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

 

 

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

 

 

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

Christmas on the lost island of Acetate

There is no more mysterious place on Planet Vinyl than the lost island of Acetate. The good people of Wikipedia explain why:

Unlike ordinary vinyl records, which are quickly formed from lumps of plastic by a mass-production molding process, a so-called acetate disc is created by using a recording lathe to cut an audio-signal-modulated groove into the surface of a special lacquer-coated blank disc, a real-time operation requiring expensive, delicate equipment and expert skill for good results. They are made for special purposes, almost never for sale to the general public.

2210So it is exciting when one turns up: the lacquer is a glistening black, you can see the metal underneath, both in the centre hole and in the extra holes which were used to clamp the disc to the lathe, and the label tells you little, or nothing. This record, for example. Audex Royal is not a record label, just the company which manufactured acetate discs.use-light-pick-up

One clue: a note on the battered paper sleeve instructs “use light pick-up”. This warning was only necessary when people were playing both old gramophone records and the new vinyl: the late 1950s.

Beyond that, there is just the sound. It is a recording of a church choir, singing mostly Christmas carols. It is not a big choir, and although they are quite good there is nothing of the professional about them. The accompaniment is a single piano. No organ, and the ambient sound suggests a wooden hall, rather than a stone church or a studio. The voices are Australian, but there is a hint of some Welsh in there as well. I am guessing a dissenting Protestant suburban church choir.

Who knows? Still as it is Christmas let’s give them a spin. They do some standards  but this track is a carol which was new to me. With no track list, it took some hunting to work out the details, but the song is “Dear nightingale, awake!”. This was an English adaptation  of a traditional Austrian carol, and the sheet music for it was published in Australia in 1956. Apart from that, all we can say is that it is Christmas on the lost island of Acetate.

  • Artist: ‎Unknown
  • LP Title: Unknown
  • Track: “Dear nightingale, awake!”
  • Format: 12” acetate aluminium disc, 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: Unknown
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Catalogue number: None
  • Year: Unknown

Straight from the lathe

To make a vinyl record, the master tape of your recording is played into a machine called a lathe. This has a tiny, vibrating stylus which cuts into the lacquer coating of an aluminium disc, the “acetate”. Acetate discs are usually part of the process of manufacturing vinyl records. They are cleaned and further processed, and used to make moulds, which … there’s more, it gets complicated.

1018-labelBut, here’s the thing. An acetate disc can also be played on an ordinary record player, and it sounds exactly the same as a vinyl record. So sometimes acetates were used where only a few copies of the record were needed. These turn up from time to time, with typed or handwritten labels, or no label at all. It’s always fun to play one: it might be a radio advertisement, a church choir’s Christmas set, or a demo by an actor or singer who was seeking glory and fame.

This record was produced by an Adelaide label SATE Recordings. I am indebted to Michael de Looper, a fellow vinyl tragic who has compiled a list of independent Australian record labels, for the information that SATE, which stood for Sound and Television Engineers, was a “prolific custom recording label”. The owner and engineer (and, one suspects, also publicist, technician, bookings coordinator, receptionist, best boy and accounts manager) was one William Harrison.

The record is untitled, and has no catalogue number. It is a ten-inch LP, with six songs sung by one Maurice McIlvena.

One of them is a work by one of Australia’s most successful ever songwriters, Mary H. Brahe. No, I hadn’t heard of her either, but she was born in Melbourne in 1884, and was a prolific composer of popular songs, more than 400 in total. Her biggest success was “Bless This House”, a huge hit in both Britain and America. Brahe’s songs were, no getting away from it, sentimental, but there is a place for that. This is one of her other big successes, “To a Miniature”.

Of Maurice McIlvena, I know nothing. Was this a demo, which Maurice hoped would help him get a gig on radio, or on a variety show? Or just a present for his mum? Who knows, but he had a good baritone voice, and his love of singing comes through.

 

  • Artist: Maurice McIlvena
  • LP Title: untitled custom record
  • Side 2, Track 2: “To a Miniature”
  • Format: 10” acetate LP 33⅓ rpm
  • Label: SATE Recordings
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: no date (early 1960s?)

Many of the records featured on this blog are for sale via Discogs