Dump Your MP3 Music Files Now

Tres Hombres
ZZ Top
XPS 631
1973
London

Digital files are the worst way to collect music. They’re an abomination. They’re anti-music.

These files don’t exist. They’re air. A bunch of 0s and 1s. They’re Justin Bieber.

If you listen to the great ZZ Top song “Master of Sparks” off Tres Hombres on vinyl, your first reaction may be what the fuck is going on there? Sounds like it was recorded in mud…but that’s the point. That’s how the little ‘ol band from Texas intended it. Muddy, nasty, sleazy. In fact, the whole album, produced by Bill Ham, sounds this way. And that’s why it’s so great. Its recording is an interpretation of the sound that ZZ Top was trying to capture at that time. It ain’t clean – it’s a garbled, glorious bloozy boozy mess.

Hear it as a digital file and it sounds tinny, unnatural and loud. The idea with digital – and this hearkens back to the CD days – was to ‘clean’ up vinyl. To eliminate any pops, ticks, scratches, pits – anything that may make extraneous noise on a record’s surface. Not a bad idea – especially if you have records that are so dinged up you can’t listen to them. But the idea with digital was also to either equalize everything out of the music or over-equalize it, boosting all levels and dumping dynamic range. Dynamic range in music is the difference between the quietest and loudest volume of an instrument, part or piece of music. Often, when things are reproduced digitally, this range becomes limited through compression, which allows for louder volume, but can make the recording sound lifeless.

This isn’t always the case with CDs – I have some that sound incredible but most sound wrong. Like those Beatles CDs that were released in the late ’80s. They’re way off compared to hearing them on vinyl. In fact, when I first purchased those discs back then, they almost destroyed my love for the Beatles they sounded so bad. Nothing emerged from those reproductions except disappointment.

Take MP3 files. They’re completely stripped of dynamic range. They’re dull coming out of little ear buds that further destroy sound quality. Sure, they’re easy to download and they’re portable but to what point? Take your music everywhere? Ultimately they underwhelm the music listening experience.

Here’s Neil Young’s take on digital music downloads: “It’s about sound quality. I don’t need my music to be devalued by the worst quality in the history of broadcasting or any other form of distribution. It’s bad for music.”

There’s another aspect to collecting albums as opposed to air-based files. Records are a physical representation, with actual tracks cut into grooves that vibrate (like sound waves) when a needle glides inside of them.

Albums are an actual product. Not only do you have the vinyl disc itself, but you have the jacket, the sleeve, lyric sheets – all those great real things that you can curate, see and hold.

© 2017 Chris Barry

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Your Album Collection is Probably Worthless

alternativeIf They Treat You Like Shit – Act Like Manure
Alternative
Corpus Christi – Christ It’s 13
1984

Stop worrying about what you think your album collection is worth because its probably worth shit.

That is if you define worth only by dollars and cents.

Of course your collection has lots of sentimental value and who can put a price tag on that?

That said, if you’re convinced the motherlode is sitting there on your Ikea shelves, there are lots of different and confusing ways to look at albums for clues of possible monetary value. Serial numbers, run-off track imprints, labels, jacket markings, editions, mint, near-mint, good, average, poor. Hint: don’t believe anything regarding a record’s dollar worth on Ebay and whatever you do, don’t pay more than $2 for Boston’s first album no matter what anyone says.

Some people think Beatles albums are worth a lot of cash by default. Yes, first editions probably are. Maybe. But, for the most part, you can easily find Beatles records. I know mine aren’t worth a lot of dough because they’re all reissues from the late ’70s/early ’80s. They’re also on the Parlophone label, except for my Abbey Road (Capitol) and my Let It Be (Apple – but not Granny Smith). They’re also all stereo not mono. Makes a difference in the Beatles collector world. But they’re all clean, and the jackets are almost perfect. Mint? No…because I play them and I play them because I love them. They just don’t meet collector criteria.

I also have a couple of Cure records – Faith and Pornography – both first edition releases on the Fiction label. Look them up on Discogs and Faith has a high price of around $32 and Pornography hovers around $55. I bought Faith for $30 and Pornography for $25, so I guess I made money. But I’m not selling them.

According to Discogs, my David Bowie Scary Monsters LP is priced around $77 and I’ve heard that’s because it hasn’t been reissued on vinyl yet. My Cramps Songs the Lord Taught Us is around $75. Kinda crazy.

But the record I own that appears to be worth the most money is this hardcore punk obscurity by a band called Alternative. The album’s name is If They Treat You Like Shit – Act Like Manure. The label is Corpus Christi – Christ It’s 13. Country of origin is the U.K. and it was released in 1984, which is when I bought it. The reason I bought it – I liked the title. Ironically, its hard for me to listen to this record. I don’t like this particular music genre and, lyrically, its really depressing. But the band appears to have a very strong animal rights agenda, which I agree with. The lyrics are graphic in their descriptions of animal torture – obviously to drive their point home. Not easy to hear when you’re shoving a hamburger in your face. They also rail against nuclear proliferation and seem to be anti-pornography. Their musical attack is so aggressive its tough to interpret their songs unless you read the lyric sheet that sleeves the vinyl. According to Discogs’ stats on this album, 164 Discogs members have this record. And 246 want it. Talk about your supply and demand. The last time it was sold was November 8, 2016. Its highest price listed is a whopping $116. Therefore its my most valuable record.

Would I sell my Alternative? Well, I never listen to it. So I’m not attached to it. And that kind of goes against why I collect. I collect records to listen to them not just put them on my shelf hoping they become worth a pile of cash.

Vinyl’s for listening.

So make me an offer…

© 2017 Chris Barry

Synths, Cowbells and ’70s Rock

head_eastFlat as a Pancake
Head East
SP 4537
1974
A&M Records

“No synthesizers used. No computers used.” – Tom Scholz, Boston

I’m not dogging Boston – I love their second LP Don’t Look Back almost as much as their first. But Scholz’s no synth rule was an anomaly considering all the electronic tricks he pulled when producing and engineering his band’s albums.

Don’t get me wrong, Boston’s records sound crazy good on vinyl – but something’s missing. The human factor maybe?

Now take Head East’s Flat as a Pancake. This, too, is a sonic stunner on vinyl. Rich, loud, bass heavy…synths, cowbells and all. Its a party. A beer keg swillin’, bong hittin’ mid-’70s backyard summer blow-out that was on heavy platter rotation back then despite less than zero radio play.

Never Been Any Reason off Flat as a Pancake was a big ass song during the summer of ’79 – five years after the LP was released – but not on radio. It was big with the kids I drank beer and smoked weed with. It was on turntables at every party. Played on portable tape decks in the factories where we worked. Played in cars on mindless road trips. All the time. For us, the tune was bigger – and better – than The Logical Song, a huge radio hit from Supertramp’s Breakfast in America LP.

And, yet…the instrument everyone remembers on Never Been Any Reason is that swirly synth.

Screw the no synths rule. Never Been Any Reason was (and still is) a great backdrop to any party. But back in ’79 it sounded different, slightly rebellious and had lyrics that teens could lock onto even though they’re kind of meaningless. Except its a sort of relatable fuck you to some anonymous person who may have broken the singer’s (your) heart. It’s in both the first and third person but the lyrics are really easy to remember so its all but impossible not to sing along with it. And almost every instrument (even the synth) was ripe for boozy ‘air’ playing. Ultimately, Never Been Any Reason sounds improvised and alive. Spontaneous. In fact, all the songs on Flat as a Pancake sound this way through the whole record. Its the perfect analog trip and was made for vinyl listening.

Now compare Never Been Any Reason to Boston’s Party off of Don’t Look Back. The Boston song is exacting, very precise – almost anti-party with all the spontaneity stripped right out of it. Its a simulacrum of what Scholz and company think a party should be without ever having been to one. Complete with requisite “oh yeahs” and “come ons” the song is meta – a song about a party to be played at parties. But fake.

While Don’t Look Back is recorded really well, compared to Flat as a Pancake it sounds, well, flat.

But Scholz does keep his promise: “No synthesizers used. No computers used.”

© 2017 Chris Barry

In Praise of the Double

dbt_smDirty South
Drive-By Truckers
NW 5007
2004
New West Records

I have a CD on the Blue Note label called What It Was. Its a jazz guitar lover’s nirvana, performed by Steve Masakowski. Its one of the best sounding recordings I own – CD or vinyl. But I can only imagine how rich it must sound as an LP.

Imagine, because as far as I know, it hasn’t been released on vinyl and the reason may be due to its length.

What it Was clocks in at 58:47, which would require it to be a double album.

I recently picked up 2004’s Dirty South by southern rock hellions Drive-By Truckers and I was excited that it was a double LP. Yes, you can compress all 70:34 of this drawling epic onto one compact disc but you can’t squeeze all of it onto one vinyl record. You wouldn’t want to. All 14 songs need to be spread out over two records. Doing so allows the grooves to breath, allows the analog sound waves to vibrate naturally letting the stylus flow smooth and easy over the sonic landscape. The sound quality of Dirty South resonates deep, warm and heavy. Its pretty close to one of the best sounding vinyl sets I have.

When I started acquiring records back in the ’70s, the double album was an event. For only a buck or so more expensive than a single LP, you were getting – basically – two for one. One of the first doubles I purchased was Frampton Comes Alive by Peter Frampton. Knocked out loaded with great songs, this live set truly brought you into Frampton’s concert world.

But the double that changed everything for me came in 1980.

Bruce Springsteen’s The River was an excursion into some of the best rock of that era. Solid rockers, heartbreaking ballads – all under the ‘live performance’ production of Springsteen, Jon Landau, and Steven Van Zandt. Not a throwaway song among the 20 tunes on the set. The packaging wasn’t a gatefold, the records came in a single jacket, two sleeves and a fold-out lyric sheet. The sleeves, the lyric sheet, were bursting with photos of Springsteen and the E Street Band at work and at rest. I played it (either a side or in full) almost every day from its release date of October 17, 1980, well into 1981.

Back then you’d hear complaints that double records were almost too much musically and a pain in the ass because you had to get up three times (flip record one; change to record two; flip record two) to listen to the whole set.

But the thing is – and this why vinyl is special – its because you do have to get up and flip the record to hear the whole thing. And, by the nature of the LP, you’re basically forced to listen to all the songs on a side (instead of skipping through them), allowing total immersion into the artists ‘vision.’ And flipping a record allows a respite, a short less-than-minute-long intermission that allows you to collect your thoughts pondering what you’re listening to before slipping into the second (or third or fourth) side of an artist’s song cycle.

One of the marketing points of CDs (and one of the reasons the format almost killed vinyl) was the so-called convenience factor. You could listen straight through without having to get your ass up off the couch to flip the LP over. What a concept.

But, what happened was this…sitting prone for upwards of 70 minutes is physically draining. Uncomfortable. Flipping an album lets you move – stretch a bit between sides. And, neurologically, the digital format doesn’t engage the brain in the same way analog does. Digital is based on linear ‘motion’ – 0s and 1s – seamlessly connected, no real vibration of soundwaves. Its a simulacrum of sound. Digital causes disengagement and induces boredom and, ultimately, sleep.

While I love What it Was – its because I’ve digested it in small pieces instead of trying to get through it all in one sitting. I can’t do it. Even though it sounds great, by the third or fourth song, I’m asleep.

Its a sonic phenomenon that I’ve actually argued about in barber shops.

According to Oregonian writer David Greenwald, “digital music engineering is often marred by a volume arms race, which leads to fatiguing, hyper-compressed songs that squish out the dynamics and textures that give [vinyl] recordings their depth and vitality. Vinyl’s volume is dependent on the length of its sides and depth of its grooves, which means an album mastered specifically for the format may have more room to breathe than its strained digital counterpart.”

Ultimately, when you can get four sides of music that’s more in sync with how the human ear hears, a double LP set is – simply – more bang for the buck. I love ’em.

Doubles of note:

Eat a Peach – The Allman Brothers
Prince – 1999
The Wall – Pink Floyd
Physical Graffiti – Led Zeppelin
The Beatles – The Beatles (White album)
Bitches Brew – Miles Davis
Steely Dan – Greatest Hits
The Who – Tommy / Quadrophenia
Tusk – Fleetwood Mac

© 2017 Chris Barry

Online or Live?

flipping_thru_recordsThe Boston record was shipped in a Domino’s pizza box. And inside the box there were pizza sauce streaks and grease stains. But the album looked okay, its jacket still had the original outer wrap with that 1976 promotional sticker slapped on it. But the vinyl inside was coated in dust, fingerprints and was severely scuffed.

The experience of buying this record online was joyless. It meant nothing. Empty.

It wasn’t hard to figure out that the missing piece in this transaction was the physical experience of going to a record store to make an album purchase.

This actual ‘going’ is a process that takes time and energy. To some, this process may seem aimless. But its not. Its a highly focused activity. When you’re in a record store there is nothing else, there are no distractions pinging you from the outside world. Just you and the records. Good stores play actual albums while you’re digging through the crates. This background music heightens the experience and provides inspiration.

When record stores existed as the only places to buy your music, albums were typically sorted by artist so you’d see a bin labeled “Beatles,” and in that bin was Beatles or you’d see a bin labeled “Clash,” and in that bin were Clash records.

But now, in most used stores, albums are simply shelved alphabetically so you experience a wild assortment under each letter of the alphabet.

And that’s the exciting part of the dig. Starting at the bin marked “A” and flipping through albums in the “A” bin, then flipping through the “B” bin, then “C”, etc., all the way to “Z.”

Flipping through each letter, you don’t know what’s going to come next and, often, you’ll run across something unexpected that may not have been on your mind at all. There’s no greater buzz than having a record you’d long forgotten about jump out at you as you flip through the alphabet. When this happens, you actually have a visceral reaction – heartbeat increases, you may smile or whisper some words of wonder under your breath. And you covet it, hold on to it while you continue mining the bins because that’s what you’re doing – you’re mining for gold…without a search engine.

So the online argument is this (and it is legitimate): “Well if I want the first edition Talking Heads Fear of Music, I can just go on Ebay, do a quick database search and find it.”

Well, yeah, you can. But what fun is that?

Sure, online sellers will post photos of the vinyl but online photos are deceptive. And, yeah, sellers will tell you its “mint” or “near mint,” but who are they to make this judgement? And why would you believe them? You can’t pull the record out of its sleeve and inspect it. Your own physical connection with the record – its jacket, sleeve and vinyl – is the best determinant of what you define as quality. Someone telling me on Ebay (or Discogs) that a record is ‘mint’ doesn’t replace the real interaction.

If you’re so remote and buying online is your only option, I get it. But if your town has a local store or even a Half Price Books or 2nd & Charles, you have to get out there.

Because that’s where the gold is.

© 2017 Chris Barry

 

Thinking About Starting a Record Collection? Think Again…

tpHard Promises
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
BSR-5160 (MCA 2446)
1981
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
U2
90581-1
1987
Island

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