Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Everybody's on Top Of The Pops!

January 08 saw the death of someone who was probably more influential than anyone in setting me off on the road of a lifetime of obsessive record collecting. It wasn't a singer, musician or producer, nor was it a friend who showed me the path on how to keep yourself permanently broke. Nope, it was Cy Leslie, who founded Pickwick Records in 1950.

As a small child I don't think I really came into contact with 'new' records much. Sure my parents had quite a few, but they had all been bought when they were younger, and they didn't really add to their collection much when I came along. You can't fail to come into contact with CDs these days, a visit to a petrol station, supermarket, card shop, newsagent or post office are all likely to bring you in contact with em. But in the early 70's 'proper' records were predominantly for 'proper' record shops, and my parents didn't go in them. Pretty much the only exception to that rule was the spinning rack of Pickwick records.

I'm not sure how old I was when I first became aware of the Pickwick 'spinner', but I could only have been 4 or 5. The first one I remember was in the local supermarket (The Home and Colonial). It contained a selection of low budget LPs (which I wasn't really interested in at the time), and some brightly coloured 4 track 7" singles for kids - which I was very interested in! (these had their own 'Mr Pickwick' branding, complete with a friendly cartoon of the famous Dickens character). The kiddie singles were even cynically placed in the bottom row of the spinner, to ensure all the toddlers spotted them! I didn't get one on every visit to the supermarket, but I didn't do bad!

For me, Pickwick were the saintly equivalent of a dealer who stands outside a school - and both must have had a similar mantra... Get 'em early with a few cheap purchases, then once they are hooked, they'll be paying top dollar for the hard stuff! So 2 or 3 years later, when the interest in the kiddie singles was waning, I moved into phase two of the Pickwick range, the Top of the Pops 'sound-a-like' albums. An obligatory item for every charity shop and boot sale these days, but the number still floating around shows just how popular these albums once were. Between 1968 and 1979, Pickwick released a TOTPs albums every six weeks (91 volumes in total), each containing 12 'sound-a-like' versions of the very latest chart hits. Astonishingly, each album was recorded in less than 4 days, and it is common knowledge that a number of future stars appeared on them (Elton John, Rod Stewart etc).

It's weird to believe now, but in the early 70's there was no such thing as the chart 'compilation album'. It was buy the 7" singles or nothing. My pocket money didn't stretch to many 7" singles, so 12 hits on an album for less than a quid was a 'must have' bargain! The fact it wasn't the original artist didn't seem to matter much then (we were simple folk in simple times!). And what a great leveller they were too - they were the i-Pod shuffle of the 70's, where the (fake) Sex Pistols were followed by the Bee Gees, The Goodies, Clive Dunn, Blondie and Demis Roussos! With almost certainly the same musicians appearing on each track!

There is some real muse-o snobbery around these albums - no doubt from people who slam them as inferior, then happily attend a 'tribute act' concert, or sit down to enjoy Stars in Their Eyes on the box! They are seen as absolute tat these days, yet they once sold by the shedload (300,000 a piece at their peak) - in fact in the early years, the album charts used to be full of these LPs, until the 'proper' record companies complained, and had the chart rules changed, so the TOTP albums could no longer qualify. The legit labels weren’t the only ones to have their nose put out of joint by these albums, the BBC were miffed at the use of the title 'Top of the Pops' - however this was completely their own fault, as the Beeb had neglected to register the name. Sharp work by the Pickwick legal department! The Beeb were no doubt less than pleased with the design of the covers too, as each contained a model who looked like she'd just stepped out of Pans People. Sales started to dwindle in the late 70's (mainly due to companies like K-Tel and Ronco starting to release compilations featuring the real artists) and in 1979 they stopped making them. They did try to revive the idea in the mid 80's, but unsurprisingly, they didn't sell.
By about the age of 10 or 11, I had moved into the final phase of the Pickwick scene - the budget 'original artist' album. Slowly but surely, Pickwick had started to bolster this section of the label - picking up defunct albums from the back-catalogues of the major labels. It was around this time that I got completely obsessed with Elvis, but even then an LP was pretty expensive, and I struggled to buy much of his RCA material. Pickwicks re-issuing of Presley albums (often under their Hallmark label) was perfectly timed to meet my insatiable demand for 'the king', and I regularly trundled off to Woolworths with a pound note to purchase another addition.
Like a kindly old gent who nurtures sick animals and releases them back to the wild, Mr Pickwick finally set me free into the big world of record collecting around 1980, by which time I had been well and truly bitten by the bug. My Vinyl must have been 80% Pickwick and Hallmark at that point (and I still have them all today!), but I'd already decided that record collecting was the greatest hobby in the world (I still do!).



Mondo said...

Brilliant put and perfectly nailed. One of my first Pickwick singles was Pinky and Perky doing 'Magnificent Men'/'Yellow Submarine' and an album of childrens songs which sounded like the Headmistress from 'Please Sir' was singing on most of them. I picked up some of the reissued Hallmark TOTP albums on CD(£1 each at Virgin)and will be uploading a few tracks on the blog soon. Remember that Elvis album being on sale in the spinners at most supermarkets at the time too.

Have a peep here for more charity shop classics


And here for a rumored Bowie contribution to the Pickwick/Hallmark catalogue

Anonymous said...

Nice nostalgic post mate. I remember getting ripped off buying one of these type of albums - it was a 60s compilation and proudly stated "ALL ORIGINAL ARTISTS".

That was true but they werent ORIGINAL RECORDINGS!

Hearing Sweets for my Sweet recorded by the 1980s version of the Searchers line up and 20 similar re-recordings was not what I was expecting!

They should have ut a clip on that album, I was going to take it back but, what with all that palaver :)

Axe Victim said...

Nice one. Those were the days me lad. It would b egreat to track down some of those session players to get the story of what it was like churning out all those covers of the hits of the day.

Anonymous said...

Yikes! I also picked up those CD reissues (the entire set!) and have many of the original albums. Many a wet weekend has been spent listening to them, trying to uncover the identity of the session artists invovlved (among them Tony Rivers and Tina 'I Love To Love' Charles.)

The Hallmark/Pickwick series were pretty much the creme de la creme as far as authenticity goes. They would always strive to get them sounding as close as possible to the originals. For some true belly-laughs though, track down a few comps on the Contour label. I have one which includes a version of Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn' which sounds as if it's sung by a horde of German rugby players; and one featuring The Sweet's 'Hell Raiser', where the hapless Brian Connolly-wannabe completely loses - and never regains - his timing in the second verse!