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CD Digipacks Are Here! All Albums! The Long Story

[An exciting announcement, together with a fond potted personal history of musical media formats over time]

Well, it’s taken several months of intensive arty work, but now I’m really pleased to announce that The Lowest of Low has teamed up with the fantastic physical media artisan Luca at CDClick in Rome to create stunning collectors digipacks (all with beautiful 16, 20 and 24 page booklets to pore over) for every one of my released albums.

This is kind of a big deal, and something I’ve wanted to be able to realise for quite some time. The whole digital world is fine and all, but rather like people have discovered in creating a resurgence in vinyl, it’s infinitely more satisfying to interact with your music on a physical level, to hold it in your hand, to flip through the pages, read along with the lyrics, and interact with the artwork in a way that staring at a screen and squinting at stuff from behind the glass can never really achieve. There’s an intimacy in the tactile element that becomes a part of your life, gives you a surprising amount of fond memories, and (in my case, certainly) has a potential to impact and influence you for many years in a way that a playlist or an album you’ve got on your phone just doesn’t.

Philosophical musings aside, these are beautiful objects, and it’s been a huge labour of love, of reaching out, creating them for you to actually, and actively enjoy. You can say “Oh, it’s just a CD, who cares? Nobody uses those anymore” but that’s missing the whole point. So now I’m going to tell you about the start of my musical journey through records, cassette tapes and cds, and maybe, if you have any experience or empathy at all, you’ll maybe start to get it.

When I was a little kid (back in Babylonian times), my dad had a pretty big vinyl collection of albums and singles, and my introduction to the wonder and joy of music came from that. Actually, my earliest memory of music comes before that. I was 6 months old and we were driving through rain, maybe sleet or snow, in the evening after a meal at my dad’s parents’ house. An unpleasant holiday gathering (little kids sense this stuff, you know). I remember the surprise at the cold in the air, and the alternating light and dark from the streetlamps on the highway passing by overhead as we drove. In order to keep concentration on the worrying and hypnotic road conditions on the way home, and probably to de-stress, my dad put the radio on, and was delighted to hear me cooing along in the back seat to the “woo-woo” parts in The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil”. I remember his excitement, his hushed voice to my mother saying “Listen! She’s singing along!”

Wurlitzer Jukebox light-up music player

My next musical memory was a bit later, and a little more embarrassing. I was a toddler, maybe two years old. I don’t think I could speak yet. For something to do, my family would go to the shopping mall and look at stuff. I don’t know what my mother would look at while we did this (cooking pots were nearby, so maybe it was cooking pots), but my dad would always take me along with him to look at the stereo equipment in Hess’s department store. They had a stunning 45rpm record-playing jukebox on display with beautiful colourful lights that I seem to remember flashed or pulsed along to the music. And Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” came on. Transfixed, I remember losing myself in the lights and the strong, rhythmic piano chords, and kind of “dancing” (toddler squat-bobbing, really) along to it, daydreaming in my own little brightly-coloured world. When I “came to” at some point in the song, my dad was smiling and strangers were laughing and chatting with him. A ring of amused adults had formed around this crazy music-entranced toddler, and I was surprised and quite embarrassed by it all. But that experience still gives me a slightly embarrassed fondness for "Bennie and the Jets" if I happen to hear it.

I know that none of this seems to have any relation to bringing out CD digipacks for all my released albums, but please bear with me. I’m…. building up a picture, reminiscing, sure, but also getting to something.

On evenings and weekends when he was home from work, my dad would let me help pick out albums to listen to together. There were certain songs, sad songs, that would make me spontaneously burst out crying, and couldn’t be played (Like “Poem for the People” by Chicago. “25 or 6 to 4” was ok though.) “You see? That means they did a good job. There’s a lot of sad feeling in that song, especially in the beginning, but it’s also really good because of that.” My dad would tell me. Then maybe we’d put on some Spike Jones to cheer me up and make me wild and wakeful just before bed.

ELO Electric Light Orchestra Out of the Blue album covers Shusei Nagaoka
I thought they were from another planet

One night, “we” (my dad, really) constructed the ELO flying saucer made of card (included with their double album “Out of the Blue”), and I used to enjoy poring over Shusei Nagaoka’s stunning artwork and think about space travel while we listened and sang along. I was still very young, three years old, and it made a huge impression on me. The gorgeous alien-sounding fade-in and synth-y harmonies in the opening track, “Turn To Stone” thrilled me, and together with the stunning sleeve art, convinced me that ELO were visitors from another planet. I was certain that

the amazing energetic fade-in that opens the whole album (a double lp) was the sound of their UFO — which was just like the one we now had a model of — landing. This excited and intrigued me, especially since their UFO looked a lot like the jukebox I danced to in Hess’s. I guess it was around the time of the movie

Spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Music and lights

“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, which also had lights and music as a means of communication between entities from different planets. All of this may also have sparked something leading to my lifelong love of astronomy and my fascination, as a kid, with planetary exploration (and maybe something to do with my obsession with languages and cross-cultural understanding and communication). I wanted to be an astronaut until the Challenger disaster made me re-think my young career choices. More specifically, I wanted to be a singing astronaut (before Col. Chris Hadfield realised that dream and made it a thing -- I'm super-proud of him for that).

1970s vintage Fisher Price record player phonograph turntable
It ran on electric and had a real needle.

yellow plastic 1970s 45 rpm record spindle converter
these still spark joy

By the time I was about four, my dad had taught me how to properly handle a record, and how to operate the turntable (although, because it lived on a shelf that was a bit high for me, he mostly did it, or would lift me up so I could carefully place the needle onto the record sometimes). Sometime after that, I got my own Fisher-Price record player as a birthday present. My parents put all their vinyl 45 records (cute small singles with b-sides), maybe about a hundred of them, into a sturdy boot-sized shoebox, tossed in a few of those mystical yellow spoke-converter thingies, and said “listen to what you like!” There were a lot of great Motown records in there which I’d listen to over and over, together with my two favourites, “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf. My grandparents bought me some albums of my own to go with it, too. There was the Original Cast Recording of The Sound of Music, The Muppets disco album. “Sesame Street Fever” (which I’ve heard again recently on Youtube, and it’s a masterpiece), another Muppets album with a great version of that song that goes “ma-nam-a-non…doo dooo do doo do” on it, and Frampton Comes Alive. Later, maybe at Christmas, were added the soundtrack to Flash Gordon by Queen, and the Best of ELO album, the one that looks like a military medal pinned to a brown uniform.

When I was about 5, we went to the Laneco department store (which I’m told is now a Wal-Mart), which sold pretty much everything you could think of, all kind of jumbled together in a supermarket format. While my mom shopped for food, my dad and I had a look through their record section. We got Pink Floyd’s The Wall that day on a good sale. I think it was 4 dollars, down from 7, but I could be remembering it wrongly, it was a long time ago. Later on, we also specifically went there to get Thomas Dolby’s album with “She Blinded Me With Science”, a slightly extended version. We’d been hearing the shorter single version on the radio for a while and really liked it, but then one day, the station we listened to in my dad's woodworking workshop (WZZO, Z95) played the album version with some extended drum machine stuff and we got really excited and went out to buy the album.

I don’t really remember buying many albums after that. The 80s had hit, and the new Big Thing was those 20-cassette-tapes-for-a-penny offers from Columbia House. A printed self-sealing envelope kind of thing that would fall out of magazines with lists of albums and their artists and little tick-boxes next to each one. You picked something like 20 of them, or whatever, and sealed it up with a penny inside and the promise to buy 3 more tapes in the next year at regular price. Tapes weren’t usually that expensive, so it was still a generous deal, and once your

Columbia House record and tape club list detail
Columbia House: resistence was futile

3-tape obligation had been fulfilled, you could cancel your subscription and make a new one. Some tapes had little fold-out sleeves with printed lyrics, but these were never quite as satisfying as vinyl album art and sleeves. The format was probably pretty awkward to do anything really nice with, and it felt like most tapes didn’t have all that much thought into making them something special, apart from getting the album you want in a cheap and portable format. The plastic cases were very brittle and broke easily (sometimes before you even got them), especially around the hinges. Everything about the tapes felt kind of…. mass produced. Well, of course they were, so were record albums, but those didn’t feel cheap like the tapes did, and weren’t flogged around in such a way that everyone you knew had all the same music the way tapes were. The tapes were fiddly, too, prone to going wrong, getting too tightly or unevenly wound over time, or getting eaten by the player. I can't really explain the panic you'd feel when you'd put a tape on to play and heard the hissy silence of the beginning for a little too long. I hear cassette tapes are having something of a niche resurgence, so maybe you'll have that pleasure sometime.

Styx The Grand Illusion cassette tape
Everybody had this one.

Record sections in department stores and mall music shops grew smaller and eventually disappeared, replaced with stacks and stacks of cassette tapes. The last record I bought before they disappeared was Led Zeppelin’s “Physical Graffiti” album. I was older now, but I was still always really pleased with record packaging that did something unexpected. I liked the Led Zeppelin 3 album with the farmer’s wheel kind of thing, and Physical Graffiti had windows cut into the outer sleeves, printed to look like brownstone buildings. Depending on how you faced the inner paper sleeves, you got different people and things in the windows.

1987 early summer DAK Industries electrical electronics catalogue
A delightful and weird catalogue full of marvellous things

Around the time that tapes had taken over, I got my first “real” stereo system. A little silver tower that featured a turntable, AM/FM radio, a cassette player and a weird thing I never used (it was an 8-track player). I think it was a Panasonic machine. A few years after that, my dad got his first CD player. There weren’t many CDs out yet at that time, since it was a new format, and they were expensive to buy compared to tapes, but the sound blew us away — or rather, the clarity of sound and the silence did. No crackles, hum or pops, and no hissing and cranky tape squeaks or distortions. It was truly amazing, even if it’s a quality of music reproduction we pretty much take for granted nowadays. My dad had this idea that for CDs, he would only buy classical music CDs. That lasted for…. maybe a month or two. Then, slowly, we both started to buy CDs in earnest as more of them came out and the prices came down. My dad built himself a beautiful sound system with components from an amazing catalogue called “DAK” and also got me an all-in-one turntable, dual cassette FM radio and CD tower made by Magnavox. I wish I still had it. I still have some old "metal" cassette tapes with the DAK branding on them that he got for free when he ordered his HiFi components. The first original music recording I ever made was using headphones as a microphone with an adapter jack that also picked up am radio waves and put them into every recording, plugged into the wonderful Magnavox tower, and recorded on one of those DAK tapes. It was a raga-style piece played on an acoustic guitar in DADGAD tuning. I used two tapes and the dual-cassette setup on the Magnavox to record the two different parts (a drone and a melody), one after the other, playing along with one tape while recording on the other in mono, on one side (the drone was recorded using the right-hand input, and the melody using the left, so they'd both turn up on one tape). It's still around in my office drawers somewhere, and I've never played it to anyone.

I still wish I had that Magnavox, to be honest. I’ve never had a sound system since then that was any better, and it lasted me for a good 15 years I think, and needed only a few minor repairs that I could do myself in all that time. I transferred a lot of my grandma’s favourite vinyl records onto cassette tape for her on that Magnavox so that she could listen to them in the car, and developed a love for Big Bands, especially those led by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw (she was a big Glenn Miller fan, my love of trombone comes from her).

Bennie Goodman Artie Shaw big band leaders clarinet
I wanted to learn clarinet at school, but my parents feared it would make me "goony".

CD jewel cases started out fairly robust, but slowly got thinner and more brittle, less well-made and long-lasting, as more of them came out ... quality of manufacturing deteriorated, as with pretty much all manufactured goods around that time. But the discs themselves, with proper care, were (we were assured) indestructible. They used laser technology! And since nothing touched the disc except light while it was playing, there was no way they could wear out! That was amazing space-age stuff to me at the time. I got my first real job when I was 12, so I saved up and bought a Sony Discman, which I still have. The huge military-grey battery pack doesn't hold a charge anymore, but it still works beautifully plugged into the wall. I still have a lot of the cds I bought from back then, too. They also play perfectly because even though cds were "indestructable" I always handled them with the same care with which I'd learned to treat vinyl records, and never used any of the later "front-feeding" cd players to play them. I didn't loan them out, either.

1986 Sony Discman
Magnificent, robust technology

There were a lot of old albums getting chucked out onto CD after the technology took off — “AAD” transfers (Analogue Recording to Analogue Master, to Digital media). They were cheaper than new releases. The reproduction maybe wasn’t as clear as ADD or DDD reproductions, but they were still amazing and clean compared to old records and hissy tapes.