I asked a very close friend to suggest some blog ideas, and he gave me this one. In case you are new to this blog, I write about music more than any other subject, so I approached this topic with keen interest. It is not just about music, it is about friendship.
Once upon a time, vinyl records was the way to buy music. Yes, that day is today, vinyl is more popular than CDs, but years ago, vinyl was by far, the format for buying music.
In those days, the only other the only other formats were 8-track, for listening to music in vehicles, or reel-to-reel, for home audiophiles with complete stereo systems. Back then, everyone had a turntable of some sort, hence the term, record player.
Every kid had a photograph to play 45 rpm records. In my teens, I got a hand-me-down stereo system, and then bought my first receiver-turntable-speaker components during my first year in college.
As a kid, I bought 45s, usually from The Sound, a record-stereo shop at the Hillcrest Shopping Center, or from Woolworth’s. I was in junior high when I bought my first vinyl album. One year, while my older sister and her husband lived in Rhode Island, I discovered the album collection they left behind. The Beatles, King Crimson, CSN&Y, Cream, Pink Floyd, The Doors and more.
A few years later, I became a regular purchaser of vinyl. There were two places that I checked out the new releases: Kief’s, the best record store in town, and Gibson’s, a variety store that had a decent collection of popular albums.
Kief’s, which also sold stereo equipment, and concert tickets, was where you shopped for the widest collection of albums. Kief’s first location was a small shop in a strip mall. They opened in 1959 when rock and roll was young, but likely sold more classical, jazz and show tunes. Kief’s would outgrow that location, but it was where I really shopped for my music. It was a cool place to hang out. Their collection was deep enough to find other genre of music, back catalog and imports.
The guys that I hung around with were all into music. On more than a few occasions, we made excursions to Kief’s to see what the new releases were. Inside the door, the staff would slice open boxes of albums, often not even putting them in a rack. New Rolling Stones, or The Who, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, ELO, Boston Chicago or Pink Floyd. Mostly, it was teenagers or young adult that did the record shopping. Bell bottoms, long hair and plenty of youthful swagger. You had a few bucks in your pocket and you wanted that new Linda Ronstadt album because you had heard “You’re No Good” on the radio. FM radio blew the doors off the album market, because they played deeper cuts, not just top 40.
Going to the record store was almost a religious experience. After Bob Dylan converted to Christianity, it did quality as a religious trip. Flipping through the record stacks, I discovered artists I had not heard of, or did not know of a popular artist’s early work.
It was not until the 1960s that 33 rpm records (albums) became big sellers. People bought specific songs that heard on the radio or in movies, these were released as 45s. Albums were collections of songs. Prior to the Beatles, Elvis and others sold albums, but it was still a singles market. Albums were just groups of songs put together to fill space. I remember the first record album in my family’s collection, Rambler Presents: Danny Kaye. This was a collection of songs Kaye made available for a give away by the Rambler automobile company. I still have a copy of that album. We used to play that album over and over, one side to the other.
What you noticed first was the album cover, specifically the art. In the early years, albums were produced as inexpensively as possible and the artwork was to be done quickly, featuring the artist on the cover, generally in some pensive mood. The back cover contained a list of songs and sometimes some text written by a record company writer to publicize the artists and create interest in the album. Not really art, just marketing. You need this album.
The Beatles really changed album art, starting with Meet the Beatles, then Rubber Soul, Revolver and obviously Sgt. Pepper. Even The White Album, without artwork or photos, was evolutionary. Why is the Abbey Road street crossing still one of London’s biggest tourist attractions?
In the 1970s, album art really exploded. Bold colors, dynamic photography. Attitude. Dark Side of the Moon. Led Zeppelin IV. Sticky Fingers. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. Hotel California. Who’s Next. Song in the Key of Life. Tales From Topographic Oceans. Young Americans. Born to Run. Abraxas (Santana). London Calling.
As much as I enjoyed shopping for new albums, a used record store opened in 1975 by a couple of hippies. The store was pretty sparse and rustic. You could also purchase your favorite rolling papers or bong. For a couple of bucks, you could find a lightly used record of newer albums, and back catalog material. I still have some of those albums in my vinyl collection. I took the chance on many albums that became staples in my collection. The Who’s Quadrophenia and Yes’ Yessongs are two multi-disc sets that are considered classics, both of these I purchased used. I grew my Moody Blues and Rolling Stones collections with used copies. I took chances on a number of artists because a couple of dollars was not a big investment. My first James Taylor, Steely Dan and Jackson Browne albums came used. I still purchase used music, but it comes as CDs.
For a while in the late 1970s, Better Days, a companion to a stereo store, operated from a downtown storefront. Bob Wilson, also known as Ranger Bob, ran the store. Although they did not have a large selection, I found a number of good albums there. My first Dan Fogelberg album, Souvenirs, came from that store, featuring, “Part of the Plan.” I recall, one day after a late class, I stopped in at Better Days to see if anything new was out. I picked up two albums I would enjoy for more than 40 years: Lake the debut album by Lake, and Moonflower by Santana. At first listen, I was amazed at how good these albums sounded.
Kief’s eventually moved to their third and last location in the 1980s. By then, CDs were the largest selling format, vinyl faded, cassettes were still sizable sellers, 8-tracks were extinct and reel to reel was just for collectors.
All of these stores were in our town. Eventually, we discovered record stores in nearby Kansas City, and made trips there to see what we could find. Tiger’s Records, in a strip mall in Overland Park, was often our first stop. The selection was not deep, but if you were looking for popular, new releases, for less than five bucks you had new vinyl. The story was that the owner engaged in less than honest practices, explaining why the albums were at a good price. Owner Anthony J. “Tiger” Cardarella, linked to organized crime, was himself thought to be snuffed out by the mob. Forty some years later, I would be working one mile north of where Tiger’s used to be located. Thinking back to those days, I recall getting Boz Scaggs’ Down Two Then Left, Santana’s Inner Secrets and ELO’s Out of the Blue from Tiger’s.
Peaches opened in the late 1970s, also in Overland Park. The record and tape supermarket, 18,000 square feet of store. Known for the peach crates, to store your albums, the store had a huge selection in all kinds of genres. You could also buy t-shirts, posters and all kinds of rock related merchandise.
We shopped at one other record store in the Shawnee, Kansas area. I cannot find the name, but it is was in the building that houses Nigro’s Western Wear. It was a small store but I recall purchasing the Poco album Legend, which was the group’s biggest seller.
These record buying trips were fun, opportunities to get out of town and often visit drinking establishments elsewhere. In some ways, music was the mortar in our friendships, it was something we all enjoyed and was kind of our prism on life.
Tommy, Keith, Eric and I were the main participants in this story. We swapped albums to give each other a chance to hear the music we enjoyed. For example, Eric liked a European sound, British rock, since he spent a lot of time in France. Keith was a jazz and progressive rock fan. Tommy was more Southern blues based rock and metal, but might veer toward Bob Dylan. I tended toward the classic rock, the British Invasion and the singer-songwriter era. We all shared a love of progressive rock, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, Moody Blues and CSN&Y. When we got together for evening music and beer drinking, we pulled out whatever someone had picked up recently. Many, many album sides were played in those days. Pink Floyd, Little Feat, The Tubes, Jeff Beck or the Moody Blues were popular. Mostly we just talked and acted silly. I have the photos to prove this. Music served as the soundtrack for all of the times we spent together. On many occasions it served as the background for deep conversations. We were a bunch of guys, college age, just trying to figure out life. I think we are all still working on it.
When we went to a record store, each of us went our own direction. Keith could end up in the classical or jazz section as his tastes were pretty varied. Tommy might be looking at Frank Zappa or Supertramp or Kansas. I would start in the Beatles or Neil Young. On more than one occasion on the drive home, Tommy would exclaim, “I spent too fuckin’ much money!” We all probably did.
Whether we still have that vinyl or not, the music stayed with us. Albums wear out and get too heavy to lug around. Many of us eventually replaced those albums with CD versions and may have discarded the vinyl. I still have a lot of it, although the collection has thinned. It does not take looking at the album cover to bring back those memories, the music will do that, but the covers remind me of the shopping experience and how much fun that was.
Someday, those memories will fade as time erases those pictures in my brain. For now, I can recall the fun of unwrapping the vinyl and putting it on the turntable for the first time. On or about May 27, 1975, after we had graduated from high school, Tommy and I were out shopping and goofing off. I recall that we ended up at his parents’ house and he put the copy of Venus and Mars on the record player and I heard the complete album for the first time. Or the first listen to The Tubes’ What Do You Want From Live?, a very tripping, theatrical album. I remember that because of only being somewhat familiar with The Tubes and as we played the album, it seemed like an experience you had to see to understand. On or about March 19, 1976, Tommy bought the new Doobie Brothers’ Takin’ It to the Streets, which was the first album with Michael McDonald, and represented a changing of their sound. After he put it on the turntable and it played out, I remember wondering if I was going to like this new change of direction. The same question stuck in my mind hearing Tommy play Aja by Steely Dan in September 1977. It was pop-jazz and not the harder-edge rock of The Royal Scam, just a year earlier. In 1978, Tommy and I were both dating girls who attended St. Mary College. I recall Tommy purchased a copy of Cat Stevens’ final album (for 30 years), Back to Earth. I was not with him when he picked it out, but it was December and I heard a song on the album that I have loved ever since. He played that album and I remember hearing the song, and recording onto cassette tape. As I drove to and from St. Mary College on weekends, that was one of the songs on the cassette that I played. Funny, how you remember such details of your life. The summer of 1978, The Rolling Stones released Some Girls. Unwrapping the album, I recall looking at the ornate packaging. In 1978, I turned 21, and in May, so did Tommy. That summer we were able to gain admittance to The Sanctuary, a private club for the 21 and over age group. We used to sit on the deck and enjoy our beers, or bourbon and Coke. The Sanctuary played Some Girls on more than one night we were there. Sitting there on a warm, summer night, hearing that album, we had our lives in front of us.
All these years later, the music does not change, even though sound engineers might fiddle with the mix and clean up the noise. We hear it, and not only process the sound, we live the times and the memories.