Once upon a time, the Voice-O-Graph was a miracle machine, seemingly beamed back in time from the future: a portable recording studio, about the size of a phone booth.
Anyone could step inside and lay down a tune, cut directly onto a phonograph record, and take it home on the spot, all for less than a dollar.
In 1950s America, the booths were a hugely popular fairground novelty, primarily used by punters to send short recorded messages to far-flung relatives.
I first heard about the Voice-O-Graph when Neil Young, the most contrary of musicians, released A Letter Home, an entire album of scratchy, low-fi, solo, acoustic covers recorded in a restored 1947 record booth belonging to Jack White. The pair made history during a joint appearance on the Tonight Show last May, when Young recorded a song in the booth, pressed live to vinyl in front of host Jimmy Fallon.
On the surface, it was among the most self-indulgent of stunts by two notoriously idiosyncratic, self-indulgent musicians. Yet listening to the recordings revealed a haunting, ethereal quality, a Quixotic relic dug up from a buried time capsule.
Travelling through the American South on a music roots-themed road trip, I couldn’t resist stopping off at White’s Third Man Records, the recording studio/concert venue/curio shop/vanity project he runs in Nashville, Tennessee. I’d read about the embalmed animals and black-red-yellow (not white anymore) colour scheme staff are required to wear. It was too weird to miss.
Pulling up outside, there was a young band entering through the shuttered warehouse doors – were they the next big thing, or some garage kids rehearsing?
Anyone can step inside the main entrance, into the “novelties lounge” – essentially a store/shrine. Framed copies of White’s recordings hang in a row above the till. Items on sale range from bumper stickers to a US$400 (Dh1,469) retro synthesiser or a $500 yellow turntable.
And then there are the records – the bulk of the store is set aside for Third Man’s vinyl catalogue: row upon row of limited-release live recordings made in the studio, alongside carefully curated blues compilations and reissues. A whole rack is set aside for classic Sun Records seven-inch singles, which White bought the rights to.
I picked up a copy of Young's A Letter Home, recorded in that very building – there couldn't be a better souvenir of my visit. Or so I thought.
The conversation that followed went something like this.
Me: “How much is the Neil Young record?”
Store lady: “Twenty dollars.”
Me: “Cool. And it was recorded here, right?”
Store lady: “Yep, it was recorded in that booth right there.”
[Store lady points. I squeal].
Me: “No way! Can I go inside?”
Store lady: “Sure. You can even record a song in it if you like.”
Me: “Ah, man, if only I had my guitar ...”
Store lady: “There’s a guitar you can use there.”
[I squeal, again].
Inside, the booth is tiny and cramped. Even with the shop’s miniature guitar, it’s a tight squeeze. I place three plastic tokens in the slot and wait. Suddenly the thing whirrs into life. It’s noisy – and it smells (of wax?). With nothing prepared – no idea that I’d find myself in a recording booth when I awoke that morning – I begin to play a sketchy, unfinished original. Confused, nervous, sweaty, and aware I’m singing my heart out in the middle of a crowded store, with just a thin layer of glass between me and the people outside.
After what feels like a minute, the magic red light comes on. The archaic machine had been waking up and hadn’t started recording. I start the song again, my eyes glued to a crude digital display (a new addition since White’s refurbishment) that counts down the 144 seconds I have to record my five-minute song. I skip a verse but then end up with time to burn after the second chorus, so improv a new bit about being in Third Man, or something.
All the while, I can see the clunky machinery etching my warbles directly onto a clear, six-inch, 45rpm polyvinyl record (this is another upgrade – the 1947 machine originally cut 65-second 78rpms onto laminated cardboard discs that only survived a few playbacks).
As I emerged from the booth a stranger high-fived me, as gobsmacked as I that such a piece of history was just sitting there, for anyone to play with. He hurried to the till to buy his own plastic tokens.
The whole thing cost me $15 – it was only 35 cents back in the day – for a one-of-a-kind, surreal experience. I can’t say the garbled, nervy, out-of-tune recording is my best work – but it’s a keepsake I’ll treasure forever.
And now I can always say: “I laid down a tune in Nashville.”