You can do anything but don't step on my Elvis 78s

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The Independent Online
THERE used to be a hi-fi shop off Tottenham Court Road called Imhof's. It boasted that it had been founded in about 1850. And I could never understand how a hi-fi shop could have been started in 1850, which was not a big year in stereo history. But now, thinking about this CD business, I think I have worked it out.

My one fear is not that CDs are too expensive, but that the damned things will be phased out before I have fully mastered them. It always takes me the best part of a decade before I feel I have come to terms with a new sound breakthrough, and just when I have finally got there, something else comes along: so please, please, CD makers, put the price up all you want, but don't change anything just yet till I have learnt how to get the inlay notes in and out of your incredibly stupidly designed CD covers. Make it 1996, to be safe.

I should be used to all this by now, having gone through decade after decade of useless change. It was 78s when I started. Teenagers will hardly believe this, but when Elvis Presley's records first came out, they weren't on jukebox plastic, they were on old shellac 78 rpm records inside paper bags marked 'J & D Peters, The Hardware Shop, 4 Marine Drive, for All Your Music, Pianos, Prams, Bicycles and Animal Feed Requirements'. You bought your new Elvis 78 with trembling hands and took it home and dropped it and broke it, and had to go out and buy another.

When you had enough 78s, you stacked them on a spindle in the middle of the turntable. You simply switched on the first one, and after it had played, the second one came down, and so on. That's not what really happened, of course. What happened was that the second one refused to come down, and the first one played over and over again till you went mad.

The manufacturers realised they had to improve this, so, as soon as they were convinced that everyone in the world had a 78-player, they introduced a new system: 45 rpm 7in singles, which you stacked on a spindle, and these little 45s then came down one by one. They didn't, actually. They all came down in one big heap as soon as you activated the machine, and the only 45 you ever got to hear was the top one in the pile.

Then the LP flourished, with its corresponding technical breakthrough, which was an inner sleeve made of paper or plastic so constructed that you could never work out which side opened to receive the LP. Then the tape cassette, and then a pause while they worked on how to make the compact disc complicated and fiddly enough to be worth introducing.

(It was during that gap, when I lived next to the Portobello Road, that I was contacted by a friend in North Wales. He had inherited an old cylinder player. Could I take it to the Portobello Road and sell it for him? Like a fool, I took it and kept it at home for a while, knowing I would never have the chance to play with a cylinder machine again. I thus found myself devoting a great chunk of the 1970s mastering the technology of the 1890s.)

The result of all this is that my home now bears the traces of all the preceding ages of music reproduction, like a rich archaeological site. There are little tins of steel needles, velvet things to clean records with, stacks of jukebox-weary 45s, LPs so old that they are called 'microgroove', things that look like small suitcases but are really sets of 78s, one or two Edison cylinders that I forgot to sell, a German postcard I bought in 1958 which has a hole in the middle so you can play it on a gramophone, and the tune it plays is 'Colonel Bogey' . . .

I have even got a Victorian music box, a lovely thing that plays six tunes over and over again, and serves as a reminder that even before electricity they were marketing mechanical music. We always think that when Thomas Edison invented recorded music, the world must have leapt around saying: 'Hey, at last we can go out and buy a really easy and convenient way of listening to Thomas Edison reciting 'Mary had a Little Lamb']' But they didn't. They can't have done. They must have said, just like us: 'Oh God, just when I had got all the Mendelssohn and Rossini I need on my musical box format] Now they go and invent something better, and now I suppose I'll have to go to Imhof's in Tottenham Court Road to buy it all on cylinder or piano roll . . .'.

They probably set up a parliamentary committee to look into the price of piano rolls, too, and a fat lot of good it did them.