Someone made a very good point to me recently. He said today’s old gits are the first generation to see breakthrough technology become defunct or obsolete in their own lifetimes. VHS Video cassettes being an excellent case in point. Floppy disks another.
Inspired by this I thought I would look back at how a particular branch of technology has changed. Leaving one or more elements in the dust.
Time to face the music
When we look at how technology evolves and reinvents itself, the way we listen to music has changed massively. It is the area which has seen more technologies go from state of the art to defunct in our lifetimes than any other.
I’m fully aware there will now be loads of old gits thinking, ‘hang on, what about…..’
In which case please use the comments box below and let us know your thoughts.
Anyway, back to the music. Or rather how we listened to it.
Way back when
From comments on other articles I know we do have some old gits amongst our readership who were around in the 1940s.
We’ll start our journey from there. With a brief nod to the even more distant past.
We all, vaguely, know the story of Edison and the wax cylinder. But the inventor of the record player (more or less) was another American, Emile Berliner. The erstwhile Mr Berliner patented the gramophone in 1887.
His invention was the forerunner of the record player and indeed of records. His gramophone read the grooves on a flat rubber disc rather than the cylinder which Edison and Alexander Graham Bell had used.
But enough of this rambling history lesson.
The roaring forties
By the 1940s the gramophone had evolved into a recognisable record player.
Records were still 78s which were the size of dinner plates and made from shellac.
But pre-recorded radio programmes were stored on vinyl.
The late forties saw the first 12-inch Long Playing records introduced with a speed of 33⅓ rpm. The modern LP had arrived.
RCA released he first 45 rpm 7-inch single in 1949.
All this innovation preceded the vinyl boom of the 1950s. The decade when stereo technology and new-fangled high fidelity recording was perfected.
This led to the mass production of records which in turn fuelled the sales of record players.
The new 7-inch single led to the birth of the hit parade and by 1958 singles were outselling LPs.
When I were a lad
As a child growing up in the sixties the way we listened to music was already changing. No need for a wireless. A vinyl record player was an affordable item found in most homes.
I spent the later part of the sixties listening to music on my sisters Dansette record player.
The red and cream marvel did sterling service. Passed from sibling to sibling it was virtually indestructible.
As a kid I loved the way the stylus arm ‘knew’ when it was the end of the record and lifted itself back to rest. Or when a stack of 45s dropped one by one onto the turntable.
It was the Spiders who made Bowie
And which vinyl marvels were belting their hits out of the Dansette’s speaker?
As we crept into the seventies it was Bowie, or rather his Hull backing band Spiders from Mars, Free and Wishbone Ash who were among my early influences. Although I didn’t really have any choice as they were the groups my sister was listening to – along with Elvis, the Beatles and the Hollies of course.
The first records I bought myself, from the local newsagents no less, were some of the Beatles back catalogue and the England World Cup squad giving it large with ‘Back Home.’ The single, unlike the team, topped the charts in 1970.
But, back to the way we listened to music rather than reminiscing about what I was listening too.
Every teenager had a record player in their bedroom. Every lounge had one in the corner.
The record player was here to stay. Or so it seemed.
The standalone record player even evolved.
Who remembers the music centre? Popular in the 1970s these all-in-one systems usually had a record player, amps, radio and tape player. The odd one even had a toaster built in.
OK, I’m exaggerating, but these integrated systems did come in some weird and wonderful designs.
I’ve got it all on tape
We’ve stumbled onto the next innovation in how we listened to music. The cassette tape.
Tapes had actually started to take off in the mid-sixties but I can’t remember been aware of them. The only cassettes I knew about were the 8-track tapes we played in my old man’s Ford Zephyr.
What a car that was.
If I’m ever in a position to buy and restore a vintage car it will be a Zephyr – if only for the great memories of family trips to the seaside or Norfolk Broads.
Anyway, back to the cassette tapes.
Trying to explain what an eight track was to a young adult brought up on iPods and iPads is difficult. Suffice to say an eight track looked like a house brick and shared the same sound qualities too.
Nevertheless they provided a great alternative to radio on family jaunts up the coast.
Not all my experiences with cassette tapes were positive.
I do remember sometime in the seventies asking my parents for a Bob Dylan album on tape for my birthday. I got the Spinners instead. “Well, they’re a folk group same as him,” said Dad.
The incredible Sony Walkman
It’s probably very hard for today’s generation who have the entire back catalogue of ‘Hip Hop Trash Talking Gangsta Man’ on their smartphones to grasp. But it wasn’t until 1980 that music became truly portable.
The Sony Walkman revolutionised the way we listened to tunes. It was one of those inventions which were jaw-dropping at the time.
The Walkman truly blazed a trail for all the MP3 players which followed it.
I’m sure the younger generation will be shaking their heads. “You had this whacking great unit. Almost as big as a tablet PC. Then you put something called a tape into it. Really?”
Yep, that’s how it was.
The compact disc. Probably the biggest musical revolution in my lifetime.
I vaguely remember watching an episode of Tomorrow’s World when the CD was unveiled. Kieran Prendiville reckoned they were indestructible.
I think he demonstrated the CD on a massive Phillips media player.
“This will never catch on,” I thought.
The mid-eighties saw the Walkman transform into Discman and cassette tapes were on their way out.
I could never get on with the Discman. The thing was so unwieldly.
But CDs had definitely taken over from vinyl. The record player was out and the tape deck was no more. Though some doughty supporters still kept the vinyl fires burning.
Most of us though embraced the compact disc and every home had at least one CD player.
Walking into HMV and flicking through the albums soon became a thing of the past. Now it was the click click of CD cases. It just wasn’t the same.
Regrets? I’ve had a few
The compact disc has a lot to answer for. They were responsible for me ditching my vinyl collection. A decision I regret to this day.
Especially when I see how much those early bootleg Dylan albums are selling for now.
New millennium new technology
The first MP3 players had appeared at the end of the nineties.
But it wasn’t until the new century they came of age. October 2001 in fact.
And the release of the Apple iPod.
All hail the mighty iPod
What an invention. Not only could you take your favourite music with you. You could take your entire collection.
The iPod and the other MP3 players produced at that time really did revolutionise music. Or at least the way we listened to it.
Wherever you turned people were listening to music.
Running, cycling, in the car, on the train. It didn’t matter. Stick in a pair of earphones and crank up the iPod.
The iPod spawned dozens of imitators. Some better than others.
Invariably cheap imports swamped the market. And caused some friction between music fans and Joe Public.
One of the issues was the rubbish earphones. They irritating allowed tinny music to escape. Not great on a crowded bus or train.
There were numerous reports of pissed off commuters getting involved with MP3 users. I remember one particular story in the papers.
A scissors wielding passenger found brief fame with a vigilante style rampage on a morning train. He snipped the wires of anyone unintentionally sharing their music with everyone in the carriage.
Sir, I belatedly salute you.
Music on a phone?
Back in the day there was a telephone service called ‘Dial-a-Disc.’
You rang one six from your landline phone to listen to a record from the hit parade. The track changed every day. I suppose it was the sixties & seventies equivalent to iTunes. More on which shortly.
But, Dial-a-Disc was the closest thing to music on a phone. Until smartphones became a thing.
You’re so smart
You can watch movies, buy a car or make a prat of yourself on social media. All on your smartphone. So why not listen to music as well?
You can now download your music collection to your phone. Or, more likely, stream Spotify or Apple Music. Tens of thousands of tracks are available to you. It’s a marvellous thing. If you can be arsed.
Me? I’ll stick to my iPod thank you very much.
The turntable – going full circle.
We’ve gone all the way from the gramophone to the smartphone. Together we’ve explored how the way we listen to music has changed over the last fifty years of so.
Looking back to the opening paragraphs we can see how technology has come and gone.
But I for one don’t really miss the cassette player. Or the Discman. I love my iPod though.
Turntablism and the return of the record player
Once feared dead the turntable is back.
It is heartening to see the re-emergence of the record player.
Though in truth it never really went away. Thanks to turntablism. This apparently is really a thing.
It pretty accurately describes what DJs were doing with turntables throughout the eighties and nineties.
Scratching helped keep the turntable in the public eye as everyone else slung them in the loft.
In part the rebirth of the record player may be due to nostalgia.
Everyone is going retro these days. Vintage is massive. Even amongst those who never lived through it. Case in point is the number of youngsters you see at gigs from 1970s punk bands.
But it’s not just down to nostalgia.
The renewed interest in vinyl has powered a turntable revival. Even the youth of today recognise you can’t beat the pure sound of a vinyl record.
More bands are now releasing on vinyl. Specialist record shops have sprung up.
Old gits are frantically trying to replicate the vinyl collections they once had. While younger music fans are busy building the record collection they would have had if they had been around at the time.
It’s good to see new releases on vinyl. Back in the late seventies / early eighties it was cool to release singles on coloured or transparent vinyl. A trend some of today’s hipster groups and aging punk bands are revisiting.
I’m not a hi-fi expert or audiophile. I haven’t even tried to explore the techie side of record players or MP3 players. I know zilch about the inner workings of high-fidelity turntables or why a track sounds better on vinyl than on CD.
But hopefully you’ve enjoyed this meander down musical lane. Let me know your memories and everything I’ve forgotten to mention.
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