I got my first transistor radio in 1961. It was cheap, made in Japan, and the brand was Lloyd’s — anybody remember that one? I couldn’t wait to listen to it. At first, I thought that when the DJ said, “Here’s Neil Sedaka with his latest hit, ‘Hey Little Devil,’” that Neil was there in the studio performing! Hey, I was only nine years old and a little naïve. That was the first song I heard on that new radio, and I wanted to buy the record. It wasn’t until a year later, on a family trip through Central California, that I found a copy at (nostalgia alert!) a Ben Franklin five and dime store.
The next 45s that I bought included “Telstar” by The Tornadoes, “Out of Limits” by The Marketts, “Mother-in-Law” by Ernie K-Doe, “Bumble Boogie” by B. Bumble and the Stingers, and “Talk Talk” by The Music Machine. Even then, my taste was all over the place. I also bought “She Loves You” b/w “I’ll Get You” when The Beatles burst onto the scene. It was on Swan Records, and the label included the admonishment “Don’t Drop Out.”
There were three Top 40 stations in the Bay Area at the time – KYA and KEWB out of San Francisco, and KLIV from San Jose. The first LP I ever bought was a KEWB compilation record called Disc/Coveries, with 12 hits of the day, including “Cathy’s Clown,” Walk, Don’t Run,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Quiet Village,” “Sleep Walk,” and “Alley Oop.”
My father had assembled a “hi-fi” system from the fifties that included a Bogen tube amp and a Garrard changer. He played the piano and sang in choral groups, so there was a lot of music in the house. My parents had a Sony reel-to-reel recorder with speakers that folded up into a sort of suitcase, and my brother and I had great fun with that, doing fake interviews and speeding up the tape to make us sound like The Chipmunks.
My first record player was a battery-powered portable made by Singer (yes, the sewing machine company). It had a built-in speaker, but I installed a headphone jack so I could listen to ‘phones or an external speaker. The case was plastic, so I opened it up, cut the wires to the speaker, and hooked them up to the kind of headphone jack that cut the signal when a plug was inserted. I drilled a hole in the side of the case to mount the jack. For the external speaker, I took an old television speaker and mounted it in a gallon ice cream tub for the enclosure (no jokes about “tubby” sound – it was definitely better than the original).
My first real audio equipment was bought when I was in high school. I had a Garrard SL-55 turntable that I stripped down to semi-automatic by removing the changer arm, installing the single-play spindle, and blocking the off/on/changer switch from going all the way. It was fitted with a Shure M44E cartridge. I bought a cheap Nikko TRM-40 amplifier with separate tone controls for each channel, a Sony 355 reel-to-reel, and Pioneer SE-30 headphones (those white semi-spherical ones). My speakers were towers by Pickering (!) that my father bought in 1948. Actually, he had only bought one, but I happened to find another one languishing in a local Radio Shack store. The original drivers were replaced with Wharfedale 8-inch two-ways, and the cabinets had a tunable port on the back. I borrowed albums from friends and taped them, ultimately amassing a collection of over 90 reels with two LPs on each. I recorded stuff from The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago Transit Authority, Sly and the Family Stone, and Pink Floyd, among many others.
I only started collecting actual records when I got a job at a Wherehouse record store while in college. Between working that record store gig and being the music director for the radio station at San Francisco State University, I had access to used and promotional albums in abundance. It wasn’t too long before I had a few hundred discs. By then, my taste was heavily skewed toward progressive rock, having been bowled over by Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s debut album. I told myself that when I got to 1,000 LPs, I would get rid of one to make room for each new acquisition. Yeah, that didn’t happen – especially since my employment path ran exclusively through record stores for nearly 30 years. But I did recycle some, and I do deeply regret trading away many items from that time. Several obscure Italian prog albums that I got rid of because I didn’t like the music enough are now worth well in excess of $500 each on the Japanese collector’s market.
Orange crates were the budget storage medium of choice in those days, but the sag factor meant that you had to put a good solid board between them if you wanted to stack them. Once I got to six crates (three high on either side of the audio equipment), it was time to build real shelving. Another collector that I knew had made open-back shelves using 48 x 12 x ¾ particleboard, and I copied his basic design. I made four-foot, three-foot, and two-foot modules, ultimately totaling 75 linear feet.
I probably have at least another 10 to 15 feet of records that are in boxes around the house. We’re talking over 5,000 of the suckers. I’ve also got around 1,000 CDs. Some of my friends think that’s crazy, and some think it’s really cool. I’ve moved them more than five times, filling over 60 moving boxes each time. I always lose weight and gain muscle when I move. One day, I methodically loaded 20 boxes, grabbing 10 or more records at a time and boxing them in order. The repetitive motion meant that the next day I couldn’t turn a doorknob or even turn the key in my car with my right hand!
I have yet to fully embrace streaming. Recently, I signed up for Amazon Music, primarily for research and sampling purposes. I like having physical product for a number of reasons – album artwork, liner notes, etc. I also think one is more invested in the listening experience when you’re dealing with an actual disc. I’ve digitized around 300 of my favorite LPs in order to be able to hear them through my iPod or phone, and to be able to burn a CD for my car. For convenience, I often end up listening to them through my system with the laptop hooked up, but then I’ll find myself having to pull out the actual record for information on musicians, engineers, or just checking lyrics. A lot of that information just can’t be found any other way, despite the incredible resources on the internet.
At some point I’ll probably start going through the collection to pare it down, but since I have no plans to move again in my life, the imperative just isn’t there. (And there’s always that nagging possibility of regret…)