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2 December 2017

Perhaps the point of vinyl is not the music but those poignant pops, crackles and hisses

If you’re the right age, these sounds whirl you back in time to those first records you owned.

By Tracey Thorn

I had to listen to the test pressing of my finished album the other day. This is when you check what the vinyl version will sound like, so you sit very quietly in front of your speakers and, ignoring the songs completely, take note of the overall sound quality and strain your ears to listen out for any excessive surface noise, any unwanted pops or crackles. And, this being vinyl, there are occasional pops and crackles. But are they unwanted? Ah, that’s the question.

Vinyl has had a revival, you will have read. And part of me can’t help feeling that it’s really the pops and crackles that have made a comeback, securing their place in people’s hearts as some kind of badge of authenticity. The clunk of the needle dropping. The faint hiss before the first song begins. Sounds that, if you’re the right age, whirl you back in time to those first records you owned.

I loved those records of mine, yet I treated them so badly – handling them without care, leaving them lying on my untidy bedroom floor, among discarded clothes, copies of the NME and cups of tea. I’d pick them up with sticky fingers and let the grooves get coated in hairspray, and then I’d play them on my brother’s 1960s Dansette. I wonder whether I ever replaced the needle? Probably not.

For my 18th birthday, in 1980, I got a music centre, which was a step up, but still pretty unsophisticated. It wasn’t until I met Ben that I realised you could have a separate record deck and amp, with proper treble and bass controls, which Ben had adjusted to suit his exact taste so that when he put on an Eno album, or Chic’s “At Last I Am Free”, the sound shimmered like silver in the room. I’d never really considered the sonic quality of records before, my appreciation of them being entirely emotional. This was eye-opening.

If vinyl nostalgia among those my age is about remembering our youth, I think the enthusiasm among younger people is more about a longing for an idealised era that preceded them – a lost age of music, when it was new and countercultural. Through the medium of vinyl, they hope to recapture the innocence. All stardust and golden, they’re trying to get themselves back to the garden.

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Two of our kids have bought record players and raided our album collection, working their way through Nico, Bowie, the Velvet Underground and Joni Mitchell. Right now, I can hear Joy Division’s “Transmission” coming from the youngest’s bedroom, and I wonder whether he’s playing Ben’s old seven-inch single, or mine. At this point, the idea of the record as artefact – a tangible thing that can be passed on – makes sense to me. I’m glad that single has survived. It feels like glue holding us all together.

But for those of us who still make records, the vinyl comeback is a bit of a nuisance. There’s a shortage of pressing plants, so the manufacturing queue creates an unwanted delay of several months between completion of recording and release. I’d like to finish a record and have it in the shops the next day.

The other reason I’m sometimes sceptical about its revival is that I remember when vinyl and cassettes were the only options. We’d listen to a recording we’d just finished – which had sounded so rich and sparkly in the studio – squashed on to a piece of plastic, with a sinking feeling of disappointment. In 1988, our album Idlewild was the first we released on CD and the experience was a revelation. We were thrilled at how close it sounded to what we’d actually recorded.

So I can’t get exercised about the whole “vinyl sounds better” debate. I don’t think it does, but then I don’t think that matters. People like vinyl in an irrational way, the way they like lots of things. There is meaning in placing the record carefully on the turntable, lowering the needle. It’s reverential, ritualistic. And maybe we like the snaps, crackles and pops, the surface noise, that faint mysterious hiss that seems to come from somewhere else entirely, perhaps the place where the music lives. 

This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world