K-Tel: the secret history!
Motown was the hit factory. Parlophone had the look. But to anyone who grew up in the Seventies, pop belonged on K-Tel, the label that kick-started the compilation industry. Slavering Bob Stanley - he bought them all! - tells the story of the real home of the hits
Sunday 09 January 2005
Something that was lost in the CD revolution 20 years ago was the beauty of the record label. Pye, Decca, Vertigo, Polydor: true design classics. Think of the Beatles and you think of black paper labels with a Parlophone pound-sign logo and the big "45" on the right to show that you hadn't just bought a shrunken 78. Blondie's "Heart of Glass" could only ever be on the powder-blue Chrysalis label with a butterfly flapping in the corner.
Between the ages of seven and 14, though, the only label that counted for me was a murky brown colour with two white curvy lines, something that no one could mistake for the work of Barnett Newman or Peter Saville. It was the K-Tel label, home of the hits - usually 20 of them but sometimes as many as 24. For a boy on 20p a week pocket money, K-Tel was the only label that could give me any hope of keeping up with the kids at school whose dads bought them a hit single or two every Saturday (usually on flashy labels such as Bell or RAK).
Every three months or so, a new K-Tel compilation would appear with a snappy generic title - Music Power, Disco Rocket, Star Party - and for around three quid my collection would be bolstered with anything from Cockney Rebel and Pilot to War's "Low Rider" (cool) or Pussycat's "Mississippi" (not so). Philly soul, novelty, hard-rock, glam, whatever David Dundas was meant to be - it was all pop music to K-Tel. They were the kings. Aged 12, more than anything in the world I wanted to work for K-Tel.
The man whose job I coveted was Don Reedman, an Aussie who was in at the beginning and made a bomb with the Classic Rock and Hooked On Classics series.
"From 1972 we were doing an album every couple of weeks," he remembers when prodded. "I was allowed to do what I wanted. I genuinely liked everything I did - Gladys Knight, Perry Como... I loved them all. We were kids having fun."
So it really was as great as I'd imagined. I refrain from telling Don that I used to invent compilations of my own and send them in to K-Tel hoping to steal his job. But I could never have conceived Reedman's personal pride and joy. You can hear the pride in his voice. "Kenny Everett's World's Worst Record Show was a great one," he says resonantly. "We pressed it on brown vinyl. It looked like sick."
For all its impact on the market of the day, Reedman's company name cannot claim the gravitas of His Master's Voice; and its roots - perhaps we shouldn't be surprised - are in north America. The "K" in K-Tel is one Philip Kives, a Winnipeg salesman of no small talent. He began hawking kitchenware on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.
"It was tough," says Kives. "I thought there had to be an easier way of earning a living. I came back to Winnipeg and Teflon pans had just come out. I bought some TV time on the local channel so I could demonstrate to a whole world of people at one time. I put the product in a department store. People saw the commercial and came to see me at the store." The amiable Kives makes K-Tel's success sound uncomplicated and entirely random.
"I used to demonstrate at fairs. And some Australian people came up to me once and told me how nice their country was - I said 'Gee whiz, I've always wanted to go to Australia anyhow.' So when the fair was over I put five gross of knives on the airplane. Ten days later I was on TV in Newcastle, Australia, and it just took off. Five months later I'd sold a million knives and I made a dollar a knife." His cutlery supplier, jealous of his success, "told me I was getting too big and cut me off - Seymour Popeil was his name, king of the kitchen gadgets. No more knives, slicers, choppers...
"I was born on a farm and I knew country music," he continues. "I had to do something else, I thought why not do a music album? I thought it'd be a one-off. Everybody said 'that won't work'. Now all the major labels do compilation albums, but mine was the first."
It is 40 years since Kives gave the world 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits - the title was unwieldy but it was the first ever TV record. And, in Winnipeg, it sold like billy-oh, with the effect that in a fit of envy, Popeil's son, Ron, set up a rival label, called Ronco.
Kives first hit Britain at the beginning of the Seventies and took the same parochial approach, buying an ad "on a local TV station in the north" - possibly Border - to announce that the Miracle Brush was on sale in the local Woolworths and Co-Op. Again, it sold out in hours the day after the advert.
Now Kives decided to set up a British arm of K-Tel Records. Don Reedman had a twin brother who ran the label in Australia, which seemed a good enough reason to put Don in charge of the London office. His first project was 20 Dynamic Hits. It had trademark, eye-stinging K-Tel cover art with cut-out monochrome pictures of the artistes surrounded by multi-coloured circles. It looked like it had been put together by a kid with the full range of Letraset and four felt-tip pens. For me at least, this was part of the appeal. My dad bought 20 Dynamic Hits. So did three million other people. Out of the box, K-Tel UK outsold T Rex, Bowie, Carole King and Lieutenant Pigeon - they had 1972's best-selling album bar none.
Colin Ashby, the company's sales manager in the late Seventies, had "come from the food industry. We were marketeers who happened to be marketing black plastic. There was no desire to win prizes or ad campaign-of-the-year awards, no desire at all." Ashby was with the company when ITV was taken off the air by industrial action in 1979. "Our TV spend in the Seventies was as big as Heinz's. The strike was from August to October. We lost money - it was disastrous, cut off our arms and legs."
Selling records like tins of beans was beyond the capability of the major labels in the Seventies - they were there for artist- development, high culture, prog rock. It seems unbelievable now that they would license their biggest hits to an entrepreneurial company on fume-choked Western Avenue and watch them sell a million records every time.
"Oh, it was pure snobbery," says Colin Ashby. Rather than dirty their hands in what was called secondary marketing, "the major labels took a 16 per cent royalty on the retail price. We were seen as a necessary evil."
K-Tel TV ads were the ultimate in hard selling. "Out now on K-Tel!" they would scream. Thus the label cornered the baby boomer market, the six-albums-a-year buyers who also owned Bridge Over Troubled Water, something by Neil Diamond and a Music of Greece/Spain package-holiday souvenir album. It became a brand name that everybody recognised. "At every party I went to for years, as soon as I said I worked for K-Tel that was it. Everybody's got an idea for a compilation," groans Ashby. "'Why don't you do a brass band album?' they'd say. 'I'd buy it!'" In North America, meanwhile, Philip Kives was still recording his own commercials as he had back in Winnipeg in 1962, a live shoot with a hands-on demonstration of the product. He would appear with the artist holding the record. Some acts were more fun to work with than others.
"Elton John, he was nice to do business with. And the singing barber, Perry Como - very, very nice. Liberace took me to his house and made dinner for me and my wife. Then you turned around and had to deal with a guy like Sammy Davis Jr. He could only see in one eye. Did you know that? I didn't know that. He was talking to me but looking elsewhere and I thought he must have been talking to somebody else. And he screamed at me 'I'm TALKING to you! ANSWER ME!' Gee. He was tough."
K-Tel's boom years came to an abrupt halt in 1983. Richard Branson was more of a barrow boy than his major label rivals. He came up with the first Now That's What I Call Music, spent a pound per sale on promotion (K-tel aimed at around 15p a record) and created a brand. K-Tel just couldn't compete.
Janie Webber, the label's current boss, had joined the company at its peak in 1979. "I remember, it was our weekly meeting and someone brought in this record sleeve with a pig on it and I thought, 'What the hell is that?'" Colin Ashby: "Now That's What I Call Music? I thought wowee, that's a big title. We'd never have taken a chance on a title as long as that."
Squeezed out, K-Tel had ceased making records by the late Eighties, and reverted to its original purpose - selling kitchen gadgets. Janie Webber oversaw its latterday rennaissance from an industrial estate in Greenford, placing £3.99 CDs in supermarket dump bins and doing quite nicely on impulse purchases. Cutely, she joined the company because she was an obsessive maker of home-made compilations as a child.
"I had a sign on my bedroom door that said 'Keep out - recording in progress'," she remembers. "Now I run the company. I feel a bit like Victor Kayam." The label's place in bri-nylon pop culture history is secure - the number of hits (five million at the last count) on a fabulous website called ktelclassics.com is testament to this. When you get down to it, K-Tel stood for pop in its purest form: Ultravox may still whine about the injustice of "Vienna" being kept off the top by "Shaddap You Face", but when you are sandwiched between Racey and the Gibson Brothers on a K-Tel comp there's no place for pretension or revisionism. It may not have been Motown, but K-Tel produced dozens of perfectly formed time machines.
Your local charity shop is waiting to transport you.
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