A SONIC HANDSHAKE

Say the name ‘Grundig’ to anyone of a certain age and the electronics company that was Germany’s first true post-war success story will instantly evoke memories of reel-to-reel tape recorders. Grundig was ahead of the competition in getting what had previously been the province of recording studios, radio stations and sonic pioneers such as the BBC Radiophonic Workshop onto the domestic market in the 1950s and 60s; but the Germans had been at the forefront of magnetic tape technology before the Second World War – indeed, the Nazis made full use of such technology when relaying propaganda across Europe. The advances that enabled tape recordings to be broadcast over the airwaves in audio quality indistinguishable from a live transmission were unearthed by the Allies when liberating Radio Luxembourg at the fag-end of hostilities, and once peace was achieved Grundig was established as a leading manufacturer of both radios and television sets; but it was the tape recorder for which the company became best known in the UK.

I remember as a child the novelty of hearing my own voice played back on my granddad’s reel-to-reel, a machine he kept on a shelf in what passed for a front parlour, the room generally reserved for visitors and special occasions. He seemed to use the tape recorder primarily to record from the radio – mainly music, but I also recall him having reels of Open University programmes when he was studying (appropriately enough) German. As there were no visible means of connecting the two machines, recording from the radio entailed placing the tape recorder’s microphone as close to the wireless as possible and gesturing for anyone else in the room to be silent for the duration. As I got a little older, I was trusted to play with the tape recorder on my own without breaking it, and I tended to produce my own spoof radio programmes rather than recording the real thing. It goes without saying I’d love to hear what I did, but I should imagine the reels were recorded over once I’d returned home. My granddad only ever appeared to have a limited number of them and never seemed to buy new ones.

By the time the audio cassette gradually superseded the old Grundig reels as an easier and cheaper means of recording, I acquired my own portable tape recorder; I picked up where I’d left off from my granddad’s machine by continuing to produce my own ‘programmes’, but I also recorded a good deal from TV and radio – favourite shows and chart hits from the Sunday institution of the teatime Top 40. What became colloquially known as ‘the mix-tape’ evolved from this practice; more than one generation got into the habit of not simply recording entire LPs on the spanking new hi-fi units with built-in tape decks, but putting together a unique compilation of tracks by different – or the same – artists. By the early 1980s, the widespread accessibility of home recording – despite the music industry warning it was ‘killing music’ – meant any music fan in the country would have dozens of what were effectively their own personal equivalents of the old K-Tel albums on cassette. Just as the advent of the VCR took control of one’s viewing habits out of the hands of broadcasters, being able to make one’s own compilation cassette gave the listener a sense of liberation from record companies deciding the running order.

The fact that most public libraries had a record section back then meant it was possible to tape what might be the one track worth hearing on an album without having to pay for eleven duff ones; this could then be incorporated into the latest mix-tape. Pre-YouTube or Spotify, tracking down rarer material could be an expensive business, one that would require endless fruitless hours spent in stuffy second-hand record shops, so record libraries were essential to compiling the mix-tape. Sometimes, the mix-tape was famously used as a new tool of wooing, competing with the old standbys of chocolates and flowers and sparing the besotted suitor from having to serenade his sweetheart from below her balcony. Speaking personally, if I ever passed on mix-tapes to anyone they tended to be friends I was hoping to introduce to music I wanted them to love as much as me. If this was appreciated, I’d become more ambitious and make multi-artist mix-tapes based around a particular genre or theme; this now tends to be the formula for every mix-tape I make, though the format has changed. Today, the ‘tape’ is a CD; I realise even this makes me sound prehistoric to anyone under 40, but I like my music on a physical object, and being able to burn discs on my PC has enabled me to compile the most sonically satisfying mix-tapes I’ve ever put together.

The mix-tape can often mean a ‘dream album’ that the music business would never sanction becomes a reality. The cream of the solo material issued by the ex-Beatles during the first twelve months after the split – containing the likes of ‘Instant Karma’, ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘It Don’t Come Easy’ – actually makes for a pretty bloody good Beatles album that never was; but it is the multi-artist mix-tape that remains the cottage industry standard – and it is often gathering together the more obscure and unknown under one thematic umbrella that can produce the most rewarding listening experience. In some cases, bedroom compilers of the mix-tape have graduated to the real world and have made officially issuing such compilations a worthy sideline career. Chief amongst these are two I’ve mentioned several times before, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of St Etienne. The series of thematic albums they’ve released over the past five years have put the legitimate seal on the concept of the mix-tape once and for all.

A good friend has forwarded several of these to me, beginning with ‘English Weather’, an album that captures a musically diverse moment at the uncertain opening of the 70s by placing little-known tracks by known (if esoteric) acts such as Caravan, Camel, John Cale, and Van Der Graaf Generator alongside the likes of The Orange Bicycle, T2, Aardvark, and Belle Gonzalez. The ensuing musical tapestry brilliantly invokes an imaginary provincial afternoon somewhere in 1970, watching the rainfall through the window and daydreaming of a sunny Nirvana called California. Equal care has been taken with the packaging of the album, which comes wrapped in a series of poignant photographs of 1970s Leeds in a state of perennial demolition taken by Peter Mitchell. Although this album inadvertently ended up as the soundtrack to an especially traumatic personal period for yours truly, it nevertheless remains alluringly atmospheric, as does its recently-acquired sequel, ‘Occasional Rain’, in which Traffic, The Moody Blues, Argent and Yes share space with none other than Granny’s Intentions. They just don’t name bands the same way today.

Other albums in the series I’ve been fortunate enough to acquire include ‘The Tears of Technology’ (turn-of-the 80s synth obscurities), ‘76 in the Shade’ (the perfect musical accompaniment to memories of the Long Hot Summer), and ‘Tim Peaks’, a blend of moody 80s, 90s and relatively contemporary unknowns that combine to create the hazy background soundtrack to a laidback evening in the company of friends as the wine flows and the head swims. The whole is always greater than the disparate sum of its parts where these albums are concerned; the compilers have the knack of selecting perhaps the one great song that some of the more obscure acts produced and when lined up alongside each other they constitute a fine testament to the story of the mix-tape. And it’s a story that has nothing to do with subjects I am exceedingly weary of. For today at least, I’ll deal with one of them via a different vehicle as I disappear to compile my next mix-tape…

You Ain’t Black! from Johnny Monroe on Vimeo.

© The Editor

9 thoughts on “A SONIC HANDSHAKE

  1. Memories again – buried deep in my loft there remains my trusty Grundig TK25, a device on which I’ll confess to recording illegally both ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘Pick of the Pops’ every week for a few years in the mid-late 60s, creating a new background soundtrack for the weekly youth club each Wednesday. Not very selective, just whatever was riding high in the charts that week, but those many hours of real-time dedication earned me much kudos with the club members, rewardingly sometimes with the half of the membership which interested me the most. In fact, the accompanying tape-stash probably still contains some of the final tapes I compiled, I must check them out sometime.

    The process was indeed challenging, requiring a reliable output source at a mid-range volume, TV or radio speaker, against which would be placed the circular Grundig microphone, overlaid by a cushion to eliminate any external echoing – family members were aware that silence was demanded during this process, although the recent acquisition of a telephone did occasionally interfere until I worked out that leaving it off the hook was safest. And then there was the intense annoyance of the DJs insisting on randomly talking over the intro or out-tro of any record – post-recording editing was impractical, so any errors there were write-offs.

    But the old Grundig’s not lonely up there in the loft, it has the company of an equally venerable Grundig TK24, which formed part of the dowry when Mrs M joined me some time after. I don’t think either machine has been used since then, don’t really know why we kept them, but at least it’s a material reminder of all the distant memories re-awakened by your piece. Thanks for that.

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    1. I remember recording something from the radio on my old tape recorder as a kid, using the same microphone-stuck-next-to-the-speaker tactic; I was in the house on my own, thinking I could finally get a decent recording without it being ruined by someone coughing or opening a door. Right at the point when there was a brief silence on whatever I was recording, a bleedin’ ice cream van appeared on the street, playing ‘Green Sleeves’ at a volume level that couldn’t have been louder had it been coming through a PA at Wembley Arena. Ah, the forgotten perils!

      Incidentally, might be worth checking the contents of those old TOTP reels someday soon. The Kaleidoscope group, which routinely cleans up and preserves audio and video recordings of wiped TV and radio shows, are always on the look-out for lost programmes. TOTP is a regular target for them, as it was particularly decimated by the BBC practice of erasing tapes back in the 60s and 70s, so you may well be sitting on a valuable archive there.

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      1. On the basis that my recordings were of only the music, none of the chatter, and almost all the music being mimed, all I actually got was a cheapskate, lo-fi version of the standard 45rpm disc, good enough for its later max-volume repeating in a draughty old church hall. Can’t imagine those would have much allure for the keen audio historians.

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      2. Ah, fair enough. Used to do the same myself re TOTP/Top 40; I still associate some hits from the period in question with abrupt edits as songs reach their end with a few seconds of a DJ gatecrashing the fade-out.

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      1. I think I was still recording onto cassette as late as the early 2000s, but nothing like I had been before. I seem to remember cassettes were harder to get hold of and the sound quality was deteriorating.

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      2. Last cassettes I bought were Bowie’s “Hours” and Manic Street Preachers “Know Your Enemy” in 2001. Not even sure why I bought them on cassette as I had largely being only buying CD’s at that point.

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      3. I rarely bought albums on cassette, mainly using the format as a means of recording; the albums I owned on cassette tended to be bought for me at Xmas or I was brought back dubious, bootleg-looking versions from foreign holidays. I seemed to go straight from vinyl to CD, to be honest.

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      4. I was probably just a few years’ too young for vinyl. Of course it’s deeply fashionable now, and my CD and cassette tape collection is near to worthless, not that I plan on parting with it.

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