Torching the organ

Back in the day, there were things called Cinema Organs. They were behemoths, monsters, with rows and rows of keys. They could make all manner of sounds besides a pipe note. You know the expression “all the bells and whistles”? That came from these organs: the biggest and most expensive models had extra pipes which, at the press of a key, rang bells, blew whistles and made a dozen other sounds.

Sidney-Torch

Sydney Torch at the mighty Christie organ.

The most famous Cinema Organ was the Wurlitzer, but its main competitor – the one you are about to hear – was the Christie. It was the size of a car, and weighed four tons.

In the 1930s, the best Cinema Organists were stars. People would go to a big cinema as much for the musical interludes as the movie program. One of these stars was Sidney Torch. He was a pianist by training, and his lack of experience with the organ is credited for the way he broke all the rules, and played the organ in ways that had never been done before, adapting it to play ragtime and jazz.

On this track, “Orient Express”, Torch uses the organ to imitate the sound of a powerful locomotive, then works in some vaguely eastern tunes to suggest a frantic ride through the Alps. It is pure showmanship. Imagine it, playing at volume on a great Mitchell, rising from the theatre floor in a cloud of dry ice – man, that would have been fun. Just listen!

  • Artist: Sidney Torch
  • Album title: Sidney Torch at the Organ
  • Track: A7 Orient Express
  • Label: World Record Club
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: R-06209
  • Year: c.1977 (recorded 1935)

 

Straight into overdrive

There are not many gears in the musical sub-genre of Surf Guitar. It is straight into overdrive, every time. There are no Surf Guitar tracks called “Moonlight Gently Touches Lapping Waters”.  But it is a musical form which has no pretence, and at its best it is fun, exciting music.

I have never learned to surf. I would like to, and I live near some famous surf beaches. Back when I was a teenager, surfers (we usually called them “surfies” or “skegs”) were vaguely disreputable, associated with bad language, dope smoking, and living off unemployment benefits. But that was not why I did not learn to surf. No, it was really just the fear of looking silly: falling off the board, or not even being able to stand up in the first place.

dick dale 2I grew up in a stupid culture of “can or can’t”. There were people who “could sing”, and people who “couldn’t sing”. The same divide applied to drawing, playing an instrument, success with girls, playing cricket – everything, really. The idea that you could try, learn, get better, didn’t really enter into it.

Me? I was good at school, was into music, could write poetry, and look moody. So I did those things, and didn’t try much else – all the stuff I “couldn’t do”. Far better, in this toxic worldview, to stand at the back of the hall looking aloof than to dance and  risk looking silly.

I am less self-conscious these days. I even swallowed my pride and took adult swimming lessons a while back. So, when the right time comes, I will take some lessons and catch some waves, and if I fall off and get water up my nose, who cares?

Surf Guitar was invented in the early 1960s, the key figure being Dick Dale and his band the Del-Tones. Decades later, around the time I didn’t have the nerve to try surfing, Dale teamed up with Stevie Ray Vaughan and recorded a reprise of an old hit, “Pipeline”.

And when I catch my modest wave, and wobble awkwardly into the shore, this is the soundtrack I want. Just listen!

  • Artist: Stevie Ray Vaughan And Dick Dale
  • LP title: Back to the Beach (film soundtrack, various artists)
  • Track: A2, Pipeline
  • Label: Columbia
  • Catalogue: CK 40892
  • Made in: United States
  • Year: 1987

Many of the records discussed in this blog, along with hundreds or others, are for sale on Discogs.

 

 

 

Girl from Tiger Bay

No one planned Tiger Bay. It just happened. In the 19th century, the Welsh port of Cardiff started trading with the world, and some of the world decided to stay. And some of these stayers were not white people. They coalesced into a dockside slum, Tiger Bay. It was a poor community, but also a place of welcome, of acceptance. By the 1930s, a black and coloured population of many thousands called Cardiff home. The community was astonishingly diverse. Muslims lived alongside Catholics and Sikhs. People from Barbados, from South Africa, from Singapore, mixed with and went to school with and married Arabs, Malays, Somalis. In an era of entrenched and unapologetic racism, Tiger Bay was a place of inclusion. A window, in its way, onto a better future.

And so it was possible, in 1937, for a Nigerian man, Henry Bassey, and his English wife, Eliza Jane Start, to have a daughter. She was lucky, this girl, Shirley. How many places in the world other than Tiger Bay would have allowed a mixed-race family to stay together? Like most of those in her community, Shirley was poor and left school early, working in a steel plant. But Shirley Bassey could sing, really sing. She was also possessed of a will as powerful as her voice, and through sheer persistence and a few lucky breaks she became a star.

bassey
Shirley Bassey in 1963. Image: Dame Shirley Bassey Blog

Shirley Bassey tends to be remembered now as a semi-caricature, a glamorous showbiz diva, the voice of those bombastic themes to James Bond movies. But there is so much more to her art. Have a listen to this 1957 single. “You, You Romeo”, the B side, is by turns coy and a belter; “Fire Down Below” a more seductive number. But both showcase Shirley Bassey’s extraordinary timing, delivery — even humour. Just listen!

You, You Romeo 

Fire Down Below

  • Artist: Shirley Bassey
  • A Side: Fire Down Below
  • B Side: You, You Romeo
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Philips 
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 326278 BF
  • Year: 1957

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

We need to tell the story again

The World at War was, when it was made in the early 1970s, the most expensive documentary series ever produced. Mixing archival footage and survivor interviews, in 26 episodes it told the story of the Second World War, skillfully shifting the focus between grand strategy and colossal battles, and the individual lives and experiences of combatants and civilians.

world-at-war-1973-74-opening-credits

The underlying drive behind making The World at War was that the lived experience of global conflict was fading. The producers wanted to capture the voices of those who had lived through the horror of death camps and carpet bombing and total war, so that the lessons of the tragedy might not be lost.

Right now, with the rise of Putin, Trump, Brexit and harsh intolerant nationalist governments from Poland to India, from France to Brazil – it seems we are forgetting those lessons again. Someone needs to reboot The World at War, update the effects and graphics, bring in some new and fresh material, and tell the story again.

I saw the series first as a boy, perhaps forty years ago. It made a big impression, not least because of the opening titles. They showed words being burned away, like the pages of a book being consumed in fire. The theme music – an original score by veteran screen composer Carl Davis – played over these images. It was perfect: beautiful, tragic, unsettling with its jumpy shifts in tempo. Here it is, taken from the LP released to accompany the series. Just listen!

  • Artist: Various artists
  • Album: The World At War
  • Track: A1 The World At War Theme (composed by Carl Davis, performed by the London Festival Orchestra)
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: SPA 325
  • Year:  1973

Rascals in knickerbockers

Four young men, looking moody and  wearing knickerbockers and short ties. The cover picture on this EP is strange. What is this? Little Lord Fauntleroy Does Motown?

young rascalsI had not heard of the Young Rascals, the gents in the strange gear. But they were genuine stars in the late 1960s, with five US number 1 hits, including Good Lovin’, Groovin’, and People Got To be Free, a civil rights song.

LLF

An early-model Young Rascal

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes the Young Rascals as “one of America’s finest pop/soul ensembles” and explains:

Despite a somewhat encumbering early image – knickerbockers and choirboy shirts -the group’s soulful performances endeared them to critics and peers … one of the east coast’s most influential attractions, spawning a host of imitators

Most of their songs are smooth and soul-tinged, but the track I have chosen here has a rougher edge. It’s a stomper, a break-up song with strong vocals and nice harmonies. Ignore the knickerbockers, and just listen.

  • Artist: Young Rascals
  • EP title: How Can I Be Sure
  • Track: A2 You Better Run
  • Format: 12”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Atlantic
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: AX-11,407
  • Year: 1968

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

HAL on Earth

Good afternoon, Gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it, I can sing it for you.

Sci-fi fans will recognise the “dying words” of HAL, the computer in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL goes mad, you see, and murders all but one of the crew of a spaceship. The one survivor shuts HAL down, and as his circuits die HAL sings “Daisy Bell” not especially well.

The film was made in 1968, when 2001 seemed a very long time in the future. It is full of guesses about what computers might be like in this glittering space age, and some things are wildly excessive – HAL can lip-read, from side on. Other things are pure 1968. HAL, like the computers of that period is HUGE, a giant mainframe the size of a small house. That’s how computers were back then. They were enormous, and very expensive, so there were not many of them. A university, a government agency or a large company might have one.

Something else about the computers of the late 1960s. Their information capacity was tiny, pitiful to modern eyes. A standard smart phone has about 64 gigabytes of memory. A gigabyte is 1000 megabytes. A megabyte is 1000 kilobytes. And the big, expensive computer you are about to meet could store 32 kilobytes of data.

0278 a

The ICL 1905 computer had a massive 32 kilobyte memory.

Let me introduce the ICL 1905. It was a computer, which was used by the Queensland Main Roads Department. And, in January 1969, it starred in a recording. Someone, the equivalent of HAL’s Mr Langley, had programmed it to play music. What does it sound like? Pretty much what you would expect from a computer with a 32K memory: truly awful.

But the fact that someone went to the trouble of pressing a record, to preserve this ghastly beeping for posterity, shows that getting a computer to play music was a real accomplishment, something exciting and new in 1969.

And now? It sounds like HAL on Earth. But it is fascinating, and truly weird. Just listen!

Side A

Side B

  • Artist: MRD [Queensland Main Roads Department] Computer ICL 1905 32K
  • A Side: Brahms: Waltz in A Flat
  • B Side: B1 Wagner: Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin, B2 Colonel Bogey
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: custom pressing
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: January 1969

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs

 

 

Give Peace a chance

On the fringes of the R&B and soul scene of the 1950s were hundreds, maybe thousands, of talented singers and musicians who inhabited the land of Neverquite. It is often hard to chart their careers. They would shift from group to group, perform under different names, a minor hit here, an under-appreciated release there.

Such a one is Elroy Peace, aka Elroy Peade, and perhaps some other names. I have been able to learn that Elroy had the nickname “Shadow”, that he fronted a group called the Bow Ribbons, and that he sang the odd duet with Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton. Almost certainly he performed on many other recordings, credited or not, under one name or another.

elroy peace via discogs

Elroy Peace. Image via Discogs

So, I know almost nothing about him. There is a photograph, and there is this record. From the photograph we learn that Elroy was black, and had a flashy stage suit. From the record – well, he really, really could sing.

This single’s A-side is a novelty dance track, Elephant Walk. Doubtless the hope was to start a dance craze and rocket to stardom, but it didn’t and he didn’t. It is well-done, but lightweight fun.

The B-side, though. Here Elroy Peace drops the silliness and just lets a fine singing voice caress a torch song. The lyrics are trite, but it does not matter. The result is magical. Hints of Nat King Cole, but not an imitation – in fact, maybe better?  I do not know Elroy’s story, but this fragment of recorded sound, washed up on Planet Vinyl, suggests that had the breaks gone his way he could have been a star. Just listen.

  • Artist: Elroy Peace
  • A Side: Elephant Walk
  • B Side: Our Hearts Will Sing
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: RCA
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 101528
  • Year: unknown [mid-1960s?]

Many of the records featured on this blog, and hundreds of others, are for sale via Discogs