This past week it was announced that you could no longer buy 11 albums for one penny as Columbia House – the most famous of the “record clubs” of the 1970’s – finally called it quits.
More lament for this aging baby boomer.
Several weeks ago I shared similar sentiments about how the modern-day versions of what we used to call “stereos” sort of suck. For those who were there and remembered, there was nothing like cranking the first Boston album on a pair of 12 inch 3-ways with at least 100 watts RMS.
Sorry, earbuds and compressed digital streams don’t compete with the stereo sound that would fill a room when two correctly staged large speakers were cranked up. I can’t help think the vinyl version of Skrillex and Justin Bieber would sound better through a pair of Acoustic Research 3a stereo speakers than what you get when you stream it to a single Sonos.
Does anyone seriously argue this? Are you with me here?
The Long Playing (LP) record.
The far bigger lament is for the record album. I’m not talking about the vinyl; I’m talking about the album itself. The packaging was a big part of the LPs appeal. The 12 x 12 canvas provided ample space to provide information about the songs, the musicians, and other recording details. In some rare instances, there were bizarre “liner notes” that would delight the reader/fan. Plus, the cover itself was sometimes considered “art.”
The album, when viewed during playback, could transport the listener to another world. This whole experience was a bit of shamanistic magic, notably when the double-album served as a rolling tray.
Former Rolling Stone record critic turned filmmaker Cameron Crowe captured this magic in his film “Almost Famous.” The scene where his 13-year-old protagonist drops the needle on the Who’s “Sparks” from rock opera “Tommy” – well, that is a great cinematic moment. A moment that reflected the experience of so many music-loving baby boomers.
The Record Club Itself.
It was the Columbia House Record Club that first brought this “magic” to me. 11 albums for a penny? Impossible!!!
I spent hours upon hours looking at the Columbia House ads (in the Sunday Parade insert) in anticipation marking up which 11 records I’d buy if I could. Once I had a paper route (and steady income), my parents agreed to sign me up and let the then 12-year-old buy his 11 records.
Then that big box arrived. It was incredible. It was perhaps the best day of my young life.
That first order had some incredible records in it. “The History of Eric Clapton, ” “The Who – Who’s Next,” “Elton John – Honky Chateau,” and “Yes – Close to the Edge” to name a few. In my teens, I would go on to buy hundreds of albums frittering away my youth looking at the album artwork trying to discern the meaning of the lyrics while reading them. I’m not alone in saying these albums, especially “Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky” and “The Who – Quadrophenia” helped me make it navigate the conflicting emotions that made up much of my high school experience.
I know these record clubs get a bad rap for their “negative option billing” practice. This practice would automatically send members the “featured” album each month (unless they returned the card saying they didn’t want it). I didn’t mind, as it meant more records for my collection and exposure to new music. There was no Rhapsody or subscription steaming service then.
One last thing, unfortunately, I initially had to play these great records on my parents ginormous Magnavox console system – the modern stereo was yet to come to the Stalker house.
RIP – Columbia House!