Nostalgia for Analog
A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 23 2017.
The other afternoon, I was looking forward to a snooze under the fan as a respite from the intense pre-electrical storm inferno. After a good lunch and a couple of cold beers, I settled down to read about David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog.
My snooze was not to be. My octogenarian neighbour had a visitor and the two buddies proceeded to set up a table and chairs in front of my house and crack open a few cans and enjoy the craic. This initially involved shouting at each other and over each other but soon developed into the kind of situation that Sax writes about. One codger started phoning up other friends and shouting over them through the ether. Then codger number two started phoning from his cell and shouting. This is the 21st century – two old codgers who think they are having a party but abandoning each other’s company for their cell phones.
This is not the most extreme example of digital disconnection and anomie. We have all been in restaurants where the entire company stares into smart phones without making eye-contact with those with whom they have arranged to meet. All new technologies drew criticism. Television was blamed for ending the old ceremonial tradition of a family sitting down together to enjoy a meal (the family dining table was also notoriously a venue for vicious fights – my old codger neighbours had a huge fight over lunch and one drove off in an almighty huff).These days I often see a family sitting down together at the dining table. Mummy has headphones on and is watching a movie on her laptop, while Daddy (also with headphones shutting out the real world) is surfing the net for conspiracy theories. Baby is watching cartoons on his I-pad.
In his review in the New York Review of Books of Sax’s book Bill McKibben writes: “Everyone I know seems a little ashamed of the compulsive phone-checking, but it is, circa 2017, our species-specific calling card, as surely as the bobbing head-thrust identifies the pigeon. No one much likes spending half the workday on e-mail, but that’s what work is for many of us.”
Sax reminds us that there was a Before- a time when we could relax and touch actual physical objects. Refuges are appearing in the 21t Century. As McKibben puts it Sax: “brings us tales of these analog refuges, crankily safe from the instantaneous and universal. Places where we can relax, and maybe even think, as opposed to click. Places where we can touch actual physical objects.”
The example which most speaks to me is the resurgence of interest in vinyl records. I have never been an early adapter of new technologies – not a Luddite, just cautious. I am still using a Sansui amplifier I bought in 1982 ans Monitor speakers I bought in 1998. I felt for a short time in 1973 that I would save a lot of space if I copied all my vinyl albums onto compact cassettes. Cassettes were fragile and not easy to love and now they have become obsolete. I’m glad I kept my vinyl.
Again, when CDs came along, I took a while to be persuaded, although I actually bought a CD before I acquired a machine to play it on. The album in question was Happenings by the late great vibes player Bobby Hutcherson (who sadly left us on August 15, 2016) I bought the CD version in 1987. The analog album was originally recorded on February 6, 1966 by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder at his studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The album features Dayan Jayatilleka’s friend Herbie Hancock on piano and box of rocks.
Happenings was originally issued in 1967 and transferred from analog to digital in 1987 by Ron McMaster at 24-bit resolution. The album was remastered in 2006. In 2017, it is available for streaming at a price of €4.66. The album is a good symbol of the whole situation. Hutcherson recorded for the Bluenote label which was celebrated for a particular quality of sonic experience with stylish substantial packaging including distinctive photography and design and informative sleeve notes. That bundle does not transfer to CD (my rheumy old eyes have trouble reading CD sleeve notes). The mono version of the vinyl edition from 1967 is being offered for sale on the internet for €78.
The first U.S.-recorded digital album of popular music was Bop ‘Til You Drop by Ry Cooder, released by Warner Bros. Records in 1979. The album was recorded in Los Angeles on a 32-track digital machine built by the 3M corporation. It is ironic that Cooder, who has been something of a custodian of roots music, should have been at the forefront of technological advance. I bought the album on vinyl at the time but later bought it on CD. The 180g vinyl pressing is much sought after today.
On Green Dolphin Street, by jazz saxist Archie Shepp was America’s first RELEASED digitally-recorded commercial album in 1977.
CDs seemed very convenient at the time but I am glad that I did not go as far as friend who got rid of all his vinyl. I see the conveneience of being able to carry my entire record collection around with me on a smart phone or I-pod. However, there is a special pleasure in sorting through my vinyl albums. Sax: “Records are large and heavy; require money, effort, and taste to create and buy and play; and cry out to be thumbed over and examined. Because consumers spend money to acquire them, they gain a genuine sense of ownership over the music, which translates into pride.”
À la recherche du temps perdu
These physical objects have a personal history. My copy of Bob Dylan’s Before the Flood live album reminds me of the woman who drove me to HMV records to get the album on the day it was issued and got stopped by the police on the way back. I still have two albums from that same year of 1974 – Jesse Colin Young’s Lightshine and The Souther, Hillman, Furay Band – which she gave me as gifts and made me promise not to get rid of. Many albums bear the signatures and greetings of old friends. My jazz collection is particularly resonant because it reminds me of seeing giants like Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon (Bobby Hutcherson got into jazz after listening to records at Dexter Gordon’s home) and Miles Davis perform live. With many of the albums I can recall the circumstances of their purchase and the shop they came from – Barry’s Record Rendezvous in Manchester, Ray’s Jazz Shop in Covent Garden, Mole Records at King’s Cross or Dobell’s on Charing Cross Road.
There is a surprising revival of vinyl which is not just about old codgers like me being nostalgic for our lost youth. New stuff is coming out on vinyl and young people are buying it. Revenues from vinyl sales in 2015 were higher than those of on-demand streaming services, such as YouTube, Vevo and Spotify’s free service, which only accounted for $385 million.
Guitar wizard Jack White achieved great success with the White Stripes. He has engaged in various projects since. He is a songwriter, artist, producer, guitarist and singer and owner of Third Man Records and Third Man Studios, and a board member of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Preservation Foundation, an organisation to which he donated $200,000. His album, Lazaretto, topped the charts around the world, selling 40,000 vinyl copies in one week in the US. White produced Neil Young’s album A Letter Home in a Voice–O–Graph, which looks like a telephone booth from the outside, and it was widely in use in the US from the 1940s to the 1960s.
White uses modern technology when it suits him, driving a state–of–the–art black Tesla Model S electric sports car. “Analog is the medium of all the kinds of music that I am really fond of,” comments White. “Form follows function. You have to ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. What are you trying to make it sound like? When you are recording, and producing, you are aiming for something and if you want vibe, warmth, soulfulness, things like that, you will always be drawn back to analog”.
Classic Album Sundays
Colleen Murphy is a 48-year-old American who has lived has lived in Britain since 1999. At her home in Hackney, east London she has a room lined with 10,000 records, arranged alphabetically, by artist. She DJs under the name Cosmo, produces and remixes music, and runs a vinyl‑only label called Bitches Brew. Since 2010 she has been organising Classic Album Sundays; a small group would spend couple of hours eating, drinking and talking, and then listening to both sides of a vinyl album played on expensive equipment. Even sceptics admitted that familiar albums sounded completely different. Murphy argues that vinyl is about more than sound quality; it gives the opportunity of really listening to a whole record – often in company – rather being solitary behind headphones flipping from track to track. Attention, as well as social interaction, is something undermined in the digital world
I rejoice in the opportunities that the digital world has brought me. I have established some warm online friendships with people I have never met. I have had the chance to interact with famous musicians, journalists, novelists and poets. I have also been viciously attacked by strangers taking advantage of anonymity.
I love YouTube but there is a point at which having all the music in the world turns a bit toxic. Spotify shows people choosing the same items over and over. As Bill McKibben puts it: “either we evolve quickly away from the social primates we have always been or else we will quietly suffer from the solipsism inherent in staring at ourselves reflected in a screen. It’s too jumpy; concentration, from which all that is worthwhile emerges, is the great loss.”
More about nostalgia, concentration and attention in future articles.