Wednesday, 3 March 2010

My Grandparents have the greatest record player in the world.

Visiting my grandparents yesterday before my sister joined us to celebrate her seventeenth birthday, the topic of conversation (somehow) turned to turntables. My Granddad walked to the other side of the room, reached underneath a chest of drawers, and took out this dusty old box. It turned out to be my Granny's old Gramophone- a Columbia model from her girlhood she listened to her records on before the general changeover into electric turntables.

It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. The lid of the box rested on an angle that was specifically set for the optimum tone and amplification from the analogue speaker. You had to wind it up about twenty times before you lifted the arm, clicked it in place to start the motorised turntable spinning and place the needle on the outer rim of any one of the vast collection of old 78s they had aquired. My Granddad explained to me that on these old models, you had a variety of needles that you used for different types of records to allow for different groove sizes and genres. Fat ones for Rock and Roll and big band sides and thinner ones for Jazz and Blues Records. He told me that you could replace them with hawthorn needles. This may all seem inconvenient by modern standards, but there was something sacred in everything about it. Starting a record playing was a ritual- replacing the needles, winding it up, delicately putting the arm in place, being prepared to rewind it in case the motor relents and the tempo dips.

And the sound! No-one makes records like that anymore. We listened to the Everly Brothers, Bix Beiderbecke and his Jazz Orchestra, Little Richard, amazing Billie Holiday originals, Mugsy Spanier and his Ragtime band (my Granddad's 'all time hero'). Songs like 'Margi' and 'Wake Up, Little Suzy'. I'm embarrassed to say that today was the first I have ever heard of Bessie Smith: 'the empress of blues'. She was one of the most important discoveries of the night. 'Cemetery Blues', 'Empty Bed Blues' , 'Any Woman's Blues', were all totally heart-stopping. Her voice and songs are so completely unique to her and beautiful. The actual sound of the thing itself was so raw and organic (and fuckin' loud). The analogue effect has to be heard first hand because the timbre and physical effect on your body is impossible to recreate digitally. It was like the difference between hearing a classical piece of music on record and hearing it in a concert hall, with each unique instrument effecting the vibrations of the entire room on a different level.

There's something about the immediate availability of music now the most prominent medium is digital formats, for all the potential and ease it offers, that makes me a little frivolous and irreverent in my attitude to putting a song or a record on. It was cool to feel the same sense of excitement the I remember experiencing being very young, plowing through CDs and tapes of aritists like The Beatles, Neil Young, Radiohead, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Sonic Youth and The Rolling Stones, feeling that the whole thing was very private, insular and profoundly important.

I'm told that the Gramophone is available to me anytime I want to come 'round, so I intend to make the most of the opportunity.

Yeah, I'm a geek.


1 comment:

  1. Wow, that's amazing. I don't think my grandparents on either side still have a gramophone player. I did find an original copy of Magical Mystery Tour in a box at my Nain and Taid's house though, back from when it was a 7" double EP. It has a storybook in the gatefold!