Since I was a teenager, I have been fascinated by the history and development of recorded sound. In a proto-hipster move, I asked my dad to buy me an old wind-up portable gramophone for my 18th birthday. He obliged, though must have thought me a rather unconventional teenager.
The HMV 101 was acquired at a charming shop on St Stephen's Street called the Gramophone Emporium, in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh. I recall that it took a while to be accepted as a customer. But following a few visits and purchases, the owners must have decided that I was serious about shellac and became much friendlier.
They would often point me towards discs they thought might be of interest, many of which I've been rediscovering during lockdown 3.0. I gave one a spin just last week, a blue-label Columbia record featuring Frank Sinatra, issued in the late 1940s as a fundraiser for the National Playing Fields Association. One side has a spoken introduction by the Duke of Edinburgh. He sounds very young and very posh.
Obviously, such recordings (though not the spoken intro) are available digitally, but to me there's always been greater pleasure in listening to them on the format they were intended for. Now shellac is a brittle material and gramophones a crude form of playback. There's lots of surface noise and volume control is tricky (I use an old scarf), but it still sounds great.
Even listening to one three-minute 'side' is labour intensive. Not only does the gramophone have to be wound up, but a fresh steel or brass needle inserted. Then you have to release the break and gently lower the arm onto the spinning disc. And once the three minutes are up, you have to do it all over again. It compels the listener to actually listen, to engage with the format as well as its content.
A few years after I acquired my gramophone, it started making a strange clunking noise, which I soon learnt was due to a build-up of grease on its internal mechanism. I mentioned this to the guys at the Emporium and they put me in touch with a wonderful old guy in Glasgow who repaired HMVs as a hobby. I forget his name. Still in my early 20s, I took it west on a train and met this HMV doctor at Waterstones on Sauchiehall Street. He was great fun, obviously gay and tremendously engaging about all things gramophone. Not only did he agree to repair mine, but he placed it in its cultural and musical context. The '101', he explained, was the first portable model, designed to be taken on picnics. In that sense, he added with a smile, it was 'the iPod of its day'.
That mention of iPods clearly dates the conversation (the first was launched by Apple in 2001) and reminds me that I've never really gotten used to listening to compressed digital files. Sure, they're useful for runs or long flights (remember those?), but are not very satisfying beyond that. Which reminds me, my CD player is almost as old as my gramophone repair trip to Glasgow. It badly needs replacing. I've recently been in email correspondence with an old German friend with whom I share an enthusiasm for Frank Sinatra, particularly his 1950s recordings, a near-perfect marriage of songs, arrangements and vocal prowess. Bernhard told me he was busy 'ripping' (or digitising) all his old discs because of something called 'CD rot'. This is caused by chemical reactions on the reflective layer of a disc, or just basic deterioration of the materials used to manufacture CDs in the 1990s.
Readers of a certain vintage will recall an item on the BBC's Tomorrow's World
in which the presenter spread jam on a CD and subjected it to all sorts of trauma in order to demonstrate the format's indestructability. What it couldn't demonstrate at that time were the ravages of time. And so it turns out that the most durable formats are actually vinyl discs, and even magnetic tape.
My old C90 cassettes have also been dusted off over the past couple of weeks, and I've rediscovered all sorts of material I'd forgotten existed, not only some great Sinatra bootlegs (outtakes and unreleased concert recordings, including the 1961 US inaugural gala) but a recording by the 'Leith Academy Choir and Orchestra', of which I was a member. Camhlann
was composed by the school's music teacher, Gavin Pagan, for the opening of a new building back in the mid-1990s.
My cassette player also needs an upgrade, though I'm not even sure who sells them anymore. Certainly out of commission are the much bulkier reel-to-reel tape players, one of which I picked up on eBay a decade or so ago. Like the gramophone, this takes a bit of work, loading the tape correctly and delicately threading it through several pieces of playback mechanism.
I fired this up at the weekend and was reminded how good quarter-inch tape sounds, certainly much better than the poorer-quality C90 cassettes. I have the same Tony Bennett album (When Lights are Low
) on three formats – LP, CD and reel-to-reel – and the sonic quality of the tape version is by far the best. Sure, there's a bit of background hiss but the sheer depth, tone and ambiance is captivating. Yet another way to make lockdown that little bit more durable.
David Torrance is
an author and contemporary historian