Thomas Patterson: The Needle and the Damage Done
Hi, my name is Tom and I am an addict. I’m not addicted to pills or booze or porn, mind you – no, my addiction goes much deeper and has cost me far more money than any of those workaday vices. You see, I’m addicted to vinyl. Not the garment-based type. I’m not a perv. Just the 7 and 12-inch variety.
I am a record collector and have been for 20 years now, ever since my callow teenage years when I discovered the dazzling world of the NME and Melody Maker; ever since those Saturday mornings when I would excitedly cycle up to the Rough Trade record shop in Notting Hill to splurge the 20 quid I got from my paper round on whatever esoteric singles John Peel had played on his radio show the night before; ever since my first kiss at a Mercury Rev show at the Clapham Grand when I was 15 and sex and lust and rock ‘n’ roll became irrevocably linked in my mind.
But why the love of vinyl specifically? Some claim that its warm analogue sound, with its soothing pops and crackles, is the reason for choosing the format over others (John Peel is famously quoted as saying “Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, “Listen, mate, life has surface noise.”) Connoisseurs enjoy the artwork, the sleeve as art canvas rather than as tiny iPod image. For many, it’s about the thrill of collecting records, of finding and tracking down rarities, and vinyl gives you a tactile sensation of ownership that CDs can only aspire to, and that mp3s can’t give you at all.
I’ve spent years obsessing over records I don’t own, feeling elation at finally finding them, then immediately forgetting just why I was desperate for them in the first place; I have records that I’ve picked up that I’ve never even played; and I too have records hanging on the wall, my old Velvet Underground albums making do until I can afford a real Andy Warhol (which will never happen because I spend all my money on old Velvet Underground albums). Thankfully, I’m not as bad as some collectors I’ve run across in my time. Take the TV presenter (who I won’t name and shame here) who built a basement in his West London pad for his family, immediately filled it with records and lost his family in the process. Or the DJ who has spent every summer holiday in grim former Eastern bloc cities, wasting every minute of every hour crate digging through stacks of ancient Communist-era vinyl looking for elusive gems to impress the half a dozen people who go to his club night. Or the Northern soul collector who found two copies of an impossibly rare seven-inch single in a warehouse in Memphis and snapped one of them in a half so he would only ever be the sole owner of this holy grail…
Vinyl is no longer just for obsessives, however, and vinyl sales are currently at their highest in years. According to figures from the British Phonographic Industry published in October 2013, almost 550,000 LPs had been sold thus far that year in Britain. Only a tiny percentage of total record sales, but enough to keep vinyl plants in business, enough for new records shops to start opening again after years of closure, enough for Rough Trade, where my passion for vinyl was first stirred, to branch out into America, opening a massive new branch in Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg neighbourhood.
Doing similarly great business are record labels that focus on vinyl product, labels that understand that the physical format is just as important as the music within, from the vinyl only horror soundtrack reissue label Death Waltz, to British mavericks like Trunk and Finders Keepers who spend months delving through ancient record vaults for delightful obscurities so you don’t have to, to Jack White’s Third Man Records, which releases LPs on weird and wonderful colours and has even somehow invented an album filled with liquid which sloshes around inside a watertight casing as it spins on your turntable. Urban Outfitters now shills reissues of old Rolling Stone’s LPs at eye-watering figures, yet stacks them up on top of each other, thus warping the albums in the process (when a friend pointed out to an Urban Outfitters’ assistant that stacking LPs in this way would eventually ruin them, he was told that head office were aware but still chose to display them this way as an aesthetic choice). And when Warner Bros are able to repress Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours on vinyl, and charge you the privilege of spending 25 quid on a record you could pick up in any Oxfam for 50p, you know somebody’s being flimflammed by the Man.
Still, as long as record shops are being kept afloat, and labels from indies to majors understand the importance of the a physical product in a digital age, then I’ll remain a happy addict, shelling out on the latest piece of plastic down the old vinyl emporium. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to head there right now – there are some lovely new/old albums that are beckoning me from afar, and I’m ready for a bit more coloured-vinyl, gatefold sleeve, twelve-inch action.
Thomas Patterson is a Journalist and Screenwriter. This month, Thomas has been producing the spoken word versions of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, ‘Ford Ka Owners Manual 1.3L 2011’ and ‘The 50 Shades of Grey One-handed Companion’.