Henry Rollins interview – Why Vinyl Matters
In this first exclusive extract from the new book, Why Vinyl Matters by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, punk legend and Black Flag mainman Henry Rollins tells us how he fell in love with records…
Henry Rollins was barely out of his teens when he joined the legendary punk band Black Flag. Since parting from the band in 1986, Rollins has found success as a spoken-word artist, author, actor, and television and radio presenter. He currently hosts a weekly radio show on Santa Monica radio station KCRW, and is a regular columnist for LA Weekly and Rolling Stone Australia.
Is vinyl important? And if so, why?
“Vinyl is important to me because what’s on it is real. It is what the musicians wanted you to hear. Whether what is on the record is to your liking doesn’t matter. They were able to tell you their truth and you are able to evaluate it on a level playing field. There’s no such thing as ‘digital music’. Digital technology can emulate music and that technology is getting better, but there is no Led Zeppelin on a Led Zeppelin CD. There isn’t a nanosecond of music on any music-streaming service.”
What does a record provide that other formats do not?
“Full frequency. There’s a reason records sound better. There is simply more on them.”
Why did vinyl fade as a format during the time of CDs?
“Many reasons. I’m sure more than I know of, but here are a few that come to mind. There was a newness about CDs that was persuasive and attractive. Many people had less-than-great playback on their analogue setups, which didn’t treat their vinyl all that well and led to a lot of surface noise. In contrast, CDs were mastered loud, and to the untrained ear, louder is better. One of the initial selling points was that the source was ‘digitally remastered’. Of course it was! This meaningless phrase led the consumer to believe that through this great leap in technology (from 7″ vinyl to a 5″ disc of data) an almost magic process had taken place, one which would reveal the true majesty of the music that vinyl had deprived them of.
“The truth is that the blood of the music was being squeezed out in the process, leaving the listener in an icy, tinny, music-free wasteland of digital information. How many people do you think actually compared their vinyl to CD? I remember doing it with the first CDs I bought in late 1986. The vinyl was much better. Technically, I didn’t understand why, but my ears could hear the difference. Another reason is that, in terms of sheer portability, digital is an efficient medium to listen to the music it tries to imitate.
CDs were smaller and lighter, thus far more convenient for someone moving from home to dorm to apartment, etc. Record stores could carry a lot more product with CDs instead of vinyl. The consumer could consume it in his or her car, at home, wherever. On that level, digital is good. On the road, I am in a digital environment for weeks at a time. I do the best I can to make it sound better with good headphones and speaker systems – but it is what it is.”
Why has vinyl returned?
“Perhaps these are some of the many reasons. Someone heard their friend’s system, was given the sermon, or had the chance to hear something besides digital. They were duly impressed, and they sought out their own analogue playback environments.
“People read or heard interviews with bands they liked who extolled the virtues of vinyl and were thus inspired to check it out. Many bands, when they signed to major labels at the height of the CD, insisted that their music get a vinyl release.
“Bands kept going into studios and recording on tape, which became ever-more expensive. Musicians standing up for music is definitely one of the reasons that vinyl has returned.” – Henry Rollins
“On a personal note, there is something great about getting the record out of its sleeve, putting it on the turntable, getting up, turning it over, etc. I’ve always enjoyed the physicality of listening to records. When you think to yourself, ‘That has to be the last song,’ and prepare to get up, only to hear another song start and finding it difficult to enjoy it because you know that you will be getting up to turn the record over or put it away; I like all that. Also, if you have good playback, you’ll never want to hear anything but analogue.
“Artwork on albums and singles, coloured vinyl, limited editions, different picture sleeves for different territories, Record Store Day – these things make music fun. I am nearing 60 years of age and, like a lot of adults, I have a lot of ‘real world’ concerns and obligations. It’s great to still worry if I’m going to score the limited edition of a record.”
Will vinyl continue to be in vogue, or is the recent interest just a trend which will pass?
“I have no idea what humanity will get up to next. I see a lot of young people pumping music from their phones through a crap pair of headphones, so that might be where it all ends up. Bad-sounding music from a cloud. I think there will always be enough people who want something else.
“Right now, Record Store Day is going from strength to strength – but I have no idea if people regard this as a thing they are into for life, or just what they are into right now.”
Is vinyl actually a nostalgia item, then?
“Only if you consider music to be a nostalgia item. What we’re talking about, basically, is a music-delivery medium. There have been different mediums over the years. I think newer generations value portability. Many don’t have landlines and perhaps think of them as relics. Not having the sheer bulk of vinyl to haul around might be very appealing to a lot of people. Perhaps the question is if vinyl will become an elitist, luxury item.”
How does vinyl play into the ethos and values of punk?
“Punk and digital, to me at least, are antithetical. I can only project my own perception – but for me, punk is vinyl and cassette. It is the picture sleeves, the noise on the vinyl, the way you know the next song on the cassette because you have carried it with you and played it so many times. Punk is analogue. It is real.
“Would you rather hear the first album by The Clash on LP or CD? One is real, the other is, at best, somewhat trite. On the other hand, do you really want a Beyoncé LP? Why? What do you hope to get when you pull the album out from its sleeve, a coupon for a free Pepsi?” – Henry Rollins
“Some music is merely an advertisement for what music can be. It never escapes the enclosure of its commercial goals, nor does it seek to. The people who appreciate this music are happy with their streaming or other wretched sound-delivery systems. Punk, like rock, is an analogue, real-life experience, so you want analogue playback.”
What does the return of vinyl in popularity say about the place and space of music in our lives?
“Vinyl requires you to be where a record player is. Time, place, ritual, etc. The area around the system is your temple – all are welcome. The system – the sermon. The record – a ladder extending from the Parliament Mothership, Sun Ra’s barely perceptible nod from Saturn… I can’t explain to you how important this is to me.
When I listen to an album sitting alone, it’s great. When I listen to that same album with my best friend Ian MacKaye, suddenly we’re together, listening to an album we have been playing since we were teenagers. Now, it’s more than music. It’s our lives coming through the speakers. This is the place and space music has in my life. Sometimes, when I visit where I come from, I walk by houses and apartments where I would hang out with others and listen to records. Those places have a lot of meaning to me. Vinyl speaks to that more than any digital rendering of music ever will.”
What’s your first vinyl memory?
“I remember walking a long way through the snow to buy Physical Graffiti. At age 14, I think it was, there was a jock guy at my school listening to music on a one-speaker tape deck. I asked him who it was. He looked at me like I was stupid and said, ‘Ted Nugent!’. I went to the record store that night and bought the first Ted Nugent album. There were a lot of generic instances like that, but I never connected with vinyl as a thing until punk rock. I remember distinctly buying a single of a local DC band. Besides liking the music, the fact that it was from a small band that was in my city suddenly made the music real to me.
“I don’t know if this will make sense, but there is an anonymous consumer/product factor to buying a big band’s album. It’s not that the record isn’t great, it’s just that interaction lacks poignancy and actualisation to me. I am not saying that every band has to know that I bought their record, but punk rock was so real and personal by comparison, there was something different about getting a small band’s record.
“I guess what I am trying to say is that I felt that mattered. When I bought the aforementioned single, or, when I bought the first Cramps single from a Cramps roadie when they played a local bar; when I bought the Stimulators single from the band’s guitarist after seeing them open for the Cramps at Irving Plaza in NYC; when the Bad Brains gave me copies of their first single in return for loaning them my car so they could drive back to DC; when Ian MacKaye put five copies of The Teen Idles’ Minor Disturbance EP on consignment at a record store down the street from where I worked and on my lunch hour, I went down and bought all of them to lend support… There was a reality to these exchanges, even if it was just in my young mind, that resonated mightily with me.”
What was your first vinyl purchase and what did it mean to you?
“I honestly don’t remember. I would listen to my mother’s records. If I really liked one, she would give it to me and get another. Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul was one of my favourites. Her copy of the first Doors album was a big one. I would guess that my first purchases with money from my minimum-wage jobs were big rock bands like Zeppelin and Aerosmith.
When I started buying punk-rock singles, that was when it all took off for me. The Damned, The Adverts, Buzzcocks, U.K. Subs, the Ruts, bands like that made me value the medium. Before then, a record was just a thing I put on my very bad record player. This is also when I started taking much better care of my records and when I started to understand how much music was a part of my life. I always knew it but when I got it, I really got it. When Ian MacKaye and I became best friends, when we were about 12, music was our connective tissue.”
How many records do you have?
“No real idea. A lot. I have seen collections that dwarf mine as far as volume. I never thought of my collection in terms of amount as much as scarcity of the pieces. It’s not all that hard to acquire records. I usually buy one to three a day. I have a lot of acetates, test pressings and other small-run items that I value more than merely having a lot of records.
“Sometimes I write on the inner sleeve when and where I got the record, any interesting information about the acquisition and then I sign and date it. I think the next owner should know a little about where the record came from.” – Henry Rollins
What’s a crucial release for any audophile to have in their collection because it just sounds so much better on vinyl?
“That’s a huge question. Older rock albums would be good – Bowie, Queen, Zeppelin, etc. Jazz giants like Miles and Coltrane. There are thousands of must-haves. I think every record I own is a must-have. I wouldn’t have them otherwise.”
Any other last words of Rollins wisdom?
“Buy records. Whenever possible, get them directly from the label or artist. Listening to music makes you a better person, so listen as often as you can. Duke Ellington would sell out venues in big cities, but after the show, no hotel would let him and his band stay because of the colour of their skin. He was all-in. You should learn some of these stories and hear the music these people made. There are bands playing in small rooms all over the world, putting their entire lives into their music. You should go to their shows.”