Friday, May 23, 2014

Family Records: A Vinyl History Tour of My Youth (Part 1 of 2)



I've made no secret of the fond memories I have of listening to all of the great music from my parents' era when I was growing up. It started when I was very little and just heard whatever they were listening to in the background, whether it was on the home stereo, in the car, or on the radio. Eventually I got old enough to be curious about who and what I was listening to and gravitated to certain bands and musicians, and eventually after that, I was old enough to start listening on my own. In a way, you could say that these formative musical experiences were my "gateway" to a lifetime of musical obsession, both as a listener and collector of music as well as a guitarist and songwriter.

Besides what was in the grooves, what enchanted me as much in the 1980s and 90s as it entranced music fans years before me was the complete package that a vinyl record offered.  The square foot of real estate offered by the sleeve gave rise to some truly spectacular cover artwork, both front and back. And if you had an album that had a gatefold and/or some special inserts, well, it was like exploring a book about the music while you were listening to the music. I remember spending many hours poring over the artwork and packaging as a kid, both while I had the records playing as well as at random times when I just wanted to look at them again. These moments were usually snatched when my dad was at work (since the records and stereo system were in his home office) or when my parents weren't home and I could really crank up the volume. A little later, I had a record player in my room as part of a component stereo system (does anyone under thirty know what I'm talking about here?) and could bring albums up to listen to. Beyond that, I made cassette copies of them to use in my Walkman (again, anyone under thirty?) when I was in the car on family trips and later on, school field trips or away baseball and basketball games. Eventually, of course, CDs came along and while I still buy physical releases by all of my favorites, there is something about the size and tactility of a vinyl record that, despite some great examples, CDs can't quite match.

This post isn't meant to sound like I'm some audiophile or hipster snob extolling the virtues of vinyl at the expense of every other format...rather it's a celebration and fond look back at the vinyl records I listened to as a kid and as a teenager, which is doubly cool (at least to me) since they're also the very same records my parents listened to when they were growing up. For a reference point, my parents were born in the early-to-mid 1950s, so they would have been anywhere from 13 to 30 when they were buying and listening to these (depending on which year they were released).

So here we go...

(and when you're ready, here's PART 2)

THE WHO:

Anyone who has read my site knows that I am a massive fan of The Who...simply, they're one of my top 5 bands of all time. As such, these albums were my introduction to this great, great band.

Tommy (released 1969)

One of the great albums of the 1960s and of all time, groundbreaking as the first full-blown "rock opera" and an album near and dear to my heart. This is not only because of the great music contained within the grooves, but because of the overall presentation. The cover is a striking work of art that folds out into a triptych, mysterious and fascinating. Why are The Who waving their hands inside the giant sphere? The flying birds and the starry-gloved fist bursting out of the cover, pointing at you...what does it all mean? These are the questions that I asked myself over and over when I would sit and listen to this record.


Front Cover

Rear Cover


One flap opened...

Even better, there was a triptych inside, and a libretto with additional pictures describing the story alongside the lyrics. This was (and still is) an album you can lose yourself in for hours, and lest we forget, musically it still sounds great.


The inner triptych


The libretto is at far right next to the second record


Live at Leeds (released 1970)

If Tommy was The Who beginning to become masters of the studio with dense, layered, and cerebral rock, then Live at Leeds was the other side of the band as a loud, hard rocking, take-no-prisoners live act that was rightly called the greatest live band of all time. As an answer to the elaborate packaging of Tommy, Live at Leeds instead came in a nondescript plain brown cover with the title stamped on the front like some random parcel sitting on a loading dock somewhere. (This juxtaposition of packaging between the previous album and this one echoes what the Beatles did with Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967 and the White Album in 1968; the same can be said for the change in sound from an ornate studio production to a stripped down, heavier approach). But even if the plain cover fooled you, what was on the record would shake your senses rather quickly, as this is some of the finest, heaviest, and greatest live music ever recorded. I can still remember how blown away I felt when I first heard this record, two songs in particular: Young Man Blues, which to this day has some of the heaviest riffing I've ever heard, and Substitute, which is pure power pop perfection and has "that drum fill" (any Who fan will know what I mean). Contained inside are numerous facsimile documents and photos, including a band photo from 1965 (which I remember sneaking to school so I could photocopy it in order to hang it in my high school locker), and a reproduction of the famous "Maximum R&B" poster (which I was able to find a copy of to hang in my college dorm room). The label on the record famously lets the listener know that the "crackling noises are OK!" and this is one album that, even now, needs to be played at nothing less than maximum volume. I spent a lot of time reading all of the inserts over and over, and later on I was able to play the entire album note-for-note on guitar...the band I had in high school and college (with my brother on bass) used to play the entire thing when we'd jam. What a record!



Front cover


Opened up: inserts on left, record on right



The poster included in the album

Who's Next (released 1971)

Tommy found the Who entering the peak phase of their career, both live and in the studio, and the absolute peak of their non-concept albums is Who's Next (ironically, it arose from the ashes of the aborted concept album Lifehouse that Pete Townshend had written for the band in 1970). This is a no-frills nine-track album that stands as one of the great records in rock history. The vibrant cover is one of the most famous of all time and looks great in the larger size afforded by vinyl. The back cover is a backstage shot with Keith Moon being his usual crazy self and it told me, even as a young kid, that the superb drummer was also quite the character (which I'd learn about in more detail years later!).

Front cover


Rear cover

Quadrophenia (released 1973)

Of all of the Who albums, this one has always been my favorite and to this day, it remains one of my top three favorite albums of all time. I am not exaggerating when I say that this album helped me out immensely when I was a teenager and saved my life (and my sanity) on more than one occasion. Absolutely everything about, from the great music to the incredible packaging, marks this as one of the masterpieces of the rock era and certainly the pinnacle of the Who's career (even Pete Townshend himself has been quoted as saying he'll never write anything better than this). I spent hours and days with this album, listening to it, memorizing every lyric and musical nuance, and studying the cover and the gorgeous libretto, to the point that it's in my DNA. The book allows you to follow the story of the album in real time as you listen to it, and the overall gray coloration of the entire package, plus its strong connection to ocean and water themes (which, as someone who has a deep love for the ocean, is yet another way in which it resonates with me on multiple levels) and this is probably THE perfect album for me and my life.  I remember buying this on CD in the early 1990s and being so disappointed at the packaging; I was thrilled when it was finally released in 1996 with the original libretto included...smaller, yes, but at least it was intact and it was THERE.



Front cover, complete with price tag of $4.99 in the upper righthand corner


Rear cover


Inner gatefold with story on the left, credits on the right




The libretto

Libretto

Who Are You (released 1978)

The final Who album with Keith Moon and, in my opinion, the final Who album, period. Another no-frills album with no elaborate packaging, but a great collection of songs. As a kid, I only knew the growling title-track from the radio and the rest of the album confused me until I was old enough to appreciate what Pete was doing with his writing by this stage in the band's career. I still think it's a great, underrated, and unique Who album. The artwork is great, with all of the tangled leads and cables and the vibrant colors. The band still look badass on the cover...weary and intense, but still great (Keith's weight gain notwithstanding). The eerie message on Keith's chair got to me even back then.





JOHNNY WINTER

As I've written about before, when my dad would listen to Johnny, I was enthralled with his playing and voice and thought he must be a really flamboyant black guy who had the blues in his DNA. Imagine my surprise a little bit later when I found that I was right in every way but one, and that not only was he white but that he was albino! Such things didn't matter then and they don't now, but I do remember my surprise when the image in my mind didn't match the guy on the album cover!


Johnny Winter And/Live (released 1970/71)

This is a weird one, as it's a two-record set that combines his 1970 studio album And with his 1971 live album And Live. Both are great, however...some weak tracks on the studio side but the live album is blistering!

Front cover


Rear cover


Captured Live! (released 1976)

This one is just incendiary. I remember this being one of the ones where the guitar playing just made my jaw drop when I first heard it and I really listened to it intently for many years. I still love cranking this one up. This one has a no-frills sleeve with a shot of the massive crowd on the back cover, but every song is just a tour-de-force of guitar, not to mention the great band Johnny had behind him.


JETHRO TULL

Tull is a band I've always been a big fan of, but only their earlier material...after their Thick as a Brick album from 1972, I don't care for their stuff. Luckily, the records my dad had of theirs were from their classic earlier period and the combination of their very British heavy-guitar sound with their more acoustic folk pieces, not to mention the bizarre addition of Ian Anderson on lead flute (which somehow worked!) was totally unique. I loved these guys and still do.


Benefit (released 1970)

Tull's third album and probably the one where their mix of English psychedelia, folk, and electric blues came together in its most perfect form. I spent a lot of time listening to this one and...


Aqualung (released 1971)

What a great album, and rightly considered one of the greatest of all time. The title track, "Cross Eyed Mary," and "Locomotive Breath" were favorites as a kid and I spent a lot of time trying to suss those out on guitar. The entire album is great from start to finish, though.


TRAFFIC

Traffic are another band that may not be as well known now as they should be, but they were/are a favorite of my dad's, and a band that I love as well. Led by the brilliant Steve Winwood, their blend of English psychedelia, folk, jazz, and R&B was really unique, and the sheer number of great songs and albums they had speak volumes about their place in rock history.


Best of Traffic (released 1969)

A compilation of their earlier hits and album tracks, there's some great stuff on here...mainly their 1960s non-album singles, which were especially difficult to get in the US as I believe most of them were only ever released in the UK.


John Barleycorn Must Die (released 1970)

One of my favorite albums and one of the band's best. The opening salvo of Glad/Freedom Rider is just fantastic and there isn't a duff track over the course of the entire album. Pretty minimalist packaging in terms of coloration but the burlap-sack texture on the sleeve and the woodcut image on the front totally fit with the theme of the album.


The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys (released 1971)

Another great album, especially the long title track, and this one is interesting because the outer cardboard record sleeve has the corners cut off in order to create the 3D cube effect (although when the record and inner sleeve are inserted, the corners stick out.


SANTANA

Santana (released 1969, left) and Abraxas (released 1970, right)
Another great guitarist, although I'm only like the first three albums he and his band did. These are the first two, and have typically ornate and cool-looking late 1960s/early 1970s artwork. Even better, the original full-size poster that came with Abraxas is still in my dad's copy!


Poster included in Abraxas

LED ZEPPELIN

What can be said about the mighty Led Zep that hasn't already been said by so many others, including me? Yes, they "borrowed" heavily from their sources, but it can't be denied that they were incredibly talented and creative and remain one of the greatest bands in the history of rock. Jimmy Page was and still is one of my biggest guitar influences and their sonic assault, contrasted with their use of loud/soft dynamics and acoustic instrumentation knocked me out as a kid and still thrills with each listen.

Led Zeppelin II (released 1969)

I spent a LOT of time with this record, playing air guitar to Page's solo spot in "Whole Lotte Love" and later on, studying it and using it to learn how to play each and every one of its songs. It has a pretty cool gatefold (not shown) of a giant blimp flying through spotlights that my oldest daughter liked when I took the picture below.


Led Zeppelin IV (released 1971)

Along with 1975's Physical Graffiti, their high-water mark. Just a flawless album from start to finish. Add to that some truly cryptic artwork with nary a mention of the band's name anywhere on the outside, and the presence of those runes inside (as well as on the record label) and the air of mystery was palpable to a young boy. The gatefold picture of "The Hermit" and the ancient font used to write the lyrics to "Stairway to Heaven" on the inner sleeve only complete the whole package.




In Through the Out Door (released 1979)

The final album, a transitional one that sadly ended up being their last since John Bonham tragically died in late 1980. I've always liked this record, even though it's not their best and many Zeppelin fans loathe it. Besides the music, the packaging was great and a perfect example of vinyl's superiority over other formats. The front and back covers are different character's perspectives from within the photo and a total of *six* different sleeves ensured that there was a lot of variability as to what record you got when you bought this (mainly because it was shrink wrapped in a plain brown wrapper so you didn't know which one you got until you bought it!). The inner sleeve also has a secret...wet it with some water and a note in the ashtray appears with a message. Neither my dad nor I ever did that so the sleeve is intact, as seen below. Still, pretty cool!






Front of inner sleeve



Back of inner sleeve


JIMI HENDRIX

Again, nothing needs to be said about Jimi; quite simply, one of the greatest, most influential and groundbreaking guitarists of all time. My dad once told me that hearing Hendrix for the first time in late 1966/early 1967 was like hearing something from another planet...it was that unique. I will admit that Jimi is an influence on my playing in terms of my having learned to play many of his songs and using some of his riffs as jumping off points for my own playing, but to say I can even come close to approaching him would be ludicrous. I spent MANY hours listening to these records...it's just great music, and like most of the great frontmen, he had a top-notch band behind him.


Are You Experienced? (released 1967)

One of the greatest debut albums of all time and a real blast to listen to...this is, as I read years ago, "the blues by way of Venus." It blew minds in the 1960s and it blew my mind twenty years later. Pretty minimalist packaging, but a great fish-eye lens photo of the band (with a really groovy jacket Jimi has on...the eyes on his shoulders used to weird me out as a kid!).








Electric Ladyland (released 1968)

Jimi's magnum opus. I also think it's one of the greatest albums by anyone, any time, period. Four sides of incredible music running the gamut from hard rock, blues, jazz, psychedelia, R&B, and everything in between. No two songs sound the same on this album and the level of musicianship is awe-inspiring, although Jimi's perfectionism and attention to detail are what led Noel Redding to leave the band the following year. The packaging is befitting a work such as this, with the instantly recognizable cover, a great group shot on the rear, and loads of other pictures in the gatefold.







Band of Gypsys (released 1970)

The last album Jimi would released in his lifetime.  What was initially a way to get out of a lawsuit due to a bad pre-fame contract he'd signed ended up resulting in one of the great live albums and a wholly unique entry in his catalog. The nascent funk and soul beats found on this record would transcend rock music into the next decade and beyond, and the level of Jimi's playing on these new songs was absolutely staggering: one only has to listen to "Machine Gun" and "Power of Soul" to realize this was a guy who was on another level from any other great guitarist who's ever lived. The album cover is striking and one of my favorites.










The Cry of Love (released 1971)

Released a year after his death and compiled by his longtime engineer Eddie Kramer and his drummer Mitch Mitchell, this collected the most complete tracks intended for his fourth studio album at the time of his death. All of this material has been subsequently released by the Hendrix family on the excellent releases First Rays of the New Rising Sun and South Saturn Delta in the 1990s, but forty-five years ago, this was the only way to hear these new Hendrix songs. A great album cover, some interesting pictures in the gatefold (including Jimi leaning out of a window with a rifle!) and this was one that fascinated me once I dug deeper into it after absorbing the releases he put out when he was alive.






CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL

Having just reviewed a biography on the band, I was reminded yet again about something pertaining to CCR that always had me shaking my head in awe: these guys put out a TON of great records and songs in such a short span of time! In three and a half years, they released seven studio albums (including three in 1969!) and a bunch of great singles. Forty-five years on and the music still sounds as fresh and vibrant as it did back then. I've always loved CCR and they were a great way to learn guitar...the songs sound fairly complicated and well-put together but are deceptively simple when you break them down. That's the hallmark of a great writer, which John Fogerty certainly was, but you can't overlook the fact that the band as a whole was what made these tunes so magical.

Creedence Gold (released 1972)

Oh man, do I love this record. Not only is it a great collection of songs, but the packaging is really neat. The front has die cut silhouettes of each band member, and when you turn each flap, there's a picture of them. The back cover has a great group shot, and the inner sleeve has photos of each of their album releases. I spent a lot time playing guitar along to these songs and it served as my springboard to discover the rest of their great music.





STEELY DAN

I've always been a big Steely Dan fan...it stemmed mainly from hearing their songs on the radio. I've always liked their catchy songs, Donald Fagen's really weird voice (but it works!) and their amalgam of rock, soul, and jazz. My parents had every album on vinyl except for their final (before their 1990s reunion) release, 1980's Gaucho. I spent a lot of time listening to these records and discovering the numerous deeper album cuts that you never hear on the radio.





THE BEATLES

Well, of course! Last but certainly not least, as you know, the Beatles are my favorite band of all time and their music has been with me as long as I can ever remember, from birth (and before, probably!). Growing up, I heard them all the time on the radio and on these records...it wasn't until later on in the late 1980s when the entire UK discography was released on CD that I absorbed everything they had ever released, but even so, I played, played, and played some more these two albums. They are of course...

The Red Album (1962-1966) and The Blue Album (1967-70) (both released 1973)

These are two examples of how great compilations can be if enough time, care, and attention to detail is taken when putting them together.  They contain a perfect mix of singles, B-sides, and album tracks and offer what's probably the best comprehensive cross-section of the band's entire career (although of course, I would direct EVERYONE to simply buy all of their albums...they're essential). I loved the striking contrast between what they looked like in 1963 on the cover of Red and what they looked like in 1969 on the cover of Blue...same pose, same building, but they looked so different and it blew my childhood mind that it was only a span of six years (it still boggles my mind when I think about it). The inner gatefold is a cool picture from the famous "Mad Day Out" photo session of July 1968, which is one of my favorite sets of photos of the band (one of my favorite posters I had when growing up is from that photo shoot). The A- and B-side Apple labels were always cool, and still are.  Just great, fond memories of these records as a kid.


















That's it for Part 1! I hope you've enjoyed it, and feel free to share any of your memories of these records (or others) in the comments section below. Stay tuned for Part 2 where I'll go through the rest of the records that I grew up with!

2 comments:

  1. One of my favorite Who albums and the first I bought was Who Sell Out, which sported a pretty ugly album cover--Roger Daltry in a can of beans, but boy, I Can See For Miles, and the way the songs queued into each other was fantastic and still is. Their other, Meaty, Beaty Big & Bouncy, had many of their hits all crammed onto once great disc.

    Tull's Stand Up album was great and had a pop-up cutout of the band in the center. How great is that. I still have my copy.

    Dave Mason's first solo album was a bizarre package, that folded out many times, the album itself was multi-colored, really unusual, AND was great music.

    The Rolling Stone's, Their Majestic Satanic Request--I've got one of the original whatever it's called? 3-D prism designs.

    Just about any of the Frank Zappa album covers could be included just for unusual art and design alone.

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    1. Nice! I've got all of those on CD but the only ones I've seen on vinyl is the Who Sell Out (agreed, fantastic album). Stand Up is a great album and I'd heard of the pop-up but never seen it. The Stones album had a lenticular image which I've read was ridiculously expensive to produce so after the first pressings they ditched it. If you've got an original pressing, that's awesome! A whacky album for sure...I dig it but the Stones didn't do psychedelia as well as some other bands and everything about the album, down to the cover, was a rip-off of Sgt. Pepper.

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