Demos: Banishing Vinyl Regrets

Regrets gnaw at record collectors. There's always the one that got away: because I failed to buy it, or could never find a good copy of it, or unwisely loaned it, or stupidly discarded it in the CD era's initial flush of enthusiasm and confusion. Over the years I've whittled down my list of regrets with strategic secondhand buys. But a few regrets have remained, and when they affect my relationship with the Beatles or the Rolling Stones—crucial touchstones for a fiftysomething music lover—they're especially painful. I was never lucky enough to find a pristine pressing of either Abbey Road or Beggar's Banquet. However, a recent turntable purchase and an unspent balance in my PayPal account recently drove me to banish these gnawing regrets once and for all.

My goal was simple: To find good playing copies at reasonable prices. They had to be the fruit of an all-analog signal chain—I'm not reflexively anti-digital, but I've never heard an LP sourced from a digital master that felt completely right. They had to be in mint, near-mint, or excellent condition—vinyl that skips is anathema to me, and vinyl that crackles heavily is not much better. They had to be stereo (though the recently issued mono CDs of the Beatles catalog are also worth hearing). They had to be affordable, with a ceiling of $50 (plus a little extra for shipping) for each acquisition. And I was not willing to lurk on Ebay for months looking for them. But I was willing to make some practical concessions: I decided not to be fussy about the condition of the jacket as long as it wasn't horrible. And though audiophile collectors gravitate toward early British pressings, I was willing to consider American pressings in some circumstances to stay within budget.

Abbey Road has been a constant collector's frustration to me. My first American pressing was on ultra-thin heavily warped vinyl that whooshed and ticked as the tonearm lurched up and down. When I replaced it with a second American pressing, the vinyl was thicker and flatter, and the jacket was of sturdier cardboard, but the surface was even noisier and imaging was a step down. Of course I bought the first-gen CD, and of course it was dead quiet, but it sounded cold and scrawny compared to either vinyl copy. It seemed that every time I reinvested, I just dug myself in deeper. I resolved to ante up for a proper British pressing and put my Abbey Road angst behind me.

The one for which I paid $49.99 + $3.50 shipping probably dated from the mid to late '70s. The seller rated it NM for the vinyl (near mint, "full gloss, no scuffs or scratches, clean labels") and VG++ for the jacket ("typical thin import jacket, light edge wear, a few creases, clear readable spine, one seam needs to be re-glued but is not split, has original inner sleeve"). The LP arrived covered with dust. I attacked it with a vintage ZeroStat gun and Discwasher and held my breath as the tonearm touched down. While the playing surface wasn't entirely quiet, the sound was everything I'd hoped for: The music shone through like a beacon. Vocals showed excellent definition and timbral variety. Drums and bass were extremely punchy. The midrange was glare-free, un-bright, and stood up well to high-level blasting. The vinyl was not perfect: There was crackle between tracks, and intermittent crackle during some tracks, plus the occasional pop. But the music masked the noise most of the time and most of what remained audible got sieved out by my brain's vinyl noise filter. The only track that really suffered was "Her Majesty," but by that time I was so sated that my pleasure was barely dented. I loved my new Abbey Road.

To sweeten the deal, the record dealer threw in a free LP: a mono pressing of Hollies' Greatest, beautifully manufactured by Parlophone in the U.K., probably from 1968. I examined it curiously. There were a few visible scratches, but they barely affected tracking and playback at all—the playing surface was impressively quiet—and hey, it was free vinyl! Now I can hear "Bus Stop" and a few other tunes etched into my brain since childhood whenever I want. Thank you, Flip Over Records of Boxborough, Massachusetts. I may well shop with you again.

You can file my collecting experience with Beggar's Banquet under So Close Yet So Far. The first American London cobalt-blue-label pressing I bought back in my youth was on a thick slab of pleasingly round-edged vinyl with a quiet playing surface. Barring one track, most of it sounded fabulous, with clear you-are-there imaging. Even the artfully grungy low-fi tracks sounded punchy and vivid. But though the surface looked pristine, "Prodigal Son" was marred by loud and prolonged crackling, a defect in the pressing (as opposed to my always scrupulous cleaning and handling). When I exchanged that copy for another, the result was the same. Must have been a bad batch. To make things worse, I discarded the vinyl when I bought the first-gen CD, then realized with a sinking feeling that the CD was a bland, grainy mess. I got bored with it and wished I'd held onto the vinyl.

I decided to forego the pricey U.K. Deccas and capture another U.S. London pressing. After all, the ones I'd owned were not bad overall, just flawed on one track. I got what I wanted for the reasonable price of $21.24 + $4.56 shipping for a copy with M- vinyl ("nice and clean") and a VG+ jacket ("small cut on cover"). Initial inspection brought optimism: The vinyl looked clean, utterly unblemished, warp-free, and there was barely a sound when the stylus slid into the lead-in groove. But the music was excruciating. Mick's vocals were uncharacteristically edgy and unpleasant and big chunks of bass and lower midrange were missing. Even Keith's prominent bass guitar in "Sympathy for the Devil" lost its whomping impact. It was like listening to speakers with the woofers disabled. I was shocked and bewildered: How could a record so beautifully pressed have been (evidently) mastered with such criminal carelessness? This one went back to the Ebay dealer for a refund.

Was this quest worth the time and money? Or was it just a vain attempt to recapture my youth? Results were mixed. I'd say the new (to me) Abbey Road is a success—it will be my go-to copy in the foreseeable future. My lunge at a vintage Beggar's Banquet was a fiasco, but perhaps it's just as well that I returned the vinyl for a refund. All pressings and even CDs were mastered at the wrong speed until the most recent remastering. So I'll probably buy that in some digital form or another. In the meantime, that historic album remains a hole in my heart.

That hasn't stopped me from filling other gaps in my vinyl library including Simon & Garfunkel's Bookends (a "mint condition" item that was really mint!) and a U.K. release of Pink Floyd's Meddle (the soundstage depth in the side-two seagull solo is incredible). And I'm still working through my Beatles fixation with mono pressings of Rubber Soul (U.K., Parlophone) and Revolver (French, Odeon) and stereo pressings of 1962-1966 (the "red album") and 1967-1970 (the "blue album"), both French, on red and blue vinyl respectively ("disques rouges" and "disques bleus"). But my white whale is the White Album: I'm seeking replacements for the U.S. Apple pressing I once owned. Yes, replacements, plural. I've already rejected two Capitol purple-label U.S. pressings and grabbed at others from France and Japan. That extravagant and obsessive story will have to wait for another day.