A hundred years ago, face masks and gowns, closed borders and quarantine, panic and fear were being discarded as the Spanish flu receded into history. Australians were ready to enjoy themselves – and a bright kid in Sydney had an idea how he could help them do just that. He created the record club.
I don’t know whether record clubs still exist in Australia. They did in my day, half a century ago. My bet is they’re still around. After all, The Australian newspaper publishes a record column weekly, and I suppose others which I don’t buy have similar sections. Any clubs would have different forms of course, following the technology, but they would be discernible as clubs nevertheless. I have no idea what’s out there on the internet, and for the purposes of this yarn that’s irrelevant anyway.
A century ago . . .
In April of 1924 the old Daily Telegraph newspaper (which had as much in common with today’s Tele as bread has with damper) introduced to its readers a new column called The Phonograph. This elongated piece of unillustrated type reviewed recorded music. In the custom of the times, it carried no byline (only recognised expert contributors, like the wonderfully named composer G. de Cairos-Rego, were given that privilege). I have a pretty fair idea, though, who the writer was.
For the moment that’s not important – the significance is that the Tele recognised a serious social and commercially profitable trend. Recorded music was on the air. The first Australian radio station had opened in Sydney the year before and, after something like 30 years of development, the technology to make and play records had reached such a degree of fidelity that phonographs had become consumer goods. More and more of the Daily Telegraph’s readers were becoming exposed to recorded music, and more and more of them were gaining the capacity to buy the technology to enjoy records in their own homes.
That, as I say, was in April 1924. A couple of months later, on 16 July, The Phonograph, under the headline “Clubs in England. Why Not here?” told readers:
It is to be wondered that, with the phenomenal advance in popularity of the phonograph in this country, some action has not been taken by enthusiasts to form phonograph societies similar to those which have for some time been instituted in England.
In the Old-country these clubs are well established, and are proving valuable features in community life. Their activities embrace, among other things, the discussion of new phonograph records, their comparison with other records of the same numbers, both musically and scientifically, the formation of record libraries, the conducting of tone tests in which the recorded voice is compared directly with that of the living artist.
In introducing this subject, ‘The Daily Telegraph’ gives assurance of its support in the event of the inauguration of such a society, and invites its readers to forward opinions and suggestions for publication in its weekly review of the records.
When the public pulse has been felt, steps will be taken to convene an inaugural meeting of phonograph lovers.
On 30 July, the game was afoot. The Phonograph announced in a box within the column that a meeting was to be held with “the purpose of creating a phonograph society”. The paper, it said, had received many letters confirming the popularity of the idea, among “both musical and technical enthusiasts”. It wasn’t until October, though, that The Phonograph could report success in its promotion. A meeting of recorded music enthusiasts had agreed to form the Phonograph and Gramophone Society of NSW. This was the first such organisation in Australia, and therefore the first expression of the organised record clubs that have flourished over the past century (amid, no doubt, myriad informal interest groups).
The meeting attracted “enthusiasts from not only the city and suburbs, but also from Newcastle”, according to The Phonograph, and “agreeably surpassed the expectations of its organisers”. The chairman, Mr. Hal Eyre, said: “Our object will be, broadly speaking, to interest ourselves in the mechanical reproduction of sound.” A Mr. H. L. Thompson detailed a broad program, “pleasing all tastes by mixed programmes, preferably made more interesting and instructive by notes and remarks by demonstrators [of phonographic equipment]”. Recordings of serious [not pop] music would be studied, along with “demonstration and comparison of needles, sound-boxes, tone-arms, amplifiers, etc”. The society went on to hold public recitals at venues including the Sydney Conservatorium.
Having lived through the era of music on disc, the techo stuff about needles and the like still resonates with me but the scenario outlined above encompasses a few mysteries. Why did the society hedge its bets with both “phonograph” and “gramophone” in its name – weren’t they the same things? What was a “gramophone recital”? Who are these people?
The truth is I’m not quite sure about the answer to the first question, even though I’ve scanned the usual sources for an easy explanation. So without turning this into a history of recorded sound, I think the difference between “phonograph” and “gramophone” in 1924 was that “phonograph” was a kind of generic term for all record players – either of wax cylinders or hard black discs (a cylinder player is the left of the two pictures). The discs, however, were played only on gramophones. Both terms were current but, even then, cylinders were rapidly being replaced by the more robust and more easily produced discs. “Phonograph” would gradually fade out of use in favour of gramophone as the generic. That wasn’t to be known in 1924. Barely a month passed before aficionados in Melbourne noticed Sydney had got one over them and launched their own society called, yes, the Phonographic Society of Victoria. (For any non-Australian readers who are still paying attention, this is yet another manifestation of Sydney-Melbourne rivalry – a constant of Australian society, like that in the US between New York and Boston.)
As for “gramophone recital”, it is a little difficult in this era of recorded music streaming into our ears anywhere and everywhere to come to grips with the notion that people paid money to go and listen to records being played by a knitting needle stylus on a wind-up turntable through a speaker with a strong resemblance to a megaphone. But they did – it was the only way until radio became widespread that music lovers en masse could hear world greats perform outside of concert halls.
The Phonograph reported “an unusual musical recital”. A company called Home Recreations Ltd had played records in its concert room on the “Salanola phonograph, with pianoforte accompaniments”. The two instruments, the story said, had been tuned-up together before each program item, resulting in “the experiment being generally successful, the recorded accompaniment being submerged by the actual”. I can’t say I’m exactly sure what the tuning-up might have entailed but you can get an idea of the sort of thing a phonograph society might do.
In Melbourne, a theatre-full of people was treated to a famous female singer performing live. Midway through her song the house lights went down, the song continued but, when the lights went up again, the audience saw she had been replaced by a gramophone. “The puzzle was to know when she had left the stage,” the Herald reported. “No more exacting test could have been given than that to which the machine had been subjected, yet the audience was delighted with the recital.”
So who were the major players in the first foray into organised record clubs? The chairman of The Phonograph’s meeting, Hal Eyre (pictured), was the Daily Telegraph’s political cartoonist, and he was duly elected president of the society. His vice-president was R.B. Smith, a well known inventor who had patented a number of “sound reproducers” for use with phonographic records and automatic “stop” devices for gramophones – whatever those bits of gear might be. Richard Bartholomew Smith, however, is much more interesting than that. I’m not going down that long road here – click on http://www.sydneymagic.net/ione.html instead. I couldn’t find anything about K.L. Thompson. My focus is on the hon. sec., Mr Robert C. McCall.
You have met this man before. Last April I introduced him to you in “A flash of bomb-mots” as the author of a series of book reviews in 1945-46 that I had stumbled across while researching his wartime exploits at the British Broadcasting Corporation on secondment from the Australian Broadcasting Commission. I had also passed over some biographical notes I obtained from the ABC which told me: “At age 16 cadet journalist on Sydney Daily Telegraph. Interest in music led to forming gramophone club which held recitals at Sydney Conservatorium and then to writing music column for the Telegraph.” But as I started writing about what he did in London, I grew increasingly interested in how, apart from being sent, he came to be broadcasting amid the bombs of the London blitz, and that led me back to his beginnings and this piece of obscure social history.
The key metric, as jargon goes these days, is McCall’s age. I referred to “a bright kid” in the first paragraph of this story. In 1924 Robert McCall was still only 19, and it’s clear to me, after reading about the conception and birth of the Phonograph and Gramophone Society and putting it together with what I already knew about him, that young Robert, the hon. sec., was not only the anonymous author of The Phonograph column, but most probably the originator of the proposal for a phonograph society, and possibly, for that matter, instigator of the column itself. (The ABC note-writer got the sequence of events back-to-front.) The ability to conceive an idea and bring it to life, such as he demonstrated at age 19, powered his subsequent career through the recording industry and broadcasting (and not a little writing).
Robert Clark McCall went from upstart 16-year-old cadet journalist to senior executive appointments in the record business and at the ABC and the BBC. He died in Northern Ireland in 1970, aged only 64. As far as I am aware he left no memoir. This piece, the earlier one and the story I am writing for the Melbourne Savage Club, where he was a member, will have to do.