Sorry, I’m doing it again. I wrote about record players last month but in the spirit of that great old saying “Everything in moderation except the things you love”, I must keep exploring this new element in my life – for three reasons. Firstly, the cute little baby is now happily ensconced in my house. Secondly, the process of returning to technology that by rights should have been extinct years ago has been surprisingly revealing. Thirdly, I’m in love.
It’s such a humble object: all black, no brand name (I didn’t buy it from a supermarket, it’s just that minimalism is how modern turntable design is done), and it has only one button (on/off). Even though I’ve had it for two weeks I still find myself checking it out. Sometimes I wonder what it’s doing there: as soon as it was out of the box it gave the loungeroom a very 70s feeling; but in the right light it also looks like it’s flown in from outer-space and is nesting beneath the television. Other times I just gaze at it longingly, lovingly, wantonly.
But it needed setting up. That’s right, it wasn’t just a matter of plugging it in and bunging on a record – I actually had to piece it together. And this is where it all became quite strange. Turntable technology hasn’t progressed in the last twenty years; in fact, it’s regressed like nothing else on earth. To change the playing speed you must adjust a ‘fan-belt’ (as described by He Who Loves 2008 Gadgetry Not 1978 Gadgetry). To get a deeper bass sound you adjust weights. To improve clarity you tweak a thing at the back that looks like a little man fishing for carp.
If the truth be told, I had to get a man in. He arrived with tools attached to his belt and then proceeded to spend an hour explaining how I’d put almost every component together incorrectly, which was why the first record I played – ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush on single – sounded like I’d trodden on an al-foil covered cat. When the man was finished, however, I poured myself a cheeky port and put on a record and let my hearing do the rest. Yes, there’s the familiar crackling and popping, but once I’d readjusted my ears the sound was amazing – it’s very perky indeed. The musicians are in the room: I can hear plectrums hitting guitar strings and bows drawing across cellos.
But perhaps the most extraordinary gift this little black contraption has given me is engagement. There’s the whole cleaning-the-record thing for starters (in warm dishwater, say the audiophiles), and then you must carefully place the stylus down on the vinyl, but, as the arm is not automated these days so you have to lift it back up again once the record is finished, you really can’t put on an LP and then go clean the bathroom. To get the most out of it, you have to stall your life for the music, you must stop and listen. And in a world which seems to be fracturing at a horrific rate, stopping and listening to beautiful sounds, or melancholic or bone-rattling aggressive sounds, are good things, great things – fundamentals.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, November 1 2008)