The Groove Is Everything

Call me a child of the computer age, but digital music makes sense to me. This is apart from any arguments about sound quality, impermanence, Digital Rights Management, or any of the other rabbit holes that a discussion of digital music can lead to. I’m just saying that the notion of sound being converted into 1’s and 0’s — and then being converted back into sound again — doesn’t seem so farfetched. It might be UFO technology for all I know, but it makes a certain kind of sense.

Dragging a needle through the grooves of a slab of vinyl and Led Zeppelin IV coming out? Now that’s voodoo. That’s witchcraft befitting the Devil’s music.

Thankfully, Richard Osborne’s Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record, goes a long way towards getting me out of that quixotically Dark Age kind of thinking. Right off the bat, the book’s opening chapter, “The Groove”, covers the birth of the phonograph, how those all-important grooves work, and how they evolved at the hands of different inventors and companies over the years. Like many tales involving technology, it’s not always a question of which format was best, but of which one had the best marketing push, or which one connected best with the public. And of course, the story of vinyl is also that of a format that once ruled the world, was rendered obsolete, and then staged an improbable comeback.

Osborne, program leader for the popular music degrees as Middlesex University, covers all of this and more. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a stone he left unturned. He discusses pretty much every aspect of the vinyl record and its history, breaking the book up into chapters like “The Disc”, “The Label”, “The Sleeve”, and even devoting space specifically to the 45, the LP, and to the 12″ single. Want to know why labels on 33’s and 45’s are exactly the size they are? It’s in Vinyl. Curious about record sleeves and when they started to be personalized to the records they held? Osborne has the answer.

If that all sounds terribly dry to you, then you’ve probably never pulled an ’80s-era LP from its sleeve and winced at how slight and wobbly it feels. That’s cheap vinyl. You can’t argue that vinyl’s resurgence is not timely, though. Even though vinyl sales make up a tiny slice of the music sales pie, it’s a growing slice and one that can’t be ignored. Record Store Day draws in hordes of customers with its promise of collectible vinyl, and once more, shelves and floors are starting to groan under the weight of album collections. Meanwhile, those CDs that burglers were always able to turn over for quick money at pawn shops and used record stores? It’s getting to where you can’t give some of them away anymore. Quite the reversal of fortunes, isn’t it?

Osborne argues that it was the emergence of the CD that led to vinyl records being appreciated as art objects or warm, analogue treasures from a bygone age. Until then, it was a rite of passage for the regular vinyl listener to complain about scratches and pops and hissing. Both internal forces (the varying quality of vinyl pressings) and external concerns (such as the rising price of petroleum during the gas crisis of the ’70s) led to what seemed like a perfect solution in the CD.

The supposed indestructability of the CD was one of its main selling points: let it slide around in the seat of your car, leave it laying in a puddle of beer, shuffle a bunch of them like cards, it’s all good. Now, of course, any CD owner knows that’s all nonsense, although a CD will bear scrathces and scuffs without affecting sound to a greater degree than vinyl records. Still, it was only through the loss of something that appreciation for it grew. We squinted at the tiny CD booklets — if the booklets contained any liner notes at all — and it’s been argued that the CD’s ability to let the listener skip from track to track with the push of a button fundamentally changed the listening experience.

The battering vinyl took at the hands of CDs is well-documented and well-remembered by anyone who was buying music at the time. People began trading in their vinyl collections at such a pace that record stores turned batches away even when the seller offered them for free, just to get them out of the house. Eventually, though, voices began to drift in from the wilderness, complaining about the sacrifices we were making for convenience. Robert Plant, for example, purposely started off one of his solo CDs with the sound of crackling vinyl. Neil Young was a loud voice at the front of this fringe movement, as he delayed one archival project after another in the search for a digital format that would approach the warmth of vinyl.

The record companies didn’t help themselves much in this regard. Knowing a cash cow when they saw it, they grabbed whatever copies of classic albums they could find, slapped them on CD, and doubled the price even if the results sounded like garbage. As the years went on, we were also subjected to the loudness wars, in which dynamics and range were tossed out the window because people seemed to believe that if something was louder, it sounded better. No wonder fatigued ears began longing for vinyl. Now, we’re offered remastered versions of classic albums that get us closer than ever before to the sound of the vinyl records that we were chucking to the curb not so long ago.

Granted, vinyl’s resurgence was initially a bit of a hipster phenomenon, and even now, it’s still considered a niche market when compared to monoliths like iTune downloads. Some vinyl pressing plants keep their own machinists on staff because the companies that made their equipment are long gone. Your friendly neighborhood record store clerk probably fields the question “They still make records?” enough times in one day to make them see red as red as a first pressing of the J. Geils Band’s Bloodshot.

Because of that niche market, however, vinyl can command a higher price these days. Some labels — primarily the ones that were still making vinyl records before it was cool — are still fighting the good fight to keep prices manageable. Others see vast, untapped boomer wallets. It’s in discussions like these that Osborne’s dry wit comes out: “Vinyl was no longer ‘plastic ware’,’ he writes. “It was now sold by the gramme as though it were fine food, and marketed as a ‘luxury’ issues as though it were collectible art… The twenty-first century has witnessed the advances of the free download and the exorbitant vinyl release”.

It’s worth noting that, for all the pleasure Vinyl will bring to record geeks, it’s a scholarly work (with a price to match). Osborne has set out to write a comprehensive book, and that involves digging into things like patents and obscure decisions made at even more obscure record labels. With lines such as “like the writing on the graves in Thomas Hardy’s ‘During Wind and Rain’, down which ‘the raindrop ploughs’, Edison’s inscriptions were eroded in time”, Osborne isn’t going to dumb anything down just because his readers might have fallen asleep in English class. This is a dense and erudite book. There’s no denying the value, though, of having all of this information in one spot.

Throughout Vinyl, Osborne dredges up bits of record history that I had never heard before, such as the Battle of the Speeds, between 45 rpm and 33 rpm in the US, which impacted the arrival of British LPs. He goes into great detail about formats and materials and manufacturing processes. If you’re at all interested in vinyl records, you’ll find this fascinating. When you consider all of the decisions — and their consequences — that go into the production of a vinyl record, it becomes even more obvious that making a vinyl record is an art. Cut a record with a longer playing time and you’re forced to press narrower grooves. Put a fast song on the wrong part of the record, and you court distortion. Decades worth of trial and error, experimentation, and science have brought us to the vinyl record we have today.

Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record makes sure that much of the pleasure and the technology of vinyl is not forgotten, and what we have now, is better appreciated.

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