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
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama