A recent New Yorker cartoon pictured a pair of balding, middle-aged dudes standing before a rack of top-line audio equipment, staring holes in one of those high-rise, cinder-block-thick turntables. “The two things that really drew me to vinyl,” read the caption, “were the expense and the inconvenience.” It’s funny ’cause it’s true. No matter how many articles credit vinyl’s comeback to young, nostalgia-huffing hipsters, the record-collecting industry lives and dies by those who have a little extra cash and time on their hands.
As a middle-aged dude with no kids, I qualify on both counts and therefore am putty in the hands of record labels still trying to squeeze obscene profits from their back catalogues. Have you browsed through a vinyl bin lately? The prices are absurd. Neil Young’s Harvest for $46.99? The Queen Is Dead for $34.99? Abbey Road almost feels like a steal at $24.99. I try to be sensible about this, but that didn’t stop me from paying $46 for Portishead’s Dummy, or from spending $93 last week on “deluxe” reissues of Sticky Fingers by the Stones and Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
In the case of Sticky Fingers, I was powerless. I’ve never owned a copy of the album in its original form—with the Warhol-designed, denim-clad crotch cover and working zipper that opens to reveal another crotch clad in briefs. One of the great pop gimmicks of the 20th century, it’s actually quite scandalous in action, “sex personified,” as Michael Kors once said. As the opening chords of “Brown Sugar” filled my living room, making way for that first verse about a slave master whipping women, Sticky Fingers felt as sleazy and racy as ever.
But the rest of the first side, particularly “Wild Horses,” sounded shrill enough to make me wonder how much care went into this supposed “remaster.” The additional disc of live cuts and outtakes wasn’t bad, but four cuts from the Stones ’71 set at the Roundhouse in London only makes you want more. Maybe if I zip and unzip that zipper several times a day for the next few weeks, it’ll justify the $35 setback.
Physical Graffiti was pricier ($58), but since a sticker promised it was “remastered and produced by Jimmy Page,” I felt fairly confident it wouldn’t disappoint. It hasn’t. Zeppelin always paid more attention to detail in the studio than the Stones ever did, and Page’s latest crack at their flawed, monster opus really comes alive here. For an album I’ve only ever listened to on CD, it’s nice to appreciate this for the four-sided mess it is. (In my perfect world, “Boogie with Stu” would last as long as “Kashmir.”) Maybe I’ll even get around to the outtakes disc someday, after I stop dropping the needle on “Bron-Yr-Aur” and “Down by the Seaside” and the rest of Side 3.
Feeling an urge to break free from the ’70s, I pulled out a used copy of R.E.M.’s Reckoning that I found in a shop last week. It hadn’t been remastered, nor was it repressed on “virgin 180-gram vinyl,” whatever that might be. It’s just the original album, and it sounded really good. I ignored that it cost only $10.