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Folks come in fairly often looking for a “cheap turntable.” Of course, unless you hit on an awesome thrift store or garage sale find, this isn’t really something which exists anymore. We remember the days when box stores like Best Buy sold a fairly decent Technics or Sony, but that’s nearly as distant as the time Tom Petty fought with MCA Records when they wanted to raise the retail price of Hard Promises to $9.98. A good turntable just isn’t cheap anymore and given their popularity, not on the shelves for long.
Historically, Gen Xers like ourselves acquired turntables without much effort. Our parents’ friends often gave us theirs, since it hadn’t been used in years, or we simple went into Mom and Pop’s basement and stole the one they’d forgotten. When one of us used to commute by bicycle we’d find them on the curbs in nice neighborhoods on garbage day, and strap the new prize to a rack on the back. Yep, the coveted turntable was once like the television is today.
There’s a graveyard of turntables here at Hymie’s, from a vintage Brunswick wind-up (which belonged to a friend and is kept on display in the shop as a little tribute) to a couple of those goddamn Crosleys which poop out within weeks of opening the box. The turntables you see stacked in the back room of the shop all need some love of one kind or another. They’re not simply missing belts or needles — they need to be taken apart and fixed. This, along with the fact we sell them far more quickly than we find the time to fix them, is why there’s never a huge selection of working turntables for sale.
We’ve all become so spoiled by the fact there’s three dozen types of ketchup in the grocery store that we expect the same everywhere else we go. It’s just not so with turntables, especially the elusive “cheap turntable.”
Consider, for instance, the time which went into a Technics 1900 which came with a large collection we bought last summer. Its tone arm lifter didn’t function, meaning its auto-start also would not function, and more importantly that when it reached the end of the album the auto-return would drag the needle across the surface of the album.
Vrrrrrrrrrrrroooooooooomp! You know the sound.
What happens with a turntable sits for a decade or several is that its lubricants turn to sticky goo, sort of like pine sap. On other machines this freeze the platter in place. This is especially common with the classic BSR “stackers,” which at one time were about the most common record players in the world and when cleaned can be very durable. On these classic direct-drive Technics, which are no longer in production, the sappy gunk most often seizes up that tiny, essential little plastic rest.
The rest is raised and lowered by a piston inside a metal shaft and a spring, and its connection to the auto-start, auto-return and cue switch functions are controlled by a plastic cam. Cleaning these parts requires a tedious deconstruction of the turntable. First one turns it over and removes the screws which hold the tone arm assembly and basic casing in place. When loosened you can remove the switches and cover plate seen in the first photograph, and you can work the casing carefully around the tone arm, as in the picture just below.
Now you’ve nearly there You have to remove the remaining screws holding the turntable assembly to the rest of the mechanical parts and lift it up carefully. You must be gentle so you don’t damage the tiny leads which carry the signal from your stylus through the tone arm, and eventually out to your amplifier, your speaker and your ears (otherwise you’ll double your work). You also have to raise the tone arm assembly carefully so it remains properly connected to the levers and gears which control the various automatic functions (auto-start, auto-return, repeat, etc).
While you’ve got the machine disassembled, its a good idea to give everything a quick tidying, too. If you have a can of compressed air its nice to get any junk out of there, and its a good idea to clean the pitch control contacts with a de-oxidizing solution. If this isn’t something you do every week, the ten dollars you’ll spend on those couple cans will be an investment to last you half a lifetime.
Finally you’re there. The white plastic piece you see below is the lifter cam, and its your culprit. Remember the Vroooooooooooomp! sound? Its all this guy’s fault. In the picture the spring which holds him taut has already been removed, but he was so stuck in place the spring was stretched to its limit. You remove a screw which holds the lifter cam in place and the tiny c-clip holding the spring over the piston. All of these parts, and all of the washers installed with them, need to be scrubbed with rubbing alcohol,using Q-tips and a tiny flathead screwdriver, until they’re free from the sticky lubricant. When this stuff is really stubborn, especially on older players, you may have to use a soldering iron or a hair dryer to heat the area up before you can make any progress. The piece onto which the lifter cam is covered with a tiny metal sheathing, and that has to be scrubbed too. One finally clean and dry they’re all re-lubed, this time with a dry lubricant which can be silicon- or graphite-based (meaning you won’t have to make this repair again for a couple more decades, ideally). Then the entire works needs to be re-assembled without disrupting the other functions, all of which were working when you started.
Afterwards, the lifter rest needs to be adjusted to the proper height, so it neither disrupts play nor fails to raise the arm high enough to protect the stylus and records during auto-start and auto-return. Once assembled and adjusted, the turntable has to be tested for an afternoon, so you’re sure one of your customers won’t get home and find something else has been damaged in the disassembly and reassembly process. Most turntables have a damaged stylus by the time they make it to the record shop as well, so there’s the job of properly balancing and aligning the replacement.
We have always said we fall in love with most turntables which come through the shop — this is in part because we often spend half an afternoon performing surgery on them. When you think about the intricacy of the interlocking parts of a machine like this Technics 1900, they’re remarkably elegant. The many articles we’ve seen in recent years about the ‘resurgence of vinyl’ often cite the physical appeal of albums and the larger artwork on their jackets as a factor which distinguishes them from digital media, but seldom recognize how much ore enjoyable owning a turntable can be. We have many favorite models, and enjoying the beauty of them isn’t really so different than enjoying a classic car show or building a boat inside a bottle.
But they often require knowledge, patience and skill to repair. There is also often an investment in parts and supplies. This is why there aren’t always “cheap turntables.” When choosing which project to work on next, we try and get at least a couple record players repaired each month which will cost under fifty dollars, but many like this Technics 1900 go for more than that online in ‘as is’ condition. Even at a fair price, it was gone within a day or so, and the customer who brought it home has told us it performs fantastically and sounds great. We have meanwhile moved on to the next project, which yesterday was a Sony linear tracking turntable (what’s this?) which has a problem with the tone-arm motor.
If you enjoy looking at beautiful turntables, or if you’re looking for a fully-restored classic console stereo of quality turntable, you should really visit our friends at Vintage Music Company. They also have the largest selection of 78rpm records you’ll find anywhere, and they are where we most often by needles for our own records players here at Hymie’s.
So there’s an explanation of the turntable graveyard here in the shop. Some may never be fix-able, and others are being kept so they can one day donate a part or two to another. Others are on the ‘donor list,’ waiting patiently for a part. Most are just waiting until the day we have the time and resolve to get in there and fix something like a tone-arm lifter.
Music is Just a Bunch of Notes by Spider John Koerner and Willie & the Bumblebees is one of our favorite local records of all time.
“Everybody’s Goin’ for the Money”
Its original pressing of 1000 copies was hand-stamped (pre-dating the Replacements’ Stink album by a decade) — many that we’ve seen here at Hymie’s have green marker circling the title. In the case of our own copy it’s a big wild squiggly circle. Some copies had a serial number, like the “White Album,” others have additional doodlings and marks. The photographs you see here are what we were able to find searching online — We had been photographing each unique copy that passes through the record shop, but when the Hymie’s computer suddenly pooped out on us last month we lost the files.
We also found this unfinished or abandoned blog, where somebody had the idea of tracking down all 1000 copies.
My first copy of this album was a CD-R that Dave Ray made for me when I was working at Al’s Breakfast. At the time the album was out of print, and fairly difficult to find. Sadly, that disc didn’t survive one move or another, or the theft of a CD collection from a car or something. It would be something special to have today. Music Is Just a Bunch of Notes is in print again and now comes with DVD of Koerner’s weird 1970 movie, The Secret of Sleep.
The album includes crowd noise from a performance at Macalester College and a couple of absurdist comedy bits by Ted Olson. The remaining tracks were recorded above the Coffeehouse Extempore, as described in Dave Ray’s extensive liner notes. We first posted about the album’s stranger features in our very popular “Weird Stuff” series a couple years ago. Here is one of the tracks with Olson driving his car.
“Waiting for go with Normal Dub”
Hearing Koerner perform “Summer of ’88” on the new Live At Patrick’s Cabaret disc reminded us (we posted it here earlier this week) reminded us how much we love his songwriting and his totally original performances. People hang onto their Spider John Koerner albums, which is why several of them are so difficult to find — it took years to build up a collection of all of them, as well as all the great records Dave Ray made. We are, of course, very excited about the new Red House Records compilation of Ray’s records. A few customers here have been disappointed it wasn’t released on LP, but we’re just glad to hear all the rarities and live recordings.
We didn’t know the song titles on one of our favorite new LPs until this week — that’s because all we had was a test pressing for Brian Laidlaw’s ambitious new project, Amoratorium. He was kind enough to let us keep this copy after it arrived, and we have been enjoying it for weeks for what it is — seven new songs by one of our favorite songwriters.
Of course, we like Brian Laidlaw‘s songs enough to have chosen two to be the first ever released by Hymie’s Records on a 45rpm single last month (check it out here). The new songs on Amoratorium are especially interesting because they’re part of a larger concept album project that Brian has been working on for several years. The album approaches the true story and the mythology of Depression-era outlaws Bonnie and Clyde, and it is accompanied by a beautiful twenty-five page book of poetry published by Paper Darts Press. There is a love story at the heart of Amoratorium, as represented by the first song below, “Will Our Love,” but one set against the Cinemascope background of Depression and death. The setting is ideal fit for Brian’s best work as a songwriter — the album seems at times very similar to the EP he released last fall both in its sound and its subject matter and approach (you can read our review of that disc, Echolalia, here).
Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow were famous when they were ambushed and killed by a police posse on May 23, 1934. It is said that people tried to take off with souvenirs from their corpses, and one man successfully took a lock of Bonnie Parker’s hair. People didn’t really know the real couple, though, but rather sensationalized stories of their exploits in newspapers. The mythology around their story continued to grow up until 1967, when Hollywood cemented the story with a hit film starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
Around the same time several records about the pair appeared. Flatt & Scruggs recorded an entire album, The Story of Bonnie and Clyde, and artists as wide-ranged as Merle Haggard, Serge Gainsbourg (with Brigitt Bardot), Mel Torme and Georgie Fame all made hit records about Bonnie and Clyde in the year following the movie’s release. Amoratorium is part of this pop tradition, but also a unique approach to the familiar story.
The album was produced by Brett Bullion in a temporary recording studio set up in a historic, repurposed church in Granite Falls. The Hammond organ heard on several tracks hat set unused in its foyer for seventy years. Although he is not backed by his regular group, The Family Trade, the sound is not entirely different from their records together. Danny Vitali, who had performed on Echolalia with Brian, joins him along with pianist and fiddler Bex Gaunt. The result has the rounded edges and warmth of an old building, but also the rawness of an earlier time. Brian’s portrayal of Bonnie and Clyde is likewise fit to the times, romantic if not romanticized, and not his first recording to recreate a setting in the past –“Hangtown Hymn” from Whiskey With Goliath frames its story in a similarly sepia-toned atmosphere.
“Will Our Love”
“The Way That I Was Made”
“Nobody but a villain loves a revisionist,” writes Brian in the title poem in the brief book (do books of poetry have ‘title tracks’ in the same way as albums?). A quote from Arthur Penn, who directed the 1967 movie responsible for reigniting the Bonnie and Clyde mythology, is on the first page:
I’d grown up hearing all the stories about Bonnie and Clyde… Everyone knew someone who’d been robbed or kidnapped by them. Any farmer that had an old car that didn’t work, they’d take it out, shoot it full of holes, pour some animal blood on it and show it off as the car Bonnie and Clyde were killed in.
When Bonnie and Clyde were run out of a hideout in 1933 they left behind some undeveloped film and some sheets of handwritten poetry. Their playful pictures brandishing guns and cigars and the slang language in the poems were printed in newspapers around the country, making the couple and their gang famous, if not understood. We haven’t asked Brian why he’s worked for so long on their story but we assume he was in part drawn to the unusual role poetry had played in creating their legacy. The second of Bonnie Parker’s known poems, given to her mother just weeks before she and Clyde were gunned down in a V8 Ford, is the most famous. “They don’t think they’re too smart or desperate,” she writes
They know that the law always wins.
They’ve been shot at before;
but they do not ignore
that death is the wages of sin.
When Bruce Springsteen told the story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, whose midwestern killing spree left eleven dead in 1957, his characterization was eerily cold. That he wrote a song called “Wages of Sin” around the same time, which was considered for Born in the USA and eventually cut, suggests he was likewise interested in the story of Bonnie and Clyde. We suspect somewhere in the basement of a New Jersey mansion there’s a notebook filled with lyrics which fall short of what Brian wrote for Amoratorium. Nebraska was a commercial failure for Springsteen in ’82, but today regarded as an artistic triumph (hard to believe its the same guy we saw mopishly hawk a children’s book about “Outlaw Pete” on the Daily Show this week). The record is also a relic of the early 80s recession, much as Amoratorium belongs to the current ‘economic downturn’ — which really is a bullshit term, considering that economists have been calling the crises of 2007-8 and their aftermath the Great Recession for years. Brian has often used historical vernacular and settings to explore contemporary concerns but not on such a large scale or with such an intimate focus. We heard a love story in Amoratorium first, and the setting second. New things catch our interest each time we play the album.
Amoratorium is one of the most ambitious LP projects to come out of the Twin Cities music scene this year, and we hope it draws some more attention to Brian’s work. We are very excited to have a copy with the book, so that we can read and enjoy the art while we listen.
Brian Laidlaw will perform music from Amortorium and read poems along with Gillian Conoley on Thursday, November 20th at the Walker Art Center at 7pm. It’s a free event. Additional details here.
He will also be performing here at Hymie’s on December 5th along with the Ericksons, who released their new album, Bring Me Home, last month.