Grooves from Granny’s attic

They are the antiques collectors among audiophiles. Fans of the 78rpm record fall into raptures about the “warmth” of the sound and the thrill of discovering a gem in Granny’s attic. But it’s not all poring over dusty vinyl. The “78” also stars in a delightfully demure dance scene and is itself even making a comeback as a niche product.

Big names such as Tom Waits and The Beach Boys have released material on limited-edition 78s in recent years. Saturday is Record Store Day, an annual event to promote independent music shops in Britain and America, and two small labels continents apart are following suit. The San Francisco-based Tompkins Square is putting out a disc by bluegrass veteran Ralph Stanley and one by Luther Dickinson, of rockers North Mississippi AllStars and The Black Crowes.

Both will be issued in batches of 500. Meanwhile, Evangelist Records in London, co-run by Lewis Durham of the retro-styled trio Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, is releasing 300 pressings each of three new 78s – by the contemporary bluesmen Blind Boy Paxton, CW Stoneking and Pokey LaFarge.

This is countercyclical stuff, but maybe that’s the point, a case of into the groove and against the grain. The 78 was the original mass-produced format: a 10-inch record, made from brittle shellac, which contained around three minutes of music per side. It impressed Elgar, held sway through the jazz age and was there at the birth of rock’n’roll before petering out, at least in western countries, before the Beatles’ first LP. Its appeal now must be that it’s tangible – and fragile – where downloads are invisible and easily replaced.

“Hardcore music fans are looking for exotic cultural artefacts,” says Josh Rosenthal, owner of Tompkins Square, who wanted to do something unusual for his first Record Store Day venture. Dickinson cut his solo guitar melodies especially for 78. “He asked me some technical questions I couldn’t answer,” Rosenthal admits, “so I put him in touch with producer Chris King, who said use a ribbon mic and record in mono.” The transfer is so good you can hear the fingerprints on the fretboard.

The same is true of the Evangelist tracks, recorded at Durham’s purpose-built studio. Yet historical re-enactment is only part of the story. “The 78 is the most accurate way to reproduce the sound captured on tape,” says Durham’s business partner, Joe Walters. “Because the disc spins faster, it has more information contained in its grooves. A lot of club music today is pressed on 12-inch vinyl spinning at 78 because it has more bottom-end or bass. It’s not aesthetics, just the best way to play music.”

The Stanley songs, “Single Girl” and “Little Birdie”, however, were recorded in the mid-2000s, without 78s in mind. Did they need to be converted to 78rpm? According to Rosenthal, it’s mostly a matter of plating the vinyl for that speed at the factory. Walters adds: “The recording techniques are the same; the only difference is the mastering. We record live to tape using a mono process.”

Ebay is awash with vintage 78s, but the dilemma for any consumer today is: what to play them on? Brands such as Pro-Ject and Rega make modern turntables with a 78rpm setting; cartridges (the bit with the stylus) are manufactured by Ortofon and Shure, among others. While there are second-hand hi-fi systems that cater for 78s, purists – like the four female DJs known as the Shellac Sisters, much in demand for soirées in London and beyond – will always go right back to the future. Enter the wind-up gramophone, complete with its flower-like brass horn.

Jenny Hammerton (aka DJ Foxtrot Fanny) insists the Shellac Sisters aren’t fetishising their equipment, in spite of the 78 revival inevitably being linked to the vogue for 1950s and pre-war fashions. “Although there is great beauty in old things, we don’t think it’s a novelty cult. The music definitely comes first for us,” she says. “We all have our own favourites, and it depends on the gig, but swing is popular for our dance crowd and classic smoochers for the older generation. Latin numbers often get the wallflowers up and dancing.”

Rosenthal accepts his 78rpm releases might be “perceived as a gimmick”. That doesn’t worry him. As with the Evangelist label, Tompkins Square is at the start of a series, with new tracks from Tyler Ramsey of the Grammy-nominated Band of Horses and previously unreleased live material by delta-blues player Skip James (1902-69) in the pipeline. “I’m not going to get carried away, and I hope others don’t,” says Rosenthal. “I’ll do a few a year for fun and profit. Once labels see they can make a buck on something, you know they’ll rush in.”

Can 78s do any more than reflect past glories? Durham is a poster boy for analogue pop; Rosenthal thinks any new releases are best left to artists in traditional genres such as folk and blues. “A Lady Gaga 78 would be very distasteful,” he quips. Then again, Gaga in her crooning-with-Tony Bennett guise might be just the ticket. And Hammerton is positively open-minded. “We might not play a drum’n’bass 78 at any of our shows,” she says, “but it is fun to think about what might happen if we did.”

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