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In Writing

Bell Labs: Phonomuseum

November 2017

“Is it possible we’ve come full circle?” asks Clive Bell, as he observes more than a century of revolutions in recording technology, from Thomas Edison's tinfoil phonograph to pink vinyl in Sainsburys

On a recent trip to Paris I explored the streets near the lurid red, welcome to hell windmill of the Moulin Rouge. It’s an area that’s cleaning up its act: rechristened So-Pi (South Pigalle) by rental agencies, massage parlours now rub up against artisan bakeries. It also welcomes musicians. Rue de Douai boasts multiple guitar shops, including a bass specialist, in the same street that was home to Georges Bizet, composer of Carmen. And where the road changes its name to Rue Victor Massé, I find La Pédale, entirely devoted to effects pedals. Coming from the UK, where so much retail has vanished into the ether, it’s exhilarating to see a physical shop like this, with hundreds of colourising, knob-tweaking units on display. Lauded by Derek Walmsley in The Wire 405 as “cheap, almost indestructible and infinitely rearrangeable”, here they all are, laid out like sci-fi jigsaws – “a multitude of pedals whose existence you never even suspected,” in the words of La Pédale’s website.

Round another corner, on Boulevard de Rochechouart, I stumble across the Phonomuseum. This is a lovingly assembled personal collection, open to the public and clinging on despite shoestring funding. Thanks to cunning lighting, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of glamorous machines: players of wax cylinders and shellac discs from the earliest days of sound recording, moving forward via glowing jukeboxes and radiograms to the recently obsolete mini-disc. The emphasis is on the pioneers: Thomas Edison in the US, the four Pathé brothers in France. Each machine is demonstrated for us. There’s something hopelessly moving about the sound of wax cylinders, a tiny window opened onto the foggy soundworld of 120 years ago. Caruso serenades us via ancient earphones. A gramophone is crowned with a circular fan of folded paper, a device to aid sound diffusion to all corners of a room. A colossal record player has two horns and two needles on opposite sides of the disc, pumping out sound across a 1920s Paris dance hall. Beyond the visual strangeness of each machine, in every case the sound itself is fascinating and vivid. Finally we behold Maurice Chevalier’s custom-made radiogram: record player and reel-to-reel tape, side by side in a swishy 1950s cabinet.

I have a family connection with Edison via my great-grandfather William Lynd. Lynd was an actor with a fiery enthusiasm for the latest in science and technology. Family tradition has him carrying around a piece of radium in his pocket, the better to explain to his many daughters the achievements of Madame Curie. In 1890 he placed an ad in The Guardian: “EDISON'S LATEST PHONOGRAPH. The Wonderful Talking-machine.—Mr William Lynd, MIEB, FRMS, can accept ENGAGEMENTS to lecture on and demonstrate this latest marvel of science and practical utility. Mr Lynd is one of Mr Edison's recognised Lecturers, and he has already exhibited the latest Phonograph over 200 times since April.” Among the recordings at Lynd’s demonstrations would have been his own. With his actress wife Ethel he made dozens of wax cylinders of spoken word, from Mark Twain to “A Lover’s Quarrel”, all for the Edison Bell company. William Lynd was cut off by his Manchester family as punishment for insisting on a career in the theatre. He had six children, and it’s tempting to see his tours with his phonograph as a desperate attempt to make some money. His autobiographical book The Truth About The Stage (1885) is not only a terrifying account of mid-19th century provincial gigging, but a warning to parents not to let their children follow the same path.

Shortly after visiting the Phonomuseum, I heard Jon Boden, the ex-singer of Bellowhead, talking on the radio. His new double album presents the same songs recorded twice, the second time on an iPhone around a campfire. “Why an iPhone?” came the question. “We wanted to record on a wax cylinder,” replied Boden, “but for a whole album you need a lot of wax.”

Weirdly, wax is back. The UK based Arabic music group Oxford Maqam recently recorded an entire album of Egyptian popular urban repertoire from around 1900 onto wax, and then in 2017 released the results (on CD) as The Wax Cylinder Recordings. Then there’s the remarkable work of Aleks Kolkowski, who has contributed an installation (about listening to the wireless in 1922) to the British Library’s current foyer exhibition, Listen: 140 Years Of Recorded Sound.

Thomas Edison suffered from hearing problems as a child, long before inventing the tinfoil phonograph in 1877. At first he was unclear what his invention might be useful for, but he speculated that it might make a kind of dictaphone for office secretaries. As I peer back into the murky origins of the recording industry, a time when no one knew what these machines represented, I’m reminded of the present day. Collapsing revenue, online streaming, pink vinyl in Sainsburys, Red Bull Music Academy – is it possible we’ve come full circle, back to the liberating point where, once again, no one knows anything?

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