Spinning Discs – Postscript

By Wayne Shevlin

My previous blog on SOTH—Century of Spinning Plastic Discs—was an abstract musing on the nature of musical records as historical artefacts.  It was originally written a few years ago, back when the great music emporiums—HMV, Virgin and Tower—still presided imperiously over the high street.  Opening salvo of 2013: that abstract musing is turned into cold hard reality as HMV, the last surviving music-megastore, goes into administration.

HMV Shop Oxford Street Circa 1920s-1930s © EMI Group Archive Trust

HMV Shop Oxford Street Circa 1920s-1930s © EMI Group Archive Trust

There are as many explanations for HMV’s demise as there are pundits: it’s because of online piracy or online shopping or the internet in general or online taxation (or lack of it);  it’s due to competition from other media formats such as video games;  it’s supermarkets killing the catalogue market by cherry picking the top 20 and flogging it as a cheap loss-leader; it was simply bad management, they didn’t keep up with the times; it’s the X-Factor factor, that music is now just a ubiquitous commodity; it’s because the kiddies don’t care so much about music and the oldies have replaced everything their nostalgia cares about;  it’s because music is overpriced and simply aint what it used to be;  it’s because the high street is dying and HMV is just another extinction victim like Comet, Jessops and Blockbuster;  it’s because the world is going to hell in a hand carte and nobody really gives a damn anymore.

Indeed, it is all of these things and others too. No single one of them would have been sufficient to fell HMV, but collectively they were inexorable like gravity.  Nothing could have saved the HMV megastore and I am frankly surprised it lasted as long as it did.  The writing was on its poster plastered walls years ago.  On the high street, profit is a ratio of revenue to cubic space and, to those who count the beans, every cubic foot of stuff has to generate X amount of money;  and if it does not, then other stuff must take its place.  When one objectively considers the huge expanses of space in music-megastores, it is easy to see how the precipitous decline in footfall over the past years rendered the grand music emporium model unsustainable.  An early clue that something was amiss revealed itself to me a number of years ago when B and I went into the small HMV in Hampstead and actually had to ask where the CD section was now located.  No kidding, the CD section was that small.

HMV Shop Oxford Street Circa 1920s-1930s © EMI Group Archive Trust

HMV Shop Oxford Street Circa 1920s-1930s © EMI Group Archive Trust

In their heyday the music-megastores were a real experience, an adventure.  B and I looked forward to our regular Saturday trip downtown to visit them. There was a chaotic energy, a frenetic hustle-bustle from literally thousands of music hunters who packed the aisles so densely you could barely move. The entrance was a portal built of the latest chart hits which you passed through to enter the inner sanctum of Rock & Pop which positively buzzed with excitement.  Jazz and Classical were sequestered in separate rooms to provide a sanctuary for the aficionados who required a more refined ambiance, away from the raucous hubbub outside their doors. There was always something there for us, we never left empty handed and more often than not, walked out with a half dozen or more CDs.  That was at the beginning of the 21st century.  In the whole of 2012 we visited the HMV megastore only once, easily navigating the empty CD aisles and struggling to find something—anything— we actually wanted at a price we were willing to pay.

After the announcement, B and I visited the Oxford Street HMV with the explicit purpose of seeing what bargains might be had under the circumstances.  The atmosphere was grim. Customers roamed listlessly around.  The staff put a brave face on it but the sense of sadness and demoralisation was palpable.  Nonetheless, they worked as though it still mattered.  In fact, one salesman took great pains to escort me around the various sections—Rock & Pop, Blues, Rock ‘n’ Roll—in search of Johnny Winter. Here was a knowledgeable salesperson actually helping me to find what I was looking for. Just like the old days.  He was determined to prove that HMV still had that Mojo.  Sadly, the search was in vain: no Johnny Winter anywhere. HMV had failed us both and the look on his face made me feel I had tortured him with some strange form of ritual humiliation.

Far from its past grandeur the shop felt tatty and depressing.  Half the racks in the Jazz and Classical rooms were completely empty.  The main aisle leading from the entrance, once crammed with customers, now featured large cardboard boxes filled with used CDs, spines up, languishing in no particular order, presented with all the dignity of a car boot sale.  The new stock wasn’t much better.  Artist dividers were packed inches thick because there were no CDs of those artists there to separate them.  I turned down the album by Mountain selling at £19.95 because I knew I could get it, re-mastered along with 4 other Mountain albums on the Net for £11.99.  What hope did HMV ever have?  B and I felt like parasites, vultures pecking at a carcass and, in spite of the 25% sale, we walked out with nothing.

The fate of HMV—and other high street shops like it— is not the fault of external forces or sinister conspiracies. We could have an entertaining debate over a pint as to the relative impact that any particular factor had to play in this tragedy but, ultimately, I think we have only ourselves to blame.  We may cry in our beer over the loss of these cultural institutions along with the vanishing high street they enriched, but we voted with our feet—or our mouse finger—and abandoned them to their fate.  We got what we asked for: convenience.  We shall get more of it too, much more of it.  I hope we shall all enjoy the convenience we will all be getting.  As far as shopping for music is concerned, we have made our decision and traded the excitement of the music emporium for convenient shopping.  As Pink Floyd might have put it, we traded our heroes for ghosts.

HMV was the first of the great music emporiums and will soon be the last. There’s part of me that feels very sad for the younger generation who won’t experience something that I enjoyed so much. But they have other experiences they prefer, feel no loss whatsoever and will probably agree that I’m very sad.  It lasted almost a hundred years.  That was a hell of a run, actually.  However, for better or worse, both time and culture have moved on. Perhaps some day, HMV may be resurrected in some diminished form, but the days of the great music emporium are now over.  Goodbye HMV. Thanks for the excitement.

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Neville Thiele (4 December 1920 – 1 October 2012)

On October 1st Australian audio industry icon (Dr Albert) Neville Thiele, OAM, passed away aged 91.

Neville was one of the most influential figures in audio, and is best known for his role in the development of the ‘Thiele-Small parameters’. As a consequence, virtually every loudspeaker in the world has a specification sheet with these parameters.

Joining EMI (Australia) Ltd., he was employed as a design engineer on special projects, including telemetry. With the start of television in Australia, he spent six months of 1955 in the laboratories of EMI at Hayes, Middlesex, and associated companies in Scandinavia and the United States, and on return to Australia he led the design team that developed EMI’s earliest Australian television receivers. Appointed Advanced Development Engineer in 1957, he was responsible for applying advanced technology in EMI Australia’s radio and television receivers and electronic test equipment.

 

Neville Thiele on Alan Blumlein

Captain Scott’s Desert Island Discs. A flavour of what were the happening sounds in Antarctica 100 years ago

This article was written by and published on theartsdesk 11 April 2012

 
The gramophone on which Scott and his men listened to music hall and opera at the bottom of the world
 

Centenaries are sizeable business in 2012. It just so happens that the Olympics are coming to the United Kingdom for the third time in a year which finds us thinking very hard about if being British still means the same thing as it did 100 years when two momentous calamities singed themselves into the national psyche: the Titanic sank, and Captain Scott and his four companions never made it back from the South Pole.

Adam Sweeting has already reported on the deluge of Titanica fanning across the television schedules from National Geographic docs to Drownton. The Scott industry is spreading itself more widely across the year. As well as three exhibitions – at the Natural History Museum, the Queen’s Gallery and the National Museum of Wales – you can also enjoy a musical flavour of what it was like to be a the bottom of the world with the Terra Nova expedition by investing in a new double-disc CD. On it is a selection of scratchy recordings Scott and co took south with them to remind them of home in the long polar night. In fact they had a library of hundreds of tunes to listen to, and the choice can do no more than suggest the range of musical tastes catered for, from Enrico Caruso to Nellie Melba, from Harry Lauder to Weber’s Concertino for horn. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” was on hand to gird the loins as the men prepared to strap themselves into man-hauling harnesses. For many of the jauntier tunes some of the chaps will dressed up in drag and danced along.

The records were donated to the expedition by The Gramophone Company (nowadays known as EMI), along with two splendid old gramophones, one of which is on display at the Natural History Museum’s current exhibition. The main track listing concludes with “God Save the King”. Two additional tracks include Ernest Shackleton taking about his own unsuccessful attempt on the Pole three years earlier. There is a piquant irony to its inclusion. Scott and Shackleton had history, and were not friends, although that did not stop Scott using Shackleton’s expedition journal as a useful pathfinder. The full track listing of Scott’s Music Box is as follows.

CD 1:

  1. The Black Diamonds Band – Dollar Princess Two Step
  2. The Dollar Princess Operatic Party – Opening Chorus (The Dollar Princess)
  3. George Grossmith Jr – Yip-I-Addy-I-Ay (Our Miss Gibbs)
  4. Margaret Cooper – Love is meant to make us glad (Merrie England)
  5. R. Kennerley Rumford – Four Jolly Sailormen (The Princess of Kensington)
  6. Huntley & Carroll – The Golf Scene (Three Little Maids)
  7. Yvette Guilbert – I want yer ma honey
  8. Band of HM Coldstream Guards – Trafalgar March
  9. Walter Miller – We all walked into the shop
  10. Florrie Forde – Oh! Oh! Antonio!
  11. George Robey – The Prehistoric Man
  12. Harry Lauder – Stop your tickling, Jock!
  13. Harry Tate – Motoring
  14. Gus Elen – Wait till the work comes round
  15. Olly Oakley – Anona Two-Step
  16. John Coates – Take a pair of sparkling eyes (The Gondoliers)
  17. Eleanor Jones Hudson – The sun whose rays are all ablaze (The Mikado)
  18. The Sullivan Operatic Party – When Britain really ruled the waves (Iolanthe)
  19. HM Band of the Royal Artillery – The Blue Danube Waltz
  20. Stanley Kirkby – The Trumpeter
  21. Harry Dearth – A Sergeant of the Line
  22. Clara Butt & R. Kennerley Rumford – Night Hymn at Sea
  23. Edward Lloyd – The Holy City
  24. Elizabeth Dews – O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (Messiah)
  25. A Church Choir – Hark, the Herald Angels Sing

CD 2

  1. Geraldine Farrar – Un bel dì vedremo (Madama Butterfly)
  2. Enrico Caruso – Recitar!…Vesti la giubba (Pagliacci)
  3. Nellie Melba – Waltz Song (Roméo et Juliette)
  4. Titta Ruffo – Largo al factotum (Il barbiere di Siviglia)
  5. Luisa Tetrazzini – Ombra leggera (Dinorah)
  6. Maurice Renaud – Serenade (Don Giovanni)
  7. Mattia Battistini · Emilia Corsi – Là ci darem la mano (Don Giovanni)
  8. Jan Kubelík – Chanson bohème (Carmen)
  9. Enrico Caruso – Mattinata
  10. Nellie Melba – Nymphes et sylvains
  11. Evan Williams – I’ll sing thee songs of Araby
  12. Edward Lloyd – Come into the garden, Maud
  13. Charles Draper – Weber: Concertino
  14. La Scala Theatre Orchestra – The Ride of the Valkyries (Die Walküre)
  15. Joseph Szigeti – Bach: Prelude (Partita No.3)
  16. Wilhelm Backhaus – The Harmonious Blacksmith
  17. Peter Dawson – Rule Britannia
  18. Ernest Pike – The Light of the World
  19. Robert Radford – Honour and Arms (Samson)
  20. Clara Butt – Abide with me
  21. Band of H. M. Coldstream Guards – God Save the King

BONUS TRACKS

  1. Major Sir Ernest Shackleton – The Dash for the South Pole
  2. Stanley Kirkby – ’Tis a story that shall live forever
  • Scott’s Music Box is released on 14 May

http://www.theartsdesk.com/classical-music/captain-scotts-desert-island-discs

If your interested in learning more about Captain Scott’s Gramophone check out EMI Group Archive Trust website.

http://www.emiarchivetrust.org/detail.aspx

 

Marshall, Jim 1923 to 2012

This obituary was written by Adam Sweeting and printed in the Guardian on 6 April 2012 

Jim Marshall

Jim Marshall in 2000. Almost everybody who rocked over 40 years used his equipment. Photograph: Robert Knight/Redferns

When Jim Marshall, who has died aged 88 of cancer, opened a music store in 1960, his customers included some of rock’n’roll’s most prominent guitarists. They wanted a new type of amplifier. Marshall seized the opportunity and built it for them. His work would earn him the nickname the Father of Loud.

Marshall was born in Kensington, west London, to Beatrice and Jim Marshall. Jim Sr owned a fish and chip shop in Southall. Tuberculosis of the bones caused his son to be encased in a plaster cast from his ankles to his armpits during most of his school years. From the age of 13, he took a series of jobs, from builder’s merchant to shoe salesman to baker in a biscuit factory. Medically unfit for military service in the second world war, he taught himself about engineering from books, and in 1946 became a toolmaker at Heston Aircraft, where he stayed for three years.

John Entwistle in 1966.

John Entwistle in 1966. His lust for more volume led to the creation of Marshall’s classic 100-watt amplifier. Photograph: Chris Morphet/RedfernsMeanwhile, he had successfully auditioned to sing with an orchestra at a Southall dance hall, earning 10 shillings (50p) a night. He then joined a seven-piece band, and when the drummer was called up for national service, Marshall took over. His idol was the big band drummer Gene Krupa, and after taking lessons he started to teach himself at the end of the 1940s. Marshall recalled that “I taught Mitch Mitchell who joined Jimi Hendrix, Micky Burt of Chas and Dave, Mick Waller with Little Richard and Micky Underwood who played with Ritchie Blackmore.”

Marshall saved enough money to start his own business, building loudspeaker cabinets for musicians. He found an especially keen market among bass players who were fed up with being blotted out by noisy lead guitarists and were looking for some powerful amplification of their own. But after a year of this, he changed tack and opened his own music store in Hanwell, west London, initially specialising in selling drumkits. 

“Then the drummers brought their groups in, including Pete Townshend, and said why don’t you stock guitars and amplifiers, which I knew nothing about.”

Apart from Townshend, his guitar-playing customers included Blackmore, soon to find fame with Deep Purple, and the renowned session player Big Jim Sullivan. They told Marshall that they wanted amplifiers with a different sound from the then-popular Fender models, which had a clean but non-raunchy tone. Marshall teamed up with his shop repairman, Ken Bran, and the EMI technician Dudley Craven, and they produced their first amplifier in September 1962. According to Marshall, it was the sixth prototype that gave birth to the powerful and throaty “Marshall sound”.

Demand for Marshall amplifiers and matching loudspeaker cabinets steadily increased, and in 1964 the first full-scale factory opened in Hayes, with a staff of 16 making 20 amplifiers a week. The following year Marshall signed a global distribution agreement with the instrument suppliers Rose Morris, though he later felt his progress had been hampered by their uncompetitive pricing policies.

However, top musicians were clamouring for Marshall’s amplifiers and their hard-driving sound, including Eric Clapton – for whom Marshall created the “Bluesbreaker” amp-and-speakers combo – and Townshend and John Entwistle of the Who, whose lust for more volume led to the creation of Marshall’s classic 100-watt amplifier. It was at Townshend’s request that Marshall developed the stackable loudspeaker cabinets, or “stacks”, that became a familiar part of the stage scenery for countless bands. Meanwhile, Hendrix bought a package of equipment, plus technical maintenance, from Marshall.

Almost everybody who rocked over the next 40 years would use Marshall equipment, from Jeff Beck, the Small Faces and Guns N’ Roses to Pink Floyd, Elton John, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, U2, Metallica and Nirvana. In 2003 he was appointed OBE for his services to music and charity. He is survived by his children, Terry and Victoria, and his stepchildren, Paul and Dawn.

• James Charles Marshall, amplifier manufacturer, born 29 July 1923; died 5 April 2012