Tag Archives: Richard Branson

May 23rd 1975

“Tim came round and paid me for Dylan album. Brought round Phaedra – crap. Good day at college – Geoff C jumps in swimming pool”

Hey, I’m allowed to change my mind about an album over time aren’t I?

Yes, I dismissed Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra” as crap in 1975. It would take the advent of the Compact Disc a decade or so later – accompanied by the inhaling of certain substances – before I would declare it “pretty bloody fine!”

“Phaedra” was the tenth album ever released on the Virgin Records label, Richard Branson having signed them up to try to cash in on the “Krautrock” and/or ” Electronic” phenomena (both headed up by Kraftwerk) that were rampant on at the time. It reached the heady height of #15 on the UK album chart, despite selling just 600o copies in Tangerine Dream’s own country of Germany.

There’s not a lot to it and is admittedly a bit ‘noodly’ in its loose construction. However, I still enjoy hearing it every once in a while even if that ‘1980’s’ child (just like the 1970’s child) is long gone.

In other news, good riddance to that crappy Bob Dylan album!

Geoff C refers to a college chum who may possibly have been quite barking mad. The son of someone who owned an Army Surplus store in Southampton, Geoff would often come to college bedecked in combat gear and huge desert boots. Today in 1975 he evidently decided that he needed to go swimming, and – if memory serves me correctly – in all his clothes. The rest of us were undoubtedly in stitches as he was dragged out of the pool and away to be reprimanded.

Geoff provided far more than his fair share of laughs during that time we were together at college, and a strange phrase of his “I was under the seats mate, under the seats” – to express (either) joy or surprise at something – has stuck with my into my dotage. I often wonder what he’s doing now, apart from still dressing provocatively?

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August 6th 1973 (Pt III)

“Rained all day – went up Trev’s, borrowed… Tubular… “

[…cont]

Many people state that “this album” or “that album” changed their lives.

I can categorically state that Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” changed mine. In a roundabout way it MADE mine.

First released in May 1973 it carries the catalogue number V2001.

It was the first ever release on the then (very much) fledgling Virgin Records label, dreamt up by (then: dodgy entrepreneur, now: much-admired knight of the British realm) Richard Branson.

Sir Richard Branson and "friend". I think he's the one without the red boots?

The dyslexic privileged son of a barrister, Branson started selling cut price records from the boot of his car to music outlets across London in 1970. Then he progressed to selling them via mail order directly to the public, taking out huge ads in the pages of the major music papers like Melody Maker, New Musical Express and Sounds.

His actions in selling records at a discount – something that was, astonishingly, previously untested in Britain – began to undermine the legalities of  “retail price maintenance”, a government mechanism designed to protect UK manufacturers and distributors. Thanks to Branson most of its restrictions ended up being removed – although books remained on the statute until the 90’s…and always had to be sold at the price stated on the cover!

This mild flaunting of the law would be something that Branson would repeat from time to time in his career. Indeed in 1971 he was arrested and charged with selling records on which he had paid no import tax  – the result of a moderately successful scam in which he drove records out of the country (claiming back sales tax on the basis they were being exported) and then simply turning round on the other side of the English Channel and bringing them back into Britain without declaring them. Eventually caught, he ended up settling out-of-court with the Revenue, agreeing to pay back the taxes and a small fine.

With the success of the mail order company assured, Branson not only opened a little record shop on London’s Oxford Street (above a shoe store), but went into business with fellow entrepreneur Nik Powell (later to become a big name film producer) to start a record label, Virgin Records… so named because both were “virgins to business”.

Branson had already purchased a ‘country mansion’ in Oxfordshire, turning part of it into a luxurious recording studio – The Manor – which he leased out to bands and record labels.

Oldfield - he and Branson often used to compare beards

Mike Oldfield – one time folk singer and backing musician for (ex-Soft Machine member) Kevin Ayers – had been touting around a concept piece known as “Tubular Bells” for for some time. Every record label turned down the notion, deeming it to be something that “wouldn’t sell”.

By chance, Oldfield played extracts from the piece to a couple of the studio engineers at The Manor, who then informed Richard Branson about what they’d heard. Branson and Powell jumped at the chance to release Oldfield’s composition as the first record on their new label.

Not long after its release – following a bunch of, let’s say – ‘middling’ reviews in the music press – Radio 1’s influential DJ John Peel played the album in its entirety one night. And again a few night later. Sales started to occur.

However, despite those early seeds, I think it’s fair to say that had one of the themes from Tubular Bells not been used – to extraordinary dramatic effect – in director William Friedkin’s late-1973 horrorfest movie “The Exorcist“, Richard Branson’s career (and mine!) could have turned out a little differently.

As it happened, Tubular Bells went onto be a huge seller, eventually reaching number 1 in the UK album chart in October 1974… but only, trivia fans may care to note, after his follow-up album “Hergest Ridge” had sold enough to reach the summit first!

It stayed in the UK chart for the next five years, peaked at Number 3 in the US Billboard chart and has sold an estimated 17 million copies worldwide since its release.

The album was recorded on a 16-track tape recorder – in a little over two weeks – at The Manor. Side One was recorded the week before anarchic musical comedy troupe The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band were scheduled to be there, putting together their own new album for UA Records. This turned out to be somewhat fortuitous.

Vivian Stanshall: dysfunctional genius

One of the better remembered pieces from Tubular Bells is the introduction of the various instruments …
grand piano…
reed & pipe organ…
glockenspiel…
bass guitar,
double speed guitar,
two slightly distorted guitars,
mandolin,
spanish guitar..
and introducing acoustic guitar…
plus…
tubular bells

The Bonzo’s late – and ever so mightily GREAT – Vivian Stanshall was the master of ceremonies for this segment, and it was his contribution that  gave the project its eventual name. The way Stanshall intoned “plus… tubular bells” inspired Oldfield so much that he discarded his original title; “Opus 1” (and, more luckily, Branson’s even lamer idea of “Breakfast in Bed“)

Most people incorrectly say that Oldfield recorded the entire album himself, playing all the instruments then overdubbing the results. This is actually untrue. Not only was his sister Sally in the studio with him, there was a percussionist, as well as other musicians on the string basses and flutes. However, let’s just say that Oldfield and (producer) Tom Newman’s overdubbing and mixing of all the elements is most definitely a major part of this complex and intricate composition.

I liked/still like most of it. Even the bits that sound like bagpipes.

With this caveat… “The Sailors Hornpipe” that ended Side 2 is a traditional hornpipe melody first heard in the late 18th century. No, I’ve never known why he used it either, despite its distinctiveness. I invariably lifted the needle from the LP long before this segment reached my ears and I still hit ‘stop’ at the appropriate moment whenever the album turns up on my iPod.

Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” ended up to be a turning point for me… even if I had NO idea at the time.

The album ended up initially funding the Virgin Records empire, including Branson’s growth of his retail chain in the mid-70’s. If there had been no retail chain I would never have got that Saturday job at the Southampton store. Meaning I would not have become a full-time assistant, or an assistant manager, or a manager, or a megastore manager, or an area manager for the chain before 1980 rolled around. Meaning my career grounding would not have been in the music retail business, meaning I would not have opened my own CD store, meaning I would not have met my wife, nor have been able to eventually sell the business for a sum of money I now continue to live off.

In fact, if it wasn’t for “Tubular Bells” my entire life would have been completely different. If I ever meet Mike Oldfield (unlikely… I don’t move in ‘those’ circles anymore) I think I might just have to kiss him. On the lips. With tongue.

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May 29th 1973

“H-term – from 9-4 o’clock were in Southampton buying bludy smart clothes. Bort new platform shoes. Also bought Faust album – smart”

I bet if I saw them now those ‘bludy smart clothes‘ would seem FAR from ‘bludy smart’?!

I wonder if the platform shoes I ‘bort‘ were the cream and brown brogues I can (embarrassingly) remember? They had a sole about an inch thick, and a heel around 2½-3″ tall. Somewhat similar to those shown on the right. Yes, when I walked in them I MUST have looked like a complete pillock?!

Far more fascinating – and somewhat meaningful – 36 years later was mention of buying this Faust album. It was “The Faust Tapes

It was just the third release on the then fledgling Virgin Records label. As most music aficionados are aware, the first release became a little more famous; Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” (The second was Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra“).

Virgin had just signed Faust, and acquired these old recordings as part of the deal. They compiled them into two lengthy tracks, each taking up one side of the album.

In a magnificent marketing coup they them sold the LP for a mere 48p ($1), which was then 1 penny less than the cost of a 7″ single

I was one of 60,000 people who bought the LP before Virgin deleted it… whilst it was still #12 in the album charts! The label had to delete it as they said they had lost £2000 on it, which seems like SUCH a small amount of money these days. (It was obviously a LOT to Richard Branson and Co back then though?!)

OK, I’ll admit it…. I probably bought it because it was cheap.

It is a VERY hard album to immediately like, so I’m pretty proud of myself for referring to it as ‘smart’ upon listening to it.

It single-handedly led me on a lifetime’s appreciation for the musical genre often referred to as “Krautrock”, a catch-all phrase to identify stark rhythms and repetitive beats… most of which has originated in Germany.

Although “The Faust Tapes” does have repeated noise structures combining both electronics and vocals, its whole is far more than that. Later in life I would compare it to free form jazz, with sounds, blips and rhythms going off in a million different directions all at once.

It very much taught me how to like ‘weird’ too, something I had only vaguely touched on previously with certain tracks on, say, the Edgar Broughton “Sing, Brother Sing” album or the more peculiar screwy elements of bands like Focus. Without this ‘weird’ Faust ‘primer’ I may later never had got into artists like Captain Beefheart, the Lounge Lizards or even the Blue Note jazz catalogue.

Not only did this album introduce me to krautrock and/or ‘weird’, it also – thanks to the sleeve – set me up with a deep love for artist/painter Bridget Riley‘s work

Her style of painting – predominantly using black & white lines or squares – is often referred to as ‘op art’, for its illusionary aspects.

The (original) cover of “The Faust Tapes” was a work of hers from 1964 called “Crest” and it remains one my favourite paintings ever. To my ongoing chagrin I have been unable to find a reprint of the work to hang on our own walls. However, a few years ago my wife and I attended a Bridget Riley exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery in London – where I oooh’ed and aaah’ed for a couple of hours – and we came away with a exhibition poster featuring her work “Reconnaissance” (seen left), an equally groovy offering. We had it professionally framed and it now takes pride of place in the entrance foyer of our home.

Thus, and inadvertently, Richard Branson’s decision to release an album for just 48p in 1973 had a remarkably profound affect on my life. Not just because of my ongoing love for German electronic rock and Bridget Riley’s work, but also because it all set me off on an appreciation of the structure of ‘music, art & design’ in general, something I would get deeper into a few years later… with a vengeance.

I think every teenage life has a series of ‘turning points’. Buying this album in 1973 was undoubtedly one of mine.

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