The Death of Laserdisc

discIt came quietly at the start of the year – not with a bang, followed by weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Just a two-line notice in the Akihabara Times, quoting a press release on the Pioneer website [I presume, anyway – the second link is in Japanese, so I’m going on faith with that one]:

This is a sad day for all LD (Laser Disc) fans… Pioneer is stopping the production of their three latest LD players, the DVL-919, DVK-900 and DVL-K88… For your information, Pioneer sold over 3.6 Million LD players in Japan from 1981 to 2002.

I must confess, my first thought on this was not dissimilar to my first thought on hearing about The Wrestler: “I didn’t know he was still alive.” If asked, I’d probably have said that the last player rolled off the production lines in Japan at least five years ago, probably longer. But no: though the release of software pretty much petered out not long after the new millennium, laserdisc lasted for over three decades, with more than 360 million units sold. Do you think we’ll still be watching DVDs thirty years after their arrival? I sincerely doubt it.

LDs were for the truly hardcore cinephile. Hell, I started buying discs before I even owned a player: I think the first one I got was Cat People, and had to get Lino to dupe it down to tape for me. Even though it was widescreen, this did somewhat negate the point. The 420 lines of resolution they offered may seem weak now, compared to Blu-Ray’s 720, but they kicked the arse of VHS’s 250. However, there was a price to pay for this, and it came in the form of cold, hard cash. Very few laserdiscs were made in Britain, so you almost inevitably had to rely on imports, mostly from the US, but occasionally from Hong Kong or Japan. Those movie fairs held at places like the Electric Ballroom in Camden, were goldmines for these, but some of the shops on Tottenham Court Road had a few, and there were also the Cinema Store, Psychotronic Video and Eastern Heroes, who all had their moments.

These were of extremely dubious legality, since none of the imports had been passed by the BBFC; even if there were no cuts, the higher frame-rate for NTSC made the running-time different, ergo they were uncertificated. Most stores got around this by slapping stickers on them, though I vaguely recall the late, unlamented [due to their horrific over-pricing] Tower Records getting into trouble for adopting this technique. And, like most things illegal, they weren’t cheap: the most I recall paying for a single disk, was 65 quid for a copy of Flying Daggers, though there may have been a Yellow Magic Orchestra LD – from Tower, natch – that was a little higher. If you paid less than twenty pounds for a movie in Great Britain, you were doing really well.

The player will show in this paragraph
A promo film Devo did for laserdiscs

As a result of these cost and availability issues, there were overseas buying trips – most commonly to the USA, but I also recall trips to Paris, and raiding stores such as FNAC. Back in 1998, on the final leg in New York, I spent an entire afternoon in the Virgin Megastore, going through their complete stock. I ended up with so many discs, that I had to take a taxi back to the hotel. No matter the haul, all these shopping-sprees ended in basically the same way. Who can forget the ripple of fear as you approached HM Customs at Gatwick, staggering under the weight of uncertificated material? Or the thrill as you exited the ‘Nothing to Declare’ channel to freedom, intent on subverting the very fabric of British civilization with your uncut copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Of course, you could order discs by mail, and enjoy the delightful game of Postal Roulette that followed. Would they arrive intact? Would they arrive at all? To this day, one of the highlights of my life remains getting HM C+E to cough up compensation, after they badly scratched a disc during one of their Naziesque inspections.

Laserdiscs were simply so much cooler than videotapes, coming as they did with extra features – again, this is now something we take for granted with DVD [“No in-depth interview with the costume designer? Wot kind of ‘special edition’ is this?”], but it opened up a whole glorious vista of experience, since VHS rarely had anything apart from the movie. The director’s commentaries were the bomb: a good one would be like having the people concerned sitting beside you, drinking a beer and telling you about the movie. Escape From New York, with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter pointing out each other’s ex-wives, would be a classic example. And much as I hate Quentin Tarantino, his and Robert Rodriguez’s chat on From Dusk Till Dawn, with input from Greg Nicotero, is another that highlights the possibilities offered by the medium.

I still watch my discs occasionally – most recently, Basic Instinct, only a couple of weeks back [Paul Verhoeven is another commentary master]. I have to admit, the video quality does look a bit dodgy, especially on a large screen, which are much more common now than they were at the time. But there’s something about a laserdisc which is more physical than a DVD, in much the same way that a vinyl LP offers more scope for design than a CD. Some of the box-sets that were released were simply phenomenal: Toy Story and Hellraiser are the first couple that come to mind, and occupy an honoured spot on the bookshelves in TC Towers. Criterion also did some impressive work, but their sets always seemed over-priced, even by the standards of the medium; I think the only one of theirs I ever got was Hard Boiled.

Laserdisc never became more than a fringe market in the West; in echoes of the VHS/Betamax battle, the technically-inferior videotape won. Though to be honest, it was never much of a battle, LD failing to capture more than a couple of percent of the market, due to various criticisms, valid or otherwise. “You can’t record on it.” “What? Turn the disc over in the middle?” “They keep falling off my record-player.” And when DVD arrived – much though I tried to deny it – I knew in my heart that it sounded the death-knell for laserdisc. However, with two bookcases, still stacked more or less floor to ceiling with the damn things, they may be gone but certainly aren’t forgotten, at least hear in TC Towers. Let’s just hope our player soldiers on for the next thirty years.

[Thanks to Alex M for being the bearer of these sad tidings!]