Reminiscences of Record Release Rituals
Mark Perry demonstrates proper record appreciation posture
For Woe, For Discovery, For the ride, For Better Sex
For the love of albums, and communing with bands the way one did, one does...or?
by Domenic Maltempi
Conduct a search along the lines of 'record release rituals---or---the things we did when a new record came out,' or something less chunky, and little is yielded. The mighty harvesting power of search engines feel an inadequate thing. I thought I just wasn't inputting the right words or something. But was it possible that the act of having some sort of ritual (simple or more involved) by one's self or something more communal, revolving around the release of an album from a much-loved artist was possible?
I became interested in seeking out a few record release ritual stories while writing a piece of fiction that revolved around two twenty something kids who became enraptured with a fictional band called Gruel Pantomime. As each 'GP' album came out (the band shrouded release dates in mystery to spice up the nutters), the two would very methodically buy it at their local record store, driving to certain locations, doing particular drugs, being led by lyrics or sounds to navigate through unsettling hamlets, and ominous villages. Unusual things happen on these drives. The Gruel Pantomime allure grows then wanes. But the real accounts of such rituals or activities revolving around buying new albums didn't have to be full of enigmatic goofiness, or Egyptian LSD, nude shoplifting, OTB water gun fights, or cross country dream bleeding.
The stories I sought out could be as prosaic and simple as wanting to sequester yourself with that new album in a place that would leave you in relative peace, with a can of your favorite seltzer, maybe a ghost-boner for your favorite artist's spirit rushing through the integument of brand new songs. Maybe you were a twin, and your brother shared a deep fascination with Peggy Lee, so when Peggy's new album came out, you got all dolled up, and acted for each other in some beautiful azure and cream striped basement with it's smooth stone floor, now gone, perhaps converted to an exercise room for someone who just goes down there and drinks Diet Coke from a can, thinking of the apocalypse.
I participated in such album release rituals, and the first president I ever voted for was old cigar-diddling Clinton. I mean-- it wasn't that long ago when people still did this sort of thing, and still probably do to some degree. Was the era of this phenomenon's tail-end so close to the beginning of a major listening and general culture shift that it evaded its blog entries and the like? I know these stories are the sorts that might be very personal, full of odd idiosyncratic things that are hard to just pack into an account, or that resist being documented. Maybe what was special about these rituals or made them such, were the thoughts and less conscious, gooey introspective activity involved, things difficult to summon later in any particular form.
Such an activity is no doubt a moribund phenomenon, maybe only living on within the habits of listeners of some sort of cult band or very particular sub-genre, or among collectors of certain vinyl, or just super music geeks, (which in some ways defy the impositions of what the times dictate, and will always have warm affinities with super music geeks from other times). But having a go-to ritual when you knew a certain album was going to come out wasn't always limited to the sample of groups I just rattled off. You could be someone who wasn't a passive top 40 radio listener, or some collector of obscure foreign imports, waiting for the next Smiths, Peter Tosh or Billy Joel album to come out with an excitement akin to waiting for drugs to kick in, or finally being alone in a cool darkened bedroom with your beloved after a long bus ride of teasing and a fresh carton of Pall Malls heavy in a sack. One did hang out on a snaking line for a long ass time in foul weather in front of a record store for a certain release, the way people wait around for the newest super-phone or French fries on any given free French Fry day. Take in this one story by musician and artist Jed Davis, which filled me with a wonder, thinking about all the layering and thickening components of a long-termish ritual over the years, the most exciting or funny mutual reaction to a particular song or album, each individuals joy radiating into each other as they share these moments, these songs, bands...My friend Ed McCullagh and I had a Ween album release ritual that lasted from Pure Guava through 12 Golden Country Greats (with a quick trip back in time to The Pod when it finally went mass-market).The reasons are pretty obvious why things like release dates, and the anticipatory excitement that would in part lead to such listening rituals, or differentiate the experience of buying some bands album over another as much less casual, are in many ways irrelevant. Besides the much more prominent technological and market-shift/economic reasons, there are cultural, emotional, and others besides. Tying into some of the latter categories, we may add 'musical.' There are certain sounds, genres, ideas, that lend themselves more to the phenomenon in question.
The night new Ween came out, we'd go to the Massapequa Tower Records and pick that shit up on cassette. Not CD - my car couldn't play those, and I had lost my Discman years earlier to this dude Kevin who signed himself up for the Columbia 12-discs-for-a-penny club fifteen times but forgot to buy a CD player, borrowed mine and burned it out.
Ed - who hoarded an entire refrigerator full of 7-Up in his basement because he heard they might change the formula - had discovered a pastry product called GUAVA PUFFS at the local Entenmann's factory outlet. These were like turnovers or strudel filled with a neon pink guava paste. Long Island residents could only get GUAVA PUFFS direct from the Entenmann's outlet, and every Ween day, Ed would swing over there and pick up a box of puffs. Ween referenced guava at least once an album, it seemed, and we'd heard they might have taken their name from the Guavaween festival in Tampa, Florida, so we decided GUAVA PUFFS must be the ULTIMATE WEEN FOOD.
Then we would drive around the island, eat GUAVA PUFFS, and listen to the new Ween album twice. Why twice? So we could drive past all the shit on our list of things to drive past: the Amityville Horror house, the pretty blue lights at Republic Airport, the weird Goth mansion in Massapequa Park, and various places where girls we liked lived. And so we could get a proper feel for the record, really digest it... make sure we hadn't missed a sonic gag, laugh, poignant moment, inappropriate guitar solo or Andrew Weiss production trick.
There has been a busy cavalcade of musical trends that have challenged the parameters of the idea of an album as a set of loosely or more purposefully collected songs. The digital download era has seen an expansion of these tests with the ever-trendy and sometimes excellent output of products or collections by an artist defined by its exceptionally liquid genre-hybridity (think of Flying Lotus or Wise Blood or Scuba or Tape or Jim O'Rourke). There has certainly been an explosion of bands that have tried dabbling in such approaches, both because of the ever spurring urge to break away from what's been done, and technological ease of mashing components of various sound approaches together, for better or for painfully worse.
That's not to say that there necessarily is less unity behind such collections, or albums if you like, but perhaps these collections from same artist are so radically different from one to next, or there is just less continuity in general, that they would never stir one to anything but zone out to it in bursts of time, treating it as many other things are treated in parts of the world with the latest technology, and its attendant culture, as something to immediately attend to, and then necessarily drop, getting back to it when your attention is jerkily summoned by whatever, and you've managed to ignore X. and turn to buzz Y, or sort of 'respond' to this or that with some sort of low-level of satisfaction, to clear time of Z.
Think of this. Have you ever been to a 1930's American themed house party, and gotten pushed into a little semi enclosed utility area leading to an ornate but crumbling balcony obstinately clinging to a 1970's Stockholm Ski Horror theme not planned by its hosts?
Jason hides behind one of his reissues
Age, and those in a position to take advantage of leisure time that comes within a certain period of life, is an important factor to consider. Is it possible that in certain ways today, even college age people into music enough to want to participate in album-listening rituals, do it less or not at all because of... let's say... an increase in more powerful distractions and the ease in certain ways of communicating and quasi communicating that promotes less physical togetherness even in campus settings? Perfect Sound Forever's founder Jason Gross illuminates his experiences during such a period of life and the uniquely intense album listening that came with it.The era of college radio may seem like romantic bullshit but for those of us who lived through that, it was good, romantic bullshit. Working at a station at a school in upstate New York, we had access to all the indie releases that were making the rounds then, some of which quickly disappeared from the shelves there into unknown DJ's private collections.
It didn't matter because we'd get the news otherwise from zines like Option and we even scoured catalogs from the likes of SST or Homestead for the latest bits of manna. These acts usually didn't make it up to us so we had to make pilgrimages to NYC to see the final Husker Du tour or one of the last times that Bob Stinson played with the Replacements.
As for the albums themselves, they became sacred communal experiences. I know, it sounds pathetic and antiquated in an age where even MP3 players are old-fashioned and we can have billions of songs on our phones. But when Tim and Reckoning and Zen Arcade and Brown Reasons to Live and Double Nickels on the Dime and More Fun in the New World arrived in one of our hands, word would get out and a group would form around it quickly to listen intently discuss it, argue about it, joke about it, compare it to what came before it and throw in anything else that came to mind in our little military-style dorm rooms. There was some kind of religious fervor to it, but less like a mass and more like a Talmudic discussion/argument.
Each plastic spinning disc crawled under our skins and got deep into us in a way that probably couldn't have happened the same way if we were each alone listening to it. Even before we went back to listen on our own, borrowing it or making a beeline for the record store to get our own copy, the music would still be swirling in our heads.
Oddly enough, I don't remember us repeating it for any of these records a second time. A new record would come along and then it would just start all over again. We never even thought this could end or that we were being spoiled with one great album after another, seeming to come out month after month. But of course it has to end and not just because you graduate- bands break up, scenes fade off, bands start making crappy albums, you lose your taste for them. You can always go back to your old worn albums or replace them with CD's or MP3's or whatever format is next and still appreciate them for the great music that they are. But you can't have that same communal experience, especially when you're not young and stupid and romantic enough to believe that this music was your music and that it was the best there was and there was no reason for it to stop.
Without pretending to exhaust the less obvious reasons for the thinning out of such rituals, I would also cite our collective and individual numbness from being perpetually throttled with information. Here one gets pulled by the virtual ear-lobe about by some 'alert' about this single or that album or potential date that also likes to get high and look at birds or whatever. Often there is some undesirable commercial viewing/listening imposed, 'being watched' by ads, as opposed to watching them, as a condition to listen to a certain single. The supposed leisure time spent in pursuit of art or entertainment, becomes an ensnaring, timefuck- you end up feeling your leisure is really about giving profiting entities data about you. There is so much cross-referencing of bands with market or other affinities spoonyforked your way to help a trend spread its precious wings, identifying buyers of this with buyers of that, until like so many other things, an infantilizing of our autonomy prevails. We get fed up.
It's harder to get into a band(s) for a long enough amount of time to develop a particular affinity towards them with an endless array of weak choices or imitations of choices to make, and the like. I know Lester Bangs wrote about a Sargosa Sea of mediocrity back in his day (1970's)--- a reference to more bands releasing weak output in general. Well, now that sea has not only swelled beyond shape, finding its way into every dry haven and making a careful or pleasant wading difficult, but is actually out 'looking for you,' bumping you back into its orbit, slipping into your nod-off session in front of whatever device, ever more surreptitiously being brought to your attention in ways that would make Edward Bernays shit his master spinmeistery pants.
Our attentions is so thinly sliced that we get to the point where we need to tune out to so much just to tune into 'X.' But how does one effectively tune out these days to tune in or focus to that album that will invite us to commune with it---where the conditions and workings of the old Huxlyean nightmare of being chewed so insipidly dry by endless rows of over-biting inanities, pouncing trivialities from all sectors among other factors-- are yet more robust? Tell me Mr. Leary?
There are just so many bands out there that you can hear effortlessly, nay, that you don't want to hear, but haha! YOU WILL BITCH! I mean it's not like you gotta listen to a college radio station, smoking cigarettes on your orange-brown marled carpet, with your finger poised on the little red button of a heavy black box to record a tune from the start played by a trust-worthy DJ that might lead to a love affair with that band. You could probably just type 'Eunice's Cramps,' on a lark, and there will probably be some cloudcloud page where that song exists, and if you watch a gum commercial, it's yours to listen to forever or the 2 minutes and forty five seconds it takes and never listen again.
See Part II of our Record Rituals article
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