I am reading “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life” by Steve Almond and he devoted several pages to the evolution of listening to music that has transpired within our lifetimes. Yes, we both acknowledge this dates us but we are OK with it because it also means we have listened to a truckload of music.
I don’t agree with some of Steve’s chronology so I will just offer a vague summary of his list: The radio era, the phonographic era, the 8 track era, the cassette era, the CD era, and last but not least, the digital era.
This isn’t a bad list but I think it is overly simplistic, however, I am not here to debate the various era’s of music, what I do want to talk about is how we listened to music differently through those eras.
I would offer another era to this list, the era of live music which predates any of these recording methods and is still going strong, just different. When I was a young lad my Dad played the guitar at home and at parties. There were wedding dances, high school dances and impromptu music wherever musicians gathered. And gather they did, we had family reunions, music at campsites, and even at a funeral. My Dad’s remembrance service was close to 3 hours long and half a dozen musical groups played a tribute to my Dad for his contributions to live music over the years.
Live music was the only way to listen to music until technology started giving us a plethora of recording methods that allowed us to experience music where ever and whenever we wanted to listen to it.
There are more than enough history lessons on the various ways that sound, and music, have been recorded so I won’t replicate what others have done. What I will do is talk about how listening has changed for me.
After the live music, there was the radio which people listened to for much more than just music. CFCW was our local country and western station and they catered to the farmers and ranchers as well as those of us who enjoyed the country music. CBC had talk shows and of course, Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday, I cheered for the Leafs because my Dad cheered for the Leafs. As a teenager I listened to 630 CHED which played pop music, I can remember listening to The Archies sing “Sugar Sugar” as we drove home after school. K-97 played music on FM starting in 1979, they introduced me to more than one album over the years and I contributed mixtapes to them that they played on-air and gave me some albums in exchange.
I had purchased my first piece of vinyl in 1968, “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. I picked that gem up in Vancouver while there on vacation and visiting my cousin Wayne. I returned the next summer and bought my first full-length LP, Best of the Bee Gees, and that purchase is where I lead off on my topic of how we listen to music.
I played that record over and over, my parents let me use their record player in my bedroom and I took full advantage of that freedom. In November of 1969, I bought my second full album and I listened to it over and over. Summer of 1970 and I bought more records, Montreal had a very nice record shop that introduced me to “Déjà Vu” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young” as well as “In the Court of the Crimson King” by a band that is still very high on my favourites list, King Crimson.
Anyhow, listening. How did I listen to music in the decade of the 1970s? I listened intently, I hung on every word. We didn’t have https://genius.com/ to find the lyrics for us so without lyrics printed on the inner sleeve we listened intently, trying to hear every word and string them together for a musical story within each song and sometimes through a whole album. I listened for the sounds that the different instruments played within the songs, how they ebbed and flowed and added texture to the song. I read the liner notes for every tidbit of information such as who produced the album, who played what instrument (s), where it was recorded, etc.
I listened intently over and over until I knew those records start to finish. It was often a long time between record stores so I got my money’s worth out of every album that I bought.
And then cassette tapes came along and that changed the way I listened and interacted with music. I made mixtapes, yes, they were a real thing and not just in The Guardians of the Galaxy. I would listen to albums over and over and then put select songs on tape that I could listen to in the cassette deck in my car. Music became mobile and not just on the radio, I was now able to listen to what I wanted when I wanted it.
I bought my first set of headphones in 1973 and that also altered the way I experienced sound. They were quadraphonic which also changed the way I heard music. The technology was moving forward at an accelerated rate compared to the advances of the previous couple of hundred years.
I had an 8 track someplace within the late 1970s but I never got into that format very deep. The next leap was to CD’s in 1985, they were introduced to the public in 1982 but I waited a few years for the price to come down and my wages to go up, which both accommodated me favourably. I didn’t sell off my records to buy CDs as many people did, I kept my records spinning and added CDs as an alternate for listening. The biggest change that CDs made to my listening was the ability to listen to a whole album start to finish without having to get up and flip it, I could now listen to 80 minutes of music non-stop. The trade-off was the size of the packaging, I could barely read the liner notes because they were so small on a CD, compared to those on a record.
The biggest change in my listening habits had nothing to do with formats. I listened to all the formats, but I didn’t listen to them the same way in the 1990s as I did in the 1970s and that is still true, up until now.
I added albums to my collection at a dizzying rate and by 1989 I had accumulated 999 records and was on my way to similar numbers in CDs and cassettes but that accumulation came at a cost, I now listened to more volume but less content. I was listening to more and more music but paying less and less attention to what I was listening to and with the advent of digital music, I had even more content but less listening. So I made a decision to listen to some music in much the same way as I had in the embryonic days of my music listening. I left the CD in the player for days on end and listened to the same album over and over, just like I did for Best of the Bee Gees. I picked 20 albums and I listened intently to them.
So, in no particular order, here is what I listened to and how I reacted to the music that I loved so much in years gone by.
- Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. This recording has been on my turntable for 49 years, 7 months, 20 days, and I still love to hear it, start to finish, over and over again.
- Kiln House by Fleetwood Mac. This is the only album by them that I listen to over and over again.
- Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane. This is another band that I only listen to one album of theirs, White Rabbit isn’t the only good song on the album.
- No Guru, No Method, No Teacher by Van Morrison. This is his sixteenth album and it was released in 1986, I bought it on CD before buying the vinyl.
- American Pie by Don Mclean. Yes, I bought it for “the song”, but I do listen to the whole album, just not as intently as “the song”.
- Lust For Life by Iggy Pop. I love this album, start to finish. It’s a good listen for driving down the highway in the summer.
- Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones. I still consider this as the Stones best recording.
- Avalon by Roxy Music. Released in 1982, this was their eighth and final studio album but the first and only recording that I have of them.
- Harvest by Neil Young. This came out in 1972, I bought it sometime around 1975 and saw him live in 1984. I still consider this the highest point in his musical career.
- A Space In Time by Ten Years After. I bought this on vinyl in quadraphonic sound. It sounded amazing with headphones and still sounds good in stereo.
- I Ain’t Easy by Long John Baldry. Saw him live in 1979 but he didn’t play a single song off this album which disappointed me because I loved this on vinyl.
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. I don’t remember when or where I bought this album but I have listened to it a gazillion times.
- Buffalo Springfield by Buffalo Springfield. I bought it “For What It’s Worth” but have listened to it until I am “Going Out Of My Mind”.
- Wanted! The Outlaws by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser earned its place in music history by becoming the first country and western album to be platinum-certified, reaching sales of one million. I added to those sales twice.
- Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel. The sounds of record grooves eliminated the silence and the silence still plays.
- Crime of the Century by Supertramp. This album has not lost its lustre even though it isn’t quite the album of the century, that would be number 20 on this list.
- Who’s Next by The Who. Come on, I would have bought it just for the cover photo and kept it for the music.
- Fear of Music by Talking Heads. I remember hearing this on K-97, an FM station in Edmonton who used to play album rock, I bought it on cassette first and then on record, CD and digital. Yup, over and over and over.
- Aqua Lung by Jethro Tull, when this album came out my parents took a stance and they didn’t want me playing this record in their home, which of course meant I played it more, over and over.
- Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. This album was released in March of 1973, I graduated from grade 12 in June of 1973 and bought this album with my first paycheque in July of 1973. I have since purchased about a dozen copies of this album over the years in vinyl, cassette and CD. The format doesn’t matter because the music is the medium.
The music is the medium is a statement by Marshall McLuhan, meaning that the form of a message (print, visual, musical, etc.) determines the ways in which that message will be perceived. McLuhan argued that modern electronic communications (including radio, television, films, and computers) would have far-reaching sociological, aesthetic, and philosophical consequences, to the point of actually altering the ways in which we experience the world.
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr McLuhan, the end.