When the compact disc was introduced in the mid-â€™80s, one of its main selling points (along with allegedly superior digital sound) was its durability. Vinyl records, we all knew, could be scratched, warped, chipped, broken in half; CDs, on the other hand, were forever.
Nevertheless, I found something sad about the shift from vinyl to metal, in a purely tactile sense. Sure, records required careful handling, upright storage and frequent cleaning, and could be ruined by a slip of the hand or the poorly executed scrape of a needle â€“ but to me that made them precious. Getting a record from sleeve to turntable was an intricate maneuver, if you were doing it right â€“ kind of like pinning a corsage on your prom date: One screw-up, and somebody was gonna get hurt.
Those screw-ups were an inevitable consequence of record collecting, and the experience of destroying such precious commodities made me value the ones that remained all the more. Still, with 20 years gone since my personal switch to CD purchasing, I now reflect on my experiences trashing records almost as fondly as my many years of removing them gingerly from the cardboard, then from the tissue, then making sure my fingers never touched the grooves, then â€¦
1. Warp speed. Iâ€™ve committed the usual crimes of record warping, from stacking too many 45s horizontally to leaving an LP hanging on top of the spindle for too long. But nothing approached the damage done to my copy of Pilotâ€™s â€œMagicâ€ 45 when I left it in the back seat of my momâ€™s car for a couple of sultry summer days in â€™75. When it came out, that sucker didnâ€™t just have a bend in it â€“ it existed in two parallel universes. When I put it on the turntable, it also played at two different speeds, one of which I believe was considerably slower than 33 1/3. (And considering how dicey the vocals were on â€œMagicâ€ in the first place, you can imagine the impact of the sliding speeds.)
If you Google â€œwarped recordsâ€ today, youâ€™ll find 79 homeopathic cures which mostly involve panes of glass and moderate heat; in 1975 the cure was 79 cents â€¦ and a new copy of â€œMagic,â€ one of the few times I ever had to replace a record while it was still a hit.
2. Spilled milk. The cardboard record, though it had its origins in the mid-â€™50s, is primarily an artifact of the bubblegum-music years of the late â€™60s and early â€™70s. At that time, Post Cereals â€“ always looking for new ways to make inroads on market leader Kelloggâ€™s â€“ began printing 7-inch records by the Monkees, the Archies and the Jackson 5 on boxes of everything from Raisin Bran to Super Sugar Crisp. These cardboard giveaways, which usually were gilded with a thin layer of plastic for â€œdurability,â€ were notorious for wobbling around on the turntable (a strategically placed penny usually would hold them steady) and for rolling up like a warm tortilla within days of being clipped from the box.
The first one I ever got my hands on, ironically, was Bobby Shermanâ€™s â€œEasy Come, Easy Go.â€ (It came on a box of either Honey Comb or Alpha-Bits, Iâ€™m not sure.) Having set it down on the counter so Iâ€™d have my hands free to, you know, eat my cereal, I proceeded to knock over a cup of milk and soak old Bobby right to the bone. Through my wailing (how was I to know Bobby was nothing worth crying over? I couldnâ€™t have been older than 5) I heard my mom say, â€œWeâ€™ll just leave it out to dry â€“ itâ€™ll be fine.â€ It didnâ€™t turn out that way; even after the cardboard dried, it remained a bit shriveled and the plastic coating had come loose. My dadâ€™s record needle tore right through Bobbyâ€™s cheeks â€“ and when my dad saw the damage to the needle, he probably tore up my (lower) cheeks. (I say “probably” because Iâ€™m still blocking.)
3. Cat scratch fever. During my high school years my dad kept the living-room turntable on the far side of the room, away from the sofa and chairs and low to the ground â€“ which required a lot of kneeling on the floor to change the records. One day my friend John lent me the Glass Moon record he had just purchased, after waiting four-to-six weeks for it to arrive on order. I removed it from the sleeve and placed the platter on top of the cardboard while I removed another album from the turntable. At that moment, my rambunctious kitten, Misty, clambered into the room and leaped right onto the record. Kitten, cardboard, and vinyl slid right across the room and into a chair leg â€“ and when I picked up the LP I saw that Misty had put an inch-long gouge right through the bandâ€™s cover of the Holliesâ€™ â€œOn a Carousel.â€ Johnâ€™s favorite song! I donâ€™t remember if I ever actually replaced his album, but John did eventually forgive me (as far as I know).
4. Sowing the seeds. The appliance (not yet â€œelectronicsâ€) industryâ€™s attempts to make record-playing â€œportableâ€ were always kinda laughable â€“ from the cheap plastic record players that operated on either batteries or a wind-up crank, to those huge carrying cases they made for LPs that would barely be acceptable as carry-on luggage today. Nevertheless, these gadgets served their purpose â€“ but you had to be careful.
One day in the spring of 1976 we were listening to 45s on my neighbor Bruceâ€™s front lawn, and I had Rhythm Heritageâ€™s â€œTheme from S*W*A*Tâ€ on the turntable when a sudden breeze blew a swirl of seed pods down from the tree above us. One pod fell onto the revolving single, directly in the path of the oncoming needle â€¦ and soon there was organic material pressed into the grooves of the 45, not to mention all over the needle. After that, of course, not only did â€œS*W*A*Tâ€ perpetually turn into a ball of fuzz at around the 1:45 mark, but that cheapo turntable had to be replaced entirely â€“ you couldnâ€™t change the needles on those things.
5. Let it bleed. One other potential consequence/benefit of playing 45s outdoors: the deadly combination of vinyl, sunshine, and a magnifying glass. During the summer of â€™76 we heard the rumor that Glen Campbell had stolen Mac Davisâ€™ wife; why this fact was important to a bunch of 10-year-olds I canâ€™t remember â€“ I doubt I even knew what an â€œaffairâ€ was at the time â€“ but there was one thing I did know: My copy of â€œRhinestone Cowboyâ€ was toast.
We tried to melt that sucker while it was spinning, but I guess it wasnâ€™t getting hot enough in any one place, so we stopped the turntable and focused on one spot about halfway into the record. Soon enough Glen started to emit a funky-smelling smoke, and then the platter began bubbling and finally the spot returned to its original, liquefied state. It was at that point that I remembered how much more I liked â€œRhinestone Cowboyâ€ than I cared about Mac Davis, but by then it was too late.
I could go on â€“ for example, about the variations in vinyl stiffness that could make one LP so brittle that a light bump against a countertop produced an inch-deep chip (K-Tel imitator Adam VIII, Iâ€™m looking at you), and another platter so malleable it could spend an afternoon as a Frisbee and still go right on the turntable. I could also expound on the myriad ways in which record companies and stores would desecrate album artwork in order to achieve that boon to record collecting on the cheap: the cutout. Despite their punched holes, sliced-off edges, razor slices or haphazard gouges, even cutouts begged to be handled like a Tiffany necklace once you got them out of the sleeves. Maybe thatâ€™s why we wore our 45s like diamond rings around our fingers; the consequences of that, of course, are another story.