Monday, November 27, 2006

The 20th Century's forgotten genius

Feelin' Groovy by Harpers Bizarre. Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. Kodaly's The Hary Janos Suite played by the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra. The Man Machine by Kraftwerk. Nancy and Lee. Flanagan and Allen's Greatest Hits.
Just a few of my favourite long-playing albums. What's yours?

It's a sobering thought that without one of the 20th century's forgotten geniuses, the Hungarian inventor Dr Peter Carl Goldmark, born 100 years ago this week, we would not have been able to enjoy any of the above albums. Goldmark's invention of the LP in 1948 revolutionised the music industry and added so much enjoyment to people's lives.

Here's my tribute to the great man, from today's Daily Express., together with some interesting facts you may, or may not know, about the LP.


What’s your favourite LP of all time? The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Rumours by Fleetwood Mac? Perhaps it’s something more ‘middle of the road’, like Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. Or maybe a film soundtrack, Maurice Jarre’s haunting score for Ryan’s Daughter, for example.

It’s a sobering thought that we would not have been able to enjoy any of those classic albums- or indeed any other long playing records, without one of the 20th century’s most forgotten geniuses- the Hungarian inventor Peter Carl Goldmark, who was born 100 years ago this week.

It was said of Goldmark that he had “more ideas in one day than most others have in a lifetime.” For in addition to inventing the LP, Goldmark also created the world’s first commercial colour television system in 1940; played a key role in development of video cassette recording and invented the scanning system used by the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft in 1966 to transmit photographs to the earth from the moon. All in all, this remarkable man patented over 160 inventions before his death at the age of 71 in 1977.

Goldmark’s story began in 1906 in Budapest. The son of the Jewish composer Karl Goldmark, best known for his 1875 opera ‘The Queen of Sheba’, Goldmark junior unsurprisingly developed a love of music from an early age. But despite remaining a keen amateur musician all his life, science was to be his vocation.

In 1925, he left his native Hungary to study physics at the University of Vienna, where, at the age of just 19, he built a receiver for John Logie Baird’s historic television transmission from London in 1926.

After receiving his PhD, Goldmark set off for England, to begin his career working at Pye, an electronics company based in Cambridge. In 1933, he travelled to the U.S. to work as a construction engineer until 1936, when he joined CBS ( Columbia Broadcasting System), one of America’s leading radio networks, as chief engineer of the television department.

After his pioneering work in the field of colour television in the early Forties, (inspired by watching the Technicolor movie Gone with the Wind in 1939), Goldmark turned his attention to recorded sound. Like fellow music lovers around the world, Goldman was frustrated by the technology then on offer for listening to records- and with the records themselves. Before the invention of the LP, people had to make do with heavy and breakable 78s, made of powdered slate mixed with clay and shellac (a material obtained from the excretion of a southeast Asian beetle), whose often loud surface noise detracted from enjoyment of the music. The records wore out quickly and to play them either required needles made from steel (which had to be changed often) or cactus or bamboo styli, which though kinder on the disc, gave a much weaker sound and had to be sharpened after every play. The biggest drawback of all was that 78s had to be flipped over every three to five minutes.

Goldmark got the idea for the LP after becoming irritated by the clicking and thumping of a record changer while listening to music at a friend's house in 1945. Three years later, he and his colleagues at CBS, unveiled the new 33 and one third rpm LP. The new discs, made of vinyl, allowed more grooves, thereby greatly increasing the playing time on one side of the record to as much as half an hour. Not only that, they were much improved in terms of surface noise and much less breakable. The LPs also weighed far less than 78s, saving the record producer, shipper, and retailer a great deal of money in handling and storage costs, meaning they could be sold much more cheaply.

Goldmark’s invention, together with the introduction of smaller 45rpm vinyl discs by Columbia’s main competitor RCA Victor one year later, revolutionised the music industry. But although his main interest was classical music, it was popular music which fuelled the LP boom, and one smash-hit Broadway musical in particular. Just months after the first LPs went on sale, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific opened to packed audiences on Broadway. Having watched the show, theatre-goers, naturally enough, wanted to own a copy of the soundtrack. It was said that by the end of 1949, everyone in New York had bought a copy. The LP as a format was well and truly launched.

For the next thirty years, LPs, given a further boost by the introduction of stereo in the late Fifties, dominated the music scene. In 1976, the US music industry alone shipped a total of 273m albums. But, of course, technology never stands still. By the late 1970s, the LP, so cutting edge in the 1940s, faced a serious rival in the shape of the audio cassette, and a decade later, by the advent of CDs. Goldmark himself, ever the visionary, had predicted the use of laser technology for recorded music back in the early 1970s, but did not believe it would be commercially viable.

Does today’s digital technology mean that the days of the LP are over? Don’t bet on it. Despite the growing reluctance of customers to pay for CDs, when they can download music for free or next to nothing via the Internet, there has been a dramatic revival of record sales in Britain. “We are not just talking about vinyl singles but also about albums – the format is just continuing to grow,” says HMV spokesman Gennaro Castaldo.

Sales figures indicate that we could be about to enter a new golden age for Goldmark’s invention. Not only are more and more contemporary artists switching to record labels which still produce vinyl, but for those thinking of building up a record collection, great LPs of the past are available often only for a matter of pence in charity shops - I recently bought a pristine copy of ‘Hoagy Carmichael’s Greatest Hits’ for 75p.

Turntables may be hard to find in the high street though the are on sale in specialist hi-fi dealers - but, with record sales increasing, it may be only a matter of time before mainstream electronics manufacturers catch on by reintroducing budget models.

And LPs possess many advantages over CDs. There’s a widespread consensus that music, and in particular pop music, sounds much better- and more real- on vinyl than on digital equipment. Then there are the album covers. Many are works of art: just think of the montage of 57 famous people on Sergeant Pepper, or the inventive die-cast ‘advent calendar’ style windows of the New York buildings on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.

And there are few things more pleasurable than slipping a disc out of its sleeve, putting your feet up then letting the stylus work its magic.

Music lovers the world over owe a huge debt of gratitude to the remarkable Mr Goldmark.

Things you may, or may not know, about the LP

A autographed copy of ‘Double Fantasy’ signed by John Lennon just five hours before his assassination by Mark Chapman, is the most valuable LP in the world at $505,000 (£261,000).

In a poll in November 2003, The Beatles ‘Sgt Pepper’ was voted the Best Album of all time. All in all, the Fab Four had 11 albums in the list, with 4 in the top ten.

Michael Jackson’s Thriller is believed to be the best selling album of all time, with global sales of over 100m.

The first No 1 LP in Britain was the soundtrack of South Pacific, which held the position for a record 70 consecutive weeks, eventually achieving 115 weeks as Number 1. In the US it chalked up 69 weeks at the top.

The UK record for advance album sales is 1.1m for “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood in 1984.

Alessandro Benedetti of Italy has a collection of 647 coloured vinyl LPs- the largest in the world.

1 comment:

SoundStageDirect said...

Loved what you have to say, but I must admit to being a bit biased, my website:
You bring up some very interesting points about vinyl, it is not going away and, in fact, is enjoying a resurgence. to that I say Cheers!