When Disco Was King

Whilst out on one of my regular ambles around Liverpool’s busy city centre, I decided to call into my local branch of Oxfam for a bit of vinyl therapy.  As I leafed through the display racks of old 45s, something interesting in the corner of the shop caught my eye… a large cabinet of some description decorated in a highly reflective glittery covering hidden behind a few racks of coats.  After pulling aside the racks, I discovered that the mystery cabinet was a 1970s era hi-fi unit, a throwback from the heady days of Disco.

Morse Electrophonic Disco Unit in Oxfam, Bold St, Liverpool

Morse Electrophonic Disco Unit in Oxfam, Bold St, Liverpool. Photo: Mrs Rosney Pictures 2014

In the 1960s and ‘70s two companies vied for dominance of the lucrative home disco market: ‘Morse Electrophonics’ and ‘Soundesign’. Each company produced various models with different attributes, ranging from built-in light shows, spinning mirror balls, various combinations of hi-fi apparatus and different cabinet styles.  They appealed to the affluent 30 something social climbing set that were out to impress, who purchased these units to compliment their home bars and hostess trolleys. In those days, hi-fi was considered furniture – and as such, units were bulky, robust and styled to make them the central feature of the room they inhabited. These groove boxes went beyond conventional hi-fi by literally transforming your living room into a discotheque, where sound and light combined into a hypnotic show against which you could dance the night away, safe in the knowledge that you could be the king of cool in your own living room, no matter how badly your dancing sucked.

Close up of the Morse Electrophonic cabinet. Photo: Mrs Rosney Pictures 2014

This particular unit appears to be a lower end Morse Electrophonic cabinet comprising of a Turntable, 8 track and cassette tape decks and a radio tuner. Because of the size and weight of the cabinet, and the fact that it was wedged into a corner surrounded by clothes racks etc, I was unable to check out its model number or whether the lower portion of the unit had lights mounted behind the mirror panel. Sadly, this unit was not for sale, much to the relief of my wife who momentarily had nightmare visions of yet another hi-fi system competing for space in our overcrowded flat.

Soundesign Discotec, complete with Mirrorball

Soundesign Discotec, complete with Mirrorball

Morse Electrophonic Jukebox

Morse Electrophonic Jukebox

Soundesign Trendsetter 1000. Looking like it came straight out of a '70s Sci-Fi movie!

Soundesign Trendsetter 1000, looking like it came straight out of a 1970s Sci-Fi movie!

The sound to light units on these models were known as ‘Colour Organs’, named after early 18th Century keyboard instruments that controlled various lighting devices which displayed different coloured lights depending on which notes were being played.

The Long and Winding Road to Disco

The concept of associating different colours of light with specific frequencies goes back a very long way.  Aristotle (384 -322 BCE) appears to be the first to have speculated that there was a close relationship between colour and sound, an idea that was explored in more detail by Sir Isaac Newton around 1704 CE. Newton paired the dominant 7 colours of the rainbow with the 7 whole tones found in a musical octave, starting with Red at C, Orange at D etc. His ideas were later taken up in a practical manner by Louis Bertrand Castel who constructed an instrument called the ‘Ocular Harpsichord’ around 1730. The instrument consisted of a six foot square frame mounted above a standard harpsichord. The frame contained 60 small boxes, all containing a lit candle. Each box had a little window made out of different coloured glass panes, directly behind which was a small curtain. The harpsichords keys were rigged so that when played, a system of pullies would lift a particular curtain to reveal a flash of corresponding colour. Later improvements added more candles and mirrors to reflect back more light. The instrument was by all accounts smelly, awkward to play and prone to malfunction and fire. However, interest in the instrument was so great that Castel proposed setting up a factory to make them en masse, dreaming of a day when ‘every home in Paris would own one’. Alas, this was not to be, and despite Castel’s big ideas, no physical relic of his Ocular Organ survives today.

Bainbridge Bishop's Colour Organ - Reproduced from the booklet 'Harmony of Light - Bainbridge Bishop 1893

Bainbridge Bishop’s Colour Organ – Reproduced from the booklet ‘Harmony of Light’ – Bainbridge Bishop 1893

Next came Bainbridge Bishop, an artist who had more than a passing interest in the relationship between colour and sound. In the early 1890s, Bishop constructed a number of Colour Organs, similar in design to Louis Bertrand Castel’s Ocular Harpsichord, but using electric light instead of candles. In addition, he used a ground glass screen to project on, which produced softer colours that merged into one another producing a more ‘harmonious’ display for the viewer.  Bishops Colour Organ was an outstanding success. The use of electric light over candle paved the way for bigger and better Colour Organs to be created for use in large public performances. One notable performance using a Colour Organ (developed by British Painter A. Wallace Rimington), took place in Carnegie Hall, New York in 1915 for a performance of Composer Alexander Scriabin’s symphony ‘Prometheus: A Poem of Fire’.  Scriabin wanted to create a work where light and sound could fuse together to produce ‘a transformative effect that would allow the audience to transcend up into a level of spiritual consciousness’. To that end, Scriabin’s music score called for specific colours to be projected for each note played. For this performance Scriabin requested that the audience wear white clothing so that the colours would reflect off their bodies, thereby making them an active part of the performance. Unfortunately, his ideas were too far ahead of their time and the technology of the day failed to capture the effect he desired. That said, the path leading to the union of light and sound in dance form had well and truly been opened.

We now fast forward to France in 1939/40. As the might of the German War machine tore across Europe, occupied nations such as France were forced to fall in line with the whims and philosophies of the New German Master Race. To This end, Adolph Hitler decreed that the performance of American-style Jazz was now prohibited, forcing Jazz clubs to literally go underground. The downsizing of the venues from large halls to small hidden cellars, coupled with the need for secrecy, meant that the clubs could no longer chance having live musicians performing in them. Instead, Jazz records from the US were played, as they were easier to conceal than a four piece combo plus instruments. This was the birth of the ‘Discotheque’ (which translates into ‘Record Library’), a place where people danced solely to recorded music.

After the war, discotheques sprang up all over Europe and the US, and by the early 1960s were considered to be THE place to go to have a good time. With the addition of soul, infectious Latin rhythms and technical advances in amplification and sound production, Disco, as we know it, finally arrived.

Colour Organ Ad - Billboard Magazine 14/07/1979 P75

Colour Organ Ad – Billboard Magazine 14/07/1979 P75

On the back of advances in solid state electronics came ‘Sound to Light’ devices which automatically converted audio signals into electrical signals, which were then used to control series’ of lights, making them flash in sequence depending on the input sound’s pitch and rhythm.  These ‘sound to light’ units retained the name ‘Colour Organs’ despite no longer having to be bolted to a musical instrument to operate them. Throughout the 1970s, Disco clubs filled their venues with all manner of units, with Colour Organ design becoming more complex and sophisticated, offering more creative and exciting light displays than ever before. In some of the trendiest Disco clubs, even the dance floors got the Colour Organ treatment by having light displays installed underneath toughened translucent polypropylene tiled flooring.  Discos became cathedrals of light and sound with no shortage of ‘devotees’ flocking to ‘worship’ on a regular basis. Scriabin’s dream of sound and light transcendence was eventually achieved, although in a way that I am sure Scriabin would not really have approved of.

Dance Floor Ad - Billboard Magazine 14/07/1979 P76

Dance Floor Ad – Billboard Magazine 14/07/1979 P76

By the mid ‘70s Disco had become big business and suddenly everybody wanted a slice of the action. Therefore it was only a matter of time before hi-fi manufacturers offered consumers the chance to own their own, albeit scaled down, home disco experience. Que the ‘Soundesign Trendsetters’ and ‘Morse Electrophonic’ hi-fis that became as ubiquitous in 1970s homes as Shag Pile Carpets, Lava Lamps and carafes of cheap Spanish wine.

Soundesign Trendsetter 7

Soundesign Trendsetter 7

Eventually the Disco bubble burst in the early 1980s and units like the above became so un-cool that they were unceremoniously dumped and trashed en masse. Today they are incredibly rare, rarer still if in full working order, and can cost anything from £500 – £2000 depending upon the condition.  With the passage of time, however, comes forgiveness for crimes of the past, committed against the upstanding pillars of social structure: style and aesthetics, and as such these units are now viewed by some with a rose-tinted nostalgic glow. Maybe they will have their day again eventually, who can say?

For more info and more groovy pics of these amazing hi-fis, check out History Dumpsters excellent blog.
http://historysdumpster.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/the-soundesign-trendsetter-7.html

Belmont Disco Biscuits

Belmont Disco Biscuits

KP Discos Crisps

KP Discos Crisps

Finally, as a form of tribute, here is my own disco revival in the shape of snack food: the wonderfully tasty and chewy Belmont Disco Biscuit (which is currently being re-branded, so catch them while you can) and the totally un-square KP Discos Crisps, both groovy in their own unique way. However, eat too many packets of either and you’ll soon lose your John Travolta/Karen Lynn Gorney physiques. You have been warned.

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Many thanks to the manager of the Oxfam shop in Bold Street, Liverpool, for allowing us to ‘wreck’ the back of his shop to take photos.

Ghetto Blast from the Past

Mini Boom Box

Whilst browsing through my local Cash Converter store last year, I came across this vintage Mini Boom Box. I’m sure you won’t be too surprised to discover that, since I am a collector of all things musical, it was love at first sight for me. Since it was selling for less than a fiver, I snapped it up on the spot and took it home to give it a bit of tender loving care.

Cassette Heaven

It has been a long while since I last owned a portable device for playing cassettes, so after a quick clean of the mechanism, I dusted off some of my prized tapes and gave it a whirl. To my amazement it worked perfectly – no wow, no flutter…and no tape chewing! In no time at all, I was instantly transported back to the largely carefree days of my teens where cassettes were the weapons of choice in the war against tedium.

Back Panel

Although there is no brand marking or a make /model identifier on the casing, this particular machine probably dates back to the early 90’s and was manufactured in China for sale in Europe. However, since the CE marking on the label at the rear is a ‘counterfeit’, the manufacturers were never officially licensed to sell this product in the Economic Union (EU). 

Actually, the word ‘counterfeit’ is not quite correct. From 1985 onwards it became a mandatory requirement in the EU to label certain products i.e. electrical goods etc, to identify anything that was either made in the EU, or made by other countries specially licensed by the EU, for sale within the European Economic Area (EEA). They developed a special CE identifying mark, where CE stands for ‘Conformité Européenne’.  Manufacturers in China got round the licensing issues by inventing and registering their own CE logo which, at first glance, looks almost identical to the European version. The difference between the two is in the subtle spacing between the C and the E. In the European version, the C and E are widely spaced, whereas in the Chinese logo, the C and E are practically touching. The Chinese CE stands for ‘China Export’. Cheeky, but legal!

CE

As well as the cassette player, the Mini Boom Box also has a built in AM/FM radio. On the back it has an output mini jack socket for headphones and an input mini jack for connecting up a CD player to the internal amplifier. On the top panel there is a mini jack input for a mains adapter.

Top View

It is highly portable, measuring 22.5 cm by 12 cm by 10.5 cm and fashioned in the shape of a handyman toolbox. All in all, it is a nifty piece of cassette/radio nostalgia.

If anyone can shed some light on the name of manufacturer or can pin down an accurate date for its release, please let me know!

Dial-a-Disc

Dial_a_Disc_Listing

Typical listing from a local phone book’s white pages

Dial-a-Disc was a music service run by the (then) General Post Office (GPO) where, by dialing 16 or 160 on your telephone, you could hear the latest hit records played down the phone line.

So how did it all come about?

The GPO were already running a number of useful dial-up information services, such as the Speaking Clock, the Weather Forecast and live Test Match Cricket Score Services, but the latter was only in use during the cricket season from May to August, whereupon it laid dormant for the rest of the year. So it was decided that an experimental music service should be run during the non-cricket months to make more use of the highly expensive Test Match Service equipment.

Dial-a-Disc was trialed first in Leeds, springing to life at 6 pm on the 7th July 1966. It ran for just under a month, before being hailed as an outstanding success! The service was started again on the 8th December 1966, again only in the Leeds area, but it was rolled out to the rest of the country gradually over a four year period.  On-demand music streaming had arrived. But Hi-Fidelity it wasn’t.

Transmitted in Mono, with the bandwidth heavily squeezed, the music was accompanied by the obligatory background crackle and static hiss generated by sending the audio down miles of copper cable. But despite its shortcomings in musical quality, it was a truly magical experience – and one that had an indefinable charm about it. For 1966 was a much simpler time – before WiFi, before streaming content, before the iPod, before iTunes, before peer-to-peer file sharing, before the Internet, before the Discman & Compact Discs (CD’s), before the Walkman – and even before Compact Cassette Tapes had become widely used domestically!  At the time, Dial-a-Disc was one of the only ways of hearing the latest hits ‘on demand’, save for actually buying the records themselves!

The service ran during the ‘cheap rate’ hours from 6 pm in the evening to 6 am the following morning every weekday, and all day on Sundays.  Initially only the top 7 records in the charts were played on the service, with a new record being played every day. This was soon increased to the top 8, with two records being played on Sundays. Eventually, the service expanded in its latter years to include the whole of the top 20.

So, how did it all work?

DADRACK_DialADiscRack_John_Lamble

Dial-a-Disc rack (DADRACK). Photo: John Lamble. Thanks to John Chenery (www.lightstraw.co.uk) for permission to use it here.

Meet the Dial-a-Disc Rack (or DADRACK for short).  It was mainly comprised of a record deck connected to a reel to reel tape recorder. Here, Post Office Technicians would record an introductory announcement, then record a hit single and finally make a tape loop of the whole recording. The tape loop was then fed into a special device called an Equipment Announcer (EA). In 1966 a new EA was designed especially for the Dial-a-Disc Service, which became known as the EA9a. A pair of EA9a’s can be seen in the above picture located below the record deck.

The EA9a was essentially a robust, high quality playback tape machine capable of holding up to 4 minutes worth of tape which played out in an endless loop.  When you called Dial-a-Disc you were connected to the EA playback, more often than not in mid song depending on what part of the loop was playing at the time when your call was connected. By the mid ‘70s there were around 15 DADRACKs located in Regional Information Service Centres (RISCs) scattered around the country.

Dial_a-Disc_judd_Street_1967_08_02_TCB 473_P 10075_postOfficeTelecomms

DADRACk at Judd Street Exchange, London 02/08/1967. Photo Copyright Post Office Telecoms (TCB 473_P 10075)

Dial-a-Disc was very popular, especially with the younger generation who, by and large, ran up huge phone bills across the nation. In the mid 1970s Dial-a-Disc received around 70 million calls annually, but by 1981, when the service was at its peak, it was pulling in over 200 million calls per year.

People who used Dial-a-Disc have fond memories of the quirkiness of the service.  Some individuals recall that on some occasions they could sometimes hear other people talking on the line during the gaps between the end and start of the records. This appears to have been more of a problem when listening to Dial-a-Disc via public phone boxes. In some inner-city booths, youths would dial into the service specifically to chat to other local users during the quiet spots. One woman from Birmingham claimed to have met her future husband in this way!

Like all technology, unscrupulous users managed to discover ingenious ways of ‘hacking’ into the ‘system’ in order to hear the records for free. Popular methods used by phone box ‘hackers’ were the following:

Tapping out the services number rapidly on the phone handset rest buttons. Occasionally this would allow free connection to the service.

Listening to the record in installments.  The GPO allowed users to listen to the first 10 seconds of the recording for free before you had to insert money into the coin box. Users would ring the service multiple times until they had managed to listen to the whole disc. Tedious, but achievable.

Finally, on earlier phone boxes that were equipped with A and B buttons* users soon discovered that they could get all their money back by hanging up just before the disc finished followed by pressing the B Button. However, the GPO eventually got wise to this trick and did some tinkering at the exchange end of the lines to prevent people from getting free listens.

There was another problem caused by the service that particularly affected small towns and villages that only had one public phone box. Clusters of youths began to hold what the press began to term ‘telephone-a-gogos’, where dozens of teens pooled their pocket money and hogged call boxes for hours on end listening and dancing to the same record over and over.  This certainly happened in the North West where I lived and also in West Derbyshire, although it is unclear if this craze was a nationwide phenomenon.

My ‘love affair’ with Dial-a-Disc occurred during the summer of 1979, where I would often dial in to hear the latest sounds. However, the first quarterly bill brought my happy ‘affair’ to an abrupt end.  I did attempt to call from a Phone box on one occasion, but a bunch of local yobs ran round the box with a roll of masking tape and sealed me in. Luckily, a passer-by spotted me and managed to get me out.

It was sometime during that same year that a good friend of mine found himself walking home from a party in the wee small hours in an advanced state of alcoholic intoxication. Cold and lost, he found a call box in the middle of nowhere and stepped inside in an attempt to get warm. After a few minutes he decided that he wanted to listen to some music and so put all his loose change in the coin slot and called Dial-a-Disc. With the phone cradled against his ear, he soon fell asleep to the sounds of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I will survive’ repeating endlessly. The next morning he awoke, slumped against the glass, phone still clutched to his ear and feeling as stiff as a board. He had no recollection of the night before and was therefore surprised to find himself inside a phone box. He put the handset back on the cradle and then noticed the long queue of angry looking people gathered outside waiting to use the phone.  Not one of them had thought to open the door and wake him up. Instead, they just accepted the situation and, in typical British fashion, formed an orderly queue and began to grumble.

Dial-a-Disc spun its last record sometime in 1991, when technology such as the Sony Walkman, cassette tapes and portable FM radios surpassed the service’s usefulness and musical quality. But for 25 glorious years Dial-a-Disc was a tantalising glimpse into the future possibilities of on-demand music distribution.

Here is a demonstration by a telephone enthusiast of a demo telephone exchange where, amongst other things he gives us a feel of what it was like to call and listen to the Dial-a-Disc service:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUGsRoebaVM

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*You pushed Button A to connect your call once the person you dialled had answered their phone. When your call had ended you could push Button B to retrieve any unused coins.

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Many thanks to John Chenery, for providing me with essential information about the Dial-a-Disc service and for kindly allowing me to use some of his photographs. For more detailed information about  Dial-a-Disc and other ‘obsolete technologies’ please visit John’s excellent website:  http://www.lightstraw.co.uk/