THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Sound and vision blog

32 posts categorized "Jazz & popular music"

13 April 2018

Was this the first rock picture disc?

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Hallucinations-picture-disc
Just one month remains in which to visit our free Entrance Hall exhibition Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound. The exhibition invites visitors to engage with a wide selection of sounds from the archive, from the (very) late nineteenth century to the present day. Over seven hours of audio material is available in each of our specially-constructed listening 'pods'.

On display we have a number of historical and modern players plus various historically significant or eye-catching media formats, among them a number of number of historical and modern picture records.

When finalizing the exhibits and captions for the exhibition back in autumn 2017, we were confident that Curved Air's Airconditioning album of 1970 was the first modern picture disc. Somewhat embarrassingly however, this turns out not to be correct.

Although the Curved Air album was - as far as we are aware - the first rock picture disc to be issued in the UK, we have since become aware of a rock picture disc issued in Germany that clearly preceded it. 

The awkwardly-titled Off II - Hallucinations (Psychedelic Underground) , issued by Metronome in 1969, was a sampler of various Elektra label acts, most notably the Doors, Love and the MC5. It followed the previous year's Off, which showcased many of the same acts. 

The lavish but unwieldy packaging included an enormous poster, eight times the size of the cover. This was - rather impractically - firmly affixed to the gatefold sleeve. Notes on the contributors were printed on one side, with a nightmarish image of deathly-blue grasping hands - presumably an illustration of the grimmer variety of psychedelic experience -  spread across the other.

Metronome also manufactured the world's first '3-D' picture disc, which was the subject of a previous blog post towards the end of last year.

Whether this will be the the last word on the subject of the first rock picture disc remains to be seen. If you know of any other likely contenders to the title please do drop us a line.

Hallucinations-sleeve

Hallucinations-inner-sleeve

Hallucinations-poster

Hallucinations-poster-detail

20 December 2017

Two very small records

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God-save-the-king

At the Wembley Empire Exhibition of 1924, one exhibit that caught the public eye was a dolls’ house, specially created for Queen Mary, which contained a fully-working miniature gramophone complete with six tiny records made by His Master's Voice.

Around 35,000 miniature discs were produced for sale as souvenirs, at sixpence each. Despite this far-from-limited edition, copies are hard to come by now, perhaps because they could so easily be lost or mislaid. The souvenir discs featured a 22-second rendering of ‘God Save the King’ by the popular Australian singer Peter Dawson. At just 34 mm (1 and 5/16th of an inch) in diameter, this is the smallest 78 rpm disc ever made.

A copy is currently on display in the British Library's free Entrance Hall exhibition LISTEN: 140 Years of Recorded Sound.

This is not the world's smallest playable record however. A contender for this coveted title arrived at the Library just a few weeks ago, courtesy of Michael Ridge.

One-inch-lathe-cut-disc

This 1" diameter 33 rpm lathe-cut disc by GX Jupitter-Larsen and Zebra Mu (each contributes an 8-second piece) is cautiously described by issuing label Quagga Curious Sounds as 'likely to be one of the smallest lathe cut records ever released'! Sadly, the limited edition of 110 copies is already sold out.

11 December 2017

Recording of the week: Cyril Blake and his Jigs Club Band

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This week's selection comes from Andy Linehan, Curator of Popular Music Recordings.

Cyril Blake was a Trinidadian jazz trumpeter who moved to Europe and eventually settled in London in the 1930s. After playing with many well-known musicians in various house bands he became a bandleader and appeared regularly at the Afro-Caribbean Jigs Club, in Soho, London where this live performance was broadcast 76 years ago on December 12th 1941.

The Jigs Club Band’s line-up included Blake’s fellow-Trinidadian Lauderic Caton who is renowned as a pioneer of the electric guitar in the UK and who gave lessons to Nigerian bandleader Ambrose Campbell and a young Hank Marvin, later of The Shadows, amongst others.

Blake himself went on to form the backing band for many hugely popular recordings on the Parlophone label by calypso singer Lord Kitchener, and returned to Trinidad to lead a number of bands before his death in 1951.

Originally issued on Regal Zonophone MR 3597, this recording, Cyril's Blues, appears with two others from the same performance on the British Library compilation CD  Black British Swing, Topic TSCD781.

Cyril's Blues performed by Cyril Blake and his Jigs Club Band - excerpt

Cyril Blake_edit

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05 December 2017

The first '3-D' picture disc

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Magical Love - label

The British Library has one of the largest sound archives in the world. Visitors to our free exhibition Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound can explore the sound archive via specially constructed listening booths, each containing a menu of 100 sounds designed to illustrate the the breadth and depth of the collection.

We have also included on display some of the more visually appealing sound carriers in the collection, among them a selection of historical and modern picture discs.   

Of course, there was not room for everything we wanted to include. We have on show what is thought to be the first 'modern' picture disc, from 1970, Curved Air's debut album 'Air Conditioning'. Sadly though, we couldn't quite find room for Saturnalia's 'Magical Love' LP, from 1973.

'Magical Love' distinguished itself visually by being not just a picture disc, but a picture disc with '3-D' holographic labels (see image above). Although the issuing label, Matrix Records, was based in London, the disc itself was manufactured by Metronome in Germany.

It featured vivid imagery drawn from the world of cosmology, with the band members each posing semi-naked behind a fiery crucible on one side, and 12 rather fierce-looking papier-mâché masks representing cosmological archetypes on the other. The pictures were all taken by Peter Hudson, with the exception of the picture of lead singer Aletta which was taken by Mark R. F. Hanau, who also designed the 3-D labels.

Magical Love - disc and booklet

Magical Love - side B

Spectacularly colourful and attractive as all this was, it didn't do the band's career a lot of good. Unfortunately, the picture disc technology of the time undermined the sound quality of the record, and it was not a commercial success. 

Magical Love - excerpt

[Images: Eva del Rey]

26 May 2017

The first British ‘blues boom’ - and the reception of African American music and dance in 1920s Britain

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Blues trot003

British Library VOC/1923/GILBERT

Guest blog by Lawrence Davies, current Edison Fellow and PhD student at King’s College London. Lawrence has contributed a chapter on British Blues to a forthcoming volume of the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World and writes about the history of blues music at allthirteenkeys.com.

Mention ‘British blues’ to anyone interested in popular music, and they will likely think of the early 1960s and the music of bands like the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, or the Animals. These bands’ interpretations of African American blues and R&B attest to the global popularity of blues music after the Second World War.

In fact the blues has a much longer and more complex international history. Britain had its first brush with the blues forty years earlier, in the autumn of 1923. As part of my Edison Fellowship, I have been examining the British Library’s extensive collections of commercial sound recordings, printed music, early record catalogues, and historical newspapers to better understand this early phase of blues appreciation and performance in Britain. I’m interested to know how much audiences understood about the blues’s origins and character; how it became part of the nation’s musical life; and what audiences’ encounters with the genre can tell us about the history and meaning of African American popular music outside the United States.

One fascinating item I’ve encountered during my research is a tune called ‘The Blues Trot Blues’. Written in 1923 by British songwriter Joseph George Gilbert, it was recorded in September of the same year by Jack Hylton’s Orchestra. Both sheet music and recording were produced to publicise the introduction of a new dance, the ‘blues trot’, to the British social dancing scene. The sheet music contains a detailed description of the dance by its creator, Morry M. Blake.

Blues trot text005

 

HMV label image

‘The Blues Trot Blues’ recorded as ‘Blue Trot Blues’ September 19, 1923 (1CS0057220)

Blues Trot Blues

It’s quite hard to know what to make of this piece. It certainly doesn’t sound like the blues as we know it today. Many of the common stylistic traits appear to be absent: the song comprises a sixteen bar verse followed by a sixteen bar chorus, rather than a conventional twelve bar blues sequence. The Hylton Orchestra’s performance is clipped and straight-laced, lacking the earthy vitality that we associate with 1920s ‘classic’ blues singers like Bessie Smith or Ida Cox, or with rural blues singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson or Charley Patton.

We might be tempted to discard a recording like this as a mere imitation of ‘authentic’ blues, at best a misunderstanding of the genre’s essential features, at worst an attempt to cash in on a new fad. At the same time, it’s worth trying to situate the piece in its historical context, relative to what listeners at the time thought the blues sounded like. The dance instructor Natalie Spencer, who had played the piano with the American Southern Syncopated Orchestra during its British tour in 1919, described in 1923 blues music having ‘gently but unmistakably syncopated’ melody, a ‘soft sobbing accompaniment’, and ‘sleepy, flattened-out’ triplets. Other contemporary writers highlighted the blues’s noticeably slower speed relative to other dance music styles, such as the foxtrot. These elements are clearly audible in Hylton’s recording.

Gilbert’s lyrics, although not included in Hylton’s recording, reveal an awareness of the many contemporary vocal blues that were becoming available in Britain, both on record and in print. Songs like ‘You’re Always Messin’ Round With My Man’, ‘Aggravatin’ Papa’, and ‘Down Hearted Blues’ encapsulate Spencer’s description of vocal blues as ‘wailing songs of a “Complainin’” order; usually with an underlying cynical humour.’ In ‘The Blues Trot Blues’, the female protagonist describes being captivated and cast adrift by the blues’s rhythmic and melodic allure, but by the end of the song it is apparent that she is equally captivated by her male dancing instructor, whom she needs to ‘come and drive away’ her blues!

But we get the best sense of how British audiences related the blues to contemporary African American expressive culture when we look at how the blues was adopted as a dance style. The genre’s slow tempo made foxtrot steps – the most widely used dance step at the time – unsuitable. Morry Blake’s choreography calls instead for a distinctive ‘rhythmic walk’ every two beats: ‘Stretch the foot well forward or backwards’, Blake instructs, ‘…before allowing the foot to take the ground, as if you were stepping from sleeper to sleeper of a railroad track.’ More popularly known as the ‘camel walk’, this dance step originated in African American ragtime and vaudeville routines.

Another element of the ‘blues trot’ was a sideways ‘blues step’. Blake instructs the dancers to ‘stretch the left foot well to the side…at the same time twisting on the ball of the right foot…[to] allow the body to sway slightly rearward’ to create what Blake described as ‘a gentle rippling motion’. Combining a sideways step with a rearward shift of balance was a marked departure from British ballroom conventions of the time; in his 1923 book Modern Ballroom Dancing, champion dancer Victor Silvester emphasised that dancers should always maintain their balance in line with their leading foot. This modified posture evoked a range of dance steps originating in African American expressive culture, such as the ‘black bottom’ of 1919 or the nineteenth century ‘cakewalk’.

Importantly, dancers’ appetite for ‘unbalanced’ posture and movements that went against the grain of European dance conventions illuminates the extent to which dances associated with African American expressive culture were viewed as exotic or alien. Press coverage of early blues dancing contained noticeable undercurrents of excess and moral panic: The Manchester Guardian likened the spread of blues dancing to a weed, observing that ‘those who spied on [the blues’s] introduction…[as] an evil growth can claim now that it has shown all the hardihood of vice.’ There were particular misgivings around the variations that some dancers were incorporating into the blues, which were deemed too risqué for the British ballroom. Warning against the addition of the ‘eagle rock’ (another dance step of African American origin), critic Philip Richardson declared that musical rhythm ‘transferred to the upper part of the body…appear[s] not only grotesque, but positively unpleasant.’

Although ‘The Blues Trot Blues’ is musically a far cry from our modern idea of the blues, it can tell us a great deal about the early reception and performance of the genre in Britain. It reveals how the British ‘blues boom’ of 1923 was a multimedia phenomenon. The blues arrived in Britain through recordings and printed music, but it was the resultant dance craze that appears to have brought the genre to popular attention. This ‘connected history’ of the blues has been largely overlooked in more recent histories that only approach the genre through the prism of recordings.

And while anxieties surrounding the blues bore all the hallmarks of prevailing attitudes to race, reading between the lines of these accounts can also reveal much about the popularity and visibility of African American expressive culture in Britain at this time. The nation’s first ‘blues boom’ paved the way for the many visiting African American performers and composers who would gain an increasing foothold in British entertainment throughout the 1920s, both on record and onstage. Conscious of their audiences’ attitudes to the blues, they would tread a fine line between their own creative aspirations and their need to fit prevailing stereotypes of black music and dance. But that would be the subject of another blog post…

Further Reading

‘The Blues: English Adapter Explains the Latest Dance’, The Manchester Guardian, July 31, 1923, 14.

Rye, Howard, ‘Southern Syncopated Orchestra: The Roster’, Black Music Research Journal 30/1 (Spring 2010), 19-70.

Silvester, Victor, Modern Ballroom Dancing (London: Herbert Jenkins Ltd., 1927 [1923]).

Spencer, Natalie, ‘“Blues” From the Musical Standpoint’, The Dancing Times (October, 1923), 23.

Platt, Len, Tobias Becker, and David Linton (eds.), Popular Musical Theatre in London and Berlin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

12 April 2017

By preserving our sound heritage now, in the future we can recreate the past

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Sound recordings freeze moments in time: music or theatrical performances, the words spoken by the famous or in everyday speech, or the sounds of our environment. When played back, they allow us to understand, to experience, to be immersed in - to relive - those moments.

Yet preserving sound recordings and making them accessible is a huge challenge, not least because sound recordings can rapidly decay and as technology marches forward, formats quickly become unplayable.

BLCK-SOUND12-small
Many thousands of archived magnetic tapes urgently need digitising

The British Library’s Save Our Sounds programme received a tremendous boost when in 2015 a £9.5 million grant was earmarked by the National Lottery. After months of preparation and assessment, prioritising the most significant at-risk sounds collections around the UK and building a network of 10 collaborating institutions, our ambitious project called Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is launched today.

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage builds on the generous support of other donors and funders, meaning that the total project funding of £18.8 million is now in place. The funding enables the formation of the first ever UK-wide network of ten sound preservation centres. This network will now come together with the British Library to save almost half a million rare and unique recordings.

The funding allows the British Library to lead this major preservation and access project, sharing skills and supporting the ten centres across the UK in order to preserve their own unique and rare regional sounds and make them more accessible to the public.

The Library and its ten partners will invest in a schedule of public engagement activities, including well-being workshops, learning events for families, and tours, events and exhibitions. A vital element of the project will be a new website for listeners to explore a wide selection of recordings. This website is scheduled to go live in 2019.

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Cleaning a shellac disc before digitisation in the British Library’s sound studios

Dr Sue Davies, Project Manager at the British Library commented:

“This project has been a long time in development and, over the last 18 months, we have laid good foundations for the next five years. I am excited to be part of this HLF funded project which will make a huge difference to the care of and use of audio archives across the UK. I am particularly looking forward to working with the ten institutional partners, sharing our skills and making it easier for a wide range of people to engage with recorded sound.”

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, the Foyle Foundation, Headley Trust, the British Library Trust and the American Trust for the British Library and other kind donors.

The ten centres that will soon begin work on preserving their regional sounds are: National Museums Northern Ireland, Archives + with Manchester City Council, Norfolk Record Office, National Library of Scotland, University of Leicester, The Keep in Brighton with the University of Sussex, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, National Library of Wales, London Metropolitan Archives, and Bristol Culture.

Richard Ranft, Head of Sound and Vision

More information: 
Save our Sounds
Unlocking our Sound Heritage press release 12/04/17
£9.5m boost from Heritage Lottery Fund for our Save our Sounds campaign
Save our Sounds: 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections

16 January 2017

Listen to and tag thousands of music tracks on Europeana's radio player

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Europeana Sounds, a project that connects digital sound archives across Europe, has just launched an interactive radio player.

Now you can enjoy listening to 200,000 music tracks, and while listening, add labels to help other listeners to find recordings.

The player and tagging are very easy to use and no sign-up is required:

  • Press the play button in the player below to hear a recording
  • Select a term in the list shown in the 'Refine the music genre' box, then press 'Add'
  • Use the buttons below the play window to pause a recording, or to jump to the next
  • You can also select Classical, Folk, or Popular music genres
  • So, listen & tag!


On Thursday, Europeana Sounds will be holding a #TagDayThursday. We want to gather as many new genre tags in Europeana Radio as possible – you can help us make this happen! A progress bar can be seen at www.europeana.eu/portal/en/radio.html

For more information, please see the Europeana Sounds website www.europeanasounds.eu and the press release about the Europeana radio player http://pro.europeana.eu/blogpost/new-interactive-player-europeana-radio-launches-as-an-outcome-of-europeana-sounds-project

The animation below shows how to add tags:

The Europeana Sounds project is co-funded by the European Commission under the Competitiveness and Innovation Framework Programme.

25 October 2016

Black History Month – Cullen Maiden

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Gray Chapel

Cullen Maiden in performance at Gray Chapel, Ohio Wesleyan University

Photo: Cullen Maiden collection British Library

In March 2015 I acquired for the British Library the archive of singer Cullen Maiden from his widow Christine Hall-Maiden.  In 1964 she was working in Italy as secretary to screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin, co-creator of TV series Z-Cars and scriptwriter of The Italian Job (1969), when she met Cullen who at the time was studying with Luigi Ricci of the Rome Opera House.

Born in 1932, Cullen Maiden was an African-American who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio but at the time of his graduation he was already following many pursuits – singing in various choirs, forming his own R ‘n’ B group The Caspians, and, as well as acting on the stage, he was also trained as a boxer by Tiger Fann.  Maiden studied singing at Ohio Wesleyan University from where he received his Bachelor of Music degree and continued his studies at Juilliard School of Music in New York.  The Rockefeller Foundation Opera Voice Scholarship afforded him the opportunity to study in Munich.

In the early 1950s, while still studying at the Ohio Wesleyan University, Maiden won the vocal section of the Cleveland Music and Dance Festival.  He was invited to appear on local radio where he performed his winning selection Il Lacerato Spirito from Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

Simon Boccanegra

Like many artistically talented African-Americans, Maiden found he could get far more work in Europe than the United States so, in the late 1960s, he joined the Komische Oper Berlin where he gained a favourable reputation for his portrayal of Porgy in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. He also worked in Scandinavia and finally settled in London.

Porgy

Cullen Maiden as Porgy in Porgy and Bess

Photo: Cullen Maiden collection British Library

During his military service he made goodwill concert tours for the American Embassy and the Army in Korea during 1957 and 1958 and sang opera concerts with the Seoul Symphony Orchestra.

Highlights of his career include a tour with the Katherine Dunnan Dance Company as a singer soloist and a tour of the US with the Harry Belafonte Folk Singers.  Cullen appeared with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur and in many of the opera houses of Germany.

Here is an extract from a 1973 concert performance of I got plenty of nothing from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess with Masur and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

I got plenty of nothing

Cullen Maiden was also a composer, writer and poet.  He provided the score for the 1970 German documentary Strange Fruit.  In New York at the Seven Arts Art Gallery he performed with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and in April 1966 appeared on a BBC radio poetry programme with Seamus Heaney.  In 2008 Maiden published Soul on Fire,  a collection of his poems and writings.