Monday, 14 November 2011

Sunday, 13 November 2011


Sad but not unexpected news in the last few days that the last surviving major UK record company has been passed into foreign ownership and will now form part of the Universal Group.  There has been much said about the purchase by Guy Hands' Terra Firma and the huge debt burden that resulted.  Apparently the short lived period in the banker's control did bring about better performance in terms of cost control and sales.  The huge interest payments just masked the rise in that performance.  Potentially Universal has done a great deal.  So has Sony which has purchased the publishing company - always seen as the prize possession in the group given the rights it controls.

EMI has a lineage stretching back to the start of the industry.  The Gramophone Company Ltd can be traced back to gramophone inventor Emile Beliner and partnered with Eldrige Johnson's Victor Talking Machine Company in the US (later RCA Victor); the UK element merged with the Columbia Company to form EMI in 1931 with RCA owning  an interest. In 1955 it acquired Capitol Records in the US at a time when music was about to change forever.  The merger with Thorn (Electronics giant) in October 1979 was seen as the last major step forward for EMI as it became a conglomerate which owned everything from cinemas to defence systems. The music group finally became independent again in 1996 and sold the HMV retail chain in 1998. On this latter sale the trademark of Nipper the dog listening to His Masters Voice passed from the business to retail chain HMV. HMV itself has been subject to a great deal of speculation this year with a number of suitors waiting for it's fall. A deal was done with it's bankers to ensure it's survival for now.  A move to two tier (consumer electronics and live venues) based business has followed.

The current world of downloads and digital rights rather than physical product, whilst handled badly and slowy in general by the industry, should be seen as just the next stage in development of this industry and EMI has seen most of them with mixed fortunes.  It was slow to embrace CD but given the range of it's catalogue with the Beatles, Floyd, Blur, Sinatra, the Beach Boys to name just a few on the popular side and, with a huge legacy of classical music - going back to Fred Gaisberg's recording trips across the world in the early 1900s.  The buyers waited for the releases and, perhaps, EMI did not lose out by playing a waiting game.
The industry-wide attitude to Napster and downloading in general in the 90s definitely resulted in lost revenues - with a new culture of "buyer" - not interested in holding the carrier but just getting hold of the music - if free then all the better.  Very difficult to get that genie back in the bottle.
The current talk is saying thank God it's gone to Record Men rather than to another conglomerate investor and I second that.  Mick Jagger, whose Stones exited EMI for Universal earlier this year, was wheeled out to confirm that the lagacy would be safe in Universal's hands.  Let's hope so.  One ominous footnote that i've seen is that Universal have agreed to sell half a billlion euros worth of assets after the purchase - whether this is a nod to the competition regulators or just where they can see unnecessary duplication is yet to be seen.
I've read some really uninformed comment on Twitter and various blogs about this (one Tweet said "They (EMI) even made classical records as well you know").  We easily underestimate ourselves in the UK.  EMI was THE record company for a huge amount of the 20th Century.  Yes the 60s heralded the arrival of the Beatles etc but for most of the fifty years prior to that the company delivered huge revenues back to these shores. 

Interesting until settled - this one has some time to run yet.

Friday, 4 November 2011

In Appreciation Of...Bill Withers

I first heard of Bill Withers as the writer of "Ain't No Sunshine" to me (then) a Michael Jackson song.  Soon after I heard "Harlem" - that was a revelation - I had to get the album "Just As I Am" - this was an amazing debut with both of those songs together with a set of personal songs warmly and gently produced ("Grandma's Hands" amongst them.)  Here was a real talent for the here and now - not full of all the hoopla of early 70s rock craziness or the heavily stylised soul artists of the time - a guy, a guitar, small band, wonderful songs - what more could we want?

The second album showed us. Trailed by the (now) standard "Lean On Me" this is a step up from "Just As I am" - same voice, same simplicity of approach but a little bit more in arrangement - a consistency of feel and again - great songs.  "Who Is He (and What Is He To You)" and "Use Me" stand out together with for me one of the greatest love songs ever "Let Me In Your Life" a beautiful pleading song about a man not being let in due to hurt felt because of his predecessor.  This is one of my favourite soul albums of all time from a era when artists of the genre were starting to be given the freedom to deliver a whole package and not just a hit single or two with some filler.  A and M/Sussex invested time (or perhaps not?) and left him alone to do his thing.  I prefer these two first albums and the third "Live At Carnegie Hall" to his later stuff.  The fourth album "+Justments" is worth a listen but is short of this standard.

He moved (or the label did) to Columbia where he had another smash success with "Lovely Day" another standard.  His hit rate is high but not due to just a popularity but due to quality music again and again.

I've never saw him live and last year I read that he was now a stone mason which he loved doing.  Then a month ago I saw reference to a "Still Bill" film documentary which (i think) is yet to be shown in the UK.  previews and trailers on the web show him in the studio and at gigs so now i'm not sure the stone mason story is right.  I hope it's not and he'll arrive here for a tour soon.

There's some good live footage on YouTube (mainly BBC) but you should seek out these two albums and the Live set - there'll be no regrets...

Monday, 24 October 2011

Bon Iver - Apollo Hammersmith, London - 23rd October 2011

I came relatively late to Bon Iver - captured by the BBC coverage of his 2009 Glastonbury set.  He made a triumphant return to London opening a short UK tour at Hammersmith last night.
A band of 9 covering 3 guitars, 2 drummers, keyboards, brass, violins and, at one stage a human beat box.  Opening with "Perth" from the self-titled new album here was a sign of what to expect.  Wonderful musicianship, expertly performed with the added live component.  It made you question how long these guys had been together as they were a very tight unit, changing instruments regularly and clearly enjoying the ride.
The new album for me is still at that "I don't know the titles as I have to listen to the whole thing - it's so good" they seemed to perform it all adding a Bjork cover, "Blood Bank" "Wolves" (with the now familiar audience participation (as he said not a sing along a contribution)) together with other tracks from Justin Vernon's "Long Discog" as he referred to it.  Between song chatter was mainly him expressing thanks for the reaction he had received but the show was none the less for such interuption - they got on with it, songs segued together with passages making full use of effects pedals and highlighted instruments.

The encore version of "Skinny Love" with Vernon and the two drummers at their instruments and the other members around two mikes providing hand-claps and harmonies was wonderful.  At the end he looked moved by the reaction he had recieved.
The crowd were treated to a consumate show of what music can be and do.  Difficult to categorise but the soul in his voice, the almost Brian Wilson like harmonies and overall construction, broad arrangements and a great set of songs expertly performed with passion was enthusiastically received from a keen crowd.

long may his discog continue to grow.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Made In Walthamstow

I've embarked on a new project.  I'm researching into the Philips vinyl record factory in Walthamstow.  I worked there in the late 1970's for a couple of years and for PolyGram for a few more years after that.  It was local to me and for the years from the 50s through to its demise in the 80s it was part of the community.  If things go to plan and i'm up to it i'll try to write something about it.  Meanwhile I've set up a website Made In in order to collect the information and share it with others who have an interest.  I've posted images of some of the products that would have been made there; posted a short history of the record business and The Factory's place in it.  We'll see how it goes but it's been fun and interesting so far.  Here's an extract from the home page...

Walthamstow, E17. On the edges of Greater London and Essex, bordered by the River Lea, Epping Forest and the North Circular Road. This is a North London suburb with a place in the History of Recorded Music.

If you are of a certain age and purchased vinyl records in the 50s through to the 80s by Dire Straits, The Who, Elton John, Blondie, Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow, Roxy Music, Dusty Springfield, 10cc, Genesis, The Jam, The Walker Brothers, The Stylistics; the soundtracks of Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Fame or the great MGM musicals to name but a few; on labels like Polydor, Philips, Mercury, RSO, Atlantic, Stax, Decca, London, Arista, Chrysalis, Charisma and Verve; it's likely that they were made at the Philips (later Phonodisc then PolyGram) factory on Walthamstow Avenue, not far from the famous dog track.

There were many such factories in the UK during the boom years so what's the story in E17?

In the 50s Philips were early adopters of the "new" microgroove LP format that finally signalled the death of the 78; many technical processes later adopted by the industry as a whole were developed here; in the 60s Philips invented and launched the pre-recorded cassette and the first tapes commercially available in the UK were made at the factory; during its history the factory pressed releases by major artists - many of them visiting the plant on goodwill promotional visits.

From the perspective of the community - the factory was a major employer in the area; in the 70s it was progressive in its employment practices - changing shift patterns to accomodate the need for muslim workers to attend local mosques for Ramadam; recognising that flexible hours would enable staff to work around school hours and other family commitments; working for the greater good with Band Aid.

During it's existence the Philips record business went through major changes, acquiring the pressing rights for US labels Columbia, Atlantic, and Stax; The acquisition of Mercury in 1961; the joint venture with Siemens forming PolyGram the following year; the takeover of Decca in 1980 and the abortive merger with Warners in 1984. The demise of the factory reflected the changing face of the business - with regionalisation then globalisation of products, the fall of vinyl to CD and the hardening of a market for music that was once unchallenged in meeting the needs of the young audience.

These images are of products from the period when I worked at Phonodisc (previously Philips and later PolyGram).  For more go to Made In Walthamstow Images

Friday, 7 October 2011

Berry Gordy Autograph

Whilst working at RCA in 1986 I sat alongside Jaqueline Buxton who coordinated european marketing campaigns on behalf of the national labels and their licensees.  One such licensee was Motown.

The project she was working on at that time was a box set of vinyl albums called "150 Hits Of Gold".  Motown International had the idea that they would promote the sale of this set by running a competition open to all.  The first prize was an expenses paid trip to LA for a few days, the highlight being a "star studded" party with the Motown stars.  Jacqueline knew I was a huge fan and offered to get me an autograph of any of the stars that would be there.  I said that it wasn't my sort of thing band joked that if the chance arose the only one I would want would be from Berry Gordy - The man who started it all.

The release went ahead and a few weeks later the winners (together with far too many RCA minders from around Europe) boarded the plane to LA.  On the trip JB was told by her more experienced Motown label managers that she wouldn't get to talk to the man and he certainly wouldn't sign an autograph.

As it happened she did and she asked if he would sign something for a huge Motown fan in her office who was working on the Motown CD releases.  He agreed and she ripped a page from her diary and he signed that.

One of my treasured possessions.

The second prize was a copy of the box set.

Many thanks for the members of the 45Cat forum who reminded me of this story
(see forum string)

For the story of the first CDs on Motown go to the page tab at the top of the page

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Exploding - Stan Cornyn

Another good record industry history read - this time recommended by Louis Barfe - who knows a thing or two about the subject.  This tells the story from the inside of the beginning of Warner Music Group.  A second try at entering the record industry by film legend Jack Warner (the first, Brunswick - died with huge losses in the 30s) this was Warner's bid to capitalise on the lucrative soundtrack market that had developed alongside the new microgroove LP.  Acquisition of Sinatra's Reprise gave growth and credibility and after Frank's reluctantance to go into pop and rock was overcome the labels took off - cornering the market on the west coast in particular.  Warners was THE label in the 70s and 80s when there were majors and then there was Warners.  Growth from the deals that took in Atlantic then Elektra, Geffen's Asylum and later Geffen itself.  Artists like James Taylor; Madonna; The Doors; Paul Simon; Hendrix; Joni Mitchell; CSN+Y; Carly Simon; Led Zeppelin; Bad Company; Bette Midler; three Tenors; Roberta Flack; The Rolling Stones; The Eagles; AC/DC etc etc

Cornyn initially ran the graphics side working on the album covers and corporate ads that set them apart in the States at least.  He progressed through the corporate ladder and led the labels way into the CD launch amongst other things.  Here's a huge label (or set of them) that managed to hold onto their identities through massive growth.

This is an easy read for anyone interested in the industry, the music or even the corporate world - it tells of the sales conferences, the people, the artists, the deals and the development of the market from the 50s through to the merger of the business to become Time-Warner and beyond.  The musical chairs of the characters is amazing but the respect for the "record men" - Mo Ostin in particular shines through.

Highly recommended

Taz Records, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Second stop in Canada - lucky I did some research as I found a web page that claimed that Halifax is Canada's Atlantic Coast's "vinyl capital" boasting 5 record stores in the small downtown district.  That was out of date as four had gone with even HMV closing it's doors in the main mall.  What was right on the site was that it claimed that Taz was the best - and rightfully so, it had survived. My three hour visit convinced me why.

With a wide range of stock covering all genres and formats this was a real treat.  35,000 LPs, thousands of singles and a good broad range of CDs,
 T shirts and assorted stuff this was a goldmine.  The guys were easy going helpful and knowledgable.  The range was stunning and the place light and airy and comfortable to be in for long periods!  I'm too used to the dingy dark dismal shops that remain in London and the suburbs - so this was great.

After searching the soul albums I set myself the task of checking out the 45s - only for the guys there to start pointing out more and more boxes to review.  I had to take a break and go and see some of the town before we sailed but a quick fix of fresh air saw me back for another hour.  Pure Joy!
(OK you have to stay with me here - this is a collectors paradise).

I have a large collection, mainly converted to CD but with some remaining vinyl and a recent revived passion for singles (I blame the wonderful 45Cat) - most of the 7" stock here are canadian pressings and sell for $3 with some slightly higher but nothing for more than $10.  I also checked out the back sale room with LPs/CDs for a dollar a pop and picked up a first edition Osborne Collectors Guide from 1976.  My gains were not particularly rare, not particularly different but all in great condition, many with original bags and they all mean something to me - which is what collecting should be about.

I recommend this store and whilst the website doesn't list a full inventory they do trade internationally and are a well established long standing firm with a good reputation.

A geat fix on an otherwise vinyl-free holiday - what a find.

My 7" Haul

Bunny Sigler - Love Train; Ronnie Dyson - One Man Band & Just Don't Want To Be Lonely; Young-Holt Unltd - Who's Making Love; Bobby Womack - More Than I Can Stand; Undisputed Truth - You+Me=Love; Jerry Butler - September Song; Joe South - Games People Play; Johnnie Ray - Just Walking In The Rain; Hugo Montenegro - Tony's Theme/Good Vibrations; John Sebastion - Welcome Back; Kenny Nolan - I Like Dreamin'; Dells - Sing A Rainbow/Love Is Blue; Honey Cone - Want Ads; Billy Stewart - Summertime; Solomon Burke - Light In The Window/Time Is A Thief.

plus a few CDs and a couple of LPs and that Collectors Guide

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Long Player Goodbye - Travis Elborough

One of my cruise reads was to finally finish this affectionate look at the history and life of the beloved vinyl LP format.  This follows on from a number of record industry histories that I have read but with a different twist in that it speaks not only about the business end but also the development of music from the 40s - todate, and gives a great deal of cultural context (and explains the impact of the LP itself).

A great read if you grew up with vinyl and still see CD and downloading as interlopers that have shifted the world away from a revered, fragile and treasured format (like me).  Travis Elborough is younger than me I guess given his dissing of a number of major artists from the 70s and 80s (each generation does this - I dismissed my brothers love of blues in the 60s - until I knew better) - but he identifies that the LP changed listening habits and gave the already tribal teens something to use as identification  - you were a mod or a rocker; a Smiths fan; Pink Floyd follower; a fan of introverted singer songwriters; a loud rocker etc.  The LPs you had identified the type of person you were (well certainly gave you a starting point.)  These days it would be what phone you have, i-pad? apple or PC? X-Box or Nintendo? in addition to clothes and all the other material goods now avaliable and promoted as the "must have"

This is a wonderful book and one i'm sure i'll pick up again and re-read - I recommend it.

Cruise - Canadian Ports Of Call

The Canadian leg of the trip took in Saint John (Foggy and not much for tourists there), Halifax (better for most - great for me - see Taz Records Post), Quebec (beautiful architecture and scenery but shops full of tourist tat), and St John's in Newfoundland.

The Canadians were lovely and very welcoming (particularly in St John's where they have missed one or two ships this season due to bad weather and the narrow entrance to the harbour).  The organised tour we went on in Quebec was taken by a very chic madamoiselle who was very knowledgable but hadn't quite appreciated the audience was British and her history was only the french version(!) 

Goodbye St John's, Newfoundland and Canada - and thank you St John's for the send-off - muskets n'all

How did they sail Arcadia through that small gap?

Cruise - US Ports of Call

On the cruise we visited Newport, Rhode Island and; Portland, Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor, all in Maine.  Here's some pictures

GirlRed and I had always wanted to see New England and whilst day visits from the ship only give you a taste of these places they are enough to ensure that we will plan to return. The towns were picturesque, the people friendly and food and service wonderful as always in the US. We then moved onto Canada - posts to follow.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Newbury Comics, Boston, Massachusetts

Back to Boston, almost ten years to the week.  Our first trip being in the immediate aftermath of 911.  This was to be a long day stopover - we would re-visit some of the sights via the city's Duck Tour (they do this so well) and then visit some of the stores that I had found on that first trip.  Time ran out on us and I made it to the two branches of Newbury Comics.  The original on Newbury Street has changed in that it was a real vinyl collectors paradise before but has gone a bit upmarket or perhaps simply a bit more organised (forgive me I like my second hand stores a bit scruffy!) obviously Cd has become dominant.  Good that their used stock is filed with new and sale copies which is a great way of searching for your wants.  Nice stores (the second one is firmly on the tourist trail at Quincy Market).

Finds: New Ry Cooder, Youngblood by Carl Wilson, Blues'n Soul by Little Milton, The rarities CD from Exile on Main Street, Soldier of Love by Sade, Last Name..By Charlie Wilson and a Best of the Spencer Davis Group - nothing rare but all good finds at great value beyond just the sterling/dollar rate gain.

Apollo Theatre, Harlem, New York

I've been to NY a few times over the years, my first visits being on business for RCA, but I'd never made it to Harlem or to the world famous home of urban soul and jazz, the Apollo.  Well this trip I was going to make it there and I did. Dissappointingly there is no museum or exhibit and to get a tour you have to prearrange it with them and be part of a group visit.

The very kind lady in the box office said we should go in to see the foyer displays of photographs of the past stars of that stage.  The staff opened the shop so I could buy a couple of books and post cards. They are missing a trick here - or am I a rare visitor on that basis. 

The venue still has an amatuer night and various appearances going on.  I will go back with, perhaps a bit more planning, the next time I get to the city.

Here are some of my pictures from the day - note the tribute to Nick Ashford (who died a few weeks prior to our visit) on the Marquee.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Gods Of Rockerfeller Plaza

Since my first visit to Manhattan in 1983 I have loved the Rockerfeller Plaza with its mix of people from tourists to serious business types;from shoppers to event organisers; from skaters to serious fashionistas taking lunch.  I love the architecture in its all its grandeur.  It also has happy memories for me - the first time I visited I was on my first trip outside of Europe as RCA had sent me for on a trip regarding the development of the CD market. I was allowed to visit the observation platform (then closed to all but RCA employees) and gazed down the island between the huge letters naming the building and my employer. I visited with my wife and son some years later - he being 10 was in awe of the skyscrapers and all the iconic sites that he had only witnessed from films and TV - he skated on the Plaza ice rink and raced a local guy.  We all stood and watched an older couple ice dance to "Con il Partiro" - romantic and absolutely beautiful. 

The feature that I end up photographing everytime I go is the carvings (obviously not carvings but you know what I mean) above each entrance to the buildings.  This time I also noticed the round emblems on the side elevation of Radio City Music Hall.  Here they are in all their glory.

These are the ones on the side of Radio City Music Hall

New York New York - A Wonderful Town!

First port of call on my recent trip was good old New York.  Arriving on 7th September - a horrible day weather-wise sailing up the estuary in the early morning (clearing under the Verezano bridge by only 30 metres!) past the Statue of Liberty, into the Hudson and past the new Freedom Tower eventually tieing up three berths from the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier, which serves as a museum for naval aviation, in the early morning mist and rain.  The City was particularly busy with NY fashion week in full swing and amid preparations for the 10th anniversary of 9/11.  We were there for two days - the first was very touristy - using the Gray Line hop-on hop-off bus tour from Broadway to reacquaint ourselves with the City and introduce it to our friends who hadn't been before.  Bloody marvellous!
The Lady emerges from the mist

Battery Park memorial to those who lost their lives on 9/11 - A flag for each name.

I think the City isn't as clean as it was and the weather, heavy traffic (due to the forthcoming events) and the rain all added to that general impression.  Don't get me wrong, I love City life - the hustle bustle of urban existence is great.  The aftermath of Irene perhaps?

We shopped and ate and generally had a great time, starting at South Street Seaport and working our way across SoHo and up through the Village back to Arcadia.  Our friends seperately visited all the sites they could in lower Manhattan  and the Eastside in a day and came back as exhausted as they should have in this iconic City.  Here's some pics from day one.

The second day was a contrast with the humidity and blazing sun returning and the blue sky giving a different view.  We took a trip up the Westside right through to Harlem, walked the Museum Mile and 5th Ave (dissappointingly finding that whilst the £/$ rate is good - US prices have jumped like ours).  We ate well in Rockerfeller Plaza at Ruhlmann's - very good but pricey as you would expect in such a prime spot.  Clothes from Banana Republic for him and from Anthopologie for her. Nostalgia for me of seeing the tower at Rockefeller, the top a tourist site "The Top Of The Rock" but 24 years ago my RCA Europe business card was the only thing that got me to the then private viewing platform on the (then) RCA building.  I also saw the old RCA Records HQ at Ave of the Americas.  Here's some more pics:-

Left:-The Time Warner building, at Columbus Circle, reflecting the glorious blue sky on day two - such a contrast in 24 hours

Below :- The modern Norman Foster extension to a more traditional building - not sure the two go together but love them individually.

We were told this was NY's toilet bowl - I think it's fab - the Guggenheim

At the end of day two we sailed back down the Hudson in the fading evening light and saw the skyline from a new perspective - not great light but great views.

As we left the crew of the USS New York conduct a ceremony on the flight deck (or perhaps a rehearsal?)  The USS New York has steel salvaged from the Twin Towers in its keel for ballast.
The Freedom Tower emerges over the Battery Park Financial District

Goodbye New York!

More to follow....