Pops and pirates 

23 July 2021 tbs.pm/73029

 

Book cover

From ‘World in Action’ by Duncan Crow, published by Mayflower in 1965

On Easter Saturday, 28th March, 1964, a new sound spread over East Anglia and south-east England; or rather, it was not so much a new sound as a trad sound from a new place.

On Easter Saturday, Radio Caroline, the first of Britain’s radio ships, broadcast its first programme of pop music. This broadcast was like a bolt from the blue-in more senses than one! The launching of Caroline had been a well-kept secret.

But there was another surprise to come: a second pirate ship with a different group of backers was nearing completion. This was Radio Atlanta.

At 6 o’clock on the morning of Tuesday, 12th May, Atlanta went on the air. At 10.05 that night, its usual transmission time, World in Action presented a report on these new type pirates showing who had got them on the air, and who was trying to get them off it.

Among those who welcomed Radio Caroline and Radio Atlanta – which later joined forces to become Caroline North and Caroline South – were some pop music publishers who saw in the ships an opportunity to get more of their music played on the air. One of these publishers explained to World in Action,

“At the present time,” (this was before the pirate ships had started to operate) “at the present time there are only two outlets in sound broadcasting into England. One, of course, is the BBC and the other is Luxembourg. Luxembourg is held by all of the major record companies. A third and alternative outlet such as a radio ship arrives on the scene; it can be appreciated how very undesirable this could be from the record companies’ point of view because they cannot control it.”

The pirate ships are only one aspect of a business that is big and booming – so big that in 1963 the pop business took £22 million [£480m in today’s prices, allowing for inflation] in record sales alone. Six months after Radio Caroline’s first broadcast, on the night of the Beatles’ return from one of their American tours, World in Action went back to the pop business to take a look at another side of it – the flip side. This report, like the earlier one on the pirates, was prepared by Mike Hodges.

 

An excerpt from the original World in Action about the off-shore stations.

 

The Flip Side

 

Symbolically, this edition of World in Action opened with a shot of a goldfish. “With luck and skilful judgement,” said the narrator, “this fish will sell a million pop records.” The fish belongs to Roy Tempest, a trader in Britain’s fastest growing industry – pop group.

Roy Tempest speaks lovingly of his fish. “I’ve got a tropical fish tank with my Top Twenty fish in. I call them my Top Twenty fish because they represent my Top Twenty rock ’n’ roll groups. Now these fish, the first one of them to enter the Hit Parade… what I will do? I will isolate the fish in a little bowl and I will give him all the tit-bits, and naturally this will make all the other nineteen fish rather envious and they’ll be hopping mad and hoping like hell to get into the Hit Parade.”

 

I LOVE CAROLINE ON ONE-NINE-NINE

 

The pop business as the customers see it is one thing. The groups and the fans see pops as one long swinging ring-a-ding rave-up, a ball, a good time. But the agents, the managers and all the other promoters see it differently. To them it is business and the pop groups are the human merchandise.

It all began with the Beatles. Thousands of British teenagers bought guitars and drum kits on the never-never. They let their hair down over their eyebrows and the group stampede was on. But at the same time another, and a quieter rush started. The operators moved in too.

Eddie Rogers, author of a book about Tin Pan Alley, and an old hand in the pop business told World in Action,

“Everywhere you go there is a group and what’s more important, every group has a manager – oh, and they’ve all got the greatest group in the world. Every group they manage is the greatest discovery since penicillin. Since the advent of the Beatles everybody thinks they can get on the bandwagon.”

In the pop business they talk about the flip side – that’s the tune on the other side of a hit record – the tune not usually played. But the whole pop business has its own flip side – the side not usually talked about.

 

Courtesy of COMEDUNG on YouTube.

 

A typical group, recently turned professional, is the Four Plus One. Keith is the group’s vocalist – he’s nineteen. Junior, who plays lead guitar, is sixteen, and used to be a
sheet metal worker. Boots, the bass guitarist, is nineteen. Ken, the drummer is seventeen and gave up a place at college to play with the group.

When these boys first got together a youth club worker moved in on them quickly, waving a contract. We looked carefully at this and found:

  • It tied the boys up for the next five years.
  • It could tie them up for another five years after that.
  • For all of these ten years the manager would have complete control.
  • In all this time, no matter how much they earned, the manager would take 20 per cent, a fifth, of all the money.
  • The manager would also control all the advertising and publicity – but the group would pay the bills.

The boys would also have to pay a 10 per cent agent’s fee for every booking, so that, in all, they stood to pay out at least ten shillings [50p in decimal] of every pound they earned.

Luckily the Four Plus One read every clause and threw the contract out, and signed up with another agent. These four boys form one of the 10,000 beat groups fighting to get to the top. It’s a struggle, and a hard one at that.

 

 

Said Ken, “We are working about seven nights a week now, earning about £30 to £40 [£650-£850] each. That’s not much though, when you consider we are doing concerts every night, also rehearsals all day.”

Boots agreed that it wasn’t all that much. “I think it’s very expensive starting a group,” he said. “I’ve got about £300-worth [£6500] of gear. Keith’s got £300-worth, Ken’s got £200-worth [£4500]. But it’s the HP as well, you know – it drags you down a bit when you have to pay out a lot every week.”

To Junior it was well worth it. His ambitions were clear: “Wanna be known when I walk down the street, sorta thing, instead of just working as anybody else – regular hours. Get up when I want, finish when we’re able to, have something to show for it instead of nothing at the end of the week, you know. It’s better all round and you enjoy yourself when you’re on stage – you have a big rave-up and everything, you know. It’s a right giggle.”

Keith agreed. “We have a ball on stage, one of the main things. We all sort of rave about and everything and the kids like it and everybody enjoys themselves, you know, and it’s great, you know – great life.”

 

Courtesy of GoldenOldiesOn45RPM on YouTube.

 

All of today’s up-and-comers depend heavily on their promoters. And the promoters are always enthusiastic about their latest finds. Eddie Cox is one agent who does not restrain himself in describing the fine points of a young man named Rhett Stoller.

“Rhett Stoller,” said Cox. “Yes, I think you’ll be hearing about Rhett Stoller one of these days as I think he’s the greatest – what shall I say – multi-guitarist in Europe, if not the world. He’s already done quite a number of recordings which have absolutely astounded electronic engineers who say he can’t do more than nine, ten, eleven or twelve dubbings on one tape, but he’s already recorded twenty-two guitars on one tape and it’s a noise that sounds like a symphony.”

 

 

Any one of today’s newcomers might make the Top Twenty by next month. But the chances are that when they get there they will find the middle-men have moved in ahead of them. Roy Tempest is one of the new-style pop impresarios: a man who backs the outsiders. He described how he does it:

“We look through the charts, we buy the new records of the new releases of the groups which are not signed with our agents, and if we like the record – if we think they’ve got a fair chance of going into the Hit Parade, then we buy them for ballroom dates from their agents, and if they do hit the charts in a big way, then we’re on a very good profit.”

Having bought a group when they were unknown and cheap. Tempest waits till they become successful and expensive. Then he moves in. World in Action listened to Tempest on the phone to a ballroom manager:

“I don’t know if you’ve seen these guys perform, but they go over like there’s no tomorrow. Now I’ve got a Thursday for you, Peter. You know what they’re going out for, don’t you. They’re asking now £200. Well, now. I’ll tell you what I’ll do – they’ve got a date, if you’re interested. It’s in November – I’ll give you the date, Peter – Thursday, 19th November. The only Thursday they’ve got left. I can let you have it for £120 [£2500]. That is an absolutely unbelievable price, because they’re number five in the charts next week. I’ll be honest with you – I’ve had about seven offers, quite seriously, but as I offered them to you in the first place … At that price Peter, I’m practically giving it away to you.”

Peter accepted the present.

“That’s fine, yes. Fine – I’ll put it in the book,” said Tempest. “You’ll ruin me, Peter; my life, you will.”

Roy Tempest gauges the value of his stars by their place in the record charts. Indeed the success or failure of any pop hope lies in the record shops. A star is as big as the sales of his last disc. Each week the musical papers publish a guide to these sales known as the Charts. These are the barometer of success – the Stock Exchange list of the pop world. They are all compiled from weekly lists supplied by record shops selected by each of the musical papers.

 

Courtesy of The Animals Tribute Channel on YouTube.

 

But many people in the business doubt the reliability of the charts. Walter Beaver, a Mersey-side record dealer is one of them:

“For instance, a little while ago the record by the Animals called ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ was first published. Immediately it shot into the charts but into the chart compiled by the Musical Express it came in at number ten. The Melody Maker showed it at number nineteen, and the Record Retailer at number thirty-one – all of these, mark you, on the same day and all of these are national charts. Now who is correct? I don’t know, but two, possibly all three of these charts, must be hopelessly inaccurate.

“A dealer can be over-enthusiastic in his ordering,” Walter Beaver continued, “and there’s no surer way of getting rid of stock than by putting the record in question into the dealer’s return to the charts and hoping that it will climb. Believe me, this can be very successful. I think the simplest reason for these discrepancies is merely the fact that in most record shops the girl is simply asked to send her returns to the charts and this she does by writing down fifty record titles as fast as she possibly can.”

But Jack Hutton, editor of the Melody Maker, defends the chart published by his paper.

“This is the cheapest and quickest way that we can think of,” he said. “On compiling such a list you could spend a fortune. I don’t honestly think there is a fairer reflection of record sales in the country; but it must be remembered that this can be only a guide to record sales and through that a guide to the popularity of different artists and groups. We can only reflect the trend of sales in the country as far as we can see them.”

The charts are also closely watched by a band of men known in the business as song-pluggers. It is their job to get records played on radio and television so that they become popular. Eddie Rogers is a professional song-plugger who distrusts the charts:

“I remember many years ago I was associated with a number. Four musical papers gave this a number one in their charts. The fifth musical paper didn’t even show it anywhere in the Top Twenty, so I phoned the man that compiled the charts in that paper and I said ‘Do me a favour, I mean every paper’s given it number one – give me a number thirteen or something.’ And he said ‘Why should I? You don’t advertise with us.’”

The song-pluggers today have one powerful target – the men who put the music on the air. Eddie Rogers remembers how it used to work:

“For instance, I have been in the studio and on a live broadcast and made signs at the artist on the stage about how much I was going to pay him if he did one more chorus of my song. But even if I paid him as much as forty quid, which I have paid for one chorus of a song, it wasn’t money thrown away because the next day I would sell 40,000 copies of sheet music.”

Today it isn’t sheet music that matters – it’s the records themselves.

The money spent on records in Britain explains why everyone in the pop business keeps a jealous ear on what is being played. In 1950, British record sales totalled a mere £3½ million [£130m]. By 1960 this figure had risen to £13 million [£310m]. In 1963 sales shot even higher – to £21½ millions [£475m] – nearly seven times up on the 1950 figure, and in 1964 it was higher still.

 

 

Two big companies alone have cornered four-fifths of this money. The smaller of these, which sells nearly four of every ten records in Britain is Decca under such labels as: Warner Brothers, R.C.A. Victor, Coral, London, Vocalion, Brunswick.

But easily the biggest is Electric and Musical Industries – E.M.I. – which sells just under half of all the records. E.M.I.’s labels include: Parlophone, H.M.V., Capitol, United Artists, Columbia, M.G.M.

E.M.I. is the world’s largest record company. Its chairman, Sir Joseph Lockwood, keeps a realistic eye on the competition.

“Well, it’s a free-for-all,” he told World in Action. “The competition is absolutely terrific and anyone who thinks this is an easy business should come and have a try. People who rush in knowing very little about the business can lose substantial sums of money very quickly. Last year (1963), for instance, in Britain there were 2,133 pop records produced. Of these only 80 got into the Top Ten. So that I should think about 1,700 of those records that were issued last year lost money.”

One man who tried to compete with the giants like Sir Joseph was Joe Meek, songwriter and creator of the hit record ‘Telstar’, one of the biggest pop sellers of all time. He started up his own company.

 

Courtesy of Sids60sSounds on YouTube.

 

“This was a complete unit to produce and press the records,” he explained, “and the third record turned out to be a hit. It was ‘Angela Jones’ by Michael Cox. But this brought on a lot of difficulties because the major record companies decided that they didn’t want small operators and so they did their best to squash us out of the shops.”

Joe Meek now produces recording tapes only, leaving the giant record companies to make and distribute his records.

The middlemen of pop, each in his own way, keep on making money in a shifting market. Even the men who write the tune on the flip side do all right because the flip side earns exactly the same amount in royalties as the main side. Whenever the main side is played the flip side automatically earns a royalty too. But the stars themselves, the goods in this market, fade – and then what happens to them?

 

Courtesy of Bathed In Lightning: John McLaughlin, the 60s and the Emerald Beyonds on YouTube.

 

Only three long years ago there were two young men who were making money for themselves and for lots of other people besides. One of them was Terry Dene, born Williams, once hailed as Britain’s Elvis Presley. He spoke to us as he walked, 24 years old and alone, among the empty dreams of Denmark Street in London-in Tin Pan Alley itself:

“I went to the top very, very quickly – in fact I think far too quickly. I was 18 years old and at the top, earning roughly £150 [£4000] a week. Then, everything crashed. My stardom disappeared almost overnight. I went to various doctors and people for advice – I even spoke to some people in the business – but it’s very, very difficult sometimes to explain some things inside you that seem to go wrong. I tried desperately to get back on my feet again, but every time I made the attempt something seemed to go wrong again. It seemed to be a vicious circle.”

In 1960 – which is all of five years ago – Ricky Valance sang a song called ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’. The record sold a quarter of a million copies and so won a silver disc. Today Ricky Valance can walk along the crowded promenade at Bridlington in Yorkshire and nobody turns a head.

 

Courtesy of the45prof on YouTube.

 

In a seafront cafe Ricky, aged 25, looked back on the young Ricky, aged 21:

“As one can imagine, at this particular time I made quite a lot of money from ‘Tell Laura’ and the records; but I was an idiot at the time because I felt that there was plenty more where this came from. Unfortunately this was my big mistake, and other people’s too. But, of course, by that time it was just vanished. Anyway, after that I went away from London and started trying to sell myself. I had a lot of heartbreak and worry and in the end I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

 

Ricky Valance

“If I could just get another chance” – Ricky Valance

 

“But anyway,” he concluded more hopefully, “the thing is at this particular moment I would like to say that I have learned from my mistakes – I really have learned and I feel that given another chance – I really feel this after studying it from quite a wide angle – that if I could just get another chance again, I could really make it again.”

 

You Say

1 response to this article

Leonard Carghill 28 August 2021 at 7:08 am

“From ‘World in Action’ by Duncan Crow, published by Mayflower in 1965”

Mayflower (along with the better known Paladin and Panther) was a print name of the Granada Publishing business, which was sold off to Collins in 1983.

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