by Ian Simmons
[ cdreviews ]
It is well known that a huge amount of early film has been lost forever, but there is less awareness that at least as much, if not more, recorded music has vanished over the years. While ancient film is eagerly hunted down and preserved, the lot of ancient 78s was, until recently, hazardous. Two people who have been only too aware of this attrition are Rob Millis and Jeffrey Taylor, of the band The Climax Golden Twins, who have spent years scouring the planet for neglected 78s and putting out limited-run cassette compilations of their choicest finds on the wonderfully named Fire Breathing Turtle label. They have now hooked up with the Dust to Digital label to put out this double CD, housed in a sumptuous 144-page book, showcasing the cream of their collection.
What immediately strikes you about this compilation, named after the ubiquitous Victrola gramophone on which many of the discs would have been played, is the sheer variety. A quick glance at the track listing will quickly disabuse you of impression is that the records you could buy in pre-vinyl days were more limited in scope than they are now. With the earliest recording here coming from 1910 and the latest from the 1950s, the tracks range from ethnological recordings from the Congo, to ribald stag records ('Cockeyed Jenny' by the Barton Brothers, which sounds like an unlikely cross between Brecht/Weill and the Goons), Big Ben and London traffic, 30s comedy, Japanese Bamboo Xylophone, Hong Kong Buddhist nuns and so on - all sorts of sounds from all sorts of places. These, coupled with the accompanying image-filled book, open windows into recording cultures that have for the most part utterly vanished. Sleeves, labels and other items recall forgotten record labels in places you never imagined had a record industry, let along a vibrant one. That they've survived at all is amazing; shellac discs shatter easily and were at times actively destroyed (in the US in WWII, shellac was eagerly collected for use in the war effort, and Millis and Taylor allude to another, more modern scourge: "...a fine artiste who melted old records into bowls and lampshades"), but survive they did. Now Dust to Digital have taken things a stage further and processed the recordings to extract them from the fog of crackle that inevitably enfolds ancient discs. The result it that all but the most persistent surface noise is banished, and the music sounds better than it probably has at any time since it was recorded.
One of the strengths of these discs is that there has been no attempt to separate them into rigid categories; tracks recorded decades apart on opposite sides of the world sit comfortably next to each other, creating relationships unimagined by their originators and a listening experience that constantly surprises. And they have turned up some gems here: the Chinese comedy song 'Big Idiot Buys a Pig', recorded in the 30s by He Zemin and Huang Peiying, manages to be funny 70 years later, even if you don't understand the language; 'The Cowboy's Dizzy Sweetheart' by Goebble Reeves, from 1935, is startlingly misogynistic but also includes some of the most pyrotechnically daft yodeling I think I've ever heard (and I have whole albums of yodeling). Elsewhere, blues shouter Jessie May Hill's voice could scorch the hair off a hog at 20 paces in contrast to elaborately formal Chinese opera, gentle pieces of traditional Persian music and a Korean flute solo. I am particularly fond of 'Courting the Woman from Chiang Mai' by Sri Ma Keow and Chai Wat, a syncopated, almost funky piece from 30s Thailand, which you could almost imagine being played in a Star Wars bar scene. Marvelous stuff.
This collection just scratches the surface of Millis and Taylor's collection, and hints at wonders as yet unheard. I would love to hear the record produced by Pied Piper Sales that came with the ‘Instructions for Spooking Rats' reproduced in the book, intended for use in pest control. It also marks the end of an era: eBay has transformed the market for records of this kind, and they can routinely go for four-figure sums, so it is increasingly unlikely that the Millises and Taylors of the future will be able to snaffle up such alluring but neglected bargains. Old discs are more likely to survive and the loss of our musical heritage will be stemmed, but part of me regrets that modern culture has colonized yet another obscure area of cultural delights. The joy of ploughing through a marvelous junk shop like Bideford's now vanished Scudder's Emporium or a vividly eccentric secondhand book monger like the late Anglian Scientific in Norwich in the hope of finding some overlooked glory may soon be lost to us. Every last thing will have an auction category, a reserve value and a worldwide market, and you'll be able to search it from your desk. On the other hand, you won't need a bath afterwards either.