Friday, 27 September 2013

make your own record in 3 minutes

Roll the clock back half a century, and all kinds of fondly remembered coin-in-the-slot machines awaited passengers on the concourses of railway stations. From platform ticket machines, name plate machines, vending machines, photobooths, and of course, automatic recording booths.

In the UK these machines were originally manufactured by the Amusement Equipment Company who were based at the Wembley Exhibition Grounds site built in the early 1920s. Their 'Voice Records', 5" sized aluminium discs, were all the rage following their introduction at the 1935 Olympia Radio show. Anyone could cut a 78 rpm disc for just 6d in department stores, at the end of piers and railway stations. It's very likely that they were then dismantled early on during WW2 - not for scrap - but more likely because they could have been a security risk ('Walls Have Ears'). I've heard that the Voice Records machines were in fact converted so they could 'speak your weight' instead. It would then take some 25 years for the automatic coin-in-the-slot recording machine to be revived...

Fast forward into the pop boom of the 1960s, when 7" singles captivated the hearts of music loving teenagers. For half-a-crown (2s 6d) you could now make your own unique, one of a kind, 45 rpm disc. This time it was a 'Calibre' disc - it even looked like a vinyl single - and 'released' in booths manufactured by The British Automatic Company. The BAC had been making all kinds of coin-in-the-slot machines since the late 19th century, and had plants all over Britain, with their headquarters in the heart of the City of London. Again like the AEC in the '30s, the BAC recording booths became a popular landmark in public spaces throughout the nation. Thousands of one-of-a-kind records were recorded - and many still survive today. From joyous birthday greetings and spoken love letters, to wannabe Bob Dylan's strumming behind the booth's closed sliding-door. Like this one, photographed in 1967 at Waterloo Station:

the sign boldy proclaims 'HI-FI', but in reality most of these recordings were stunningly LO-FI

This is a rather worn 7" on the BAC's Calibre label

Another BAC format was the 6" 45 rpm single

This is a blank Calibre disc. It has a 'dinkable' centre hole (for jukebox use!)

The BAC automatic recording booths stumbled into the 1970s, and then began to be phased out as the public turned in droves to the lure of audio cassette culture. It's difficult to pinpoint a final cut-off date for these Calibre discs - except when somebody discovers an inspired Auto Recording cover of some top-ten hit from somewhere around the mid-1970s...

But nowadays, when we check out a Calibre disc, we immediately crash through a mighty potent audio window into the world of '60s Britain, when everyone could be a pop star for as little as 2s 6d!

Fono Post, Netherlands, 1950

Back to the first wave of 'make your own records' coin-operated machines. I've not come across a contemporary photograph of a 1930's 'Voice Records' machine in situ within the UK. But images do survive of the very same design which had been exported to the Netherlands (most likely before WW2). In 1950, the 'Fono Post' scheme was officially taken up by the Dutch postal service. The idea was that the user would purchase a special token, and could 'Step Up To The Mike' and record a personal message at their local participating Post Office. Judging by the scarcity of the Dutch 5" aluminium discs, the service was neither successful nor long lasting.

If you'd like to discover more about this kind of audio recording scheme designed for the public, please check my earlier posts entitled 'Send it with Sound' Pts 1 & 2, which focus on another short-lived scheme, this time using tape cassettes during the 1980s...

Monday, 16 September 2013

We are Controlling Transmission

It was fifty years ago today, on the 16th September 1963...
There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image; make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control  all that you see and hear. We repeat: There is nothing wrong with your television set. Your are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to THE OUTER LIMITS
That first ever episode was the superb 'The Galaxy Being' about a radio engineer who is experimenting with a transceiving device which scans 3D static. He tunes into a being from the constellation Andromeda...
...and the rest is legend.
Happy 50th Anniversary to a very special SF TV series which along with 'The Twilight Zone' (which preceded it by four years), are the finest examples of the genre. The Outer Limits was made at the tail end of a very creative 'golden age' in American television dramas, and it was amazing how anthology series like this managed to offer up such memorable, haunting and stylish fare week after week.
Like so many others in the UK, I first saw the Outer Limits in 1980 when the series was broadcast late night on a Friday on BBC 2. Up to this point, the show was something that had been cited in the pages of second hand SF books and magazines, with just a few grainy tantalizing B&W stills on offer. Now the time had arrived to "sit quietly...and experience the awe and mystery..."
At first the episodes were screened out of order, so in fact 'The Galaxy Being' was shown several months into the run - but in the end, we got to see all of the 49 episodes that were ever made - and after a dozen or so - mostly in sequence too. I'll never forget watching them all those years ago. So many classics: The Man Who Was Never Born, The Forms Of Things Unknown, Demon With A Glass Hand, ZZZZZ, The Invisibles, A Feasibility Study, The Inheritors. I could go on and on...
So back to the Andromedan being...
"...there are powers in the Universe beyond anything you know. There is much you have to learn. You must explore. You must reach out. Go to your homes - go and give thought to the mysteries of the Universe.
I will leave you peace"

The Galaxy Being as depicted on a bubble gum card produced in 1964

Thursday, 12 September 2013

eff off

This is an unexpectedly raw and provocative book title which slipped onto the bookshop shelves firstly in hardback in 1969, and then as a paperback in 1971. It then slid out of sight - but not completely...

It's a novel about a young teacher at a 'special school' for 'violent' children - and according to the blurb on the back of the paperback edition - it reflects the genuine experiences of the American-born author, Sandy Hutson, who came to Britain, and worked as an 'unqualified' teacher. There's a wild quote from the New Statesman which reckoned that 'eff off' sends E.R.Braithwaite's 'To Sir, With Love' "back to the kindergarten!". That classic 1959 semi-autobiographical novel about a British Guiana-born teacher gaining the respect of truculent pupils at a school in Shadwell, East London, is perhaps the best-known of this kind of 'against-the-odds-getting-through-to-the-kids' genre. Perhaps because the 1967 film based on the novel was so very popular - and with a chart-topping title song taken from the film soundtrack.

Another book covering similar terrain (and given the film treatment too) is today much less well-remembered - Michael Croft's 'Spare the Rod' from 1954.

Back to 'eff off'. Here's the '69 hardback edition with its illustrated dust jacket:

published by Arlington Books
But it's the paperback cover that truly rocks. What a coup for Pan Books to come up with such a spell-bindingly punchy cover. I can imagine that most shops of the time shoved it out of sight of young people - and thus making this Five Shilling book quite a scarce item to track down these days. For those who want to read the actual four-letter F-word abbreviated in the title - there are plenty of chances inside. Another reason perhaps why this book was not the most heavily promoted of the literature covering the social issues of the day.

Pan Books Ltd 1971
There are no clues at all about the cover designer anywhere within 'eff off'. Just white lower-case lettering on a sheer black background. The look perfectly straddles both the counter-culture '68 imagery, and the Crass-style punk logos a decade later. And the author's name is nowhere to be seen on the front of the book.

Nice to compare with the 'period' paperback treatment of those earlier classroom-based novels:

Panther Edition 1957

Ace Books 1961

And back to 'eff off' once again. In fact just like the two novels above, 'eff off' the book, did find its way onto film. But (sadly) nobody chose to go near the original title.

Instead, take a hunt around the web and you'll find 'The Class of Miss MacMichael', a 1978 film based on Sandy Hutson's book. It reunited 'Women in Love' stars Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson and was shot on location in London, but it seems to have been punished by the critics, and ignored by the public.

Maybe the time's right for a new cinematic take on the inner city classroom genre. If so, you could do no worse than take the title which still packs a punch. Eff Off.