by Dave Thompson
In Part 7 of our look at collecting different formats of recorded music, we delve into some of the more obscure products ever to hit the market. Read on to find out more about Pocket Discs, Pocket Rockers, Polish Postcards and reel-to-reel tapes.
The Pocket Disc arrived on the scene in 1966, courtesy of Americom Ltd.
The idea was simple if, perhaps, a little ambitious. Pocket Discs were, quite literally, discs you could carry around in your pocket; medium thickness flexidiscs, admittedly, but discs all the same. (A similar effort had been attempted by the Enterprise label during the late 1950s/early 1960s, for inclusion with boxes of Carnation dried milk)
Just four inches across, Pocket Discs were issued in a generic blue or red sleeve and retailed through Americom’s own vending machines. The difference was, whereas many flexis are the fruit of one-off deals which find them glued to magazine covers or arriving unsolicited in the mail, Pocket Discs went straight to the top, striking licensing deals with many top record labels including, during 1969, Apple. In fact, Apple releases, while extremely scarce, are the best known and certainly the best documented of all Pocket Disc releases.
A series of Hip Pocket Discs, marketed by Philco, appeared a short time after the Americom issues. A number of popular issues were made, including a very rare Doors single (“Light My Fire”/“Break On Through”), but the series did not survive long.
Pocket Rockers are one of the most infectious of modern-day tape collectibles, two-track loop tapes manufactured by Fisher Price Toys and launched via the larger retail chains in 1988.
Featuring two songs, the 1″ x 1½” tapes were playable only on special Pocket Rockers tape machines and were packaged complete with miniature album sleeves and a free pocket pop quiz.
Unlike the earlier PlayTapes which they closely resemble, the target audience was young, those traditionally regarded as “too young to have got into records, tapes and hi-fis in their own right.” However, a surprisingly broad range of artists was incorporated into the series, including Bon Jovi (“Wanted Dead or Alive” — TM 8759; “Livin’ On A Prayer” — 8760), Huey Lewis (“Hip To Be Square” — 8808) and the Fat Boys (“Wipe Out” — 8810).
Other issues included The Bangles, Belinda Carlisle, Cutting Crew, Debbie Gibson, Exposé, Jan Hammer, Kim Wilde, LeVert, Lisa Lisa And Cult Jam, Los Lobos, Madonna, Mike And The Mechanics, Phil Collins, Pretty Poison, Ray Parker Jr., Taylor Dane, Tears For Fears, The Jets, Tiffany, Tom Petty, T’Pau, Whisper and Whitney Houston.
For more traditional-minded listeners, there were also titles by Bill Haley And The Comets, Chuck Berry, Boston, Danny And The Juniors and Kenny Loggins. There appear to have been around 40 Pocket Rocker releases altogether, before the format faded from view during the early 1990s; some branches of Toys “R” Us were carrying them at heavily discounted prices in 1992.
As collectibles, Pocket Rockers tend to hang out around the novelty end of the market, rubbing shoulders with PlayTapes and Mini-8s. As with those formats, however, the releases are certainly legitimate entries into the relevant acts’ discographies — regardless of whether or not one has anything to play them on.
Although the so-called Polish Postcard singles are widely considered an aspect of flexidisc collecting, the sheer range and novelty of available issues has established them as a firm, if difficult, theme in their own right.
Little firm data has been published surrounding these exotic issues’ origins and development. The majority were produced by the Polpress label and are sometimes inaccurately described as pirate productions, in that the music was not licensed from the western copyright holders. However, as one of the few rock-music media readily available to Polish youth during the Communist era, their status as items of social history necessarily outweighs any legal issues.
Polish Postcard records seem to date back to the 1960s, when Mary Hopkin’s “Bylie Taki Dni” (“Those Were The Days”) was paired with the Ohio Express’ untranslatable “Yummy Yummy Yummy” for an issue much sought after by Apple label collectors. Other known issues from this early period include Procol Harum, The Doors and Pink Floyd.
Many of the discs (which are, of course, shaped and manufactured to the specifications of a regular picture postcard, then embossed with two musical tracks) frequently bear images completely unrelated to their subject — cartoons, street scenes, greetings and so forth. It also appears that “new” postcards were not always produced; many postcard singles exist pressed onto cards which clearly predate the song’s recording — a 1920s view of Warsaw, for example, playing a 1970s Deep Purple song.
Neither was Poland the only Communist bloc nation issuing music in this form. The Soviet Union itself saw a number of postcard singles issued by the Moscow Photo/Cinema Organization during the late 1960s, measuring some 9½” across and playing at 78 rpm. These cards, too, tend to offer totally unrelated images on the postcard side.
Another characteristic of these issues is their extremely limited availability. Some press runs were as tiny as 50 copies. One should also be aware that automatic record players — that is, those whose mechanism automatically returns the playing arm to its rest upon reaching the end of the record — are unable to play them, as the postcard record begins where a conventional 45’s label would lie.
Entire LPs were produced in the postcard medium, two songs per card. For obvious reasons, complete sets are extremely rare and highly valued today, particularly those still contained within their own original packaging. Many cards, individual and otherwise, were issued in “picture sleeve” envelopes or wrappers, bearing the artist and song title. Several Pink Floyd titles are known in this format, including the albums Dark Side Of The Moon and Meddle, and a unique compilation, Super Floyd. (Pink Floyd themselves utilized the wrapper format as packaging for the set of non-musical postcards included within their Shine On box set. )
Polish postcard releases, while actively traded, are nevertheless extremely difficult to find. Many collectors might spend their entire lives without ever finding one through their traditional record-hunting channels. However, shift one’s focus away from record collecting and into the realms of cartophily (postcard collecting) and some finds can be made. Many card dealers have sections of novelty and musical postcards, and while these tend to be dominated by mass-produced American issues, playing state anthems and songs for tourists and the like, more esoteric items abound.
The most popular tape format among collectors today is the reel-to-reel, the single-spool packages which were also the first magnetic tapes to be made available to consumers, during the mid-1950s.
7 inches in diameter (the same size as a 45), reel-to-reels were attractively packaged in cardboard boxes bearing full-color artwork. They were also very exclusive. Reels were marketed towards the audiophile end of their contemporary market — indeed, in general the tapes were not even available in regular record stores, the majority of stockists being high-end equipment and electronics outlets. It is a further indication of the esteem in which reels were held that the first ever commercially available stereo recordings appeared in the tape format, some time before the first stereo LPs were marketed.
Tapes were issued at two speeds, 7½ inches per second (ips); and the sonically superior 3¾ ips, the standard to which both the later 4-Track and 8-Track cartridges adhered. Typically, reels are designated “two track” for mono releases, “four track” for stereo — these terms should not be confused with the cartridge-tape formats of the same name.
For much of the format’s early life, releases were aimed at what might now be termed a determinedly high-brow audience, with the emphasis on classical, jazz, opera and theatrical issues. Not until the mid-1960s brought the rising star of the 8-Track into view did the reel-to-reel first acknowledge rock music, and even then, it was extremely choosy about who was allowed into the club.
The decision of what to release was made not by the record companies themselves, but the manufacturing company, Stereotape, who leased the music from the labels, then distributed the tapes through their own network. This arrangement meant that there was often a considerable lag between a new LP release appearing on reel — and every other tape format, for that matter. It would be early 1968 before firm efforts were taken on an industry-wide level to ensure vinyl and tape issues became simultaneous.
Immediately, sales of all the then-current tape formats began to rise, with reel-to-reels showing an especial gain. Emboldened, Bell and Howell (as Stereotape was now known — it would later become Magtec) began issuing more rock music in the format; this period also saw Ampex, hitherto known primarily as makers of 8-Track cartridges, move into the field.
It is from this period that the vast majority of readily available rock reels date. Although the format remained in use until the early 1980s (by which time record clubs had become its principle outlet), the early 1970s represent a boom time in terms of new releases.
The most collectible artists in the format are, of course, the usual suspects — from the 1960s, Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and Simon And Garfunkel; from the new decade, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, David Bowie and so forth. A handful of quad reels issued during the early 1970s are also much sought after — the Allman Brothers’ At The Fillmore East (Capricorn CTSQ 0131), Bachman Turner Overdrive’s Not Fragile (Mercury H-11004) and Caravan’s For Girls Who Grow Plump In The Night (London J-12710) are among the most popular titles.
The selectiveness which these names immediately denote has ensured that most rock reel-to-reels are considered of value today. This is true even when the corresponding vinyl is of little worth — certain Presley and Moody Blues releases certainly fall into this category. However, condition is paramount, as the format was wide open — literally — to abuse and damage.
Players are also common (some models are still in production), but working models tend to be expensive. It is also crucial to note when making a purchase whether or not the deck is capable of playing four-track tapes. A two-track (mono) player will read both strips of information as one and play them simultaneously, with one in reverse. Four-track players, of course, can handle both formats without difficulty.
by Dave Thompson