Lew Prince and Tom "Papa" Ray on What Makes Records (Still) Vital

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Why do you think the vinyl format is still a cherished format for new generations of music listeners?

Ray: Logically, perhaps it shouldn't have happened. Logically we should have just continued down the digital paradigm. Something happened and a part of the collective music lover mind said, "wait a minute." And part of that collective musical mind of your generation said, "I want to have an alternative to an MP3."

Prince: I agree with Tom. I think there are two reasons. The first is after you've listened to MP3s and downloaded music for most of your life the first time you put on an album it sounds spectacular. Analog recording is a much more natural way of recording music. Music takes place in a context. Analog recordings are much more recordings of the room. That has to do with era. With digitalization also came mic placement inside of instruments. They record pianos now, if you go into a studio, by putting a mic in it. Well, that's great if you listen to a piano by sticking your head in it, but back in the late '50s you recorded music with mics placed in the room. What you got was the room. A great recording was actually putting you in that room.

Ray: Ambiance is the relationship of sound in a room. Great engineers, great producers knew how to capture ambiance. That was kind of a lost art 30 years ago. Now you've got a million motherfuckers, with their fucking dead room recording studio and it all sounds the same because it's all predicated on the use of a particular software. They're not able to get the ambiance of what it sounds like to have two guitars, drum and bass, a keyboard player, a saxophone, whatever combination of that, and then a voice or voices...

Prince: ...in a context.

Ray: Listen to the ambiance captured when Cosimo Matassa in New Orleans recorded Little Richard and the Upsetters in a fucking converted ice factory. You listen to a well-recorded 78, that might have been recorded with two microphones, that can really sound very powerful.

Prince: You'll find that the finest CDs, in terms of sound quality, start with analog recordings then are digitized.

I think there is a second element, on the digital music vs. LP. I hadn't thought about this until Jim Utz, who is the big Rolling Stones fan here [at Vintage Vinyl]... I was complaining about how the last two Rolling Stones albums have just been meh. He went, "No they're not. They're just really good albums." What he did was he took the new Rolling Stones albums and chopped them down to 45 minutes. There is 45 minutes of killer music on them.

If you think about it, and this is what I know from what little music I play, is that almost any really good professional musician can come up with a new set of music in about a year. You can put together about 40 to 50 good minutes. It's almost impossible to put together 75 or 80 minutes. So the amount of music on an LP is really the right amount for a working musician on an almost annual basis.

When someone comes in here and buys a Led Zeppelin record or buys a Dead record, or whatever they're buying, it's the right [amount of] time.

Ray: Here's the cliché. One of the great clichés of '70s rock reviews would be to take the two record set released by whoever and say, "This would have made a great single record." It was said about the White Album. It was said about Exile on Main Street. To me a medium that allow for about 35 to 37 minutes was perfect to allow artist to make a particular kind of concise statement.

Everyone wants to talk about concept records. "Dark Side of the Moon" is a great concept record, but I doubt that they could have sustained that over a CD format.

[Prince pauses the interview here to play "Rip it Up" by Little Richard as recorded by Cosimo Matassa.]

So in both of your opinions what is the last great recording?

Ray: Oh, about five minutes ago.

Prince: I'm sure someone is doing it now.

Ray: To me, one of the greatest summations of what an artist should do in any genre, in any field of expression, but especially in music is to make it new. That's what the poet [Ezra Pound] once said, "make it new." I hear good new music on stage and on record. Music is the ultimate conceptual art, especially when it's performed live. It's in the air and then it's gone.

Can vinyl still "break" new music?

Prince: Why not? Vinyl is a medium. The limitations of vinyl have to do with dynamics....

To me recording is about capturing that moment. If you do it, it doesn't matter how. The first digital LP I ever heard was Ry Cooders' "Bop Till You Drop" [The first major-label digitally recorded album of pop music released in 1979.] and it blew my mind. It was a spectacularly well-recorded record. It came out just before the CD era.

I can remember that Tom and I talked about it. That was before Internet, before digital. Tom said to me, "What do you think it means?" We sat around and thought about it and thought about it and came to the conclusion that it meant that they were going to be able to send music over phone wires. Somehow this was probably going to be revolutionary, but we weren't really sure how... but it's one of the reasons why Vintage Vinyl survived. From that day on we divorced our shelves from the object and adapted the position that we would be knowledgeable middlemen. That we would be knowledgeable about music and not worry about the configuration it came in.

The column has been called Last Collector Standing, but I think the phrase last record store standing is just as relevant. What does it take for a record store to survive the digital age?

Prince: Know your shit. Be able to listen to people and figure out what sound is in their head and figure out what they're looking for. Identify it so they actually hear it when you play it for them. That's the first and most important thing.

Ray: And a spoonful of prognostication helps.

Prince: We found out that being six inches ahead of the curve was fine, but being a foot ahead makes you go out of business, and being behind kills you.

************************* Author's Note: This is the last column I'll be writing for Last Collector Standing. I'm sure there a many more record collectors in St. Louis with a story to tell, but any good thing needs an ending, and I don't want the series to simply become "Next Collector Standing." A big thank you to all the record collectors who let me into to their homes, allowed me to look through their collections, and took the time to tell me part of their life story. The series has been extremely gratifying and fun because of your help and love of music. I hope the series inspired some veteran vinyl junkies to dust off their old turntables, and hopefully also inspired a few kids to experience the difference of listening to an album on vinyl.

Keep Spinning the black circle!

About The Author

Jon Scorfina

Jon Scorfina is a freelance writer for the Riverfront Times. Between 2010 and 2011, he wrote the weekly column "Last Collector Standing," which explored collecting physical media in the digital age. He continues to write pop culture related cover stories and features for the Riverfront Times.
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