LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #7: The Impressions–The Vintage Years, 1976)

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Modernity brings us a lot of nice things and preserves a lot of other nice things.

It doesn’t preserve everything…or get everything just right all the time.

That picture above is the best I could find on the net of the classic compilation released on vinyl in 1976 by Sire Records (who did similar comps on a number of other acts around that time).

Most record junkies and list makers have their “go to” album. Call it the greatest, the best, your favorite, your “desert island” disc, the “one you’d save if the house caught on fire.” Whatever.

This one’s mine and neither it nor any close equivalent has been released on CD.

Like I say, lots of nice things are preserved. But not everything.

I’m not crying. If I really want to, I can collect up all the music on this record from various digital sources, load them on my computer and put them on a disc myself with the running order preserved. Not quite the same, of course, but at least the purely musical part of the experience can be recreated at home.

The only thing that would be lost is the psychic experience. The connection to my own past and the role this or any record with it’s own history plays in it.

Hardly the biggest deal in the world in and of itself. But I wonder if the small things (and I’d hardly call this the smallest), aren’t representative of something larger.

The Vintage Years isn’t on CD. No big deal

The record store where I bought it moved. No big deal.

The record store where I bought it moved from a hole in the wall next to a bowling alley (circa 1981) to bigger hole in the wall halfway across town (next to a hole in the wall book store, circa 1985) then moved to a giant warehouse down the street (the book store moved to a still bigger hole in the wall halfway across town in the other direction, circa some time in the 1990’s). No big deal.

The record store went out of business five or six years back. No big deal.

The book store went out of business last year. No big deal.

They haven’t been replaced. And they won’t be.

No big deal.

We still got the internet. Better deals anyway. Amazon, E-Bay, Gemm.com.

Time moves on. Heck, if you read about something now, say the way I read about The Vintage Years in 1980 (in Dave Marsh and John Swenson’s original Rolling Stone Record Guide, the one with the red cover as it happens), you don’t have to spend three or four (or ten or twenty) years looking for a playable, affordable copy. You can just look it up. If somebody in the world doesn’t have it this week, somebody in the world will probably have it next week.

In any case, it’s not really likely you’ll have to wait three or four years.

Or flip through piles of used record bins.

Or wonder if what you’ll hear when you finally do track it down will really be worth  the wait.

If it will hit you like this when you do whatever the modern equivalent of dropping the needle is:

And then take you on a journey from this:

to this…

to this…

to this…

to this…

Because, of course, now you can just go on YouTube, or come to somebody’s clever little website. If you’re really interested you can probably pull up every single song and sample it for free.

Take the mystery out of the thing.

Believe me, this is not entirely a bad thing. It’s probably not even mostly a bad thing.

But it’s not entirely a good thing either.

Because there’s no way you can surf the net and re-create what it’s like to walk out of grocery store and see somebody has opened a little hole in the wall record shop in the Winn Dixie strip mall, in a space about as big as your efficiency apartment, and walk in there and realize the guy is not only selling stuff you’ve only heard about but selling it for three, four, five bucks apiece.

And you can’t therefore know what it’s like to have one of the very first things you find in that store be The Impressions: The Vintage Years, an album which, when you get it home and slide it on your cheap-o turntable, will discover crosses fifteen years and five distinct phases of three brilliant careers (not just the doo-wop and soul years of the Impressions, but the two major phases of Jerry Butler’s solo career and the beginning of Curtis Mayfield’s) so seamlessly they constitute a mind-blowing journey from the street corner where Mayfield,  Butler, and their mates, figuratively if not literally, conceived both “Your Precious Love” and a way out of the lives History had assigned for them in the late fifties, to a doomed junkie running scared in the seventies as Mayfield, now alone, literally if not figuratively, sings “Freddie’s on the corner now, you want to be a junkie wow, remember Freddie’s dead,” and first circumscribes, then transports, the pain and fear from a life that might have easily been his if he hadn’t once upon a time happened to find his own genius on that same street corner or one so much like it the difference hardly matters.

In the New Gilded Age that came after (soon accompanied by the New Jim Crow, the New Puritanism, the New Dada, et al…no truly bad idea ever dies), all this music is far more readily available, the world over. There are better and fuller compilations of any one of those five “phases” I mentioned. I’ve got them. I listen to them. I even wrote about one of them at length. And, to tell the truth, my very favorite Impressions’ record isn’t even on this particular album:

But there’s no single shared experience that’s quite the same as this vinyl comp that’s unlikely to ever be reproduced for the modern age…Nothing, for my money, quite as satisfying, quite as simultaneously uplifting and gut-wrenching as The Impressions: The Vintage Years.

I’m mostly glad I don’t have to spend years tracking things down. Really I am.

But there are some experiences I wouldn’t trade.

3 thoughts on “LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #7: The Impressions–The Vintage Years, 1976)

  1. NDJ

    While some of the things we WOW! about while waxing rhapsodic (if also nostalgic) concerning things WE did then and THEY can’t do or aren’t doing now is just a part of aging, I have to agree with what you say here: the downloading of hugely compressed files of digitalized music (free, even if you’re stealing) onto teenyweeny pocket-players (where it sounds like shit) cannot begin to approximate the experience of walking with determination to your faverave store and plunking down the money you made raking leaves or shoveling snow and leaving with an LP album (ANY LP album!) in a bag under your arm . . .

    I also had my anemic appreciation of the Impressions turned around when I bought THE VINTAGE YEARS as a cut-out for $2.99 way back when. (Holy Hannah! Almost forty years ago . . .)

    There are so many fine sides by the Butler group that both discs could have been devoted to them.

    There are so many fine sides by the Mayfield group that both discs could have been devoted to them.

    Great record and so easily found and affordably purchased and it sounds so good coming out of a halfway decent sound system (also easily and cheaply purchased).

    I remember seeing SUPERFLY and some other blaxploitation flick (probably also playing on heroin chic) in a theater in South Norwalk, Connecticut, in 1975.

    Stoned (of course).

    And the only white face in the dark theater.

    The movie was instantly forgettable; Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack instantly indelible. One of the best pop/rock/soul soundtracks ever.

    Oh well and ho hum . . .

    DN

  2. Yeah I couldn’t emphasize enough that every aspect of their careers demanded further exploration (and that was part of the fun, too). The Vintage Years barely scratched the surface. But it was also a complete story by itself, running beside all those incredibly deep catalogs as a self-contained and perfect thing. But I really wanted to get at the loss of that visceral experience you mention. I don’t think it’s entirely romantic to believe that was a “better” experience.

    On the other hand there’s something to be said for the flipside which is reading omebody’s rave about something or other, pulling up a sample track or two on the net and saying “er, no, I don’t think I’ll need to put THAT on my ‘to acquire’ list!” Time and technology both giveth…and both taketh away.

  3. Pingback: TEN ALBUMS I WISH WERE ON CD… | The Round Place In The Middle

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