Vinyl, in the end, didn’t die: the older 78rpm record was a different story. But it had the run of the land for the best part of half a century, and in that time became the medium for most of the new music of the twentieth century: most rock singles were timed to fit, not the spaces available on a 33rpm LP, but the timings made sacrosanct by the 78.
Collecting 78s makes sense for two main kinds of people: fans of pre-War jazz, blues and dance music, and fans of pre-War classical musicians and singers. There aren’t so many of either who get involved with 78s, so it’s still something of a rarity to meet a collector. This is something of a shame.
Because done properly, 78 collecting can be an aesthetic delight: gramophones are attractive machines and excellent talking points. Labels, and less commonly sleeves, bring some of the best of interwar commercial design into your home. And all that’s before you actually wind the handle or turn on the power and play a record…
If you are havering over whether or not this might be for you, there are some myths that are best debunked early.
1. It’s an expensive hobby. It can be, if you chase rarities and buy magnificent room-dominating restored gramophones. But a decent variable speed turntable capable of bearing a special stylus for 78s can be surprisingly reasonable on Ebay, and the 78s themselves are rarely expensive items. £4 per track, to compare with £1 for an MP3 without provenance, i.e. £3 paid for the interest factor in the record, is not bad.
2. 78s sound terrible. If you’ve ever wondered how people put up with the scratchy sound of 78s, well, the answer is that they didn’t. On a good machine, cleaned, and with the appropriate needle, a 78 record can have superb tone and capture immense detail – much of which is often lost in transfers to CD, something to be borne in mind. It’s likely that a new 78 didn’t sound a great deal different from a mono 45 or LP. Stereo was the big 33rpm breakthrough – alongside improved recording technology at the studio end of things. One thing people often don’t realise when approaching 78s for the first time, is just how loud a wind-up gramophone with a “loud” needle on it can sound, but it’s often the quality of the sound that takes people by surprise.
On the other hand, if you don’t mind atmospheric crackliness and scratches, I’ve known worn-out but interesting 78s to be given away free by such places as the Notting Hill Record Exchange.
Ebay is probably the place to start – there are always thousands of 78s available, and tens of gramophones on any given day. Remember the importance of styli and needles: never play a 78 with a stylus or needle intended for 33rpm or 45rpm records. Thereafter, most large cities have one or two shops that have some sort of 78rpm speciality – in Edinburgh, the Gramophone Emporium in St Stephens Street is a treasure-house. In London, try Ray’s Jazz Shop upstairs in Foyles, and enjoy a cup of their excellent coffee whilst you’re there. There are also many specialist websites selling, in the main, high quality 78s.