His Master’s Choice

Gramaphone and Phonograph collector and repairer Ken Priestley, pictured at his home at Holmfirth.
Gramaphone and Phonograph collector and repairer Ken Priestley, pictured at his home at Holmfirth.
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THE voice recorded more than a century ago leaps from the speaker on the front of the polished wooden casing with astonishing clarity, 
despite the background 
hiss and crackle.

It’s speaking from long out of the past thanks to a spinning wax cylinder driven by the clockwork mechanism of a type of machine that lost a technological battle for supremacy as far back as 1929.

And as it plays, a smile spreads across Ken Priestley’s face. He always keeps this phonograph ready to go, so that he can demonstrate to visitors the passion that’s gripped him for the past 40 years, and provided his living for the last 25.

Ken is one of a handful of people left who are expert at restoring and repairing gramophones and phonographs, the wind-up machines that brought recorded music to the masses for the first time. There’s a distinction between them – the phonograph plays cylinders, the gramophone 78rpm records. “But to be awkward,” said Ken, “The Americans called everything the phonograph.”

They’ve come from all over the country and beyond to be fixed over the years, and with customers in 37 countries, Ken is the man they turn to when they need spares, repairs and advice.

He’s catering to a thriving, if slightly eccentric, sub-culture which in the digital age insists that the sound of a spinning 78rpm record or wax cylinder provides the truest, purest recorded sound of all, nothwithstanding clicks and hisses.

They argue that the records were cut directly with one needle, reproduced by another, and there’s no technical meddling to intrude between artist and listener.

Ken’s home in Holmfirth is dominated by the machines. “People either like them, or think we’re mad,” he said.

The lounge is full of his collection. They’re lined up along the mantelpiece with pride of place going to his 1899 Edison Standard, in perfect working order.

By the door are some bigger machines, including one with a monster 5ft-long polished copper horn shaped like a witch’s hat that would dwarf the dog in the iconic His Master’s Voice logo.

There’s even what might be an archaic version of an iPod, a tiny gramophone that folds up small enough to go into a pocket, but is capable of playing a full-sized record.

There are picture discs on the wall, a copy of the smallest 78 ever manufactured, at barely an inch across, alongside the largest, at 20 inches.

On another wall is a huge collection of the boxes and tins that the steel needles came in, and a cabinet has all the paraphernalia of the first great age of recorded sound – cutters for thorn and bamboo needles, speed testers, and, just to prove that an earlier generation grasped the concept of multimedia long before the term was coined, children’s storybooks with 78s tucked into pockets to bring the tales to life.

That’s just what is visible. The loft is full of gramophones and spares, as is the roof space over the garage, and the spare room.

What Ken doesn’t collect any more is 78s, having learned a painful lesson. “I once bought, very foolishly, 7,000 of them, five-and-half-thousand 78s and fifteen hundred 45s, and it was the worst thing I ever did. There was about three tons of records there, I had to hire storage space to keep them. I eventually sold them all, but after that, I said, ‘Never again’.”

It all started for Ken, 68, when he helped an aunt move house. “When we’d loaded the van up she gave me what I thought was an old-fashioned sewing machine, because it had a lid on it, but it was a phonograph.

“It had originally been bought by my grandparents on my father’s side, and I thought, ‘Oh yes, nice family piece’, and then one thing led to another.”

The look and the mechanics of it fascinated him, and have never loosened their grip. “It’s everything about them – it’s their appearance, it’s what they do, it’s how unusual they are now compared with modern technology, the aesthetics. You get bitten by the bug, and it’s stayed with me.

“The two things I get the most pleasure from is first, finding the machine, and second, bringing the machine back to life and making it work. That’s where the real satisfaction comes from. And when somebody comes and they haven’t seen them before and they like them, that’s great.”

Ken learned how to repair and restore by trial and error, with some help from a friend in Liverpool, and it eventually became his living after he left his job as a sales rep. “It’s never made a lot of money, but it’s paid the mortgage,” said Ken. “And when you’re doing something you enjoy, that’s great.”

When he started doing it for a living, not only had the 78 long been obsolete, but the vinyl LP had given way to CDs.

But the cylinder and the disc also battled it out before the 78 finally won, and the gramophones that played them continued to be produced until the late 1950s. By then, 78s had lasted long enough for rock and rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley to have records in the format.

Yet it continues to have its devotees – some far too young for the wind-up gramophone to have ever been part of everyday life. “There’s quite a lot of interest from young people,” said Ken. “One customer bought his first gramophone from me when he was 12, and he took it everywhere with him, playing it for his auntie, his mother and so on.”

Finding gramophones isn’t easy. Countless numbers were dumped when LPs arrived, but they were built to last and those that survive have a long life ahead thanks to Ken’s care.

Newly-manufactured springs or horns can be fitted, but he’s a stickler for original parts where possible.

“I have a drawer full of rusty screws. If I rebuild a machine, I won’t put a new screw in, I’ll take an old one and clean it because that’s come from a gramophone in the first place. There’s a fine line with restoration that you don’t cross.”

The needles to play 78s are not routinely manufactured any more, but Ken has a stockpile that will last for years, thanks to a now-defunct Bradford steel company. And they’re in demand, since a needle will only play one 78 before it needs to be changed.

“You get people who like the machines and want to sit down for two hours every night and play their records. There are one or two collectors up and down the country who for their living buy and sell purely 78 records, so there is still a good call for them there.”

Ken doesn’t listen to 78s or cylinders for hours on end, but he understands those who do. “I lean to phonographs these days. The one big problem to me with modern music is it’s too clean, too sanitised.

“They do say the truest form of recording ever is for a gramophone record, it’s recorded straight onto and played back straight from, it’s not been done this, that or the other with, so for me the best way to listen to older music is from a gramophone or phonograph if you accept what it is.”

He has a pair of good speakers connected to his computer so he can listen to CDs and amid the vintage machines in his lounge is a modern sound system.

Ken likes it, but it pales next to his beloved 1899 Edison. “The technology is fantastic for modern machines, but the build quality isn’t there. It’s cheap, it’s nasty, it’s plastic. You look at that system, which is quite good, and inside it’s chipboard. It’ll be lucky to last 10 years, whereas my machine over there is 115 years old and it’s still working.”

Ken Priestley’s gramophone and phonograph website is at www.fonograf.com