Unlock(down)ing My Own Sound Heritage

One of the few advantages to spending much of 2020 in lockdown was that it inspired many of us to go exploring in our own personal archives, rummaging in garages, lofts and sheds to dust off old records and tapes and uncover some fond memories – and maybe even a few surprises – in the process. Here Tim Hughes, part of our hugely valued team of volunteer cataloguers, writes about how suddenly spending a lot more time at home throughout the last year inspired him to go delving amongst the musical treasures of his student years, a time he enthusiastically describes as ‘a golden age’. As he elaborates ‘they were great days, and I fondly remember being knocked out by seeing Roxy Music in the early 70’s at the Dome in Brighton, as well as being transported by Hawkwind’s live rendition of Silver Machine when the stage seemed to lift off (also at the Dome) and blowing my whistle and dancing along wildly to Osibisa at the University. Takes me back!’ And because inspiring and empowering others to preserve their own recordings for future generations is such an important facet of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, we’ve asked him to tell us more about his experiences. It’s a journey across time, across the internet – and also across the ceiling. Over to you, Tim!

I nearly injured myself crawling around the attic under the eaves, but finally found the old equipment I had bought in my late teens with savings from my Saturday job, before I went to university. Stored wrapped in newspapers dating from 2006 (they hadn’t seen the light of day for 14 years!) I found myself drawn to a prescient article. A swan had been found dead in Scotland, and had tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza!

My equipment, a Thorens TD 150 deck, Armstrong amplifier and Wharfedale speakers, was routinely used to play my collection of vinyl records – a mixture of soul, R&B, Motown, reggae, classic rock and electric folk.

Fortunately, having connected it all up, Bill Withers Live at Carnegie Hall played beautifully as if yesterday, with analogue equipment bought 50 years ago. I was taken back to our top floor shared student flat in Brighton, overlooking the sea, where the kit got a lot of use and abuse in between studying for a BSc in Biochemistry at the University of Sussex.

I had a tinge of sadness that the past 14 years had seen my vinyl records from the 60’s and 70’s unloved and unplayed in favour of newer tracks on digital. I had been missing out on the wonderfully illustrated album covers and sleeve notes, and vinyl tracks that I never replaced with digital versions.

Being relatively new to cataloguing, and enthused and energised by my work with Kate the Catalogue Editor for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project at London Metropolitan Archives, summarising collections on a well-designed pro forma spreadsheet; I planned to set up my own catalogue and individually capture each album, artist and track listing on Excel. However, the project’s Audio Engineer Robin saved me an enormous amount of time and effort. His timely advice came in very handy!

“I think I mentioned Discogs.com (short for Discographies)…….which I use daily to identify and access items in my record collection. It’s perfect because it doesn’t just identify band name and release, it can help you work out which pressing you have, country of origin, how rare it is, whether it’s unusual in any way. I think I’m right in saying the site is largely run and maintained by its members and that there is a members area, where people can log in to post comments, reviews, add releases, correct errors, buy and sell etc. As a result many members list and document their own collections”

“I can’t comment much on this (I have far too many records to start cataloguing them online now!), but I certainly have friends who I believe are using Discogs as a way to catalogue their own collections. Although I’m sure Kate would counter that this is almost certainly just a glorified online spreadsheet!”

I now have all my vinyl records from my personal collection neatly catalogued. It’s easy when you get the hang of it. I have had a great time working out which particular edition of the record I have. This extends to cross checking what is engraved in the ‘run out’ the blank area where the grooves stop. There are some unexpected discoveries to be made! Did you know, for example, that Linton Kwesi Johnson ’s Bass Culture and Forces of Victory LP’s both have ‘Buy and read ‘Race Today’ scratched on the run out areas, and that ‘Your place in history has been assigned’ is scratched on Steele Pulse Tribute to the Martyrs?

It has been wonderful rediscovering and savouring each of my vinyl discs, reading the cover and liner notes, looking through the data supplied by other Discog members, and re-listening to tracks that I’ve not explored for many years now. Regrettably I’ve not hit gold in terms of rarity, but nonetheless I was surprised that Catch a Fire by The Wailers and Bob Marley, with the sleeve in the shape of a Zippo lighter, is valued at £200.

I now regret giving away my original controversial copy of Electric Ladyland by Jim Hendix, now worth up to £288, and David Bowie’s Hunky Dory worth up to £535!

It’s great to have a visual catalogue with my vinyl collection in one place, which can be sorted by artist, title, label, and year, and to use the search function to recall other precious vinyl from past and present. Thanks Robin from UOSH for helping me unlock my own sound heritage!