So, you love the 50s so much, I bet you wish you lived back then, yeah? That’s a refrain I’d lay money that most of us with a passion for the past have heard a thousand times, and someday it’s got to the be subject of a soul-searching article on whether I would step into that Tardis and, if so, what destination I’d put on the dial. But, more prosaically, and assuming that time travel isn’t an option, the next bit of the challenge usually goes something like “So, tell me you’ve only got a wind-up gramophone at home, then” which, although woefully ignorant of the development history of the record player, is a more legitimate challenge. After all, isn’t there an argument that, for the true vintage experience, we should limit ourselves to the technology available in our chosen period? To a degree it’s possible, of course – records sound pretty good played on equipment from the era they were released (and 78s in particular sound much better on the players designed for them); valve radios still work and some of them could receive FM (or VHF as it would appear on their dials); you can still get film for most original cameras and, so long as they’re wired up properly, even vintage telephones will work on the modern network (well, at least until BT unilaterally disables the system). Quite apart from the desire to be purist, there’s also a huge satisfaction in using original technology, otherwise it just becomes something to look at and be dusted. I’ve written before about the greater connection one gets with the music when playing it on vinyl, particularly in the case of singles where you can’t wander too far away before the music stops, and isn’t there at least some tactile thrill about the knobs and dials of the Bakelite era. But before we get into the realms of those tacky magazine articles that describe how ‘Doug and Brenda’s house is a 50s timewarp where technology stands still’ (usually with some glaring 80s derivative item in centre shot), what are the bits of technology that genuinely contribute to our enjoyment of the vintage scene that we wouldn’t want to do without?
As music means so much to us, I’ve got to start with the explosion in the portability of music since the arrival of the cassette, and particularly the Sony Walkman in the 1980s. Setting aside some pretty bulky ‘portable’ (or ‘it’s got a handle on it’) bits of sound equipment and those 45-eating in-car record players, getting your music collection out of the house in the 50s and 60s usually meant loading a bunch of records into a box and carting them to somewhere else where you could find a record player. Admittedly, you might have found something to your taste on a jukebox, but there weren’t too many of them around and even 100 records didn’t give you great odds at finding your favourites. Nope – right up until the cassette, your music collection pretty much stayed where it was, making the outside world a barren desert for your ears. The evolution of formats helped – the recordable cassette not only enabled the portable player but also begat the mix tape, allowing you to take the best of your precious records around with you risking only that a player would chew the tape up instead of blasting out the sound. Then came the CD, not recordable initially, but hugely portable and with much improved capacity. But for all its advantages in terms of the ease of manufacture and capacity, even the CD, as a physical format, required you to have a copy in order to play it, and copying CDs in the early days wasn’t easily done (and who in the late 80s didn’t end up taping their mates’ CDs?). For me, the most revolutionary development in the portability of music came with the invention of the MP3, enabling storage and transfer in digital form. Suddenly, or at least as soon as one had acquired the equipment necessary to convert, store and listen to it, music could be carried around in exponentially increasing quantities on devices that could dispense with the mechanical element of motors and heads. I still can’t quite get over the fact that, with my iPod or Mrs M’s wonder-phone, we can carry round huge chunks of our music collection and play it on all kinds of things, from headphones to dinky little speakers, the car stereo or the whomping power speakers in a venue. No, it’s not the same as playing the records themselves – and that’s what we’d rather be doing – but given the choice between our MP3s and scrabbling around trying to find something on the radio that doesn’t make our ears hurt, I’ll take technology every time.
And while we’re on food for the ears, what about the eyes, and a round of applause for whoever worked out how to get moving pictures onto the same format as the CD with the DVD. I still remember the day in 1984 (a good date for that kind of thing) when my classic and cult movie loving Dad suggested we give one of these new videorecorder things a try and signed the forms from Radio Rentals. Within six months, we had a shelf full of tapes we were never going to record over, and by the late 90s my collection had expanded to fill several cupboards. In those first years of the VCR, pre-recorded tapes were an expensive luxury – around £20 at 1980s prices – but whether gleaned by setting the timer for some godforsaken hour of Channel 4 programming, or bought from the Virgin Megastore in Tottenham Court Road as a self-indulgence, we suddenly found that we could watch the kind of cult viewing we wanted, when we wanted to do it. Away went the nights of rushing home, staying in, or staying up, when late night movies became a test of endurance and dedication, rather than enjoyment. But videotapes were still quite clunky, bulky and could only be played on a static system. The switch to DVD meant that as well as collapsing yards of videotape boxes into feet of DVDs (and now just a few big folders having liberated the discs from their covers), they could be moved around easily and played on any device with a screen and the right slot. Again, the ease of manufacture also sparked a massive ramping up of the availability of material in as good a quality as most could wish for, meaning that any vintage movie or TV buff can pretty much recreate any desired evening’s viewing on demand, with the greatest challenge being to stay in long enough to be able to work through the pile of material in the ‘to watch’ pile. My greatest fear is that the inexorable rise of streaming is making the DVD player a more niche piece of equipment. I’m sorry, but no streaming channel I’ve found has the same range of cult viewing as my own collection, and watching some poorly transcribed version on YouTube, stuffed with random adverts, isn’t the same.
So what else wouldn’t I forgo? Tune in (on your digital or valve radio as you prefer) for part two of this confessional when I can remember what the other modern delights were – and if they still exist. In the meantime, for an incisive depiction of a couple electing to live their lives as if it was 1958, look out for ‘Home, I’m Darling’ on a touring stage near you – I won’t go into a review here, but it’s highly recommended.