What goes around comes around: avante-garde music on old turntables

I was browsing in Canberra’s Landspeed Records recently when I saw a CD re-release of John Cale’s 1975 album Helen of Troy. Cale has a firm place in popular-music history on account of having co-founded the legendary proto-indie band The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in 1965. Cale played in The Velvet Underground until he and Reed parted company in 1968. After that, Cale’s long and varied ‘solo’ career included producing albums for The Stooges and The Modern Lovers, re-visiting his classical-music origins, avant-garde composition, and high-profile collaborations with Brian Eno such as Wrong Way Up (1990). He was also responsible for a rousing version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Halleluiah’ that appeared on a 1991 Cohen-tribute album.


But perhaps the most interesting part of the Cale oeuvre is the series of albums he made after his return to his native Britain in the early 1970s. These albums saw Cale immersed in the British art-rock scene, and they feature guest performances by many of that scene’s inner circle including Brian Eno and Roxy Music’s guitarist Phil Manzanera.
Roxy Music’s eponymously titled debut album of 1972 is in my view the first example of commercially acceptable Post-Modern music. Roxy Music’s founder and singer Bryan Ferry wanted to make a pop-music version of the pop-art collages he had learned about at art school in Newcastle. He succeeded brilliantly: a song on the album can take you from Gene Vincent to Wagner and then onto jazz improvisations, accompanied by nostalgic references to Hollywood and the Blitz.

With his classical-music roots and his avant-garde chops, John Cale was entirely at home in this art-rock environment. His best known album from this period is the atmospheric Paris 1919 (1973), which combines lush orchestration with rather bizarre stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics. But my favourite Cale album of the era is Helen of Troy, not least because it added vigorous and relatively conventional rock music to the existing (and perhaps already rather over-egged) art-rock mixture.  This change was, one suspects, largely brought about because at the time Cale recorded and toured with a stable band line-up that included dynamic guitarist Chris Spedding, whose session-work credits ranged from Jack Bruce’s solo albums to The Wombles, and who was apparently asked to join The Rolling Stones when Mick Taylor left, but declined.

So I bought the Helen of Troy CD at Landspeed without hesitation.  It sounded magnificent in musical terms and also – this really surprised me – in respect of its sound quality. It even sounded good on my car stereo, and so when I got home I did something I rarely do these days: rather than playing vinyl, I listened to a CD through my main system.  Naturally I began to think that if the CD sounded so good, vinyl would be even better.  I found out that the Cale albums were available on vinyl, having been re-released by several ‘niche’ labels including the superbly named Wax Cathedral Records. Next time I was at Landspeed I ordered all the Cale albums whose names I could recall at the time and after a tantalising couple-of-weeks wait, I was able to play Helen of Troy the way it should be played: on a turntable. It blew me away. And the music itself seemed both fresh and familiar to me, listening forty years after it was made.
But speaking of time passing, while listening to the Helen of Troy LP I had a thought: I was playing the record on my vintage Orpheus turntable, and it occurred to me that when Helen of Troy was first released, the Orpheus would have been regarded by the hi-fi cognoscenti of the day as a risibly archaic relic from the pre-history of audio.  

Why, then, was I listening to an Orpheus, rather than something more recent?  These thoughts led me to reflect on the history of turntables, and to draw some parallels between that history and the history of pop music. For the 1970s are surely the most important epoch in turntable history insofar as they represent the beginning of now, as it were.  As well as marking Roxy Music’s first album, the year 1972, notably, saw the release of both the Linn Sondek belt-drive turntable and the Technics SL-1200 direct drive. Both turntables went on to have decades-long production runs, with the Linn still going strong. Moreover, virtually every turntable made since 1972 can be seen as a variant or development of either the Linn or the Technics. And in addition, the Technics and especially the Linn brought with them a set of paradigm-shifting ideas about what hi-fi is or should be, and these ideas have remained part of the hi-fi weltanschauung.

It is nevertheless too easy to overlook the effect that the past had on this historically significant, and seemingly so future-directed, era. Someone listening to Helen of Troy in 1975 may well have forgotten how indebted art-rock was to, say, The Beatles and even the Blues. Equally, someone listening to Helen of Troy on an early Linn Sondek and sneering at the stone-age qualities of the idler-wheel-driven Orpheus would not have been aware of the significant historical continuity between the two turntables. It is well known that the Linn is a sub-chassis design with three-point suspension. But so are a number of turntables that preceded the Linn including the (suspiciously similar) Ariston, the Thorens TD 150 that came out in 1965, and the Acoustic Research AR X-A of 1961. And so is the Orpheus. In fact, the Orpheus began its production run in Melbourne in the late 1950s and may well therefore be the world’s first three-point-suspended-sub-chassis hi-fi turntable. Although possessing a crude, stamped-metal upper chassis, the Orpheus also has a main bearing engineered to high tolerances, as well as a very heavy (but well balanced) platter, both of which are characteristic ‘Linn’ traits.

So why listen to an Orpheus now? Well, Post-modernism is no longer avant-garde like it was in the seventies; it is so mainstream and dominant that we barely notice it any more. One important aspect of our post-modern environment is an emphasis on nostalgia – as pioneered in pop music by Bryan Ferry. Whether we’re artists, musicians, hipsters, steam punks, or well adjusted individuals who happen to think that too many old turntables is barely enough, we now increasingly look to the past for inspiration and enjoyment. And within this outlook the Orpheus, with its almost effete art-deco styling, its flecked ‘hammertone’ enamel that invokes the Industrial Revolution, and its crudely constructivist control dials, is very cool. In fact, if retro had a Platonic form, it would have to be the Orpheus. All of that, though, would just make it an interesting piece of furniture. But – here’s the thing – it sounds great as well. Despite and surely because of its age, it gives you a quality experience today, one that transcends the passing of time and serves to unite different eras.  Just like John Cale.

Dr Walter Kudrycz