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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Reel-to-Reel Recordings

Dad turns to the microphone on the mantlepiece, clears his throat and adopts a suitable air of gravitas. 

I will now read some of my favourite poems,” he says in his most dignified voice. The sound of muted giggling emanates from me and my brother sitting on the floor next to the tape recorder.

“Ernest Dowson’s Vitae Summa Brevis,” he announces.

The noises in the background become audible whispers.

“What’s he on about?”

“He says Ernest Dowson had some Ryvita for his breakfast.” More snorting and sniggering. Dad continues.

“They are not long, ...”

“What aren’t? Is our Sooty’s tail not long?”

“... the weeping and the laughter, Love and desire and hate:”

The disruption intensifies as my mother bangs on the window and shouts something muffled from the yard outside. Dad struggles to keep going.

“I think they have no portion in us ...”

My mother enters the room and interrupts loudly.

“When I tell you your dinner’s ready, it’s ready, and you come straight away.”

The recording ends.

Would Dowson’s melancholy poetry and vivid phrases ever have emerged from out of his misty dream had he married and had such an unsupportive, philistine family?

Christmas 1962 – an unbelievable fifty-two years ago – was when my dad came into some money and bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder. It was really for the whole family, but as I was the only one who knew how it worked it was effectively mine, my parents being too old to understand such modern technology and my brother too young to be trusted with it. The next door neighbour was appalled at the idea of such an extravagant present for a twelve year old. Her eyebrows must have shot even further through the ceiling a month or so later when the new car arrived. As I said, my dad had inherited a useful sum of money.


The Philips EL 3541, as the YouTube video shows, was beautifully designed and built, part of the last triumphant surge of valve-based electronics before the transistor revolution. In contrasting greys and white, preceding the stark ubiquity of brushed aluminium, the case and controls had pleasantly curved profiles. The main buttons were smooth and soft, but clunked and clicked with a satisfyingly businesslike sound. The whole thing felt substantial and robust, with a reassuringly heavy-duty carrying strap. It looked a bit like a wide, trustworthy face with large eyes and beautiful white teeth.

People are beginning to re-discover that using and owning physical objects like tape machines and vinyl records can have value, a sensory quality you don’t get with digital downloads. Why did we ever throw these things away?

Philips reel to reel tape recorder EL 3541

This particular model was a four track machine, which means it could make four separate recordings on each reel of tape, two in each direction. The machine is shown with five inch reels (13cm) which typically held nine hundred feet (270m) of tape, but it could accommodate up to seven inch reels (18cm) holding eighteen hundred feet (540m). Tapes ran at a speed of three and three quarter inches per second (9.5 cm/sec)* which means that a five inch tape ran for around forty-five minutes and a seven inch tape around ninety minutes. So using four tracks, you could record for up to three hours on a five inch tape, and six hours on a seven inch tape, although you did have to turn over and re-thread tapes manually at the end of each track. A seven inch tape could therefore hold the equivalent of eight long playing (LP) records or albums, provided they weren’t excessively long, which they weren’t before the late nineteen-sixties.

Just to complicate things a little more, these numbers are for ‘long play’ tapes. You could also get ‘double play’ (2,400 feet on a 7 inch reel) and ‘triple play’ (3,600 feet on a 7 inch reel) but these were thinner and prone to breaking or stretching, so I avoided them. There were also thicker ‘standard play’ tapes, and five and three quarter inch reels as well, but the boxes always showed the tape length so it wasn’t as confusing as it sounds. Most of my tapes were Long Play five or seven inch reels. Believe it or not, I still have them, some from 1962 and 1963.

Some of the earliest recordings picked up a high pitched whistle through the microphone. Later I used to remove the backs from the television and record player to connect wires to the loudspeaker terminals. It got rid of the whistle but it could so easily have got rid of me as well.

The earliest recording I have is still on the five inch tape that came with the machine, from the Light Programme at four o’clock on the 30th December, 1962, ‘Pick of the 1962 Pops’ – “David Jacobs plays some of the hit records from the past twelve months**.” It starts off with Frankie Vaughan’s ‘Tower of Strength’, which had been number one in December, 1961, and then runs through a further twenty-three top three singles of 1962, ending with Elvis Presley’s ‘Return to Sender’. There are plenty of solo singers but not a British pop group among them. It was only a month or two before the end of that year that I’d first heard of the Beatles when ‘Love Me Do’ came on 208 Radio Luxembourg late one night on my transistor radio underneath the bedclothes.

I recorded the corresponding shows for 1963, 1964 and 1965, and for 1966 to 1969 the ‘Top of the Pops’ year end shows from television (audio only)**. This was a period when the old guard of solo singers such as Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and Frank Ifield appeared less and less in the charts, displaced by emerging new groups like Jerry and the Pacemakers, The Searchers and of course The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In 1964 the top spot was almost entirely British, Roy Orbison being the only exception.

The Hits of the Animals, Georgie Fame Sweet Things

I owned only two actual LP records myself, ‘The Hits of the Animals’ (an export version bought in Belgium) and Georgie Fame’s ‘Sweet Things’, but built up a considerable collection of recordings by exchange borrowing with friends. It included Donovan, Manfred Mann, Sandie Shaw, Jim Reeves, and the early Beatles and Rolling Stones LPs, although I later erased most of them by over-recording with music borrowed from the magnificent collection at Leeds Public Library.

I began to develop an interest in classical music. A friend’s elder brother had gone off to university leaving his record collection unattended in their front room. Attracted first by the sumptuous excitement of George Gershwin’s ‘An American in Paris’ and ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, I sampled the rest of the collection, such as the Beethoven symphonies and Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’. They all went on my tapes. I don’t think my friend’s brother ever knew. Thanks Mike!

On one tape there are early recordings of broadcast comedy shows: the Christmas ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ from 1970; the first four programmes ever of ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ from 1972** which were for many years lost to the B.B.C and possibly still are; and audio recordings of early ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ from television. By then I was living in a shared house in Leeds where one of our favourite diversions was transcribing the Python scripts and acting them out. 

Like snowy pictures on old videotape, the sound quality has not always lasted well. Perhaps with music this doesn’t really matter as you can always replace it, digitally re-mastered with a clarity that far exceeds the original, and usually in stereo rather than the earlier mono.

But you cannot replace the evocative social and family moments that were captured. Despite surviving in only thin and feeble form, they are irreplaceable beyond value.

At a friend’s house a group of us believed ourselves worthy rivals to the likes of comedians John Cleese, Tim Brooke Taylor and Bill Oddie. We wrote and recorded our own biblically themed comedy, ‘The Old Testacles’, most of it unrepeatable because of scurrilous allusions to countless teachers and pupils then at school, and of course the relentless uninhibited adolescent filth.

But the family moments remain the most poignant, like my grandma feeding my baby cousin on her knee, speaking in a village accent fashioned and formed before the First War:  

“Shout o’Sooty. You shout. What does Sooty say? ’Ere y’are. He du’n’t say ’ere y’are. Who’s go’r all t’butter? Yer gre-ased up aren’t yer? Oh heck! Eat it up nice. Yes you eat that up. Yer can’t come up, me shirt buttons‘ll be runnin’ all ove’ we-re n’t the’? Deary me to dae!”

Most precious of all are my dad’s unselfconscious performances. Because his grandad had been a sea captain, he claimed an inherited, natural aptitude in the delivery and interpretation of sea shanties. He announces the well-known windlass and capstan shanty, ‘Bound for the Rio Grande’, and begins to sing:   

“I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea...” followed by a hesitant pause, followed by complete breakdown into helpless uncontrollable laughter.

I am on these tapes too, embarrassing in my unbroken voice and long gone local accent, as my dad begins another poem:

“Miss J. Hunter Dunn. Miss J. Hunter Dunn. Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun...”

As before, my brother and I whisper to each other in the background.

“It’s about Miss J. Hunter’s bum.”

Again we all collapse into irrepressible laughter and my dad is unable to continue further.

 

* In comparison, cassette tapes, which became successful from the late nineteen-sixties, ran at one and seven eighth inches per second. They had to go slower because they were so short. However, the slower the recording speed the poorer the recording quality, which meant that cassettes were prone to distortion and background noise which had to be corrected by electronic sticking plaster such as the Dolby noise reduction system.  But cassettes were so compact and convenient to handle that they soon supplanted reel-to-reel and the rival but troublesome tape cartridge system which emerged around the same time as cassettes. 

** It would be a shame if these recordings were lost for ever so I have digitised them, put them on YouTube with private access (you can only hear them if you have the URLs) and linked them below. 
There are problems with the Pick/Top of the Pops programmes because nearly all the music has copyright restrictions. In any case, many items were cut short at the time of recording, generally not very well, and one or two were even omitted in order to fit one hour programmes on to 45 minute tapes. The sound quality has also not lasted well. But here is a list of what there is.
  • Pick of the 1962 Pops presented by David Jacobs on The Light Programme, 30th December 1962 at 4.00 p.m.
  • Pick of the Pops 1963 (presenter unknown but it might be Don Moss)
    Pick of the Pops 1964 presented by Alan Freeman on The Light Programme, 20th December 1964 at 5.00 p.m.
  • Pick of the Pops 1965 presented by Alan Freeman on The Light Programme, 26th December 1964 at 4.00 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1966 Part 1 BBC1 26th December 1966 at 6.15 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1966 Part 2 BBC1 27th December 1966 at 6.17 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1967 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1967 at 2.05 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1967 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1967 at 5.25 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1968 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1968 at 1.25 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1968 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1968 at 6.35 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1969 Part 1 BBC1 25th December 1969 at 2.15 p.m.
  • Top of the Pops 1969 Part 2 BBC1 26th December 1969 at 6.20 p.m.  

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