Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Memo to Radio Three - all discs are records but not all records are discs

Listening to BBC Radio Three first thing this morning my ears prick up when "the announcer" (I feel sure they should still be called "announcers" on Radio Three) talks about playing "some new discs".

"Discs" is a term that seems to hang on at Radio Three and in certain corners of Radio Four. It wasn't long ago that Desert Island Discs (there it is again) asked guests to pick eight "gramophone records" to be cast away with.

All terms used to decribe sound carriers have a moment in the sun and quickly become quaint. In the late 60s people talked about having "an album collection" because it implied a whole new level of sophistication. In the late 70s cassette was the dominant format. At the time my mother would describe any recorded music as "a tape".  I cling on to "LP" because it puzzles young people. I have known people point at 12" vinyl LPs and call them CDs.

"Album" itself is a word borrowed from the world of photography, used to describe the packages in which the first classical works could be spread over a number of 78s. "Waxing" and "vinyl" were borrowed from the production process. "Hot biscuit" was a hipster term for a record, so-called because early 78s would be apparently baked during manufacture.

There's actually only one word that would cover anything from an early Edison cylinder to the latest stream, anything from a rare Black Patti to a Paul Young cassette with a cracked case picked up in a motorway service area, from a Jamaican dub plate to the most recent classical performance.

That's the word "record".

"Record" doesn't apply to the physical object. It applies to the medium. Therefore, that music they're playing on Radio Three may be coming from a disc or it may not, it may be a download or it may not, it may in ten years' time be played in via a machine that we cannot imagine now. It will however still be a record.


  1. To be fair to Desert Island Discs, the "gramophone" bit was part of the consistent imaginary set-up Plomley created, as the idea was that you had a hand-cranked gramophone on your island. (And if it's hand-cranked, it has to be a gramophone.)

    At some point - during the Lawley era, I think - they came up with the idea of a solar-powered CD player.

  2. David, are you one of those people that feel the impulsion to correct people when they refer to a non-branded vacuum cleaner as a 'Hoover'?

  3. Or "rekuds" as Whispering Bob would have it...

  4. The wonderful Sean Rafferty refers to 'a piece of music'. Which, when back announcing a disc or bigging up a virtuoso pinaist playing live in the studio, works equally well.

  5. Pianist. Or just piano player.

  6. An alt.version of record: with the Sky +, I'll still say to the kids... 'have you taped it?', 'can we tape it?'

    They wouldn't know a videotape if they tripped over one. I'm sure they think 'tape' is dad-speak for record

  7. To me a record is one of those 12" vinyl things you mention.

    Now a recording - that would be a generic term in my mind!

  8. Would the word "recording" be more apposite?

  9. Another thing consigned to Radio 3 history: a friend who used to work at the BBC in the 1970s once told me the mechanism behind the silent gap which always precedes and follows a "disc" played on R3. It is apparently the length of time needed to languidly pick up a cigarette, draw slowly & heavily on it, exhale, then put it back in the ashtray: then speak.


  10. I think you're right - 'record' is the best catch-all. Works for LPs and singles, as well as collections of MP3s and individual downloads.

    The one that gets my goat is hearing people refering to 'vinyls', as in "I'm going to the record fair to buy some vinyls" or "I'm glad that as well as CDs and t-shirts, the band had vinyls on their merch stand".

    Grrrr. Bloody kids.

  11. Brian Matthew still always uses the word "disc" during Sounds Of The Sixties.

  12. Mondo, re video archiving methods:

    Our 11-year-old twins were brought up on Sky+ (and they're much the better for it: live pause is a hell of an inducement for toddlers, and as they've grown they've only watched carefully selected timeshifted programming rather than sit in front of the outpour).

    Anyway, the other day following a clear out they mentioned my "rectangular black plastic DVDs". Took us a fair few moments to ascertain they meant VHS tapes.

    In their defence, they're au fait with vinyl, and have been known to squabble over which Simon & Garfunkel LP to put on next.