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July 2, 2009

Book Review - The Vinyl Countdown by Travis Elborough

In this series at Largehearted Boy, guest contributors review music books.

Josh Spilker is the mastermind behind the indie music and literature blog Deckfight.

Josh Spilker of Deckfight reviews Travis Elborough's book, The Vinyl Countdown: The Album from LP to iPod and Back Again:

After buying the new Wilco album, I brought it into my office for a better look. A coworker noticed I was peeling a plastic sleeve off a thin colorful square. "Did you get a new calendar?" Instead of debating with her about the merits and improbability of buying a new calendar in the middle of summer, I just simply replied, "It's a record."

Though my coworker is in her mid-20s, she is not necessarily "down" with the latest music trends, so the idea of someone actively buying a record was a little unfamiliar to her. She listens to music, sure, but not records. And so here's the greatest challenge in Travis Elborough's new book, The Vinyl Countdown. How do you judge the impact of a format instead of what the format contains? Ironically, the easy way for Elborough would be to track the LP "underground," the crate diggers who never gave up vinyl even in the age of large boomboxes. Instead Elborough opts to follow the popularity of the LP, and specifically the concept of the album, through its inception and changes along with the bands and provocateurs who pushed the format forward.

Though even pinning an album down is hard work. How about a classical piece? Singles-only releases? B–sides that were better than A-sides? Or the ever elusive Greatest Hits? With all this in mind, Elborough tackles what might be the trickiest part of all that—trying to decide which albums, singles, A-sides, B-sides and/or formats had the most impact. And then linking all of that together. He goes for a mix of decades and bands, tracking the rise from classical to popular to psychedelic to rap, which is like trying to enjoy the entirety of the Golden Corral buffet in one sitting: it just cannot be done.

He begins with a popular retelling of the "Speed Wars" or Columbia championing 33 1/3 over the older 78's, and includes the societal, historical and material pressures inherent in a conversion. His discussion is more than just VHS or Beta, Blu-Ray or HDDVD, it illustrates a fundamental change in how music would be produced, therefore impacting how music would later be consumed. Those chapters launch Elborough into his strength, how artists (and label execs) would take advantage of the relative cheapness and accessibility of the LP. In this regard, Elborough is forced to pick and choose who to profile.

Most surprising to my novice way of understanding the evolution of the LP is the influence of comedy recordings, whether it be Tom Lehrer, Dudley Moore or Lenny Bruce. The recordings of these guys set off what can now be perceived as the grassroots culture, where a partial bit of the masses can become their own cultural arbiters rather than being dictated upon from on high. Caught in the middle of this 60s paradigm shift were The Beach Boys or more specifically Brian Wilson, as Elborough explains how Pet Sounds became both the window into Wilson’s soul and his virtual death knell for recorded music. Couple with Wilson’s tale is that of the Beatles in what is Elborough’s strongest chapter, the one on mid to late 60s. Though much of what is said maybe known to the most passionate of fans, the casual music consumer will be surprised to know how many times The Beatles were turned down and great a desire it was of The Beatles to compose sometime of musical, an important fact in a history of the long-playing record.

Elborough’s account proves that the music industry has always been obsessed with the singles and the hit, so much so that they looked to repackage the same song several times over. Soundtracks were also big, which led to the development of A Hard Day’s Night, for the specific purpose of creating a movie.

Also revealed are the many early descriptions of The Beatles as an R&B band, a fact that led them to get a few passovers from record execs. So while important aspects of vinyl history such as R&B is virtually left out, with no explanation of its contributions (or lack of contributions, if Elborough is so inclined). Part of that is Elborough’s Brit leanings, part of it is…well, it almost has to be explained in an American re-issue why or why not Elvis Presley or James Brown do not get as much attention. But Elborough does a stand up job with chapters on the rise and fall of Sinatra and the evolution/capitalization of romantically themed compilations and the evolution of rock from hit singles into an experimental free-for-all.

Another element needed is the impact of the transition from stereo to the personal. Elborough details the naming of the Walkman, but is wary to fully judge the impact of the transition of music from the big and loud to the personal, or even about 8-track or cassette-tape players in cars, an important evolution in music history.

But the great thing about Elborough's book is that it makes plain which after reading seems so obvious. I have a copy of Design Records' release of The Best of Ray Charles which cost 87 cents from the Spartan Department Store, according to a sticker that still hangs on the outside. The back has a promotion for other "Top Pop Hits" touting "up to the minute" artists like Jonny Rivers, Roy Orbison and Nat King Cole. Nothing about Charles' himself, just about the value and technology of the LP. In comparison to Wilco, the art is less exciting and the disc is flimsier. But it's still the same black disc (the same!) spanning forty-odd years, a claim that many other formats in a variety of industries cannot make. How the hell did the record do that? Elborough has the answers.

also at Largehearted Boy:

other book reviews at Largehearted Boy
Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
Soundtracked (directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks)
52 Books, 52 Weeks


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