Jonathan Scott’s Into the Groove is a compelling history of recorded sound from wax cylinders to vinyl to mp3s (and back to vinyl).
Kirkus wrote of the book:
“An audio geek’s delight, this engrossing history of music and voice recording is as wide-ranging and thorough as one could want … Scott spins a history told with near-perfect pitch.”
Not so very long ago the only way to enjoy music was to see it performed or learn it yourself. A record, put simply, is a kind of mechanical imprint of sound. The needle, cartridge and tonearm change mechanical energy into electrical energy. And part of my intention when researching Into the Groove, was to strip away some of the entitlement we all feel around music, to revel in the ingenuity of the modulated groove, and to remind us how lucky we are to have sound so completely at our beck and call. These tracks are stepping stones in the story of sound.
‘Au clair de la lune’, France Gall
In the late 1850s, a Parisian typesetter named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invented a device that could trace sound waves in lampblacked paper. The phonautograph was only designed as a means of study, not for playback. However in 2008 FirstSounds.org successfully scanned, reconstructed and digitised one of the phonautograms, the sound of Scott de Martinville himself singing the French folk-song ‘Au clair de la lune’ in 1860 – a full 17 years before Edison. Anyway, this is France Gall’s version from 1964.
‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’, Buddy Guy
In November 1877 Thomas Edison handed a sketch to Swiss-born machinist John Kruesi. Over the next few days Kruesi built the original tinfoil phonograph. The first successful playback was a tinfoil recording of Edison himself bellowing ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’. Buddy Guy cut this soulful reinvention 90 years later.
‘Israel in Egypt’, George Frideric Handel
Of all the early recordings that survive, this is the one I return to for inspiration. It’s a performance of ‘Israel in Egypt’ recorded at the now-vanished Crystal Palace in London in the Summer of 1888. Edison’s London cheerleader, a Colonel Gouraud, was seated in the press gallery. With the latest phonograph and a box of wax cylinders he set about recording the several thousand-strong choir. Search ‘Handel, Crystal Palace, 1888’ and you can listen to it now. The sound quality is dreadful. It’s like a microphone has been wrapped in a blanket and dropped down a well. Yet you can hear that somewhere in its murky depths is something very beautiful.
‘The Mocking Bird’, John Yorke Atlee
The recording industry took flight in the 1890s. To begin with there was no way of mass producing cylinders, so to sell 100 copies of ‘The Mocking Bird’, for example, the pioneering hit maker John Yorke Atlee had to record the thing 100 times. Tracks of this vintage always start with an announcement naming the performer, the song and the record company, as these records didn’t come with labels.
‘Old King Cole’, Emil Berliner
Discs scored over cylinders because you could easily mass-produce them from a single master. The first commercially-issued disc-shaped records came from a German-American inventor named Emile Berliner. The sound of these hard rubber discs, designed to be played on a child’s phonograph, was terrible. Indeed, it was so bad they came with the text of what was being said printed on the reverse. Search by the title above and you can hear it yourself.
‘Dai campi, dai prati’, Enrico Caruso
A young Fred Gaisberg visited Milan in 1902 intent on recording the opera superstar Enrico Caruso. Caruso demanded £100 for the session, and, as the record company bosses refused, Fred paid out of his own pocket. This was the seventh track recorded that day in the Grand Hotel, and I like it because it starts with a mistake – he comes in a beat too early.
‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’, Herman Finck
The story of the groove is a quest for increased runtime. Twelve inch 78rpm shellac discs could only handle a few minutes, which was fine for pop songs, comedic skits or fox-trots, but not ideal for longer classical pieces. So record labels began offering special multi-disc ‘albums’ in leatherette or canvas bindings. One of the first was The Nutcracker Suite, issued on four double-sided discs in 1909.
‘Rhapsody in Blue’, Paul Whiteman (1924 / 1927)
Prior to 1925 there was no volume or tone control. Instrumentalists and singers performed in front of a horn, which funnelled sound waves toward a thin diaphragm, which vibrated an attached stylus, etching sound onto a surface. The electric microphone, which came into widespread use from 1925, allowed sound engineers to fill grooves with richer detail. ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ serves as a useful little compare-and-contrast exercise as Paul Whiteman recorded it first in 1924 and then again in 1927.
‘Some Enchanted Evening’, Ezio Pinza
The Broadway cast of South Pacific gathered in Columbia’s 30th Street Studio in April 1949. The first vinyl records had been introduced by Columbia just a few months before, the cunning microgrooves extending a 12-inch disc’s playtime to around 21 minutes per side. The popularity of South Pacific, tweaked and adapted for home listening, helped persuade a generation of music fans to invest in the new format, and made full cast recordings hot property.
‘Texarkana Baby’, Eddy Arnold
Many of us think of coloured vinyl as a modern thing, but in fact it’s been with us since the beginning. As a response to Columbia’s vinyl LP, RCA launched their competing 45rpm 7″, kicking off the so-called ‘War of the Speeds’. At first they colour coded releases – children’s records were yellow, R&B orange and so on. The very first to be pressed was ‘PeeWee the Piccolo’ in fetching yellow. ‘Texarkana Baby’, on green vinyl, was part of the first batch to be put on sale.
‘Hell’s Vengeance Boils in My Heart’, Edda Moser
A team led by Carl Sagan compiled the Voyager Golden Record. This mixtape for aliens, which hitched a ride aboard the two Voyager space probes in 1977, boasted Chuck Berry, Louis Armstrong and Blind Willie Johnson, as well as this recording, which I’ve chosen because it illustrates an amazing thought.
The golden records will, in all likelihood, outlast our planet (see my previous book The Vinyl Frontier). Carl Sagan didn’t care for Mozart, he thought it too ‘lightweight’. But his friend, artist Jon Lomberg, loved Mozart. So in April 1977 he made Carl a tape with three examples worthy of inclusion. Carl opted for this track because, in a short runtime, it checked a number of boxes: namely opera, Mozart, and the range of human vocal cords. Now, perhaps you’ve made a mixtape in the past. And perhaps, because of that mixtape, you have a friend whose love of Metallica or Neutral Milk Hotel, say, can be traced back to you and your tape. But just think: because of Jon Lomberg the cosmos has Mozart.
‘Tom’s Diner’, Suzanne Vega
This was German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg’s test track during his experiments in digital audio compression which eventually resulted in the MP3 file. Whatever you’re streaming now, in a sense, came via ‘Tom’s Diner’.