A weird thing happened the other day. I bought a record player.
I wandered into a hifi shop and had a ten minute conversation with a yoof who seemed younger than the rest of my hifi equipment.
Then an exchange of credit cards and I walked out with £325 worth of 130 year-old technology. A motor, a turntable, a leetle bit of electrickery and a needle (sorry, stylus) on a stick.
It has one switch – on or off. That’s it. No electronic displays. No graphics. No options menu. No way to connect it to the internet. Here it is, in all its minimalist glory.
To change the speed from 33 rpm to 45 rpm you need to lift the turntable and manually move a rubber belt from one pulley to the next.
That is the sort of technology that Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have understood. It’s not quite Fred Flintstone, but it certainly feels more steam age than digital.
There are a gazillion reasons why I should not have done this. Records need to be handled oh so carefully. And even if you do touch them like handling a princess with a pea allergy, they attract scratches and fluff in the same way that a teenager attracts zits.
The sound has more hisses and crackles than a badly acted witches scene from the Scottish play.
You can’t play records in a car or while you are jogging or on a train. Heck, you can’t play them in your living room while you are stompy dancing, a fact I discovered while I was ten years old. The needle (sorry, stylus) bounces and digs its own crazy diagonal furrow if you so much as look at it.
You can’t easily skip tracks. Or repeat a track. Or make up a playlist. If you are listening to the White Album you’ve got to sit through Revolution Number 9.
Heck, I was starting to give up on CDs in favour of digital downloads. And I was starting to wonder if I should upgrade my MP3 downloads to FLACs, WAVs or ALACs.
Records demand a careful ritual handling that seems not dissimilar to a Japanese tea ceremony.
The equipment has to cost a fortune and the more you pay the fewer bells and whistles you get. My £325 turntable has gubbins that look like this …
If you are a man of a certain age that picture might excite you inappropriately as a piece of engineering porn. Knurled wheels with precision numbers! Counterweights on wires! Exposed screw threads! Excuse me while I go and take a cold shower.
Ahem. Where was I?
You don’t just plug it in and switch it on. Oh no, that would be too easy. The arm has to be balanced and adjusted with balances and weights so that it is just so. Get it wrong and the needle (sorry, stylus) could dig into the record like a plough or skate over it like a … ahem … skater.
Then there are the records themselves. You have to store them vertically, not horizontally. Away from extremes of hot or cold. Handle them by their edges. Clean them with special fluids and brushes.
At this point, I have to admit with a bit of chuckle that there is an internet craze for cleaning records using wood glue.
Yup, you heard that right. Wood glue. The idea is that you smear wood glue all over the record and leave it to set. When it’s hard, you peel it off and all the dirt comes with it.
That is just so wrong. So so naughty. Don’t try this at home.
If you don’t believe me, then take a look at this. But be warned, it’s the vinyl world’s version of snuff pornography …
So why have I had this fit of madness? I gave away all my records more than 20 years ago and replaced them with CDs. Am I now going to replace all my CDs with records again?
How does that work?
It started with my late mother in law’s record collection. We were going through the slightly painful business of clearing out her house. There was the awkward question of what to do with the record collection that my wife’s parents had spent several decades collecting.
A collection of classical records, some jazz and some comedy. We didn’t think that the collection had any value. And yet … and yet …
We couldn’t bring ourselves to throw the records out or give them away. These records had meant something to my wife’s parents. They had collected them together. Some of the records seemed to have been inherited from their own parents.
The collection wasn’t junk. It was a connection back to our family. An heirloom. It meant that we could listen to something that the previous generation had enjoyed.
And that meant buying the aforementioned record player.
This is when it started to get a little weirder. There is a debate going on in the audiophile world – are records “better” than CDs or digital?
Vinyl sounds warmer and has a greater dynamic range, says one group.
Yeah, but those hisses and crackles, retort the other group.
Then there’s the tactile thing. Many vinylistas talk about the pleasure they get from handling the records. The joy of the artwork that they can actually see and read, and which isn’t compressed to be the size of a CD cover. The ritual of looking after the needle (sorry, stylus) and maintaining the equipment.
It’s a “zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” thing. The effort is part of the pleasure. There is an important touchiness to it all.
Tactility. Is that a word? Let’s say that it ought to be.
When we stop to think about it, the modern world seems to polarise into stuff you can touch and stuff you can’t. We’ve have all this digital doohickery. I wrote this blog on a PC and you’re reading it now because of the internet plus your own device.
And all that is wonderful and exciting. An army of invisible and ethereal servants who are forming a connection between you and me.
But that’s only half the picture. There’s also the touchy stuff that you can’t see. The comfy office chair that I am sitting in. The battered and much loved wireless keyboard – the writer’s real friend. The cup of coffee that the Mem made for me.
The pleasure we take from the touchy things is analogue, not digital. They say that wine tastes better from a heavy glass. Food tastes better on expensive plates. We like cars with doors that close with a deep thunk and not a tinny clang.
There is a quality about the heft and solidity of tactile things.
Stop and rewind. I started this story by saying that I went into a record shop and spoke to a yoof. I could have ordered the record player over the internet. But that would diminish part of the experience. I wanted to talk to a human being. Have a discussion. Ask questions. Touch the other record players in the shop.
Okay, okay, I didn’t touch the shop assistant. There are limits to the tactility that’s allowed in a decent society.
The internet is killing the high street, they say. Shops are closing because they can’t compete with Amazon.
Well, yes, but that’s only part of the story. Some shops are closing down, but there are some things that we still like to touch and feel. That’s why we have this craze for coffee shops. There is something animal and satisfying about the whole business of pouring hot water onto roasted beans. The hiss of the steam. The heft (that word again!) of the coffee mugs. The pleasant surroundings. The smartly scrubbed waiter or waitress, sorry I mean the barista.
I don’t want to have to choose between analogue or digital. I want both.
Right now I am a couple of mouse clicks away from I-tunes or Amazon or Youtube and any music I want to hear. It is the greatest music collection in the world. And yet there is something missing from the experience. It is almost as if it is too easy.
Or I can walk into the living room and play a record from the 1920s that my wife’s grandparents listened to. And yes there will be crackles and hissing. Yes, it will take me longer than a couple of mouse-clicks. Yes, I will need to be careful about how I handle records which are nearly a century old.
But the experience … Oh, the experience!
Put it another way. Home-cooked food never looks quite as sophisticated as shop-bought or restaurant food. Food we have made for ourselves might have the occasional lump or inconsistency. You say burnt, I say caramelised.
But that’s part of the point. There is something tactile and human about food that someone has made for you. The effort they put into it matters. I made this for you because I love you.
By all means, let’s exploit the benefits of the digital world, but we should never lose our sense of touch. Because it isn’t just about the touch of things. It is about one person touching another, and not in a smutty sniggery way.
There is no reason why we can’t have the convenience of digital and the quality of analogue. Let’s embrace both.