News Analysis

Saturday 23 August 2014

Declan Lynch: We thought our golden age of vinyl would last forever

Declan Lynch

Published 20/01/2013 | 05:00

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Maybe this is what the Mayans meant by the end of the world. The announcement of the closure of HMV was not in itself the final catastrophe, yet it seemed to add an official note of doom to something that had already happened – the end of the record shop as we have known it, and the once-mighty civilisation which it represented.

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With HMV refusing to honour vouchers bought before Christmas, it would seem that the end really had come at the time suggested by that Mayan prophesy – being very civilised people, the Mayans would no doubt regard the end of a great culture as being "the end of the world".

Or, as many thousands of readers would have said to themselves last week: the end of my world, baby!

And without coming over all Sunday Miscellany or even all Rare Oul Times on yo' ass, when they heard the news, how many people over the age of, say, 35, took a little walk down memory lane into the record shops in which they lingered, and the music of their youth?

All generations believe that theirs is the most enlightened in human history, but only some are right – it is now largely accepted that those of us who were "out" at any time during the golden age of the 12-inch vinyl album and the 7-inch single, were enjoying the richest period in western culture, probably since the Renaissance.

And we would enter that better world by the ritual of going to our local record store and contemplating for hours, for days, even for months, whether to spend the only money we possessed on, say, John Lennon's Rock'n'Roll album, or on Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy – the fact that it tended to be an either/or decision, rather than a simple purchase of whatever you wanted, just added to the deep solemnity of the moment.

Even now, we can recall a certain ceremonial aspect to it, the bringing of the selected album sleeve to the counter, the placing of the actual record inside the sleeve. And then the journey home in anticipation of the first playing of the desired object on some primitive Dansette, just vaguely aware that our forefathers had never known such a thing, never contemplated the notion of just sitting down in your own home listening to recorded music for maybe an hour. Knowing that it was good. And that almost everything else at that time, by comparison, was not good.

There are aficionados who argue with some justification that the 7-inch single rather than the 12-inch album was in fact the high water mark of our civilisation, the most perfect art-form. But perhaps we feel more of an attachment to the album because it also provided us with some excellent reading.

Not just of the sleeve notes but of the lyrics on the inside sleeve and all the information about who did what on which track, noting in passing that the sleeve design alone meant that it was easily the most beautiful object in the house. And we owned it.

Ah, such treasures passed through my hands – there was a crazy man who ran a second-hand store near Portobello who sold me the original 7-inch single of I Say A Little Prayer by Aretha Franklin and the original Chain Gang by Sam Cooke, with You Send Me on the flipside. For about a quid.

I would spend days looking for records at a stall in the Dandelion Market, in Freebird on Grafton Street or George Murray's place in the Grafton Arcade, in Advance Records on South King Street which had punk and reggae and anything indeed of an advanced nature, in the Basement Record and Tape Exchange on Bachelor's Walk and in Pat Egan's Sound Cellar on Nassau Street, both of which had a vital, outstanding feature – you had to go down the stairs to get to them.

In those subterranean places, a man could dream. You could look around the walls of these wondrous caves, at everything from Excitable Boy by Warren Zevon to Bunny Wailer Sings The Wailers, and you would know that there was goodness in this world.

During the time of greatest abundance, the walls of record stores might be entirely covered in multi-coloured vinyl singles and albums and picture discs, a phase which perhaps tipped over into pure extravagance with a Britt Ekland disc entitled Do It To Me, featuring a picture of Ekland herself, naked astride some sort of a glowing sphere.

Now they were doing it just because they could.

So many great records were bought and sold, yet so few great collections remain extant. Many people I knew back then were constantly moving from flat to flat, and for whatever reason, they didn't always bring everything with them.

Priceless objects would be left behind, though of course we did not know at the time that they were priceless – we thought you could just head out any time to the record store to get some more, we thought it would last for ever.

In the dying years of HMV on Grafton Street, I would see people in the basement clearly buying CDs of albums they had once possessed but lost along the way, perhaps buying back a piece of their youth. Knowing that it was still good. And that it was getting better all the time.

Sunday Independent

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