The first series of Sound of the Hound wraps up with something a bit different: an interview with legendary Pink Floyd and Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd. Just like Fred Gaisberg, Joe is an American who moved to London in his twenties to establish an overseas office for a record company. And just like Fred, he became a recording pioneer. Immersing himself in London life, Joe founded the famous UFO club in the 1960s. He talks about the music that shaped him, tells us about the recording industry in the 1960s, gives an overview of a career that has seen him working with everyone from The Incredible String Band to REM, and shares his thoughts on modern recording technology. This episode is effectively the history of recorded sound and production techniques in a one hour-long programme. We’re possibly a bit biased, but it’s an essential listen for music fans!
This episode is a little bit different. Dave interviews co-host James about his novel on the early days of recorded sound, The Industry of Human Happiness. James tells how he chanced upon the adventures of Fred Gaisberg and William Sinkler Darby in the sleeve notes of a CD that he bought outside a concert, and how they inspired him to write a fictional account of those heady days of format wars, skulduggery and breath-taking invention. James also talks about his campaign to have a commemorative plaque erected on the Maiden Lane building where the industry started (a plaque that was unveiled by Queen drummer Roger Taylor in December 2019).
How gramophones changed the world forever – James writes in the Telegraph
It’s the spring of 1902. Italian tenor Enrico Caruso is due to sing in Covent Garden later in the year, and Fred and Will are still in Milan desperate to record him. Their plan – in what predates the now-ubiquitous music industry ‘360’ marketing deal by over 100 years – is to print the master discs onto shellac and release the records in London in time for Caruso’s Opera House appearance, thereby capitalising on his huge popularity. Fred wants to pay him £100 for ten records, but his bosses in London balk at the cost. But Fred does it anyway. It’s a huge gamble. But Fred’s risk is vindicated: his Caruso recordings kick-start the music industry in a way he could only have dreamed of. Overnight, the public are hooked. Finally, the record industry comes alive.
Fred Gaisberg and his brother Will had been sebt to Milan in early 1902 to try to entice the superstar opera singer Enrico Caruso. When he was playing hard to get the brothers headed to Rome with the hope of recording the Pope. That proved impossible but they did get to record the last castrato singer in the Sistine Chapel Choir, one Alessandro Moreschi. In the featured picture you can see a photo taken by Fred at the Vatican. Moreschi is in the middle of the picture, flanked by the agent William Michelis (left) and Will Gaisberg.
The recording of Moreschi was a success & you can listen to the story of how the recording came about as well as some of the music they captured in our podcast, The Last Castrato. They were allowed to bring their crates of heavy recording equipment and vats of acid used in the recording process into an ornate room of the Vatican Palace, the walls of which were covered in great and valuable paintings of the old masters.
The sessions did not got completely to plan. As Fred remembers in his memoirs:
“During the last session an accident happened that might have proven serious. Suddenly a short circuit from the battery ignited the cotton wool used in packing. A flame shot up and over and above the hysterical cries of the panic-stricken choristers one heard the laments of the male sopranos. They rushed for the door, where I saw them jam. My brother and I and the two brothers Michelis used our overcoats to beat down the flames, and we worked despeartely. Will Michelis thoughtfully pulled the cases of completed and packed masters out of the way. We all received burns…but the records were saved no very great damage was done to the salon or masterpieces.
The pompieri (Fire Department) appeared with hose and axe in hand, and seemed gieved that we had mastered the flames without their aid…Reuter’s cabled the incident all over the world, featuring two Americans involved in the destruction of the Vatican by fire.”
Fred and his brother William travel to Milan in 1902 with the aim of convincing opera superstar Enrico Caruso to record for them. However Caruso is busy and non-committal, so the men seek out other forms of sound to record while they wait for an answer. Aiming high, they approach the Pope to ask if he’d be up for recording something (as you would). The pontiff declines but invites them to record the Sistine Chapel Choir in the Vatican instead. And so, by lucky happenstance and perhaps unwittingly, the brothers find themselves capturing the extraordinary voice of Alessandro Moreschi, one of the last castratos ever to sing before a ban on the practice comes into force…
What is a castrato? And what should they sound like?
After the mixed success of the recording trip to Russia in 1900, it is a curious decision of Fred’s to return to the country the following year. But back he goes – twice – with a point to prove. Still waiting for that elusive breakthrough, The Gramophone Company has diversified into typewriters and Fred’s not happy. He needs good music, fast. He records opera stars and fine musicians before making one of the more curious decisions of his career. Finding himself dumped by letter by his London-based girlfriend, Fred heads inland to record music from the Russian steppes. He becomes obsessed with Tatar music, a decision that he comes to rue once he hears what the genre actually has to offer.
A Russian recording
From zinc to wax: how recording materials have changed over time
Today we publish the first of two episodes following Fred on recording expeditions to Russia. In early 1900, with their bosses dissatisfied with what they’ve recorded to date, Fred and his colleague William Sinkler Darby are under pressure to find fascinating sounds. Their agents in St Petersburg, charged with finding singers and musicians, are useless and corrupt so Fred and Sinkler go it alone. They scour the city’s streets and theatres by sleigh, recording what they can. But their new-fangled gramophone invention piques the interest of the court of Tsar Nicholas II, and the men are summoned to his palace. Will they succeed in capturing the voice of the most famous man in Russia? And will they survive an equipment-related disaster that strikes on their way home?
In the early days of recorded sound, no one can quite figure out the purpose of gramophones. Are they serious bits of kit for replicating music or are they toys? Should gramophone discs play music or comedy or something else entirely? One man trying to work out this conundrum is an American actor called Russell Hunting. An eccentric hustler, Hunting invents an Irish comedy character called Michael Casey. He also puts out a series of lewd and obscene records populated by characters telling titillating stories, which become big in coin-slot booths in amusement arcades. But Hunting’s most meaningful contribution to the history of recorded sound comes when he travels to London in 1899 and makes a ‘descriptive record’ about the Boer War with Fred. The record, called The Departure of the Troopship, is a serious mini-drama and ranks as the first piece of recorded propaganda which, according to reports, “brought tears to the eyes of thousands”. The Departure of the Troopship suggests that despite Hunting’s more outrageous leanings he’s something of an accidental innovator.