Setting the record

In an article for The Covent Gardener, novelist James Hall tells the story of the birth of recorded music in a Maiden Lane basement

On July 1st 1898, a 25-year-old American called Fred Gaisberg set sail from New York to Liverpool aboard the steamer RMS Umbria with one mission in mind: to launch the recorded music industry in the UK. Armed with a rudimentary recording rig, a bicycle and a notebook full of contacts, Gaisberg had been sent as the personal emissary of Emile Berliner, the inventor of the gramophone.

‍‍Fred Gaisberg, founder of The Gramophone Company

And where did Gaisberg and his small pre-assembled team choose to open the country’s first ever recording studio? In the basement of a “grimy” hotel on Maiden Lane, right in the centre of Covent Garden.

From this location – surrounded by the theatres, restaurants and casinos in the throbbing heart of late Victorian London – the men from The Gramophone Company sowed the seed for what is now a £4.4bn annual business. And they had a riot doing it.

Gaisberg recalled the joy of arriving in Covent Garden at the tail end of a summer strawberry glut. He also noted the “wickedness all around”, as the city’s dark underbelly slowly revealed itself.

The studio at 31 Maiden Lane sounded basic, to say the least. The simple recording equipment sat in the middle of the room on a high stand, with a long thin trumpet protruding from it into which the musicians sang. Close by, on a moveable platform, was an upright piano.

A red-nosed comedian arrived at in full costume, not realising that people wouldn’t be able to see him

In those early days, many artistes were recruited in Rules, the restaurant two doors down. Rules would send regular supplies of stout and other drinks to the studio to keep the singers refreshed. Gaisberg’s diaries reveal some colourful characters. There was a singer called Dan Leno who also happened to be a champion clog dancer, so Gaisberg hoisted him onto a table and recorded his foot-taps. There was a “red-nosed comedian” called George Mozart who arrived at the studio in full make-up and costume, not realising that people wouldn’t be able to see him. “Dear, simple George had anticipated television by 35 years,” Gaisberg noted dryly, years later.

‍Dan Leno: his foot-taps were recorded

It is against the backdrop of the birth of the recorded music industry that I’ve set my new novel, The Industry of Human Happiness. The pioneering spirit of these people was immense. They were true disruptors. I imagine the looks they must have received when they told people that sounds could be etched onto black discs made from crushed beetle shells and that these ‘records’ could be played on machines in their homes. I’d have thought them crazy too.

Vinyl is currently enjoying its biggest revival for decades. Last year, 4.1 million records were bought in the UK, up from just 200,000 a decade ago. Today, 44 per cent of turntable are women, according to the BPI. And it all started in that grimy basement on Maiden Lane.

The Industry of Human Happiness is out now from Lightning Books, price £8.99

Published on
June 15, 2018