A very merry Christmas and a whacko dinner

It is 1952, getting towards Christmas. You live on a homestead, in rural Australia, and one of your family is away. Young Pauline has followed in the path of many Australians and sailed for England. The tyranny of distance is alive and well in this period. Television broadcasting won’t begin for years yet. Long distance telephone calls – for those who have telephones and many don’t – are awful: the sound garbled and the cost, in three minute blocks, ridiculous. So you won’t be hearing Pauline’s voice this Christmas.

B 201701 labelBut wait! What is this in the mail? It’s a gramophone record, an acetate – it has the familiar HMV label, but there is a message from Pauline, hand-written. Quick, everyone! Gather round the gramophone. Pauline sent this – what on earth can it be?

I am indebted to Bart Ziino, a friend and fellow record tragic for sharing this disc. Bart is an historian, and observed:

That really is a document of its time.  I wonder how far in advance she prepared it?  Enough time to go by ship, or sent by air?  I wonder what she was doing in London? My mum used to say ‘whacko’ as a good thing too. I wonder who else thought gladioli were the best flowers …

There is a rich human story behind every minute of recorded sound.

  • Artist: Pauline [surname unknown]
  • A Side: “Merry Christmas, love Pauline, xxx”
  • Format: 8”, 78 rpm, acetate, mono
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Made in: England
  • Catalogue: Special recording
  • Year: 1952

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

 

Hurry back to your seat

It is 1957. You are sitting in a cinema in Melbourne, Australia, and it is Interval. Younger folk may never have experienced an “interval” in a cinema, but it used to be a thing, equivalent to half time at the football. As the house lights brighten and you rise, contemplating whether to buy an ice-cream, a fruity baritone voice floats over the PA.

This announcement was a custom acetate recording, a 78-rpm metal disc covered in black lacquer. These were used to record radio advertisements, theatre announcements and the like. In this case, the management want the punters not to hang around too long in the foyer, ruining the cinema’s screening times.

7133As you will have picked up, you were seeing The King and I, the 1956 film version of the Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical. This is a much-loved production, still being performed around the world. Personally, I’m not sure why it has such an exalted place in the canon, but millions disagree with me and it has some good moments.

Maybe, in 1957, the magic would have been stronger, and I would have rushed the next day to buy this EP. I have chosen one of the less-famous numbers, a song of love and gentle melancholy. The singing credit is given to Deborah Kerr, but along with the other songs in the film it was actually sung by Marni Nixon.

Now, grab your ice cream and get back to your seat. The movie is about to start!

Recording 1

  • Artist: Unknown
  • A side: “Interval, King & I”
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, acetate, mono
  • Label: Broadcast Exchange of Australia (BEA)
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: none
  • Year: Unknown (probably 1957)

Recording 2

  • Artist: Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner
  • EP Title: The King and I
  • Track: A2 “Hello, Young Lovers”
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Capitol
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: EAP 1-740
  • Year: 1957

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

 

 

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.

637px-Gene_Autry_Pinafores_radio_show_1948

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

 

 

 

Our Glad

She was HUGE. Her first name all you needed. That was her, the famous singer, the Australian girl who had gone to England and become a star.

It was the 1930s, when Australia was self-consciously claiming its place in the world. We loved an international champion. There was our great aviator, Charles Kingsford-Smith; our great cricketer, Don Bradman; our great racehorse, Pharlap. And there was “Our Glad”.

Who? Her star has faded, but Gladys Moncrieff, “Australia’s Queen of Song” was the Kylie Minogue of her day. Born in Bundaberg, Queensland, in 1892, she became the top leading lady in Australian musical theatre. A critic wrote of an early performance:

It was good to hear a crowded Australian audience acclaim the success of a slim, straight young Australian girl … It was a personal triumph in which hard work, talent and youth bore fine fruit.

By the mid-1920 she was earning 150 pounds a week, making her the highest paid entertainer in Australia. In 1926 she sailed to England, and after a few false starts again broke through: “Before the night concluded” wrote a reviewer, “even the dullest critic must have realized that a new star of amazing brilliance had climbed above London’s theatrical horizon”.

old spinning wheelShe also recorded nearly 100 gramophone records, and was the first Australian artist to regularly outsell recordings from abroad. This is one, her version of “The Old Spinning Wheel”, written by the great American songwriter Billy Hill.

She could really sing, our Glad.

 

  • Artist: Gladys Moncrieff with orchestra Conducted by Gil Dech
  • A side: The Old Spinning Wheel
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Regal Zonophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: G22098
  • Year: Unknown (c. 1934)

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

Young Turk

Torok is an unusual name for an American country artist of the 1950s. Country is usually the domain of the Anglo name: Nelson, Cash, Jennings, Parton. Even those not born with one used to put a suitable name on with the cowboy hat. Baldemar Garza Huerta did better as “Freddy Fender”.

Torok means “Turk” in the Hungarian language, and it was a surname given to people whose forebears had migrated there from Turkey in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That empire was destroyed in the First World War, and in the wake of that defeat a Hungarian couple, Niklos and Irene Torok, migrated again, to the United States.

3331There, in Houston, they had a son in 1929. Mitchell Torok grew up listening to the music around him, took up guitar at age twelve, and by his 20s became small-big in country music. He appeared on the major country radio programs, and wrote song for many of the stars of the day, particularly Jim Reeves.

His biggest hit came in 1953 with “Caribbean”, a light-hearted stomper with a vaguely Hawaiian sound celebrating the beauty of ladies in Cuba and Haiti. It’s a fun song but I prefer the B side. One of Torok’s idols was the great Hank Williams (who died before his time earlier that year), and there is more than a hint of Hank in “Weep Away”.

Whoever bought this record loved this song – it has been played many, many times, and the shellac is battered and worn. Even through the rumble and scratch, this is a heartfelt performance.

  • Artist: Mitchell Torok
  • A side: Caribbean
  • B side: Weep Away
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: London
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: HL-1011
  • Year: 1954

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

 

 

Liquorice stick

On Sunday, my wife and I saw a jazz band, Sandra Tulty’s Swing Quartet. Australians all, and all stellar musicians: one of those jaw-dropping jazz ensembles, which sing, play multiple instruments, and take on solos without so much as raising a sweat. I was particularly impressed by the clarinettist, Michael McQuaid. He moved in and out of the music, soloing with extraordinary power and dexterity.

It reminded me of the great Artie Shaw – one of those musicians I have discovered through Planet Vinyl. Shaw was a contemporary of Benny Goodman, and they were built up as rivals, though the two men liked and respected each other. They were both Jewish (Shaw was an anglicization of Arshawsky) and they both took the jazz clarinet, the “liquorice stick” as it was called, into aural spaces no one had ever even thought of.

IMG_2241This is Artie Shaw’s recording of “Begin the Beguine”, released in 1938. The record has been played so often that the label is hard to read, but it once belonged to someone called Dawson. Whoever that was, they took good care of their records – the shellac still plays well, letting the smooth, sinuous clarinet sound shine.

  • Artist: Artie Shaw And His Orchestra,
  • Track: “Beguine the Beguine”
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac
  • Label: His Master’s Voice
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue: EA 2369
  • Year: 1938

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