Pete Pahides on… Dial-a-Disc

Before the age of instant gratification, our columnist remembers squeezing into a phone box to hear the chart hits of the time. Dial-a-Disc will always have a place in his heart… 

We’ve all seen those clickbait articles that sit at the bottom of the internet, offering you a shot of brutal perspective on the passing of time. “Want to feel old? Look at these child stars now!” reads the caption, countering the immense resistibility of the question with a picture of, say, Zammo from Grange Hill or the girl from St Winifred’s School Choir as we remember them back in the day. Suddenly, you find your inner voice exclaiming, “Yes! Maybe if the carrot being dangled before me is the prospect of that sweet little girl now literally looking like the grandma she once sang about, well then, I VERY MUCH DO WANT TO FEEL OLD!!!”

I can tell you that a similar effect can be achieved merely by commencing the conversation I had with my daughters a few weeks ago, concerning the way we used to consume music. The spur was the yearning keyboard intro of The Motors’ Airport – enough of a cue to propel me into an instant reverie concerning the obsession that took hold of me on first hearing that song.

“I sat next to the radio and cassette recorder for what felt like hours, waiting for Radio 1 to play it so I could tape it and be able to listen to it again and again.” Perhaps as a result of the Stockholm Syndrome-like effects of having a dad with an entire room stocked floor-to-ceiling with records, my kids seem to enjoy these stories. Having only known the instant gratification of the streaming era, they almost seem to crave the delicious deprivation of not getting to choose when you might next get to hear the song currently obsessing you.

But even that pales in comparison with the amazement that ensues when you tell them about Dial-a-Disc. This much I can confirm because I can still recall the shocked expression that gazed back at me in the rear view mirror as I told them about the even greater lengths to which I would sometimes go to hear my favourite records. For those of you too young to remember, Dial-a-Disc was a service run by British Telecom, in which you dialled a three-digit number and listened to a record from the Top 10 on the other end of the receiver.

‘Imagine hearing some of your first records via a phone pressed against your ears’

“But you got to choose the record, right?” exclaimed Dora (18). “Press one for the number one song; two for the number two; etc.”

“No!” I explained. “There was no pressing anything in those days! Remember, we had those phones where you dialled the number. You didn’t get to choose the record.” The more I talked, the more I realised how improbable this all sounded. When I was six, as a treat, my mum would give me a few 2p pieces and let me stand in the telephone box directly outside the fish and chip shop they ran.

I was banned from calling Dial-a-Disc at home, so over time, I came to associate the telephone box with the sensation of listening to whatever was in the charts at that time. The first time I went in there, my older brother Aki was on hand to show me. We squeezed inside and dialled the number. The moment the beeping noise sounded, I got the first of my 2p coins and pushed it into the slot. You had to force the coin down so it pushed a metal bar back, and only when the coin dropped did the beeping stop. Imagine hearing some of your first records via a phone receiver pressed against your ear! A noise so detached from the physical beings who created it that it sounds as though it wants you to rescue it from wherever it’s currently incarcerated.

A ghost in a machine. Ghosts such as Tina Charles’ I Love To Love (But My Baby Loves To Dance) and Candi Staton’s Young Hearts (Run Free): both disco, and yet totally different. Tina’s song (British, white, provincial) was far less cool than Candi’s (American, black, soulful, tinged with sadness). But only years later would I even find out the names of the singers. Dial-a-Disc didn’t tell you who they were or even what the songs were called.

In the space between fascination and information, I imagined personalities and stories and ascribed them to the people singing the songs. Tina and Candi merged into the same person: a bounteously benign mum/sister/teacher/childminder hybrid who had somehow selected me as the sole recipient of her kindness.
“Wow. That sounds like something from 100 years ago,” exclaimed Dora. To be fair, that’s how it sounded to me, too. “I know this sounds funny seeing as I wasn’t alive, but I miss those days,” sighed Eavie. “Believe me,” I said. “It’s better now. The seven-year-old me would have traded all of that for just an hour with Spotify.”

“Maybe,” she replied. “But sometimes it’s just nice to miss things, isn’t it? To not have everything at your fingertips. Don’t you miss missing things, dad?” It was a good question. Did I miss missing things? Or was I, to borrow from Jonathan Richman in That Summer Feeling, just pining for the way that I was?

“I do miss missing things,” I explained to them. “But, d’you know what? Not half as much as I enjoy the longing that comes with knowing I can never go back.”