George Scarlett on The Beatles

The album that means the most to me, and the one I most enjoy hearing sequentially, is The Beatles. Double album, all-white cover, early pressings individually numbered. Its authors were big for awhile, but not built for the long haul. Drugs and dissonant temperaments. Happens.

The whys and wherefores of my choice follow. Eventually.

Every music lover has something to lament about the recent paradigm quakes: Record stores are endangered. For a long time they served as community centers for tastemakers and fanboys and girls.

Tastes are splintered. Rarely is there widespread excitement about an artist or a burgeoning popular music form. (I’m certain I need not mention that ‘American Idol’ does not count.)

Sensual pleasures are lost. Holding a new LP, slitting open and savoring the new album smell, gazing at art on the cover and session notes on the rear (or inside): gone. Piracy decimates the landscape. Few artists can make a living from their recordings. Who knows what potentially great albums will not be made due to the bleak economic realities?

The album form is nearly extinct, reduced to individual tracks and random play. To these and others on the list, I’ll add my own:

I miss 1960s-style Top 40 radio.

I was born in the year Rock & Roll truly arrived, 1955. My early years (only child, rural upbringing, tiny grade school) served to keep me in the dark about most popular culture, although I loved the music my mom and Aunt Martha liked (classics, show tunes, folk, jazz). In the fall of 1968, though, I started high school in the nearby large town. Every day I rode the bus for an hour each way. That bus, to my eternal gratitude, was equipped with a radio and speakers throughout, blaring The Big 610 KFRC, the San Francisco Top 40 powerhouse.

A switch in me was flipped. (As I like to remember it, when I embarked on my first school day, the song playing on that radio was “Magic Bus.” This may be apocryphal; while it makes for a great anecdote, I cannot verify it. But that song was on the charts at the time, and in heavy rotation. So why not?) I became an avid listener and 45s collector.

Recollections of formative times come prepackaged with their own sets of rose-colored specs. 1968-9 was my first golden age of music appreciation, and the one about which I have the fondest memories. So, admittedly, I have very little objectivity when discussing the era.

However, I do hold one opinion from which I will not budge: in radio history, for round-the-clock musical variety and eclecticism, late-60s Top 40 was second only to early-70s free-form FM. For instance, in that fall of ’68 I might have heard Jimi Hendrix, Jeannie C. Riley, The Supremes, The Beatles, Tom Jones, and The Everly Brothers back-to-back.

That is how music was listened to in the 50s and 60s: grab a stack of 45s, load up the changer, and let’s get this sock hop started. Back then, in the singles era, it was all about random play.

The album era changed all that, of course. Creative palettes became broader as artists’ concepts moved beyond the three-minute form. I’ve long held that albums became important for a couple of other reasons, too: the lack of alternative playback methods, and pot.

In the 70s and well into the 80s, the only way to randomize one’s listening was to make mix-tapes. Otherwise, it was a bit of a nosebleed to custom-craft one’s own playlist on the spot. The standard was: drop the needle on side one, hit the beanbag, fire up the bong, and let Grand Funk Railroad have its way with us for twenty minutes. The bummer was getting up the gumption to flip to side two.

The point is, album squencing became crucial because the listener generally had no other choice in song running order. A new listening paradigm took root, and it flourished for a quarter century.

The CD allowed listeners to mess with a disc’s track sequence. Multi-disc changers enabled cross-genre mixing. CD jukeboxes with their multi-hundred capacities practically demanded random play. Cultivation for change had already taken place well before the mp3 era began. The singles era had returned.

It is my belief that the individual song is the natural order. That was the standard when I was growing up, and it will be when I am shrinking. If I beat the actuarials and tenaciously clutch my small bag of marbles, I will likely live to a point where I have the perspective to see that the album era was, in fact, an anomaly.

Oh, yes, The Beatles. It stands as the last album I listened to all the way through. This would have been on a day in September of 2009, when the remastered editions of The Beatles’ catalog were released. I situated a chair between a pair of good speakers and allotted myself a block of time to really *listen* to that album, with all its genius and flaws and redolence and crucial tracking order.

It was the first pop album I ever bought, you see. On November 25, 1968, a couple of schoolmates brought a freshly-purchased copy of The White Album into my Spanish class. The teacher, a Miss Suzanne Read, was of optimal Beatles-loving age, so for her the release of their first proper album since Sgt. Pepper constituted an event. So, after about twenty minutes of the usual “¿Dónde está la biblioteca, Pedro?” Miss Read shut it down, placed side one on the classroom turntable, and let ‘er rip. We sat and listened the whole way through. At the end of our 50 minutes, she turned it over to side four. As we filed out of the classroom, I turned to see her dancing alone to “Revolution 1.” I was heavily influenced. At the end of the school day, I walked across the street to K-Mart and bought a copy of my own.

At the time, the only record player in our house capable of playing an LP was the console in the living room. It was an ancient thing with a checkered service history. The amplifier was blown; no doubt one of its tubes needed replacement. So, when I got home, I put the first record on the changer, started it up, and then leaned in real low to get my ear as close to the stylus as I could. And I listened.

Fast-forward more than two generations. I now have in my digital library well over 55,000 tracks, and am adding to it at the rate of about 250 a month. About 98% of this bounty is comprised of full-length albums. This allows for seemingly infinite possibility, not least of which being that I can listen to any of those albums all the way through, track-by-track, in their original running order, if I choose.

If I choose. See, this is a key point here. Listeners nowadays have an almost intimidating menu of options before them. And one of those is to listen to albums as their authors intended them to be heard. For anyone who wants it so, the album era can still flourish.

I go a different way. Ever since those early days with Top 40, I have been seeking to recreate that genre-hopping, “I wonder what’s next?” experience. I randomize my entire library daily, keeping everything active and maybe only a song away. This, in fact, is a major contributor to my optimistic nature: every day holds the prospect of a unique musical journey, with my imaginary disc jockey at the helm.

And yet, even still, I venerate The Beatles as a work of art. There are crucial associated memories. It is impossible for me not to be subjective about the album’s contents.

But there is something else, another factor in my holding it aloft: the thing is scattershot. There are four lead singers. Genres include (and are not limited to) country, ska, metal, and avant-garde. The dynamics range from whisper to scream. The White Album is all over the map.

Random, in fact.

I am George Scarlett. In a prior life I worked for Tower Records for 24 years, in stores and at the corporate office. For the last several of those, I was the Chief Merchant, in charge of all product procurement and merchandising for the chain. I am now retired, although I do operate a small CD-to-mp3 music conversion service. I also blog as Veronica Fever for the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis.

I live in Davis, California with my wife Christine and our two Corgis, Morty and Luke.

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