Occasional posts on subjects including field recording, London history and literature, other websites worth looking at, articles in the press, and news of sound-related events.

22 June 2011

Sonic pleasures of the landline telephone

THE NEW YORK TIMES website has a fine piece by Virginia Heffernan mourning the decline of the analogue landline phone:

A conversation could last hours upon dazed hours, as you sat on your parents’ bed, twirling the curly cord, or hauled the house phone into the bathroom, the better to monopolize family telecommunications. Chortling, gasping, sighing, sobbing, throats catching or forming word after idle or impassioned word: you made every sound that humans make and thus joined your solitudes.

You can read it in full here.

The shape and sound of old analogue telephones lives on, much like the way books for very young children usually depict steam trains instead of modern ones. The game show Deal or No Deal has a telegenic bakelite-era phone for when Noel Edmonds has to call ‘the banker’. The sound of an electric phone bell is one of the most popular mobile ringtones. Even the video for Lady Gaga’s Telephone features about four or five different corded handsets, including a 1970s Trimphone.

A. P. Herbert’s romantic novel from 1930 The Water Gypsies has its heroine make a call from a telephone box. It’s just not as nice as having a phone of your own:

But she had only once used the telephone before, and she read the directions very quickly twice. She took off the receiver and listened, trembling; her heart beat more wildly far than it had beaten for Ernest’s speech.

A cool voice said startlingly, ‘Number, please?’ and, stammering, she gave the number. Nothing happened. The lady who had telephoned before her opened the door and said, ‘Sorry, I left my bag.’ A voice said wearily, ‘Two pennies, please.’ She put one penny in the slot, dropped another, and at last, breathless with agitation, heard a voice say, ‘Hullo!’ [. . .]

There was a sort of click, and then silence. This was the end of her expectations, the sudden grave of Love’s Bliss, this horrid smelly little box of silence.

Making phone calls has inspired umpteen pop songs. Blondie managed two with Hanging on the Telephone and Call Me, Jim Croce released Operator a year before his death in 1973, Electric Light Orchestra got into the Top Ten in 1976 with Telephone Line and, um, Phil Collins unleashed Don’t Lose My Number in 1985.

Here’s Der Telefon Anruf by Kraftwerk: