Itching for the Vinyl Scratch

How unearthing old records realigned my relationship to music

Twenty years had passed before I found my LP records again. In the early nineties I had embraced the compact disc with vigour; then migrated to the brand new MiniDisc as I led an increasingly itinerate film industry life; and then I followed along with everyone else—ripping all of it to MP3s. Music recordings went from carefully sheathed and plated vinyl, to a lo-fi digital all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. I consumed as much as I could get my grubby hands ons. My musical tastes became a corpulent mix of discontent.

I used to be able to recall years according to recording. I could attach a song, or a record to a year or even a month with Rain Man-like accuracy. There was a time I was used by my friends as a kind of human juke box—I could always name that tune.

However, in the digital age, music to me became a random selection of songs, shuffling endlessly, barely engaging me like a new LP used to. All I had was a dispassionate desire to consume more of these digital drops, searching for the odd moment of musical mesmerism. Skip. Play—skip. Skip. Play. Skip… the only engagement was the damned skip button. Recalling lyrics, or dates, or locations was impossible.

Ten years ago, I was back visiting my parent’s house, which they themselves had barely lived in for about 20 years prior. It had been rented, tentatively put on the market, removed from sale, and mostly left to sit between occasional visits, sweltering in the Queensland sun during summer, and keeping its floorboards just above water during the disastrous 2011 flood.

I had assumed over that time, that my collection of vinyl had either been given away, thrown out, or somehow disposed of. In the mid-nineties, I could have cared less. All that old music, on scratchy records that needed care and careful handling. Digital suited me just fine. I had friends with impressive vinyl collections. I didn’t need that. I had it all and more in ones and zeros.

It was one of those dank, high-humidity, high temperature Brisbane days. Peak summer. The kind where moving slowly and purposefully is the only way to stem the flow of swelling sweat from the top of your crown, all the way to your soles. The cicadas provide an unrelenting horror film soundtrack, making it hard to think. The washing hung on the clammy clothes-line was unlikely to dry at all, despite the heat from the sun. Air-conditioning was a luxury no-one could afford when I was growing up there. My parents still made do with ceiling fans.

While we were sitting on the verandah— the coolest refuge—Dad mentioned he thought my records might be under the house. I think, he said. Maybe.

Streaming accounted for 83% of the recording industry’s income in 2020. By and large, while different in subtle ways, most streaming services encourage the listener to shuffle, randomise, or otherwise churn through a variety of songs and artists. I have to say, this can have its appeal.

I mean, I love a mixtape—but a streaming playlist is different. A good mixtape follows a certain order, a sequence of songs that relate to each other in some way. It has an intention to corral the listener, just like a record has. It should be played to from beginning to end. No skips. A mixtape is usually a personal collection, a one off, an aural paramour. A playlist, on the other hand, can be skipped, mixed up, and shuffled however you want. There is no power in the curation.

The likelihood of my records being under the house was very low, I thought. The slight chance that they could be, however, piqued my curiosity. I wanted to find out. I had written them off years ago. Even if they were there, they would have been warmed up, cooled down, drowned in a flood, and most likely ravaged by tropical bugs that have an odd knack of chewing through anything of value.

You should have a look.

So I crawled under the house, into a trench Dad had dug when I was about 9 or so, to reroute stormwater. It was truly a trench: about 5 feet deep and about 2 feet wide and about 30 feet long. Huntsman spiders and other furry, hungry bugs watched me lower myself in. It didn’t take much searching. Only slightly in front of me were two plaid, plastic-weave bags from a dollar store. Their fragile little white zippers were still locked shut. The outside of the bags were caked in dirt and cockroach shit. A tide line sat about halfway up one of the bags. Any hope for the contents was grim, but I guessed this was what Dad was talking about.

The weight of the bags definitely felt like a large selection of records. I pulled them out past the spiders and bugs, out into the baking sunlight. I brushed the dirt off the sides, and put them up on the verandah. The cicadas kept buzzing. The zippers disintegrated as I tried to tug them open, and the bags just sort of opened up like time capsule in a science-fiction show, the sides just falling away.

Drops of sweat beaded at the tip of my nose.

I was half expecting an explosion of cockroaches to come flooding out of the bags. I vaguely remember something like that happening to Indiana Jones. Instead, there wasn’t a single bug inside. Not a trace of dirt or cobweb. No sign of water-spoilage. All that I saw were some neat bundles of pristine record covers. The nostalgia I felt at the moment was undeniable.

All I could think of was the impossibility of this actually happening. That there must be something diabolically wrong with the records. I gently grabbed the first one, Skylarking by XTC. Definitely will be warped, I reasoned. The deep-green special edition vinyl slid out easily. I spun it between my hands and held it level, edge to my face, looking for the warps.

Flat. Perfectly unwarped.

I pulled one after another. All of them were the same. Beautifully preserved. I did a quick count. It was about 100 LPs. As I handled them, opened the folds and read the liner notes, something in me reconnected—some sort of musical desire. I wanted to listen to each one of them. From beginning to end.

I eventually found a record player once home in Sydney. It was a reconditioned Dual, the same model that my parents had bought themselves when we had moved briefly to Germany. The records crackled and popped occasionally, but it didn’t feel irritating like it used to. Familiar songs came through the speakers, but there was something distinctly different: a level of clarity and fidelity that is definitely absent from the digital clones.

I know the science. I know why analog and digital sound different, but even so, the contrast struck me. These neglected records from the dollar store time-capsule bag just simply sounded so much better. Best of all, it was the order of the songs that made sense, that carried the music. The power of each song on a record is created by the sum of the whole.

I moved countries and upgraded my record player. Now I spend many times more on vinyl now than I do on streaming. I am quite happy to, as well. I like the ritual—choosing the best disc for the moment; cleaning the record surface; listening to the whole side as it was intended; then flipping it over and doing that all again. Most of all, I enjoy the sound. I will still use streaming services, as they are second to none for musical exploration and discovery, but if I really love an album, I will go and buy it. And I’ll buy it on vinyl. It is now more than just nostalgic joy, it is a philosophy.

On any record, someone else had worried about it enough to put the songs in this particular order, and I don’t have to think about it. There is no need to skip. It is what it is. Funnily enough, in those early rediscovery days, I found myself relieved.

The humble vinyl record had de-stressed my listening. It was more than just the well-preserved contents of a dollar store bag. Those discs made me realise that the slow creep of technology had led me down this path. The allure of everything on tap at every moment was and still is so very seductive. It was easy to accept decreasing audio resolution over time.

It isn’t always clear we are accepting a lesser product in exchange for volume and convenience, especially when it happens gradually. As I get older I appreciate some technologies have been subsumed by other tangential ones, quite often incomplete replacements. Technology doesn’t always make every aspect of our lives better. The improvements are lumpy and uneven. These days, I feel I need to be as aware of the past as much as I am of the future. I wonder constantly, what else have we lost?

At least I found my vinyl and it will age as gracefully as me, bridging my future and my past; especially now we are both swimming upstream.

I ride a bike more than I drive. Visual Effects Supervisor by day. Ponderer, dilly-dallier, idea generator. Lived in Germany, Australia, Japan & United States

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