“It was 20 years ago today Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play,
They’ve been going in and out of style,
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile”
The Beatles were onto something, almost. IT WAS 40 years ago, this week, 1982, the first CD, reportedly Billy Joel's 52nd Street, hit the markets, 'record' shops, streets, and portable players. Don’t see anyone writing a great song about the CD as an icon but perhaps we need to celebrate this musical event. And yet like supersonic passenger flight, or people on the moon, the CD was a future that began 40 years ago and has been eclipsed by an acceptance of... A mediocrity for all... The CD most synonymous with the birth of the CD era would be 'Brothers in Arms' by Dire Straits, love or hate them, they were once huge, worldwide stars, shifting refrigerators, moving colour TVs, money for nothing? What came later, was streaming nothing for something?
History tells us that developers had CD technology by the late 70s. I remember reading, (probably in the NME), about the embryonic CD format, run time of almost 55 mins, then… nothing. Format developers (Phillips and Sony) were set a challenge by Sony Music’s president - he wanted to fit his favourite symphony, Beethoven’s ninth, on a single disc. Hence the delay in CDs hitting shelves.
We all know, or can Google the first CD released locally, or played on a national radio station, but we can’t Google the first CD we bought, for me that matters. Memories of ‘firsts’ matter, dates, kisses, film seen, music bought. The 40th anniversary of the CD is one event to be fondly remembered, except my first CD was a gift.
I have always been a slow, slow adopter of new technology, I’d seen the writing on the wall for vinyl, as the shelf space ebbed, into the back, into the basement. Friends buying CDs meant, no more the refrain, “can I borrow it“ with the intention of home taping. As albums became readily available on CD, vinyl requests at shop counters were greeted with disdain, “no mate and we’re not getting it”, or even worse “CD and tape only mate“. A bit like wearing flares to a punk gig.
The first gifted CD made me step up, bite the bullet, and ‘get with the (CD) programme’ – the result I bought my very first CD player, it was a YAMAHA, (forget the number). Plugged it into my Yamaha amp, powered it on, pressed the play button, and slipped the CD into the drawer. The display lit up, track number 1, total playing time displayed. It was a technical revelation!
But it was the sound, I’d developed a taste for the 70s-80s avant-garde, conservatoire Jazz, and loved it on vinyl. But this was a revelation, amazing sound, ESPECIALLY the quieter passages, the lack of crackles and pops, the surface noise was startling by it’s absence. It was one of those ‘Oh My God, this is amazing, why have I waited sooo long for this’. The sound was wonderful, crystal clear, and with perfect sound separation.
The CD Norma Winston, Somewhere Called Home’ (ECM 1337), a jazz trio with Norma’s voice, John Taylor’s Piano, and Tony Coe’s Saxophone / Clarinet, is a perfect example of why I came to love the format for this genre. The soprano voice, soars kite-like, stretching the piano’s rhythm and melody, and the duets with the clarinet are just moments of musical perfection. Listening to it now I can, albeit fleetingly, recall those moments of revelation, of those sensations, a cool shower on a hot day, a playful snowball from a lover, a sip of fine chilled wine in the afterglow of a glorious sunset. The music volume turned up, and filled my tiny one-bed 6th floor East London council flat, with delight, and perfect sound, I was won over.
I’d read the debates though, on sound and the musical warmth of vinyl, but within a few weeks, a few more CDs were on my shelves, the first was Salif Keita’s classic ‘Soro’. I popped into my local library and was able to borrow a CD version of a treasured vinyl LP. Sure the CD was scratchless, with no need to flip the recording over. But the sound, more muddied, less passionate, less engaging, less sense of the artist cutting loose, of, of, of, of. Even today 40 years on, I don’t have quite the phrase I want, but there are some records that DO JUST sound better on vinyl.
Of course for artists this format was a two-edged sword, the length of CDs appeared to mean that artists at the outset of the technology appeared to be obligated to produce 65 to 70 minutes of music on each release, as opposed to 30-40 minutes on vinyl. That's more filler than found on many pop albums. Of course for established artists, reissuing catalogue albums on CD with previously unreleased tracks hoovered up more money from devotees. I’m not ashamed to confess, I am a ‘double-up’ guy on some artists, buying CDs with extra tracks. I could try to justify it, saying ‘they got scratched at a party’, but really how many people dance to Keith Jarrett’s improvisational piano, or Dexter Gordon’s saxophone? I was a sucker for the extra tracks scam.
I can see how these so-called new leases of life helped some artists earn extra money from their creations. History showed this as their last chance, last income grab before the download tsunami blew their earnings into the trashcan. Such is the destruction of intellectual property rights that streaming has led to, with its minuscule returns, and links to algorithms that help deliver more of the same, and mis-allocated royalties.
For me, still a CD buyer, there’s a sense of joy in hearing a recording whole, with the maximum audio bandwidth only the CD format can provide, as the artist intended it to be heard. How does Brothers In Arms sound on your phone? A bit like Dial-a-Disc did? (Ask your great grandparents about that one - another victim of the streaming era).
There is a wider discussion over the role of the listener in music, of course, Barthes might be paraphrased, perhaps, suggesting that once the notes are delivered, where and how they are interpolated by the listener becomes the reality and that the artist no longer has ownership of the work.
Of the many reasons I remain a fervent supporter of physical music media, it often gives the artist, especially less popular ones, more income than streaming. It gives music value. The sleeve design offers art and sometimes encyclopedic insights into the writing and recording processes of the players. Would Bernard Purdy be so renowned in a streaming era? There is a tactile impact in the handling, feeding the broader pleasures of discovery that seeps into lives and how lives are to be lived and tastes change. There is a cataloguing of life in a collection of music that will rarely be revealed in a series of online playlists…
Many readers will remember their very first CD - even if they no longer have it. How many can remember the first song or even the artist they streamed? For me, these musical milestone firsts, single, album, gig, CD, are almost right of passage, and if they were/are embarrassing, so much the better, ‘fess up’, and laugh.
Incidentally, my first single was Gilbert O’Sullivan’s - 'Claire’, (a schoolboy crush), and no, I longer have that single, and can no longer remember Clair clearly, but hey-ho that’s the story of music in many lives.
Main Photo by Ali Pazani: