This past week it was announced that you could no longer buy 11 albums for one penny. Columbia House – the most famous of the “record clubs” of the 1970’s – finally called it quits.
More lament for this aging baby boomer watching fond memories from childhood goes “poof” in front of my eyes.
Several weeks ago, I shared similar sentiments about how the modern-day versions of what we used to call “stereos” 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 filling a room when two properly staged giant speakers are cranked up. I can’t help but think the vinyl version of Skrillex and Justin Bieber would sound better through a pair of Acoustic Research 3a stereo speakers than when you stream it to a single Sonos.
Does anyone seriously argue this?
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.” Plus, the cover itself was sometimes considered “art.”
When viewed during playback, the album could transport the listener to another world. This experience was a bit of shamanistic magic, mainly 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” – well, that is a great cinematic moment that reflected the experience of so many music-loving baby boomers.
The Record Club Itself.
The Columbia House Record Club first brought this “magic” to me. 11 albums for a penny? Impossible!!!
I spent hours upon hours looking at the Columbia House ads in anticipation of 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, and trying to discern the meaning of the lyrics while reading them. I’m not alone in saying these albums, significantly “Jackson Browne – Late for the Sky” and “The Who – Quadrophenia,” helped me make it through high school.
These record clubs get a bad rap for their “negative option billing” practice. This requirement would automatically send members each month the “featured” album (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 then.
One last thing, unfortunately, I initially had to play these outstanding records on my parent’s ginormous Magnavox console system – the modern stereo was yet to come.
RIP – Columbia House!