The dingy basement that spawned a recording empire

The author of a new novel about the birth of recorded music explains why he is launching a campaign to give proper recognition to the Covent Garden studio where it all began

By James Hall

Fred Gaisberg, founder of The Gramophone Company

In July 1898 Fred Gaisberg, an American employee of Emile Berliner, boarded the Cunard liner Umbria and set sail from New York to London. His mission? To launch Berliner’s invention – the gramophone – in the UK.

Once in London, Gaisberg joined forces with William Barry Owen and Trevor Williams, who had bought the European rights to Berliner’s contraption. Together, the men opened an improvised recording studio in a dingy room in the basement of the old Cecil Hotel on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden. Little did anyone involved know that their experiment would spawn a £4.4bn industry or that their company, The Gramophone Company, would eventually become EMI and would open arguably the world’s most famous recording studio at Abbey Road. 

Little did anyone involved know that their experiment would spawn a £4.4bn industry

The stories revealed in Gaisberg’s diaries about the early days of recording are as extraordinary as they are evocative of the era. Arriving in the throbbing heart of London during a summer strawberry glut, Gaisberg gave the impression of enjoying the city and all it had to offer. He and his artists would hang out in Rules, London’s oldest restaurant that was two doors down from the studio. If they were too busy recording in the “grimy” studio, they’d have liquid refreshment delivered from the restaurant. “Stout was the great standby of our artists in those days,” Gaisberg noted. 

Attila, doorman of present-day Rules, with James Hall's novel

But what really fired the man was music. The studio in Maiden Lane saw the music hall stars of the day record a steady stream of songs, some of which became famous the world over. Music hall celebrity Bert Shepard’s rendition of The Laughing Song was still being sold as far afield as India, China and Africa 40 years later. The Maiden Lane studio remained active until 1902, when The Gramophone Company moved to larger premises across town on City Road.

However the dye was cast. The industry of human happiness, as the record industry was then known, had been well and truly launched.

I’ve always been fascinated by the early days of recorded sound. The idea that these pioneers were suddenly able to capture and reproduce what was previously fleeting is thrilling. The disruption to the status quo and the format wars involved also seemed fertile ground for stories of endeavour, treachery and rivalry. This is why I set my novel, The Industry of Human Happiness, against the backdrop of these early days of recorded music.

But here’s the thing. Nowhere on or in the building where it all started - 31 Maiden Lane – is any mention made of its illustrious past. Today it is a pizza restaurant. 

Nowhere on or in the building where it all started - 31 Maiden Lane – is any mention made of its illustrious past. Today it is a pizza restaurant. 

I believe it would be tragic if the building’s past as the crucible of recorded sound remained a secret. That is why I’ve decided to start a campaign to convince the local council to put a commemorative plaque on the building. Its heritage is too important to be ignored. I hope to raise the £3,500 + VAT and fees needed to fund a Westminster Council green plaque to mark the building’s hugely important heritage. Like the sounds captured within, everyone deserves to hear about it.

To donate to James' campaign, click here.

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

Published on
April 18, 2018