Even as sales of vinyl LPs continue to rise (with projected sales for 2013 approaching the 6-million mark), along comes a musical selection put out on another vintage recording format. In fact, the new release—available Sept. 10—just might be the most retro album in music history.
The format, which predates vinyl by several decades, is called an Edison, or phonograph, cylinder.
“When Edison first recorded sound he did it on tin foil. Ten years later was when he finally perfected the cylinder record, so this is literally what came after Edison first recorded sound,” says Justin Martell, the man behind this backward-looking project. “There’s an appeal to releasing something on a medium that hasn’t seen a wide release in close to 100 years by a major recording star.”
The “major recording star,” in this case, is Tiny Tim. (Martell knows of one indie band that experimented with cylinders in recent history.) Martell is a long-time fan of the ukulele-playing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” singer, who died in 1996, and says he decided to do something productive with the obsession. He began getting involved with releasing Tiny Tim’s unreleased and rare tracks, with the blessing of the artist’s estate.
The track he chose for this particular release—a song called “Nobody Else Can Love Me (Like My Old Tomato Can)”—was recorded in Australia in 1974. The new cylinders (in a limited run of 50) were crafted by Benjamin Canaday, “the Victrola Guy.” (Videos of Canaday at work are available here.)
And yes, Martell knows his buyers probably won’t be able to play them. Except for among gramophone collectors, the technology to listen to a cylinder is a thing of the past. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“In today’s market it’s special edition and collectors’ items that really sell,” says Martell. “This is what people are interested in, I think. It’s the extreme version of vinyl. We’ve gone the extra mile and thought to replicate the original packaging, so it’s a neat collectors item that no one else is going to have.”
Ironically, getting further from the cylinder’s heyday has made it easier to go back in time. It’s not just the collecting angle, or the fact that Martell found Canaday via a Google alert. Today’s technology allows Martell to provide a digital version along with the cylinder, so that people can actually hear the music they purchase. The download card will allow buyers to hear the song straight, as well as the way it would sound played through three different types of horns contemporary to the cylinder era. (One such example can be heard in the video below.)
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Plus, it’s what Tiny Tim would have wanted, says Martell, who was partly motivated by the chance to make the singer’s dream come true, even if posthumously. Tiny Tim had often said he wanted to record a cylinder, sang songs from the cylinder era and even used his vibrato to replicate the cylinder sound—and, to a true fan, that’s what really counts.
“Being in tune with Tiny Tim as an artist is the biggest part of it,” says Martell. “It’s not that I wanted to release a cylinder record to be contrary.”