Some of the World around us

The lovely Mark Vernon of Glasgow duo Vernon & Burns continues to supply us with audio goodies, including a recent-ish vinyl delight called Sounds Of The Modern Hospital which I have yet to catch up with. For now though here is Framework Seasonal Issue #5 (Summer 2013), an audio periodical accompanying the Framework radio show, this issue compiled by Mr Vernon and subtitled ‘Location recordings by East Midlands tape recording clubs (1959-1978)’. On it, we have an outline of an unusual UK phenomenon from a time when enthused amateurs would make their own tape recordings, armed with portable battery-operated tape recorders, and did it in a semi-organised way by joining local “tape clubs”. Two such clubs – I had no idea these things even existed – are represented here, the Leicester Tape Recording Club and the Derby Tape Recording Club, and hence we have 40 aural snapshots and field recordings of life in the UK as captured by their roving set-ups and questing microphones, and now lovingly preserved in Vernon’s personal collection.

Unlike today’s field recording types who are mostly self-styled artists in search of some sort of mystical or aesthetic experience, these tape recording club members were simply interested in documenting things around them, much like any 20th century Brit who owned a Polaroid or Instamatic camera. They taped fairgrounds, factories, zoos, markets, trips to the beach, sports events, dances, parties, and – since it’s probably fair to say this activity isn’t too far away from the harmless pursuit of the gentle trainspotter – railway stations and trains. Some of the recordings have added live commentary from the members, an unobtrusive audio caption just to put it in context. What we hear is like a low-key form of Radio Four, except all the material is generated by the public instead of by the so-called experts, and – despite the apparent banality you might expect – it’s absolutely fascinating and a compelling listen. Given the current interest in audio recordings of under-appreciated urban sounds previously held to be too “commonplace” for our attention (The London Sound Survey is the place to start with that), this release is a timely gem.

Another dimension which Vernon calls attention to is the sound quality itself: the tapes “bear many traces of their age and origin: tape hiss and distortion, harsh pause button edits, wow and flutter.” Vernon correctly identifies these characteristics as an inherent part of the integrity of the records, and, implying that we should appreciate and enjoy these aural qualities, has done nothing to correct them or clean up the tape quality. Come to that, there is nothing in the way of editorialising or commentary in his strictly factual description of the collection, nor in the arrangement of the tracks; he has adopted a correct archival approach of objectivity in the arrangement and the presentation. That said, the collection has obviously been curated with a lot of loving care; after all, the material comes from his personal collection, and he allows the warmth and idiosyncratic personalities of these tape clubbers to shine. This is an understated release, but also an unalloyed joy. From 3rd October 2013.

More detail on the Tape Club phenomenon

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