In recent interview Jack White has stated, ‘For me, vinyl is a MacGuffin. It’s something to lure you in, and at Third Man vinyl is a MacGuffin for a mechanical, romantic relationship with music’. MacGuffin is a term that Alfred Hitchcock popularised. It is a plot device that lures you in to a story, one that gets the mystery going, but it is of no overall importance.
It’s interesting to hear Jack White talk in this way. One of the world’s leading advocates of vinyl is suggesting that, ultimately, it’s not vinyl that matters. It’s what vinyl signifies that counts. And what is that? The idea of a ‘mechanical, romantic relationship with music’ is an odd one: the romantic and the mechanic were traditionally supposed to be at odds. But I think I know what he means. Mechanisation no longer stands for the robotic and the modern, but instead for a time when things were tangible and you could engage with them. It is traditional values that are being held up here.
In the preceding blog entries about record collecting I have been focused on the idea that vinyl is collected because of what it is not. People are operating in a dialectical manner. They are collecting vinyl because it is old, not new; because it is analogue, not digital; because it is physical, not intangible; because it is independent, not corporate.
And yet, there’s always been more to it than this. There has been a fascination with analogue records that is in excess of that for other formats. What’s more, this fascination was in place before some its rival formats existed. People didn’t need the CD to feel that the analogue was special (although the CD certainly helped). They didn’t need retromania, nostalgia, the desire for the tangible, a need for authenticity, or a search for truth to fall in love with analogue records (although these aspects have helped as well).
Writing as early as 1934, Theordor Adorno was transfixed by a shellac record’s ‘thingness’. He was drawn towards the record’s grooves and the links that they provided ‘between music and writing’. In his 1959 novel. Absolute Beginners, Colin Maccinnes outlines his hero’s love of LP sleeves, calling them ‘the most original thing to come out in our lifetime’. Growing up in the 1960s, Stuart Maconie was fascinated by label designs:
Daft Ken Dodd bore the deep royal blue of Decca, Elvis wore the coal-black livery of pre-Seventies Orange RCA, the John Collier Theme still had its laminated sleeve featuring a giant Trilby. My favourite, though, the sight of which always quickened the pulse a little, was the very emerald green of a goalie’s jumper, the word Columbia grandly embossed in silver about the little hole.
For Roger Manning, keyboard player with Jellyfish, it was the scent of records that was intoxicating:
What really got me was the smell of the records I grew up with – maybe it was the pressing plant they used, for some reason records on the Casablanca label had a smell that blew our minds – when you smell that, it brings you right back to childhood.
Each of these writers returns us to a theme that these entries have been circling. What is it that we love most about analogue records: is it their ‘thingness’, or is it the music that they contain, or in what way is it a combination between these two elements? This dilemma is as old as sound recording itself. Writing in 1919, Rainer Maria Rilke recalled his first impressions of the phonograph:
It must have been when I was a boy at school that the phonograph was invented … At the time and all through the intervening years I believed that that independent sound, taken from us and preserved outside of us, would be unforgettable. That it turned out otherwise is the cause of my writing the present account. As will be seen, what impressed itself on my memory most deeply was not the sound from the funnel but the markings traced on the cylinder; these made a most definite impression.
Ultimately, it’s too easy to say that people are attached to vinyl records because of what they signify or how they can be articulated. There is something inherent in vinyl records themselves. What exactly this is, though, is the biggest mystery of all.