Collecting Music in an Analog Age

04/04/2014

In the early 1980s, I had a day job crunching numbers for a financial company in midtown Manhattan. But when the nine-to-five, suit and tie part of my day was finished, it was time for music to take over. I would listen to my favorite albums on my Sony Pressman (the ancestor of the soon-to-be released Walkman), on crappy headphones, wearing the long, gray tweed coat I’d bought used in Greenwich Village.

I was a fan of Joy Division, the seminal post-punk group from Manchester, England. Their two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, were part of the soundtrack for my life in those days.

After Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, the band morphed into New Order and recorded the last two songs Curtis had co-written. This first single contained two gray-tinged songs, Ceremony and In a Lonely Place, that were apt successors to Joy Division’s signature sound. This record, released on the small Factory label, was hard to find in New York City, where I lived at the time, but it was a must-have: this was the final statement of a group that would become legendary.

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It took some hunting, but I managed to find it in the Imports bin of a record store on Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village. I don’t remember how much I paid for it, but I do remember the satisfaction I felt in having tracked this single down. I played it until I almost wore out the grooves.

High Fidelity

If you’ve ever seen the movie, or read the novel, High Fidelity, you’ll have an idea what my life was like for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I used to hang out at a tiny record store in Queens on my way home from work. A handful of us would hang out there, listen to music, and discuss it together with Stu, who ran the store. There was Richard, Chauncey, Clara, Roberto, and a few other irregulars. Somehow, Stu had a pretty good selection of imports for a tiny store, so we’d spin records and opine about them. On Friday evenings, we’d go to a Chinese restaurant and talk about music, literature and poetry.

From our suburban homes (we were part of the bridge and tunnel crowd), we tried to emulate the kinds of art and music that Manhattanites were showing off in the East Village. We listened to music, wrote, published a little magazine and a few slim chapbooks. We played music, and did something vaguely resembling performance art.

Each member of the group had their own favorites. We’d play each other our recent finds, and we’d trade cassettes. (Yes, home taping was killing music back then…) Or we’d go to Stu’s apartment on the weekend, gaze with wonder at his collection of a couple thousand LPs, and listen to a selection of his rarities.

For the most part, we had similar musical tastes. I had been a Deadhead (a fan of the Grateful Dead) for many years, but, at that time, I was leaning more toward punk, and the post-punk music coming from the industrial wastelands of England: The Clash, Joy Division, The Cure, and many other lesser known bands.

I missed out on a lot of local music. None of my friends went to the popular New York clubs where local bands were getting famous, so I never set foot in CBGB or Max’s Kansas City. I never saw Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Television, The Ramones or Talking Heads in their prime (though I did see some of them a bit later). At the same time, we ignored popular music. For some reason, the European gray of the post-punk bands from England struck a chord in me.

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A Song Is Worth How Many Words?

Since much of the music we liked came from England, we would buy and share the British music press: New Musical Express, The Face and Melody Maker were sold in the same record stores that imported these vinyl surprises. While these publications kept us abreast of new releases, you can’t describe music with words. You can discuss a mood or a feeling, but you can’t write what a melody sounds like.

Most of these bands got no radio play back then, and were never on TV: certainly not Joy Division or The Cure (in its early years). Definitely not A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column or Section 25. And you’d never, ever hear Throbbing Gristle on the radio, except, perhaps, on a college station very late at night. So we’d read about new bands then go in search of their singles to hear what they sounded like.

We learned that many of the bands we liked were clustered on small, indie labels such as Factory, Rough Trade, Fiction, Mute, or Les Disques du Crepuscule. If we’d come across a band we didn’t know on a familiar label, it could be worth a listen. Some of these labels released samplers or compilations that showcased their artists, and led me to discover bands like Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, Soft Verdict, Tuxedomoon, and the wonderfully-named Crispy Ambulance.

No matter what we bought, there was an element of the unknown which made the hunt all the more interesting. The thrill of finding a new single by a band we’d read about would be augmented if the songs were really good. If not, we’d just move on; singles only cost a couple of bucks, even for imports.

Collector’s Lust

I like collecting music, though I’m not a collector. I don’t seek out recordings just for the sake of owning them; I want to listen to them. I don’t search for records the way philatelists would look for EFOs (stamps with errors, freaks, and oddities); my interest has always been the music.

It wasn’t hard to find the first few albums by The Durutti Column, one of my favorite bands back then (and still now). They were released on Factory Records, which had decent distribution in New York, but certain EPs, such as Deux Triangles (on Factory Benelux) or Greetings Three (on Materiala Sonori), required some detective work. I scoured the record stores for anything I could find by The Durutti Column, occasionally stumbling on something new that I’d never heard of. It was harder to know what to look for back then, because you couldn’t Google an artist’s discography on a website, so you had no idea what had been released.

Some records were hard to find. The Normal – aka Daniel Miller, record producer and founder of Mute Records – only released one single: T.V.O.D / Warm Leatherette. Strongly influenced by J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash – a shared favorite among the record store group – these two songs become emblematic and influential (Grace Jones later recorded Warm Leatherette), examples of the early days of electronic pop music.

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I remember hearing the first single by Theatre of Hate, called Brave New Soldiers. Finding the band’s first – and best – album, produced by Mick Jones of The Clash, was difficult. I eventually found a copy on cassette, and wore out that tape.

Another one that was tough to track down was I’m a Cult Hero / I Dig You, a single that bore the band name Cult Hero. This group was actually The Cure, and they recorded this as a test to see if they got along musically. Instead of having Robert Smith on vocals, they used their local postman Frank Bell, who is also on the cover in a Cult Hero t-shirt.

Analog and Digital: Two Different Lifestyles

In some ways, collecting music in the analog age was tiresome. You’d spend a lot of time tracking down records, and not always like what you bought. In the digital world, you can sample everything online, buy music in seconds, and download an entire album in minutes. The thrill is gone, but the ubiquity of instant access to most of what you want balances that out. There are still some CDs that don’t get released digitally, but even those are easy to buy. A few clicks on a web site, and you can order a CD from anywhere.

Collecting in a digital world is different. No more do you need to go to record stores and check out the used or import bins; you can just go to the iTunes Store, or Amazon, or google the name of the band you’re looking for. Do you want to get recommendations for bands you might like? You don’t need the music press for that any more; just try any of a hundred apps, or use iTunes’ or Amazon’s recommendations.

Or you can get music from your children. In an interesting example of the fluidity of music from my past to the present, my son comes up with occasional discoveries, such as Trent Reznor and friends covering Warm Leatherette, which he thinks are new and fresh. Until I get him to listen to the originals. But some of his favorites get me excited too, such as Psychic, the first album by Darkside, a band that could have existed thirty years ago, if only the technology had been more advanced.

Music is an important part of my life: I have a huge music library – both on CD and digital purchases – and I write about music and how to work with it on computers. I got rid of most of my vinyl collection a long time ago. But I still have about 100 LPs and singles, the ones that were the hardest to find, the ones that carry the strongest memories. I don’t have a turntable, but every once in a while I flip through them to take a brief trip back to the analog age. To a time when each new purchase was a conquest.

As I listen to New Order’s Ceremony and In a Lonely Place now, the music, like a madeleine, brings me back to a time when music represented freedom from the world I was trying to understand as a young adult. With a small group of friends, I scoured record stores across New York City looking for musical portals to a different world. Sometimes, we actually found them.

This article first appeared in issue 17 of The Loop Magazine.