Happy Birthday, Compact Discs -- Reflections on the Format

Posted by Eric Brightwell, October 1, 2012 05:09pm | Post a Comment

Billy Joel 52nd Street

On this day (1 October) in 1982, the first album released on CD came out -- Billy Joel's 52nd street

Carmen RiveroOn the day of that occasion, I still hadn't really discovered music for myself yet. My dad played '50s, '60 and '70s jazz records on the rare occasions that he mustered the paternal energy required to make his children grilled cheese sandwiches. My mother was more likely to play Carmen RiveroJohann Sebastian Bach, Bill Monroe, Aretha Franklin or Otis Redding records that she'd purchased back in the ancient, vinyl 1960s. We also had a Victrola which was fun because you had to crank it if you wanted to rock out to some Earl Rogers or other shellac 78.

It wasn't until 1983 that I finally turned on a radio and explored the dial. I also started going through my mother's (by then my parents were divorced) records -- discovering that I loved The Beatles... and that didn't love Three Dog Night. Gene Vincent and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack became favorites too and I when I begged for my mother to buy me Luciano Pavarotti's heavily-advertised-during-Tom &Jerry compilation My Own Story (1981), I knew it would be on vinyl.

My sister got me Buckner & Garcia's Pac-Man Fever (1981) and my mother bought Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) – both also on vinyl. Cassette packaging was unimpressive. Though the compact size was appealing as product, the spines were almost always white with the title written in red and the artwork was often cropped. Records, on the other hand, were beautiful. Even though I wasn’t overly fond of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew (1970) or Elton John’s Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975), I would get lost in their artwork (painted by Mati Klarwein and Alan Aldridge, respectively) for hours. 

However, you couldn’t listen to records in anyone’s car, your Walkman, or your boom box. Record listening remained a solitary activity that took place in a single room. Cassettes could be blasted in cars, in people's home intercom systems and portable players. People imposed their tastes on other people with massive ghetto blasters which sounded sufficiently good to provide the music at an impromptu breaking competition on the playground. It was easy to make your own recordings -- dubbing other tapes and taping off both the radio and TV. I think the last record I got during this period was the Jan Hammer-heavy Miami Vice soundtrack, in 1985. From there out, I assumed, cassettes were the way.

The first cassette I bought was Peter Gabriel’s So, in 1986, and with my own money. Though just eleven years old at the time, I was nonetheless working at a scuba shop for three dollars an hour, which was serious money to me. One of my co-workers, Gerard, scoffed at my Peter Gabriel tape and suggested that I had no taste. He pulled a Foreigner cassette from his backpack, presumably to show me what good music really is. Though backpackers would later carry vinyl in their knapsacks, cassettes were probably the first time people carried around their music libraries with them. I never followed Gerard’s musical lead but I proceeded to only purchase cassettes, mostly buying albums by Midnight Oil, R.E.M. and U2 until 1989, when a exchange student introduced me to The Cure, PiL, and The Smiths' music on cassettes brought over from Germany (before I only knew them from graffiti and T-shirts).

The first CD I bought was The Cure’s Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me in 1989, seven years after the format’s introduction. Ina – the German girl – had lent me a cassette copy of the Cure album so I was disappointed that the CD didn’t include the song, “Hey You!!!” I began to suspect Robert Smith of being anti-CD when I discovered that Carnage Visors wasn’t included on the CD of Faith, which I therefore refrained from buying altogether, assuming it would get a proper re-release at some point (a day that finally came in 2005). If he wasn’t completely won over by CDs, he wasn’t alone.

The only one of these that I  owned (and was in my locker) was the Sinéad O'Connor

Being slightly larger than cassettes and having the same dimensions as a record, CD art was slightly better, at least from the outside. Re-issues usually didn't include reproductions of vinyl gatefold's art at first. Due to the fact that CDs were often sold in bins created for vinyl, they were, until 1993, almost all sold in large, tree-unfriendly longboxes. Longboxes weren't entirely a waste, however; in my high school and likely others, they usually adorned the interiors of one's locker
 -- a seemingly subtle but desperate crying out for recognition of one's good taste. On my copy of R.E.M.'s Out of Time, the longbox, I believe, had a cut-out mail-in or something like that for the Motor Voter bill.

Far more annoying than longboxes were the holographic "dog bone"security stickers that sealed new CDs shut. Of course, one could always pop the jewel case lid off its hinges to remove the CD for copying if one desired but for those that purchased a CD with the intent of keeping it, it mean peeling off the small sticker and then either devoting a lot of energy or ignoring the sticky residue that it left behind.

As someone who grew up poor and lived off ramen noodles and $2.99 buffets in college, CDs were always seriously expensive to me. Although they might have a sticker proclaiming “The Nice Price,” they were often almost $20. I always wanted to know that I was going to love at least a few songs before I plonked down a week’s food costs for one. Nonetheless, the first CD I bought without having heard a note was Ride’s Going Blank Again (1990), purchased on the strength of Nowhere.

By 1994, I was living with a roommate who had more than 300 CDs… lining the edge of his room along the floor. I think I had about 80. I questioned another friend, who mostly liked rap and metal why he had Color Me Badd and Jodeci CDs in his collection and he assured me that you have to have music for the ladies. It was also common then to go to someone new’s house and immediately size them up by their collection. Twice I was excited to find New York Dolls in peoples’ collections, twice people explained that they didn’t actually like the band but nevertheless bought their CDs out of devotion to Morrissey.

That year I bought my first CD with an obi, Paul Weller's More Wood (Little Splinters) (1993). Obi, or , are paper strips included as part of the packaging on CDs, DVDs, LPs, books, video games, and many other products originating in Japan. It was also likely my first import, which was somewhat surprising because the album it was associated with, Wild Wood, was also the first CD I ever bought that I was unable to listen to from beginning to end on first listen. It took time for the mix of pastoral folk-rock, Moddish Dad Rock, and Kenny Rogers-esque white soul to win me over, but eventually it did.

While I can happily say that I never bought a CD out of devotion to a pop star or to seduce a lady, I did start trying to amass a impressive collection which became easier with the proliferation of music stores selling used CDs. I don’t remember what the first used CD I bought was. The first CD I bought on the day of its release was The Church’s Sometime, Anywhere, on the strength of their entire recorded output. The first one I shoplifted (bad!) was The Clash’s London Calling.

At the same time, vinyl was so unwanted that it was common to find stacks of unsellable records left outside apartments and record stores for free. I remember perusing through a stack around 1994 and pulling out a few based on bands I’d heard of but didn’t really know. I trudged 45 minutes through the snow to the University’s Music Library -- one of the only places I know of with a record player. I listened to The Psychedelic Furs’ self-titled debut (1980) and The Jam’s All Mod Cons (1978) and they were both pretty great. When the needle hit the groove on Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures (1979), it was revelatory. Attached by headphones to a record player for the first time in ages, I was held captive both by force and willingness and reminded how enriching close and solitary listening can be.

With the increasing availability of recordable CDs I began making mixes both for friends, girls and myself (usually organized around a mood or genre). They usually ended up getting so scratched that I had to wonder if this would be better done on cassettes although by then, most people I know only had cassette players if they drove older model cars.I still have many of them, even though they’re probably all unlistenable now. I still have my crappy, hand-drawn art work, though, to remind and embarrass me.

I pretty much stopped buying CDs around 2002, when my particleboard CD shelf from Target was sagging with weight and age, and bubbling with water damage. Rock music was no longer interesting and did I really want to spend any money for a product I was done collecting or just pack them up?  Though no more inventive than their peers, I’d purchased The LibertinesUp the Bracket on the strength of their peerless songwriting, which shone so brightly that it really hit home how unimpressive the rest of the contemporary pop scene was. For me it was then end of an era not just for CDs, but for almost all new rock. 

The previous year Apple had introduced the first iPod. Napster had been shut down after allowing me to discover digital scans of wax cylinder files, bands I’d always heard of but never seen recordings by, a song introduced as "enchanting music of Uzbekistan" and anything else I was curious about that had been recorded anywhere on the planet within the last 113 years. Soon I was consuming more music than I could ever find or fit on a shelf full of aluminum discs and housed in brittle, invariably cracked jewel cases.

Pandora had been launched two years earlier although it wouldn’t be until 2008 that I discovered it (always lagging behind the times). That March I created a station seeded with Rofo, Sandra, Modern Talking, Gazebo, Lime, Telex, Jan Hammer and Covenant, maintly hoping to discover more of the Vietnamese New Wave my girlfriend had recently introduced me to. Within a few months I was exposed to more wonderful music than I had been in nine years of working at record stores exposed only to my co-workers’ picks – always on CD. YouTube launched in 2005, offering instant gratification one song at a time.

Felt - Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty  The Splendour Of Fear  
Felt's 1992 Cherry Red re-issues -- designed to look as product-like as possible

The idea of owning copies of music began to seem strange to me, and worse, incredibly limiting. I will never be able to own enough space to house physical copies of all the music I can now enjoy. I figured I’d rip all of my CDs and store the music on hard drives and then sell them. But yet I still have a hard time parting with them. The first CD I ever sold was The Beta Band’s 3 EPs, which a friend had given me but which I disliked immensely. After that I never sold any… eventually tucking them away in memory-chest like box in a closet as I did with old photo albums. Though the CDs mostly just gather dust and take up space under the stairs now (I don’t even own a CD player), for me they’re like a scrapbook of the 1990s and ‘00s. Even though CD art was generally uninspiring (although I love the gray, aggressively ugly Felt reissues), looking at it takes me back – sometimes to times I don’t want to revisit.

After I stopped collecting CDs I found myself returning to records yet again. My girlfriend and I would spend many of our days browsing the selection of cheap vinyl at Pasadena's Canterbury Records, weighing potential purchases against incredibly cheap prices and decidedly low risk. The soundtrack to many of our late afternoons was primarily provided by various Olivia Newton-John records. The pleasure of listening to a warmly crackling album from beginning to end in a living room was again clear but so laden with particular associations that ever since we broke up three years ago, I haven’t played one since.

Sisu Demon Tapes Black Tambourine 

Nowadays I’ll occasionally buy a CD at a show if I’m impressed by a band or it has some obvious care put into the packaging. I think the last three CDs I bought were Sisu’s Demon Tapes (2009), Black Tambourine’s Black Tambourine (2010), and Go-Kart Mozart's Go-Kart Mozart are on the Hot Dog Streets (because the vinyl wasn’t in stock) but  my relationship with the format is still pretty  ambivalent and they're mainly conveyance systems on the way to my hard drives.

These things tend to turn in cycles though. When Michael Jackson passed away in 2009, my then-nine-year-old neighbor came over to ask if I had any of his music. When I pulled out a worn copy of Thriller, he instinctively knew how to play it (although I had to point out that scratching is not how one skip tracks). His parents and their friends, from Thailand, continue to swap Thai music cassettes that probably never made it onto any other format. Vinyl seems to be growing in popularity and there are boutique labels are releasing albums on cassette.

I wonder when the inevitable CD revival will occur. Hopefully, when it does, manufacturers will put a little more effort into packaging and not just include a track listing and care instructions. In the meantime, what's your history with compact discs?


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Cds (17), Cassettes (12), Billy Joel (4), Compact Discs (2), Vinyl (200)