Written by Jim Bartlett on August 9, 2016
Vinyl is a big deal again, with vinyl sales at levels unseen since the compact disc swept vinyl records away nearly 30 years ago. I have a lot of friends who have gone back to buying vinyl (although I have not), but they’re buying albums. Singles haven’t made much of a comeback yet. And before I bought any other format, I bought 45s.
The 45s I play in my earliest memories of vinyl belonged to my father. Like record buyers everywhere, he bought what he liked the most, so his collection featured a lot of polka bands famed throughout the Upper Midwest circa 1950, the year he graduated from high school. But years removed from when they’d been purchased, he passed them on to his kids. I suppose Dad considered his records childish things he had put aside to raise his family, so what did it matter if we enjoyed them?
Some of Dad’s records were on green, blue, or red vinyl, as much fun to hold up to the light as they were to play. I got down close to them as they spun on Dad’s old portable, watching the grooves flow under the needle, all the way to the end. I put my ear close to the speaker to hear them fade down to nothing, and it wasn’t long before I figured out that you could tell whether the music was loud or soft by the look of the grooves.
Dad’s portable seemed like the ultimate smart machine. Imagine knowing when a record was done and it was time to drop the next one to play, without my having to do a thing! And the audio experience provided by the changer was more than merely musical. There was the click of the mechanism and the instant silence that followed as the tonearm lifted off the record, a whap as it swung smartly out of the way, the ka-chunk of the next record dropping, and another whap as the tonearm moved back into place. Then the needle touched the vinyl again, yielding not sound, not yet, but not quite silence either, until it bit the first groove and the next three minutes of music began.
I soon realized that the big console stereo in the living room moved in a much different way than the portable did. The console, with its slimmer, more delicate, slower-moving tonearm, was like an artist, a ballerina maybe, or someone who was slowly and deliberately bringing forth things of beauty. The portable loaded and unloaded records one after the other like a burly driver running a delivery route–which, it occurs to me, is not a bad metaphor for the perceived aesthetic differences between albums and 45s at the time I was noticing the difference.