Henry Rollins: I Like Records More Than People
Photo by Heidi May
People are a strange bunch. If you stare at them for a prolonged period, they sometimes get angry. If you look at them with a magnifying glass and start taking notes, they get offended. “What the hell are you doing?!” they bellow. They want answers. Don’t we all.
This is why I prefer records to members of our species. Don’t get me wrong; we are fantastic and without us, there would be no records. But I like records more, almost as much as the music they contain. Allow me to explain as I try to climb out of the anti-social pit I have just so earnestly dug and eagerly hopped into.
I’ll use The Buzzcocks out of Manchester, England, as an example. I think their recordings on the United Artists label are about as good as music gets. This includes their first three studio albums and a slew of singles that were released after the perfect four-track Spiral Scratch EP with which they debuted on their own New Hormones label. I can’t live with only one copy of each of these records.
This might be misconstrued as casually dating The Buzzcocks’ catalog. Nope, not nearly obsessive enough. I have a relationship with these songs so severe that, if it wasn’t mere vinyl and paper, I would be slapped with a restraining order that would chain me to a chair. I need a copy of every one of these records from every territory they were pressed in. And, whenever possible, a test pressing and (be still my beating heart) an acetate of each one, as well.
Take the band’s excellent two-song single “What Do I Get”/“Oh Shit,” released in early 1978. Shouldn’t the sheer greatness of the two songs, rendered on a single copy, be enough?
Not for me. I have pressings from Germany, France, Portugal, Holland, Belgium and England. The Belgian is one of the rarest — only a few hundred pressed — and the Dutch one of the more interesting, because they mistitled the A-side on the cover as “What Did I Get.”
United Artists saved its best moves for the U.K. version, which includes solid center and push-out center, one-sided and two-sided white label test pressings, and A-label promos both one- and two-sided, too. (Well played, UA, well played.)
These singles also have different writing and catalog numbers scratched into the matrix, or “dead wax,” by the label. Don’t worry, I have two magnifying glasses with which to read them.
All of this is probably of zero interest to you — and I can’t explain how happy that makes me! I am fine going on this mission with as few others in the way as possible. You are mildly amused that I am strange and I am ecstatic that you are lightweight and uncommitted. Win and win.
Now, imagine needing to do this with almost every record you own. Actually, don’t — just count yourself lucky if you don’t share my obsession.
In Frank Zappa’s song “Muffin Man,” found on the blazing Bongo Fury album, the Muffin Man proclaims the muffin to be the “prince of foods.” I proclaim the 7-inch disc to be the prince of records.
I think the “single” is the most romantic, poetic and completely perfect delivery system for a potentially dizzying, poignant, all-too-brief musical embrace. As the great Skip Groff, owner of the legendary Yesterday & Today Records store in Rockville, Maryland, said to me almost 40 years ago: On a single, a group is trying to tell you everything about themselves with only a few minutes to make their strongest possible case. They are going to put their entirety on the A-side and maybe give you a glimpse on the B-side of what they get up to when the record company isn’t breathing down their necks. Obviously, this can’t be true all the time, but I have been unable to dislodge this idea since Skip laid it on me all those years ago.
The limitations of the single necessitate almost constant interaction with the actual record itself. Once put on the turntable and started, in only a few minutes, it will require that you either play the side again, turn it over and play the B-side, or put it away.
Listening to singles in a group setting is a great way to share and experience music. If everyone takes turns putting on singles, you’re never forced to endure something you don’t find favorable for too long. Ian MacKaye and I used to burn hours of our youth in his mother’s attic listening to singles. We still do it now.
And to make it all the more fleeting and fascinating, dig this idea: Some bands had only a few songs. If they had to make an album, it would be riddled with covers and filler, thus making the good songs stand out like diamonds in mud, but also lessening their effect, dulling them with the mediocrity of what surrounds them.
The single is often a perfect snapshot of the few minutes a group truly connected with one another and with something bigger than themselves. I live for those blink-and-you-missed-it cracks in time.
I will leave you with one more example of a local band that used the 7-inch medium to maximum effect. The Weirdos never released a proper album. Singles, EPs and later, compilations, which all completely scorch — but never an album.
It doesn’t matter in the least. The Destroy All Music EP they released on Bomp! in 1977 has three songs: “Destroy All Music,” “A Life of Crime” and “Why Do You Exist.” The total clocks in at a few seconds over 5½ minutes and it will kick the ass off at least half of your record collection.
To be continued...
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