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Henry Rollins: The Column! 

Plastic fantastic: why vinyl still matters

Thursday, Feb 3 2011
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Last week I was at El Compadre, sitting across from my editor, one Gustavo Turner. He handed me an Amoeba Records bag and said the contents was a gift that he hoped I would like. I reached in and pulled out an LP by the Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla. The LP, titled Suite Troileana, was one I had never heard before. I looked forward to the evening to get that platter spinning.

Hours later, there I was, sitting happily in front of my Wilson Sophia 3 speakers, soaking up every drop of this exquisite album. It was a perfect experience. At some point during side 2, I remembered what Gustavo asked of me. Memo from Turner: Deliver some writing on music, something that captures your enthusiasm. By the time the Astor LP had come to an end, I had the idea for what to write about.

Wonderful readers, pardon me while I wax euphoric about the simple and complete joy of listening to music from a vinyl source.

As I write to you now, I am listening to a pristine Canadian pressing of Television's absolutely perfect Marquee Moon album. It is, to me, as good as music gets. The title track is one of the best things ever committed to magnetic tape. While the recently remastered CD version is excellent, there is but one way to truly enjoy the utter magnificence of the songs contained on this album and it is from the LP. Those of you who know what I'm talking about know exactly what I mean.

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Yes, yes, y'all, it's not hipster, elitist hype — vinyl sounds better. Much better. There is actual music in those grooves. Technically speaking, there is no music whatsoever on a CD. Lots of information but no music. Digital technology has made great strides to deliver a series of numbers to be read by a laser to emit that which is doing its damnedest to replicate its analog and sonically superior master. There are some very good CD players out there that sound incredible. I recommend the Rega Isis valve version, but even that cannot capture the full-bloom soundscape of your turntable interacting with an LP or single.

As an LP spins, your needle goes on the musical journey with you, traveling great distances as it deftly picks up the analog information and delivers the sonic message to you in real time. Vinyl is the people, a CD is The Man.

Oh! Do you know that guitar breakdown right before the snare comes back in at the very end of Marquee Moon to end side A? That moment never fails to move me. It just happened. Tom Verlaine, one of the great guitarists of all time. What a moment!

Since I was very young, the playing of the vinyl has been one of the most enjoyable rituals of my existence. It was Beatles records at first and, as I grew older, Zeppelin, Hendrix, Isaac Hayes, Aerosmith, Nugent, Van Halen, Stones and the like.

And then, in my very impressionable later teenage years, in came the noise that would start a revolution in my mind that I have never been able to quell. The Clash, Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Devo, The Saints, The Damned, The Adverts and many others, all fitting somewhat together under the umbrella of punk rock and independent music. It was these bands that turned me into the record store–haunting album obsessive that I am now, decades later.

Some of these albums, I have no idea how many times I have played them. Their digital descendants don't sound the same and leave me wanting. I have had some of these LPs for well over half of my life. I know every crack and pop on them. Those surface noises are, to me, as much a part of the music as the songs themselves and give the music some textural perfection that digital sterility simply cannot achieve.

I am now listening to Hawkwind's Doremi Fasol Latido LP, released on United Artists in 1972. Amazing! A masterpiece. I don't know how I am going to get to sleep tonight. I just want to stay up and listen to music.

I have a lot of compact discs. I need them for radio play, and convenience. Many bands and artists I am a fan of don't always release their work on vinyl, so I take what they feel like giving me.

Sitting in a room, alone, listening to a CD is to be lonely. Sitting in a room alone with an LP crackling away, or sitting next to the turntable listening to a song at a time via 7-inch single, is enjoying the sublime state of solitude.

To burn a CDR of music you like to give as a gift to someone you wish to become closer to is a cold, moist-palmed, mouth-breathing bummer. A tape made from albums and singles, constructed in real time, every track representing a separate and careful needle drop, says a real heart indeed beats inside this body and, baby, it beats for you.

There may be, at the back of one of your closets, a stack of your old and forgotten albums. I suggest you rescue them from obscurity and reconnect with your inner analog self. The brain remaps, the ears quickly adjust, all of your cells wonder what took you so long.

Perhaps the mightiest slap in the face of music has been the music file, easily downloaded and put into a playback device. This format strips the meat from the bone. Imagine an orange, squeezed by a gorilla. It's still an orange, but in name only. If Otis Redding could hear his music on MP3, he'd wonder what hack was trying to impersonate him.

Thankfully, many bands and labels have brought back the LP. Labels like Dischord, Third Man, 4 Men With Beards, Art Yard and many others take vinyl very seriously and their releases are a dependable source of endless hours of happy happy joy joy.

I have seen some stunning vinyl collections in my life. Mine is not one of them, but what I have, I love as dearly as music itself and play whenever I can. Vinyl takes me to a very ecstatic place. My favorite day of the week is Friday. It's a throwback from school and how much I hated it. I would sit in class all day long on that day, knowing that if I could somehow get through this oppressive, time-suffocating hell, I would eventually be able to go back to my room and put on Zeppelin's IV. Do you know what I mean? Well, you should.

So, before your ears are too far gone, show them you love them and get a turntable plugged into your system immediately. Get some good records and get down with it!

To those of you who never stopped playing albums or, like some people I know, absolutely refuse to listen to music from any digital source, I salute your purity. I fall woefully short in that department and listen to digitally processed impostor sounds on a daily basis. But whenever I can, it is vinyl all the way.

Al Green's Let's Stay Together is on deck!

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