The bizarre world of instructional LPs

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Before the internet, in situations when books wouldn’t quite do, a wave of LPs educated people in all manner of things. They seem more than a little eccentric to the modern listener, writes Alan Dein.

To begin with, there are no clearly defined route maps like online discographies, compilations or even fan blogs to help explore the story of the remarkable peaks, and troughs, of the instructional LP record.

With often oddball titles like Dynamic Leadership or Morse Code for Airmen – and often prefaced by the key phrase “How To” or “Hear How” or “Learn How To” – this is a genre that thrived on the LP format between the 1950s and the mid-1980s. But today, the recordings themselves occupy the twilight zone of the commercial record industry and aside from Jane Fonda’s iconic 1981 Workout Record, they are titles that have slipped through the grooves of our audio social history, and out of sight.

I have a top five instructional records:

  1. Relaxed English by Sidney Stevens, early 1960s. Designed for French students of the English language to learn how to use idioms and slang that are socially acceptable. Stuffed with creaky expressions like “that shirt’s a peach” and “hark at that beat”. It is unintentionally hilarious, and beyond parody.
  2. The Magic of Sleep Learning by Dr EA Borton, Stanford Institute, Ohio, c 1950s. Recorded lessons scientifically selected to realise your greatest personal desires and ambitions. The accompanying booklet instructs you to “to Learn While You Sleep, and place your complete faith in the great creative power of your Sub-Conscious Mind”. Sections of the record complete with scary organ backing are specially designed to be listened to through the night.
  3. Talking Budgerigars with Philip Marsden, 1967. Marsden was an internationally acclaimed authority on pet budgies. The highlights of the LP are the recordings of the incomparable Sparkie Williams (1955-1962), a little green budgerigar whose vocabulary reached 531 words – making the Guinness Book of Records. Back in the 50s and 60s, discs teaching budgies to talk (or parakeets in the USA) were mighty popular. An activity less fashionable these days?
  4. Start Slimming/Cure Blushing and Self-Consciousness by Henry Blythe, c 1970. Blythe was a hypnotist who produced his albums “in the interest of public health”. The listener is instructed to “follow the spoken instructions very intently and believe that he is actually in the room with you… in spirit – a Blythe spirit”.
  5. Keep Fit with Eileen Fowler, 1960. A true pioneer, and a mellifluous voice. She taught exercise classes to women factory workers during WW2, leading to a long career on stage, screen and BBC Radio.

So what was the purpose of an “instructional record”? The core idea was about self-improvement – to teach the listener a skill. It could be how to learn a foreign language, how to play better golf, or even how to take better photographs. An audio version of a textbook if you like, designed to be purchased either as a one-off LP record, or in a course of a dozen discs.

Although it may seem unlikely now, the quest for the fledgling gramophone industry in the early years of the last century was not simply to sell recordings of the great singers or music hall artists of the day, but to harness the power of the recorded spoken word in business. It was HG Wells who prophesied that “the gramophone will one day be used for language teaching”, and he witnessed the evolution of one of the most well-known names in the field of instructional recordings.

The roots of the Linguaphone Institute go back to London in 1905, when a Polish-born language teacher, Jacques Roston, devised a spoken word language learning course – with the motto “Listen, Understand, Speak” – to appeal to hobbyists and to the growing band of foreign travellers. It was first on wax cylinders, then on to 78 rpm discs, through to LP records, cassettes, CDs, and nowadays digital audio downloads.

The first languages available were French, German, Spanish, Italian, but by the 1930s, from their swish Regent Street showroom, they’d sell you courses in most of the world’s major languages, as well as Hausa, Hebrew or even Esperanto.

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But these recordings don’t offer today’s listener the kind of audio magic that the company captured on disc for their “English Conversation” course issued for non-English speakers in 1929. “At the Tobacconist’s” features the voices of Prof A Lloyd James as the old-fashioned tobacconist, and JRR Tolkien (pre-The Hobbit) as the customer saying “50 cigarettes and two ounces of tobacco please”. This delightful track could easily be mistaken as a modern-day comic skit homage of a bygone world.

Many other genres of instructional recordings were also fronted by well-known personalities. The legendary band leader Victor Silvester released how-to-dance discs including The Quickstep, The Slow Fox-Trot, The Tango. In a pre-aerobics world, Eileen Fowler – the UK’s First Lady of Keep Fit – offered up both 7″ singles and LPs of her favourite bends, twists and stretches to fans of her radio and television broadcasts.

Although a definitive check-list has yet to see the light of day, it is clear that production of instructional discs mushroomed, particularly in the United States, during the 1950s and 1960s.

Self-improvement titles were especially prolific – Think and Grow Rich, Mind Power, Time Table for Successful Living. In response, comic writer Del Close would parody the genre with two classic albums – The Do it Yourself Psychoanalysis Kit in 1959, followed a few years later by the cult favourite How to Speak Hip where the listener is encouraged to listen, understand and speak in beatnik style.

In the days before home-taping or the internet, the allure of an instructional LP was that the listener could embark on a programme of self-education by repetition – playing the record over and over again.

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For generations who’d left school without many formal educational qualifications, but were yearning to acquire more skills, learning could perhaps be made a bit easier if you could cut a few corners from the conventional methods.

Significantly though, at a time when LPs were selling in their shedloads, it’s inevitable that there was a market for the instructional too. And there were also a potpourri of titles that would cater for the more specialist audience – Facial Exercises for Beauty, Glamour and Personality, How to Train your Dog, How to Enjoy your Bagpipe, Touch Typing Made Easy, Instant Ventriloquism, Anyone Can Yodel.

Fast forward to the present day, and you can still discover ancient instructional LPs languishing in your local second-hand record shop. Usually filed under “spoken word”, or just plain “uncategorisable”, many turn up in near mint condition.

So perhaps the idea of teaching yourself something with an LP sounded more promising than actually doing it?

Alan Dein presents How to Make an Archive on 4, which will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 18 July at 20:00 GMY. You can catch up via the BBC iPlayer.

Via the BBC

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