How I Fell in Love With 7-inch Singles and Why They Still Matter

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Beth Winegarner flips through an old collection and finds it relevant even today.

When I was a teenager, I had a ritual every Saturday afternoon. My mom and I would go to Coddingtown, the Santa Rosa shopping center immortalized on Primus’ Brown Album, and I would make a beeline for International Imports, which sold rock-band posters and T-shirts and had a small, well-curated rack of 7-inch vinyl singles.

I was methodical. I would flip through the singles alphabetically, fingertips brushing against the colorful paper sleeves, working my way from A-Ha to Dweezil Zappa. I wasn’t a completist; I didn’t need copies of every single, not even every single by my favorite musicians. With an allowance of five bucks a week, I couldn’t afford to be.

My love of music started when I was about 10, with albums like Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger and Madonna’s self-titled debut. I spent my afternoons and weekends listening to them over and over, flipping the cassettes every 20 minutes in my cheap plastic boombox. When an album didn’t come with a lyric sheet, I would lie on the floor in my room with a notepad and pencil, the tape deck close by, stopping the tape after every line to write down the words, rewinding when I needed to hear it again to puzzle out what they were singing.

Music dropped me straight down into my feelings, which were swirling thanks to puberty. Music made me want to cry, laugh, move my body. It made me want to kiss the boy in my class that I’d had a crush on since fourth grade. I felt it in my heart, my belly, my arms and legs, my stomping feet. Nothing else came close to making me feel so good, or feel so much.

Sometimes I saved up my money to buy full albums on cassette, but there was always a risk that those albums were just a few hit songs and a lot of boring filler. Seven-inch singles were cheaper, and you were guaranteed at least one good song; often the B-side was great, but other times it was a dud. Partly because of the posters and t-shirts, International Imports was my favorite place to shop for singles, even though it didn’t always have the best selection. Some Saturdays the rack looked like it had been picked clean by collectors, down to its last Debbie Gibson or Phil Collins 45s.

Over time, I built a small collection of about 50 singles, several of which are now considered classics. Among them are Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” (backed with “I’d Die For You”), The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” (b/w “Breathe,” which I immediately loved more than its poppy, whirling A-side), INXS’s “Devil Inside” (b/w “On The Rocks,” an unreleased track) and Prince’s “When Doves Cry” (b/w “17 Days”).

Many others are one-hit wonders only a teenager in the mid-1980s could love. Does anyone else remember Icehouse’s “Electric Blue,” Noel’s “Like a Child,” Times Two’s “Strange But True,” The System’s “Don’t Disturb This Groove” or Pebbles’ “Girlfriend?” If you’re a true aficionado of ‘80s music, sure. I have them all on 7-inch vinyl, and I’m not sure I would still remember them if I didn’t.

Although we shopped regularly in Santa Rosa, a medium-sized Northern California city, I lived 12 miles away in Forestville, an unincorporated town that had a population of just a few thousand. We didn’t get access to cable television – and hence MTV – until 1987. Before then, I relied on popular radio stations and the DJs at our school dances to find out about new music, and as a result my tastes were strictly mainstream. The vast majority of the singles I bought were from stars popular with teens, including Tiffany, Duran Duran, Madonna and Wham! But several are a reminder of how R&B and rap mingled with pop at the top of the charts, then as now: Rockwell, Terence Trent D’Arby, New Edition, Billy Ocean, Salt N’ Pepa.

The Saturday-afternoon Coddingtown visits were only part of the ritual. Once we got home, I would immediately listen to any singles I’d picked up. We had a respectably nice Sony record player in our family room, although that meant either subjecting my parents and little brother to the latest hits, or sitting on the floor with headphones as the songs played in my ears, since the cord didn’t reach to the couch or my dad’s recliner. More commonly, I listened to them in my room with the doors closed. I had one of those portable turntables that folds up like a small plastic suitcase, the outside decorated to look like it was made of patchwork denim. The turntable’s small, single speaker made everything sound tinny and far away, but being able to enjoy my favorite songs on my own terms made up for a lot.

I dreamed of buying a jukebox – I could load all my 45s in it, and choose among them at the push of a button! The sound quality would be much better, and I could listen to a dozen songs in a row without having to get up and change the record every three to five minutes. I had no idea, at the time, how much a jukebox would cost. Finally I saw one listed in my dad’s Sharper Image catalogue, and my heart stopped when I saw the price: about $10,000. There was no way I would ever be able to afford that, and no way I could convince my parents to buy one for me.

My love of 45s came just as the format was on its way out. Seven-inch singles existed throughout the 20th century, and were hugely popular in the 1950s through the 1970s, when they made popular music easily portable for the first time. Sales were already on the wane by the 1980s, although it was still standard procedure for pop artists to release their latest hits on 45-rpm vinyl. Some record companies lured buyers by wrapping the singles in a large poster, folded to create a kind of envelope, although that left you without a sleeve if you wanted to put the poster up. My copy of Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” spends its days in a sleeve I made out of printer paper after I pinned the promotional poster to my wall. The poster is long gone, but the paper sleeve I made remains.

Seven-inch singles carried me through from the beginning of my passion for music until 1987, the year I turned 14. It was a year of big shifts, both for me and for the 7-inch single. That was the year American record companies largely abandoned vinyl singles in favor of the cassette single, the unfortunately nicknamed “cassingle.” It was also the year I gained access to MTV and the year I entered high school, leaving my pre-teen tastes behind me. Glam-metal and hard rock were on the rise, particularly bands such as Dokken, Poison, Guns N’ Roses, Motley Crue and Whitesnake. My collection of 45s reflects this; some of my last purchases include “Wanted Dead Or Alive” and Def Leppard’s “Love Bites” (b/w a live version of “Billy’s Got a Gun”).

International Imports stopped selling 7-inch singles and I stopped buying them, although I kept visiting for things like posters and shirts, plus more “international” items like funky jewelry and nag champa incense. I turned away from pop and R&B and towards anything featuring electric guitars and scruffy-looking male howlers. And instead of buying cassingles – which needed flipping just as often as a 45 but lacked the elegant ritual of moving the needle, turning the vinyl over and setting the needle in the groove – I recorded videos from MTV’s Hard 60 and Headbanger’s Ball and watched them repeatedly until my tapes just about gave out.

I still have all my 45s, tucked alphabetically inside a specially designed box on a shelf with the rest of my vinyl records. I rarely listen to them anymore, but I can’t bear to sell them or give them away. A few musicians today release their singles on 7-inch records, mainly as collectors items, but it’s rarely musicians whose music I love. The most recent vinyl single in my hoard is “Backworlds” by Lusk, a psychedelic rock band co-founded by former Tool bassist Paul D’Amour; I received it as a promo when I wrote a feature about Lusk in 1997.

Record collecting is often thought of as a man’s activity, epitomized in Nick Horby’s High Fidelity (and the movie based on it). There’s an assumption that only men would be so obsessive, so knowledgeable, so nerdy – or that it’s a club to which women are not allowed to belong. As academic Emily Easton has pointed out, research on record collecting has pretty much excluded women, even though there are plenty of female vinyl nerds out there. “Records remain one of the most important forms of objectified cultural capital in many musical communities because they have been recognized as a symbol of musical expertise and investment,” Easton says. “Understanding how women have participated in these practices contributes to an emerging body of knowledge on the experience of the female music fans and connoisseurs.”

Flipping through the singles at International Imports, it never occurred to me that my passion for collecting 45s might make me part of an unusual or under-recognized family of music fans (I mean, when Rob Gordon says he’s rearranging his albums chronologically, I knew exactly what he meant). I only knew I was following my 10-, 12-, or 14-year-old heart, bringing home the songs I loved in a format that felt good in my hands and sounded good on the turntable. Knowing now that female vinyl collectors have been sidelined and ignored makes me want to clutch my records to my chest in defiance and never give them up. Maybe someday I’ll buy myself that jukebox after all. I’ll push the buttons, flip “Pump Up The Volume” by M/A/R/R/S or “Paranoimia” by Art of Noise (featuring Max Headroom) onto the player, and dance.

ONLY NOISE: For the Love of the Struggle

da ting

Friends of mine tend to think that my insistence upon doing things the “hard” or “old-fashioned” way is merely my last cry of pubescent rage sputtering out like a tapped keg. A “contrarian” they call me. A “grandpa.” And I don’t mind. I don’t expect to get away with printing maps of where I’m going for the evening or writing down people’s numbers in my notepad without some ball-busting. I get it. Your grandmother knows how to use an iPhone better than I do and so does your three-year old nephew. Fortunately, this is the one place I don’t have to painstakingly explain my love of vinyl, which to many people outside of our music-website bubble is absurd and archaic. But what about how we acquire vinyl? For some reason I can’t deal with going into a shop to visit the shiny “New Arrival” or “New Release” sections without feeling like I’m phoning it in. I want a struggle. I want to dig. Sifting through piles of Lionel Ritchie and warped Rick Astley singles is a long and grimy endeavor, but the jewel found amongst refuse is always more brilliant.

Of all the junk shops I patronize, I’ve yet to find one as enthralling as Greenpoint’s The Thing. Rarely is an establishment so true to its title; this place is a grotesque organism of its own. An entire eco system of other people’s stuff. With nary a millimeter of free space, the Thing is an institution of sensory overload. Miniature cityscapes are formed by cassette tape skyscrapers, framed by mountain ranges of books, DVDs, and polyester dresses. Getting to the back room is hazardous and requires deft leg weaving through precarious stacks of you-name-it. A magazine asteroid could launch toward your head at any moment. I’d personally recommend a hard-hat.

At first glance, it’s difficult to imagine there could be more shit in the Thing. In the far reaches of the first floor rest thousands of records, leaning like post-storm trees and abiding by no system of organization. There are always a few people scavenging through these heaps, typically men in their mid-thirties, all shading their find with a furrowed brow, like an archaeologist dusting off a shard of pottery. They inspect the spine, note the release date, slip out the onyx disk in the hopes of a scuff-free surface. I suspect to most people this ritual looks as ridiculous as polishing a VHS tape, but to me it’s like local slang.

Much to the hoarder’s delight, this first floor is only the foyer. Teeter down the cement staircase, watch out for the low ceiling, and tiptoe into the basement if you’re up for some extreme rummaging. Down here there are only records. LPs, EPs, singles, ‘45s, maxi-singles, extended re-mixes, etcetera. If the records upstairs were mountainous, the basement is home to Everest. In the past I’ve seen guys down here spelunking for records, fully equipped with respirators and latex gloves. Today I have the cave to myself, and I’m determined to find something great if not rare.

But here exists the dilemma with a junk shop record dive: it’s 99 percent grueling pursuit and one percent success. Couldn’t we just go to a proper record shop? Of course. Will we? Absolutely not. It’s just too easy to waltz into a store and pay $26.75 for a 1980 release of More Specials. From their shelf to yours, with little more than a debit transaction to narrate the experience, it’s just no fun.

Now I’m not delusional; I realize that despite its obscurity, affordability, and hearty population of asbestos, the Thing is a still a store. We may be participating in Capitalism on the slightest level, but we are still consuming. Sure we can slap tags like “up-cycling” and “collecting” on it, but at the end of the day: we are buying shit.

It is not my goal to reprimand those who buy new vinyl instead of used. Nor is it my aim to pat us collectors on the back. That isn’t the point. The point is relaying the experience produced by finding a great record amidst a surplus of awful ones. The thrill of consciously searching for something that is not a necessity, but a pleasure defined by quality and nostalgia, is intoxicating. I like to think of it as cultural vulture-ism: we pick clean the bones of a dead medium.

However it isn’t a venture void of frustration; realizing the appeal of an album’s cover far exceeds its sound is annoying, accepting that an artist’s third album is garbage compared with their first two is disheartening, and not being able to reach that stack of untouched records jammed in a far corner is downright infuriating. I always try balancing on a milk crate, reaching an index finger towards the filmy piles that surely no one has flipped through, only to slip and risk a landslide of vinyl.

Three hours is the average length of time I can spend in these situations. By then my fingernails are piped with grime, my back hurts, and I’m primed for a bout of hypoglycemic rage. I’ll usually have a handful of records that are nothing more than desperate attempts at filling the 12’’ hole in my heart-usually hip-hop maxi singles that will only be heard at a party. All of this, for ten minutes of background music? The head hangs low.

I trudge upstairs and glance at the French DJ guy who has a Whopper-sized stack of records he will be sampling by dinnertime. It’s not fair. If I was a DJ I would be plum-fucking-tickled with the hundreds of unknown disco singles lining the floors of the Thing. All I want is one, just one great record. And yet, as I take a step to exit, I feel the tug.

The tug is the scream of something sought after yet looked over: “Turn around! Look at me! I’m right here!” The tug generally occurs the moment you decide to abandon everything. So I listen, I look, and there peeking out from under a Madonna EP is Squeeze’s Singles: 45’s and Under.

Now, this isn’t a rare record. It’s not even an original LP. It is, as the title affirms, a collection of singles; but it’s been on my list for quite some time.

There are two types of audiences familiar with Squeeze: the one that is privy to their entire body of work, and the other that inquires: “Isn’t that the band who did ‘ Tempted (by the fruit of another ?’” I was, for a very long time, part of the latter group. Seven years ago, when my then-boyfriend suggested I listen to Squeeze, I recoiled in disgust:

“I fucking hate that song. It’s on the lowest rung of the Dad-rock ladder, right there next to annals of Huey Lewis and his News.” He retorted with that typical, yet generally accurate remark: “You just haven’t heard their early stuff.”

Well, I now say the same to you. Though the band’s first three albums Squeeze (1978), Cool For Cats (1979), and Argybargy (1980) should all be heard on their own, Singles is the perfect appetizer to peak interest in a larger meal.

Formed in Deptford on London’s South Bank in 1974, Squeeze was the brainchild of vocalist Glenn Tilbrook, guitarist Chris Difford, and the now-revered pianist Jools Holland. As contemporaries of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, the band occupied the space in English New Wave that exalted catchy, pure pop music salted with tongue-in-cheek lyrics. There is something doubly effective about Tilbrook’s honey-sweet voice recounting stories of accidental pregnancy and the ‘ol “Slap and Tickle.” These early years produced wry tracks that are tight yet raw, and a far cry from the overproduced “Tempted.”

The largest account for Squeeze’s shift in sound was the departure of Jools Holland in 1980. I liken his absence to a post-Mick Jones Clash, in which the songs lose a tremendous amount of integrity and quality. The lack of Holland spawned a breeding ground for songs like “Tempted” and “Annie Get Your Gun,” the only two tracks I’d skip on Singles.

The high-points of the album are truly in every other song, but if I had to narrow it down to three, I would recommend “Goodbye Girl,” “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)” and the painfully infectious “ Up The Junction.”

Despite a slightly nibbled sleeve, the record itself is in wonderful condition. There are no scratches to speak of, and it spins without any signs of warping. These are the nerdy details, but they are important ones nonetheless. These are the details that make three hours of dusty lungs and a debit of $1.99 all the more worth it. As my mom always said: “no pain, no gain.”


ONLY NOISE: Pop Of The Tops: Extended Remix


With Father’s Day around the corner, Madison Bloom revisits her dad’s record collection.  A version of this article originally appeared on the site in 2013.

My dad has more records than your dad. Roughly 4,000 of them. And as the former owner of a record shop located in Eastern Washington, he used to have many more to his name. The Chelan-based shop was only his for a few years in the late 1970s, and it was aptly titled: The Music Store.” Among other fads, like men shopping in the women’s section to find the coolest threads, my dad also predicted titular minimalism before it hit the mainstream. Or perhaps the moniker was a nod to the simplicity found in his favorite band’s name: The Band.

Dad used to stock The Music Store with stacks of pop/rock, country, bluegrass, jazz, folk, blues, and countless sub-genres. A large portion of his inventory was accumulated secondhand, as he would peruse thrift stores for rare finds as well as record discount sections, then known as cutout bins due to the rectangular chunk punched out of the LP’s sleeve. He’d buy milk crates full of albums for a few bucks.

To this day the cutout bin records are my dad’s scapegoat of choice when defending ownership of such releases as A Flock Of Seagulls’ 1986 release Dream Come True, and a surprisingly large body of the Huey Lewis and the News discography. “Must have been a cutout bin!” he always says. Yet the crates and bins were also responsible for some of the most strange and obscure gems. Take for instance my dad’s album of whale songs, narrated by none other than the late and great Leonard Nimoy. Or perhaps Ambrosia’s 1982 release Road Island, which, although sonically terrible, boasts a Ralph Steadman illustration on the cover. He also has an original pressing of A Tribute To Uncle Ray, an album released by (Little) Stevie Wonder at age 11, in which Wonder performs the songs of Ray Charles in his signature, sugar-sweet voice.

Giving the milk crate hauls and cutout bins all the credit would be unfair. The truth is the majority of my dad’s collection, in all of its diverse excellence, is due to his shameless, unrelenting love of music. It’s the reason he has everything from Todd Rundgren’s Runt to Marlene Dietrich Returns to Germany, an album of the starlet singing in her native tongue over Burt Bacharach’s orchestra. It’s the reason he has Tom Waits’ first seven albums, and T-Bone Burnett’s first two. He owns every record Harry Nilsson released, and as much of The Kinks’ output he could locate. He has an unopened copy of an interview with The Beatles, which could probably pay a few bills here and there if he could part with it, as well as a sealed collection of speeches from the 1934 Olympics, featuring monologues by American gold medalist Jesse Owens, and Axis leader Adolf Hitler.

As lucky as I feel to have this massive archive essentially at my fingertips, I have earned the access.  In the span of ten years my dad and I moved that hulking collection five times.  With each move the records would be put in orderly boxes, keeping their alphabetical ranks and genre-specific confines. A box for Christmas LPs, a few for country, soundtracks, jazz, etc.  The collection was always the first thing I wanted to unpack, as our new house never felt like a home without that tower of vinyl watching over.

I realize that these are niche bragging rights, especially for someone born after the invention of the CD, such as myself.  It is true that I’ve been surrounded by more iPods than turntables throughout my life. But the objects of our childhood fascination rarely lose potency over time.  Mine just happened to have an “adult” application as well as a visceral one. Records, you see, were as good as my baby blanket. More than that, they were road signs for me all the way through adolescence, and they’re still guiding my infatuation with music today. In the same way I fervently rummage through my mother’s closet each year and find something previously overlooked, I spend hours in front of my dad’s massive library of albums during the holidays, eyeing each spine for a hidden pearl. Unfortunately, our steady rotation of house cats over the years has left most of the spines illegible and shedding their own skin.

Shamed as I am to say it, I have spent the majority of my eight years in New York sans turntable, and therefore have not allowed myself the indulgence of purchasing any vinyl for over six and a half years.  Then, one birthday I was gifted a flimsy little dollhouse of a record player; a 1980s suitcase model by Vestax that I refer to as “Fischer Price My First Turntable.” It’s no collector’s item, but it does the trick. Ever since then I’ve allowed myself the occasional purchase-an occasional purchase which has swiftly escalated to weekly purchases, a subscription to a monthly vinyl club, and the slow but steady transplantation of my original collection in Washington to my growing one in Brooklyn.

One time, while selecting some records to take back to New York from the small corner my collection occupies in my dad’s shelving unit, I noticed something amiss.  Dad had filed a handful of-go figure-my favorite albums in with his behemoth pop/rock section. As I started plucking my copy of Wire’s And Here It Is Again…Wire from the W’s he caught me. This immediately spawned an argument about whether the album was in fact mine, gifted to me by my mother, or his from before they were married-a promo copy from the Music Store days.  I was tempted to challenge pops to name five Wire songs as proof that he even liked them, but instead simply pleaded, saying it was one of my favorite records of all time. This ended up being far more effective.

When my parents separated 18 years ago the retrieval of records was a painful order of business. Was that copy of The Pretenders’ first LP mom’s or dad’s?  What about The Specials, or Hunky Dory? These disputes still surface, but I like to look on the bright side, which bears a simple fact: my parents have amazing taste in music. What if they were bickering about who ended up with the Kenny G record? Things could be worse.

He may not own a record store, or play in a country rock band, or wear navy suede cowboy shirts anymore, but my father has reintegrated music into his life in a whole new way. He never stopped writing music, or listening to music, or loving music, but now he nurtures the music of others in the restaurant-cum-club he owns with his wife. It has become a welcoming home to many Northwestern artists in its two years as a Bloom establishment. The bistro is just one more facet, one more excuse to talk about music, which we do more than anything, sending each other songs via email and watching the ever-impressive musical career of my older sister.

Recently I asked him what some of his most prized records are.

“Wow, that’s kind of a tough one,” he texted, responding almost immediately after with “of course my Harry Nilsson collection would come to mind. I also think my Mills Brothers collection and my collection of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli are treasures.”  The former two were easy guesses, and yet I had no idea he even had Django Reinhardt or Grappelli on wax.  I suppose that is the constant allure of his collection.

A few months ago, my dad and I were on the phone, and I expressed to him a conundrum I often find myself in while record shopping.  “It’s like, I want to own Astral Weeks on vinyl, but I’d feel stupid buying it,” I said.   “Because you already have it, and then someday I will inherit all of your records, and then I will have two copies of Astral Weeks.” 

They will all be yours soon enough,” he replied, sounding oddly resolved.

“Hey!” I barked.  “Don’t talk like that!  Jesus.  I’ll just buy a copy!”

“Oh, no I don’t mean that,” he laughed.  “I mean when Sharon and I pick up and move to France one day.  I don’t want to move all that shit again.”