Honest Jon’s: Shellac shock

Damon Albarn’s label Honest Jon’s has discovered the world on their doorstep in the form of the EMI Archive.

HONEST JON’s, the record label that Damon Albarn runs with the Ladbroke Grove record shop of the same name, has travelled around the world search of exotic music. Since its launch six years ago, this EMI imprint has released dozens of weird and wonderful albums — country soul from Memphis, chaabi from Algeria, Afrobeat from Nigeria, jeli griots from Mali, soca from Trinidad and samba from Colombia. 

However, their most ambitious and exotic project to date has involved travelling only a few miles from their west London headquarters to the industrial suburb of Hayes in Middlesex, the historic home of EMI and its forerunners for more than a century. 

While the EMI factories and pressing plants have long left the town, Hayes is still home to the EMI Archive, a remarkable treasure trove of paraphernalia connected with EMI over the years. You’ll find wax cylinders, recording lathes, reel-to-reel tape players and antique gramophones — including the one that Shackleton took to the Antarctic in 1907 — alongside record contracts, videos, CDs and master tapes of everyone from Edward Elgar to The Beatles to Radiohead.

The section that interests Honest Jon’s, however, is the collection of pre-war 78s, particularly its enormous collection of African, Asian and East European music. 

“When we made our arrangements with EMI six years ago, it was part of the deal that we explored the archive,” says Mark Ainley of Honest Jon’s. “Damon and I met Tony Wadsworth [then president of EMI], who was very keen that we start turning over some of the deeper catalogue. When I finally visited Hayes I discovered an absolute Aladdin’s Cave of music.”

Ainley has spent much of the last 18 months visiting the EMI Archive, sifting through 150,000 antique slabs of shellac — most of them untouched since the 1920s and 30s, to compile a series of themed albums. 

“Most of these 78s aren’t even inventoried,” says Ainley. “Everything is ordered purely by catalogue number, rather than by genre or country. It means that you’ll have, say, 35 records from Lithuania next to three foxtrot records and a dozen music hall records by Harry Lauder. Sometimes I could tell immediately that I’d had no interest in the record — there’s lots of mediocre orchestral music, and a ridiculous number of polka records — but suddenly you’d be faced with a whole run of interesting looking stuff that you’d put onto a trolley and take to the listening room to see if they were any good. And, very often, the music was staggering.

“I’ve been running record shops for more than 20 years, and a lot of that has involved second-hand buying in places like Jamaica and the States. So I’m used to wading through enormous warehouses in, say, New Jersey, and going through millions of jazz and funk and reggae records in a few days to find the good ones. Fortunately, the people at the EMI Archive had the patience to let me do that on a grand scale in Hayes.”

The first release in the Hayes Archive series, “Living Is Hard: West African Music In Britain, 1927–1929” collates 23 recordings made in the late 1920s by London-based Africans. “They feature a mix of students, professional musicians and assorted labourers — sailors, builders and so on — recording songs in a variety of West African languages,” says Ainley. “It’s a real slice of social history. These records were actually made in studios in the grounds of the factory in Hayes, which is where most Gramophone Company recordings were made until Abbey Road Studios was built in 1931. So you would have had Elgar, Paul Robeson and all these African guys wandering around this industrial estate in suburban London!” 

Subsequent compilations in the series — which include music from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, Caucasia, the Lebanon and the Belgian Congo — feature music that was recorded abroad. Intrepid employees of labels like HMV, RCA Victor, the Gramophone Company or Zonophone (which all eventually became part of the EMI family) would be despatched to far flung corners of Africa or Asia to set up recording sessions. There was no tape in those days, so the recordings would be made by enormous recording lathes on wax discs which would then be returned to Hayes. These would be pressed onto shellac and shipped back out to the relevant territories to be sold in batches of a few hundred. Never released in the UK, the only evidence of their existence today is the factory copies held in the EMI Archive.

Ainley rifles through the archive to play some examples. The first is a rugged piece of trance-like lute music recorded in 1906 in the Transcaspian region of Russia. “It’s like a really rough blues recording by someone like Robert Johnson, isn’t it?” he suggests, “with a touch of Krautrock…” He follows it up with some Albanian music from 1930, where a drone like violin is accompanied by another violin playing ecstatic, freaky improvisations over the top. “This one sounds like the Velvet Underground,” he laughs. He moves onto some 78s of Belgian dance music from the early 1950s, a funky riot of thumb pianos, kazoos and unidentifiable string instruments. “This is before they could pay for horn sections,” says Ainley. “It’s <remarkable> don’t you think?”

The Hayes Archive series will also feature a sampler album of music hall, spoken word and novelty songs (“stuff that doesn’t fit under any category”), but it’s the world music albums that is the focus of Honest Jon’s project. 

“I want people to be amazed by these recordings,” he says. “The album of Iraqi music from the 1930s, for instance, was recorded by these pioneering guys from the Gramophone Company who set up recording sessions in various rural areas around the country. So there are tracks by Kurdish musicians, or people who have travelled from Kuwait or Bahrain, and dozens of women singers, who weren’t held in very high regard by a lot of Iraqi men. You quickly realise that most of the Iraqi musicians on these sessions are Jewish, and a lot of the time they’re singing in Hebrew. It’s amazing to think that, 20 years later, there were hardly any Jews left in Iraq. These records aren’t just fantastic pieces of music, but they’re historical artefacts.”

It’s this historic dimension that has made the archive a priority for EMI. Guy Hands, the CEO of the private equity firm Terra Firma who acquired EMI last year, is keen to assure everyone that, despite cutbacks in other areas of the firm, there is no threat to the archive’s future. “Those early 20th century records are a good example of why this is probably the world’s greatest collection of historical music,” he says. “Many of the cultures that were recorded 100 years ago literally don’t exist any more, so these recordings really represent a living history.”

EMI’s historic factory complex in Hayes employed more than 10,000 people at its 1930s peak. Now all that is left is the six members of staff who curate the EMI Archive. Hands insists that he wants to invest in the collection.

“From a direct commercial point of view, the EMI Archive doesn’t have a lot of value, says Hands. “However, from a historical point of view, it’s priceless. It’s not something that you can possibly create again. and it’s an absolute priority for us to make sure that we protect and preserve this stuff, catalogue it and make it available to the public.”

© John LewisFinancial Times, 28 April 2008

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