The rise (and forthcoming fall) of vinyl

I bought my first record in 2003; ‘Yah, man, I was, like, so ahead of the trend’. Or, alternatively, I was just such a stereotypical, long-haired, Nirvana-obsessed moron that I would pay £3.50 for an issue of Q magazine so I could cut out a 2-inch bit of paper with a quote from Dave Grohl to put in to a scrapbook. With everything else (including a rug of Kurt Cobain’s face) already purchased, when I saw a 12” single of ‘Come As You Are’ on the wall of a shop, it was the latest thing to be the most amazing thing ever. I didn’t even know what it was but at the very least it was a big version of the CD artwork and that would do me.

This opened a whole new avenue of Nirvana memorabilia to collect. After that, I moved on to Pearl Jam, then basically any music eBay allowed me to get my hands on. Something about vinyl hooked me. I won’t bore you with the details – we all know what the supposed perks are – but with CDs the preferred format of the era; vinyl was so cheap.

However, for the last decade or so, vinyl has experienced a huge boom. At first, this meant I could get new releases on vinyl pretty consistently which enabled me to modernise my collection and purchase music on my preferred format. Yet with artists and labels both noticing and contributing to the trend, vinyl began to cost more and more. Fashion dictates, but it seems strange that a new album today can cost £4.99 on iTunes (or potentially for free when streamed), or £30 on vinyl. Yes, the production costs are higher, but not that much higher. At this point, it’s not the music we’re paying for, it’s the method of consumption, with one format ripping off the artist, and the other ripping off the customer.

Vinyl buyers weren’t ripped off in the 2000s at least. The Cribs’ second album, which I bought on Amazon for £6.99, now sells for over £100. The Hives’ debut tells a similar story. So does The Killers’… I could go on.

More ridiculously, I bought a signed Kelly Jones solo record for £4 from a second-hand record shop in Camden. Selling it online for £100 a few years ago felt like a great piece of business, but unfortunately for me, it now goes for over £300 unsigned. Specialist online marketplaces such as Discogs track and display every single sale price of an item. This results in market value inflation as sellers naturally want to push the boundaries of what they believe they can get whilst paying little attention to the circumstances or condition of previous records sold.

However, while increased record value grew from low demand in the 2000s, ample supply today means new releases have little value at all. Records, much like new cars, lose value as soon as you give them a spin. With online platforms making physical sales less profitable than ever before, artists are now releasing more and more bizarre packages of goods to bolster them:

Option 3: Limited (to about 50,000…) version of vinyl (hey, the artwork colours are inverted!), with hand-signed lyric sheet, and T-shirt.

Option 5: Standard vinyl, CD album, unsigned lyric sheet, and lithograph.

Option 8: Standard vinyl, Limited CD, signed lithograph, tote bag, and empty sweet wrapper from last tour.

It’s all gone a bit crazy. I’m actually all for it – if it’s what fans want at a price they will pay – then I’m glad artists can still make good money from their art. Touring is where it’s at financially, but touring doesn’t give us anything to listen to at home. The problem is though, not many are giving value for money…

I’ve already picked on them lately, but a good example is the new Foals record. For £50, the black circle you’ll spin will actually be violet-coloured. Okay… but, get this, it’s SIGNED! …well, one of two art prints will be signed by one member of the band.

As much as I respect Foals, having the guitarist (or the drummer? I can’t tell, it’s only a squiggle) run some pen over a photo doesn’t quite live up to its tag of ‘Signed Vinyl Collector’s Edition’ for me.

Equally, while Record Store Day has been great for the high street; over-expensive items are consistently cheaper and available in large quantities in the aftermath, which is when the 4am queues realise they’ve been lied to about the numbers of copies available. The few releases which are worth something in the future are sold for preposterous amounts; the profit being made by scalpers, not the independent record stores the day was designed for.

This current over-saturated market has undoubtedly alienated many serious collectors, happy to sell, and wait for the fad to die down before buying again. It’s hard to tell if the market has already peaked, but if you were thinking of selling parts of your collection, I probably wouldn’t wait too long. Reissue culture is thriving and is devaluing original vinyl copies with every new re-release.

Extravagant inflation still prices the majority of punters and nearly all new adopters down to reissues, but these are often mastered from digital sources: crap vinyl played on crap turntables with crap built-in speakers. After the novelty of the artwork being printed all nice and big wears off, without records holding the qualities that originally attracted audiophiles to vinyl, a great percentage of new buyers may give up the ghost of formats past and revert back to the convenience of streaming services both at home and on the go. Or, you never know, maybe with vinyl becoming too mainstream, hipsters will start a trend of listening to the even more inconvenient cassette again… What? It’s already happening? Shit.

Advertisements

An Inward-Looking Love Affair with Weezer on Letterman, 1995

Journalist Suzanne Moore said, “it’s easier to write about something you hate than something you love”. She’s probably right. We can spend hours in the pub detailing why Bob from accounts is a prick, with an alphabetised mental list of his wrongdoings, shortcomings and fashion faux pas, yet Becky on reception is just “alright”, really. Although writing criticism by its very nature implies perceived authority, it’s much easier to not come across as self-important when you’re not telling people how objectively brilliant something is.

The fact is that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, and there’s a big difference between recommending a TV show or restaurant to a friend and waxing lyrical about something to the entire, incredibly diverse world. What I’m saying is subjective beliefs are absolutely fine but preaching the good word of Weezer to you is not necessarily my business. So, I can only apologise if I come across as some kind of musical Jehovah’s Witness, singing the hymn ‘Say It Ain’t So’ in to your intercom at a particularly unholy hour of your morning lie-in. You were expecting a package, but you got ‘90s geek rock.


I was deep in a YouTube rabbit hole. We’ve all been there… Accidentally spending our Tuesday evenings watching ‘try not to laugh’ compilations, a WWF bout from 1996, clips of Dale’s Supermarket Sweep, or whatever else the internet gods deliver us. But on this occasion, I stumbled upon a 23-year-old VHS upload of the American group Weezer performing ‘Say It Ain’t So’ on the Late Show with David Letterman.

As my ears pricked up and my pixelated eyes began to focus, I became transfixed. It reminded me of how I felt when I first heard ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, and that’s a pretty big deal. Losing my Nirvana virginity triggered a chain of events that made music my hobby, my career, my life; leaving indelible marks on both my musical perceptions and taste. Considering the stature of both songs it may seem like a disproportionate comparison, but both had the same effect on me: I thought it was great, I wondered how I’d not heard it sooner, I wanted to hear it again and again, and I wanted to share it with friends.

Through social media, I did exactly that. Those people all thought it was… well, fine. Fine. Only fine?! It’s great! I mean, I do have the ability to look objectively and understand that it is a technically imperfect performance of a bog-standard rock song, but what the hell is objective about taste? Throughout the last month I’ve watched it around fifty times. Are they the idiots, or am I?

Regardless of subjectivity, I really want to try and explain what it is that sets it apart in my mind from other songs by Weezer and by countless other ‘90s rock groups. It might not make you like it, it may make you think me a moron, but it may also make you consider the reasons you have your own tastes.

1. Authenticity
To me, this is an authentic performance. It is an original composition. Every band member appears to have an emotional investment in their playing of the song. On national TV, they barely have a hairstyle between them – that is to say nothing seems manufactured or contrived – and therefore I believe what they’re doing and saying.

Of course, authenticity is entirely unquantifiable. Whether you identify with lyrical content, artist image, the geographical origins of the artist, or anything else; your perception of authenticity will in some way reflect your life experience, upbringing and previous musical taste. One comment on the video accuses Weezer of being “a group of social outcast nerds/geeks who started listening to nirvana then learned how to play instruments”. It’s a claim which is all too easy to make about countless rock bands in a post-Cobain America, but it’s one which could just as easily refer to me and my friends as teenagers in Britain. If Weezer did relate to Nirvana like I did, that may explain why I like their musical approach as well…

2. Simplicity
Musically, there’s a clear Nirvana comparison to be made through the quiet verse / loud chorus template of the ‘Say It Ain’t So’ sound. Kurt Cobain would stamp on a Boss DS-1 distortion pedal to make that change in dynamics and timbre, although there’s an even simpler approach from Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo who just uses his guitar’s volume knob to control the change. In a world of pedalboards and gizmos, this minimalist approach keeps one crunchy tone throughout, leaving the listener focused on the quality of the songwriting and not the variety of the sounds on display. There is a simplicity to the bones of the song too; its four-chord hook never bothered by a doubled chorus or cheesy key change overkill.

3. It’s Better Than the Studio Version
My obsession is as much about the performance as the song itself. I don’t watch, for example, this performance from last year and get even 1% of the same feeling. Features of the Letterman performance, such as drum fills and lead guitar parts, had been slightly developed since the recording of the studio version of the track. On top of this, the whole performance features a slightly quicker tempo and a satisfying, rawer guitar sound. Whether those changes were due to dissatisfaction with the studio version, or simply that they better reflected Weezer at that time, particularly Cuomo delivers his parts with more confidence and conviction. I therefore consider this Letterman performance to be the definitive version of ‘Say It Ain’t So’.

4. The Guitar Solo
This live version features one of my favourite guitar solos of all time. It’s not some virtuosic, faux-epic Guns ‘n’ Roses bullshit (thank God), but those bends wail, they’re emotional. The melody sits perfectly against the backing and, unlike on the overly clinical solo found on the studio version, the heavy vibrato technique which leaves other strings rattling through the engrossed Cuomo’s amp (3.05) perfectly encapsulates the vibrancy and the grit of this performance. The way Cuomo uses the same technique to let the final note hang in to the last chorus is even better, strangling every last breath out of his guitar’s neck.

5. The Chorus
Despite the heavier rock sounds of the guitars, ‘Say It Ain’t So’ unashamedly boasts a chorus just as catchy as pop songs with far greater reputations. Both Rivers and rhythm guitarist Brian Bell play and sing identical parts. No harmonies. No lead guitar parts to distract or complicate. It’s a team effort to deliver one simple idea as a straight down-the-line onslaught.

6. Mr. Matt Sharp
When watching the Letterman performance, it’s particularly hard to ignore bassist Matt Sharp, whose bad timing in the chorus would get him fired if he was standing still. However, his variety of leaps and poses, and the strumming techniques he attacks his bass with more than make up for this, enhancing the visual performance of the group no end. Despite his attention grabbing, he doesn’t come across as a cocky rock star; his moves are excitable but awkward. Plus, the way Sharp extends the word bubbling (0.50) is a perfect indicator of how he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously. While I’ve got a lot of time for the Radioheads of this world, it’s nice to hear something which has an outlet in humour alongside the serious subject matter found in the lyrics.

7. The Eyes
The other members may not match Sharp’s performance level physically, but they match his dedication. With frontman Cuomo, who was actually recovering from surgery and unable to walk without the aid of a cane (which you can even see hanging off of his mic stand), the performance is in the eyes. Take, for example, the possessed look he gives when he “wrestles with Jimmy” (0.48) or the moment of realisation that he is “drowning in the flood” (2.48), his eyes seeing the light after having kept them shut for the majority of the bridge.

8. Imperfections
When he does open his eyes, breaking his own spell, his voice breaks. It’s the least noticeable of three times this happens (the most noticeable undoubtedly at the beginning of the final chorus), but I even love the mistakes. Why? Well, it’s unashamedly subjective, but as an unexceptional vocalist myself who has made similar mistakes on stage, it’s nice to see that an imperfect performance can (or at least could in the 90s) still be given a platform to reach millions of people. Throughout popular music history, many bands have been branded around their frontmen. It’s arguably just an unavoidable component of celebrity culture, but Weezer come across very much as a ‘band’s band’, on stage because of group ability rather than individualistic talent.

The ‘realness’ of live performance comes from the potential of human error, and the level of performance above the studio version comes from human development. There is an appropriately youthful mix of both vigour and naivety in this performance that perfectly suits Weezer’s anxious ‘geek rock’. 1995 seemed to be the perfect time for ‘Say It Ain’t So’.


I may not have convinced you that this is a great performance, but I do better understand why I think it is. Clearly, the grunge ideologies from the conception of my musical interests have stuck hard. I hope that as an old dog I’ve learnt some new tricks since 2001, but it’s clear that I also have to recognise that the leopard in me hasn’t changed its spots. To be honest, I should probably be more worried about the number of animals in my psyche than why I like a bit of music.

Anyway… must stop writing. I’ve got things to watch.

Review: Dave Grohl – Play

I once was given a gift with a poem about a character called ‘Rock Pig’. It read:

Rock Pig don’t like disco
Rock Pig don’t like dance
Rock Pig don’t like ambient
Rock Pig don’t like trance
Rock Pig don’t like R&B
Rock Pig don’t like soul
Rock Pig just likes heavy duty
Bad-Ass ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

To finally put music out under your own name can be a turning point for an artist, a way of making a huge statement, a chance to signal a change of direction, an opportunity to finally release something you felt you couldn’t with any other musician or in any other project up to that point in their life. But what ‘Play’ does is show us exactly what we already know Dave Grohl is about – Bad-Ass ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.

Describing himself as “a kid in a candy store”, Grohl plays an array of musical instruments (well, strings and percussion) to produce a 23-minute instrumental opus. Having seen Foo Fighters produce an acoustic record on double album In Your Honor and even tour that set-up through Skin & Bones, I doubt we’ll ever see their famous frontman do ‘that famous frontman thing’ and truly go it alone. This may be the closest he ever gets…

Despite this, when ‘Play’’s first big riff kicks in, I would have believed anybody who told me that it was a new Foo Fighters song. Full of power, the sudden and synchronised start/stop technique and gradually bending guitar strings have been utilised by them many times before. As the track develops, however, there’s one give away… Despite Foo’s drummer Taylor Hawkins being a hugely respected and talented musician, Grohl is an inimitable animal on the drums; with virtuosic fills and an almost signature sound, it’s great to hear him behind the kit again, where he first made his name.

In fact, there is definitely a little homage to his famous drum intro from ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ at 15:40. That was the first moment that most of the world heard the sound of Dave Grohl on any instrument, at a time when he probably did still feel like a kid. Grohl is clearly aware that that song is a large part of the reason he is paid to ‘Play’ today.

‘Play’ is described as, “Celebrating the rewards and challenges of dedicating one’s life to playing and mastering a musical instrument”; and when you hit play, seven Dave Grohls walk in to a studio to record the track (I bet Grohl’s ex-bandmate Josh Homme wishes he’d thought of that, considering the Queens of The Stone Age band members timeline). When considered alongside his multiple BBC documentaries and supergroup appearances, most musicians in his position would be perceived as arrogant or worse, but he’s still thought of as “the nicest guy in rock”.

Cynics may not believe his humble claim that, “I didn’t know if I could pull [‘Play’] off”, but to me it feels believable. ‘Play’ is accompanied by a video about young people learning instruments and a list of organisations where we can sign up to learn. The key thing here is that unlike the Bonos and Geldofs of this world, he’s not preaching to us about anything apart from music. The kid who still just wants to play. Oh, and he’s also not been done for tax evasion. That always helps.

Despite the undeniable quality of the piece, there are musical limitations. Without lyrics to give a different focus or context on the piece, the quiet/loud/quiet formula Grohl has been perfecting ever since his Nirvana days is particularly blatant, growing slightly weary over 23 minutes. Although a nice touch for the video, changing drum kits and guitars during takes makes those quiet ‘in-between’ sections feel slightly more forced than usual.

That repetitive process of big riff > sudden stop > quiet riff > build back up > repeat, and the fact that ‘Play’ ends on a hugely extended E minor chord (E is the lowest note a guitar in standard tuning can play) is of no surprise and is hugely typical of his, and indeed most rock music. This is quite simply, a very long rock song. But then, so is ‘Freebird’, so is ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’, and so is ‘Hey Jude’. While it’s effect won’t be as long-lasting, it’s still damn good at points.

Some of ‘Play’’s best bits come from the rare moments where the music sounds slightly less like Foo Fighters, such as at 6.15 where acoustic guitar and percussion take the lead, or at 19:10 where the power chords are given a break and we’re treated to Jeff Buckley-esque picking and delicious chord changes. These are the moments where ‘Play’ starts to sound less like a well-packaged compilation of unused Foo Fighters riffs and more like something which stands firmly on its own two feet.

Simultaneously, the biggest success and the biggest disappointment of ‘Play’, in a musical sense, is that if you’re a Dave Grohl fan, you’ll be a ‘Play’ fan; if you’re not, you won’t be. It would be fascinating to see Grohl push himself and take a step outside of the rock genre, rather than finding countless acts, instruments and formulas to re-package the same ideas. However, it doesn’t seem as if he is going to risk alienating a fan base or tarnishing a legacy which feels like it gets stronger by the day. Perhaps the main reason for that is because Dave Grohl don’t like disco, Dave Grohl don’t like dance. Dave Grohl don’t like ambient, Dave Grohl don’t like trance. Dave Grohl don’t like R&B, Dave Grohl don’t like soul. Dave Grohl just likes heavy-duty, bad ass Rock ‘n’ Roll.