Published In The Great North Arrow, November 2020: Surface Noise

- jim Young

“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise.  I said, ‘Listen, mate, life has surface noise.’”  - John Peel ( the longest serving of the original BBC Radio1 DJs)

Music today has changed. I think that’s pretty obvious. 

But I’m not talking about the songs or the artists or even the genres, I’m talking about the medium in which we listen to our music and more specifically a medium that was once almost lost in time, vinyl.

I have a collection of between 400 and 500 albums. That doesn’t count the few hundred I have for sale nor the hundreds and hundreds I have sold in the past. 

This is just my personal very eclectic collection of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Who, The Guess Who, The New Vaudeville Band, Gordon Lightfoot, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Ten Years After, Dylan, The Rollings Stones, Liberace, The Carpenters, The Lovin’ Spoonful, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Rivers, Chuck Mangione, Joan Baez, Neil Young, The Monkees, Alice Cooper, Dick Hyman, Walter/Wendy Carlos, Louis Armstrong, Herb Alpert, Rod McKeun and many more that I have collected since I was a young teen.

I have blues, jazz, rock ‘n roll, folk, electronic, showtunes, soul, classical, pop and even some country and western although I am less apt to brag about the latter. 

Some of these were purchased used, and some were bought brand new at a time when most popular albums sold for $3.99 and a trip to Sam the Record Man was an event, not just a shopping trip. 

A visit to the Holy Grail of Sam the Record Man stores - the original Sam’s at Yonge and Dundas was almost a “happening” in itself in the 60s. 

Stepping inside Sam the Record Man’s in Toronto was like a visit to the fair with exciting sounds and mesmerizing sights.

When you found a record that you weren’t sure about, you didn’t have to just take a chance on it. One of the staff was happy to play it for you to make certain it was the song you were looking for.

Nothing will replace the intoxicating smell of new, virgin vinyl when the cello wrapper was first ripped off the album cover.

Most young people today will no longer have the chance to experience the thrill of removing the wrapper of an album to see what surprises might await them inside, in the form of liner notes and inserts, lyrics to the songs, credits to all the major and background performers including the studio musicians such as the “Wrecking Crew”.

All this and there were great songs on the record too. The songs were sometimes relegated to a position of being not much more than an added bonus!

Imaginative marketing departments invented creative ways to promote their bands.

I remember leaving Woolworth’s one afternoon after school and walking down Bayfield Street in Barrie with my new Alice Cooper, School’s Out album. I couldn’t wait to get home to open it. The cover was designed in the shape of a school desk with fold out legs and a lid that opens like the old desks we used in public school. Approaching the Five Points I reached inside and pulled out the record to discover the usual inside sleeve had been replaced with a pair of girls disposable panties. I quickly returned the contents to the shopping bag hoping I had not been outed as some kind of pervert in the heart of downtown Barrie.

I was with a buddy in another record store the first time we saw the Rolling Stones “Sticky Fingers” album. The front cover consisted of a close up shot of the crotch of a man dressed in jeans sporting a real, working zipper.

Once bitten, twice shy. “YOU undo the zipper,” I said to Bill. 

“I’M not undoing it. YOU undo it.” Bill replied.

I chose instead to purchase the album and just wait until I got home to gingerly check it out in the privacy of my room. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to wonder what I discovered beneath the zipper.

When The Rolling Stones released “Their Satanic Majesties Request” I wanted to add it to my collection but the 3D lenticular cover made it a little pricer than the $3.99 I was accustomed to paying for my records, so I passed.

Since it was arguably the worst Rolling Stones album ever (an opinion shared by the Rolling Stones themselves) I never minded not having it as part of my collection, until reissues replaced the cover photo with a simple 2D version of it. Once it became elusive, it just seemed like something I should have.

The original version was finally added to my personal collection just this year at a much higher price than it sold for back in 1967.

The songs on the album itself haven’t improved and the quality of this used record and the album cover is not the best. But then neither is the quality of most of the records in my collection.

But that’s just the way I like my records.

True audiophiles may argue the superiority of the quality of vinyl records lies in the process of the recording of analog vs digital. For me it’s more the nostalgia.

And while skipping is as unforgivable as the primitive practice of taping a nickel to the arm of the record player to prevent it, surface noise - has become a part of many of my favourite songs. The ticks and hisses you won’t find on CDs or music files are as comforting as white noise as I lay on the edge of consciousness just before drifting off into a peaceful sleep.

The ringwear on my album covers and the damaged spines are indications of an album that has been loved and used, not left sitting forgotten on a shelf for display like a trophy wife.

Signatures on the cover may not be the autographs of the band, but demonstrate the pride of ownership of the original owner.

These are all reminders of the days when the music blasted at parties that were fueled by a bottle of Mateus acquired from an older sister and the fragrance of a familiar substance obtained from a stranger at Fred Grant Square, mixed with the burning incense; the latter intended to disguise the former.

The records of the evening were strewn across the shag carpet, some in their covers and some not, waiting their next turn on the platter when the “currently playing” record completed its final track with a slow “tick-tick-tick-pause-click-silence” as the tonearm lifted and slowly returned to the tonearm rest.

These albums were all invaluable components of the party and loved as much as any of the guests. They were privy to the going-ons and a new mark on the album or its cover the following day was the album’s version of a hangover.

Eric Blackstead the producer of The Woodstock Album wrote this disclaimer on its cover, “Technical flaws, resulting from equipment failure as well as human overload are inevitable in a venture of this size. Just as inevitably, some of them occur in the material included in this album. Consider them like the scars in a fine leather, proof of the origin and authenticity of the material in which they are found.”

The wear of the album covers and the ticks and hisses of the records as they are played are just that - “proof of their origin and authenticity” of the stories my records have to tell. You may never know these stories but their essence remains forever bound in each of these records.

- 30  -


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