Setting up a record company: #1 Get the technology right

When William Barry Owen and Trevor Williams shook hands to establish the UK’s first record company, The Gramophone Company, in 1897 they sent for Fred Gaisberg, an American “recording expert” to come over to England to help them by setting up the recording department and the UK’s first recording studios in Maiden Lane.

Fred’s involvement in the American parent company, The United States Gramophone Company, went back much longer – to its very inception. We plan to tell the story of how that record company came into being in seven blog entries over the next seven days….

You might remember from an earlier blog entry that Fred had been working for Thomas Edison’s Columbia Phonograph Company before meeting the eccentric inventor, Emile Berliner. Berliner had worked out how to record on flat discs that were a marked improvement on the cylinders being used by Edison. He called his playback device the gramophone. Fred asked Berliner for a job when he felt he was was ready to take the new invention to market.

Later in 1893 Fred recalls that he “received a postcard asking me to come and see him [Berliner]. In great anticipation I called at his house. he informed me that in recent months his laboratory experiments had culminated in the production of a recording and reproducing process sufficiently advanced to place on the market. He also confided to me that three of his relatives and friends had formed a small syndicate to exploit his gramophone. With the limited funds he wanted to make a small programme of songs and music for demonstration purposes in order to raise capital for promoting a company. He told me I was just the person he was looking for….My value to Berliner rested in the fact that I could collect quickly a variety of effective talent to make these demonstration records.”

Fred of course said yes to Berliner’s offer and they switched into business start up mode. Over the next six days we plan to highlight some of the key moments in the setting up of what would become the record business. All the great recordings from Sinatra to The Beatles to Lady Gaga can be traced back to the events of the next few years. 1893 to 1897 saw the invention of recording sound become a business.

HMV 363 Oxford Street

This was the Daddio of record shops. HMV 363 Oxford Street, London in the late 1950’s:

The shop plays a part in The Beatles story. HMV, which was then part of EMI, had a small recording studio that members of the public could record songs for their sweethearts. In February 1962 Brian Epstein was in London doing the rounds of the London record companies trying (unsuccessfully) to get a record deal for the boys. He stopped at HMV Records at 363 Oxford Street to get some acetate discs made from the (unsuccessful) reel-to-reel Decca demo. The disc-cutter was Jim Foy who mentioned the group to publisher Sid Colman who in turn mentioned them to George Martin at E.M.I.’s studios in Abbey Road NW8. George gave The Beatles a recording test some months later and the rest is history.

People also bought music there!

You can browse more wonderful photos from HMV in the 1960’s here

The original HMV shop burnt down in 1937 to be rebuilt and reopened 2 years later on 8th May 1939. Sir Thomas Beecham, the famous conductor, opened the store. Here is his speech and photos of the fire.

The original shop was opened in 1921 by Sir Edward Elgar (who also opened Abbey Road Studios ten years later)

The shop closed down on April 2000. A certain George Martin was there to send it on its way with a Blue Plaque.

Publicity photos of the early Gramophone stars #2 Albert and ‘is old Dutch

This is the second in a series of publicity shots from the early years of the recording business that our friends at the EMI Archive Trust have made available to us. These two photos are of Abert Chevalier who was a comedian, actor and music hall star at the turn of the last century. He is clearly throwing himself into the world of PR – much more so than opera stars Gluck & Homer in our previous photo.

Chevalier’s most famous act was as a singing Cockney costermonger (or market trader; which must be the top photo) and biggest hit was My Old Dutch which was a sentimental tune about a man’s love for his wife ( its Cockney rhyming slang: Dutch = Duchess of Fife = wife). It was written in 1892 and already hugely popular when Fred Gaisberg recorded Chevalier singing it at the Maiden Lane studios in 1899. The tune was a hit both in the UK and US and went on to two spawn two films of the same name, the first starring Chevalier in 1915. His full name has to be mentioned; he was born Albert Onesime Britannicus Gwathveoyd Louis Chevalier. We are going to give Mr C 4/5 for his photo pose but will award him an extra half a mark for that collection of forenames. So, final PR score for effort in a publicity photo = 4.5/5. Great score.

If you have been affected by any of the content included in this post please dont hesitate to get in touch with The EMI Archive Trust who will be happy to talk to you about this picture and the rest of their wonderful collection.

“No place for a woman in a recording studio”. Delia Derbyshire denied by Decca invents (soundtrack to) time travel.

There are not that many prominent women in the history of recorded sound. Indeed there are not that many women working in recording studios even today. Boffins and creatives have tended to have the odd Y chromosone or two. The recording studio can be like a gang hut. A step from Lord of the Flies in one direction and a hop and a skip from a soldering iron in the other. Not a place for a lady then….at least that was what the head of Decca Recording Studios in London thought in the late 1950’s. When recording enthusiast Delia Derbyshire applied for a job, she was told unequivocably that Decca did not employ women in their recording studios. (An executive from Decca Records would also famously turn down The Beatles a couple of years later as they thought guitar bands were on the way out…..)

Like The Beatles, Delia was not one to be put off easily. She landed herself a job at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1962 and went on to create some of the most experimental music of the 1960’s and in doing so turned the recording studio itself into a star. The workshop is best known for having created the most famous theme music on British TV, Doctor Who. But there was way more to its story and that of Delia Derbyshire, one of its central characters.

In 1966, she founded a music entity/pop group called Unit Delta Plus with fellow Radiophonic Workshop member Brian Hodgson and EMS founder Peter Zinovieff. This organisation pre-dated the British Electrical Foundation by 15 years and Kraftwerk by 4 years and was a vehicle to create and promote electronic music. They played at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave at which The Beatles’ “Carnival of Light” had its only public performance in 1967. Delia also helped set up the Kaleidophon studio in Camden Town with Hodson and fellow electronic musician David Vorhaus. The studio produced electronic music for various London theatres and, in 1968, the three founders made an album as the band White Noise.

Here is part one of an excellent radio documentary about Delia with appropriate images (you can find the other parts on youtube)

And here is a fascinating snippet of Delia playing the tape machines:

And finally here is Electric Storm by White Noise.

We’ve been adding some new photos to our Recording Studios section: Dylan, Ziggy, U2, Joe Meek, Floyd

Hover your cursor over the Recording Studios item on the menu strip (above) and choose a Studio to go to. Currently showing Joe Meek in 1961, Bob Dylan in Columbia Records Studio A in 1963, Abbey Road Studio 3 in 1973 at the time of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon, Trident Studios, where David Bowie recorded Ziggy Stardust, in the 1970’s and Olympic Studios in 2008 with U2 recording the last session before the studios sadly close.

Publicity photos of the early recording stars #1 Gluck & Homer

Musicians at the start of the twentieth century weren’t just having to learn how to deal with the new recording technologies, they were also called upon to help publicise their discs. They appear to have taken to the PR side of things with varying degrees of enthusiasm and success. This is the first of a series of publicity shots from the early years of the recording business that our friends at the EMI Archive Trust have made available to us.

This first act up are Gluck & Homer. Two ladies. They were both successful classical soloists (one Rumanian, one American) who joined together to sing sombrous old religious songs. Despite this, the pair enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1910’s.

Gluck & Homer

Louise Homer, seated, was the American. She appears to be holding several dead foxes in her lap as she pretends to listen to the latest sounds from the rounds and her displeasure in the experience is clear from her stony faced demeanour. Louise was once described as “having the world’s most beautiful voice” by Nellie Melba herself. She would seem to be wondering how that had led her to this dreadful situation.

Her partner, Alma Gluck, is a PR natural. She is throwing herself into the pretend listening experience. Eyes closed, Alma is clearly lost in music but she was caught in no trap, though, because Ms Gluck tasted much success in a career which crossed over from the classics to the mainstream. Her 1916 recording of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” for the Victor Talking Machine Company was the first celebrity recording by a classical musician to sell one million copies.

We’ve decided to award marks for publicity posing to each of the photos in this series. Ms Gluck is awarded 5/10 for trying. Ms Homer rather lets the side down. She scrapes a sour faced lemon sucking 2/10. That’s an average 3.5/10 for Gluck & Homer. Tune in soon for more in this fascinating series.

You can check out the sounds of this old skool combo right here:

There is a website that reviews whiskies and matches them to appropriate music to drink along to. The game Ms Gluck’s singing is considered suitable to smooth the palette for a drop of Arran whisky. This might not have been a prudent selection as Ms Gluck sadly died from cirrhosis of the liver. Perhaps unsurprisingly Ms Homer has yet to be chosen to accompany a tipple on the site.

“That faint perfume of the salons” The Gramophone Company moves into Opera. 1902.

In the early days of their UK business (i.e. before 1900), Gaisberg and the Gramophone company made good headway in persuading music hall stars and comedians to record with the new Gramophone technology. They found it much more difficult to persuade the great Opera singers of the day to condescend to do so.

To try to alter this, Gaisberg recruited Landon Ronald, who had been Nellie Melba’s pianist and is seen above posing with her, to come on board as an A&R man to actively target the recruitment of Opera stars to the cause in 1900. Their breakthrough came a couple of years later with the huge success of the first Caruso recordings in 1902 which proved that the new medium sounded good but also, crucially, that it was a lucrative new source of revenues for the singers.

On May 30th 1902 Pol Plancon, who was a leading Opera star, arrived at Maiden Lane for a first recording session with Gaisberg in pursuit of the recording shilling. This photo is from the EMI Archives and shows Plancon in a publicity shot. Fred remembered him as “daintily booted and gloved like a Parisian dandy with that faint perfume of the salons about him” which certainly concurs with the picture. Plancon was not impressed by the dingy premises at Maiden Lane, literally turning his nose up at the place. It took some witty stories from Landon Ronald, who was there as accompanist, to relax Plancon sufficiently to deliver his contracted 10 sides of music.

Emile Berliner cuts the first discs: Tvinkle, tvinkle, little star, how I vunder vot you are

Emile Berliner may have been the most talented of all the great inventors playing with the new audio technology during the second half of the 19th century. He was born in Germany 160 years ago today, May 20th 1851, and moved to the states when he was 19.

Berliner is probably most famous in the recording business for having invented both the Gramophone and the flat disc – what most people would call “a record” but he also invented technologies that drove forward telephony, telegrams, aviation, helicopters and public sanitation to name a few.

Fred Gaisberg first met Berliner in 1894. Fred was working for Thomas Edison at the time but it looked as though Edison’s Phonograph was likely to fail as the stenographers of Washington turned Luddite. The phonograph played back music that had been recorded upon wax cylinders. Gaisberg was just turned twenty at this point. He’d heard about another guy in the city of Washington who was doing interesting things with sound recording and called in to see him. That man was Emile Berliner.

Gaisberg made the visit with a friend called Billy Golden who was a comedian that Fred had recorded for Edison.

A face even his mother found hard to love.....

Fred recalled that they “found Emile Berliner in his small labatory on New York Avenue…Berliner certainly did make me smile. Dressed in a monkish frock, he paced up and down the small studio buzzing on a diaphragm.

“Hello, hello!” he recited in a guttural broken English. Tvinkle, tvinkle, little star, how I vunder vot you are.”

Berliner placed a muzzle over Golden’s mouth and connected this up by a rubber hose to a diaphragm. I was at the piano….Berliner said “Are you ready?” and upon our answering “Yes” he began to crank like a barrel-organ and said “go”.

The song finished, Berliner stopped cranking. He took from the machine a bright zinc disc and plunged it into an acid bath for a few minutes. Then taking it out of the acid, he washed and cleaned the disc. Placing it on a reproducing machine also operated by hand like a coffee grinder, he played back the resulting record from the etched groove.

To our astonished ears came Billy Golden’s voice. Berliner proudly explined to us just how his method was superior to the phonograph. He said that in his process the recording stylus vibrated laterally on a flat surface, thus always encountering an even resistance and this accounted for the more natural tone.

Acquainted as I was with the tinny unnatural reproduction of the cylinder-playing phonographs, I was spell bound by the beautiful round tone of the flat gramophone disc. Before I departed that day, I exacted a promise from Berliner that he would let me work for him when his machine was ready for development.

Gaisberg was working for Berliner with a few months.

This is a great film about Berliner and the Gramophone that we found on youtube. Did you make it? Get in touch!

Recording 2011. Gorillaz new record (largely) made on an ipad

One of the great records of 2010 was Plastic Beach by Gorillaz.

Whilst they were touring the record around the States last autumn they made a new album that seems to reflect the feeling of being on an endless tour. interesting thing about the new record is that Damon Albarn, who “is” Gorillaz, made the record on his ipad.

Well almost…..vocals were added later in a studio and it was mixed and mastered in a studio. But the underlying sounds were made on the tour bus on an ipod. Quite remarkable. The album is called The Fall. Here’s the lovely Revolving Doors.