Tag Archives: Virgin Records

September 13th 1975

Went to work hungover. Got Alice Cooper posters for Niles. In the evening “wrapped” Nobby’s ‘present’

There was DRINKING at the school party?

Where all the students would have been under the age of 18?

How could this happen? I blame the teachers! I blame the Coffee Club committee!

I blame the pub round the corner from the college and its lackadaisical attitude to underage drinking.

No wonder I ‘got off with Holly C’ yesterday?!! I was full of dutch courage!

In other news it looks like I was able to snaffle some promo Alice Cooper posters for my friend Niles. If I was a betting man I’d say they were promos for Alice’s then-just-released “Welcome to my Nightmare” LP, his contribution to the whole “concept album” genre that was rife at the time. It dealt with the nightmares of a child named Steven (no relation), a grim tale which later turned into a stage show that was ahead of its time in terms of theatrics, lighting and special effects.

I never really cared that much for the album. It didn’t seem to have the same catchy punches that Alice’s previous albums had and felt a little too ‘macabre’ for my personal tastes. Yes, I felt there were levels of ‘macabre’ in Alice Cooper’s music. I was evidently a deeply troubled child.

Only two tracks really stood out to me and they were the very two that stood the test of time.

The title track “Welcome to my Nightmare” is a brooding masterpiece, the slow start leading to a funky rhythm even Steely Dan would be proud of. In one of TV’s weirdest moments Alice would later perform the track with The Muppets.

The other ‘killer cut’ is “Only Women Bleed” a song which really only came into its own a few years later. Whilst Alice’s own version of this ballad (about a woman in an abusive relationship) was indeed admirable, it took actress Julie Covington to really set the song alight in 1978.

Julie Covington was a minor National Theatre and Opera performer before she got her big break as one of “The Little Ladies” in TV’s 1976 bizarre musical drama “Rock Follies“… about which I know I will write much more later.

That led to her being invited to sing the lead role in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber‘s extravagant musical “Evita“. She contributed to the soundtrack but refused to perform the role of  Eva Perón on stage, leaving assured stardom to beckon for her replacement Elaine Page.

Her performance on “Evita” led to a proper recording contract with Virgin Records and her titular debut album came out in 1978, preceded by her stellar version of Alice’s “Only Women Bleed”. I don’t think she ever had a finer recorded moment?!

I have no memory of what the present was I seem to be preparing for Nobby’s imminent 18th birthday. As I know he is a regular reader of, and comment contributor to, EFA70sTRO  I will leave him to reveal the secret… as I am sure his brain cells are somewhat less addled than mine?!

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July 19th 1975

“At work sold a pair of Koss phones for £39 and a cassette player for £16. Extra £2.75. Got Transformer from Virgin”

As I remember, headphones by Koss were considered quite high-class and sought-after back in the seventies. 39 quid for a pair – the cost of (in my teenage mind) several albums – does seem a lot of money, especially when that cassette player I mention cost less than half the price?!

My sales floor efforts bumped my wages up by an extra £2.75 though and that was certainly not to be sneezed at.

It looks like £2.75 which I immediately went and blew on Lou Reed’s classic 1972 “Transformer” LP. Result!

“Transformer” was Lou Reed’s second solo album since breaking up the influential Velvet Underground, and in my opinion it is head and shoulders the very finest of his extensive recorded output.

The album was co-produced by David Bowie and his band mate (in the Spiders from Mars), guitarist Mick Ronson. Many people don’t realise that the utterly beautiful strings segment on “Perfect Day”  were arranged by Ronson and that he was the primary musician on many of the tracks, contributing not just guitar, but keyboards, woodwind and backing vocals.

Side one kicks off in great style with the powerful “Vicious“, complete with its heavily fuzzed guitar sound and strange sing along chorus…
Vicious
hey, you hit me with a flower
You do it every hour
oh, baby you’re so vicious

Andy’s Chest” – it’s title reputedly coming from the scars Lou’s mentor Andy Warhol received after being attacked and stabbed – was originally scheduled to appear on the (never released) fourth studio album from the Velvets. It’s a peculiar ballad, neither a straight forward love song or a parody, but it does contain some of the weirdest ‘relationship’ lyrics ever with…
If I could be any one of the things
in this world that bite
instead of an ocelot on a leash
I’d rather be a kite
and be tied to the end of your string
and flying in the air, babe, at night

Perfect Day” is one of the immense songs on the album and something which will stand the test of time for several more decade to come. It’s about as lush as any song can be. The low-key vocal delivery by Reed contradicts the sheer optimism that the lyrics suggest – “it’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you” – but the whole thing works to such a degree that it’s impossible to ignore, those previously mentioned strings mere icing on a very tasty cake indeed,

The song is so strong that 25 years after it’s release  it was used by the BBC (to promote the corporations diverse music output) in a promotional video which catapulted it back into the charts, only this time Reed shared screen time and vocal duties with musical legends such as David Bowie, Bono, Dr John, Shane MacGowan, Tammy Wynette and Tom Jones!

Intrigued?… check it out…

Hangin’ ‘Round” is the odd man out of Side 1 (i.e. the weakest moment, albeit another collection of peculiar lyrics) before we get to the main event, the classic “Walk on the Wild Side”.

Walk on the Wild Side” ranks amongst the very best of all the Seventies glam anthems. Its subject matter – transexuality, prostitution, oral sex and drugs – didn’t stop it from reaching #16 on the US charts and #10 in the UK and remaining a public favourite some 40 years later.

Trivia champs may wish to store away this nugget of information: the sax solo is performed by Ronnie Ross who had previously taught David Bowie to play the instrument when Bowie was just a kid

Side two commences with “Make Up“, another nod to transexuality, the lyric
Now we’re comin’ out
Out of our closets
Out on the streets
Yeah, we’re comin’ out

something of a giveaway

Satellite of Love” – a paean to extreme jealousy – is another Lou Reed song that dates back to his time with the Velvet Underground and was actually recorded by the band for inclusion on their “Loaded” album.

Wagon Wheel” was, is, and will always remain, the weakest cut on the album, whilst the short and bizarre “New York Telephone Conversation” ranks amongst my faves. The drugs influence is definitely there with
I was sleeping, gently napping, when I heard the phone
Who is on the other end talking, am I even home
Did you see what she did to him, did you hear what they said
Just a New York conversation, rattling in my head

I’m So Free” is a catchy rock number before the album gets wrapped up with the sublime “Goodnight Ladies“, another love’s lost ballad that is infused with not just anger and regret but Reed’s ever-present wicked sense of humour.

“Transformer” is another one of those album I know inside/out and back to front. I’ll be honest though when stating I pretty much ignored all of Lou Reed’s subsequent recorded output until his excellent “New York” album in 1989, but even as good as it was I feel it still pales in comparison to this 1972 masterwork. It’s dark and angry all wrapped up in a collection of perfect pop songs. If you don’t already own it, I can only recommend you hunt it down and buy it now.

I do remember playing both sides of this album over and over – and over – again when I bought it.  The LP I bought today in 1975 skipped on “I’m so Free” – I do remember that – but it didn’t distract from what I thought – and still think – is a fabulous and utterly timeless piece of work.

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July 17th 1975

“Didn’t go to college – returned LPs to Virgin & got 6.89 credit” / “Disco – Got off with Lorna. Dedicated make me smile to Lorna + got virginia plain dedicated to me”

Virgin Records was the new major dealer in Southampton to satisfy my vinyl needs.

I wrote briefly before about how Richard Branson’s retail chain got its leg up to the High Streets of Britain (and later, the world), but its founding deserves further reportage.

Virgin Records & Tapes’ first opened in London’s Notting Hill Gate, run by Branson and his first business partner Nik Powell. Their first official store however was at the Tottenham Court Road end of London’s busy Oxford Street, initially above (I believe) a shoe shop. A while later they took over the ground floor. Here, and unlike most other record stores in 1971, the vibe was decidedly ‘laid back’, customers often crashing on the floor listening to albums and smoking substances both legal and illegal.

The first Virgin Records store in Notting Hill Gate

Branson decided to grow the chain after Post Office strikes threatened to take away his (primary) livelihood gained via the mail order business. He opened other stores in and handful towns and cities across the country. Few of them were in prime locations, Branson preferring to drive traffic to the stores rather than enjoy natural public footfall.

The response from the record buying public was pretty instant, the stores offering a breath of fresh air to people who had grown tired of the more staid HMV shops, places like Woolworths and the lack of choice in many independents. Virgin also specialised in imports, both cut-price (known as ‘cut-outs’) from America and titles which were not officially available in the UK.

Branson was also quick to take advantage of the removal of government-controlled ‘retail price maintenance’ which had kept the price of records and tapes artificially high since the sixties, discounting popular titles to create turnover whilst making most of his money from the stores’ depth of catalogue titles. It would be a record business model which many others – chains and independents alike – would emulate in succesive decades.

The Southampton Virgin store opened in what was a very much “off the beaten track” location at 16 Bargate Street, at one end of the town’s pedestrian precinct and hidden round an almost blind corner from that precinct. To make matters ‘worse’, it was situated across two floors linked by a very inhospitable and closed-in staircase.  The ground floor was given over exclusively to albums, whilst the much smaller upstairs was the singles/tapes/posters/accessories department. It was very narrow, the space between the racks little more than 7 or 8 feet. Indeed, the two floors combined probably totalled no more than maybe 1000 sq feet, a far cry from Branson’s later retail ventures.

I fell in love with its choice of albums almost immediately, attracted too by the fact that my old friend/adversary Niles had nabbed a part-time cashier’s job there and was able to pass on his generous staff discount of 20%. It was like red rag to a bull and I quickly went on a vinyl buying frenzy.

This store would eventually form an integral part of my post-college career – more on that later – and once again Niles would be involved in a way that was positive for me but unfortunate for him.

Today in 1975 it seems as if I had returned some unwanted – maybe faulty? – albums and received a credit note. (Virgin was once notorious for not wanting to give cash refunds to anyone, Branson’s policy was that once the money was in the business, it should somehow stay there)

I thought I would have a good picture or two of how the Southampton Virgin store looked in 1975, but research of my photo albums drew a blank… well, other than one of me stood outside it a few years later which I’d prefer to save for a future post.

Thanks to the ever-reliable Google “street view” application I can present a current-day pic of where the Virgin store was located. It looks very salbrious these days, despite being mere yards from two of Southampton’s main tourist attractions – the old walls and the West Quay shopping centre. The presence of all those steel shutters – the shop windows hidden behind them – certainly make the locale seem less than appealing.

In other news, it seems I got “lucky” at tonight’s disco, getting off with Lorna, with whom I subsequently enjoyed a short term fling. We were sorely mismatched and split up after just a few weeks. Her parents owned a fish & chip shop but I swear that wasn’t the main attraction.

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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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