I grew up in a special time in a magical place. The time was the early 1970’s. The place was Southern California.
During that time, there was a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of musical talent and new musical technologies that created a boom in consumer electronics. Before there was video, there were stereos. These audio systems, with the right components, were like porn for the ears.
Exploiting this market in Southern California was Pacific Stereo, University Stereo, and perhaps most famously The Federated Group. These stores offered a wonderland of stacked boxes of imported components and listening rooms full of many large speakers. These were presented with financing (at 18%+) that could get you out the door with some super cool gear that could compliment your waterbed.
I remember spending hours in my teen years in these stores figuring out in advance exactly what clearly thought out combination of receiver, turntable, cartridge, and speakers would fit my budget and taste. I became familiar with terms like frequency response, wow and flutter, RMS, and active and passive woofers. These definitions loomed larger than the battles between Ahab and his Whale or Javert and Jean Valjean that I was learning about in high school. For this teen, the battles between Dual and Garrard, Pioneer and Sansui, and Shure and Pickering were the ones that mattered.
This orientation was because without a stereo is was impossible to make the case that Jeff Beck was a better guitarist than Jimmy Page. Or, Stephen Stills better than Neil Young. They are. Worse, without a stereo to crank, no one is going to come over to your house.
Plus, not having a killer stereo, at least in my teenage years, was the sign of a stone-cold loser. So the need to buy cool components was all the motivation I needed to get my first job at 15 1/2 working at Palos Verdes Health Spa on Deep Valley Drive in Rolling Hills Estates.
Incidentally, the fellow who got me this job was slightly older than me and already worked long enough to buy his stereo. He was clearly cooler than me. I could sense that the escape from loser-dom was just a few paychecks away.
Sleepy Palos Verdes only had one store that sold audio components, Mr. B’s music. B’s had a limited selection. What they had was mostly adult-oriented components that were out of my price range. So, as good as the Bose 801s sounded – I was never going to be able to afford them. I needed to look elsewhere.
Fortunately, there was the Sunday Calendar section, literally full of “double-truck” ads for audio components. Alongside Robert Hillburn’s crappy music reviews were lavishly described audio component packages for people like me to lust after. The retailer looming largest at the time was The Federated Group.
So after a few paychecks, my mom hauled me down to their biggest location on Pico Boulevard in West LA. There, while she waited in the car, I haggled with some feather-haired polyester-wearing coke-spoon-around-his-neck stereo salesperson. I plopped down $400 cash for a Sansui 5050 receiver and Garrard turntable with the all-important Shure cartridge. I then had mom stop at Rogers Sound Labs on Hawthorne on the way home. These were high-value speakers. I had bought into their whole manufacturer-direct-purchasing sales line. For only $199 I bought a pair of 12-inch three ways!
That was a big day in my life. I’ll never forget it. I had my stereo. In my mind I somehow instantly became cool. I redecorated my room. I started buying albums.
The timing was fantastic as some of the best rock/pop music ever produced was about to come out. I spent hours in my room listening, reading liner notes, and eventually busting out the guitar trying to learn to play those songs.
After that, somewhere along the line, the bottom fell out of the audio business. CDs replaced albums. The whole zeitgeist of music changed. Reading liner notes on a CD blows – even with a pair of readers. CDs, while they were sold to us as this great advance, in the end, sucked. CDs killed the whole music listening experience. Oh well, 20/20 hindsight.
After CDs came the mp3 and then iTunes. Retailers like Circuit City and Good Guys – decent stores with great audio departments – eventually bankrupted leaving only Best Buy who didn’t even have an audio room! Audio like that was a memory. Good thing as the music had all turned to crap. Big hooks with overwrought production and rap breaks replaced the sensitive singer-songwriter. No need to hear nuance, because it’s not about the music anymore.
More dramatically what was happening was video was replacing audio. Small/hidden speakers became the norm. Surround sound receivers trumped stereo ones. Big screens with soundbars and in-wall satellites became more prevalent than high-quality components – even in the man cave. Tower and large bookshelf speakers became a thing of the past. Consequently, old stereo systems went in the garage, sold on Craigslist, or donated to the Salvation Army.
While no one was looking, the business of appreciating musicality in music died. Ask any artist who is still touring, and they will tell you, whatever was once the “music industry,” except for a few superstar acts, is dead.
Now, we come full circle. Our 13-year-old son wanted a “music system” for his room. After all, he’s 13.
Cue “Circle of Life” from the Lion King. And no, there won’t be a one speaker Sonus system here coming from daddy.
Instead, I am fully going to go old school. I picked him up a sweet Kenwood receiver on Craigslist to go with the vintage speakers I had in the garage. And what do you know, his iPod connects perfectly through the CD jack. Heck, maybe I’ll buy him a turntable.
And guess what? He’s ecstatic! He can’t believe how good it sounds. He loves his new stereo. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll hear the music the way I did.
There is a sad side note to this narrative. My stereo never helped become cool – that was a pure delusion – as I remain a dork.