Record companies don't want to make them. Record stores don't want to stock them. They're still being played in homes across the country, yet many of them are crammed into milk crates or boxed next to old baby shoes in a corner of your parents' basement. And even if they still occupy a prime place in your living room and your life, there's no denying one inescapable fact: The vinyl LP the focal point for a generation of baby boomers who grew up with rock & roll, studying lyrics and analyzing album jackets along the way is about to go the way of five-and-dime stores and the 50-cent gallon of gas.
Ever since the introduction of the compact disc eight years ago, the LP's days have been numbered. And if you've tried buying one in the past year, you must have sensed that its number is finally up. LPs are all but impossible to find in stores, and fewer than 25 percent of new pop albums are even released on black plastic (genres like jazz, classical, and country are nearly vinyl- free). In 1990, only 11.7 million LPs were sold, compared with 286 million CDs. ''From our standpoint, vinyl is pretty much finished,'' says Henry Droz, president of WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic), the largest distributor of pop albums in the U.S. ''The demand is just about nil.'' As proof, Droz grabs a sheet with recent one-day sales figures for one of WEA's top-selling albums: 25,000 CDs, 20,000 cassettes, and ''about 16'' LPs.
But those are merely cold, hard facts. For anyone accustomed to cute, easy- to-use CDs, nothing brings home the passing of vinyl more than the simple act of playing an LP. You tug the record out of its cardboard sleeve, pop open the cover of your turntable, gently place the LP on the rubber mat, check the stylus for dust, press ''play,'' and watch the turntable arm s-l-o-w-l-y drop onto the record. You sit down, examine the front cover of the album, flip it over, and start checking the credits listing songwriters, musicians, and friends of the band. When the side ends, you get up and flip the record over, and the ritual starts once again. Thanks to CDs, what was once a natural act suddenly feels as foreign as an ancient druidic ceremony. Even worse, it makes you feel as old as a druid.
To convince the public it didn't need LPs took some doing after all, the LP has been the primary way we listened to music for more than 40 years. Looking for a way to reproduce entire symphonies (and, later, lengthy jazz pieces) on a single record, Columbia brought out the first long-playing 33 1/3 rpm albums in June 1948. The LP sounded better and held far more music than its principal competition the breakable 78 rpm shellac disc, which played for at most 4 1/2 minutes per side. The following year, RCA unveiled the first 45 rpm records. Ironically, 45s were first intended as competition for LPs, but after consumers rejected them because they held no more music than 78s, they became the standard format for pop singles.
During the '50s and early '60s, pop albums were little more than an artist's major hit, with added filler. By the mid-'60s, the album had become the talisman of the emerging rock counterculture. Rock fans considered their music a serious art form, and to prove it they could point to albums like the Beatles' Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow works with themes and continuity, not just random collections of songs. And that was only the beginning. Soon there were concept albums, rock operas, even songs that took up an entire side of an LP (like Bob Dylan's ''Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands'' on his 1966 double album, Blonde on Blonde).
As the LP became a symbol of artistic expression, so did its packaging, which could range from lavish (the absurdly elaborate Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) to garish (the kidnap-note lettering of the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols). There was the circular cover of the Small Faces' Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake, which literally rolled off record- store racks; the rotating pinwheel on Led Zeppelin III; the school desk (with panties wrapped around the LP) on Alice Cooper's School's Out; the Andy Warhol-designed jeans-with-zipper of the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers. Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief was an actual three-sided LP. One side had parallel grooves: Depending where you placed the needle, you'd hear one of two completely different recordings. And there were LP covers shaped like sleeping pills, cigarette lighters, buckets of fruit, liquor-filled drinks, and packets of marijuana rolling paper.