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Is This A Record?

When I was a small child I had a wind up gramophone and three records. They had been given to me by my parents who seemed to feel that I lacked music in my life. I quickly developed enormously large biceps in my right arm as I enthusiastically wound up the gramophone and played my three records hour after hour after endless hour. Looking back, I marvel at the patience of my parents – they must have been so sick of hearing those same three songs all day long. But I never tired of them.

My three records were; The Ballad of Robin Hood, The Swiss Canton Polka, and The Ballad of Davy Crocket. The Disney movie of Davy Crockett starring Fess Parker was very big that year and you could buy imitation coonskin hats and plastic smooth bore muskets in the toy shops. The records played at 78rpm and each song lasted about two minutes. The records were made of a very brittle plastic (probably bakelite or some close relative). You had to be careful not to drop them or they would shatter into unplayable fragments.

Logic suggests that there must have been songs on the other sides of these records, but for the life of me I cannot recall what they were. I only ever played the real songs on the front of the records.

I would remove the record from its paper jacket and place it on the turntable. Then I carefully put a steel needle into the pickup and tightened the screw that held it in place. I cranked the handle, started the turntable and placed the needle gently on to the lead-in grooves. Music would pour from the cabinet. There were two little doors in the cabinet. When you opened them, the music played louder. I always played my records at maximum volume with the cabinet doors wide open.

I had to change the needle after every couple of plays – they soon became blunt and the quality of the reproduction suffered. Because I played my three songs so frequently, I was always running out of needles and I had to go to the shop to buy more. They came in tiny tins which my father used for keeping small screws and tacks in after I'd used up all the needles.

Eventually it dawned on me that my three records were not the only records in the world. If I saved up my pocket money I could buy others. The shop where I bought my needles had a huge rack that covered the back wall and the shelves were jammed tightly with paper-jacketed 78s. All I had to do was ask the shopkeeper for the record I wanted…

I bought I'm Not A Juvenile Delinquent, by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. I recall that the song opened with the inspiring lyrics:

woh woh woh woh woh woh woh woh
woh woh woh woh woh woh woh woh
woh woh woh I'm not a juvenile delinquent

When pocket money was tight, I could go to Woolworths. They had their own record brand called Embassy which sold for about half the price of real records from a real record shop. Anonymous singers who sounded almost but not quite unlike the real thing sang cover versions of currently popular songs.

Shortly before I became a teenager (though not a juvenile delinquent) records shrank, became much less brittle and had to be played at 45rpm instead of 78rpm. My gramophone could not play these new fangled things. I needed a record player – a fantastic electronic gadget which meant I'd never have to crank the gramophone handle ever again! And it had a stylus! No more needles; which was just as well because they were getting harder and harder to find. The shops weren't stocking them any more. Perhaps the needles weren't even being manufactured any more. Certainly 78s weren't being made now. You couldn't buy them for love nor money. The record shop moved its shelves closer together to make room to jam more of the smaller records in.

The record player had a very Heath-Robinson contraption that you could attach to the turntable. It allowed you to stack records on top of each other. As the current record finished playing, the pick up arm would move aside, a new record would crash noisily down from the stack and the pick up arm would automatically move over and play it. Luxury! You could lie back and listen to the music for at least twenty minutes without having to get up and change the records.

My record player was able to revolve its turntable at 78rpm, but that was not recommended. Though sometimes it was fun to play my 45s at the faster speed. It added a whole new dimension to the sound of the songs. But the stacking gadget wasn't good for the brittle 78s themselves so if I really wanted to listen to The Swiss Canton Polka I had to disengage it and return to the old fashioned one-record-at-a-time method. Naturally I sneered at this old-fangled approach to music and it wasn't long before I completely stopped listening to my 78s. They gathered dust in a cupboard along with the gramophone. Eventually they disappeared from the house, never to be seen again.

Today I rather regret that, though at the time I didn't give it a second thought.

No more Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers! Now I could listen to Tommy Steele singing Little White Bull. In retrospect, I'm not sure that was an improvement, though Tommy Steele did seem to know a lot more words than Frankie Lymon did.

Soon another technological marvel manifested itself. They managed to squeeze extra songs onto the 45s. For a small increase in the price, you could buy an extended play record (EP) with two, sometimes three, songs on each side. Ordinary 45s, with a mere one song per side, were now called singles.

I began to notice some big records in the record shop where I bought my singles and my EPs. They were much larger even than the old 78s. They were called Long Players (usually abbreviated to LPs) and they had lots of songs on them. They also moved very slowly, only 331/3 rpm. You could easily move your head around in time with the record and read the words on the label as it revolved; though if you did too much of it, your neck unscrewed and your head fell off. I bought The Shadows Greatest Hits and I still possess it today, the only record that has survived from my early childhood.

When I was twelve the world changed forever. The number one song on the hit parade was Please, Please Me by the Beatles. It was the only topic of conversation at the dinner table that lunchtime at school. I still remember the electric excitement of it. Nothing was ever the same again. Popular music stopped being trivial and it turned into art.

We had a record player in our school common room. We only had one permanent record, though others came and went as we brought in our newest acquisitions and then took them home again. The one constant in our lives was Otis Redding Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay. To this day, I remember every word and every note.

By my late teens, I had become aware that things called stereos existed. For some time, the small print on the covers of the LPs (we called them albums now) had been proclaiming that:

This stereo record can be played on mono reproducers provided either a compatible or stereo cartridge wired for mono is fitted. Recent equipment may already be fitted with a suitable cartridge. If in doubt consult your dealer.

Nobody I knew had a stereo. They were far too expensive and we regarded them as unattainable luxuries. Then my Uncle bought one. I think he probably had to re-mortgage his house to afford it. It had a separate amplifier with far too many knobs, and red lights that glowed malevolently. My uncle sat in a strategically placed chair that nobody else was allowed to sit in so that he could get the full benefit of the stereo effect. He had a record of two people playing tennis and he would sit for hours listening to the ball bounce between the speakers. He also had an album of steam trains with pretentious sleeve notes assuring you that if you listened carefully you could hear the wind on the left side of the carriage as the train passed through a culvert. He would sit with a great big grin all over his face as the Flying Scotsman chuffed through his living room. He bought frighteningly technical magazines full of impenetrable articles about sound spectrums that warned of dire consequences if you mis-matched your impedances. The articles had graphs and tables. And sine waves. His conversations consisted entirely of woofers, tweeters and flutter.

I bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I borrowed records from my friends and made tapes that I could listen to. Initially I recorded the tapes by simply putting a microphone in front of the speaker of my record player. My early tapes had music overlayed with the doorbell ringing and the dog barking at it. Sometimes you could hear my mother vacuuming the lounge.

"You need a cable to connect the tape recorder to the record player," advised my Uncle. "That'll block out all the extraneous sounds that the microphone picks up. Make sure the impedances match."

I found this advice puzzling. Partly because I'd never heard anyone say "extraneous" before, and partly because the record player had nowhere to plug a cable in. I informed my Uncle of this and he turned up with a soldering iron, a socket and a magazine with a circuit diagram in it. He cut a hole in my record player and dripped solder into it. He plugged one end of the cable into the record player and the other end into the tape recorder. Then he departed in triumph.

I made more recordings. They all had a deeply irritating mains hum behind the music. I asked my physics teacher about it.

"Sounds like the impedances don't match," he said. "The symptoms are typical."

At university I met someone who had build his own stereo from the ground up on the theory that was the only way he'd ever be able to afford one. When he finished, he had a button left over that he couldn't think what to do with, so he wired it up so that it swapped the channels when you pushed it once and put them back to normal when you pushed it again. He claimed that this added a fine level of unpredictability to the stereo effect, particularly if he got someone else to press the button when he wasn't expecting it.

I saw him once, with stereo headphones clamped to his head, listening to something terribly avant garde. I pushed the button to swap the channels and his eyes crossed. I pushed it again and they went back to normal.

One day I went out to buy a tape for my reel to reel recorder. Somewhat to my surprise, the shop where I usually bought them didn't have any.

"I can order them specially for you," said the man. "But we don't get much demand for reel to reel any more so we don't carry any stock. Everybody uses cassettes these days."

"What's a cassette?"

He showed me one and I was overwhelmed by the cleverness of it. Such a tiny thing, a self-contained unit of tape that you just clicked into a suitable gadget. It was obviously far superior to my old fashioned reel to reel tapes, which now looked clunky and badly designed to my suddenly more modern, more sophisticated eyes. The recorder was soon confined to a cupboard along with all its tapes. I never saw it (or the tapes) again.

I bought a small cassette deck which appeared to be happy with the impedances of my very cheap stereo (they'd come down in price a lot by then) and I listened to my new hi-tech miracle. Every so often the motor in the deck would grab hold of the exposed tape in the cassette and suck it deep inside itself, wrapping the tape tightly around its capstans and slowly grinding to a halt. Sometimes it would emit a puff of smoke. When this happened I had to dismantle the deck, remove the tape, throw it away, remantle the deck and then go out and buy a new tape to replace the one the deck had eaten.

The cassette deck seemed to have a special hatred of Freddy Mercury. It ate three copies of Queen's A Night At The Opera before I gave up and bought the LP instead. That proved to be a good thing in the end, for the LP was not the usual boring black groovy thing, it was brilliant white. What a clever idea! It remains the only non-black record in my collection.

Cassette tapes were very irritating things to record on to. They were invariably too long or too short for the LP you were recording, which meant that either you couldn't fit the LP on to the tape or else you had far too much tape left over and you had to listen to lots of empty silence at the end of each side. Furthermore they deteriorated over time and began to sound quite muddy. They left flakes of themselves over the playback heads and no matter how much isopropyl alcohol you scrubbed on the heads, the brown shit-stains never came off. This too contributed heavily to the muddy sound.

One of my cassettes grew a fine multi-coloured mould inside itself, which seemed a suitable accompaniment to the psychedelia recorded on it (At The Mars Hotel by the Grateful Dead). Perhaps I should have smoked the mould. Cassettes were very convenient, but flawed and I began to regret the loss of my old reel to reel. LPs continued to be the medium of choice for the connoisseur…

By now I too was reading magazines with articles that had sine wave diagrams in them. There was much talk about balancing the turntable arm correctly, particularly after replacing the stylus. The counterweight had to be adjusted so that the stylus barely kissed the surface of the record. Too much weight on the stylus would damage the surface and degrade the sound. You could buy special scales and microgram weights to get it just right. Real enthusiasts had stroboscopes to check the wobble on their turntables and microscopes to check the wear on the stylus. I'd had many of my LPs for decades and when I played them on my increasingly more sophisticated equipment, they gave the impression that they'd spent their lives being played with six inch nails on a series of cheap groove-straighteners. People sneered at the sound quality. I considered downgrading my speakers, but I couldn't bear the social shame of it.

One day I went out to buy a record. Much to my surprise, the display space for records in the shop was a mere fraction of its former size. The bulk of the shop was taken up with small, round silver things about half the size of a 45rpm single. They were compact disks. In the fine old tradition of EPs and LPs, they quickly became known as CDs, though most shops advertised them as CD's, a practice which has cost them dear over the years since I never, ever under any circumstances buy CD's. I only buy CDs.

It was the kiss of death for the record. It had a good run for its money but it couldn't survive the sheer convenience of the CD which required much less storage space than a record, and didn't need cosseting and cleaning like a record. Furthermore a CD player didn't need a new laser every year like a turntable needed a new stylus. Hi-fidelity weenies who listened far more to the sound than they listened to the music complained that the sound quality of a CD was inferior to that of the LP, but nobody paid any attention to them and they took their stroboscopes, microscopes and scales home in a huff. They continued to write erudite articles about impedances and draw pictures of sine waves, but nobody read the articles anymore. Except for small, speciality labels, nobody made records any more either..

As time passed, it became harder and harder to find a replacement stylus for my turntable. They vanished, just like the needles that had preceded them. Speciality shops charged grotesque sums of money for the styli their idiosyncratic owners secreted in hidden drawers. Soon even that hidden supply dried up. Like everybody else, I gave up and bought a CD player.

Nowadays I play my records only at rare intervals, only on special occasions. When my one remaining stylus deteriorates beyond bearing, it will be the end of an era. I look forward to that day with dread.

The arrival of home computers in my life gave me an interesting challenge. Wouldn't it be a good idea to catalogue my library and my record collection? Rising to the challenge, I have done just that. I find that I have 218 LPs and 128 CDs. Only half a dozen cassettes have survived and most of them are unplayable for one reason or another. Cassettes have not aged well. These are not large numbers, compared to some other collections that I know. But they are respectable numbers nonetheless.

At least half my CDs are duplicates of my LPs. Since I so rarely play the LPs, and since so much of my favourite music is to be found in my LP collection, I have spent far too much money buying the records over again in their new format. When CDs are replaced by whatever technological innovation comes next, I will probably have to do it yet again. I find that I bitterly resent this.

Furthermore many of my LPs have never been re-issued on CD and probably never will be, given the plethora of new material. So they cannot be replaced and when I no longer have the equipment to play them, they will vanish from my world.

I also find it annoying that CDs, whose production costs are fractions of a cent, are sold in the shops for many tens of dollars. The mark up is gratuitously huge; and only a tiny percentage of it is made up of royalty costs. I don't begrudge the royalties to the artists, but I do begrudge the obscene profit taking by the production companies.

I've seen several generations of music players come and go. And every time one of them is superseded, some of the music dies. I've lost The Swiss Canton Polka and Frankie Lymon and whatever was on my reel to reel tapes. Soon I'm going to lose Country Joe and the Fish and John Renbourn.

Of course, the arrival of home computers has made it trivially easy to convert old media into new media. It would be very simple indeed to turn my surviving records into mp3 files and CDs.

But that's illegal. So I can't.

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