Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The First CD - Four Years Late and Three Years Later?

As I sit looking across shelves of CDs, trying to pick what to listen to during my day's drive, my eyes always stop at the spine of Joe Satriani's Surfing with the Alien. This is the first compact disc I ever remember seeing and holding at a record store. As I recall it was not housed in a cardboard longbox but instead a clear plastic version and I was drawn to it not by any knowledge of Satriani in any way but instead the vibrant Silver Surfer cover art.  This piece of art, bursting with color and motion, combined with a new technology that alowed me to play music without flipping sides and to skip tracks in an instant convinced me in that instant that I needed into this medium and it had to happen by Christmas.

But it wasn't new, was it?

Thinking back on this and reading up on the timelines, I am shocked to discover commercial CDs pressings rolled out in 1982/1983 with Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms selling a million copies in the format in 1985. Surfing with the Alien came to life on CD in 1987. How did I miss four years of CDs? 

First, our closest record store was a good half hour from home at a small shopping mall across the Ohio River in Vienna, West Virginia. The mall actually housed two Trans World chains, Record Town and Tape World. I don't recall Record Town having many records at all in the mid-80s but both were definitely heavily stocked with cassette tapes, still the dominant format in that geographical region (and would remain so through the mid-90s). Second, I was in my early teens when CDs hit the shelves and only by '87 into my first paying job and developing a passion for music thanks to a move to a new high school and a new group of peers.

I did not buy Surfing with the Alien.  Not that day. And not that Christmas. Nor the next. Nor the next. I did receive the CD player I requested on Christmas 1990 and it came with no compact discs. My parents finally gave in to the technology but drew the line at actually purchasing the music I wanted. After a gruelling 24-hour wait I drove into town and spent all the Christmas cash I had on two albums: The Traveling Wilburys' relatively new Volume 3 and Robert Plant's Now and Zen. I had owned Now and Zen on cassette for over a year but desperately wanted two things: 1) the bonus track (which was still a significant differentiator between the cassette and CD format), "Walking Towards Paradise;" and 2) the longbox, for display on the inside of my high school locker.

So when did I get Surfing with the Alien?  No idea. It's just been there for a long time. I don't recall the first listen and, while I really enjoy it, it's never been at the top of any of my "desert island" lists. It does hold that place in my heart, though, as representative of the format I still love. I love the durability, the portability, the fondle/fetish factor (to misquote Frank Zappa) not provided by downloadable music and the size, just right to sit and read through a booklet without losing the detail to something tiny like an audiocassette insert. Yes, vinyl has a warmer, richer sound and nothing beats a 12" record sleeve for classic artwork but LPs are a bitch to play in the car and expensive to ship through the mail (where, sadly, most of my music transactions occur nowadays). I love innovation and would be lost without iTunes. I also love the old formats, for their strengths and despite their foibles, but feel especially connected to the compact disc as it is mine - and has been for over two decades now.  I doubt it will last another ten years but, man, what a run.

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