(Post by John Allan from Bridgetown, Western Australia – June 2022.)
On many a suburban sixties afternoon mother and I would retire to the dining room. Let’s face it, the library was too stuffy, the conservatory too draughty and the billiards room reeked of cigar smoke and brandy. Well maybe not quite. The dining room was where mother could set up her sewing machine or the ironing board.
While Papa toiled away tirelessly on the golf course, Mama would spend her time on such frivolous activities as clothes alterations and laundry. The dining room was also where the wireless lived. Not one of those newfangled transistor thingummies it was a proper hard plastic lime green radio with a circular dial and glowing valves at the back. Sometimes we would listen to plays which were a bit boring and would put me off my colouring in, other times it would be just music.
One such afternoon mother stopped her ironing/sewing and turned up the radio.
“You’ll enjoy this”. On came the tale of Sparky’s Magic Piano, the story of a reluctant piano student and his magical piano. After a couple of minutes of annoyingly whining child’s dialogue the piano spoke.
WHAT WAS THAT ?
It was the freakiest thing I’d ever heard in my entire 6 years ! I thought Mum had slipped some hallucinogenics into my cordial or I’d accidentally supped on her early afternoon gin and orange (Mummy’s little secret !) I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was quite a wonderful sonic surprise but a bit disconcerting. Mickey Mouse on acid !
Sparky’s Magic Piano was first released back in October, 1947. The effect used for the talking piano was a Sonovox invented by Gilbert Wright in 1939. It was a microphone attached to the throat probably similar to the devices used by people who have undergone laryngectomies.
It was a precursor to the talk box highlighted in Peter Frampton’s Show Me The Way back in 1975. I remember we had one in the music shop where I worked and had hours of fun with it. It’s basically a gizmo that channels the sound of your guitar/keyboard back into your mouth via plastic tubing. I think we ran out of tubing as everyone and their dog was chewing on that thing and we had to continuously chop bits off it.
Some people said your teeth would fall out but Frampton still seems to have all his pearly whites.
A better example of the magic piano sound is ELO’s 1978 hit Mr Blue Sky. In among the Bee Gees like vocals and the Beatlesque arrangement you’ll hear the title through a vocoder – a category of speech coding that analyses and synthesises the human voice signal for audio data compression, multiplexing, voice encryption or voice transformation – but you knew all that !
My personal favourite though is Herbie Hancock’s I Thought It Was You released in late 1978 reaching number 15 and spending 9 weeks in the charts. He ‘sings’ using a Sennheiser VSM-201 (what else) vocoder.
Great tune from a highly innovative performer from his very underrated album Sunlight. The only problem is, I have these Pavlovian sensations of the whirring of the Singer and the fragrance of freshly ironed laundry.