No matter how hard I try to persuade myself that they’re a very demanding way of collecting recorded music, 78s have a strange hold over me. Perhaps it’s their direct link to the 40s and 50s – a magical thing for a youth obsessed with the period when 45s were still very much the medium of the day; maybe it’s their relatively fragility and ephemeral quality – for a slice of shellac to have survived intact for 60 years or more is quite an achievement as they’ll shatter at the slightest shock. Or maybe it’s the fact that they represent the medium on which so much of the recorded music from that period would first have seen the physical light of day for the average consumer. Either way, despite attempts to go cold turkey, they keep creeping up on me to the extent that when I think I must have a few dozen, I find that they’ve multiplied while I wasn’t looking.
At least some of the mystique must have come from the box of my father’s 78s that sat at the bottom of the wardrobe in the spare room when I was growing up. In retrospect, it wasn’t a gold mine of a collection. The sole rock’n’roll platter listed on the inside of the lid, Bill Haley’s ‘Dance With a Dolly’ c/w ‘Rocking Chair on the Moon’ (presumably on Essex), had at some point disappeared to be replaced – at least with a nod to the genre – with The Goons’ ‘Bloodnok’s Rock’n’Roll Call’. The next closest thing was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s ‘Tailormade Woman’, with the rest made up of a selection of jazz (but who could complain at Fats Waller and George Shearing) and a cross section of 50s pop including Perry Como, Doris Day and the Three Suns. Most of them had clearly been played to death on a radiogram with a dodgy needle as there was a distinct frying bacon hiss overlaying most of them, but it was enough to get me hooked.
As I started haunting junk shops, there was always a stack of them, usually lurking under some rickety table. In those early years, I was less than choosy, scooping up armfuls of anything from the 40s and 50s, but it scored me a growing collection of Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, George Shearing and Ted Heath (the dance band leader, not the Conservative politician), along with the occasional bit of light rock’n’roll and skiffle. Like most collections, it led me to more specialist outlets that ate up my lunch hours from work, like the bins in Ray’s Jazz Shop in Shaftesbury Avenue and a wonderful Brigadoon of a shop known only as LTS up an external iron staircase in the yard inside the triangular block of decaying buildings between Denmark Street and Centre Point. The sense that any stack might contain something special led me to take in boxes of records looking for a new home, which more often than not yielded more in the way of the Oberkirchen Children’s Choir than any slabs of jumping joy. Just occasionally, though, I hit paydirt, like when a trip to visit friends in Gateshead scored me a stack of big band jazz including Bob Haggart and Ray Bauduc’s ‘Big Noise from Winnetka’ – then (somewhat bizarrely) filling the dancefloors of North London clubs as a bopper – whilst one of my other forays turned up a copy of Frankie Lymon’s ‘Mama Don’t Allow It’ on Columbia – again a club favourite. I let that one go as a 21st birthday present to a friend who loved the tune and often wonder if it’s still in good shape – I’ve certainly never seen another.
Like many of my less portable possessions, my 78s found their way to my parents’ attic when my RAF career took me bouncing around the country. I’d transcribed most of them to cassette tape, although in my ignorance I’d simply recorded them using the family hi-fi (well, why not? The Garrard deck had a 78 speed on it). Of course, it wasn’t until many years later that I learned that the groove on a 78 is of a very different profile than that on a vinyl record: shallower and broader and so needing a much ‘fatter’ stylus to get the sound out. Fortunately, I hadn’t played any of them with the wrong stylus enough times to dig deeply into the bottom of the groove (I believe it’s far worse to play vinyl records with a 78 stylus as it carves away the sides of the groove, so ruining the sound permanently) and I had just enough sense to flip over the needle on the Dansette I’d inherited from a great aunt to the side marked ’78’, even though I had no idea why! It was only when the time came to extract my belongings when mum moved that I realized just how many of the things I’d amassed, and panicked at the prospect of loading them into my own already groaning loft with rafters half a century older.
Selling them wasn’t really an option. Time wasn’t on my side (I had them temporarily stored in my Service accommodation near Peterborough) and I knew that, even if I went to the extent of acquiring all the packing material to have even a chance of them arriving in one piece, I’d only end up selling the most sought-after discs and being left with the less desirable ones. By chance, a friend had mentioned someone who DJ’d using only 78s and who consequently was always on the look out for additions to his own collection. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to move them on to a good home where they’d not only be cherished but put to good use; even better, it transpired he lived not far away in Norfolk and so DJ78, or Dave Guttridge as he is known in real life, along with his wife Karen, appeared on my doorstep a week or so later, ready to adopt my shellac. As is so often the case, it turned out we had much in common with roots in the alternative music scene and a love of the obscure and retrospective. As I waved some very heavy crates goodbye, I knew I’d not only found a good home for them but also made a good friend.
But of course, I didn’t get rid of all of them. I allowed myself to keep 25 that meant the most to me – a couple of Dad’s original collection, plus a cross section of my favourites – but no more than would fit into Dad’s original record case.
And then I acquired a few more – just a few, mind you, and strictly stuff that belonged in my wider record collection. And then I came across some more that had to come home with me. But it was OK – I’d got rid of my collection hadn’t I? So these were just a few for old times sake, weren’t they? And then I met Mrs M, and our shared love of record collecting took us to all sorts of places where 78s lurk. As the years have passed, they’ve become even more ‘specialist’ (as in ‘a bit weird’), so the conversation – once we’ve established our credibility, of course – usually goes along the lines of “I don’t suppose you’ve got any 78s knocking around have you?”, to which the answer varies from “Nope, no call for them”, through “I’ve got a few tucked under that rack over there”, to “Ah, come with me…”. The latter inevitably means my writing off the afternoon, or more often frantically leafing through dusty piles of shellac whilst counting down the minutes left on our car parking ticket and/or the patience of the rest of the family who finished their crate digging ages ago. Judging condition is pretty hit and miss – if it’s intact and it doesn’t have the matt finish that usually indicates that it’s been played to death, that’s often the best you can hope for and anything else will have to wait until you’ve got it home, carefully cleaned off years of dust, replaced the crumpled sleeve providing the barest protection with something more robust and entrusted it to the Dansette.
I am, still, trying to be a bit more selective these days and trying to limit myself to rock’n’roll in its various genres or ‘proper’ jazz. One of my aims is to collect a wide selection of examples of original labels, which is where the record dealer fraternity comes in. There really was something special about holding in my hands an original copy of Carl Perkins’ ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ on Sun – it has an almost iconic quality, helped by the knowledge that when Carl’s records started to be pressed exclusively on vinyl 45s, he had no equipment on which to play the first one he brought home which somehow makes the 78 version the ‘right’ one. Buying records on the collectors’ market is all very well, though, but there’s still nothing to beat the thrill of the hunt, and while the chances are that the dusty pile under the table at that vintage shop will consist entirely of light orchestral and middle of the road pop, there’s always the chance that something special might be lurking there, even if the London label you’ve just glimpsed will probably turn out to be another s*dding Pat Boone record!
And so saying, a little bundle of goodies has just arrived from Ian Saddler – time to dig one of the Dansettes with a 78 stylus out of the attic room for a Sunday afternoon spin-up…