An Elegy for Nipper

I spent the summer of 2015 in London, working in the British Library’s Sound Archive. Most days were the same: into the library in the morning; a full day of sitting at a computer with headphones on, transcribing 20-year-old interviews with record producers and engineers; then off for a pint before retiring to watch some silly panel comedy.

Lloyds Bank, Clarence Street, Kingston-upon-Thames

One day, though, I made a small pilgrimage to Kingston-upon-Thames, a suburb to the southwest of central London. My destination was a rather run-of-the-mill outlet of Lloyds Bank located in Clarence Street. My business was not in the bank, though—or, at least, didn’t take me past the vestibule. I had come to see the final resting place of Nipper, the famous His Master’s Voice dog.

 

His Master’s Voice, Francis Barraud, 1898

The poignant story of Nipper (so called because of his habit of nipping at the backs of people’s legs) is a famous one. A terrier owned by scenery designer Mark Henry Barraud, Nipper was passed on to Mark’s brother Francis upon the former’s death in 1887. Francis possessed a cylinder recording of Mark’s voice, which, when played for the dog, provoked Nipper’s intense curiosity. Francis painted the scene, initially titled “Dog looking at and listening to a phonograph,” in 1899 with a cylinder player. The story is at once sad and hopeful: the poor dog cannot distinguish between his deceased master’s voice and its technological reproduction, and while he waits futilely for his master to reappear, we observers marvel at the fidelity of the recording.

The appeal to a record company is readily apparent. What greater testament could there be to the power of the new sound recording medium than the apparently precognitive response of the dog, stimulated only by a sonic reproduction faithful enough to fool it into believing in its reality. The Victor Talking Machine Company began using “His Master’s Voice” (now modified to depict a flat-disc gramophone machine) as its company logo in 1900, and it has been iconic in the recording industry ever since.

But what ever happened to little Nipper, the real-life dog who was apparently so profoundly deceived by the cylinder recording of his master? Nipper lived out his days with Francis Barraud, dying at the age of 11 in 1895. He was buried in Clarence Street in Kingston-upon-Thames, in what was then a park. Over the years, as the area was developed, Nipper was mostly forgotten about, even as his likeness traveled the world representing RCA. A plaque in the entryway of the Lloyds branch in Kingston-upon-Thames memorializes his resting place, while Kingston rechristened a small alley “Nipper Alley” in 2010. But without a doubt, the real-life Nipper has been washed away by history and the ubiquity of the brand based on him.

The plaque in the Lloyds Bank that now stands on Nipper’s final resting place.
Nipper Alley, Kingston-upon-Thames

 

Ever since I learned of Nipper’s final home in Kingston, I have seen his story as an allegory for the trajectory of the recording industry, in both its glory and its difficulty. For one thing, is Nipper’s relative neglect compared with his technological reproduction not precisely what the recording industry does in sonic terms? When we listen to a recording of any singer’s voice, we are being fooled into thinking we are close to the “real” person, when all we are close to is a technologically produced voice. So too are we tempted to see the HMV logo as interchangeable with Nipper the dog.

Moreover, what better allegory is there for the recording industry than one of its early icons supplanted, quite literally, by a behemoth of modern capitalism? In a musical world where tech companies frequently exercise far more control over music than do many musicians, Nipper’s fate may seem eerily like a prescient omen of the corporatization of music.

But I also think we ought to resist such each anti-corporate narratives—not because I have a huge amount of sympathy for today’s industry giants, but rather, because we risk glorifying a past that never actually was. Nipper knew nothing of his status as an icon: he died years before Francis Barraud successfully sold his painting. And certainly I don’t want to bemoan the building development that has taken place above the grave of a 130-year-old dog. (Well, at least, not on behalf of the dog’s grave; there are plenty of more substantial reasons why we can critique this sort of development.)

And we should not lose sight of the fact that there was no “golden age” in music recording when corporations didn’t control and interfere with musicians’ activities. Thomas Edison conceived of the phonograph as a commercial device from its very beginning (even if he was skeptical about its use for music recording); by 1900 there were substantial recording operations on both sides of the Atlantic. Today’s recording industry is inflected by a wealth of technologies unimaginable in Nipper’s day, but the main participants—musicians and corporations—are the same.

No, the allegory of Nipper is not ultimately about a pure musical past that has been lost to recording companies. It is about finding the continuities with the musical past that actually was, with all its stories of success and exploitation, youthful exuberance and aged cynicism. My pilgrimage to the Lloyds in Kingston ultimately reminded me that the story of the recording industry is in the lives of the people who participated in it and who still participate in it—those lives represented on the tapes I was transcribing, and those that I had the privilege to encounter during my research in the U.K. That’s why I continue to tell their stories to anyone who will listen.

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