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In 1987, when The Beatles’ albums came out in the form of a compact disc, people were still playing their favorite music on cassette players. Although conventional records were sold new or used and a rental record shop was still found in every town, cassettes were the most popular media through which we listened to audio materials at the time.
Frankly, turntables and phonograph records were already considered “outdated” prior to the transition era (1986-1987) when music went digital and CDs replaced everything else. Those who weren’t able to divorce vinyl then were mostly DJs or audiophiles claiming that the original conditions would matter. I gradually found that some people today, especially in their 40’s or older, tend to collect records as cultural assets that store their sentiments from youth. As photo albums bring back the good ol’ days in certain ways that digital images on a PC cannot match, LPs can generate a special mood where people indulge in the feeling of warm memories. Let me skip the tech debate on Vinyl vs. CD and summarize what vinyl records can offer for us today.
As I’m walking down Taraval Street to head to Tunnel Records & Beach Goods shop where what seems to be an annual event “TUNNELPALOOZA 2” is being held, it’s hard for me to visualize such an event taking place in the Outer Sunset, a San Francisco neighborhood that doesn’t know how to spell “consumer civilization;" Taraval @ 46th Avenue is not exactly what one might call a “happening’” place.
It’s a pleasant surprise to have my assumptions defied when I run into recent additions in the Taraval Street yellow pages. Tunnel Records, the store hosting the event, is a cozy little place filled with representations of counterculture, and participating neighborhood stores are equally alluring — Streamline Cafe, Avenues, and Riptide are all unique food & beverage startups. They are all located on Taraval within 2 blocks of the beach. It looks as if cultural reform is taking place in this area to make the Outer Sunset, or even San Francisco — great again.
Tunnel Records carries no CDs or DVDs; demonstrating their commitment to pre-digital times. It would have been a very difficult mission statement to retain 20 years ago today. If not for the fact that I just read the news: Sony relaunched vinyl production after a long hiatus, I would be highly inclined to doubt their success. Things might be changing in the industry and Tunnel Records could be a trailblazer alongside other record shops — leading the world with strict format codes and dedication to quality — from their small storefronts in San Francisco.
The live music performance of a local 5-piece group from Oakland will start soon. They are tuning their instruments in the corner of the store and Tunnel Records is getting crowded. I wouldn't be able to tell the band apart from the customers, if they weren't rehearsing: they are friendly and show zero pretension or attitude. I look over to the popular music rack and a woman in a mask greets me.
It is the woman on the cover of Paul Simon’s 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon. Facing her is another Paul Simon album Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme from his duo days. I am not an expert on R&B and jazz, of which they have a large selection, but I dare say, old Paul Simon albums being prominently featured in this way promises something good about their business.
I turn around and look at what those Simon records are staring at. There are cassette tapes displayed against the wall on the opposite side. The most noticeable tape is Peter Frampton’s Comes Alive LP. Paul Simon eyeing Peter Frampton immediately reminds me of a scene in the 1980 film, One Trick Pony, written by and starring Paul Simon himself.
The situation has Paul with a big record label CEO who suggests there are only a few artists with both qualities: looks and talent, and he is trying to explain why it’s hard to promote "just" talented artists. Hits are not expected to be made when the performer doesn’t come with good looks. The name “Peter Frampton” and “The Rolling Stones” are given as scarce examples of those who possess both star appearance and real musicianship. Tunnel Records recreates a relevant question inside the store where marketable hit chart contenders are hardly found (it’s been more than 4 decades since Frampton emerged), and pursuits of quality are placed over popularity. Standing between Paul & Art and Peter Frampton, I find myself becoming more confident in my impression that this record shop tries to make the music store great again: with vinyl and old-fashioned paraphernalia, although, it is still uncertain how much commercial success can be guaranteed in the coming years.
Since the band is taking time preparing, I step out to see what other participating stores are doing. Streamline on Taraval @east side of 46th Avenue is half-occupied by a crowd that is here for record swapping. There are 2 turntables set up for listening and their record racks seem like a time traveler’s library. I have to remind you that Stream Line is really an eatery, but this crossover pop-up shop doesn’t seem too out of place.
Across the street, the Riptide is also part of the Palooza where you can use a free drink voucher from Tunnel Records that comes with a purchase. They are not open yet.
I get back to Tunnel Records just in time. The Oakland quintet is garnering attention from a full house of guests. Everyone stops walking around when the band starts playing the way any 5-piece band would have played during the Summer of Love.
The owner doesn’t seem to mind that no transactions are being made during the performance. I happen to glance at the black and white album hanging on the wall towards the entrance. A familiar image turns out to be Satori — an album by a Japanese hippie rock band called The Flower Travellin' Band that would previously record songs of Janis Joplin. I totally support Tunnel Records' attitude to claim rediscoveries in old, unpopular or forgotten records that hardly matter to the general public.
Do you know how the story of the film One Trick Pony ends? Paul Simon, a survivor of rock ’n’ roll’s thriving era, finally decides to go against the big business that demands overly produced music to boost sales. Capitalism’s way of managing the business more or less revolves around the same strategy: find the greatest common denominator of the consumers’ interest and design products based on what they think everyone wants. The creator’s distinctive artisanship has to give way to the dull, simple, inexperienced ignorant perspectives of the public. Although Paul Simon rebelled against capitalists in the film, his next album, in reality, was nothing more than an overly produced pop music album that is soft on everyone’s ears, and shows no spirit of rock ’n’ roll.
My experience with Tunnel Records and TunnelPalooza 2 provided me with the opportunity to rediscover the value of amusements from the past. The second a needle lands on a swirly groove, we can take a trip back to old times and enjoy nostalgia. They have been missing under layers of plastic. It varies depending on the record you’re playing, of course, but it’s easy to regain the sensations of "unrefined cool." Attendees were mostly in their 40s and up, and they also recall the lost era when we didn’t have CD players; let alone music playing apps on smartphones. For younger generations, vinyl records are a new encounter, unless they happen to have a rare hobby of organizing their parents' garage. I wonder how those youngsters who are accustomed to digitally processed music, develop a taste for analog music. Will they differentiate the two? Or find any practical purpose in opening themselves up to vinyl records? I don’t really know, but they shall try it — if they are intending to make their culture great again.
>> An interview of Tunnel Records & Beach Goods is coming soon! Stay tuned!
Photographs by Rieko Fujii