Class of 49
The complete 1949 newsreel covering the release of ‘Blue Smoke’ is now available online at NZ On Screen. Directed by Stanhope Andrews, Weekly Review #407 also features items on flying sheep, sharp-shooting army cadets, steeplejacks high above 1940s Wellington, and the transportation of heavy machinery. Finally – the audience gasping in anticipation – the ‘Blue Smoke’ item turns up at 5’14”.
Besides showing a dramatisation of the recording session for the song – which had actually taken place about nine months earlier – the newsreel shows in some detail the manufacturing processes required to press the disc, as Tanza’s first release. I have written about this newsreel before – it helped pin down the actual release date of ‘Blue Smoke’. But I thought I’d share the comments of one of those participants in the recording, and its re-creation.
Visible in the newsreel at 5’47” is recording engineer Stan Dallas’s assistant, John Shears (pictured below left). I interviewed John in 2006, and he provided plenty of details about that historic day. Crucially, he confirms that the song was re-recorded, when the original master recording became worn out after so many re-pressings when the song became a hit. First of all, he disputed the story that the song had to go through many takes because of the noise of a nearby refrigerator:
I can’t remember that at all. The reason it took some time was, A: the musicians weren’t happy with what they were doing, and B: we were learning how to get the best balance to get what we reckoned was the best sound, and C: to get the best levels. Because our biggest difficulty in those days was getting sufficient level on to disc, so it would play back on what, in the main, were mechanical gramophone players, not electric ones. There were those as well, but it had to have enough level to kick out of an old windup player. That wasn’t easy, because there are a whole series of technical reasons why it’s difficult to get the level you’re looking for in a pressing.
The second thing that happened was we ran out of masters, and we had to get them back in again and re-record it. That was quite tricky because we had to play the one that was already on the market, so they could listen to it and all the nuances, how they’d played it the first time and try and repeat that, not put their own new interpretation on it, including Pixie Williams.
In those days, to make ‘Blue Smoke’ and records like it, you got the musicians in, you had a rehearsal: “Yeah, that’s okay.” So you’d start recording and we’d cut the disc on the lathe into the acetate, which was my job. And I’d watch what was happening to the lathe, the cutting – you get a knack of reading how the swarf [highly inflammable cutting residue] is coming off the acetate. And you’re listening to the record coming over the speaker, and you’re watching music, and if there’s anything wrong I used to go “Nah! Stop … No you played a bum note, or I’ve got a mechanical fault, whatever.” But having cut the record and being happy with it, what used to happen was we’d finish, Stan would cut the studio off, the phone was off the hook , the door was locked. They’d stay in there and we’d look each other and think … we’d go back over the music and think about it … yeah I think that’s okay. Then we’d let them out of the studio. But we couldn’t play it, we didn’t dare. For non production records you could play it with a bamboo needle with a very light pickup arm, but [even that] took some of the acetate away. It degraded it slightly.
So we couldn’t play it. Then it went to process – got coated with colloidal silver, then copper plate on the back of that, stripped off the acetate, more coatings went on – then you plate it again, and you’ve then got a mother. A metal record, and from that used it for the matrixes or stampers. So eventually a stamper hits a nail or a bit of metal trash .… It was ruined. So eventually you’d go back to the mother, and then that starts to degrade then you go back to the father, then that degrades, and eventually you’ve got nothing. You’ve got to go back and start at zero.
But eventually they got there, and the rest, of course , is history. And so we say farewell to the Tanza Studios on Wakefield Street, Wellington, while the 78rpm disc of Tanza #1, ‘Blue Smoke’, gets delivered to Columbus Radio Centres around the country, and then to people’s homes to play on their new Columbus radiograms.