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The Long, Slow Vanish Of Britain's Illustrious Recording Clubs


Tape recording clubs were once a big thing in Britain. People would record all sorts of stuff - sounds of nature, music, plays. And then they'd meet to share their audio treasures. Well, over the years, those clubs have slowly disappeared. Christopher Werth took his own microphone to record what's left of them.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH, BYLINE: The British Sound Recording Association was founded as a national federation of tape-recording clubs in 1958. At one point, it had hundreds of members across Britain. But at The Victoria Arms, a pub in the middle of the English countryside, the last remaining sound recordists have come to vote on whether to disband the organization for good.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Order. Welcome to the 56th annual general meeting of the BSRA.

WERTH: Membership has declined in recent years. Most here are well past retirement age. And in a lengthy, often heated debate, Ken Everitt, a longtime member says the association has failed to attract new recruits.

KEN EVERITT: The problem has been that our members have gently and slowly put their microphones away because they're simply getting too old to do it.

WERTH: These days, the group laments young people are more interested in social media than joining recording clubs and meeting people in person. But in the 1950s and '60s, tape recording clubs sprang up all over the U.K. and they even advertised for new members.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Interesting in tape-recording? Then join The Derby Tape Recording Club. For further particulars, contact Mr. A. Handy.

TIM GEEN: There were dozens and dozens of clubs.

WERTH: Tim Geen joined his local tape-recording club in Cardiff, Wales in the 1960s. It's one of the few clubs still going today. And he says this wave of amateur groups was driven by a flood of new reel-to-reel tape recorders that hit the British market in the years after the war.

GEEN: Tape recording, up until that point, had been more for the professional. They were big, heavy machines. But these smaller machines came along, which were certainly available for everyone to use. And you were experimenting all the time with the recording. And I could remember vividly people going along to a railway footbridge and people were walking up and down to get the sound effects of stereo footsteps going over.


GEEN: Something as simple as that gave endless hours of pleasure to those who loved to record it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm tuckered out.

WERTH: Lugging their new tape recorders around like this, Geen says the club earned a reputation.

GEEN: People would ring us up and ask us to record something, like local choirs and orchestras and bands.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the Cardiff Searchlight Tattoo of 1973.


WERTH: In those days, The Cardiff Tape Recording Club met every two weeks and Geen says it included a cross-section of British society.

GEEN: The person who more or less founded it who's an accountant. We had somebody who worked in a garage. We had a baker and we'd listen to her recording done in the last couple of weeks or so. And we're all spellbound by the fact that we can make these recordings.

WERTH: And when cassette tapes came along, recording clubs even organized what are known as talking newspapers with members reading the local news for the blind - or what passed for the local news.


WOMAN: Is Brentwood being watched? This is the question being asked by local UFO experts. The second Brentwood sighting in as many months came on Tuesday.

WERTH: Now bear in mind, this was a generation of Britains raised listening to the BBC on their radios. They were connoisseurs of sound. The clubs held a national amateur recording contest each year, and for decades, people sent in tapes of bird songs and radio dramas and tips for creating sound effects.


RICHARD SIMMONS: Did you know you can make your own thunderstorm at home? Drop a few small nuts and bolts into an ordinary balloon and blow it up, but not too much. Now, to make the thunder, just bang the balloon close to the microphone, then rotate it so the nuts and bolts roll around. Finally, add a bit of echo to get the perspective right.

WERTH: That piece by a man named Richard Simmons won recording of the year as late as 2005. But in truth, the heyday of tape-recording clubs in Britain ended in the 1980s. And as clubs disappeared and members died, the number of contest entries declined so much, the competition was scrapped last year. And that gets us back to The Victoria Arms, where the final few members of the British Sound Recording Association are debating whether to let it fold.


WOMAN: Be quiet. One at a time please.

WERTH: For Jim Purcell, another longtime member, this is an emotional decision.

JIM PURCELL: All of us have put an awful lot of our life into this. If it's going to end, we do it in a dignified fashion, and I'm willing to do that.

WERTH: Finally, scraps of paper are passed around for a secret ballot.


WOMAN: Anymore?

WERTH: And the final tally comes to 17 to nine in favor of dissolution. The room goes kind of quiet. Then the group agrees to donate its recordings to Britain's National Sound Archives just in case some future generation happens upon them and decides to listen. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Werth.


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Werth

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