Looking at a Foxconn factory

George Orwell was one of my first literary heroes. I got hooked by Nineteen Eighty-four, and went on to read everything he wrote. I don’t recommend this. His best work stands up: brave, clear sighted, a voice raised against tyranny. But don’t seek out the B-sides and rarities.

Having once been an uber-fan, though, I know his lesser works, and was reminded of one just now.

4019 AIn 1941, as the world careened into the darkest years in human history, His Master’s Voice released a recording of the BBC Symphony Orchestra performing Carl Maria von Weber’s delightful Invitation to The Dance (the record label calls it “Invitation to The Waltz” – it’s the same thing). The disc is a bit scratchy. That happens when a record gets played on a portable gramophone in an air raid shelter. But through the crackle we hear what must, in 1941, have seemed like paradise lost: the glittering ballrooms of privileged Europe, before the world knew of the machine gun.

4019 COnly months earlier, George Orwell wrote a poem about the factory where this disc was made. It channels the same tension. On a Ruined Farm Near the ‘His Master’s Voice Gramophone Factory’ contrasts the rural idyll of pre-industrial England – which the writer yearns for but knows is lost to him – with the intimidating power of modern industry.

The factory is:

where steel and concrete soar
In dizzy, geometric towers —
There, where the tapering cranes sweep round,
And great wheels turn, and trains roar by
Like strong, low-headed brutes of steel

There was a time when making 78 rpm records out of cardboard and shellac was new, the cutting edge – terrifying even.

These same records now seem quaint, archaic, objects of nostalgia.

But imagine a young person in China, uneasy about the country’s breakneck modernisation and pursuit of wealth, looking at a Foxconn factory. Imagine the same young person writing a poem, while listening to lovely classical Chinese music on an iPhone. A lifetime ago, that was the experience of listening to this record, .

  • Artist: BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini
  • A side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Part 1 (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • B side: Invitation to The Waltz, Op. 65 – Conclusion (Weber, Orchestration. Berlioz)
  • Format: 12”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: DB 3542
  • Year: 1941

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


Never shoot first

Gene Autry was the first great singing cowboy of American popular culture. Not a type of performer you see much anymore. We still have western movies, but they tend to be grim and bloody, and there is not much time for singing around the campfire, faithful horse in the background, between two cardboard boulders.

It all seems tacky now, the world of the B-movie western, but hugely popular in its day, and Autry was a colossus of that world. Born in 1907, Autry became a star of radio, the large and small screens, and one of the most successful recording artists ever. He wrote or co-wrote hundreds of songs. (His biggest success? “Here Comes Santa Claus”.) He made 640 recordings, and sold over 100 million copies of his records. The man was, in consequence, worth a mint. He owned a TV station, a baseball team, a film studio – the works.


Gene Autry with singing group The Pinafores, 1948. Image: CBS Radio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia

Autry’s persona was that of the straight shooter, the cowboy as patriot and embodiment of what was good and fine in American manhood. This can grate on a modern audience. For the guidance of the boys and young men who idolised him, Autry created the ten-point Cowboy Code, which begins: The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

Just what a Boy Scout needs to know. Mind, there are some cops out there who could learn a thing or two from the Cowboy Code …

More important, the music was good. Autry’s mellow voice and easy guitar style stand up well. This is his take on “Buttons and Bows”, which was a hit for him in 1947.

  • Artist: Gene Autry
  • A side: Buttons And Bows
  • B side: Blue Shadows On The Trail
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Regal Zonophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: G25274
  • Year: 1948

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




After the movie finished

Australia and America have been close friends for a long time. It dates back to the Second World War, when Australia found itself facing a Japanese invasion. Traditionally, Australia had looked to Britain for protection. But Britain was in a desperate struggle for survival herself, and unable to help. So on 27 December 1941 the Australian Prime Minister, John Curtin, made one of those this-changes-everything speeches:

Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.

One result was a huge influx of US servicemen. At the peak, some quarter-of-a-million Americans were based here.

IMG_2240 (002)This gramophone record is an artifact of this period. Specially made, it has the same track on both sides. It was not allowed to be broadcast, and was played many, many times – note the wear around the central hole. And the music? An unknown brass band plays the first few bars of God Save the King (which was then the Australian national anthem), segueing into John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever”.

I think that this strange record was played at cinemas inside American military bases. In those days, it was routine for the national anthem to be played after a film had finished. The first section is a polite nod to the host country, before they launch into America’s national march – which, it must be said, is far and away the better tune.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Title: God Save the King followed by Stars and Stripes, march
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: Special Record No. 1
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1942?)

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

He’s making a list …

Bing Crosby’s version of the Irving Berlin song “White Christmas” is the best selling recording of all time. First released in 1942, various versions of the single sold more than 50 million copies. Add in appearances on LPs, CDs and EPs (like this one) and you have total sales of something more than 100 million copies.


Consequently, you won’t hear it on Planet Vinyl.

We are going for another track from a Bing Christmas EP, first released in Australia in 1961. The price tag shows that this particular disc was bought from Allen’s music stores,  an institution in this part of the world for decades, in December 1965, for $1.60.

allens-sticker-further-roteAustralia was phasing in decimal currency at the time – the official change over did not occur until February 1966 – but despite the futuristic pricing this was a nostalgic purchase. Whoever bought this was a fan of the music of twenty years earlier, the swing-jazz of the 1940s. And it is a gem. The smooth tones of Bing, with the tight harmonies of the Andrews Sisters and the skilled jazz musicians of the Vic Schoen Orchestra, manage to make “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, not a song I really warm to usually, positively zing.

Thank you so much for visiting Planet Vinyl, as we come to the end of our first year. It’s been an amazing sleigh ride already, and I have a sack of vinyl, shellac and acetate I can’t wait to share. Happy Christmas!

  • Artist: Bing Crosby, with the Andrews Sisters and Vic Schoen and his Orchestra
  •  EP Title: White Christmas
  •  Track: B1 “F Santa Claus is Coming to Town”
  •  Format: 7” 45 rpm
  •  Label: Festival
  • Catalogue: FX-10212
  •  Manufactured in: Australia
  •  Year: 1961

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

That whistling man with the bones

Freeman David was a shoeshine boy from Alabama. While he worked, he would whistle and tap out percussion with whatever was to hand. He became good at it, a precise whistler and able to play the bones, holding four sticks in each hand rather than the usual two. As a performer, under the name “Whistling Sam”, he worked the circuit in restaurants and nightclubs during and after World War Two. Then, in 1948, he performed one night in a Chinese restaurant in Los Angles, where one of the clientele happened to be a record company executive …

3056-side-aUnder the name “Brother Bones,” he released a whistling, percussive version of the jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Released in 1949, it became a huge hit, including in Australia. You know this track, even if you don’t realise it yet, because it was later adopted by the Harlem Globe Trotters as their theme tune.

Planet Vinyl is not usually the place for hits, but David – “that whistling man with the bones,” someone calls him in the introduction – gives such a joyous and original performance that we will make an exception.

A piece of music history trivia: this was the first commercially successful record to use a synthesiser. You can hear it on “Sweet Georgia Brown”, but it is clearer on the B-side, “Margie” The synthesiser was manufactured by Hammond. Called the Novachord, it was a monster: inside were 163 vacuum tubes and more than 1000 capacitors. It is used here subtly, with nice warm left hand notes, filling out the bass sound. I love both tracks, so let’s give it a spin.


  • Artist: Brother Bones and His Shadows,
  • Title: Sweet Georgia Brown / Margie
  • Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: Fidelity
  • Catalogue: FY-1067
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: unknown (early 1950s?)

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

I happened to pass by a music store

Marie Warder was a teacher, writer and pianist who grew up in South Africa. Not long after the end of the Second World War, she was walking on a street in Johannesburg.

I was about nineteen, newly married and very much in love, when I happened to pass by a music store one day, and was stopped in my tracks by the most glorious sound I had ever heard. I stood there on the sidewalk, leaning against the plate glass window for support, with my eyes closed; transfixed and impervious to impatient shoppers trying to pass by me, until the last strains of “I Only Have Eyes For You” had died away, and I could breathe freely again. Then I went in and pleaded for the entire 78 rpm record to be replayed … over and over again! Never had I heard anything so exquisite that it almost hurt.

The musician who had made such an impact on Marie was Freddy Gardner, an English self-taught saxophonist who had played in lots of the leading dance bands of the 1930s and 1940s, and was now emerging as a star in his own right.

Marie’s husband had a dance band, in which she played piano. They started including Freddy Gardner numbers in the sets. “It was fortunate that the two of us, as well as the sax player, could play by ear, because, in any case, it was not possible to buy the sheet music in Johannesburg at the time.”3058 label

Meanwhile, in another isolated part of the world, the person I only know as “G.S.” had also discovered the 10” shellac disc which so entranced Marie Warder. G.S. loved it too. You can tell from the label and the worn sound that it was played “over and over again”.

Freddy Gardner is regarded in jazz circles as one of the great improvisers, up there with the finest. He is not well remembered because he died young, suffering a fatal stroke when he was only 39, in 1950. Like many artists, he had lost five years from his career because of the war, and was coming into his absolute prime. The range he was able to extract from a saxophone was quite remarkable, and the new recording medium of long-play vinyl would have suited his music perfectly.

Still, he played beautifully, and people across the world, even in Geelong and Johannesburg,  heard and marvelled. The track I am sharing here is not the one Marie heard, “I Only Have Eyes for You”, but the B side of that disc, “In the Mood for Love”. I think it is an even better display of Gardner’s extraordinary talent.

My thanks to Marie Warder, whose reminiscences of Gardner are online and well worth reading.

Artist: Freddy Gardner, Peter Yorke and his Concert Orchestra
Title: I Only Have Eyes For You / In the Mood for Love
Track: B side, “In the Mood for Love”
Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
Label: Columbia DO-3558
Manufactured in: Australia
Year: c. 1948

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

No need to shout

It says a lot about the changed status of tobacco that as avuncular and wholesome a figure as Bing Crosby would appear on record sleeve smoking a pipe. Look at that jaw! Those kind twinkling eyes! The nice hat, and the colour-coordinated pocket handkerchief! This is as solid a slice of Middle America as ever practised his golf swing.bing

But Bing Crosby – and this is all that matters – Bing could sing. He was among the first singers to take advantage of the development of the electric microphone. Amplification freed the singer from having to produce the power and volume of an operatic tenor, just to be heard. Instead, a more quiet, intimate style of singing was possible – this is what came to be called crooning.

This is something a lot of rock bands could usefully learn. Let the microphone do the work. No need to shout.

Bing was the consummate crooner. His voice is warm, and expressive, and the arrangements were masterful. Yeah, the songs are mostly sentimental, but there is a place for that. This track, though is a bit of a break from White Christmas wholesomeness.

“Paper Doll” was a huge hit for the Mills Brothers in 1943 – really huge, they sold more than 10 million copies – and pretty much every singer of note recorded a version over the next decade, and inevitably Bing Crosby was among them. His take is superb, though the disc is a bit crackly, and it is best not to listen too closely to the lyrics. It is a jealous male song: Possessive Guy Spits Dummy after Failed Romance. Plenty of those around but this one is a bit creepy. He’s going to by a paper doll, “that I can call my own” and can’t ditch him for other men

When I come home at night she will be waiting
She’ll be the truest doll in all this world
I’d rather have a paper doll to call my own
Than have a fickle-minded real live girl

Makes her sound like an early-model inflatable woman, and it jars a bit coming from an upstanding gent like Bing. Just like him being a smoker.

  • Artist: Bing Crosby
  • EP Title: Memories
  • Side 2, Track 2: “Paper Doll”
  • Format: 7” EP 45 rpm
  • Label: Festival FX 10374
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: 1962 (recorded much earlier)

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