Playing vinyl records: the sweetness of doing nothing

Those of you who follow me on socials will know I have a great love for my vinyl record collection. I’m forever posting mini reviews of the albums I’m listening to.

I haven’t counted them all but I’d estimate I have around 750 discs, including all the original Beatles’ albums, some rarities by Woody Guthrie and the Rolling Stones, and the very first record I ever purchased — a live album from 1972 by the British glam rockers Slade (I know, I wasn’t a cool 12 year old).

I think I have every record by the Moody Blues, most of Bob Dylan’s, and all the early stuff from Springsteen. Of course, there’s U2, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Elton John, Billy Joel, blah, blah, you’ve got the idea.

Yeah, I’m old, okay.

Sometimes I’m asked by people who can’t imagine listening to anything except a music streaming service why I persist with vinyl. Usually they supply the assumed answer with their question: “It’s for the warmer, richer sound, isn’t it?”

It’s well known that digital audio files get compressed to make them small enough to stream online, so you can never get the full depth of a track. Vinyl is far higher quality because no audio data is lost when pressing a record. It sounds just like the producer or band intended. Also, vinyl, for the most part, avoided what they call the ‘loudness war.’ On digital music (including CDs), it’s possible to make a track sound louder than it naturally should and that distorts the depth and texture of the song.

Having said all that, when I’m spinning my father’s beat up 1968 pressing of Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison I can assure you it’s not for the sound quality. I’ve had a lot of my records since I was a teenager. I take good care of them but, sure, there’s the odd scratch or warp present on some of them, including those I’ve picked up more recently at markets and thrift stores.

No, it’s not for the sound quality alone that I have stuck to vinyl.

I listen to vinyl because it’s a possessive, jealous medium. Vinyl demands your full attention.

You can turn on a streaming service and play a million songs from scores of genres, filling your room or your house with sound for hours, days, weeks. But it’s ambient sound, for the most part. You listen to streamed music while you do something else. I play music on a streaming service in my office while I work. We play streamed music for background sound when friends come over. Streamed music creates atmosphere. But vinyl insists that you pay attention.

In fact, non-vinyl music listeners always grouse, “But you have to get up and turn the record over every five songs!” I resist breaking it to them that it can be every two songs if they’re listening to Jethro Tull or Yes.

But that’s the point. Vinyl forces you to pay attention, to be present, to focus on the music.

You can play your Apple Music collection without really thinking about it. But record playing is an activity in itself.

When I say, “I think I’m going to play some records,” my wife knows that means I’m going into the study to sit on the floor in front on my collection, peruse the spines, and carefully select a playlist. Sometimes, I go with an album in mind. The other night I got it into my head to play Dylan’s fundamentalist Christian records from 1979-1981 (Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love). So, I put Slow Train on, and was examining the cover and remembered that Mark Knopfler played 12-string guitar on that album. That got me all interested in playing Dire Straits’ Sultans of Swing so I pulled out their self-titled debut album and it hit me again how Dylanesque Knopfler is on that record. For some reason I then listened to Knopfler’s soundtrack for Local Hero and I seemed to recall that Candy Dulfer had played saxophone on that track, but when I read the liner notes it was session saxophonist Mike Brecker. But by then I had a taste for Candy Dulfer so I rifled through my Van Morrison albums and pulled out his live recording, A Night in San Francisco, featuring Dulfer’s incredible sax sound (as well as the musical stylings of Georgie Fame, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and Jimmy Witherspoon). I played both discs all the way through, revelling in the music, and while I did I googled whether Georgie Fame was still alive (he is!) and what Candy Dulfer is doing these days (she’s a judge on Holland’s X Factor).

And so it goes.

Vinyl is a tactile medium. It insists you finger through your collection, remove your selection, unwrap it from its cover, free it from its poly inner sleeve, place it on the turntable, and gingerly put the tone arm and stylus in position. And then it requires you to reverse that process and repeat it every time you change the record.

Record playing is a slow, intentional, deliberate pastime. It’s a pleasant idleness. The Italians call this ‘dolce far niente’, the sweetness of doing nothing.

And doing nothing is an important practice. Taking things slow requires patience, focus and caution, all of which are necessary for a successful life. The problem for many of us non-Italians is that we think the opposite of busy is lazy. But, actually, the opposite of busy is solitude. The opposite of being busy is stillness. And in solitude and stillness we can be free to be curious and creative.

Eckhart Tolle once wrote, “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life.”

The Internet and the pace of modern life has given us busy brains, all aflutter with a hundred things happening at once and none of them productive or generative. Studies tell us people are reading fewer books. Many say they can’t get through a whole novel anymore. We binge television series, we play podcasts in our cars and Spotify in our offices. We’re on Zoom calls and doing webinars and being busy, always busy.

I’m not claiming that playing vinyl records is the solution. All I know is that when I slide an album out of its cover, fingering only the edges, angling it into the light so I can see if it needs cleaning, anticipating the music that is to follow, the Now is the primary focus, even if just for a couple of hours.

And that’s no bad thing these days.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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17 thoughts on “Playing vinyl records: the sweetness of doing nothing

  1. Terrific blog Michael ! Thanks.

  2. Nice post – makes me want to listen to something! Here’s an excellent book I’m reading about just this topic… “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry”:

  3. Wow, I’m almost moved to extract my LPs from their current location, replace the stylus in the 1970s record player, and sit and listen to some vinyl! My first LP was ‘Help’, which was a Christmas present in 1965 when we were in England. Fabulous memories and much excitement for my 10 year old self at that time. Music is my lifeblood. Keep rockin’, Mike.

  4. Beautiful. I agree completely. I still listen to vinyl. I must!

  5. I think I must be even older. Lots of Dylan, Moody Blues, Van the Man, Dire Straits? Check. U2, Tull & Yes? Check. But Slade???? Sorry. My first album was The Buddy Holly Story, released just after he and the music died, so I’m definitely older than you. Still good after all these years.

    I’m a bit with you on streaming music. But CDs have their own value, because I can play them in the car. And so car journeys become a time to listen to new stuff – Underground Lovers, Not Drowning Waving, All India Radio, Sufjan Stevens and Sigur Ros. They can make long country trips or frustrating traffic bearable.

    All of which has nothing to do with your main point. But music’s like that! 🙂

  6. A lovely post, Mike. Thank you. With streamed music the thing I miss most are the liner notes and credits that allowed you to disappear down those Dylan-Knofler-Brecker rabbit holes.

  7. I love this encouragement to appreciate good music and to make time for stillness and attentiveness to the moment. Thanks for sharing, Mike.
    P.S. I encourage you to check out the music of Joshua Hyslop. He is just about to release his fifth album, and two of his albums are available on vinyl, and I think the new one will be, too. He’s on Spotify and Apple music, and I think you can still find some of his stuff on YouTube. He also plays live on Instagram, Facebook, and Patreon every week, so it isn’t hard to find him. (I may be slightly biased because he’s my son, but his streams on Spotify are in the multi-millions, so I’m not the only one that likes his music.)

  8. I too am a fan of record maybe not only for the sound, but the story. I think it was Beethoven who started going deaf and was embarrassed to share it with others. I think about how it shaped him. His art with the threat of death. I see the world through other’s work often times. I see woven into his despair and suffering beauty. To continue his work he cut the legs off his piano, placed his ear on the floor and played the keys to hear the vibration. He had, still, a hope and expectation that the music would one day return or, at least, make an offering. Insane hope.

  9. It’s so nice to hear from others who appreciate old vinyl. I too have lots of the albums that you mentioned in your blog. As a good Canadian, I have to ask how many Bruce Cockburn albums you have in your collection. If you don’t have any, now would be a good time to start collecting (Salt Sun and Time, Wondering Where the Lions Are, World of Wonders…). You won’t regret it.

    1. You’re going to hate me. I love Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Ron Sexsmith, Neil Young, and KD Lang, but I just can’t see the appeal of Bruce Cockburn. I have two of his albums — In the Falling Dark and Big Circumstance — and they’re kinda okay. But I don’t love them. I have a good friend who adores Cockburn and for his sake I’ve listened to a lot of his music. But, nah, can’t say he’s won me over. Sorry.

      1. I’m guessing your friend is my friend and former ED. Andy and I even went to a Cockburn concert, years ago. The most powerful concert experience I’ve ever had was at was when I first heard Cockburn sing ‘If I had a Rocket Launcher’. When the song ended there was complete silence in the audience. We were all in shock at the powerful expression of anger and revenge in the song. After a few uncomfortable moments, Cockburn explained that the lyrics came to him while he was watching helicopter gunships shooting down innocent people. He said that, on later reflection, it would be unlikely that he could shoot a helicopter down, but that was his initial, visceral reaction and so he recorded it the song. Keep listening!
        (I’ve met you numerous times at Vancouver YU training events. I also sent you the Kash Monk prayer and connected you to Shane Claiborne. Thanks for your helpful books and thoughts on missional Christianity!)

  10. I made an oops in my comment. Wondering Where the Lions Are is a song on Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. Other favourites include Humans, Circles in the Stream and Breakfast in New Orleans – Dinner in Timbuktu.
    If heard Josh Hyslop too and he’s worth a listen!

  11. Dear Mike, DEEPLY disturbed that you don’t like Bruce Cockburn!
    His lyrics have prompted a substantial theological book reflection “Kicking at the darkness” by Brian J. Walsh. Try some of his more recent work. i.e. Last 20 years, especially “Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu”

    Re vinyl – there is also the pleasure of the album artwork. eg. Phil Travers work on the Moody Blues albums.

    1. Trust me, Clive, you’re not the only one to lament my disinterest in Mr Cockburn. Several friends of mine have tried painstakingly to convince me of what they perceive to be his genius, but sadly I remain unconvinced. I don’t hate him. I just can’t see anything close to a virtuoso there, Brian Walsh’s book notwithstanding. If there’s a Canadian songwriter worthy of a major theological reflection it’s Leonard Cohen, if you ask me.

      1. Agree about Cohen. Did you catch Rabbi Sacks reflection on “You want it darker”?
        I’ll leave you with some of Cockburn’s best poetry –

        … in grains of sand and galaxies
        in plasma flow and rain in trees
        in the sepia swell of silted-up surf
        in the ebb and the flow of dying and birth
        in wounded streets and whispered prayer
        the dance is the truth and it’s everywhere …

  12. Now I want to listen to Van Morrison’s back catalogue of live sets with Candy Dulfer.

    Life could be worse!

    Van Morrison has been a still point in my inner universe since I was given his Best Of CD.

    Unfortunately I don’t have a turntable, and I have all my albums away some years ago.

    Grace and peace mate.

  13. Nothing worth having comes with out some kinda fight you’ve got to kick at the darkness t I’ll it bleeds daylight
    Vinyl and the required effort of looking after it and the equipment is the best way to be and not do.
    Do you listen to Luke Bloom?

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