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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?