Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part Six: Rock On (or Not)

Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part Six: Rock On (or Not)

Written by Ken Kessler

After the last issue’s epic coverage of the Beatles’ Get Back film, and my diatribe about the British mono open-reel tapes, you may have overdosed on the Fab Four. Please allow me to refer to them again in this installment, as they represent a key element of the rock-music-on-reel-to-reel saga, and not just because they’re the reason I’m now an open-reel fetishist. Bear with me.

Repeatedly, I have noted and bemoaned the dearth of rock tapes, or, more precisely, “rock era” tapes. And not just the actual availability, as they were plentiful and nowadays they are snapped up in seconds when they appear on online selling sites: it’s the condition that’s the worry. I stress this repeatedly to warn off any of you who want to get (back) into open-reel tape, but who favor any genres other than classical, jazz, easy listening, popular “hit parade” music of the Sinatra/Streisand/Ella/Tony sort, world music, or show tunes and soundtracks.

By other genres, I mean, in addition to rock and roll, heavy rock, stadium rock, hard rock and other genres with “rock” in their names; heavy metal, hair metal, thrash, country and western, folk music, soul, blues, MOR and anything that wouldn’t necessarily have appealed to “grown-ups” in the 1950s and 1960s had, say, Van Halen or even Led Zeppelin existed back then. That said, crossover acts or those with broad audiences including Neil Diamond, the Carpenters, the Fifth Dimension, Blood Sweat & Tears, Peter Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Chicago, et al, were well-represented with reel-to-reel tapes.

To recap why rock was so ill-served, we must first deal with a couple of inescapable facts; my conjecture can wait. The first concern is time-related. The age of pre-recorded open-reel tapes from the major labels corresponded with the birth of hi-fi separates and, more precisely, the arrival of stereo, while it died around the mid-1980s because the cassette challenged it for convenience, price, and practicality, e.g. in-car playback and personal hi-fi usage, neither of which suited open-reel tapes, or LPs for that matter. Furthermore, it was never truly mainstream. Think of its market as similar to One-Step LPs and 45 rpm 180-gram vinyl today. Early hi-fi buyers and especially tape users were, to put it mildly, well-heeled.

As for rock-era music, such genres started out as singles-centric, with album purchases only taking off post-Beatles, arguably from Rubber Soul onwards, and after the Beach Boys gave us Pet Sounds, by which time the aforementioned cassette was about to rear its ugly little head(s). And the Beatles are crucial to this study, because they were the source of much controversy and mystery in the pre-recorded tape ethos.

Last issue, I alerted you to the vile 3-3/4 ips mono two-track tapes issued in the UK, the Beatles’ titles produced from 1963-1967. In 1968, but ending around 1970, EMI reissued the Beatles albums in stereo open-reel form, on 5-inch spools with plastic cases not dissimilar to cassette boxes. What causes collectors to need defibrillators is finding out that EMI also released, in this second tape series, both mono and stereo versions of the White Album, Abbey Road and Let It Be, titles which were not released in the earlier 4-inch spool editions. They also added a stereo edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band  housed in the same plastic jewel boxes, more of which anon.

It goes without saying that those four (or seven if you want the three in mono as well)  rank among the rarest of all Beatles tapes, regardless of national origin. If clean copies of the 7-1/2 ips US Revolver are snapped up at present at $300 a pop on eBay, I cannot imagine what the second series stereo UK tapes would command. What baffles me is that the risible, earlier mono tapes can fetch sums similar to the far more desirable – in sonic terms – 7-1/2 ips US tapes on Capitol. And that means as much as £150 for a sonic catastrophe.

As with its British cousins at EMI, Capitol was driven to reissue the Beatles open-reel tapes in a higher-quality form from 1967-8 (also notable by the boxes bearing blue edges), having originally released them at 3-3/4 ips “two-on-one” tapes, when the boxes were brown-edged; some of the earliest editions came on 5-inch spools according to one online source. It illustrates the cheapo reasoning and contempt for rock held by the labels, despite the Beatles probably earning more for Capitol and EMI than all of their other artists combined.

I stress this because the Beatles’ catalogue in particular serves as synecdoche for rock music vis-à-vis open-reel tape in terms of number of titles, tape speeds, label support and other issues. Why this matters, as part of the concern about time’s relationship to the sale of open-reel tapes, is that rock music didn’t get the attention it deserved until hi-fi became affordable in the mid to late 1960s, by which time it was too late for rock to be properly represented on open-reel.

This was entirely thanks to the arrival of entry-level Japanese electronics, greater disposable income in the youth demographic, and hi-fi outlets catering to college students or others who weren’t in the McIntosh/Marantz/Fisher/Bozak earning bracket of the previous decade. Hi-fi itself became mainstream, while rock music was populist from the outset.

As you can see, open-reel tapes for the rock audience thus enjoyed only a small window of opportunity. Rock fans were latecomers to decent hi-fi equipment, and  unfortunately for open-reel tape’s future, the widespread ownership of hi-fi among the young corresponded with the cassette’s ascent. Indeed, as a young audiophile in 1968, I only recall two or three of my equally fanatical contemporaries having open-reel machines, and one of those was a son of super-wealthy parents who bought him a Crown 800 series deck for use in his dorm room. The rest of us used cassettes for taping needs.

Mentioned before, however, were rock or rock-affiliated performers who did sell well on open-reel tape, and it’s clear that, whatever you think of their work, sound quality was a major selling point. Judging by what I have monitored in tape sales, and by the profusion of copies which I have seen offered, it appears that the aforementioned Neil Diamond, the Carpenters, the Fifth Dimension, Blood Sweat & Tears, Peter, Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio, Glen Campbell, and Chicago shifted significant numbers of pre-recorded open-reel tapes.

It’s the second concern which will bother you more if you’ve reconciled your taste with what is on offer. [This acclimating to repertoire limitations is not unique to reel-to-reel. If, like my friend Steve Harris, who was my former boss at Hi-Fi News, you prefer 78s, you know that there ain’t much after 1958, and you need to go to India for Beatles 78s.] The worry is about condition. Simply put, nearly all of the rock tapes I’ve seen and/or acquired were treated with the sort of disdain drivers reserve for rental cars.

When one considers how expensive tapes were – double that of LPs – you’d have thought their owners and users would have shown concern for matters such as proper spooling, cleaning heads, demagnetizing, fitting leader tape and tails, and even something as simple as flipping over the spool when changing sides on machines without auto-reverse. Every time I receive a shipment of tapes, I dread opening the rock titles. Even the boxes have been treated like sh*t.

This, however, involves speculation, partly based on the number of tape boxes I have opened which smell like burning cannabis. It is no stretch to assume that someone listening to a Doors or Jefferson Airplane album on open-reel tape in 1969 was whacked out of his or her head, and tape hygiene and spooling procedures would hardly matter to someone who looked like the inspiration for a Robert Crumb comic.

I stopped counting the number of rock tapes I have acquired which are missing the first few feet of tape, resulting in the first song on Side 1 and the last song on Side 2 being truncated. Partly to blame are the labels for not fitting leader tape and tail (as mentioned in the last issue, something of which EMI undertook, even to the point of printing leader tape with the album’s title on it). As a result, the ends of these tapes are chewed beyond salvation. You can imagine the knots and tears, the tangles and stretches and – worse – missing segments because some early stoner accidentally hit the Record button.

As for current availability, fellow collector Peter Thomas of PMC loudspeakers fame posits that the good ones were snapped up years ago by prescient open-reel enthusiasts. My curse is that I am a latecomer, so I am scooping up hundreds of titles in the hopes that some gems might be buried in amongst the Mantovani and Peter Nero tapes.

It does still happen. One job lot of 40 tapes I bought on eBay included a decent copy of the Casino Royale soundtrack. As the LP can fetch $1,500, what’s the original open reel tape worth? The box of tapes, by the way, cost me $150.

Another surprise was a second copy of The Best of Sonny and Cher. This didn’t bother me because I trade or sell my duplicates after cleaning them up (to be discussed in a future column). Then I noticed: one copy was 7-1/2 ips, the other 3-3/4 ips. As a hi-fi reviewer, this gave me the perfect tools for comparing tape speeds.

Spot the difference: two versions of The Best of Sonny and Cher on open-reel tape. Spot the difference: two versions of The Best of Sonny and Cher on open-reel tape.

Back to the Beatles. Collectors also cherish anything Beatles-related. You would be staggered by the number of tapes with covers of Beatles songs, from Tony Bennett to Percy Faith, to well, everyone, but sometimes you find a real treasure. Not only was this tape unknown to me, it was also on a 5-inch spool: The Beatles Hits In Brass and Percussion on no less than Audio Fidelity. Value? Anyone’s guess. (See this article’s header image.)

But there are risks with rock tapes, far more than with popular or classical, as all are invariably sold as “untested” on eBay; you’re pretty safe with a copy of Camelot or anything from Leonard Bernstein. You can just picture the original owner, with his perfectly maintained ReVox G36. But in all fairness to the vendor, it was made clear that the vast sum I was spending on a rare UK stereo Series 2 copy of Sgt. Pepper‘s in the plastic box might not contain the right tape. I took the gamble.

Alas, the vendor was right: someone had recorded gobbledegook over all but about 10 minutes of side 2. And still it remains the only copy I have ever seen of any of the Series 2 British Beatles tapes. I won’t tell you what I paid for what is now just an empty box with a paper Beatles insert. By pure coincidence, as I was writing this, someone posted on a nearly complete set of the Beatles’ UK pre-recorded tapes, 12 titles including all of the Series 1 mono versions and three of the four Series 2 stereos, for a Buy It Now price of £1,500, or a few bucks over $2,000.

If the tone of this particular entry in the series is too negative for you, my apologies. But don’t blame me. Blame the stoners who didn’t know how to treat open-reel tapes back in the 1960s and 1970s. When you do find clean rock tapes on offer, the following artists can match or even exceed the Beatles for high prices: Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones. Curiously, Dylan tapes are usually priced in the $50 – $75 region, but nobody blinks at $500 for a copy of The Dark Side of the Moon.

Screen shot of a couple of recent eBay auctions. Sticker shock: a couple of recent eBay auctions.

There is no consistency about pricing, no “norms” because this niche is so small. A dozen sources, from Discogs to eBay to can give you accurate values for, say, a mint first pressing of the Doors eponymous debut. The open-reel tape? All over the place, from $30 to $250. There are no “market values” or “going rates” for any open-reel tapes. But now you can see why a love for pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes, especially if rock is your preference, requires fortitude.

And possibly restraint: after just passing the 2,500 tapes mark, I am now heading – as one colleague noted – for an intervention.

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