchased a pristine copy of Foreigner’s Double Vision for $2.95.
  3. Don’t think in terms of ‘rare‘ unless you have tons of money to blow on records like the Beatles Yesterday and Today (with the infamous ‘butcher cover’ image) or this release of Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Once you get your head around the fact that you probably won’t retire on the cash you’ll get from finding some rarity out in the wild, you’ll be a much happier collector.
  4. Collect because you love the music. Into Air Supply? Think the Beach Boys are boss? Like jazz on the Blue Note label? Crazy about the Allman Brothers? Well…more power to you. So start by collecting those artists you really dig because that’s how you can easily build your collection. Buy them because you love them. Don’t worry what other people have in their collections. Who cares? When are other people the arbiters of your taste?
  5. Don’t let variations confuse you. For instance, Steely Dan on the ABC label is more desirable than Steely Dan reissues on the MCA label. Why? For one, the ABC label pressings are cleaner and richer. MCA acquired the Steely Dan catalog in the late 70s and those pressings originally on ABC were repressed by MCA on the quick and cheap. Granted Gaucho on MCA sounds great (Gaucho was Steely Dan’s first LP on MCA) but a side-by-side comparison of Pretzel Logic on ABC to the MCA reissue is quite ear opening. There’s no question that the ABC release sounds more detailed. BUT, if you love Steely Dan and can’t find their original ABC pressings in decent shape, the MCAs will do.
  6. If first edition records do mean something to you — like collecting stamps or coins — there are numbers or symbols on LPs that you can look at as identifiers of particular editions and, ultimately, worth. LPs have ‘matrix’ numbers that are alphanumeric codes (or messages or abstract symbols) stamped and/or handwritten into the run-out groove (the non-grooved area between the end of the final band on a record’s side and the label, also known as the “dead wax” area) of a vinyl record. The matrix number was intended for the internal use of the record manufacturing plant, but they are also studied and documented by record collectors, as they can sometimes provide useful information about the edition of the record. I have an edition of Tom Petty’s Hard Promises that has “WE LOVE YOU JL” etched in the run-out groove. According to Wikipedia: “During the recording of Hard Promises, John Lennon was scheduled to be in the same studio at the same time. Tom Petty was looking forward to meeting him when he came in. The meeting never occurred; John Lennon was murdered before he could ever make it into the studio. In order to pay tribute to one of their influences, Petty and the Heartbreakers decided to have “WE LOVE YOU JL” etched on the master copy of the album. To this day “WE LOVE YOU JL” is seen on every Hard Promises first issue US non-masterphile vinyl copy pressed.” Does this make the album ‘rare?’ Yes – as subsequent issues released did not have this messaging. Does it make the album worth more? Probably. But probably not by that much. As you build your collection and want to track an album’s edition (and possible worth), the database-driven website Discogs is essential. This site includes all matrix numbers, issue release dates, projected worth of a record and how much people are selling it for on the site (you can purchase records from sellers on Discogs). Plus you can load your collection into your own personalized Discogs database for tracking your stuff.
  7. Jacket wear. For the hardcore collector, jacket condition is as important as vinyl condition. Dog-eared jackets, jackets with ring-wear, jackets with writing on them (unless its artist autographing), can downgrade worth significantly. But here’s my take – if the vinyl is in good, playable condition, the jacket’s condition doesn’t mean anything. I want to listen to my records. But that’s just me.

Finally – I envy and don’t envy those embarking on vinyl collecting. Ultimately, it’s what you make of it and if you can enter this trip as an ongoing journey, then you’ll have a helluva lot of fun.

© 2017 Chris Barry


My Third CD

u2_webThe Joshua Tree

The big lie got to me – no scratches, no pops, surface always clean.

And the biggest lie of all: CDs sounded better than vinyl. I was late jumping on the CD bandwagon and I bought my first couple discs in late 1986 and then turned my back on vinyl in 1987 until I found my way back in 2013.

My third CD was U2’s The Joshua Tree. All my U2 vinyl up to that point (Boy, October, War, The Unforgettable Fire) was perfect, each sonically richer than the last.

But that sonic bliss ended when I got The Joshua Tree on CD.

For all intents and purposes, the idea I had was that I would sit down and listen to CDs in basically the same way I did with albums – except experiencing an artist’s musical vision all in one uninterrupted sitting without having to flip the record. That was important back then for some reason. Laziness I guess.

With The Joshua Tree CD that fantasy listening experience didn’t happen. The digital landscape made everything sound flat and tinny. The dynamic range was there but didn’t sound ‘real.’ It was simulacrum.

Simply, the CD didn’t engage me the way U2’s music did on vinyl. It bored me. I found myself skipping from song to song only a couple notes into each. I had to force myself to listen to it as a whole, which I only did once or twice. And while I could acknowledge the songs were good, they didn’t feel ‘rich.’ They were vacant.

This was strange, considering the album’s producers – Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno – are all about soundscape. But the CD was a depressing travesty.

At first I blamed the band for the music’s lack of depth – yet it was a critical darling. I had bought into the CD hype so deeply, there was no way I was going to blame the music’s delivery method. I’d been touting it myself parroting marketing speak on CD superiority.

The Joshua Tree produced more radio-friendly songs than any other U2 trip up to that point and that’s where I ended up getting more exposure to the tunes – on the radio. It wasn’t through my sitting down with the disc.

As I started to reintegrate vinyl into my life a few years ago, The Joshua Tree became one of my ‘grails.’ I knew it had to sound and play better on vinyl. But I was nervous about procuring it because I had read that as the CD craze grabbed consumers by the throat, LPs were being produced using inferior or recycled vinyl. Records pressed during the late ’80s and into the ’90s were suspiciously thin and were possibly devoid of true dynamic range.

That said, I wanted The Joshua Tree on vinyl and this past summer I told the owner of my favorite independent record store, Purple Dog Records (Naperville, IL.), to keep an eye out for it.

Within a week he messaged me on Facebook and said he had a copy and was I still interested. I was.

I went to the store and he told me there was a scratch on it but it played through. Other than that, it was dusty – a normal used vinyl malady. I asked him to play it to ensure it really did ‘play through’ the scratch.

He put it on their store stereo and what came out of their vintage Sony speakers was a sonic revelation. The opening vista of “Where the Streets Have No Name” was deep, rich – in the room – as The Edge’s jangly guitar sparkled with urgency eventually folding into one with Bono’s wail.

And there was no notice of the scratch.

I paid $15 for it. Took it home and spun it. All the way through in one sitting.

And for the first time I heard this brilliant drama unfold in all of its sonic Lanois Eno glory.

© 2017 Chris Barry

The Zen of Spin-Clean

d_c_2The Spin-Clean requires that you slide the record between two brushes that have been saturated with a proprietary cleaning solution. The record then passes into a reservoir filled with distilled water. The brushes, cleaning solution and the water combine to work together to deep clean your records.

You grip the edges of the record and spin it clockwise three times. You then spin it counterclockwise three times.

After spinning, you remove the record and dry it with non-fibrous, soft and absorbent cloths. Once dried, you replace the record in its sleeve, which you then slide back into its jacket.

Or you can place the record directly on your turntable. If you do that, you’ll sit back and be amazed listening to a once grimy LP playing better than new without clicks, pops or grit.

The spin clean process is a zen-like process – particularly if you run multiple albums through it in one cleaning session.

The manual process isn’t exciting – it’s not meant to be. But what does happen (after about 15-20 records into the cleaning process), you start to become one with the activity. You start to flow. Your mind empties.

Soon you drop life’s illusions and see things before you without distortion or prejudice created by your own thoughts.

© 2017 Chris Barry


The Miracle of the Spin-Clean Record Washer MKII

Using the Spin-Clean Record Washer MKII to clean LP 1 of One More From the Road by Lynyrd Skynyrd.

The grime in the grooves was invisible to the naked eye so my visual inspection was futile. It looked good but played like shit – like the needle was scraping across sand paper.

I love this album so I was disappointed and pissed that I couldn’t ever play it. So I had resigned myself that I’d probably have to spend big bucks on a reissue or on a minty used copy.

That is, until I ran it through one of the most miraculous units ever invented for the vinyl obsessive – the Spin-Clean Record Washer MKII.

The Spin-Clean system is basically a wash tub for records. Rather than using your turntable to rotate and brush LPs as they spin, you dip your record into the Spin-Clean unit. The thin profile tub has a reservoir that holds water (preferably distilled) that is the base for cleaning. There are two oblong brushes that face each other in between which you slide your record. But before doing so, you wet the brushes with Spin-Clean’s specially formulated washer fluid.

The wet brushes basically grip the record and once an LP is inserted, you manually spin it clockwise three times then counterclockwise another three times to remove any embedded dust or grime that may be impacting an LPs playability. The spinning action is kept steady via two side rollers that are adjustable for various record sizes (regular LPs, 45s or 78s).

The unit is bright yellow and is so for a reason – you can see the dirt that has been removed from your vinyl sitting at the bottom of the reservoir.

The Spin-Clean also comes with fluffy drying towels (which you should launder before using) and, gripping an album by the outer edges after running it through the system, you dry it using the towels by rubbing them around the LP in a circular motion. The first thing you’ll notice is how shiny the vinyl looks after drying it – like you just pulled it out of its sleeve for the first time.

My inaugural dip in the Spin-Clean was Aqualung. The Tull was one of my hard luck cases – one of the worst I owned when it came to extraneous noise. I figured this LP would be perfect to put the Spin-Clean through the paces. I placed the Tull in the tub and spun it through the liquid.

Once dried, I put the Tull on my turntable and placed the needle on the run-on groove and…


Not a pop or a click. Martin Barre’s opening guitar riff on Aqualung sounded right there in the room, loud and clean. The song’s acoustic break sparkled. Ian Anderson’s vocals were immediate and warm.

I couldn’t believe it was the same record – I was like I was hearing it for the first time.

After the Tull cleansing I proceed to clean Skynyrd’s One More For From the Road, a double album set that was filled with crackles and pops. After a thorough washing, the end result was the same as the Tull – shiny and new.

Since getting the Spin-Clean, I’ve polished at least a hundred albums that are now renewed sonically.

Truly – the Spin-Clean Record Washer MKII is a miracle for the ages.

© 2017 Chris Barry