The Return of Vinyl (and my obsession with Sonic Youth)


Compact disc versus vinyl; digital versus analogue

It’s a long and sometimes heated debate. As someone who grew up in the 1980s I knew the heartbreak of accidental bumps of the stylus making favourite tracks on records unlistenable. Theoretically the arrival of the indestructible CD should have been a godsend.

Crackle crackle pop skip

And let’s not forget the cassette tape, vulnerable to stretching and getting mangled in the playback heads of the cheapest machines. It was great for making mix tapes though, we were all the world’s best dj.

Can someone pass the lighter?

Vinyl of the 1980s and ’90s was inextricably linked with smoke-filled university rooms and share-house lounge rooms. On high rotation on my own turntable was Sonic Youth. Anything up to their 1988 album Daydream Nation to be exact. A quiet evening could be turned into a noisy rabble once the needle was dropped on the vinyl and party goods were unveiled.

Certain songs had to be saved until after a smoke, only then could their true intensity be revealed. Play it again, no wait, can someone pass the lighter first?

But of course the act of aligning the stylus to desired tracks while somewhat foggy-headed did not always have positive outcomes. Mistakes were made. Needles were dropped too harshly, skating across treasured records, uncoordinated bodies bumped into the turntable. What a mess!

The Great Disappointment

It might have been 1991. A friend of mine had hired the most unimaginably sophisticated CD-player and speakers. He was an urban sophisticate and was not to be left behind in the new digital world. To demonstrate the brilliance of this new technology he had specially bought Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. I felt a small loss at the format of the packaging, all that beautiful art-work reduced to something less than originally intended … but I did like the shiny silver light reflecting off the CD.

Before pressing play there had to be the ceremonial smoke. We sat gazing at the marvellous new machine. A new dawn had arrived. Once we were all sufficiently glassy-eyed it was time to  press PLAY … …

… … and the disappointment was palpable. Where was the bass, the swirls of guitar sound that should have been practically tangible? We experimented with the EQ but the machine couldn’t redeem itself. It was a total bummer.

Moving to the other side

It took a few more years before I bought my first CD-player. Records were becoming harder to find, though the range of CD’s wasn’t great at the time either.

It may have been my own perception but those guitars and drums I loved just never sounded alive on cd. There needed to be a replacement. Soon the synthetic tones of electronic artists started to fill my room with crisp and clearly articulated sound.

I’m aware of the arguments that state there is no difference between the audio quality of cd’s and vinyl. Those and contrary opinions of people working in sound studios fill an entire corner of the internet

My own experience tells me that I lost interest in an entire genre of rock music once I switched to digital.

Vinyl is back

20 years after I bought my first cd-player I returned to vinyl. I am now the proud owner of a very swanky turntable which I call Debbie.

Vinyl is back, though I should note that the smokey rooms are a thing of the past.

The ritual of it all … cleaning the vinyl, placing it on the turntable, moving the stylus to the correct position and dropping it with a slightly elevated heart beat. Those deeper sounds have returned, as well as the occasional pop and crackle which digital natives may celebrate as part of something nostalgic. It is a much more complete experience.

And there in my tiny collection of albums, in pride of place, is Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Hey, where’s the lighter?

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