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Black is Back

The return of the LP marks a quiet revolution in music listening. Fuelled by nostalgia and better technology, the vinyl could be Test cricket to the Twenty20 of downloaded music. Indrajit Hazra writes...

music Updated: Mar 14, 2011 17:29 IST
Indrajit Hazra

I’m inside a small room at the old Gramophone Company of India factory on the outskirts of Kolkata being made to listen to a rather sonorous voice coming out of a spinning plate. The rotating metal disc has been lovingly taken out of a cardboard box and I’m told by the gentleman fondly looking at the contraption that the voice belongs to Razia Begum.

Mentally, I draw a blank. But not wanting to be impolite, I manufacture excitement. The voice, clean as a whistle and earthy as a pot, is singing Launda badnaam hua... Natija tere liye with an open voice and minimal music. "It’s a traditional Bhojpuri track that was cut in 1983. This is the mastertrack," recording engineer Sujan Chakrabarty tells me, adding how the film Dabangg has "done a copy of the song without giving any credit." But that there’s some confusion about whether anyone can file a case as the song is ‘a traditional,’ so.... The machine is a Garrard 401 player and the ‘metal plate’ is a ‘mother cell’ with not a scratch on it. It’s the master disc, you see, from which vinyl records of the recording were once produced.

LPsConsidering that a few minutes before, I was taken around the building on a guided tour of artifacts of music technology down the ages in the country, the 1983 ‘mastertrack’ of a Bhojpuri song didn’t quite have the effect on me that Chakrabarty was hoping for. After all, I had gone past spools, cassettes and old vinyls kept in glass cases, one of which was a thick, 75 revolutions per minute vinyl record of SV Subbiah Bhagavathar released on July 7, 1930, two years after the first record was pressed in India in 1928 – of Bengali songs by a Miss Soshi Mukhi. Most of the scratchy music coming out of a cranked-up gramophone player was the stuff of period movies. All that was missing was Nipper, the famous His Master’s Voice dog.

But what catches my eye after I’m done with Razia Begum is the image of an LP album cover with a lanky Shah Rukh Khan sporting a ‘wet’ look on it. Flanked by Madhuri Dixit and Rani Mukherjee, Shah Rukh is on the cover of the soundtrack album of Dil to Pagal Hai. I stop at this iconic cover. This is the last vinyl or ‘record’ to have been produced in India in 1997, just before the cutting-edge technology of cassettes would snuff the life out of LPs forever.

Well, not quite forever. For after Gulshan Kumar’s T-series cassette revolution in the mid-90s forced every other record company in town – including the leader of the pack SaReGaMa, the new name for the old Gramophone Company of India – to move to cassettes, then to CDs and now increasingly to downloadable mp3s, the LPs are making a comeback.

Weird? Yes, if you consider the ‘return’ of the cycle-rickshaw on the main streets as weird.

In October last year, SaReGaMa quietly relaunched the first Indian LP, the soundtrack of Jhootha Hi Sahi, with music composed by AR Rahman and with a price tag of R599. Since then, other companies like T-Series have released vinyls like the soundtrack of Tees Maar Khan, with Sony planning to release LPs of Rang de Basanti, Lagaan and Jodhaa Akbar. What the hell is going on?

The signs of an LP revival have been there for a while now. In the few remaining music stores in London or New York, till a few years back, there would be a small corner dedicated to limited edition LPs, mainly bought by DJs picking up vinyls to spin and scratch and toggle on their special DJ twin turntable consoles. A handful of folks with a turntable brought down from the attic along with the electric typewriter to show off to their guests may have also picked up a special edition Beatles or Rolling Stones record or two. But over the last few years in the West, the small LP corner has been gnawing into the increasingly defunct racks holding CDs. And what is now a trend is the simultaneous release of LPs with mp3s (and CDs) of contemporary bands.

Even a visit to Music World or Musicland or Rhythm House in Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai will get you a shelf full of (expensive) imported LPs that includes ‘oldies’ like George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Deep Purple’s Come Taste the Band and a David Bowie LP-cum-CDs box set, as well as the last Green Day, Linkin Park and Coldplay albums. In cricketing terminology, this would be like Test cricket becoming popular again.

But hold on. The prospective LP-buyer is still likely to be the nostalgia-hunter. I ask why the sudden interest in selling LPs to someone who’s putting his money where the polyvinyl material is. Apurv Nagpal is the managing director of SaReGaMa. At 39, he knows that vinyl has not quite the ‘novelty’ that, say, listening to music on the iPod still has for today’s ear-podded generation. "It is a niche market and even though it’s too early to tell, the signs have been good. There is a physical appeal to the LP that the downloadable music, or even the CD, doesn’t have. We aren’t putting all our music into the LP format. Only the ones with a certain ‘timeless’ quality. Jhootha Hi Sahi has that. There will be others."

At just two years old, Amarrass Records is a brand new music company, and one of its goals, says Ankur Malhotra, director, is to "be at the forefront of the movement to revive the LP in our part of the world, which we saw as a quietly emerging market." Malhotra adds: "If you look at the West, then vinyl is the format that has grown over the last few years."

Much of the ‘timeless’ quality that Nagpal talks about is, of course, about the whole packaging. Holding an LP and playing it is a more sensual activity. Sociologist Michael Bull writes in his book Sound Moves how the iPod era provides a portable sound world that offers "solace and privacy in the abrasive environments we must traverse in modern life." Where does the LP, stuck to the turntable that’s stuck to the living room or study, fit in?

It fits in for the listener rather than the ‘hearer.’ The LP is not friendly towards the multitasker who was born with the Walkman and the car stereo and then finally liberated by the cavernous iPod. As old-timers would remember, listening to a record meant going into a room, picking out a flat, black, fragile thing from the rack, taking it out of its jacket, putting it on, sitting down and then, after a while getting up again to turn it around and sit down again. Such a ritual demands one’s attention. And thus, the rebirth of a listening format as a niche activity – like meditation or tai chi.

As Travis Elborough writes in The Long-Player Goodbye, with the LP, there’s also more than just listening. "You’d also be soaking up the stories on the sleeves, the information seeming to pass via your fingertips by osmosis, as you flicked through records. Who is this? What the hell is that? What label is it on? (Does Phil Collins playing drums on it, if only as a session man, put it utterly beyond the pale even if it is by John Cale?) Who produced it? Who did the cover?"

All that is all very well and noble. But what about the sound itself? Is the LP sound, coming as it did before the technological ‘improvements’ of cassettes and CDs and mp3s, worth it sonically minus all those romantic bits about ‘holding’ your music?

First, for anyone of you above 30, let’s cut out the joys of hearing a record ‘crackle.’ That’s like people complaining about not having the pleasure of inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke in aeroplanes any more. Recording engineer at SaReGaMa Abhijit Das discounts the crackle and pop – not to mention the ‘jump’ of the needle on a record that I still expect to hear on Here Comes the Sun on the Beatles’ Abbey Road even on CD – as ‘wear and tear flaws.’

But Das points out that the old ‘recording’ technology for LPs, inferior to CD recording technology, itself has improved. While the mp3 and other data compression formats are still generally inferior to compact disc recordings, CD recording quality has deteriorated radically since they were first introduced. One of the main reasons is that record companies have gradually increased the volume in CDs. In 2007, one engineer that Elborough quotes, maintained: "From the mid-1980s to now, the average loudness of CDs increased by a factor of 10, and the peaks of songs are now one-tenth of what they used to be." This increase in volume actually has distorted the sound.

Enter the new spruced-up LP. With its finite 180-gram, 25-odd minutes per side format, there’s only that much you can pack into it (thereby being more finicky about putting in ‘pointless’ demo takes and silly ‘rare alternate recordings’ that were meant to stay out of an album anyway). But the LP’s analog technology has an USP of its own. Analog technology records the sound physically on to the surface of the vinyl record – unlike CDs or mp3s which convert the sound into a digital format (separate numbers).

As senior recording engineering Pabitra Mukherjee at SaReGaMa’s legendary studio utters the word ‘depth,’ to convey the special quality that the LP has, I feel the old ‘traditionalists vs radicals’ rear its head again. Except, talking about the resurrection of the LP, I’m not sure who the traditionalists and who the radicals are. Is it Mukherjee, who explains quite lucidly how the analog LP is able to record, store and play back more frequencies without ‘flattening’ them out like in digital formats like the CD and mp3? "When a voice sings the note ‘sa,’ it’s not a dry ‘sa’ note that is uttered. A harmonic is generated with an 8th (higher) octave coming out simultaneously creating a mini-echo and giving the note its depth. A good LP recording captures this," he tells me with fingers raised as if he’s following Zubin Mehta conducting Beethoven.

But it takes assistant manager, recording, Abhimanyu Deb, who I catch inside a SaReGaMa studio, to confuse me again. "LPs don’t add anything to the sound and CDs take nothing away," he says, adding, "It’s all about taking advantage of a demand for nostalgia. Nothing else. A fad."

So I’m back to square one.

The truth about sound quality may be inside those micro-grooves of the vinyl, but without the hardware of a turntable, there’s not much use in curling up with an LP. Sushil Anand of Nova Audio has been providing the necessary hardware assistance for some time now. He distributes Pro-Ject appliances, high-end turntables manufactured in Europe that range from R25,000 to R2.5 lakh. "There has been a sudden spike in turntable purchases in the last few weeks. Most of those buying earlier were people with existing old LP collections. This could be a new lot of buyers," he says.

Anand tells me how the turntable market faced its first serious jolt as far back as 1982. "The television, with the Asian Games, made a whole generation of consumers move away from the turntable-LPs as a source of home entertainment even before the LPs went out of circulation." A decade later it simply bottomed out with spares for those already with turntables becoming more difficult to find and expensive to buy.

Anand thinks that the turntable revival could be a sign of the new music-appliance consumer, a niche customer who likes his music to be of quality both in content and in form – or at least wants to be seen as a connoisseur standing apart from the downloading masses who don’t care if their songs come in the form of ringtones. And with new LPs becoming more and more visible in music retail stores, turntables are also being enquired about.

But while Pro-Ject turntables are for the loaded cognoscento (the turntables are not displayed in music chains but can only be ordered from the Internet as, according to Anand, "they are high-end equipment which can’t just be left on the shop floors"), cheaper options are already being picked up from music chains and shops. SaReGaMa has even tied up with turntable manufacturers Lenco, with a range from the low-end boxy retro-look with FM radio model starting at around R 8,000 to more expensive models with USB ports that can play mp3s also.

In October 2007, the magazine Wired published an article titled ‘Vinyl may be final nail in CD’s coffin.’ There may not be racks and racks of new LPs being sold yet. And it is very unlikely that dealers will line up outside the SaReGaMa factory in Dum Dum near Kolkata to buy a new hot, straight-off-the-plant LP as they did when some 25,000 retailers stormed the Gramophone Company of India factory to pick up copies of Disco Deewane. (The new Indian LPs are not even manufactured here but abroad, the SaReGaMa records being pressed in Holland.)

But I’ve certainly started hoping to end my long wait to replace my old, scratchy copy of Yaadon Ki Baaraat, with Dharmendra standing menacingly holding a knife, Zeenat Aman flashing her smile and its stand-out full-blown ‘70s design’ on its cover. Soon, once LPs become less expensive (the Iron Maiden LPs in the shop racks cost more than R 1,000 a pop) and once I get myself a turntable that I can place next to my archaic CD player and dependable iPod dock-cum-speaker.

5 Great Album Covers

Part of the great appeal of LPs has always been their covers. A good album cover gives the record an immediate visual identity. CDs are too small to highlight this aspect, while mp3s have to do without it altogether. So it’s no surprise that the golden years of album cover art coincides with the ’60s-’80s when vinyl was at its commercial height. LPs in India, unfortunately – because of an overwhelming large number of them being filmi soundtracks that simply had tacky images from the movie or publicity stills of the stars – never developed a covert art culture. Maybe, with the revival of LPs, there will be more innovative cover art. Here are five of my favourite all-time album covers:

Dark Side of the Moon
As much as Pink Floyd’s epical 1973 album leaves me lukewarm, I can’t help but be staggered by the sheer power of the cover art showing a prism splitting white light into a rainbow against a pitch black background. No titles, just the image. Photographed by album art company Hipgnosis’s Storm Thorgerson, the idea came from keyboard player Rick Wright and guitarist David Gilbour suggested extending the white line through the album sleeve and to the reverse of the album where it becomes a rainbow again.

Never Mind the Bollocks
There are no images on this 1977 album cover; the letters are the image. Jamie Reid’s cut-out ‘ransom note’ lettering became a defining motif for punk in general and the Sex Pistols in particular. The lettering design was first used by Reid in Suburban Press, a newspaper he co-founded. This cover with the word ‘Sex’ in yellow on a pink background, was so offensive at the time that record shops insisted on a brown paper bag covering the album on the racks.

The Velvet Underground
The 1967 eponymous album flopped on its original release. But Andy Warhol’s cover art of the banana on the sleeve lingered and has become a classic. The pop artist’s simple yet subversive image endures. Early copies of the LP had a label inviting owners of the album to “Peel slowly and see” – and the banana peel would indeed peel away.

This is Hardcore
British band Pulp’s 1997 album was filled with disgust for the seediness that came with the ’90s Britpop scene. So provocation was key to the cover of this album. American painter John Currin and British designer Peter Saville created the artwork. When you look at the naked blonde lying down it appears a scene out of a porno flick. But then her blanked out eyes tell the story of a double-entrendre: ugly exploitation.

This is a 1963 record and it’s a jazz record too. The black and white image of a (drowning?) woman taken from under water with no lettering in sight is stunning. Entitled ‘Weeki Wachi Spring, Florida’, the photo was taken by New York socialite, Cecil Beaton protege and war photographer Toni Frisell in Florida in 1947. Pianist Bills Evans teams up with guitarist Jim Hall and the haunting music mirrors the image on the cover while the cover art mirrors their music.

- From HT Brunch, March 6

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