Remember those round things with the hole in the middle that played music? No, not vinyl; every serious audiophile and hipster worth their mustache tattooed index finger has a turntable these days. I’m talking compact discs -- yeah, those silver shiny things that look like Blu-rays but play music instead of, say, Sylvester Stallone’s epic 1986 masterpiece Cobra ($4.75 at Target – don’t judge). Anyway, this Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the first CDs released here in the States, but instead of wistfully looking at how far the medium has come, someone might want to cue up an MP3 of the third movement in Chopin’s sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor, better known as the composer’s funeral march. Compact disc sales dropped another 13 percent in 2012 to a lowly $193 million, according to a report released last month by Nielsen Soundscan, having peaked at about a billion sales worldwide in 2000.
Back in 1983, things weren’t looking much better. The CD was supposed to Jetson us into the future, hyped by portability; at less than a quarter the size of a record, and providing flawless digital sound. The overlooked question of course was what the hell to play the thing on, the answer being a $1,000 monstrosity that few but the status seeking elite could afford, becoming more of a way to show off, along with securing a dinnertime reservation at the most upscale of restaurants or having the latest off the assembly line BMW. Nonetheless, an optimistic CBS Records released 16 titles on compact disc, packaged in a 6” x 12” “longbox” to make them stand out among the domineering vinyl in record stores at the time. The majority of what those titles were have been lost to the non-paperless (and likely coke clogged) shredders of time, but one of them was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, which also happened to be the first commercial compact disc ever to be produced in Japan the prior October.
Appropriately, even if you don’t feel like celebrating the advent of a dying format, then at least commemorate that best seller, which brought the world “Big Shot” and “Honesty,” tomorrow when Radio in Union Square, Somerville, hosts “Billy Joel Night” with members of Cradle to the Grave, Larkin Brigade, and Apple Betty along with a slew of other local notables paying tribute to the Piano Man (fittingly, there will also be a 10-chef mac n cheese cook off).
Ok, back to the CD. Over time, prices of compact disc playing units eventually dropped, and within a few years retailers were having trouble keeping CDs themselves in stock they were so popular. The first compact disc manufacturing plant opened in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1984, a location that may ring a bell for many who signed up with the penny-for-12-CDs Columbia House record club back in the day. By the mid-‘90s, CD-ROM drives were showing up standard in more and more home computers, and you could even get a CD player in a car, albeit one that would suffer skipping from even the most innocuous bump in the road.
The first CD I purchased was The Who Collection Volume One from a mom and pop shop that carried imports. It was a two disc set on Polydor, and each volume went for a bend-over-at-the-racks price of $39.98. Christ, you could’ve bought a ticket from a scalper to The Who concert this week in Providence for that much. But it had “The Seeker” on it so I was happy. The first non-import I picked up was the supercharged testosterone debut by Van Halen -- the longbox might still be in my grandmother’s basement; saving those things was important at the time. These days one entire living room wall is filled top to bottom with compact discs, shelved nicely alphabetically (and chronologically) but it’s fast becoming a novelty more than anything else. But, perhaps that’s all the CD was destined to be in the first place.
What was the first CD you purchased? Leave that and any other compact disc related memories in the comments below.