Monthly Spins: First Records

Are you dreaming when you listen? Is there a concomitant reflection of inherent desire manifesting itself within yourself when you go into this system of sound that you have meticulously created, or recreated? Perhaps, as Francois Bonnet suggests in his densely considered book The Order of Sounds there is a predilection when listening to accede to a form of conscious hallucination? What you are looking for is what you hear? A conjuring takes place on an antediluvian, reptilian part of your brain that simultaneously searches for and places music into a predetermined organization? The idea here was to navigate the supposedly passive act of listening and to consider how and when that began for me. When did music crawl out of its realm of being simply aural wallpaper and become something tactile and palpable in my life? Well, it happened when I was 11 and I remember exactly how I felt at the time.

Some had the great luck to grow up in households with audiophile enthusiasts, collectors of music, with talented parents who could sing and play an instrument, who naturally exposed you to a world of sound, perhaps even taught you an instrument or many. I certainly wasn't that lucky and it is one of the great regrets of my life that I never learned to play an instrument (we simply didn't have the money for lessons and there was no one I knew who could teach me).

My attraction to music no doubt had something to do with a fast evolving and cultural zeitgeist of rock and pop that was happening when I was a child in the 1960's. I would see long-haired boys hitchhiking with guitars slung over their backs. Music seemed to come from everywhere but it was the pop and rock I heard on the radio that seemed strange to my ears but compelling. It seemed to belong to the teenagers and 20 year olds and not something I felt a part of. There was a certain point, a moment, when music and records became palpable objects, with meaning.

When I was a teenager most all of my friends were musicians and I was always the odd one out. We would invariably get high and go into the large basement room the Honeywell brothers had to themselves and put on whatever the newest release was that they had become obsessed with. But our collective act of listening was vastly different because they were breaking things down into chord progressions, naming bridges and wondering what effects Keith Richards was using to get his guitar to sound like that. I just listened in wonderment at the growing intensity of what was then mostly rock that moved us to listen. But I wasn't tearing it apart and breaking it down, I was immersed, prone to daydreaming, aloof.

So when thinking about first records it's fairly easy to remember that moment when I used my own money and actually bought a record. But that wouldn't be the real first record. The real first record is the one that I took out of my mother's small collection and put on the record player and played for myself, to myself, when no once else was around. And that was The Beatles Revolver in 1965 when I was eight years old.

I played it really loud and I might have danced, but I probably more likely did something that I would find myself doing a lot over the years and that was to sit on the floor very close to the two speakers, with my eyes closed, and let the joyous and ebullient record completely take over my consciousness.

Like most people at the time we had a simple modular "stereo" that was one complete unit, a record player in the middle with a top that opened and closed and probably an Am/Fm radio tuner in there as well.

My mother had maybe ten records: the 1963 album The Beatles, The Supremes, and a Bing Crosby Christmas album. I've forgotten the others. So it was a deep, immersive listen when I put on that first record. There was nothing else like it then, a rather subtle and radical shift in the way the band started tinkering in the studio, expanding exponentially, not only with what a song could be but also growing out of a more pop oriented sound. I knew intuitively that I was listening to something unique and brand new and original, although I had no musical training.

The first record I bought with my own money, made from running a paper route, was a 45rpm of The Beatles Get Back, with the vibrant logo of a green apple. It cost me 66 cents and this simple transaction was how my personal relationship with the consuming of music began. I now owned a piece of something that had heretofore been outside of my realm of knowledge as a child. Just holding the record in my hands was exciting and I studied and fetishized every aspect of the design and printing. Just the act of placing the tone arm onto the record and hearing that initial bit of hiss and pop was extraordinary. I remember standing over the console and watching the green apple spin around and how the player would automatically take itself off the record at the end and start all over again. As I sat there close to the speakers, finding the sweet spot, I closed my eyes and a conjuring began: film loops, colors, the hallucination of listening.

I played it over and over until my mother begged me to stop and suggested I buy something else. Buying something with my own money was a fairly radical act especially that it was music and not a toy or model car kit. One day my mother came into the living room and angrily turned off the stereo, took the record off and said that she was fed up with it and couldn't take hearing it again. She actually hid the 45 somewhere in the apartment and then gave me a dollar and told me to buy a new record.

So I bought the 45 rpm of Zager & Evans In The Year 2525 and my second record was no ordinary 60's pop/rock song but a sci-fi bit of apocalyptic doomsaying and might have (along with my first viewing of Planet of the Apes), ushered in a lasting sense of paranoia and a prescient sense that we might possibly (one-way-or-another), bring about our own extinction as a species.

In the year 2525, if man is still alive
If woman can survive, they may find
In the year 3535
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lie
Everything you think, do and say
Is in the pill you took today
In the year 4545
You ain't gonna need your teeth, won't need your eyes
You won't find a thing to chew
Nobody's gonna look at you
In the year 5555
Your arms hangin' limp at your sides
Your legs got nothin' to do
Some machine's doin' that for you
In the year 6565
You won't need no husband, won't need no wife
You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too
From the bottom of a long glass tube
In the year 7510
If God's a coming, He oughta make it by then
Maybe He'll look around Himself and say
Guess it's time for the judgment day
In the year 8510
God is gonna shake His mighty head
He'll either say I'm pleased where man has been
Or tear it down, and start again
In the year 9595
I'm kinda wonderin' if man is gonna be alive
He's taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain't put back nothing
Now it's been ten thousand years
Man has cried a billion tears
For what, he never knew, now man's reign is through
But through eternal night, the twinkling of starlight
So very far away, maybe it's only yesterday
In the year 2525, if man is still alive
If woman can survive, they may find.

This record too was confiscated. My mother especially hated it and once again hid it from me. This pattern would go on until Christmas of 1970 when she bought me a "portable" record player that weighed over ten pounds had to be left open if you wanted to play a 33 rpm album.

This was how she eliminated the torturous and tedious problem of my obsessively playing things over and over, especially when they were new. I was happily relegated to my own room, with my own personal record player, which even had a headphone jack. I could wear out as many 45's as I wanted as long as I stopped bothering her and kept the door to my room closed.

I knew nothing about bands or music, what was good or bad. I heard stuff on the radio or on the Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand and took my cues that way. Over that Christmas break from school I decided that it was time to upgrade and to purchase my own album. This is where memory fades and distorts. I'm pretty sure that my first album was Cream's Disraeli Gears, which I bought solely based upon the psychedelic cover and some vague notion of having heard the band was good. I didn't like the record and didn't understand the somewhat harsh-to-my-young-ears acid blues. After one or two listens I decided to return the record to the store and exchange it for another. So this is how I bought and discovered the first album I actually liked: Creedence Clearwater Revival's Bayou Country.

I still have over a 1000 albums ripped to external hard drives but I rarely go into those archives now that I have access to Tidal, which I use almost exclusively along with Bandcamp and occasionally YouTube.

And where does this leave us as a civilization with a recorded history when infinite choice comes with the caveat that you are only renting access to music, or trading off with putting up with ads in order to hear new music? The headlong resurgence of vinyl and cassette culture is a promising sign. Those things can be passed on, traded, lent out and resold, so they remain in the systems of objects and things. I see and feel the reality of a sharing rather than an ownership culture and how that might be a good thing to the dissemination and spread of music globally. But there is that In The Year 2525 part of me that worries that the death of the physical recording object, the corporatization of music libraries and distribution could eventually be just as easily restrictive and repressive, with censorship and exclusion taking over depending (at least in this country and the EU) whether forms of representative democracy at some point begin to fail and the state and corporate bottom lines begin to restrict, rather than help proliferate consumable music.

But why does any of this matter fifty years later? Because I didn't grow up in a musical family, nor knew anyone up until I was about seventeen who owned high end audio equipment. My relationship to recorded music developed intuitively, out of an organic reaction to what I was gleaning from my limited resources. Even at 10 there was a sense of intimacy and the ecstatic to discovering new music and that desire and passion has never left me. If I really like something I still do tend to play it over and over, listening for the lyrics (if there are any) and giving over a bit of myself to the recording. Honestly, nothing but the medium and sound quality has changed over the years since I first drove my mother to desperation. She never did give me In The Year 2525 back, claiming that she forgot where she put it, which I knew was a ruse, but I didn't care by then because I had newer records to devour. And so it goes…

Joe Surdna is a practicing artist and writer who has published in Playboy, GQ, Zoetrope and has worked on several alt-weeklies as an entertainment reporter focusing on art, new music, and film reviews.

morrismrinak's picture

I was born in 1954 but some of my earliest listening experiences parallel yours. As at your house we had a console stereo in the living room. My parents never confiscated my music but they grew to loathe Sunshine of Your Love & the Wind Cries Mary upon my rolling out of bed on school days. My fascination with music & sounds in general started preschool & has never diminished. The search for the best sound reproduction within my means is ongoing & my love of music is as strong as ever. Oddly enough no else in my family was remotely interested in music either beyond the occasional Perry Como or Dean Martin tune. Within a year my parents relegated the stereo to my room in an attempt to keep the peace. One of the best days of my life!