When the bagpipes start up

Ever noticed that when the bagpipes start up, at a big military tattoo or a highland gathering, the bass note, the drones, tends to sound a bit wobbly, slightly out of tune?

Like this:

Same with sustained notes in the melody, especially high notes:

The Planet Vinyl shuttle has landed today in Bonnie Scotland. To be precise, we are at Redford Barracks, Edinburgh, on 18 May 1971. Performing are the snappily-named The Pipes and Drums and the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. This will become a famous recording, selling more than seven million copies. It is the signature tune of the Scots Guards (as they are known to family and close friends), their arrangement of the hymn Amazing Grace.

Scotland_Forever!

“Don’t tell them the pipes are out of tune!” (Scotland Forever! 1881. Image: Leeds Art Gallery)

I decided, then, to find out. Is it just me, or does a massed pipe band actually sound a little out of tune. My musical friends inform me that, yes, by their nature bagpipes are never quite in tune with each other. Just how it is. Go with it.

And, were you a trembling adversary, a soldier standing in the line while the Scots Dragoons thundered towards you, sabres flashing, the slightly out-of-tune drones of the pipe band would be the least your worries.

  • Artist: The Pipes and Drums and the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards
  • A Side: Amazing Grace
  • B Side: Cornet Carillon
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl
  • Label: RCA Victor
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 102078
  • Year: 1972

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

 

 

 

Cow bells

Richard Strauss. Heard of him? Somehow, I got it into my head that there was a Strauss family, headed by Johann Strauss, he of “The Blue Danube” and many another waltz. And that Johann was the genius, and Richard the honest trier. A worthy but lesser Strauss, like Leopold Mozart, or Hank Williams Jr, or Julian Lennon. And so, I never paid Richard Strauss much attention.

Why I love Planet Vinyl is that my preconceptions are so often debunked. Richard Strauss was in no way related to the waltz-meister. Nor was his music anything remotely like the fine Hapsburg confections of Vienna’s golden era.

You probably know “Also sprach Zarathustra”, the building, booming trumpets and timpani which ushers in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Well, that was Richard Strauss. And he did so much else besides, including this challenging, haunting, alluring work: An Alpine Symphony.

VARIOUS

You can hear the cowbells. Image: The Telegraph

This monumental piece of music is not a symphony at all: rather it is a long series of impressionist tone poems. Taking about 50 minutes to perform, it tells the story of setting out into the mountains at dawn, climbing to the summit, and being caught by a fierce storm, before descending to safety as the sun sets. There are 22 sections, which all bleed into one another without a break. There are few dominant tunes, and the music ebbs and flows and different motifs (there are about 60) play over the top of each other. There is no way on God’s good earth that the whole sprawling thing should work. But it does!

I knew nothing about this piece when I randomly chose this record, and played it on headphones while reading a book. I soon put the book aside, and just listened to the whole thing, entranced.

Here is an excerpt. It is one of the more peaceful sections, in which the climber passes through a high meadow where cattle are grazing – you can hear the cow bells – and then gets lost in thick bushes before finding open air above the treeline. Unfortunately, An Alpine Symphony, is one of those large works for which an excerpt, to invert the usual formula, is less than a fraction of the whole. Try this out, but if you are interested in music, and its ability to wordlessly tell a story, please: find a full recording, close your eyes, and just listen.

  • Composer: Richard Strauss
  • Performers: Rudolf Kempe, conducting the Dresden State Orchestra
  • Album title: The Orchestral Music Of Richard Strauss, Volume 4
  • Track: Extract from “Alpine Symphony, Opus 64”.
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: World Record Club
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: S/5626
  • Year: 1974
  • First performed: 1915
  • This recording: 1971

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

 

The wizardry of sheep shearing

There once were things called flexi discs. They were records, and you could play them on a turntable, but they were made of a thin sheet of vinyl. So thin that you could roll them up. Unrolled, they would still play. They were cheap to produce, and often included in magazines as a novelty. The Beatles put some out, for fan club publications, and these are now worth a mint. But the sound quality is not fantastic, and usually flexi discs were gimmicks, promotional materials of one sort or another.

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New Zealand travel poster c. 1936. Image: New Zealand Fine Prints

Here is one of those. It dates from the late 1970s, and promotes bus tours of New Zealand. It is, shall we say, a little try-hard. There are many excellent reasons to visit New Zealand. But the hub-bub of traffic in Auckland? The exciting modernity which is colour television? These are not what marketing folk call unique selling points.

This “sound journey through New Zealand” has its moments. Some nice Maori singing, the blub-blub of hot mud pools, the roar of a rugby crowd. And sheep. Yes, we are tantalized with the prospect of witnessing “the wizardry of sheep shearing”.

The disc does get one thing right: New Zealand genuinely one of the most beautiful and interesting places in the world. Among other things, there are an astonishing number of many fine artists, writers and musicians. Go there, do. Though maybe not on a bus tour.

  • Artist: Unknown
  • Title: Colonial Coachman: A Sound Experience of New Zealand
  • Format: 7”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl flexi disc
  • Label: Ambassador Records
  • Made in: Australia
  • Year: Unknown (1970s)

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

 

The man with the monocle

There was a time before microphones. Think about what that meant for a singer. You had to stand on stage in front of an orchestra, and your unaided voice had to reach the far corner of the hall. It is an astonishing thing: to sing with pitch, control, feeling, as well as power and volume. It requires talent, dedication and training, and technique.

OGt-TauberTopper

Richard Tauber in his dapper prime

Microphones changed singing. From the 1930s on, it was possible to front a band and sing, and let the microphone do the heavy lifting. You could focus on timing, timbre and expression. Paradox: the electronically amplified singer can sound more natural.

So to modern ears, operatic singing is a bit of an acquired taste. The power and volume of the natural, trained classical voice seems a bit odd, stylised, artificial. It is worth making the effort, though. Before the microphone, classical singing was singing. This was how it was done, how music sounded.

One of the early superstars of recorded music was Richard Tauber. He wore a monocle. Along with a silk top hat, it was his trademark. He did not need the lens to see. In fact – well-kept secret – monocles are completely useless for helping vision. They were only ever a silly fashion item. But Tauber had a squint in one eye, and the monocle disguised that, and made him look dapper besides.

More to the point, Tauber could sing. A measure of his popularity is that long after he died (of lung cancer, in 1948), when superior recording techniques allowed other tenors to share their art, Richard Tauber’s work continued to be reissued.

I have not been able to determine when this track – one of more than 720 he recorded – was released on shellac. Guessing mid-1930s? Nor do I know when the vinyl EP reissue, with this and three other songs, came out. Guessing late 1950s? All that matters: here is a voice than has pitch, control and feeling, as and can reach the far corner of the hall. Just listen!

  • Artist: Richard Tauber
  • EP Title: Richard Tauber Favorites Vol. 1
  • Track: A2 “Liebestraum” (Liszt)
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, mono
  • Label: Parlophone
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: REPO 7501
  • Year: Unknown

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

 

 

 

 

The name suggests a gangster

Muggsy Spanier. The name suggests a gangster from the Al Capone era, but Francis Joseph “Muggsy” Spanier was a musician. Given that the mob controlled all the best nightclubs in those days, and that, like Capone, Spanier was a native of Chicago, they might have crossed paths.

Muggsy played the cornet. The what? It’s a cousin of the trumpet – same basic design but a bit smaller, and the tube is differently shaped, and has a mellower sound. For many years it was the preferred instrument in jazz bands. The trumpet was all a bit bold and, well, brassy.

Spanier was just outside the absolute top flight of jazz musicians in the 1930s and 1940s. He played with the big guys: Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, Bob Crosby, many more. Just didn’t quite crack the A-list, but surely not through lack of talent.

Trumpet playing evolved, and that instrument became king in jazz. The cornet – well, it’s still around, but a minority thing. But, man, does it sound great? Certainly in the hands of Muggsy Spanier it does. This is a 1941 recording, a shellac cutting of a sort of Dixieland-meets-swing version of a gospel tune, “Little David, Play Your Harp”. Actually, no harp is played, but there are lots of horns, played with skill and exuberance. Just listen, especially to Muggsy on the cornet.

  • Artist: Muggsy Spanier And His Orchestra
  • A side: Little David, Play Your Harp
  • B side: Hesitating Blues
  • Format: 10”, 78 rpm, shellac, mono
  • Label: Decca
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: Y5972
  • Year: 1941

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

Pitch, control, mood, mastery

I am not often lost for words – just ask my wife and children – but it does happen. As here. The Planet Vinyl shuttle has taken us to meet Frank Sinatra. Nothing bad about that. Except, what do you say?

I could write a lot. But this is a music blog, where brevity is the soul of wit. And what short, pithy thing can you say about such a giant of popular music? So I did the modern thing, and crowd-sourced, putting out an appeal to friends and colleagues for some thoughts on Ol’ Blue Eyes.

MoonlightsinatraGreg Champion, a legend in Australian country music circles, and who this year won the Tamworth Country Music Festival Songmaker Award, was kind enough to share his thoughts:

Frank. The superlatives run dry. Did he ever hit a note he didn’t intend to? His pitch, control, mood, mastery – knew no limits. Of all the gushing that’s been written about him, I feel his finest thing is his ability to take a classic song, make it his own, put his own stamp on it, and come up with a new work of art. Too much Frank is never enough.

Amen. And this track illustrates all of the above. My vinyl is the B-side of a 1970s single, but the track first appeared much earlier. A concept album of sorts, a selection of songs touching on the moon, Moonlight Sinatra came out in 1966. Title is a nice pun; album could so easily be tacky. But it isn’t. From the slightly sleazy opening bars to the final note, this is a polished, mesmerizing recording. Just listen.

  • Artist: Frank Sinatra
  • A Side: Strangers In The Night
  • B Side: Oh, You Crazy Moon
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl
  • Label: Reprise
  • Made in: Australia
  • Catalogue: 0470
  • Year: 1971 (original release 1966)

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

Mozart for shopping malls

There are times when putting on a record whisks you though time and space, and places you down in an achingly familiar yet strange world. Suddenly you are watching Sunday television sitting on a beanbag in a shag-pile carpeted lounge-room. It is 1973. The theme music from the shows of this period is distinctive, evocative. You can almost smell the faint linger of cigarette smoke in the drapes, see the burnt-orange tiled coffee table.

waldoIt is now hopelessly daggy, even a bit tasteless, especially when lovely music from the past has been put through a crushed velvet mangle and served with a prawn cocktail. Mozart for shopping malls. My dad, a classical music purist, hated this “classics up-to-date” style with the fire of a thousand suns. Listening now, even on open-minded and inclusive Planet Vinyl, ya have to admit it: he had a point.

But, hey, it was of its time. It gave musicians a living. And it transports me back to a world in which there were wholesome black-and-white television shows about show-jumping, macramé pot hangers and English country houses. There are worse places.

  • Artist: Waldo De Los Rios,
  • A Side: Mozart: Symphonie N° 40 En Sol Mineur K. 550 – 1er Mouvement (Allegro Molto)
  • Format: 7”, 45 rpm, vinyl, stereo
  • Label: Hispavox
  • Made in: Belgium
  • Catalogue: 2022 004
  • Year: 1971

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