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The Aging Punk.011

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Monday, 16 June 2008

Last month I argued that listening to an entire album is a superior experience to just listening to individual songs. Now I'm going to tackle the question of which is the better format on which to listen to an entire album—LP or CD? I realize that, for most of us, this is a moot question. Most of us couldn't listen to LPs any more, even if we wanted to. (My own turntable died long ago.) And many of us, nowadays, if we were to listen to a whole album, it would be as a download. But I'm going to forge ahead, and not just for my personal entertainment (and for the handful of readers who still find it a relevant question). I believe that this debate illustrates some still relevant aspects of the listening experience.

So, LPs or CDs?

Believe it or not, for me, sound quality is not even an issue. Remember, I'm a guy who enjoys listening to bootlegs recorded from somewhere in the balcony. I'm not going to horrify you with the full dimensions of the sonic degradation I've been willing to put up with in order to listen to music I like (I will give you a hint—homemade cassettes). The entire digital/analog debate is petty much lost on me. Sure, I do find that, for the most part, CDs offer a cleaner sound that LPs, but that's as much because LPs wear out as because of the original quality of the sound. I do find the lack of hissing, pops and scratches on CDs is a definite improvement. When CDs first came out, all sorts of people (including my brother, a computer whiz who worked in the early development of digital sound) tried to sell me on their sound quality, but I was totally indifferent.

Those who preferred LPs has their own argument about audio quality, favoring the "warmer" sound of analog recording. But, again, this was mostly lost on me.

(However, I must point out that MP3s are the first widely embraced technological advance in music delivery which actually offers inferior sound quality. I do find that very interesting, though I'm not sure of its significance. Maybe it means most people listening to music are actually like me—we just want to listen conveniently, we don't really care about the fine tunings of audio quality.)

The second selling point CDs presented was convenience. Specifically, the convenience of playing any track instantly whenever desired. No more trying to line up the needle with the groove, a true test of hand-eye coordination. Now you could just punch some buttons, and get exactly the track you want, exactly at the starting second.

If you read my column last month, you can guess my stand on this. Sure, I do find it convenient, very convenient, when I'm making mix tapes, or just want to hear a single track. But, by encouraging the listener to play just single songs, or, even worse, to skip over the weaker tracks, this was the first step in the breakdown of the concept of an album as a coherent whole.

And next came the shuffle button…

Sometimes it seems like the primary argument in favor of LPs was cover art. LPs were held to have superior (or at least bigger) cover art. This one means a little more to me. I do feel that cover art can be a significant part of the listening experience. It was for me.

Yes, I spent many (often stoned) hours staring at album covers. Especially at the more psychedelic ones. And not just for the obvious reason that the more psychedelic ones gave you more to stare at. The cover was a portal into the meaning of the album. And the less information it actually gave (ie: psychedelic artwork instead of band picture; gibberish poetry instead of actual liner notes), the more you had to study it to decipher its meaning. Bands such as Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Yes and Steely Dan were great at providing this kind of album cover, the kind you could stare at for hours. The kind which gave you all sorts of hints a meaning, without necessarily meaning anything at all.

Now, this raises an important issue about listening to rock music. Which is, why wasn't the music enough? Why did we need a cover to stare at, liner notes to read? On the one hand, we didn't "need" them. We could just as well enjoy albums with plain, boring, or even artistically dreadful covers. Even albums with plain white covers (like those bootlegs I loved so much). But the covers were there, so we might as well enjoy them. Right?

But that answer is plainly a cop-out. Covers were more than incidental art. They were, as I said, a significant part of the listening experience. Listening to rock music is often (always? usually?) about more than listening to music. It is about identity. It is about, frankly, understanding the world around us, and understanding ourselves. Rock musicians have always been a sort of older brother or sister to their (teenage) fans—someone who understands the world at large, and can explain it to you, but who also (unlike your parents, teachers, or most adults you encounter) understands you—what you're feeling and going through.

So rock albums come loaded with meaning, and in order to get the most of that meaning, you need to use every bit of information given to you. Which certainly included the cover artwork.

Of course, many album covers were works of art themselves. They were well worth studying for their own merits, independent of the music they contained. Some classic covers have become, essentially, part of our artistic heritage.

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper is widely credited with starting this trend, although bands certainly put out interesting and creative covers before that. Curiously, the Beatles seemed to give up on classic covers after that. Sure, there was the White Album, an obvious reaction to their own excesses with Sgt Pepper, but is anyone going to argue that Abbey Road and Let It Be are really classic covers? Their rivals, The Rolling Stones, produced much more interesting covers over the next few years, climaxing (no pun intended) with the crotch shot on Sticky Fingers.

The 70's were the golden age of record covers, at least as far a psychedelic and consciously "artistic" covers. There are far too many to even start to describe them, and I'm sure you all have your favorites. The point is, there were a lot of them. The question here is, how much was lost by the shift to CDs? Obviously, CD covers are much smaller, and a good number of covers loose something by being shrunk to fit (and it is a bit harder to get stoned lost in a 5"x5" piece of artwork as opposed to a 12"x12" one). But I can only think of a handful of covers which truly suffer from the smaller format, such as the triple gatefold on The Who's Tommy. Otherwise, the artwork is still there, just a little smaller. While not as large as an LP, a CD cover still provides plenty of opportunity for artistic expression.

In fact, the booklet form of the CD cover provides its own opportunities for artwork. Many CDs these days come with a series of pictures, rather than just one or two, which can make for just as enlightening (or confusing) an experience as the old, larger artwork.

Another thing which booklets encourage is extensive liner notes. Presented with a booklet, it seems many musicians can't resist the temptation to produce a book. This is especially true of reissues, where the artist (or his/her promoter) takes the opportunity to give the history of every song on the CD, including bonus tracks. This, in turn, fits with my desires and sensibilities as an adult, when I would rather have some real information about the album, rather than stoned speculation based on some surreal piece of art.

There is one thing the old album covers were definitely better for—cleaning pot. In fact, I don't know of any surface which works as well. It's almost as if they were designed for that purpose. Of course, today's pot, with its minimal seeds, does need the same amount of cleaning. And CD covers are better for drawing out lines of coke, almost as if they were designed for that…

So I'll concede a slight edge to LPs for their larger covers, but not a decisive one.

No, what I really miss about LPs is album sides. You know (or maybe you don't), Side 1 and Side 2 (and sometimes Sides 3 and 4, even 5 and 6). For much as I believe an album should be taken as a whole, sometimes an hour plus of music is just too much to commit to. By having two sides, an LP breaks it up into much more manageable twenty minute portions.

The fact is, most LPs were designed to be listened to one side at a time. As much care was given to the sequencing, flow, and thematic development of each side as to the album as a whole. Listening to just one side could be (almost) as complete an experience as listening to the whole thing.

Granted there are some albums which are better if you listen straight through. Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (and, in fact, every subsequent Pink Floyd album). Jethro Tull's Thick as A Brick (all one song anyway). The Who's Tommy and Quadrophenia.

But there are just as many albums with such a clear separation between the sides that they almost demand to be heard separately. The Beatles' Abbey Road (with its medley/suite of songs on side 2) and David Bowie's Low and Heroes (both of which featured primarily instrumental second sides) immediately come to mind. Pink Floyd's Meddle (the album before Dark Side of the Moon) actually fits too, with its side long song "Echoes" on side 2.

Most albums took a middle route—a single whole clearly divided into two parts, like a two act play. Or perhaps a better metaphor would be a football or basketball game, with a half time to break things up. For on most albums there was a feeling that you should at least pause between the sides. (The CD version of Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever makes this explicit; halfway through Petty comes on and says, "Hello CD listeners. We've come to the point on this album where those listening on cassette or record would have to get up and turn over the record or tape. In fairness to those listeners we will take a few seconds before side 2.")

Most albums started side 2 with a renewed burst of energy, a rocker or at least a powerful song. An explicit "time to get going again" tune. The Rolling Stones provide a perfect example, they were very consistent in the structure of their albums. Side one almost always ended with a mellow tune, a blues or a ballad, and side two kicked it back up with a rocker. (One exception was 1981's Tattoo You, which put all the rockers on side one, and all the mellow songs on side two.) But they were just the most blatant example; most bands followed a similar pattern.

Some artist did use the two sided format to disrupt the idea that the album had to be listened to in a specific order. Coincidentally, two albums released in 1980 did this: Elvis Costello's Get Happy!! and Iggy Pop's Soldier. Get Happy!! listed one side as side 1 on the record jacket, and the other as side 1 on the record label. Soldier had a This Side and That Side on the labels, and a random song listing on the jacket. Both were saying, start listening with whichever side you please. Each side was still carefully sequenced to create a flow. In this way, these albums further emphasized the concept that each side was a separate whole. Of course, when they were released on CD, they had to settle on a specific order. Get Happy!! picked the order listed on the label, whereas Soldier created an entirely new order, different from either side of the LP.

I'd like to examine two classic albums in depth, for they illustrate quite well how separate sides could work either for or against the flow of an album as a whole. They are both double albums, in which each of the four sides had a clear personality: Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland and The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street.

First, Electric Ladyland. The four sides could be labeled: 1. Jam, 2. Pop Music, 3. Space Rock and 4. Recap. Side 1 is dominated by a fifteen minute jam on "Voodoo Child." The three songs leading up to it (even the awesome sex rocker "Crosstown Traffic") are so overwhelmed by "Voodoo Child" they become mere intros to it. Side 2 is all relatively straightforward pop rockers (and is the weakest side of the album). Side 3 is broken into three songs, but it's really all one long piece. It tells a little story: Jimi, disappointed that it's raining outside, smokes a fattie and imagines he's a merman under the sea (I'm not kidding). Side 4 is a recap of all that, with "Still Raining, Still Dreaming," "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and THE transcendent cut of the album, his cover of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower." The thing about Electric Ladyland is that when you listen to it all as a piece on CD, the four sides remain distinct. In fact, some of the transitions from side to side are quite jarring.

Exile on Main Street also has four very distinct sides. Side 1 is partying rockers, side 2 is acoustic folk-country-blues, Side 3, if I'm being charitable, is loose jams (if I'm not being charitable, it is sludge). Put another way, Side 1 is Saturday night, Side 2 is Sunday morning, and Side 3 is, well, Monday. (When I owned Exile on vinyl, I rarely bothered to listen to Side 3.) Side 4, like on Electric Ladyland, is a recap, with a rocker, a blues, and then a couple of songs ("Shine a Light" and "Soul Survivor") which wrap up the themes of the album. That theme might be stated as "whatever it takes to get you through life, whether it's Saturday night or Sunday morning or both, that's what you gotta do."

Now the interesting thing about Exile on Main Street is, when you listen to it straight through on CD, it flows perfectly. It doesn't feel like four separate sides, it feels like one continuous work. Further, Side 3 suddenly makes sense, as the logical progression, both musically and thematically, between the blues of Side 2 and the revelation and release of Side 4. (This is also an argument for not skipping the "boring" songs on your CDs; the "sludge" songs of Side 3 turn out to be necessary for a full appreciation of the album.) All of which makes Exile on Main Street about as well constructed an album as you could ask for.

Now, I hear some of you saying that this a pointless lament. That, even with my CDs, I can still listen to the individual sides if I want to. And that is true. If, say, I want to listen to Side 2 of Television's Marquee Moon, I can put in the CD, and just program Side 2. Except I really like the song "Venus" off Side 1, and I'm not so hot on Side 2's "Guiding Light" and next thing you know I'm programming my own version of the album.

But much more to the point is the fact that no one divides their albums into Sides 1 and 2 any more. Name me one album recorded after 1990 which has a clearly defined Side 1 and 2. It just doesn't happen anymore. We're left with the choice of either an hour plus of music, or chop it up however we please.

At this point I should acknowledge that, if you are used to listening to songs in context, the program and shuffle options on a CD or MP3 player provide plenty of opportunity for hearing songs in different contexts. Contexts which may reveal surprising new implications and meanings in the songs. However, listening in context is a skill one learns. And the quickest way to learn it is to pay attention to the context the artist has provided. That is, by listening to entire albums in the order the artist selected.

Yet, despite all this, I was eventually sold on CDs. And not just because the music business gave me no choice. To explain why, we need another car story.

In 1987 I moved from Idaho to Southern California. Knowing I would need a car in SoCal, I bought one to make the move with. It was an old Ford Gran Torino, a big beast of a car. I managed to fit everything I owned into it. At least everything I was taking with me; I did have to cut down on what I owned. Which included trimming my record collection from about 300 LPs to about 100. Which still left me with a pretty big box of records to haul down to Cal., and then haul from apartment to apartment, as I moved frequently in my first few years here.

One of my roommates at that time was heavily into CDs, and gave me my first full introduction to them. And I noticed a few things about them. One was the aforementioned convenience. But another was simply how small and lightweight they were. I thought, if I'm going to keep moving around like this, those would be a lot easier to move around than all these LPs. At that point, I was sold.

As for that Gran Torino, it finally died on the way home from the Concert for Human Rights at the L.A. Coliseum in 1988. But that's a story for another column.

G. Murray Thomas writes and performs poetry because he can't sing. He can be found at myspace.com/gmurraythomas

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