By Ken Sharp
As vinyl continues the comeback of the century, seasoned collectors and newbies alike will be enthralled by a new vinyl destination dubbed The Sound of Vinyl (thesoundofvinyl.us) teeming with over 20,000 vinyl releases spanning a myriad of genres including Classic Rock, Rock, Blues, Jazz, Country, Folk, Pop, Soul/R&B, Classical, Hip Hop, Electronica, Alternative, Reggae, Metal, Soundtracks and more.
On SOV’s multichannel e-commerce platform, vinyl is made available direct to consumers through their online store and direct messaging. Here’s how it works: Consumers create an account, log onto the site and are presented with a series of albums and asked to rate them — ”like,” ‘dislike” or “skip.” This process helps create a unique musical profile. Then, given a consumer’s personal taste, based on both a computer algorithm and input from various curators numbering music luminaries and industry heavyweights, consumers will receive a daily text message with a vinyl recommendation or special offer geared to their own unique musical likes. These require either a simple “yes” or “no” response; a “yes” turns into an automatic purchase and that vinyl is shipped post haste to the consumer.
We spoke to key members of “The Sound Of Vinyl” team, curators Henry Rollins and producer/artist Don Was who provide the vinyl lowdown.
GOLDMINE: Let’s talk how vinyl is a communal hobby.
Henry Rollins: There is a community experience, a true human connection one person has or a group of people in a room has with a record playing over a CD playing. Music is playing in both instances but there’s something about the disc spinning and that someone has to put it on and someone has to flip it over; someone is gonna have to do things instead of pressing play. One is convenient and with the other one you have to do stuff. However, the sound of vinyl and the warmth that not only comes from the speakers but that it inspires amongst people when the music is on, somehow manages to enhance human interaction. It makes rooms better. It makes time pass better. It borders on magic. The differences between digital and analog are technical and easy to understand on that level. But on the deeper level, there’s a true human connection one makes with music when playback is coming from vinyl that almost escapes description because it’s so deep and at times so intensely personal. Put it this way; believe it or not, I’m not the most outgoing person. I leave people alone but if I see someone with a Ramones shirt on, I reckon I can walk right over and go, “Ramones, man!” That guy can’t argue with me, we’re Ramones fans! We’ve got this thing in common that we don’t even have to say anything, man. You can walk by that person and look at him and give him a nod like, “Alright!” and we’re good. It’s a wonderful club to be a part of because you realize you have allies all over the world. It’s a groovy rock ‘n’ roll pass. If that guy likes “Houses of the Holy” and you do, man, no fights are gonna happen even if you disagree on everything; you’ve got that and it eclipses everything else.
GM: As a curator with The Sound of Vinyl, what is your role?
HR: Several weeks ago I was here in the Capitol Records studios listening to the stereo remix of “Sgt. Pepper” by Giles Martin. I ran into Jason Feinberg and he said, “Here’s what I’m doing with the Sound of Vinyl web site. You’re a vinyl lover. We’re making a web site where there’s access to vinyl, good repressings and audiophile pressings. But that’s gonna be a fraction of it. We’re looking for interesting content. Interviews with interesting people about their top 10 records of all time or how they got into music or if they’re a producer or if they’re a guy in a band.” I said, “Okay,” he said, “We need someone to bring ‘em in, interview them in and make it work.” He and I went back and forth over emails and I came over to Capitol Records for a meeting and we talked for hours and we kept landing on the same page. So we started lining up people to interview. Eventually the Sound of Vinyl web site becomes information rich. We’ll come up with a specific day where we’re gonna add new stuff, new releases, new interviews. You get on the mailing list and it’ll show up on your phone or on the site and there we’ll have an interview with Don Was, for example.
GM: You’re also given a voice as a key curator.
HR: Yeah, I’m one of many voices. But I’m helping to gather content. We want to make the site super information rich where we’ll help educate somebody who’s getting turned onto vinyl, not an old veteran like you or me. It’ll be a place where people can learn about mastering or what it means to cut a lacquer. It’s a place where they can learn how records are made and this will help them appreciate the records more. They can be inspired by people of all different aspects of the music industry, like mastering engineer Ron McMaster talking about how to cut a record and how to keep a band from screwing their record up by kicking them out of the studio so he can make a better sounding record for them. The more understanding of how the sausage is made is important; I don’t think that’s a gross out. I think it makes everything far more interesting; there’s not one aspect of this that isn’t interesting. So that’s what we’re looking to do, to educate these people. I want vinyl fanatics. I want vinyl addicts. I want people who are unable to live without a new record every other day ‘cause I don’t think there is such a thing as too many records. If there is I’d like to be the person to find out what’s too many records, because I have a lot.
GM: Are you still buying records on a regular basis?
HR: You’re not gonna believe this but it’s true I buy one to three records every day. I buy a lot of them online. I go every Friday to Amoeba Records and I buy half a Trader Joe’s bag of new records and I’m buying them online. I’m on eBay buying a rare version of a record I have 10 versions of already; maybe I’m buying a reissue or a record that I’ve never heard of, or a rare pressing of a record that I’ve been listening to for 40 years. There’s always something coming in, cassette, lathes, test pressings, 7-inch, 10-inch, 12-inch.
GM: What’s the first vinyl album you ever bought with your own money?
HR: With my Washington Star newspaper delivery-boy money, I bought the double cassette of Grand Funk Railroad “Live” just ‘cause it looked cool. I remember they took it out of the glass counter so you can’t steal it and sold it to me for like four dollars.
GM: What’s the vinyl album you wore out more than any other in your formative years?
HR: It sounds like I’m trying to impress you but it’s because my mom had them and I took them to my room. Initially, it was Beatles records. My mom said, “Here, you’re a young person, have a Beatles record, now go to your room.” So I played them until I destroyed them. I wasn’t that friendly to my records. So with the “Yellow Submarine” soundtrack, I played the A-side, the vocal side, much more than the B-side where the music was scary. “Abbey Road” was just a perfect record, then and now. You listen to it now and I realize that at age seven I had good taste. So that was the initial burst. But when I started getting into more of my mom’s records, I listened to things like “Hot Buttered Soul” by Isaac Hayes. I was in fifth grade and I just dug it. Joplin “In Concert,” the two LP set, belonged to my mom and I’d listen to it. My mom knew what I did to records so she said, “Keep it, I’ll buy anther, they’re cheap! So anytime I liked one of my mom’s records and go, “I like this record,” she’d go, “it’s yours, it’s yours!” We’d go to the record store up to two nights a week. We were always buying records. So I’m kind of like my mom. My mom bought the “Shaft” soundtrack, the double LP by Isaac Hayes. The theme song of course is very powerful but the rest of that record is exquisite. I also liked the “Hair” soundtrack ‘cause these were my mom’s records. This was before I was going to the record store to say, “I want that!”
GM: What vinyl record would we be surprised is part of your collection?
HR: Boston. I loved those records; what a great guitar tone Tom Scholz had. “The Best of Kansas” is a great record. A lot of Steve Miller records; this is my youth, FM radio. I don’t really have anything that I think is a guilty pleasure; if I put it on and you don’t like it, leave. Maybe something that will surprise people is Nena’s “99 Luftballons.” I bought that record in 1984. I liked Cyndi Lauper in the ‘80s. Madonna’s “Like A Virgin” is a perfect album. I listen to it quite often; it’s a great record. I had it on cassette in the ‘80s. So there’s a lot of mainstream-ish stuff in my collection but it’s just so well done. Sometimes a big record is big for a good reason. So I have a bit of that and the rest of it probably wouldn’t surprise you but maybe it would surprise you how eclectic some of the jazz stuff is or how avante some of the avante stuff is.
GM: What’s the best vinyl bargain you ever pulled off?
HR: Here’s a record that I didn’t pay too much money for and walked out of a record store not believing I had this in my hot little hands. I got turned onto the great R&B group, The Treniers on a Best Of collection. I was in Colorado at Wax Trax! (Records) and the band must have pulled into town years earlier. But in the bins there was a fully-signed LP of The Treniers and I was like “Man, this is so cool” and it was only $4.99. The store didn’t know what to do with it. I thought the guy behind the counter would look down and go, “Woah, woah, woah, no, no, no…” So I just tried to be really low key and I tried to engage him, not looking at the record. I kind of kept his eyes on me. “Ok, here’s the money.” I put the record in the bag and got it out of the store and went, “YES!” It’s one my rare finds. A lot of my “I can’t believe I got this record” was one amazing fell swoop at Bleecker Bob’s in 1979 or ’80. I was in New York to see Sham 69 at Hurrah. Me and my friends from Washington D.C. went into Bleecker Bob’s, which was a legendary store, and we had our little want lists. Every record that I asked for, not only did Bob have but he was kind of insulted I dare ask him if he had it and not assuming he did have it. He was a tough character but had a heart of gold once you made friends with him. We became pals later. But my first encounter with him was pretty intense. I said, “Do you have the first single by The Misfits with “She” and “Cough/Cool” I’d only read about that in a listing. He gave me a look, like “Who are you talking to?” and he threw it at me. My terrified friends also wanted one and he threw that at us. I just named three or four hyper rare, even back then, 7-inches, and he had them all for $2.99 and they’re all worth a bloody fortune now, several hundred, up to thousands of dollars. That day I got $14 or $15 worth of record, which is now worth a solid five thousand dollars. At the time, I was like, “Wow, I just checked off five things on my want list!” A few years later I saw how rare the records were. And the fact that he had them…too bad I didn’t go back up to New York the next week and kept asking him for stuff. That was a magic record store experience.
GM: As an artist, do you recall when you had your first copy of your own vinyl in your hands?
HR: The first record that I made was a 7-inch. It was my little band in Washington D.C. called SOA, which stood for State of Alert, and it was the “No Policy” E.P., Dischord 2. Before we put the record to press, with my magic markers that I still had from high school, I wanted colored vinyl and I actually drew the green vinyl and the red label. I still have the yellow legal pad with that drawing. I came up with what I thought would be a logo but it sucked, but I had the color scheme. So the great day came when my record came out. Skip Groff from Yesterday and Today Records called ‘cause I think the records got drop-shipped to him. He said, “Your record is here.” I drove out to the record store and picked up copies of my own record and I pulled it out of the box and it was just like I thought, green vinyl, red label. In those days we never knew that the factory could also make the picture sleeve. We would just go to Kinko’s and print them out, scissors, glue stick, and invite all your friends over with their scissors and glue sticks — and you’d have paste-up parties. That’s how all the early Dischord 45s were made. Everyone would sit around with scissors listening to music, someone was DJing and someone brought Coca-Cola so we could stay up all night and everyone was handcutting and pasting with Uhu glue sticks 1,000 singles. That’s why they’re all uneven and pasty and wavy (laughs) because we were working on them all night before the sun came up. That’s how my first record came to be. I couldn’t give them away when we made them and now it goes for 500 bucks.
GM: Do you have a Holy Grail vinyl album that you have in your collection or are seeking to own?
HR: Yes, I want the India pressing of Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine” single that sat on Discogs for $2,100 for two years. The day I wrote the guy, I said, “Man, can you come down on that?” and he gave me a really good price on it and then a guy went right in front of me and bought it for a 1,000 bucks and I’ve never seen another one again.
GM: For those music listeners whose preferred music listening experience is limited to downloads, CDs and streaming, what would you tell about the allure/appeal of vinyl?
HR: I wouldn’t waste too much of their time to say here’s why vinyl is better ‘cause hearing is believing. I would bring them to a good listening environment and ask them about what kind of records they like. And I’d be like, well, damn, I’ve got those records. Let’s warm up the tubes and let’s sit and not talk for 35 minutes and just listen to this record. Let’s listen in a good analog environment and play one or two songs to allow your brain to remap and make the leap over to analog and let you emotionally connect with that music in a way that you never have before. I’d be like, yeah, you love that record when it’s coming out of your phone or your laptop but you have never connected with those same eight songs that you know inside out … and by song three, you’re thinking, I need this, and by song eight, you’re like, “What have I been missing? Thank you so much.” That’s what I would do; I would have listening parties and I’d be dragging those people in ‘cause like I said, hearing is believing. Once you connect to vinyl on that level, it’s kind of a door that cannot be closed. You want more of it and soon you’ll be thinking, “Okay, the turntable will go there and that’ll have to go because it’s gonna turn into a shelf full of records. And the couch has to go ‘cause now I need two shelves of records” (laughs) and it becomes that thing. I’ve never seen that happen in the digital realm besides youthful exuberance and curiosity. I’m not putting down CDs, I’ve got a million of them. But I’ve never heard someone talk about music like they’re talking about their next breath or their next meal or a loved one like they talk about music via vinyl.
GOLDMINE: As a curator with The Sound of Vinyl, what is your role?
Don Was: Being a curator just means being a fan. The thing I dig about Sound of Vinyl is, above all else, it’s a community; an ongoing conversation amongst music fans who you’re hardpressed to find on the street and who can’t congregate at record stores anymore, which is what we used to do in the ‘60s. So I see myself as being part of the conversation, the conversation between the curators and the fans. But we’re all fans.
GM: Juggling many hats, artist, producer and now president of Blue Note Records, how do you account for vinyl’s resurgence?
DW: Most important is vinyl sounds really cool. It’s got a thing, I can’t explain it to you. It’s hi-fi; it’s an imperfect medium, but it happens to complement the listening experience. People talk about the warmth of the sound, they talk about the grain of the sound. If you mix records you think of it in terms of dimension and depth. There’s depth and imaging that happens that is different from analog tape. Vinyl adds something; it sculpts the music a little differently in a way that allows it to speak more directly to you. But in many ways it’s a mystery. You could probably put up all the oscilloscopes and analyze it but there’s an element of magic involved. It’s not supposed to work that well but it does. Perfect is really subjective, you know, Perfect means that the music is communicative and it cuts through the air and your skin (laughs) and it gets inside of you.
GM: Using your recent project with The Rolling Stones, “Blue & Lonesome,” what’s your thinking working again with artists knowing that vinyl is not a thing of the past but a thing of the future?
DW: When I started making records, all you did was produce for vinyl. You appreciate the value of the real estate on the disc. You know you have to give people 15 minutes on a side but if you go over 20 minutes you start losing some things so you self-edit. (laughs) You ask yourself, “Do we really need to repeat that twice? Is something new happening that we’re keeping those eight bars in because every eight bars becomes precious?” When you understand that every note counts you make better records. Unlimited time allowed people to get lazy and maybe self-indulgent.
GM: Do you have a Holy Grail vinyl record you’re seeking?
DW: There’s a Junie Morrison album I’m looking for; he was the lead singer in The Ohio Players and he also sang in Funkadelic — he’s singing on “One Nation Under A Groove.” In the early ‘80s (“Bread Alone,” “Junie 5”) he made a couple of solo albums and there’s one that has a song called “Cry Me A River,” not the Julie London song, it’s his own song. He made two albums and I’ve been looking for those; I can’t find those anywhere.
I’m also looking for a Shelly Manne album on Atlantic called “Boss Sounds!” that’s got a song called “Frank’s Tune” that I’m also looking for. It’s a late ‘60s record and I need that one too. They used to play that song in Detroit all the time and I’m trying to find that. I also can’t find my copy of Charles Lloyd “Moon Man.” Charles Lloyd is on Blue Note; he’s one of my heroes. He was the first jazz artist to play The Fillmore before Miles (Davis) did and to jam with the Grateful Dead, but also he’s a guy who could play with Chico Hamilton’s band.
GM: As an artist with Was (Not Was), do you recall when you had your first vinyl album in your hand?
DW: It was huge. Success came rather late in life for me. I was doing nothing but music since I was 18. With Was (Not Was), when our first album came out, I was 29, so that’s a long haul to get rejected all the time. (laughs) I used to visualize record labels with names on them. That would help me stay focused and stay motivated. To have that album come back with the Island Records logo, I’m sure I cried. It was really profound to get that back and to put on an album that we made that someone else decided to pay to have pressed. (laughs)
GM: How big is your vinyl collection and are you still actively buying vinyl?
DW: Oh yeah, sure, I’m still buying it. I have thousands of records. It’s a wall of records from floor to ceiling. The first record I ever bought with my own money was a 45 by The Four Seasons, “Candy Girl” backed with “Marlena,” a double-sided single. I was in fifth grade and it was the drums on those records that really got me more than anything. I still don’t know who played on those Four Seasons records; it was the New York equivalent of “The Wrecking Crew.” They’re bad ass, man. Those records just kicked right in.
GM: What vinyl record would we be surprised is a part of your collection?
DW: I’m sure there would be some. As a producer I’ve tried to stay pretty eclectic. I got a sense of that early on. Right after “Nick of Time” (Bonnie Raitt) was successful, I started getting a lot of people calling with female blues guitar players and I thought, ‘Oh, I see, you can get pigeonholed in a minute.’ So I made it a point for a decade to do all kinds of stuff. When “Nick of Time” won all those Grammys I was working on an Iggy Pop album, “Brick By Brick.” I tried to change it up as dramatically as I could; I was working with everyone from Paula Abdul to Bob Dylan to The Knack to Neil Diamond. It was a very conscious thing to not get pigeonholed; eventually you’re just old. (laughs)
GM: You have an interesting Rolling Stones vinyl story.
DW: The Stones had just signed to Virgin Records and “Voodoo Lounge” was gonna be their first record for the label. But Virgin was gonna reissue the catalog at the same time. They chose “Exile On Main Street” and “Sticky Fingers” to be the first two to be remastered. So we sent it to Bob Ludwig — this was back in 1993. Ludwig did what he was asked to do and mastered it to sound like 1993. But it didn’t sound anything like how we remembered “Sticky Fingers” or “Exile.” We put it on and it was hi-fi but it was not right. So we did a lot of research and went out and bought every incarnation of those albums and every one was incredibly different. We thought there must be EQ-ed production masters but no one could find any production masters for either of those records. But I’ll tell you, the non-EQ-ed master tapes don’t sound anything like the records we know. Suddenly we’re sitting there thinking, what do we match it to? It was mysterious. No one knew where to turn.
Finally, there was an ad in Goldmine magazine. Someone had virgin vinyl copies of the original pressings still in the shrink wrap of “Exile” and “Sticky Fingers.” So without tipping our hand we answered the ad. It was someone who was living out in Ventura or something like that. They drove in and came to my house not knowing that Mick and Keith were there. (laughs) The guy was smart enough not to charge ‘em (laughs) but asked them to autograph another dozen Stones albums, which they did. So we opened up the shrink wrap and put it on and there it was. So we sent it up to Ludwig and went, “Just copy this over, man” because this is how it was supposed to be. But Bob had too much pride to do that and I’m glad he did because we saved a generation and he matched the sound and feel of them. That was a really significant lesson. Don’t editorialize on something that’s great. How f*ckin’ dare you! (laughs) You think you’re gonna improve on this? (laughs)