Dansette Days ~ The Dansette Record Player
Dansettes a potted history…
Manufactured from 1950/51 to 1970 over a Million were sold. With the advent of Stereo and the arrival of cheaper product from places like Japan the Dansette’s popularity decreased and the company ceased trading at the start of it’s third decade. One reason for this perhaps is that even at it’s peak of production the Dansette cost at the very least the weeks wages of a good middle class man’s job! Julie Lambert says that the Plus~A~Gram, the companies first model (first made in 1934), cost the equivalent of £800 in the year 1950-51. Dansettes continue to be very popular indeed amongst those wishing to play everything from 16-78rpm records, and also important to those that wish to emulate the height of modernity and style during this important era of Britain’s history, the moment when children grew up.
The popularity of the Dansette is inextricably linked with the battle between the companies RCA and Columbia for format domination in the late 1940s and 1950s. RCA wanted everyone to purchase their music on 45rpm discs, compiling their own playlist, or playing the passages from a classical piece in ordered succession. This was most definitely in the tradition of what a record album was originally, ie, a collection of discs closely themed or from a larger piece of music contained in something similar to the album the family would have kept their photographs in.
Though other formats had come and gone and long playing ‘reference discs’ had been available as far back as the 1920s Columbia wanted to sell the 33rpm Long Player, the L.P., what many would now call an ‘Album’ to the public. Though this format had a worse quality of sound it was the one that since it’s first public outing in 1948 would come to dominate. The 7″ single or 7″ E.P. just wasn’t convenient enough, though it’s deeper groove and relatively longer play time allowed for a better quality of reproduction and loudness. I believe in the end popularity of the successful format came down to the inconvenience of getting up to change the record. With Lps at least you could sit down for more than 4 minutes before getting up to change the side, or the record.
With it’s multichanger function the Dansette was an ideal machine to play singles on, an ideal machine for RCA therefore and an ideal machine for teenagers who could afford a single once in a while, but had to save up for more expensive Lps. Up to five singles could be placed on the automatic changer, giving you at least 15 minutes listening. Later on if you made certain that you used the single releases with the serrated rim around the label designed for the purpose you could be sure to get them to bind properly as they dropped; which avoided the inherent disappointment of scratching the hell out of your record collection!
Dead as a Dodo?
As the album, not as format, but more so as vehicle increased in popularity towards the end of the 1960s and particularly into the 1970s listeners were looking for a fuller aural experience, turning of course to Stereo and equipment of the ‘Hi-Fidelty’ type for that purpose. The Dansette was subsequently sidelined and it appears for once that instead of setting new fashion the company failed to keep pace with new market trends. Dansette did incorporate Radio, Stereo and line inputs / outputs into their record players, also producing Reel to Reel player / recorders such as the Cadet (pictured left), perhaps in an effort to increase their products’ appeal. It does seem in retrospect that they were trying desperately to keep abreast of new demands. What caused the demise of the company? Were they unwilling to break away from the section of the market that they had for so long successfully inhabited, that of the portable player.
Perhaps the brand was too closely associated in the public’s mind with portability and not with the by word of the day ‘Hi-Fi’. Perhaps with the spread Stereo requires for the listener to hear it fully the static speakers fixed on the front of a portable player were never going to have a wide enough sound image. As far as I’m currently aware Dansette never produced a Stereo player with removable speakers.
Surely a listeners enjoyment of music is mainly about a physical and emotional reaction to rhythm, melody and lyric and a tinny transitor radio is perfectly capable of getting the musical message across, so therefore also, is a Dansette. One wonders then where the impetus and energy behind the company went and why they ceased to trade in the early 1970s. Perhaps Mums and Dads were getting hip enough to the new scene to let their children dig their music on the family Radiogram in the front room and no longer were children and teenagers required to be un-seen and dimly heard listening to records in their bedrooms.
Just to note ~ Hi-Fi is a construct, a word that trys to describe a system capable of producing a high level of fidelity to the original performance and performance space, what is often refered to as presence, and yet in reality it describes nothing tangible, except perhaps (in my opinion) man’s gullibility and stupidity. Too often I’ve seen speaker cable in the back of some ‘Hi-Fi’ buffs system that is likely of a better quality than the cabling used at the recording and mastering studios where the music he’s listening to on his super expensive system was originally created. Any musician will tell you that the system of reproducing sound doesn’t have to be that great in order that those listening to music via it can interact with that music in a meaningful and engaged way. We are much more tolerant of poor sound that we are poor vision. Think of watching a movie, you are much more likely to switch off the TV if the picture gets distorted than if the sound does.
A family called Margolin were behind the Dansette, originally an immigrant to the U.K. from Russia, Morris Margolin set up as a Cabinet Maker in London. He also imported musical instruments and so perhaps it was this general interest in music that led him to produce the first electric record player made in the U.K. the ‘Plus-A-Gram’ in 1934. The first Radiograms had been available for a decade when Margolin combined his cabinet making skills and musical interests to produce a turntable that could be plugged into the back of some radios to utilise their speaker and amplification, in effect inventing the first ‘Hi-Fi’ separates! Up until this point Radiograms were incredibly bulky and expensive to the point of excluding anyone from ownership but the most wealthy. Margolin’s inventiveness made what was in effect a Radiogram of two parts, though still expensive by anyone’s standards the Plus-A-Gram was now at least within the reach of a growing middle class. Within six years it would be the only thing they would make in their workshop.
The development of an autochanger by BSR a British, Birmingham based company, meant that the Margolins would create and offer their first Dansette branded player, the Senior in 1950/51. It proved incredibly popular and the company developed into one with a staff of hundreds and a very healthy turnover; exploiting the market for a cheaper alternative to the large furniture based Radiogram style systems of companies like HMV, Blaupunkt and Bush. The product exceeded everyone’s expectations and the workforce had to be re-housed in a larger factory in Stanmore, Middlesex, around 1962. The roster of products continued to grow over the years, a Car Radio, Reel To Reel players and recorders, more record player models offered in a dazzling myriad of styles and options, some with Stereo and line outputs. But as solid state technology came in, the days of the valve based Dansette were numbered.
The company folded in 1970, a victim of cheap Japanese imports and changing tastes and fashions.
What to do if you’d like to revisit those Dansette days
If you like that warmer valve sound and want to experience what it is like playing and listening to music on a Dansette there are a number of things you can do to get one. However they are a sought after item, and just as they were relatively expensive in the past, they still are, even as a second hand item. You can expect to pay £200-£250 for one of the superior models in good condition, more even if it has been exceptionally well looked after and comes restored and over-hauled. You will count yourself lucky to get a mid range model, overhauled /checked and in a reasonable condition for under £100-£150. I myself recently purchased a Tempo model Dansette that has faded on the outside, but is entirely un-used as of it’s manufacture in around 1961. I consider it a small miracle to have done so for £73. Though it wasn’t overhauled, it hadn’t been played and I considered it a risk worth taking on this eBay purchase.
You of course could continue to search for one in your local jumble sales, boot fairs and even Auntie’s attic, but good luck, they are getting more and more scarce. If you do find one you will most likely want to have it looked over and fixed up if necessary by someone who knows what they’re doing. You could also get a line out wired in so you can record from your player, which is useful particularly if you collect 78rpm records. Be aware of what model you are purchasing and what speeds and formats it will support and of course if it is Mono or Stereo. There are many circuit diagrams and instructions for the models available online so if you fancy having a go fixing one up yourself, you can!
Dad’s Favourite ~ To sum up
I can’t imagine that the popularity of Dansettes will continue for ever, surely it’s only the children of those who grew up in the early 1960s who could possibly have a nostalgia for a faded old portable record player. Our Children of the Revolution listen to compressed audio on small earphones, an insular experience. The kids don’t collect singles to stack five apiece on their autochanger anymore of course; instead they move 500 tunes a time from one folder to another. There is very little real intimacy in their experience of playing music and listening to it, this present generation has a very different and I believe lesser relationship with music, and I pity them.
Instead of sitting reading the sleeve notes to an album, or knowing that they particularly like the music that comes out on a specific record label, files are moved en mass, musicians, producers, labels are unknown and the process of purchasing, placing and playing that music is one step removed from anything at all tangible, warm, responsive and real.
Perhaps it’s high time that parents bought their teenage sons or daughters a Dansette for their bedroom again!
Mike Murphy – February 2010
Late February, 2010 and I’ve just received my very own Dansette Tempo, I am at this very moment listening to the 78rpm of Marie Bryant’s – ‘Water Melon’ which was backed with ‘Don’t Touch Me Nylons’, a toned down and commercial ‘version’ of ‘Don’t Touch Me Tomato’, a riblad Jamaican and Caribbean tune that has almost made it to Folk Tradition status.
The manner of construction could be adequately described as Fablon and Wallpaper over Chipboard with a dash of Mecano. The sound reproduction could be described as ‘ severely lacking tonal width’, though the results vary greatly, dependant on the quality of mastering of the records, particularly on the 78rpm records I have played on it.
The Tone dial which should give a varying Bass to Treble tone only seems to take the sound from a muddy Mid-Range to a fairly clear Treble tone. It seems to have the ability to take a short bandwidth of frequency and shift it like a sweepable EQ. Rather like a very poor version of the Tubby’esque sound produced by Osbourne Rudduck’s home-made board. It isn’t what anyone with half an ounce of sense would call true tone, as once you’ve chosen the treble tone, you have no bass in the ‘mix’ and if you were to choose Bass, the Treble is non-existant.
The overall quality of manufacture is really rather low considering the cost of purchasing one new in 1961! It’s solid enough, but there are no frills, nothing of true quality, though at least the turntable looks rugged enough. The stylus weight is adjusted by means of shortening or lengthening a spring which only acts as a lever to pull the stylus down onto the record.
So to surmise, the tone is awful, the construction embodies the worst of all that is British and a bit lack lustre, and yet….. I love it, it’s fantastic, you would love it too, it’s quirky and most importantly, it will play the two speeds of records you don’t see very often these days, 78rpm and 16rpm.
REPLACEMENT STYLUS –
Do you need a replacement stylus for your Dansette, I did and found this shop online – http://www.turntablestylus.co.uk/index.htm Hayley who runs the show there was wonderfully helpful, sending me an example photograph of what she thought I needed to replace my 78 and 45rpm Styli, though it wasn’t right, I then sent a photo of the customised cartridge it turns out my set had, she identified the styli I needed and sent two for 33 and 45rpm play and one for 78rpm play for a total, including VAT and postage of £9. I thought this kind of service and pricing had died out in the Victorian era. Truly, give them a go.
Here’s a link to the excellent article on the history of Dansettes at http://www.dansettes.co.uk – http://www.dansettes.co.uk/history.htm put together by Julie Lambert, who along with her boyfriend ‘John’ have collected a hill of Dansettes and other turntables of a similar ilk.
Julie appears to be the thing every man needs in his life, a woman who likes to collect, and not only collect, but collect record players, records and other toys more often associated with the male gender and his natural obsessions.
There are many people repairing Dansettes as a business, they also often have them to sell, restored. I won’t put any specific sites here for you to visit, but instead here’s a Google search for renovators – Search for Repair, Renovation.
eBay – sadly eBay is a good place for finding one, I really dislike eBay, but if you’re desperate, you might find it here – Dansettes on eBay it’s a good place to find some spares also.
Dansettes on Google
The history of recorded sound, a book called ‘Perfecting Sound Forever‘ by – Greg Milner, provides an excellent explanation of the history and development of recorded sound, from Edison’s Blue Amberol right up to iPods and MP3s. I’ll be reviewing it here at Musical Traces soon, in the meantime I can heartily recommend it.