This weekend I bought a record player, my first one. My pretext for doing so was to make my boys aware that the crisp, multi-layered sound booming out of my iPhone is not as Tay Tay intended it to be. Although true, the purchase was really about exorcising some persistent 1995 demons involving 16 year old me who was not cool enough to see Pearl Jam on their Australian tour, nor resourceful enough to own any decent hi-fi on which to listen to Pearl Jam on a beanbag in my room via Yamaha Orthodynamic Headphones on a super long cable while feeding my Tamagotchi, nor stylish enough to own Pearl Jam paraphernalia of any kind.
As those simply designed Vitalogy t-shirts, worn by self-assured youths at the bus interchange, the woolshed parties, in the food court, at the skate park, the bowling alley and under school uniforms, faded, so too did my faint hopes of musical and social credibility.
Well, today that has all changed and somewhere in the time/ space pretzel 16 year old me is smiling. Although, it is a cruel trick of life that one can have really nice hi-fi or hair, but not both at the same time.
There is a fabulous shop in Newtown that sells refurbished turntables, amps and speakers to chaps like me who will spend more than they want to, but less than they can. I had visited a few months previously so I understood the general investment quantum and some of the bare facts of 70s/80s hi-fi. Still, I let the store owner give me the full tour, and the spiel again. I engaged sufficiently and asked enough questions to make it appear I was weighing up the various technical aspects at each price point when really I knew right away I wanted the one with the walnut case because it looks really nice.
“So, this one’s stylus cartridge comes out…” he tells me.
“Ah ha I see, well that’s not good” I say nodding “is it?”
“Yes, that’s good. For cleaning.”
“Yup, sure. Okay, so that one has the removable cartridge for cleaning, that’s great.”
“Okay, this one’s tonearm does not return.”
“mhmm” I say nodding again, looking at him for clues “so that’s why it is a little more expensive?”
“No, it’s better if it returns.”
“Of course.” I say, wondering if it comes in walnut.
Onward, and so on and so forth. We listen to an untold number of amp/ turntable/ speaker combinations as I sit in that well-worn demo armchair, each one devastatingly loud and significantly better than my iPhone. I nod at that kind of head angle you use to express understanding and agreement when he plugs in the $2500 speakers just to “give me the benchmark”. It sounds identically excellent to all the other combinations we have experienced together and I give him a lame double thumbs up. In the end I spend a little over my self-imposed budget and buy a really pretty wood-cased speaker/ amp/ turntable combo. All Japanese made and all jaw-dropping for my 16 year old self and his Tamagotchi.
Excited and empowered I left him to prepare my speaker cable and grounding wire, whatever that is, and charged up King Street to purchase records. Of course, as I stepped into the first phone booth-sized record store I experienced Vitalogy exclusion all over again, 2022 style.
Immediately I became horribly aware that my jeans were from General Pants, and everybody else knew it. At least they are one of the brands that sound like they may have been designed in Europe, but deep down I know Birmingham is no longer part of Europe. Also, somehow, I was sure the other customers knew I had bought them online. How embarrassingly practical.
I move quickly over to a large wooden vat filled with records spine up and look sideways at what my hemp-clad fellow customers are doing. They are thumbing manically through the boxes like an accountant looking for receipts right before the tax deadline. Occasionally they stop, withdraw a record, hold it aloft for a moment or two then drop it back in before returning to their frantic thumbing. I start to do likewise but I have no idea what I am looking at. The boxes are loosely and confusingly labeled; ‘re-drops’, ‘classics’, ‘fresh’, ’80s’, ‘funk’, ‘soul’, ‘Australian’, ‘imports’, ‘house’, ‘deep-house’, ‘trance’, ’90s’. The ven-diagrams are spiraling in my head and taunting me. What if I want a fresh deep-house Australian record from the 90s? What then??
I become aware that I am still thumbing and have not removed anything for closer inspection. What is the appropriate time ratio of thumbing to holding aloft in order to be taken seriously? I pull one out and hold it up to the light. It just has a picture of a croissant on it and no words. I plunge it back in and wipe my hands on my thighs desperately.
Separate to the very helpful categories, I notice there are also records sorted by alphabet. The catastrophic ven-diagram implications of this parallel grouping aside, even as a stand alone system it is confusing. Some are single lettered, some in groups, but not sequential groups, like O,P and T. Why? Also, I have no idea if the O,P,T records are above the label or below it. I thumb back and forth but the album covers are giving me no clues. I am yet to see one record by any bands I have ever heard of.
“Where is John Williamson?” I ask myself. Hopefully not audibly. But probably audibly. Just in case, I leave.
The second store is worse. I am the only customer and it feels like the shop assistant and I are stuck in an elevator together.
“Why did he not give himself a stool?” I wonder. He is just standing there, leaning on a concrete bench writing on record sleeves the colour of butchers paper. What is he writing?
“Hi” I say, limply. He notices my General Pants jeans and knows I won’t stay long. He doesn’t look up from his work.
I go to the record vat as far away from him as I can but he could still easily push me with a broom if he had one handy. I am aghast to realise this shop does not even have album covers, just those butchers paper sleeves with a little peep hole to a tiny circle of the record which you could only recognise if you spent all your days studying ‘vinyl album cover flash cards’. On the butchers paper sleeves were esoteric descriptions of the albums with word combinations I have never seen in sentences together; like ‘luxuriant and thirsty’, ‘pre-pubescent and steadfastly’ and ‘hammerblow and effervescence’. I thumb horizontally away from him and out the door.
The third record store is larger but heaving with frantic thumbers; making their way swiftly through the music world alphabetically – a, b, c, d/f/q, e… etc. then genre-ly – reggae, R&B, punk, punk/reggae, R&B/punk. I stand and watch, waiting for my chance to enter the stream, like merging into traffic. I spot a gap and seize it. I am delighted to find myself at the box which was not labelled, but should have been labelled, expensive albums for dudes in their 40s who just bought a record player; Pearl Jam, Prince, Led Zeppelin, Men at Work, AC/DC, Beatles, Foo Fighters. Wonderful. I take a selection of this most wonderful genre, along with some Tay Tay for Milo and some Tones and I for Monty and I escape the vinyl district. Still without the Vitalogy album, still without much credibility, but now with some very nice hi-fi equipment and a smile on my face.
And so this evening we listened with joy at volumes far greater than is necessary for our 15m2 ‘analog room’. The boys marveled at the tiny grooves, the weight of the vinyl, the fragility of the needle, the speaker crackle that beckons in the rich music, the comforting, industrious spin of the turntable and the satisfying resistance of the dials on the amplifier. Milo read Tay Tay’s lyrics from the album insert to Monty and I felt strangely liberated to think nobody was counting how many times we had listened to All too well. Like it had never happened at all.