Death is pretty final….I am collecting vinyl. R.E.M.
78 rpm, what is that? 45 rpm, haven’t a clue. 33 rpm, give me a break. 16 rpm, is this a physics question paper? Something to do with turbine speeds? And it’s nothing to do with one of those Latin American countries that boast of 45 revolutions per minute. Hint: think back, think vinyl. Those of you above 40 years of age, no make that 50 years of age, are probably straining at the leash, eager beavers and quiz-toppers putting your hands up and going, ‘They are all gramophone record speeds.’ You can go straight to the top of the class. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to explain, to those under 30, or perhaps 40 years of age, what gramophone records are. Come to that, one might even have to launch into an involved explanation of what gramophones are. Or were. However, as I am running against the clock to meet a deadline, I will save the lecture on gramophones (or radiograms) for a later date. For the nonce, I shall stick to vinyl records. Vinyl records, what is that, I hear you ask. Now look here my friend, I admire your insatiable thirst for knowledge and your gargantuan ignorance on matters more than four or five decades previous, but you will simply have to let me narrate this story my way. So please, no more interruptions. All, hopefully, will be revealed.
To the smart-aleck who responded to the opening sentence of this piece by identifying those mystical numbers as gramophone record speeds, I doff my metaphorical hat. By the abundance of grey, thinning hair on your pate Sir, I am rightly guessing that you are closer to sixty years old, and thus your familiarity with vinyl records and their speeds comes as no surprise. To those of you who were born during the early 50s or prior to that, all this will be old hat, if you’ll pardon the hat parallel again. That would include me as well, as I am now well stricken, having entered the serene seventies. As for those amongst you of the present generation who consider even compact discs as one with the dinosaurs, pin your ears back, peel your eyes, listen carefully and read concentratedly.
Traditionally, there were always records in my household, as far back as I can remember. That would take me back to the early to late 50s when we were stationed (my dad was an itinerant banker) in Rangoon, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. At the time they were all 78 rpms, each side ran for not more than three minutes or so and if you dropped them, they broke. I am proud to say I have broken a few records in my time! The stylus attached to the record playing arm had to be frequently changed, else the music would jump scratchily, much to our annoyance. If you had a slightly advanced radiogram, Grundig for instance, you could stack eight 78 rpm records at the same time, and they would play one after the other. Incidentally, these radiograms were designed to blend in nicely with the rest of the drawing room furniture. For the record (sorry about the double entendre again), the music in our home that predominated with the 78s were mainly Carnatic music and Tamil film songs with a distinctly Carnatic flavour. We kids were too young to have a say in what records were purchased, as that was entirely my parents’ province. With the benefit of hindsight, I am glad of their choice of records as that stream of music has always stayed with me, never mind influences that came later on.
A few years down the road, the mini 45 rpms, standard and extended plays came into being. By now, I was in school and being exposed to pop music of the Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard vintage. If it wasn’t the former’s Teddy Bear, it would invariably be the latter’s The Young Ones. These records were made of some durable piece of plastic and were unbreakable, unless you took a hammer to them. As were the 33 rpm long-playing records, LPs, which played for upwards of 45 minutes. Incidentally, I have never come across a 16 rpm ‘plate,’ though the gramophone provided for that speed as well. By now The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and their long-haired rivals had stormed the staid bastions and we spotty-faced teenagers were over the moon, twisting and shouting to the adolescent sounds of Liverpool and London. LPs, however, were expensive at around Rs. 35 a go and not easily affordable during those days. Once in a blue moon, a birthday present from my parents or some generous uncle digging deep into his pockets made my day.
So how did we music-hungry souls go about getting access to these records? Rich friends, if they happened to share your taste in music, were a good source for borrowing records. The BBC World Service radio, with their weekly updates on the latest Top Twenty hits were ‘must-tune-in’ shows and a reliable guide to which bands or singers to look out for. Best of all, in Calcutta (and other metros), we had these well-stocked and well-appointed record shops which we would visit ever so often, primarily to browse and pore lovingly over the new releases. Many of the LP cover sleeves were truly works of art. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band springs immediately to mind. What’s more, many of these shops had cozy private record-paying booths where you could take a record of your choice and listen to it quietly with headphones provided. I particularly recall, with much fondness, Harry’s Music House on Calcutta’s main street, Chowringhee. They had a wonderful collection of western music – pop, jazz and classical. The well-informed Anglo-Indian lady who presided over the shop, let’s call her Mrs. Harry, was most kind and indulgent. She knew only too well many of us could not afford to buy these records, but she would let us sit and listen to them in these booths for hours. However, if well-heeled customers started trooping in, she would turf us out with a stern, ‘That’ll do for today, young lad, you can come back tomorrow and listen to the rest of it.’ On occasion, she even chided a couple of us for being obsessed with The Beatles. ‘What’s this Beatles, Beatles all the time man, listen to some Frank Sinatra or Connie Francis, no?’ ‘Next time, Mrs. Harry’, we would bleat as we trotted out of the shop sheepishly. Of course, there is no Harry’s Music House any more, or for that matter, New Gramophone Stores on Lindsay Street near New Market and many other similar, friendly establishments. All one with the dodo.
With Spotify and Amazon Music pervading our lives now, any kind of music that we want is available at the tap of a key and for the most part, free to air. Brilliant sound quality, as well. You might say it’s a bonanza, leaving many of us in the now familiar quandary of trying to figure out what to do with all the CDs we graduated to after vinyl records went out of fashion. I am still clinging on to my CDs, and will do so as long as my CD player is still on oxygen and responding to external aids. Did I say, vinyl records went out of fashion? I tell a lie. Ironically, the most expensive items on Amazon, if you go to the music section, are vinyl records. It has great snob value, and there are those who swear that the true genuine sound of music can only be derived from the grooves of the vinyl and a diamond stylus. It’s rather like drooling over a vintage Rolls Royce, the older the better. Perhaps I should rummage in my cupboard to see if there are any old bell-bottoms lying around. I could have them dusted off, altered to suit my present generous girth and have them dry-cleaned. I will cut quite a dash at the next old school boys’ reunion, with Elvis’ Blue Suede Shoes trembling on my lips.