Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Those black disc things

A few years ago when I was visiting Adelaide, where my husband was based when we started going out, we got chatting with his next door neighbour, a guy in his early 30s. Ben, the neighbour, had never seen a 7" 45rpm record.

I was stunned. Then I thought, yes, OK, CDs came onto the market in the mid 80s. If he had parents who weren't really into music the entire generational thing about 7" singles may have passed him by.

My husband promptly produced his haul of 7" singles, some of which were his own from the early 70s and some his Mum's from the early to mid 60s. The Beatles, Petula Clark, Deep Purple... all deliciously poppy and scratchy when he played them for Ben, who was watching the little black discs spin with a rather mesmerised if not bemused expression on his face.

His main comment was that the sound quality wasn't great with all the noisy pops and crackles.

"That's probably because my Mum used to wipe the records like this to get the dust off." He demonstrated wiping a record on the bum of his jeans. "She also used to wash them with soap and water."

I too have a collection of 45s and 33s, although I did turf a lot of them out years ago and sold some more on eBay; music I was no longer interested in and had heard to death in the 70s and 80s.

But it's nothing like my Mum, the Hoarder Extraordinaire.

I was at her place this morning, dropping some groceries off and sitting down for a cuppa and a hot cross bun (oops, sorry diet!). She mentioned that she'd like me to have a look in one of her cupboards for an old portable record player she bought in the late 60s or early 70s. She had a hankering to play some of her 78s she hadn't listened to in decades.

I remember the record player. It was essentially 'mine' as I was a bit rough with my records not to mention the 'radiogram' we had to play them on. The radiogram was an elegant bit of late 40s/early 50s furniture, with French polished louvres on either side. One side had a long wave/medium wave/short wave radio which could, if the weather was right, pick up overseas stations. It was one of those radios which showed the station names. Underneath was storage for records; the louvres were the front of a hinged door which swung to the left.

On the right hand side, one would pull the louvres towards oneself and reveal the miracle that was the turntable. It was state of the art for its time and you could load as many as five records on the top, and the arm would only let them down one at a time to play. Of course this did nothing for preserving the records themselves - those at the bottom with others playing on top of them - and probably added to their character with scratches, but it meant you could load up either 15 or 20 minutes' worth of 78s or a couple hours' worth of 33s.

Everything about the turntable was automatic. Select the size and speed, press the button and off it went, the arm swinging across to gently deposit the needle in the right place. It switched itself off after the last record had been played, too, the arm arcing smoothly back and lowering itself onto its resting place. For a small child like me it was a joy to watch in action.

So Mum was worried about me messing about with it - you COULD choose tracks manually - and bought a cheap one for me to muck around with.

We didn't listen to many of the 78s on the radiogram; it was built in an era that meant you had to put a new needle in every few records if you were playing 78s. And of course 78s required a different, slightly thicker needle than 33s or 45s. The portable record player played 78s too and - get this, oh wow! - you simply flicked a switch under the arm from one side to the other to flip the needle bit over from a 33/45 needle to a 78 needle. The 78 needle was made of sterner stuff being more modern and could play 78s until you noticed it started to sound pretty awful.

I forget what finally happened to the radiogram. I suspect it went to charity in the 1980s along with another radiogram Mum had been given by a neighbour, which wasn't quite as elegant.

But the portable record player was sitting in the cupboard, hidden behind pillows and cushions. I wasn't surprised to find it. Mum's cupboards have a Tardis-like quality about them. If you took everything out of them I really think you mightn't be able to get it all back in again.

I plugged the player in, switched it on, attached its speakers (only one was working) and played one of my old 70s records. The sound quality was shite because the speakers were appalling (or speaker, singular, all 4 inches of it).

Mum's collection of 78s sits in a rack in a sideboard in her living room. Records were treasured things when she bought them. During WWII like most things they were rationed. "You'd hear on the radio that Palings had records in stock," she said. "And you'd queue up for them. They cost 2/6. That was a lot of money then considering most peoples' wages were only a couple of pounds."

Even today her 78s - brittle, not flexible like vinyl - are carefully stored in a numbered rack called a Platterack. Stuck at the end is the important bit of paper saying which record is in which slot, carefully printed by Mum with a fountain pen more than 50 years ago. They are a time capsule of the 40s and 50s, the earlier ones cataloguing Mum's teenaged tastes in music. There aren't many of them either - each one would have been saved up for and chosen with care. I hadn't heard any of these old friends for years. I used to like listening as a kid: Glenn Miller's American Patrol, obviously a wartime purchase, Twelfth Street Rag, Charles Trenet's La Mer, Music Music Music, and cheerful foxtrots and dance tunes. Once I discovered the Top 40 I wasn't much interested in Mum's old music though!

We pulled out La Mer as it was at the easily accessible end of the rack, and old Charles T got his first airing in about 40 years. I have the song myself on CD and wasn't surprised at how much detail you couldn't hear in the old 78; the cheap record player and speakers didn't help either. Still, it was fun to get the whole Platterack out and play a few more.

There's something about records which still gives me a little glimmer of excitement when I put them on the turntable. For my own record collection  it was taking them reverently out of their sleeves for the first time, studying the label in the centre then and gently, ever so gently, placing the needle in the groove. That first playing - so crisp, so clear! The sleeves themselves with their artwork and notes. I'd try to keep them looking as pristine as possible and hated them getting bent corners. You just don't get the same thrill with digital downloads. (But oh how I love my iPod and the possibility of storing hours of music in one seamlessly-playing place.)

Mum's current CD/record player is rather like this
These days Mum has a CD collection of light classical, opera and easy listening. Quite a few of the songs on her 78s she also has on CD. She has a small retro vintage CD  and turntable + radio which interestingly enough bears a mild resemblance to the old radiogram in terms of colour and old-style design, but is about 1/6 the size. It has a 78rpm setting, but no special needle for 78s - as she found out after she bought it a few years ago. Mum is dismissive: "People these days just don't know that 78s require a different needle."

Next time I go over there I'll have a better look through the 78s collection; at first glance today they are in great condition. The labels are still as fresh and bright as the day they were stuck on. Some have little stamps on them. There's a elegance about them that I love. It's just a shame they sound so shite!

Mum wasn't keen to keep playing her old records today though. I suspect she's got used to the cleaner sound of CDs and realises that nostalgia sometimes isn't what it used to be. Who knows, I might be clambering up the ladder again next week to put the old record player back in the cupboard!


  1. We too have a portable 78 record player, plus loads of 78s, I adore sitting on the back verandah and playing it, I am instantly taken back to the early 20th century, very 'Out of Africa'

    1. How very cool - and I assume you dress the part when you sit out there with your 78s too!