My recorded music

I don't listen to music for hours every day. When I do listen to music, I really listen: with most of the music I like, I can't read, or write, or do other things that require my concentration, while lsitening. But more important is making music, though (as there is no money to be made doing it) I have not been able to spend much time on it for most of the last 40 years ...

The gramophone heritage

When I was a child, we had a wonderful old gramophone. It was not like the one in the picture; it had a horn that went into the box and debouched the sound out through the cloth-lined fretwork aperture in the front. Sadly, in the 1960s such instruments, and everything from the early 20th century, was little regarded. My parents were among those that pinned hardboard over mounded doors, under advice from Barry Bucknell and his Do It Yourself programs on television, to give their home a “modern” look. But whereas the hardboard actually protected the mouldings so that DIY enthusiasts in 2000 and after can prise the hardboard off and reveal the 1930s or Edwardian mouldings again, the fate of the gramophone was not survivable. It was dumped in a damp garage until the wooden superstructure fell apart. Then the wood was probably used as firewood and the beautiful metalwork went for scrap. Still, before that, we did sometimes listen to the 78RPM shellac records that formed my parents’ pre-war collection. I still have those records.

My first records

The first records I ever bought in my teens (around 1966) were remarkably indicative of my future interests. Each was a vinyl 331/3 RPM LP, and they were:

Now, I did end up with a number of Beatles LPs (yes, vinyl) in my collection and even a set of Elvis recordings, and a few Beach Boys and Pink Floyd LPs; but I have always listened much more either to jazz and swing or to the classics.

I guess I own more vinyl LPs than CD albums, for a number of reasons. First, I never played any particular ones so much as to wear them out, and always took care of them. Second, I collected quite a lot of vinyl records in boxed sets at bargain prices on first release, particularly while living in Stuttgart (1979..81) — although I began with the boxed set when given the Klemperer recording of Beethoven's nine symphonies for my 21st birthday (1971) and then getting myself the Deutsche Grammophon boxed set of Kubelik's recordings of Mahler’s symphonies while (still a student in Bristol) taking my PGCE in 1971..2. Third, I acquired quite a large quantity of old recods in the late 1990s, and that's a story I tell here, below. In fact when I take a tape measure to the shelves, I own LPs that, measured simply by thickness, take up more than 3.5 metres (10 feet) of shelf space.

I have a certain amount of opera on records, but although I got involved in performing opera and helping with productions over the years (in 2006 I became webmaster for Opera South, after a decade of non-involvement with it or Opera Omnibus, of which it is the renamed 21st century version) I am not actually an enormous opera fan, rarely go to a performance, and rarely play the opera records I have. I do own some unusual ones and even some of which recordings are hard to come by — or at least they were until there was amazon, from which one can (without venturing from home or even finding a postage stamp) order absolutely anything in the repertoire (well, anything in the record company catalogues).

A sudden acquisition

In the late 1990s a friend phoned me one Thursday afternoon and asked whether I collected records. He meant the kind that are mostly black, not small and silvery. I admitted that I did — meaning that, at any rate, I still had a record player for transducing performances recorded on vinyl back into sound, something many people had abandoned for the Compact Disc by that stage. I have never really been a collector in the sense of spending much time amassing more records for the sake of completeness — collecting for collecting’s sake. My friend then revealed that he had no such player, but that he had rescued a quantity of discs from a skip into which they were otherwise to have been thrown; and he asked whether I was interested in giving them a new home.

I asked my friend how many records he was talking about, and he said he didn't know: there were too many to count. “Well,” I said, changing tack, “if you piled them up, how high would the pile be?” “About as high as me” was the reply. Now my friend is a fairly tall man, like me about 6 feet (1m83) and that is quite a lot of records. The upshot was I set out on the hour or more journey across to where he lived and, having found him down a long unmade rural lane, enetered his small and now over-crowded abode. There were records everywhere, on the floor against the walls. They were just lying there in groups a hand span thick, in plastic bags of the kind given away by most shops when you buy anything nowadays.

After looking at a few of these groups of records (which mostly proved to be music by Mozart) I took the whole lot away. All my friend wanted for them was a donation to charity, to which I readily agreed. The records filled the boot of my old Saab motor car and gave its shock absorbers something to think about on the way home.

Over subsequent months I slowly went through the collection. There were some 78RPM shellac discs, and there were some very dirty, scratched vinyl discs; but most of the latter were of pop music: Rolling Stones, even Elton John, and I put all the pop stuff, and everything that was not close to perfect condition to one side. What was left was a considerable collection of standard classical music most of which I have still never had time to play more than once! The result is that I have very little need to go out and buy any recorded classical music simply to enlarge my collection, ever again.

Written 29th December 2006