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Monday, December 22, 2014

Nostalgia for the Good ‘Ol Days: FM and vinyl

Posted by William on June 22, 2010

A bit of nostalgia for the days when kids bought 45s, records could not be played in random, and the radio DJ occupied a prominent place in culture.
A friend told me the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. can be understood as the last gasp of medievalism striking out against modernism. I don’t know if I believe that. But it is odd to think of fundamentalists squaring off against all things Western, technological, and progressive, yet happy to use airplanes as missiles and biological formulations as weapons. It got me to thinking about the role of radio and vinyl records in shaping how music was understood and felt before CDs became currency, computers could be used to download music, and music videos sprang into being.

It’s easy to fall prey to the rosy tint of nostalgia, and it’s doubly easy to get all worked up about technology removing us from ourselves and our roots and all that kind of reactionary crap. But it does seem to me that the passing of vinyl and radio as primary music channels means something. As a literary form, the liner note is a thing of the past. The time when a 45 was the only thing most kids could afford, and hence was important as a release format, is gone. For more than a decade ‘random play’ has been an option. So the meaning of ‘album’ has changed, tending to move in the direction of coherent collection of songs (i.e. away from coherent set of songs that will be played in a strict order). This is all important enough, but I think something far larger has happened. Before the music video and the ensuing technology, music was largely heard over speakers and the FM band. To be sure, bands played gigs and people went to see them. But I have in mind the kids that listened to records and listened to the radio and developed a sense of music from that experience. And that is a different form of experience than that which prevails today.

For many years I’ve relied on FM radio to keep me company on drives. I knew where I was on I95 between New York and Charlottesville, Virginia based on which radio stations I was picking up. For a year or two I drove between Boston and New York on certain Sundays and there were few greater joys than a black cup of coffee and Vin Sclesa’s show Idiot’s Delight (broadcast on WNEW and WFMU at different stages). On the occasions that I left Charlottesville late at night I was invariably thrilled to begin picking up WHFS somewhere on I66 approaching the beltway, thrilled again when I could begin hearing the University of Delaware station further up I95, and finally ecstatic when WBGO came into my range near exit 8 on the Turnpike. On the longest solo drive I’ve ever made, I got an enormous cup of coffee at a 7-Eleven in Albuquerque and like a divine gift a radio DJ played a set that included The The, The Butthole Surfers, Siouxsee and the Banshees, and Public Image Limited. It was a DJ playing the 3-6 AM slot and I love him to this day. During a summer in LA I became a devotee of a girlish Mexican voice that would deliver the best music to Baja, California, mythically audible clear from Santa Barbara to halfway down Mexico.

I’ve never had a CD player in my car. I don’t really think I want one. If I had been listening to CD’s in my car I would not have heard Luna playing live on Idiot’s Delight in winter 1991-92; I would not have heard Marylou Lord’s debut album played in its entirety on WPRB, Princeton, in 1998; I would not have heard the Mountain Stage broadcast to the Shenandoah Valley every weekend; and I certainly would not have heard a reunion of all the recording Wainwrights outside Hartford in 1999. There is a wonderful sense of being a student when you listen to the radio for a while on a drive or play a record in its entirety. It is like having a good teacher, and being comfortable placing control in his or her hands. If I buy an old Stones record or a Smiths record or vintage David Bowie, I feel confident there’s a reason why each song is on there and why the sequence of songs is what it is. I feel like I’ll learn something if I pay attention, I’ll find something cool about the record that I’d miss if it were going on random play.

With these radio shows and records, there are people on the other side. Listening to a DJ for a year or a few years means you are developing a relationship with a person you don’t have any visual sense of, all you have is the voice. The records were pressed, you can see the imprint of machinery and hands and somebody wrote a little piece on the back. Then it spins and the needle comes down and again somebody is talking to you. The people might be shown on the cover of the album but even if they are they may not look like that ordinarily. It’s a static image and when you listen to the record the image is removed from it, you are mainly relegated to the voice and the sounds. And in this sense it is like reading: somebody is talking to you and it is still OK if you use your head a little and think a little, there’s room for it, everything isn’t spelled out in meticulous detail and all your senses aren’t rammed with stuff. That’s why I listen to the radio and that’s why I listen to vinyl records.

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