Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Roll up! Roll up! CDs are in town!

The arrival of  the first CDs in the record shop where I worked in the mid ‘80s was quite a momentous occasion.  The invention of those tiny shiny discs has been referred to by some as the ‘Big Bang’ event of the digital audio revolution but, at the time, many of us were still cynical.  In his excellent book, ‘Lost In Music’, Giles Smith (who worked for the same small regional chain of independent shops) describes this perfectly:

‘That Christmas [1984] , a few rather serious-looking people came in to choose from the extremely limited range of items in the shop’s plastic tray of Compact Discs.  (Fools! We thought.  It’ll never catch on.)’

 Lost In Music by Giles Smith (Picador 1995)

I have a memory of a little frisson of excitement as we unpacked and examined the new format.  I think there were just a handful of titles and I can’t recall exactly which but I think the artists included Billy Joel and Jean Michel Jarre.  I’m sure I probably held one up and looked at it from all angles under the harsh fluorescent lights, mesmerised by its sparkle and eager for it to somehow prove itself. Would it sound amazing, like nothing I had heard before, nor could even imagine?  And was it true that you could set them alight and gouge your initials into them and dunk them in vinegar and it wouldn’t make any difference?

I sold my first CD to a regular customer, Mr Sexton (he liked to keep our interactions formal).  Mr Sexton was one of those ‘rather serious-looking people’ as Giles Smith describes.  He was a technophile.  In fact I’m sure he’d probably told us about compact discs even before the record companies did.   He’d come into the shop and refer to the list of record requests that he’d previously typed into his little Psion Organiser (they’ll never catch on either, we thought).  Prior to these new-fangled CD things, he was very meticulous about his vinyl purchases.  He’d inspect them thoroughly before parting with his cash, pointing out any tiny marks and asking that we check them specifically on the in-store record deck for possible accompanying audible flaws.  In spite of his perfectionism, he did make small allowances: “Two clicks per side per album,” I seem to remember.  Two clicks but no hisses, no jumps and definitely no pitch-altering wobbly warps.

So I think it was probably the Jean Michel Jarre CD that Mr Sexton bought first.  Grinning like a simpleton I took the little disc out of its cardboard master bag. I deliberately held it between my thumb and forefinger in the way I would never do with vinyl (having trained myself to be quite an expert in the barely-touching, edges-only grasp that defines you as a true respecter of records).  Thinking I was being funny, I made some gauche remark about smearing honey on it.  I’d seen that BBC TV item where they’d done just that and the disc had still played perfectly.  Honey AND coffee!  (I can see why conspiracy theorists maintain that these sample discs were far more resilient to maltreatment than the later production line output, because their indestructibility doesn’t make any economic sense…)  Mr Sexton was a nice man but I don’t think he was too amused at the honey quip.  He took several minutes to thoroughly examine the disc, holding it in the barely-touching edges-only grasp and I couldn’t help wishing we had a pot of Gale’s under the counter.  Anyway, he went away very happy, and came back for more, from his short electronic list that quickly lengthened over the ensuing months. 

Gradually the shelves of twelve inch cardboard album masterbags made way for more five-and-a-half inch replacements and the racks of LP sleeves dwindled.  The revolution had started. I left my job there before the transition from vinyl to CD was complete and of course I realise this all shows just how old I now am.  




"You don't have to worry about scratches"



8 comments:

  1. I resisted the transition from vinyl to CD for a long time (always a Luddite) but then I caved in and now I'm surrounded by CD's which I thought would be 'the thing' for the foreseeable future only to find they are now redundant and fiscally worthless (if I ever need to sell them). In the meantime, due to lack of space, I have had to off-load nearly all my precious vinyl over the years and am left with a pretty odd-ball rump in that area. Oh well. This is why I have basically given up collecting music.

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    1. It used to be so easy... no choice!
      Collecting music is not an option here either. We are still in the relative dark ages and buy CDs, but only when there's something we really want to commit to. They seem to represent the best compromise for the way we live (although I hate to think it's a compromise at all!) - something tangible/physical but without taking up too much room space.

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  2. I was actively anti-cd for years, long after they'd made inroads. I recall buying a Husker Du cd in HMV in 1995 and feeling like I'd sold out- not that it was the Huskers, that it was on cd. Now I have thousands of the buggers.

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    1. Funny how that was an attitude many of us had....I certainly felt the same way initially and wasn't sure they'd catch on anyway! I love that you remember the first CD and where/when too.

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  3. I held off from buying a CD player of my own for some time, but took the one from my shop home for an evening when the Beatles catalogue was released on CD in late 1980's. Hearing 'Sgt Pepper' and 'Revolver' in the small confines of my bedroom at my parents' house was a jawdropper. I was pretty much a convert straight away. Never quite as finicky as Mr Sexton though!

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    1. I don't think anyone was quite as finicky as Mr Sexton! I wonder how he listens to his music now? I can still picture his face, and that "two clicks per side per album" rule will stay with me forever!
      But when CDs first came in I couldn't imagine *how* they could sound better than vinyl. I felt that surely the quality was only down to the original production of the music, not the listening medium, but yes, I too can remember the difference when first hearing CDs in a small space!



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  4. For convenience and playing in the car I embraced the CD revolution and the comfortably outscore my vinyl on a scale of about 5 to 1. Have started buying 2nd hand vinyl but find new albums on vinyl a bit too expensive at the moment. Hopefully like CDs they will come down to a more realistic price
    Think my first two were Nevermind by Nirvana and Rites of Passage by The Indigo Girls

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    1. For convenience - yes, that's it - vinyl is lovely for being what it is but just not convenient. I know it's not just about that - and the memory of slipping an album out of a great arty sleeve and then that moment when the needle alights is a fond one - but that's it for me really now. Hopefully it will come down in price for you too.
      Another who can remember their first CDs! I can't, but took a while to embrace them too.

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