It’s about three decades too late to be fishing for cred by quoting Marshall McLuhen, right?
Nevertheless, his “medium is the message” concept continues to ring true across all phases of society. And in the case of popular music, the mediums kinda suck when you think about it.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Whether you get squirrelly over vinyl, CDs, 8-tracks or cassette tapes (we’ve been hearing about this supposedly-pending cassette renaissance for forever), the reality is physical manifestations of music have always been mere vehicles. Accordingly, the message is the message and the medium is just something you store on your BENNO.
Now, this is the stage in the essay where vinyl purists tell me how music sounds “warmer” when played on a turntable. That’s fine. Have your moment….
Ok. So speaking personally (and from the heart), the music lover in me has no issue whatsoever acknowledging the fact I haven’t purchased music in hard copy form for at least 3-4 years as of this writing. And really, I have no imminent plans to do so any time soon… or ever again.
Sure, I do miss trolling the stinky walkways of Sonic Boom or shoehorning visits to Amoeba Music during every California pit stop. However, progress is progress and I now revel in making iPod playlists and wondering where the (heck) all the MP3s are on my hard drive.
So I’m positioning this as a eulogy of sorts to every record, cassette and CD I ever owned. To effectively put bookends on an era lasting (ballpark) from 1984 to 2009, here are my best recollections as to my first and last albums in each medium and some self-inflicted nostalgia with regards to the ownership of each.
First vinyl record: Van Halen – “Jump” 7″
Purchase year and retailer: 1984, A&A Records at The Shops on Steeles and 404 (ne: Markham Place)
My family did enjoy deep cuts from Sandra Beech and Sharon, Lois & Bram back in the day (note: the former’s performance at German Mills Co-op Nursery School Play Day 1983 was worthy of an At Budokan-type box set) but I will always “Jump” as the first piece of recorded adult music I ever owned. Which is ironic since the lyrics to “Jump” are pretty juvenile (especially the “Go ahead jump/Might as well jump” part). More background: my sister was heavily into Cyndi Lauper at the time and requested a 7″ of the noted women empowerment anthem “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”. As a means of keeping the peace for my folks, I was able to choose a record as well and opted for “Jump” for some reason. A curious choice because while I thought the tune was completely OK and was fairly impressed with David Lee Roth’s dexterity in its video, I don’t really remember being completely in love with the song. In hindsight, I perhaps should have opted for the Cars’ “You Might Think” although in fairness, that probably would’ve been largely based on the fact that Ric Ocasek turned into a lipstick during the video.
Last vinyl owned: Talking Heads – More Songs about Buildings and Food
Purchase year and retailer: 1999, Cheapies in downtown Hamilton
The vinyl resurgence hadn’t quite kicked into full force in the late 1990s and thusly, you could still get a ton of nicked-up old records for next to nothing during this time. I really wanted to own the song “Artists Only” so I picked up this album for less than $1, even though I didn’t own a record player. Years later, I splurged on the CD and gave this vinyl version to my friend Mike although I seem to remember this record and Teenage Head’s self-titled debut sitting in my office for at least a year. Beside some office supplies.
First cassette: Rick Astley – Whenever You Need Somebody
Purchase year and retailer: 1988, Columbia Record and Tape Club
I’m going to write a full essay or two about record and tape clubs someday. They were kind of ubiquitous at the time and no doubt were responsible for a bulk of the Spin Doctors’ records sold, in general terms. The 12-for-a-penny deal was tantalizing although obviously a bit of a scam that preyed upon the lazy and dim-witted, since you were on the hook to buy 8-12 more albums (at wildly inflated prices) over the next year. Letting your kids enter a record club was somewhat comparable to letting your kids own a pet: they would promise to do the legwork but ultimately, you’d end up with a whole lot of dog crap. Case in the point: the unexpected comedy of my Dad unsuspectingly receiving a cassette of Robert Palmer’s Heavy Nova on cassette plus a bill for $18.43. Oops! Me and my sister shared a club membership in 1988. Because she was a year and a half older, she got to choose all the cool records: Def Leppard’s Hysteria, INXS’ Kick, U2’s The Joshua Tree, Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, etc. From what I recall, I chose such gems as Steve Winwood’s Back in the High Life (was this album about drugs BTW?!?), Steve Winwood’s Roll With It (could you imagine a 10-year old listening to this in 2013?!?… different times) plus Rick Astley’s blue-eyed soul masterstroke Whenever You Need Somebody. Not sure why I didn’t get Chicago 19 as one of my choices, as I quite enjoyed the power ballad “Look Away”. I still do, actually.
Last cassette owned: The Jesus and Mary Chain – Psychocandy
Purchase year and retailer: 1998, Cheapies in downtown Hamilton
As mentioned, Cheapies had a ton of cheap vinyl and it also had a bin (some would call it a garbage can) full of orphaned cassette tapes that were missing their liner notes, cases or both. These retailed from anywhere between $0.10 and $0.50 although I bet if you asked REALLY nicely, you probably could’ve had them for free. I managed to fish the incredible debut from the Jesus and Mary Chain out of this rubbish pile and to this day, it remains in my Top 10 albums of all-time True story: I once listened to this cassette on a speeding motorboat. Please email me for the extended version of THAT extended version of that exciting story.
First CD: Sonic Youth – Washing Machine
Purchase year and retailer: 1995, Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street, downtown Toronto
I was fairly late to the CD game but I did eventually get a five-disc changer in advance of Sonic Youth’s 1995 show at the Warehouse in Toronto. I purchased Washing Machine alongside Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral (fairly cool) and Sponge’s Rotting Piñata (uncool) to christen the device. The album was pretty solid and the concert was great. Helium opened, much moshing ensued and me and my buddies chatted briefly with Brendan Canning (then of hHead, later of Broken Social Scene).
Last CD: The Bourbon Tabernacle Choir – Shyfolk
Purchase year and retailer: 2009, eBay
Early 1990s CanCon indie is a weird black hole in the Internet. Some cool YouTube videos have surfaced but there is a ton of cool music from that era that now seems wildly obscure considering it was fairly popular at the time. Ergo, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. These guys’ good-to-great albums lapsed out-of-print rather quickly so their music is a bit challenging to track down in hard copy form. I’ve managed to acquire three of these (1992’s Superior Cackling Hen, 1995’s Shyfolk and 2000’s best-of/rarities set 1985-1995). Shyfolk was the last of the three I purchased, on eBay for around $4.95 and quite possibly the last piece of physical music I ever own. Bye.