Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Early Music

I had heard, loved, and even listened to music since my ears opened.  My father singing me to sleep with ‘A Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ and ‘My Grandfather’s Clock’; ‘Waltzing Matilda’, ‘My Darling Clementine’, even Leadbelly’s  ‘Good Night Irene’ – these melodies and lyrical stories plunged into my psyche at a very early age.  I think those songs will be my last memory traces to erase themselves.

There was a room at the back of the house, beyond the kitchen and the pantry, presumably originally the maid’s quarters.  It immediately became the Den, and the exclusive territory of we three kids and our musical resources – the monolithic oaken radiogram with its fretworked loudspeaker grill, huge piles of 78s of all diameters, inherited and later acquired, and constantly replenished supplies of gramophone needles.  We spent hours sifting through those mysterious, fragile black circles, with their spiral groove etched into their surface in their brown paper sleeves, randomly prospecting for aural gold.  A record would be put on, briefly assessed, then rejected.  Or, occasionally, set aside into the pile that needed revisiting.  Perhaps one in twenty would make it all the way through to the ‘Favourites’, then to be played to destruction forever, or at least for a week.  I’d love to know what those favourites were. 

Of course, there was also the heavy Sunday lunchtime stodge pudding of ‘Two Way Family Favourites’ on the Light Programme.  ‘Children’s Favourites’, with Uncle Mac, was another.  I may kill myself next time ‘I’m a Pink Toothbrush’ or ‘The Happy Wanderer’ slides uninvited into my ears.  But, there were some goodies even in those arid swamps, or soggy deserts.  Even now, I wouldn’t mind listening attentively to ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’.  And I adored ‘The Drinking Song’.

When I was about thirteen, there was one huge breakthrough: we were allowed to save up and buy our own records!  The significance of this can’t be overstated.  Suddenly, music wasn’t just something that was done to you: you could, within the restrictive boundaries of parental approval and cash, exercise some control, get what you felt, in that instant, you wanted, needed.  How did we know, in the instant, what we wanted?  What told us so undeniably what we needed?  There must have some very special force at play.  Because, back in those 78rpm days, we couldn’t be selective – we had nothing to select from.  But somehow we did.  ‘Chain Gang’ by Jimmy Young, ‘Sixteen Tons’ by Tennessee Ernie Ford, ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’ by Jimmie Rodgers.  I have no idea how, but I knew I had to get ‘Zambezi’ by Lou Busch on the purple-centred Capitol label, rush it home and play this fragile 78 rpm single spiral over and over again on the radiogram.

Thus began my love affair with records.  They combined so much art within the single artefact: the simple physical beauty of that perfect disc, with its cryptic centre label which seemed to hold depths of arcane information (what did ‘ffrr’ mean? what was the Capitol Tower? what did all those strange numbers mean?), the music it magically contained; and, dimly, the notion that perhaps here was a new art form in which sounds with no counterpart anywhere else could be contrived, constructed and preserved, like pieces of sculpture, within that black shiny squiggly ineluctable groove.

And then it was time for rock’n’roll.  But that’s another story.


  1. Brilliant post, Tim. I miss proper records. CDs were never the same.

    We do put on 11 more months and 10 more days on the Sage's wind-up gramophone sometimes, though.

  2. I think also it taught us the value of quality sound as well. I am sure that even with the speakers of the 1950's/60's, the quality must have been better than what the youngsters these days hear on those tiny ear thingies or the inferior computer speakers.

    I love listening to music on 'surround sound' from good speakers - close your eyes and you are there.

  3. I had Guy Mitchell's "Singing the Blues" on 78.

    I remember advertising it and selling it through the small ads in NME but when I went to get it I found my brother had sat on it.

    I still sing "Ghost Riders in the Sky" to the annoyance of anyone within earshot.

  4. I grew up to Beethoven and Mendelsohn. (on the car radio and live on the piano) So it was very nice when my classically trained Grandmother confirmed what I thought which was that the Beatles music was rather good. (I'm sure she would have taken to Jazz and blues too but I don't think she ever got to hear much)
    And later I had a radio of my own with which I listened to Radio Caroline under the bed covers.

  5. Z - I have about 400 'proper records, i.e. vinyl LPs. Most of them are crap ... I've blogged about this before, I think. I don't know that song - is it on Spotify?

    Sue - I agree, though that radiogram wasn't surround sound.

    Rog - now you've got me craving for Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray. Should I have started this??

    Mig - your grandmother sounds as if she was musically astute. It was Luxembourg 208 in my day, of course *staggers off to attic in search of cardboard box, muttering ...*