Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tuffy the Cat's Museum of Obsolete Entertainment Formats, Vol. I -- the CED VideoDisc

Hi, I'm Tuffy. I'm a cat. More specifically, I'm one of DJMurphy's three cats. And let me tell you; he's a knucklehead. I mean, sure, he feeds me regularly, and when I beg like a mad cat, he'll pet my hindquarters. And yeah, he's got a good lap to curl up in. But he's still a knucklehead. He saves the weirdest things. Stuff NO ONE (including himself) will ever be able to use. Which is why I've hacked into his blog to post just what kind of nut he is, for saving the objet d'desuet I'm going to tell you about today: the RCA SelectaVision VideoDisc.

Put simply, imagine a great black, 12" vinyl record... that holds 60 minutes of video per side. Add a cool hard-plastic caddy, a unique way to insert the disc, and you've got a great new video format!! It'll be a great success!! ...Or at least, that's what the fine folks at RCA Corporation were hoping when they introduced what has been termed "Needle Vision" by silly humans trying to be cute. The format was made in America by an American company, one of the last few entertainment technologies to sport that claim. I'm made in America; I wonder if that's one of the charming reasons that Murph loves me. (Maybe it's the hairballs; I could always yak up a couple of more of those onto his clean carpet, just to let him know how much I care about him. Even if he is a knucklehead, he's my knucklehead.) The video discs are referred to as CED discs, which stands for Capacitance Electronic Disc. Each disc came in a hard-shelled plastic caddy, about as thick as a triple record set in a four-panel sleeve (think the Woodstock soundtrack, or Yessongs). The entire caddy with the disc inside was inserted into the video disc player, the power to the player was turned on, and the caddy was removed, keeping the disc in the player. The disc would then spin at 450 RPM, and would have to be flipped at typically the halfway point of the movie. Screen resolution was equivalent to VHS video tapes, about 250 lines of resolution.

Originally, the technology was supposed to hit the market in the late '70s. However, had it arrived then, the discs would have been a crazy metallized disc that wouldn't have been that durable. Plus, the players would have been top loaders, which could have meant shorter player life if humans could have a go at monkeying with the equipment inside. By my feline estimation, the finished disc product that ultimately came to market in 1981 could very easily have been created using modified LP production lines. By keeping the discs in the caddies, there was no chance of humans putting their oily fingerprints on the disc surface, which would have seriously degraded the playability of the CED video discs. (Isn't it wild that a cat knows all this crap? You've only scratched the surface...). The 1981 product launch was a splashy affair, with really strong support from most of the major movie studios. In 1982, RCA even came out with a stereo version of the CED player, which coincided with the release of the stereo CED video disc of Star Wars. Ultimately, some 1700 CED video disc titles were released. Sounds like a recipe for success, right?

The format ended up being a failure, ultimately, due to really bad timing. The VHS videotape emerged at almost the same time, and when new adopters were faced with a format which allowed you to play AND record, as opposed to the CED's play-only discs, the decision was pretty clear for the consumers. RCA stopped active development of the players in 1983, but since the actual video discs themselves were still selling, RCA continued production on them until 1986. It is curious to see that the more commonly known, optical technology LaserDisc continued on as a niche product up until it was ultimately replaced by the DVD. It ultimately must have had better corporate backing and marketing, along with the support of the cineastes. But these last few points are mere speculation, and I am merely a cat.

All was not a waste with CED, though. For the longest time, this was the only format you could get the preferred version of The Kids Are Alright, with the entire Rolling Stones' Rock 'n Roll Circus performance of "A Quick One (While He's Away)", arguably the finest performance of the Who ever captured on film. But now that you can get that footage on the current DVD of the movie, why invest in early '80s technology? Save your sheckels, and treat your cats to another baggie of catnip; trust me, they'll thank you.

Extra special thanks to the website CED magic, from which the archival image and 98% of this information is presented more reverently than it is presented here.

Here's a wicked cool commercial of the player from YouTube. Worth the 30 seconds it takes to watch, especially if you want to see one of these babies in action.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The fine art of a well-crafted comp

I want to apologize straightaways for being a lazy and bad blogger; my buddy Todd is a hell of a lot more prolific than I am, and mad props to him because of it. My wife is also a lot more prolific (hence the higher page-view count). I honestly could take a lesson.

But the only excuse I can offer up is that I don't always have a bunch of new entertainment product coming in the pipeline. I can hear it now, you'll all say, "Murph, you have a wonderful life: a great wife and kid, a job you don't mind going to every day. Who the hell are you to complain that you're not buying as many CDs and DVDs as you did in your irresponsible twenties?" Point taken. (Aren't imaginary dialogues with yourself wonderful? Or is that a sign I oughta get my head checked? Hmm...) But sometimes I use that lack of incoming product as excuse for being A. Lazy Blogger, at your service. So what's my immediate remedy for not having new product? How do I simultaneously spice up my musical life, satisfy the frustrated DJ within, and not spend any $$$$$? You guessed it: the almighty compilation CD.

I came into a piece of software called Magix Music Studio, which is possibly my favorite software of all time. Essentially, you (well, I) import the songs from existing CDs into lossless .wav files, which graphically converts it into a waveform. You then can adjust levels, equalize the sound (didn't think the original recording had enough bass? Guess what...). Best of all? You can SEGUE the songs together!!!!! AWESOME!!!!! Now those of you who have recently gotten comps from me have noticed, that I put a hell of a lot of time, precision, thought process, and care into compilations now that I can do them this way. For me, I get to program the songs together radio-style, and sequence them just right. It's heaven on a platter, and it gives me the chance to recontextualize my existing music collection. Believe it or not, that helps me get through the dry patches (I can hear the inner monologue again; stop pissin' and moanin', Murph!!).

My most recent series of comps I'm calling "The Portable (artist's name here)". Essentially, the concept goes that if an artist has a lot of great songs spread out over a bunch of albums, fit as many of those onto a single 80-minute CD. So far, I've done this successfully for Deborah Holland/Animal Logic, Bob Mould, and Men At Work. Actually, the Men At Work wasn't quite an entire success; my personal musical tastes dictated that between their first two CDs and the acoustic Colin Hay songs on the Scrubs soundtrack, I was unable to fill the entire 80 minutes available to me. Their loss, not mine. There are certain artists for whom this concept (for me, at least) would automatically be unworkable; Elvis Costello, Todd Rundgren and Steely Dan (to name but three) have WAY too many good songs to fit onto a single CD. I'd have similar problems with Cheap Trick, but I'd probably be able to bang out a good Aerosmith single disc. Are these collections definitive? Hell no; by definition they're not. They do, however, offer a good overview of their career, and serve as a great introduction for someone unfamiliar with an artist's body of work.

Which brings me to my current compilation: the Portable Webb Wilder. I want to give a good CD to The Safes when I see them Wednesday night at the Beat Kitchen; Patrick O. sent me an advance CD-R of their new disc Well Well Well, and it's fucking kick ass. I want to say thanks in return with a compilation CD, and I thought they might be able to appreciate ol' Webb, the swampadelic, Dixie-fried rocker from Mississippi who crawled out of the swamps of Nashville in 1987 or so and has been serving up excellent Southern-tinged rock ever since. So what's my problem? Well, it's that 80-minute CD limit. Right now as it stands, I've already had to make some heart-breaking cuts, and I'm still at 90.25 minutes (songs are rounded to the quarter-minute to get a grasp on how much time I have to work with). I know that I have to include "Hitting Where It Hurts" and "Human Cannonball" from Webb's second album, 1989's Hybrid Vigor. It's broken my heart to have omitted "Is This All There Is?" from 1987's debut offering It Came From Nashville, and a pair of Ian Hunter-written covers, "Big Time" (which can be found on Webb's Doo Dad from 1991) and "The Original Mixed-Up Kid" (from Webb's 1995 all-covers CD, Town & Country). It wasn't as heart-breaking to have to cut out "Tell Me Why, Charlene" from 1996's Acres Of Suede, but it would have been cool to include it, too. The other decision I might need to face is whether or not to go to a second CD. If I put all the out-of-the-park tracks on Disc One, is the remaining material gonna be collectively strong enough to support its own disc? For that matter, are two 80-minute CDs just too much for the neophyte? So many questions; so few clear-cut answers.

Either way, there are two, count 'em TWO concerts I'm hoping to catch: the first is gonna be the Safes, playing this Wednesday before Thanksgiving, at the Beat Kitchen. The second one is, you guessed it, Webb Wilder, playing at Fitzgerald's on Dec. 29th. Maybe that'll be a birthday gift to myself; the missus has mentioned she's not a fan of Webb. Oh well; maybe my buddy DarthMaher might be interested in going...

Finally, since Ian Hunter got some mention, check out this video of his from 1983; it is as good as I remember it. And the title is the single man's (and woman's) lament: "All Of The Good Ones Are Taken".

Your faithful correspondent in Rock,
Jack T. Murphy

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A weird sort of milestone...

I'm sorry I haven't had more of a chance to blog; no real excuses except a) nothing to blog about, and b) life has a funny way of creeping up. My personal life has been mind-blowingly tumultuous, but not at all in a bad way, if you can wrap your brain around that one. I'll share more when the time and circumstances dictate that I can, but it's all good news, trust me.

So my wife also has a blog; she installed a counter on hers, which measures the number of hits that her page gets. I figured, what the hey, it's free, I'll install one on my page. The milestone that I just reached is my 100th unique page view. Now, I'm not naive enough to think that means 100 separate people have viewed my assorted ramblings; that number takes into account each time I went to see if anyone left me a comment, or even to see how many folks decided to cruise in this direction for that oh-so-fresh content. However, my wife's blog's numbers put me to shame. She's been measuring for longer than I have, and her subject matter is a bit more specific than mine. Which is all fine and good, but what that translates to is that she's gotten something like 9000 different page views. Sigh... I wonder if I gave up talking about music / movies / pop culture and decided to specialize in the many intricacies inherent in a finely-crafted chocolate-covered cherry that I'd get a larger awareness? Or if I find some way to put meta tags like POLITICS or PORN that I'd get curious thrill seekers surf in from Google, discover that they like to hear ramblings from a music snob from Chicago. How about BOOBS, think that'll draw them in?? ;-)

At work, my buddy and I often talk music when we've got some down time. A third co-worker whose tastes run a bit more, ah, popular and less esoteric heard us criticizing a lot of garbage bands who just happen to be popular. He accused us of being music snobs. My buddy tried to hem and haw that he wasn't a music snob per se. I made no bones about it; "Yeah, I'm a music snob." For better or worse, I do have opinions about music, and I'm pretty secure in them. I know what works for me, and what doesn't. And yes, I'm not above cackling with glee that K-Fed is tanking hard, begging people to come see his concerts.

Right now, the Loud Family's classic Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things is spinning on my computer. If anyone out there is looking for truly phenomenal, cerebral power pop with a bend towards sonic psychedelia, you need to pick up this classic from Scott Miller and company. Yeah, he's the same guy from Game Theory, and this 1992 album is still one of my two favorite CDs of all time (the other one being Big Star's #1 Record/Radio City twofer).

Anyway, more fresh content coming soon. Thanks for helping me cross that oh-so-magic hundredth page hit!!