I wanted to do a whole blog talking about all the different ways of playing and recording sounds and video but this would be mostly things we didn’t have in the fifties that have come and gone since then. So I have truncated it a bit and added some other topics.
I want to start with Music, something we take for granted now, just streaming it automatically over the Internet. But of course we didn’t have the Internet then. Apart from actually making your own music (usually this would be playing a piano) there were only two or three ways you could hear a piece of music. For the youth of the fifties and sixties the music revolution came with record players so let’s look at records.
You may not even know what a record was. A Record was what we now call vinyl, a hard disc-shaped object with a spiral groove. If you rotated the disc a fine needle in the groove could pick up the recorded sound for playback and amplification by electrical means.
They had been around in various formats for some time but these were the standards of the Fifties:
[A] Singles were 10 inches (about 25 cm.) in diameter and were played at 78 revolutions per minute. (RPM) They lasted for about two and a half minutes. [You could turn it over for another song on the other side.] Most of the developing pop music was available as singles. They cost 6s 8d each through the fifties and sixties. (That’s about 33p but in those days that was a significant amount. Maybe you could afford one new tune a week.)
[B] Extended Play (EP) were 7 inches (about 20 cm.) played at 45 RPM. They were hardly ever used. Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles is the only one I remember. They played two or three single songs on each side.
[C] Long Playing records (LP) were twelve inches (30 cm.) played at 33.33 RPM. (Now you may know them as albums.) They would have about ten tunes on each side (as you can see in the picture above) so might last for something less than an hour overall. An LP cost about £2 10s. (£2:50)
[I am talking about pop music. Classical music could have much longer pieces on an LP – perhaps a complete piano concerto as two movements each side.]
[D] For completeness I have to say that there was a standard of 16.67 RPM. It was obsolete then.
A Diversion – Clockwork Toys
I have just realised that you probably don’t know about clockwork. Many years ago, when we didn’t all have mobile phones, we had clocks and watches to tell us the time. They were mechanical devices without a hint of batteries or electricity. (I know, there are still clocks but we don’t need them. Every device including TV and ovens may have a display showing the time. Everything now works by electricity or batteries.) Clocks and watches were powered by what we called ‘clockwork,’ using internal springs that were wound up and allowed to uncoil slowly – with a complex escapement mechanism.
So from time to time you had to wind them up. Most clocks and watches needed winding every day but some would last for a week.
We also had clockwork toys, cheap metal things with a removable key to wind them up. The simplest ones were tin plated cars, which would actually move like cars for maybe up to a minute after being wound up.
Back to music. Records were played on gramophones. The amplification of the sound worked by electrical devices but I remember from my early school days that sometimes the turntable was powered by clockwork. The teacher would wind them up before playing us a tune. Gramophones were fairly simple. You loaded the record by hand, played it and took it off when it was finished.
The revolution came in the late fifties with the Record Player and the Dansette shown above was the standard model. I was given a Dansette for my twenty-first birthday. I still have it in the loft. You could load it with up to ten singles. As each one finished the next one would drop and play. So we could play ten consecutive different single pop tunes. It was almost like what we might now call a playlist.
The record-player could be set to play at four speeds but generally it was used at 78 RPM for singles. [It was generally accepted that LPs were too heavy, valuable and expensive to risk possible damage by dropping them. The multiple play option was only used for singles.]
Don’t laugh – but these record-players were called ‘portable’. If you imagine that records of twelve inch diameter were played you can get an idea of the size of this machine. They were big and heavy but you could close the lid and carry it by the handle that you can see on the right. No, it wasn’t that easy. You had to tighten two transit screws with a screwdriver first to avoid damage to the mechanism by shaking! People didn’t actually treat them as portable but you might very occasionally take one with you to visit a friend.
There have been many changes in the formats for providing recorded music.
Seven-inch vinyl singles playing at 45 RPM replaced the older 78s in the late fifties. (The earlier bigger 78 RPM records were not made of vinyl. They were heavier and more fragile.)
Then we had Cassettes, magnetic tapes that wound slowly from one spool to another, from the mid-sixties to the seventies. A cassette was about five inches long so it was easily portable in its plastic case. The cassette player was also much more portable than a record-player.
Without going into the precise history, these systems changed very slowly so we still had records all through the cassette era. Things like cassettes (and radios) were developed and installed first for cars – with push button controls that were easier when driving. It was never possible to play records in a car but a cassette player was generally available with the car radio.
After cassettes we had CDs, then DVDs, then iPods, then mobile phones of increasing sophistication, and now live streaming.
I have said a little about early Radio, the other way we sometimes heard music. It was very limited by today’s standards and a radio set was about as portable as the ‘portable’ record-player shown above. Ours was bigger and much heavier. The only radio services were from the BBC – the Home Service (pre-dating Radio Four,) the Light Programme (now Radio Two) and the Third Programme (classical music, now Radio Three.)
There was not much music on the radio and none of the developing pop music culture that was soon to emerge.
For us the high point of the week was Two-way Family Favourites.
Now is the time to talk about popular music or Pop Music, which arose from about the late fifties, helped by the new record-players but driven by the emancipation of youth. Boys and girls of sixteen used to be – boys and girls. The age of majority was 21 and adolescents below this age had little freedom or independence or money to squander on themselves. The culture of youth emerged gradually from the late Fifties.
Rock ‘n Roll, also from the mid-fifties came with Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley and The Comets. This was the pre-cursor of modern so-called Pop Music.
From 1960 we had all sorts of different dances like the Twist, immortalized by Chubby Checker, the Locomotion from Little Eva and many others.
[Acoustic and Electric Guitars]
It was a time of rapid change in music and one of the technological changes that helped the development of Pop Music was the electric guitar. An acoustic guitar is a plucked instrument. Even with a plectrum it is much quieter than a violin. It is shaped with a large sounding board to magnify what little sound is produced and it’s usually played sitting down.
The electric guitar, which came into its own with Rock ‘n Roll, picks up the tiny sound and amplifies it electrically (in much the same way as a record-player amplifies the sound made by its vibrating needle.) The guitar was connected by a cable to large powerful amplifiers although modern guitars don’t even need cables. It was much louder and made a different sound but it was so much easier to use than the acoustic version.
[The Spotnicks were an instrumental group from Sweden who, in the early sixties, produced an unusual sound with Orange Blossom Special. They were ahead of technology with cable-less guitars but it was not perfect and produced an unusual sound.]
Pop Stars and Pop Groups
I am going to have to name names. Some were short-lived. Some lasted for decades. In the late fifties and sixties the British and UK pop worlds were different with some overlap. Often a massive hit would be covered the other of the Atlantic from its origins.
In no particular order here are some Early Rock ‘n Roll and other popular music artists from the Fifties, some American and some British – Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Tab Hunter, Pat Boone, Bobby Darrin, Paul Anka, Neil Sedaka, Connie Francis, Buddy Holly, Pat Boone, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Johnny Tillotson, Cliff Richard, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Bing Crosby and Harry Belafonte.
[This includes some that may have been called Rhythm and Blues or jazz or easy listening ballads.]
A few more from the Sixties – The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Hollies, Cilla Black, The Shadows, (Cliff Richard’s backing group but also an instrumental group in their own right,) The Moody Blues, Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel.
There were many others. Apart from a few singers they were all men.
Apart from the BBC radio we could hear popular music on Radio Luxembourg. This was broadcast from the tiny country of Luxembourg and you have to remember that radio then was not the quality that we get now from FM radio (or digital radio.) It used Medium Wave at a wavelength of 208 metres (1439 K Hz) and the signals had to travel the distance from Europe. We could only hear it after dark when the signal bounced off the ionosphere to the UK. [That’s enough science. You can look it up yourself.]
From the early Sixties, Radio Luxembourg effectively broadcast continuous pop music from records to its audience in the UK – from about sunset to around 11:00 pm. (In those days we were a more 9-to-5 society. Television stopped before midnight. Pubs closed at 10:30 and people went to bed. We didn’t have discos, nightclubs or entertainment continuing after midnight. Luxembourg did continue to the early hours of the morning but it changed to slower easy listening, ballads and jazz.)
Unlike BBC radio, Luxembourg was a commercial radio station with frequent adverts. Most famous to our generation was the voice of Horace Batchelor advertising his Infra-Draw method of winning on the pools. It was a statistical method, which almost certainly did not work, but he kept trying to sell it. We would hear the same advert again and again we all heard him repeating: “Horace Batchelor, Department One, Keynsham, spelt K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M, Keynsham, Bristol.” I think that everyone of my age knows that Keynsham is near Bristol and knows how to spell it!
After the effective monopoly of Radio Luxembourg Pirate Radio sprang up in the mid-Sixties, notably Radio Caroline. These channels broadcast pop music from ships moored in the North Sea in an attempt to evade legislation. Unlike Luxembourg they could broadcast in the daytime.
The Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967 removed the other pirate stations from the air and soon after that the BBC bowed to the demand for pop. Radio 1 started to broadcast pop music from 1967. (At the same time the other channels were renamed as 2, 3 and 4.)
Early television did not add much to our opportunities to hear pop music. I have covered Sixties television including Juke Box Jury, the Six-Five Special and Top of the Pops. In those days, as you will read below, pop music was just the sound of the music from records. Accompanying video performances did not exist.
Recording Moving Pictures
There was nothing like the ability to record or play videos then. Your only realistic options were to see Television live or go to the cinema. (A few programmes were repeated a day or two later but most were just broadcast once.) When video recording did come in we had a war between the different emerging standard formats. Betamax and VHS both came in the mid-seventies and they kept on in parallel through the nineties. (It’s Video Home System according to Wikipedia but I have never heard of this. It was known as VHS.) Both were cumbersome systems using tape reels much bigger than cassettes. Betamax was generally considered to be a better standard but VHS won the war. Betamax disappeared.
As well as using these tape systems to record from television you could hire pre-recorded tapes of films sometime after their general release in cinemas. This was a more common use and video hire shops sprang up in most towns. These have now disappeared with Internet downloading as the easier method.
VHS continued into the Twenty-First Century but was itself made obsolete by another new system – Video CD. (Compact Discs) Then we had DVD, Blu-ray and eventually modern systems and mobile phones!
The ability to record your own video came a bit later with camcorders. Again there were various recording systems, generally using cassette tapes later transferred to VHS so that you could actually display them on your TV screen. Camcorders were originally much larger than cameras but I won’t go into details. They are obsolete now with mobile phone apps producing excellent quality video recording.
There are a few more unrelated topics I want to cover in this blog, which is more or less the last one.
Please note that I am not attempting to say what is right or wrong. I’m just saying what it was like then. Standards were different. I am making the usual sweeping generalizations based on what little I saw of the world then.
We see people with disabilities all the time now and in sport the Paralympics covers many disabilities. But to consider the Fifties and Sixties we have to put things into perspective. Medical technology and expertise then did not provide much in the way of helping those with disabilities. Their quality of life was worse and their life expectancy was much worse. Babies with severe disabilities simply did not survive at birth – or were not particularly encouraged to survive the first few hours.
It won’t surprise you that we talked about things differently. Those with Down’s Syndrome were called mongols (the term used originally by John Langdon Down) until 1965. [Since 1975 the term Down Syndrome is also used.] Those with Cerebral Palsy were called spastic, a word generally used among children as an insult, but it was not until the mid-Nineties that the Spastic Society renamed itself as the charity Scope. Those with Learning Difficulties (also known as Intellectual Disabilities) were mentally subnormal or mentally deficient or Educationally Sub-Normal. (ESN)
[Words such as idiot, imbecile, cretin and moron, previously used for severe intellectual disabilities, had already descended to use as general playground insults.]
We had never heard of Dyslexia or ADHD.
Wheelchairs were simple and cumbersome – and not electric! They could be pushed or the occupant could turn the large wheels by hand. One of the reasons we didn’t have wheelchair athletics was that we didn’t have athletic wheelchairs. Crutches were not much more than wooden sticks. They were made to fit under the shoulders and aid walking.
That was about all the technology to help those with physical disabilities. But in general you didn’t see disabled people out and about or in work environments.
Homes and Education
This is, of course, an over-simplification but children born (and surviving) with severe disabilities were not considered the responsibility of their parents. They were taken away to various Homes (institutions under health or social security authorities) and we didn’t see them. Their only education came from such institutions. There was no attempt to educate them in the general school system.
Mental health problems were largely treated in psychiatric hospitals and the severely affected were held in old Victorian asylums. There was one at Claybury, shown above. All we ever saw of it from school (Ilford County High School) was a distant view of its tower.
Wikipedia tells me that it was the fifth London County Council Asylum, opened in 1893 when they were still called Lunatic Asylums. From 1893 to 1918 it was called Claybury Asylum, from 1918 to 1937 Claybury Mental Hospital, and from 1937 to its closure in 1995 Claybury Hospital. As schoolboys we had less complimentary names for it with visions of lots of ‘mad’ people being locked up.
[‘Mad’ is another word that has virtually disappeared because of its pejorative connotations. Now we talk of mental disorder, mental illness or psychiatric disorder.]
The word ‘asylum’ implies that the patients were there for their own protection and that was partly true. To a large extent we didn’t know how to treat those with mental problems so they were kept in institutions. There was also an element of protecting society at large from the actions of mental patients.
It was not until the Eighties that we moved to a system of community care and most of the old mental hospitals were eventually closed. At the same time Homes for children disappeared with increasing use of foster care and the education system moved to including most children with disabilities.
(You will have read about Dr Barnado’s and the Home near to ICHS at Barkingside when I talked about Wimbledon.)
It is not always easy to survive without the care provided by these psychiatric hospitals and we now have the situation where a large proportion of our prison population have mental problems. (Yes, I know, it’s a sweeping generalization. I am not an expert.)
We had a similar hospital near Gloucester, Coney Hill formerly the Gloucester Second County Lunatic Asylum. It also had a tower, which could be seen from a distance. It opened in 1883 and closed in 1994.
Just a few things I missed out when looking at Holidays [US: Vacations] earlier.
We also had some holidays at a Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Clacton. It was very similar to the fictional Maplins as portrayed in the Eighties sitcom ‘Hi-de-Hi!’ The Clacton camp was open until 1983 when due to package holidays and changing tastes, it was closed and sold. It was reopened as a theme park called Atlas Park, which lasted a year. The land was then sold and redeveloped with housing.
When I was a little older we sometimes went to Southend-on-sea for the day. It was (and presumably still is) a typical seaside resort with its promenade, fruit machines and ice-cream. From Ilford station it was the only such place near enough for a day-trip. Its main attraction was its pier, still the longest in the World. There is a train running the length of the pier – over a mile!
Later still, in the mid-Sixties, I had some walking holidays using Youth Hostels. We walked across Dartmoor one year and did Mid-Wales another year. In those days their bedrooms were primitive dormitories with bunks. You were expected to use your own sheet sleeping-bag. You had to cook your own meals in a shared kitchen and you might be asked to do chores such as cleaning before leaving the next day. Some were more primitive than others and one or two in Wales did not have electricity.
Let me start with Kent Walton, who used to be a disc-jockey on Radio Luxembourg. His voice was known to us all from his commentaries of professional wrestling on ITV from 1955 to the late Eighties. At its peak in the Seventies it was shown on Saturdays between the half-time and full-time football results and had viewing figure over ten million.
(That was when we had no football coverage on radio or television and all the league matches took place at the same time.)
There were rules but some wrestlers managed to get away with a lot of cheating out of sight of the referee. There were many familiar figures. Some were ‘goodies’ and some were ‘baddies’. It was entertainment and it was never quite clear how much the results were ‘fixed’ but the general opinion was that most bouts were fixed in some way.
The biggest of the heavyweights were Big Daddy, (Shirley Crabtree, 1930-97) definitely one of the goodies, and Giant Haystacks. (Martin Austin Ruane, 1947-98) shown in the two pictures above.
Here are two more – Mick McManus (William George Matthews, 1920-2013) and Jackie Pallo (Jack Ernest Gutteridge, 1926–2006) who often fought each other. McManus was the typical baddy.
Not quite finished. Two more to come.