OPINION
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The spoilt army

While the rest of the world was starved of sounds, US soldiers in WWII could listen to V-Discs

Between 1942 and 1944, US instrumental musicians went on a recording strike: the so-called Petrillo ban, which was a union action led by James C. Petrillo against the recording companies. While World War II raged, no new recordings (except a few a capella songs) came out in the US. But large numbers of Americans enjoyed fresh pressings: the V-Discs, which were exclusive to the armed forces.

The military found that, in general, the recruitment of civilians proceeded smoothly. However, they seemed to lack ideological motivation, in spite of Hollywood's best propaganda efforts. The recruits could not interiorize their moral superiority over the Germans and Italians (the yellow Japanese aggressors were another matter).

This can be gathered from the memoirs of US soldiers. Apart from politicized or Jewish minorities, the conscripts came to Europe without any particular antipathy toward the enemy. Indeed, in the months after the Normandy landings, they were inclined to dislike the liberated French, to like the Belgians and Dutch, and to feel a reticent admiration for the Germans, whose way of life seemed congenial. Later inquiries showed some surprising facts: a considerable percentage of GIs refrained from shooting when up against the Germans.

These troops had to be kept happy. Never was an army more spoilt than that of the Stars and Stripes: cinemas, clubs, cafeterias... The United Service Organization (USO) gave shows. Another perk was the Victory Discs, fruit of an agreement between Washington, the recording industry and Petrillo's union. The stars of the moment could record, provided that, once the war was over, all the masters were destroyed, as well as the copies that had survived the conflict.

These troops had to be kept happy. Never was an army more spoilt than that of the Stars and Stripes

Needless to say, it was a giant enterprise. V-Discs pressed several million copies of some 900 songs. They were sent in monthly packs, together with needles and phonographs. They used a stronger plastic than the brittle slates of the day, and had a diameter of 30 centimeters capable of holding six minutes per side, twice that of a commercial record, an advantage some jazzmen put to good use.

The offering ranged from swing and sugary songs, to humorous pieces and classical music. This last category included the Spanish pianists Amparo and José Iturbi. To forestall complaints from old-school martinet officers, a seasoning of military marches was thrown into the mix. The tireless Glenn Miller found a way to adapt numbers such as St Louis Blues to military tastes.

The plan was interactive. You could comment on your degree of satisfaction with the latest package, and call for pieces by the most popular artists (Crosby, Sinatra). Army relations with the musicians were not always easy. The exuberant Fats Waller demanded a couple of bottles of whisky and, as the level in the bottles went down, so did his music. He died a few days later, unaware that the army had vetoed numbers such as If You're a Viper, about marijuana.

To the annoyance of the recording companies, the program continued until 1949, with the excuse of attending to soldiers still deployed on five continents. Then the military administration proceeded to the destruction of the molds, and also of the copies existing on armed forces bases. With the unrelenting puritan zeal so characteristic of the country, the law even went after collectors who had V-discs in private possession. A few of them saw the inside of a jail.

It had all the makings of a cultural assassination. Fortunately the music lovers won out. Many copies of favorite pieces survived the massacre and later, in due time when the heat was off, emerged again in circulation in the form of more or less pirate editions. Eventually, the V-Discs were legalized, and you can now find quite a few compilations of them on CD. Their existence is just a reminder of the contribution made by jazz and other kinds of popular music in the struggle against "the monster."