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Revolution! A truly magical history of turntables

What's the greatest turntable you've ever seen?  This book is its literary equivalent.
9781838665616

Revolution: The History of Turntable Design

By Gideon Schwartz

(Phaidon)

Ignore the technology that makes the thing work, and the story of the turntable - the record player, the gramophone, call it what you will - is all about style on the one hand, and familiarity on the other.

From the most basic “bits in a box” to the swankiest avant garde technological abstract, the basic lay-out of the turntable has barely changed in over 120 years. There’s the platter (introduced in 1887), there’s the tone arm (1902), and there’s the stylus, which has been there since what was then called the Phonautograph received its first patent in France in 1857.

Everything else - speed settings, cue-ing arms, auto-change mechanisms, cartridges, all the bells and whistles that have been added and/or removed since then - is simply window dressing. The record player does exactly the same thing today as it did when it was invented, with much the same parts in much the same place as they have always been.

And maybe that’s why we love them. Because - for many people, anyway - there is something instinctively fascinating, and at the same time reassuring, about looking at old turntables. 

We live in an age when everything seems to change its shape, its function, its weight and size every time it gets another upgrade.

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But the turntable? It doesn’t matter where you look; from the hand-cranked beasts of the 1900s, so vast that they doubled as furniture; to the sleek music centers of the 1970s… which also doubled as furniture. From the early fifties portables packed into their own mini-suitcase, to the sci-fi worthy Apollos that brought the space-age into the listening room. And in today’s world, from the tiniest hi-tech mechanisms that are dwarfed by even a 7-inch single, to ridiculous shapes that hang on the wall and play your records in mid-air (still a surreal vision, forty years after the Sony PS-F5 pioneered such visual madness).

At their heart, they still work in the same way they’ve always worked, and they do the same thing they’ve always done. They play records. And Revolution: The History of Turntable Design is their story.

The book itself is a stunning piece of work. Hardbound, 11x 8.5 inches, 263 pages and full glossy color, 300 photos and commentary throughout, Revolution tells the entire history of the record player - not only through pictures of the actual machines (and there’s an awful lot of them), but also lashings of ephemera, too: the colorful tins in which replacement styluses were once sold; advertising and factory scenes. .. even the occasional record!

We find a 1962 tracking force gauge that looks suspiciously like a compact disc; and some truly nifty portables that will send readers of a certain age into paroxysms of nostalgic delight. As will all the others from a similar age, that were out of our price range even then, but haunted our imaginings regardless.

Just think, looking back across your own life, if you had kept every turntable you’ve ever owned, and all the ones you wish you’d bought. Well, Revolution is probably the next best thing. Every turntable photographed looks as though it is new, fresh out of the packaging and calling your name in a low, alluring, whisper. It’s like an old time department store catalog full of dreams.

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And why? Because not every player here was top of the range, high-end flash, for connoisseurs and show-offs alone. Particularly in the chapters devoted to the 1960s and 1970s (the book is arranged chronologically by decade), there’s the trusty old Philips, the workhorse Dansette, a Transit done up like an overnight bag, and an absolutely gorgeous 1950s Collaro - which, if memory serves (and it may not) was constructed from Bakelite and it plugged into a lightbulb socket. One can only imagine the number of electric shocks that dealt out to careless pop pickers.

From the early 1950s, we see the first auto-changer, with a caption that explains how RCA ignored the recently-invented microgroove LP, in favor of stacking up to ten 45s on the specially designed, outsized spindle, and letting each one fall as the last one finished.

It was murder on the records themselves - hence the nickname “stack ‘em and whack ‘em.” But the technology persisted at least into the 1970s; indeed, the aforementioned Apollo player was also set up for auto-changing, although it’s the only other example of the breed illustrated here. (So here’s a picture of another.) .

Then came the eighties and nineties, with manufacturers out-doing one another to market ever more distinctive-looking turntables - the Sony that behaved like a laserdisc player; the VPI that looked like a game of cat’s cradle; the Micro Seikis that presented the turntable and motor unit as separate components, precariously linked by the belt. And, by the time we reach the modern age, there are turntables that seriously defy recognition - until you look closely and see… yeah, it’s the same old same old, just wrapped up in a whole new costume. I want one.

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It’s not necessarily an inexpensive book ($89.95 rrp) but in terms of production, quality, content and sheer delight, it’s more than worth the investment. A coffee table tome for the ages but, if you happen to have, say, a 1950s Majestic stereo consul lying around the house, it’ll look even better on there. Either way, if you love looking at turntables - and want to know their stories as well - Revolution should displace almost everything on your shopping list, not to mention your letter to Santa.  You might even hold off on buying another spare record player. Just in case you see something you like even better.

What is your all-time favorite turntable? Revolution is its literary equivalent.