Vinyl records have made quite a comeback in recent years, entrancing new listeners and old fans all over again. “In The Groove” is a brand-new book, hot off the press, that’s a celebration of the vinyl record and the artwork & technology that surround it, as well as the record stores and dedicated fans that have built a community around buying, collecting and listening to them. On this episode, I’m joined by the man who put the book together, Dennis Pernu, to discuss this beautiful tome that should be on every fan’s bookshelf.
Welcome back, music fans & fiends, to another edition of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, part of the Pantheon family of podcasts. I’m your host, Brad Page, and I admit it– I’m a physical media guy. Not really a fan of streaming and MP3 files. I’ve owned my share of cassettes and 8-tracks, and I still have a big library of CD’s. But my love affair with music began with the 12”vinyl record– the LP. There’s nothing like holding a well designed album cover in your hands while you’re listening to the record. And I’m glad to see people discovering and experiencing that again as vinyl has had a resurgence in the last few years, it’s great.
And whether you’re just getting into vinyl now or you’re an old timer like me, there’s a new book that I think everyone should check out. It’s called “In The Groove: The Vinyl Record and Turntable Revolution”. The book is really a celebration of everything about the LP, from its origins through its history, the equipment that it’s played on, the cover art that often becomes as iconic as the music inside it, the record stores that sold them and became places of community, and the community itself, the people who’ve made these records part of their lives.
This is a brand new book, it’s just hitting the shelves now and I really loved it. The man who’s really the brainchild behind this book is Dennis Pernu at Motorbooks. And so I thought I’d invite Dennis onto the podcast to talk a little bit about “In The Groove”, because I believe that the history of modern music is the history of the record album– and it’s all here in this book. So, here’s my conversation with Dennis Purnu about “In The Groove”:
BRAD: All right, well, thanks so much for joining me for this episode of the podcast. I was lucky enough to get a copy of the book, I have it right here in my hands. I really enjoyed it, and so I kind of wanted to get you to talk a little bit about it. First, where did the idea of the book come from?
DENNIS: Well, the book was something that our publisher, Zach Miller and I, kind of brewed up. With a lot of publishers, they rely on authors approaching them with book ideas. But I would say that probably 90% of what we do at Motorbooks is stuff that we dream up in house, and then go out and find people to create the content for it. So, I mean, it just basically came out of one of our Monday morning conversations, kind of saying, “hey, we should do a book on vinyl”.
BRAD: And the book really is a celebration, I think, of everything that’s great about vinyl records. And you really cover all the bases in the book, from the history of the vinyl album through recommendations on gear, celebrating the great album covers, and the great record stores. How did you pick the people to contribute to the book?
DENNIS: Well, it’s interesting. Three of the five are folks that I’ve worked with in the past on our music publishing at Quatro. Gillian Garr, who’s especially prolific, and Richie Unterberger, they’ve all written books for us in the past, and so I kind of knew that they were well- versed in all aspects of vinyl and turntables and just being music lovers. So, I figured that once we divvied up the book and figured out a table of contents it wouldn’t be hard to find something for those three to do.
Matt and Ken, they wrote more about the nuts and bolts of collecting and of audio gear, for lack of a better word. I found them, they had worked on a book for UK-based publisher, and they’re both based in the UK, and they had written on the subjects before. So I approached them to lend their expertise to the book on those subjects.
BRAD Well, it covers all of these topics really well. I think Richie Unterberger takes the first chapter and he kind of gives a whole history, of kind of going back to before there was even LPs, when there were cylinders.
BRAD: Yeah, all of this stuff was not formal… We think of the twelve-inch LP and the seven inch single, but there were just all kinds of options. There was, I think, a 20-inch LP that was experimented with. Different speeds, like 80rpm– I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an 80rpm record, but just kind of an interesting history of how we got from this kind of haphazard options into the formats that we all kind of came to know and love. But that’s a great chapter.
DENNIS: Yeah, I thought Richie did a really fantastic job of kind of digging into the prehistory of the twelve inch 33 1/3 Rpm record. And like you say, kind of showing how we got there from something that was far removed from that. Going back to, as you mentioned, the wax cylinders and other formats.
BRAD: One thing that I learned, that I didn’t realize before, was that the speed of 33 1/3 actually derived from the records that they used from the early “talkie” motion pictures. I thought that was interesting. And he covers the rise and decline of the 45 single, and the offshoot of the EP. It’s just a really great history of the vinyl record.
BRAD: And then you have a section of the book on record covers, and showing some of the classic album covers, as well as sort of the history of album cover art. And there’s definitely stages, right? The way album covers looked in the 50’s, very different from the 60’s, and moving forward. Martin Popoff wrote that section, I believe.
DENNIS: Yeah, I thought Martin did a really good job. Martin, he’s probably the preeminent metal guy, heavy metal writer in the world, but once you get to know him, you find out that he’s so much more than that. He’s really well-versed in all sorts of genres of popular music and rock and roll, and I thought he did a really good job of tracing the early sleeve art, going back to the late 40’s and the first twelve inch record, right up to today, really. And I thought he really explored the breadth of genres and sort of schools of art, and famous design studios and different folks who, like the Hypgnosis people, who became famous for their sleeve art over the years.
So, yeah, I mean, it’s all really basically a big celebration of kind of tactile experience, which I think we’re finding a lot of people are getting back to, or started to get back to, especially during the COVID years hunkered down at home, holding stuff in their hands and looking at it and staring at it, spinning on a turntable rather than listening to it on their phone.
BRAD: Right? Well, you can’t see it, the folks listening can’t see it, but here in my studio I have about 50 framed album covers all around on the walls. Because album cover art is… to me, I can’t separate, particularly with records that I grew up listening to, I can’t separate the album cover from the music, because it was part of the experience. It’s the old cliche about putting the record on and then sitting down with that cover in your hands and reading the liner notes and the lyric sheets and all that stuff, as you listen to the record.
And to me that’s all part of the experience, and you definitely lose that. I mean it was seriously diminished when we went to CD’s but it’s nonexistent really, when you go to streaming and I think that’s a shame. To me, album cover art is really a lost art form. I guess it is kind of making a comeback for many years, but it’s a very unique art form, I think, in that it’s a perfect blend between “art” art and commercial art.
BRAD: It’s art that’s meant to sell a product, but yet, within that, what you are able to do with an album cover is so much beyond what anyone else was able to do with any other kind of commercial art that I can think of. I mean, you could push the boundaries of commercial art to its extremes in album cover art. And that’s what I loved about it. There’s just something really unique and just special about album cover art. I think you can argue all you want about the sound quality of vinyl versus CD– we’ll be arguing about that forever– but there’s no disputing that album cover art is a unique thing about vinyl that just there’s nothing compares to it. CD’s certainly don’t.
DENNIS: There’s really two sides to it, right, that you kind of alluded to: There’s sort of the crass side which is this is an advertisement, really, for what’s inside. But on the other hand, it is, like you say, it’s a piece of art that someone put a lot of work and thought into.
BRAD: Yeah, I mean, creative expression, kind of run wild in a commercial sense. I think there’s really something special about album cover art.
BRAD: And, like many hardcore music fans, I did my time as a record store clerk. So I really enjoyed the section of the book where they talk about some of the great record stores in the country and beyond. Most of them gone now, which is a shame. But the book kind of has a little celebration of some of the great record stores.
DENNIS: That was Gillian Garr. She’s based in Seattle. Again, she’s written a number of books for us and other publishers as well. But, yeah, there’s kind of a through line to that chapter, with all these chapters, which in her case, it’s kind of the history of the record store. The place where the merchandising happens. As with the album covers, we all have memories of those spaces where you would go into, and everyone, I think that the sound of albums, or the CD’s, flipping or clicking as people flip through them, is kind of ingrained in their mind.
And so she kind of explored the history of those spaces, and then within each, there’s sort of like one page, really kind of brief sidebar call-outs about some of the more remarkable record stores. In fact, they’re called “Remarkable Record Stores”, in the US and Europe for the most part, that people have heard of and frequented over the years. Some of them, as you say, gone, some of them still extant.
BRAD: They became places of community and y’know, you’d have customers who’d come and just stand at the counter and chat with you, for sometimes hours. You know, that was all part of it. It was a shared experience that again, kind of goes away when you’ve got Amazon and Discogs and things like that. But there’s still stores out there, and it’s still a fun experience to just poke through the bins and see what you can find. I love it.
DENNIS: Yeah, one of my favorite parts of that chapter is just, more so than the sidebars about actual record stores, is just looking at the photos, of the insides of record stores across the decades, and how the retail concepts differed so widely from one place to the next, and how they kind of evolved with listening stations and just racking and packaging and everything about it is just, like, fascinating to look at.
DENNIS: One of my favorite photos in that chapter is of a place I actually visited once in Turku, Finland called uh, 8Raita, which means “8-track” in Finnish. And just fantastic… you know, Finland being Finland, they had, in the back corner, one of those rod hockey games that you probably remember as a kid. Probably as a way to keeppeople in the store and hanging out and spending their money more than anything else.
BRAD: Right. There was such a different experience between shopping at Kmart and shopping at your local indie record store is kind of a night and day kind of thing.
DENNIS: But it’s even nostalgic to think back… I kind of grew up in sort of a rural area, and I can remember in the late 70’s when grocery stores had a corner of the store dedicated to record albums. They were just kind of ubiquitous, and even the record section at Kmart or Woolworths back in the day was a fun place for a kid to hang out while their mom was buying groceries or whatever.
BRAD: Yeah, exactly. Just browsing through the bins and discovering new bands, and looking at the record covers and just wondering what that record sounded like.
BRAD: You know, I think one of the most intimidating things for people who are just getting into vinyl is how do you do it– how do you choose your equipment? Because it is everything from cheapo Crosley turntables to multi-thousand dollar setups, and how in the world do you stick your toe in that water? And there’s a great chapter in the book, just kind of going over the different elements of the equipment necessary, and how to get started, and I think that’s pretty useful, particularly for people who are just kind of getting started in vinyl.
DENNIS: Yeah, I mean when we came up with the idea of the book and thought about, if we do a vinyl and turntable book, what should it be? Who should it be for? I wouldn’t say that we approached it as something that should be a primer for people just getting into the hobby… I mean, there’s definitely a part of that, but hopefully there’s something in there for people who have been into it for decades.
But like you say, um, one of the most intimidating parts of the whole thing is kind of sussing out the equipment and gear, and anyone who spent any time at all on a Facebook turntable Group knows how unforgiving some enthusiasts can be when it comes to that sort of thing. So, we kind of hoped it was kind of, maybe “gentle” is a good word for it, something to make it less intimidating. Something that could say, you can figure this out too, and don’t worry about those guys with their $20,000 Macintosh systems or whatever.
BRAD: Right. Sometimes when you venture into those internet forms or whatever, you go in to try to get some clarity and by the time you’re done, you’re more confused than you were when you started. There’s so many opinions, and people are so entrenched in their particular opinion, that it’s hard to suss out what’s the right path. And I think that chapter in the book gives people a really good idea of where to start, and maybe where to head. Because the equipment itself, that’s a whole other side of it. Audio equipment is a journey in and of itself.
DENNIS: Right. But if you ask five people, you’ll get six opinions.
BRAD: Right, exactly. But I think that chapter in the book is a good place to start. So, anyone listening out there who hasn’t dabbled in vinyl and you’re curious about getting into it, without having to spend thousands of dollars, check out that chapter of the book. It’s good advice.
BRAD: And then there’s the last chapter in the book, just sort of about the culture of vinyl fans and that’s kind of, I think, a nice way to wrap up the book, because there is a great culture around just the passion for the music. And really, that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about the cartridges and the needles and all of that all that fun stuff, and whether you’ve got a first pressing, or the condition of the cover, and all that kind of… I mean, that’s all part of collecting, but ultimately, it’s the joy of the music that really matters, and the pleasure of putting on a great record and turning it up and listening to it.
DENNIS: Yeah. Again, there’s something like that’s so sensory about the whole experience beyond the audio portion of it… the smell of the record store, it gets down to that level for me. The feel of the record in your hands or the sleeve in your hands, it’s just all that kind of fun stuff. And I hope we were able to capture some of that in the book and turn some people onto it, or maybe make them consider exploring vinyl as a hobby.
BRAD: Yeah, I think so. I think the book is a great place for anyone to start their vinyl collection. If you’re just getting started, or if you’re curious about it, this is a great guidebook. It is, in its own way, a primer, but it’s also a celebration of all that’s come before.
And for those of us who grew up with vinyl records, you’re going to find something in this book to appreciate. I love this book, and I would recommend it whether you’re an old fan or a new fan. So I think you guys did a great job putting the book together.
DENNIS: Thanks, Brad.
BRAD: Yeah, well, thank you for joining me to talk a little bit about the book. It is available on, is it October 31, the official release date?
DENNIS: I, uh, think that’s correct, yeah, sometime in October.
BRAD: So by the time this episode is out and available, you can order this book from Amazon, or better yet, support your local bookstore and purchase it from there.
BRAD: The book is called “In The Groove – The Vinyl Record and Turntable Revolution”, a great book that should be on the bookshelf of any record fan. So thanks for the book, and thanks for joining me to talk about it. I really appreciate it. Thanks, Dennis.
DENNIS: Thanks for having me. Anyone who names their podcast after a Paul Westerberg lyric is all right by me.
BRAD: (Laughs) Thank you, sir. Thanks so much.
BRAD: And thanks, as always, to you for listening. Please pick up a copy of this book. You will enjoy it. “In The Groove – The Vinyl Record and Turntable Revolution”. Available now.
This podcast will be back in about two weeks with another new episode, so join me again then. All of our previous episodes, and there’s about 140 of them now, can be found on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com, or in your favorite podcast app. Just look for us, you’ll find us there.
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On behalf of everyone on the Pantheon Podcast Network, I thank you for listening. Now go dig out an album that you haven’t listened to for a while, put it on that turntable, crank it up, and get in the groove.