History 101: The Golden Age of High Fidelity
“If the King loves music, it is well with the land. “ – Mencius, 300BC
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – before Apple’s IPod or Sony’s Walk Man, there was the high fidelity stereo system. The amplifier, tuner, turntable, speakers and tape deck combined to intensify and dilate the pupils of an explosive era of rock and roll. Music was recorded in sound studios in Hollywood and West Los Angeles with one hour of music condensed on to a two-sided 12” diameter vinyl disc called a long play record album or LP. The LP was played at 33 revolutions per minute on a high fidelity stylus device known as a hi-fi turntable.
The LP was packaged and sold in retail establishments called record stores. It was not uncommon to spend the blistering mid-afternoon hours of an August summer inside a retail record establishment with names like Rhino Records or Musicland perusing pop, easy listening or rock albums. Among the densely packed, alphabetically sorted albums, a hobbit like band of bearded musical savants worked –offering advice and counsel to the musical challenged. These centurions of sound could not recall the last time they had bathed or eaten but they could recite the lyrics from a “never released recorded on a bootleg tape at Red Rocks” ballad by Jerry Garcia. They would speak reverently and with conviction about artists as if they had just returned from being backstage with them on their recent European tour – when in fact, they had not left their own city limits in years.
Each album had its own unique casing called a record cover. The record cover was an artistic expression for musicians – a canvas where one could graphically convey a picture or symbol of the lyrics and music that were embedded along the analog grooves of the LP. LPs were created and marketed by the recording industry. The music business was run by gold chained, silk shirted, hyperactive, restless legged visionaries infused with caffeine and cocaine. Everything was about promotion and record sales. Albums went gold if they sold 500,000 units, platinum and multi-platinum if they sold 1M to 2M respectively and Diamond if they 10M copies.
In the 1970’s, The Eagles “Greatest Hits”, “Led Zeppelin IV” and Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” – all sold over 20M albums. World –wide, AC/DC’s 1980 “Back in Black” sold 45M copies and Meatloaf’s “Bat out of Hell” sold an astounding 43M copies – presumably to a lot of drunken Russians. It was a time of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Hunter S Thompson, a writer who created his own method of participatory reporting, known as “ gonzo journalism” best described this era of mega music as “a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side”.
This was the golden age of rock stars and rock concerts. It was a time for bands where the performers actually sang and played their own instruments. In a time before Milli Vanilli or Brittany were caught lip synching music on stage, musicians wrote and performed their own songs. To the 60s and 70s rock and roll enthusiast, it was a time for scrimping and saving to buy concert tickets, a coveted new album or perhaps a first stereo system that would legitimize you as a true audiophile. To teenagers tossed and turned in the Class V rapids of generational and social white water, music helped explain feelings and facts of life. Your LPs and a stereo system were essential accessories to understanding a world whose cultural plates were constantly shifting. Your music and the system that amplified it made a statement about whom you were.
As a teenager, your primary focus was the acquisition of your first stereo system. Once acquired and assembled, suburban houses would transform into thumping, cocoons of adolescent isolation where the refrain, “ turn that racket down “ became as familiar a routine as eating and sleeping.
The stereo system that brought these albums to life was a critical accessory to daily life. Stereo junkies would spend hours in febrile lathers evaluating Pioneer, Kenwood, Infinity, Sony, Dolby, and Harmon Kardon components. Acoustical kings and princes would lead you into rooms that were living shrines to their “Marantz 2330b receiver, Thorens TD-165 turntable, Frazier Model Seven speakers, and Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck”. In the most advanced bedrooms and college dormitories, the stereo configurations resembled NASA workstations. A friend might not have one – but two amplifiers – including a 50lb monster Power amp that cranked out 250 watts per channel and could knock down a dog at fifty yards.
The Pioneer PL-530 turntable was as delicate as your Southern aunt Mildred with slim arms and a stylus that would nervously jump if your neighbor got out of bed too quickly next door. The SG Equalizer with its silver faceplate had 12 slider controls and promised a signal to noise ratio of 96 decibels. I had no idea what that meant but it was a great line to drop on a date when you were trying to pass yourself off as a musical Mensa member. The amp’s sliders gave you the mistaken impression that you were a genius capable of bending sound waves – creating never heard before combinations of bass and treble. The Pioneer tuner boasted a 5-gang variable capacitor for tuning. Again, no idea what that meant, but the stereo geek, excuse me –the audio consultant, could not stop drooling as he described the performance of the super tuner.
Once purchased, an adolescent spent countless hours connecting more wires and entrails than a human intestinal tract. The speakers would be positioned for maximum enfilading noise and in some cases, purposely directed toward a parent’s office wall to shake pictures that hung delicately on the adjacent room. The system lights would illuminate and a record would be placed on the turntable and dropped where a stylus would descend and transform a suburban bedroom into Altamonte Pass with Mick Jagger egging on the crowd with only the Hell’s Angel “ security” guards missing to complete the picture. It was a golden age of high fidelity stereos – a time for physical and technological expression.
Between 1990 and 2005, the world of the stereophile compressed. Big was out and compact was in. LPs became CDs. Empire State sized speakers reduced to ultra light, “low frequency with no audio distortion, high sensitivity modules” that were the size of a paperback book. The stereo system became something to be hidden in plain sight. The goal was to make one’s system invisible. This sinister “happening” was subtle and occurred over many years. In my own home a systematic genocide was beginning focused on my modest trousseau of furniture, art and any possession that came to symbolize my life before marriage.
It was subtle at first – an Ansel Adams photograph with a cracked pane of glass went missing. An off color, ragged beach towel vanished. A pathos plant with a Guinness Book of World Record 40 foot long tendril was “ mistakenly” tossed out. And finally, my beloved stereo system was relocated to a darker, less frequented guest room. The stereo had become an embarrassment – a large gaudy relic of a period of gigantic sound and consumption. The speakers had become a physical “hazard” when my two-year-old toddler tried to climb on them. My wife did not realize that my highly emotional reaction was not fear for my child but the terror that she had punctured the delicate tweeter.
With the arrival of our “ home entertainment system” the stereo was consigned to the prison of our basement storage room completing my emasculation. The Harmon-Kardon components all looked at me as if to say, “ after all we have been through, and you’re just going to let her send us down to be defiled by spiders and mice?” I looked away.
The Infinity speakers were disconnected and euthanized on a black, October morning. I looked up at my spouse hoping for an eleventh hour death sentence reprieve. She just smiled that frozen “ my will be done” smile and instructed the installer to hide the new speakers on an upper bookshelf. The technician installing the new system replaced my corpulent components with sleek foreign 300 watt per channel models who weighed less together than just one of my speakers and were the size of a box of matches.
To this day, my Harmon Kardon stereo and Infinity speakers wait restlessly in a basement purgatory. I cannot part with them. I sometimes secretly visit them. We share stories and I remind them to be patient. One of my kids will soon go off to college and “monster speaker” mania may come back in vogue. Then, they will be faithfully dusted off, reconnected to a tuner and amp, and pointed out a window to blare revolutionary lyrics and music while Frisbees fly and people gather.
Perhaps the golden age of hi-fi may dawn again.