Back To Black: Headphone LPs

Koss headphones and a porn star mustache got the chicks every time.

Way back in the dark ages (the 1970s) I’d heard that a few albums sounded really great on headphones. Well, my parents had a stereo but we didn’t have headphones. They cost about $12 apiece then, which in today’s dollars would likely be a monthly mortgage payment.

So I borrowed a couple of albums from my good friend Randy Fuller and took ‘em home to experience “true stereo.” My homemade headphones substitute was putting two stereo speakers on the floor facing each other then turning them out at about a 45 degree angle, just enough to slip a pillow and my stupid head in between.

With the volume set real low, it was a great substitute – until a little brother sneaked into the room and jacked it up to threshold of pain level. I still hate those guys.

Back in the day, one used to see magazine ads like this.

Anyway, with Record Store Day approaching, I thought I’d pull out a handful of my favorite “headphone” LPs and give ‘em a spin. These records were best listened to on those big clunky headphones, like the kind the Koss company used to make. You really got good spatial separation and a sense of true depth by listening to rock albums over headphones, and they were great soundtracks to some, ah, chemical stimulation. Or so I have been told.

For me, the granddaddy of all headphone LPs was Fragile by Yes (1971), which was one of the albums I borrowed from Randy back then. It was the group’s fourth album and the first with new keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and these prog-rockers really explored the studio space. “Long Distance Runaround” and “Roundabout” got a lot of radio airplay, but hearing those songs on AM radio really didn’t do them justice. The extended jam “Heart of the Sunrise” would usually send me into space or more accurately, a deep sleep.

The progressive rockers were great for headphone music: Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (1973), Days of Future Passed by the Moody Blues (1967) and In The Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson (1969) are classics. Randy likes Pink Floyd’s Animals (1977) for its crossing, slashing guitars and in 1976 I went for Rush and 2112, considered by many a headphones classic.

Randy remembers Quadrophenia by the Who (1973) as a nice headphone experience, and I always used to go for Electric Warrior by T. Rex (1971). And for some reason: Phoenix by Grand Funk Railroad (1972) got a lot of headphone mileage, but maybe I was just too lazy to take it off the turntable. And let’s not forget: Abbey Road by the Beatles (1969), Ram by Paul and Linda McCartney (1971) and Best of Spirit (1973), all favorites of mine.

Our memory wavelengths converge on one act who always sounded great in stereo: The Firesign Theatre. Not musicians, this was a comedy troupe whose medium was the stereo album. Their stuff is multi-tracked and brilliant, and you can listen to their setpieces over and over again just like a great rock song. Their very best albums – Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers (1970) and Everything You Know Is Wrong (1974) are rich experiences on headphones, but hands down their best for special effects and stereo is the futuristic I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus (1971).

Look at me, going on about all this stuff. I could talk about old records and music all day. And there’s a perfect day to do just that: Record Store Day, April 21 this year. Go out to your independent music store, grab up some special vinyl and see how many people are music freaks just like you and me.

MP3: “Long Distance Runaround” by Yes (from Fragile)

MP3: “Planet Queen” by T. Rex (from Electric Warrior)

MP3: “Flight Of The Phoenix” by Grand Funk Railroad (from Phoenix)

MP3: “A Passage To Bangkok” by Rush (from 2112)

MP3: “Sheep” by Pink Floyd (from Animals)

MP3: “The Breaking Of The President” by the Firesign Theatre (from I Think We’re All Bozos On This Bus)

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