Ever read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity? This great nineties novel captures a grimy, tatty underworld of stale tobacco, dark basement bars and seedy bedsits. Inside this, the protagonists are mostly dropouts, deadbeats, weirdos or nerds - oh, and record collectors running an independent record store. The book skilfully recreates this little microcosm of society, because of course so many such shops, and the people who staff then, are just this...
But hang on, what about the other side of life? It's a less well known fact that for every sneaker-wearing, sideburn toting rock fan looking for a promo of The Beta Band's Dry The Rain, the record collecting scene has a monied, middle class (most likely), middle-aged man with a bulging Paypal account and the desire to buy precious vintage classical music - the like of which the major labels have long forgotten about. Yes it's true; on eBay - that unremittingly harsh valuer of all human production - record collectors are paying thousands of pounds, and in some cases tens of thousands, for ultra rare classical records!
Take Mozart's Complete Parisian Compositions (1763 and 1778), directed by Fernand Oubradous, for example. A mint specimen of this vintage seven LP boxset changes hands for a five figure sum. And Pete Hutchison should know, because he's precisely the sort of bloke who buys this stuff. A music industry professional, he likes the good things in life - from classic Mercedes Benz sports coupes to vintage high end hi-fi equipment - and it's this perfectionism that makes collecting ultra-rare, breathtakingly expensive LPs come so naturally.
But there's a twist. It's true that Pete has spent many years hoovering up the more exotic sections of second-hand record shops for rare classic music, but he wasn't content to stop there. Where others might do an eBay 'saved search' or put the word out on the vinyl street to dealers that he was after this-or-that long-deleted pressing, Pete decided with typical British spirit to do-it-himself. And so started an amazing project that was decades in preparation and has cost him personally more cash than he could ever splash leafing through the inky pages of Record Collector magazine. Enter the Electric Recording Company.
Pete downplays what he's done as mere "madness"; in truth you can add the word "inspired", because this isn't some random act with no rhyme or reason. Rather, Mr Hutchison is a man on a mission. So far, he has put out three limited-edition repressings of sought-after Bach Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas (volumes 1 to 3), played by the Hungarian violinist Johanna Martzy. These have been on sale for neatly a year and cost £300 each - far cheaper than the thousands of pounds you'd need to buy the faded originals. Plus of the aforementioned Mozart boxset, selling for a cool £2,495 when the original goes for upwards of £10,000...
Hang on though, don't vinyl reissues normally cost about £20? Thumb through the racks of your friendly indie record shop, and you'd see a range of classic rock re-releases costing anything from £15 to £50, with most in the twenty quid bracket. So what's with the £300, isn't this a cynical cash-in job? After all, so many reissues these days aren't very thoroughly done - some are even transcribed from an original LP, tidied up electronically on a computer and repressed on cheap vinyl. And as for the LP jackets, you're lucky if these aren't just scanned and reprinted.
Pete however decided to do it the hard way; instead seeing it as a route from rags to riches, the long genesis of his project has almost taken him precisely the other way. That's beccause every one of The Electric Recording Company reissues sees Pete painstakingly recreate a vintage recording from its bare elements. That starts with the original mastertape, the very tape on to which the live recording was first made. This is played through an original, specially restored tape machine with bespoke valve amplification - just like the original would have had - and mastered and cut on a vintage equipment that Pete has gone to enormous inconvenience and expense to source and restore.
His London studio sports a massive ex-Abbey Road EMI open reel machine to play the master tapes, fully returned to its original condition. There's an ex-EMI solid-state early nineteen seventies mastering desk that came from Nigeria; Pete believes it was the very one used to record Wings' Band on the Run. Also present is a Danish-made Lyrec tape console with tube amplification, and a matching vinyl cutting lathe, circa 1965. Again these have been restored, the cost running into six digits. "These we believe, are the only machines in the world capable of producing an all-valve stereo cut", says Pete, pointing out that the company's first stereo release (out now) will be the first all-valve stereo cut in almost half a century. Finally, there's a Neumann VMS70 cutting lathe, for that authentic nineteen seventies solid-state sound.
This kit makes wonderfully high quality transfers possible, but this would be spoiled by poor artwork. Being something of an obsessive, the quietly spoken Mr Hutchison was never going to slap a dog-eared old sleeve in the scanner and tart it up. Instead, he recreated the sleeves in the original letterpress - something he says was "a hugely time-consuming nightmare"! Where possible the original photographic stills are used, and the inner sleeves were specially made, as well as the outer jackets. Even the silver paint on the record's label was sourced specially. And the result is a record sleeve that looks as good - and as authentic - as the vinyl inside it sounds. Such attention to detail effectively means Pete ha's been able to recreate a new version of the original record, using the practically the same raw materials.
The end product bears no relation whatsoever to mainstream vinyl reissues. The sound is breathtaking. The Bach Sonatas, for example, give the eerie sense of the violinists being there in the room, playing for you. The music is so natural, so effortless, so fluid and fluent that you feel like you've beamed back in time, and are sitting in on the original recording event. There's a lovely textural quality to the sound of the violins, which shimmer with rich harmonics, but ultimately it's the emotion of the music that takes you away. Sure, you need a serious turntable, amplifier and speakers to really get the full three-dimensional 'holographic' experience in full - but any decent sound system will show how special these vinyls are. And then there's the veritable festival of the senses that is the smell of the vinyl and the feel of that freshly printed, specially selected inner sleeve and card outer jacket, presented to a standard beyond any other reissue I've yet encountered.
Bloody expensive, yes. But the Electric Recording Company's select few releases are comprehensively better than this long-time analogue addict has ever before experienced. If you're the sort who occasionally treats yourself to an expensive bottle of wine or a nice watch, then you'll understand why Pete's productions are causing such a stir. Whether you treat them as one of life's little luxuries, or a cheap and easy way to get seminal music performances that are only otherwise available for far higher sums, they're a lovely thing to have. They're also another detour from the inevitable transition to an all-digital world. Passionate people like Pete reckon that the analogue vinyl LP - invented fifty five years ago - still has an innate 'naturalness' and tangibility that modern music making methods so far have failed to reproduce. If you think this is hyperbole, then you might like to make a point of hearing what the Long Playing record is capable of. I can think of no better starting point!