Wednesday 25 September 2019

Britannia Music Club

In the mid 80s, Record Companies were trying to squeeze as much out their back catalogues as possible.  This was before the advent of the CD when new technology did that for them.
But before the CD revolution (or "people re-buying the stuff they've already bought"), a few record companies launched their budget or more correctly "mid price" labels.
CBS had their Nice Price stream, Virgin launched Virgin Mid-Price (all with and OVED# catalogue number) and EMI had their Fame label.
Basically, old stuff was re-released on these labels - and punters either re-bought their old worn out albums, or younger fans discovered new music at a bargain price (I was one of the latter - £3.99 for a bona fide classic album?  Yes please).

Each of these labels included a catalogue (of sorts) which was basically just a list (complete with catalogue numbers, potential stockists, and peppered with the odd picture).
A (sort of) revolution in music buying was born - you could now sit at home an read up on what you might be on your next visit to a record shop, rather than just aimlessly mooch in the hope of inspiration (I still preferred the latter method, and could quite happily lose 3 hours in a record shop).

There was also the Mail Order route, with Record Shops advertising their wares in the back of Smash Hits, Kerrang, Record Collector, or any other magazine where they could afford the advertising space.  And into this Mail Order maelstrom, and advertising space in national newspapers strode The Britannia Music Club.

The premis was simple:
      choose x records or tapes (or later CDs), and pay for x-1      (Postage and Packing applies)

Whichever way you look at it, this meant you were getting one recording completely gratis (except the P+P costs ate up most of that saving).
It also meant you were now a club member, and each month you could peruse their magazine and choose, from the comfort of your house, which newly released albums you might want to get.  Again, these would be offered at a cheaper price than the high street (and again, the Postage and Packing costs would negate any saving).
As a club member, you were required to purchase 6 albums at full price in your first year of membership.  After that you could make as many (or as few) purchases as you liked, and if you bought 6 further albums you were entitled to a Free album (Postage and Packing applies).
You also got a (supposedly hand-picked) Monthly Recommendation - basically, the offer of whatever album they had the biggest pile of in the warehouse.
But you have to remember to send the reply card back before the due date or you could end up with an album you don't really want.  OK, you've met part of your obligation by buying a full price album, but equally you could now have a Five Star album on your shelf that you're never going to listen to.

But there were other short-comings to the seemingly Utopian music buying experience.

  • Britannia was partly (or wholly?) owned by PolyGram, meaning they had quite a deep catalogue but only from PolyGram artists - so there was nothing from EMI, Virgin, CBS, or any of the Indie labels.(Universal Music)
  • New releases only hit the magazine about 1 month after they are available elsewhere (plus another 2 weeks before they arrive through your letterbox)
  • Payment was by cheque or Postal Order (they would get really annoyed if you sent cash, or tried to make up the difference in postage stamps)
  • They had a fairly aggressive marketing stance - constantly sending junk mail bulletins about new releases, upcoming films or concerts in the USA (which you had no chance of getting to)
  • Their Customer Service was (at best) woeful (and (at worst) non-existent)
  • It sold itself as a "Club" and stated you had the freedom to leave whenever you wanted.  In truth, it was more difficult to get out of than a High Security Prison.

But they were the Biggest Bugger in the Playground, and could basically do what they liked, because where else were you going to go?  They even ended up sponsoring the Brit Awards for a period (the time when it became a corporate sham with predictable results and winners announced long before the ceremony).  This also gave them the opportunity to send even more junk mail (usually telling you what you already knew because it was already printed in the club magazine)

Britannia were eventually driven out by the Internet - and notably Amazon - where you could browse at home, make a selection, order it and be listening to it without ever having to set foot in a nasty, smelly record shop with borderline rude staff
(I like record shops like that)

The difference was Amazon (and the others like, cd-wow *, even hmv) were much more efficient, had a deeper range of product, decently priced, and did not threaten to "send the boys round" if you forgot to correctly tick the "No Thanks" box

* cd-wow - the cheapest place on the (early) internet for CDs.  Basically, because most of their stock was made up of Japanese and Russian Bootlegs

So the mid-80s record companies budget labels were correct - there is a market for people to sit at home and make their selections.  And Britannia Music Club exploited this.  Convenient (and possibly lazy)? Yes.  But what was missing was the choice and delivery network so you didn't have to wait a fortnight to get your hands on your new purchases.
(And as a recent new member of Amazon Prime, I can vouch for the speed of delivery)

Still can't beat a good morning's mooch around a nasty,smelly record shop - that's my weekend sorted.

Friday 20 September 2019

T.Rex - Electric Warrior

This T.Rex album from 1971 marks the point when hippie-dom was banished (almost) and the Rock God was born.

After 4 relatively low selling albums with (the first couple with elongated titles ('My People Were Fair and Had Sky in Their Hair... But Now They're Content to Wear Stars on Their Brows' and 'Prophets, Seers & Sages: The Angels of the Ages'), the Tyrannosaurus Rex name was abbreviated, and the guitars plugged in.
The single "Ride A White Swan" hit number 2 and late 1970, and stardom beckoned (which, if truth be known, Marc Bolan had always hankered for).

His first number 1 single arrived the following year ("Hot Love") and was followed by "Get It On" in the summer.
The formula was becoming clear - ditch the sub-Tolkien Hippie nonsense, and jack up the Chuck Berry riffs.

In the late 60s and 70s, "Pop Music" was all about the 7" single, but (with the obvious exceptions (ie The Beatles, The Stones etc)), singles artists didn't always make the transition to albums.
Well T.Rex managed it in September 1971 with the release of 'Electric Warrior'.

'Electric Warrior' still got an air of mysticism (certainly in some of the titles and lyrics - "Mambo Sun", "Cosmic Dancer"), continues the acoustic musings "Girl", but also rocks like a bugger ("Jeepster", "Get It On", "Rip Off").  It even gets a bit philosophical with "Life's A Gas"
(somewhere on YouTube is a performance of said song with Cilla Black).

The two winning parts for this album are Bolan's songs (albeit with potentially crass lyrics in search of a rhyme),and the production work and arrangement of Tony Visconti.
There is a (slightly obtuse) argument that the production Team on this album influenced the next 10 years of popular music.
  • Producer: Tony Visconti
    (with Bowie, Iggy Pop, Thin Lizzy, Boomtown Rats, Hazel O'Connor, and a reputation that continues to this day)
  • Engineer: Roy Thomas Baker
    (worked with a little known faux-Prog band from Kensington, and then produced 'Bohemain Rhapsody)
  • Tape Operator: Martin Rushent
    (producer of Buzzcocks, Stranglers and Generation X.  And then produced the pinnacle of Synth-Pop records with Human League's 'Dare')

Frankly, no T.Rex album has surpassed this 11 track collection.  Some are "close" but never quite get there.

From Mid-1971 to the end of 1972, Marc Bolan was at the very peak of his powers and adulation - a pedestal that would soon be filled by old friend and sparring partner David Bowie (who would also be aided by Tony Visconti), as Bolan entered a world of extreme self-belief (self delusion?), aspirations to vary his music (although he never achieved the chameleonic prowess of his old mate Dave), and generally chopping and changing his styles, band members, and production team as suited his whims (if not his musical output).
The last single released in 1971 was "Jeepster" - this continued an unfortunate run as it was kept from Number 1 by Benny Hills 'Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West)' - 1970s "Ride A White Swan" was denied top spot by Clive Dunn's "Grandad", and 1972s "Solid Gold Easy Action" stalled behind Little Jimmy Osmond's "Long Haired Lover From Liverpool".  Marc Bolan's collection of 4 Number 1 Singles could easily have been 7 but for the spectre of the Novelty Single.


"Rip Off"

"Cosmic Dancer"

Saturday 7 September 2019

And Now For Something Completely Different ...

1983 - and we as a family have got our first VHS video player.
A great hulking piece of kit that weighs half a ton and when sat on the shelf next to the TV, you can almost see the shelf bowing.
This acquisition coincided with (it appears to me) an upturn in the family "fortune" (ie my parents now had a bit more disposable income than previously, we were not dirt poor but not exactly well off either, but now it seemed more expensive holidays and consumer goods were attainable)

The other shift in the world was me moving into my teenage years, and suddenly trust was betowed on me.  Basically, my parents could now go out at weekends and not have to drag us snotty kids along with them.
And the Video player seemed to be an embodiment of this trust.
Saturday mornings were spent in the local Video shop choosing what to rent for the weekend, and Saturday nights we were left to fend for ourselves with nothing bu a microwave curry and a Viennetta for company.
And one of the earliest video rentals was Monty Python's And Now For Something Completely Different.
This was basically a re-recording of several sketches from the first two series, linked together in the Python-standard "stream of conscienceless" with failing sketches, recurring characters and Terry Gilliam animations.
"How Not To Be Seen", "Self Defence Against Fresh Fruit", "Nudge Nudge", "The Funniest Joke In The World", "Upper Class Twit Of The Year", "Conrad Poohs and His Dancing Teeth".  And of course two of the finest, most recognisable Python sketches (also recognised by many non-Python fans).
A lot like a Greatest Hits of Best Of compilation allows one entry to a band, this film changed my view of what "comedy" is.
Oh yes, there were many bits of that film that stuck, but I was not yet a fully-fledged Python follower.
That came over the next few months as the TV series was rented (BBC video for some reason only had 3 episodes per tape, so it was a long task).
And then there was more ... the films and records were found, devoured, learnt word-for-word and repeated amongst like minded weirdos (as we were called) at school.
Arriving in the world of work, I soon discovered there were other Python-infused minds around me, and friendships were formed based on the ability to recite "The Spanish Inquisition" or answering questions in a kind of silly high-pitched whine (as the Minister for Home Affairs once did).

Much like (the later trend) of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, we posited the theory that "All Roads Lead To Python", and you were never more than 6 (or maybe 8 if we didn't want to take too big a leap of logic) steps away from a Python-ism.
We even had T-Shirts printed up bearing the legend, and have been known to wander along Bournemouth sea-front shouting "Albatross!"

The TV shows ran for 4 series between 1969 and 1974, and was given the late night (10:30 on BBC2) slot on Sunday evenings - a televisual dead zone, but slowly (through word of mouth) it began to pick up an audience.  Series 3 made the transfer to BBC1, but by Series 4 it was returned to BBC2 (popular opinion (or the BBCs opinion) was that the show was a niche interest, and therefore had no place in prime time)
John Cleese left before Series 4 and went to do a little known sitcom called Flay Otters, or Flowery Twats, or Farty Towels, or something like that - no idea what happened to that show.  It seems to have been lost in the mists of time (presumably wiped by the BBC as I don't think I've ever seen it)

But he did return for the films.  The first of these (Holy Grail) was part funded by Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (and wherever else the Pythons could find the money).
The budget constraints were obvious when you see the knights of the round table embarking on their quest not on horseback, but by banging two coconut shells together (a combination of both a great joke and necessity).
For their next film, funding was put in place by EMI.  Sets were built in Tunisia, Production crews engaged, scripts and actors finalised, and filming was to commence within days.  And then someone at EMI decided to read the script, and the funding was withdrawn.
The Pythons convinced a close friend of theirs to provide Finance through his (not yet formed) Film Company.  George Harrison re-motgaged his home in Henley (Friar Park), formed Handmade Films and stepped in as Financier and Executive Producer of the film.  When asked why he had gone to such great lengths to help, he answered: "I wanted to see the Film".  This is therefore the most expensive Cinema Ticket ever purchased.
The final film - The Meaning Of Life - nearly works, but sort of runs out of steam, and just doesn't appear as "whole" as the other films, or indeed the TV series.  There are many great bits in it, including some of the best songs they've done ("Galaxy Song" and "Every Sperm Is Sacred"), but just feels laboured, almost like they're trying too hard to make it work.

Since The Meaning Of Life in 1983, Pyhton activity has been limited to re-appraisals and (a few) re-unions).
The first "big" re-appraisal was for the 20th Anniversary which saw the release of the retrospective "Parrott Sketch Not Included" where all the Pythons were finally seen together in the same room (actually the same cupboard) for the first time since the final shots of The Meaning Of Life.
This is particularly poignant because Graham Chapman (with customary silliness (© John Lloyd) the day before the 20th Anniversary.

The last time the remaining Pythons were on stage together was July 2014s O2 shows Monty Python Live (Mostly).  Originally intended to be a one-off, it ended up running for 10 nights due to demand for tickets (and I never managed to get one, I tried but never manged to get logged onto the website, and the (foolishly) gave up))

50 years on and their legacy remains -in the TV shows, the Films, the books, the records, and their influence can still be seen, heard and felt.
Not bad for a BBC favour to Barry Took to put six untried comedians on the TV.

"Is this the right room for an Argument?"

Parrott Sketch (Secret Policemans Ball)
(John Cleese at his most unhinged, and Michael Palin desperately trying not to crack up)

Parrott Sketch - Updated (Amnesty International Benefit, 1989)