Inside looking out; CHARLIE GILLETT, who has started his own record label, Oval Records, reports from the other side of the fence on the processes involved in the creation of a hit single.
SOME SINGLES can be marketed. Other will find their market. The rest must create their market.
What? Oh, sorry. For a minute there I thought I was writing out my script for the Island sales conference in January.
As readers of the NME, you might not realise that what you think of as music, the record industry describes as product. So while you think of yourselves as an audience, the industry calls you its market.
OK, in NMEnglish: Some new singles already have an audience out there, and all the record company has to do is make sure everybody knows the record is out and available by getting it on the radio and in the shops.
For instance, the follow-up to a big hit single, or the latest in a series of hits by an established star; most of the records in this week’s top thirty belong in this category – Gary Glitter, David Essex, Barry White, Rubettes, and on down the list. These are the records that were “marketed.”
Then there is a less predictable part of the audience, which likes music of a certain kind without always choosing the same artist.
The largest section of this audience are the disco dancers. A couple of years ago, dancers supported Gary Glitter and Barry Blue before radio producers could be persuaded to believe anybody would want to hear such things. And now that the rest of us are subjected to the latest record on Bell, the dancers have turned to soul.
But just because they buy Eddie Holman’s ‘Hey There Lonely Girl’ doesn’t mean they’ll be interested in Eddie’s follow-up. The Chi-Lites have been in and out of the charts irregularly since ‘Have You Seen Her?’ in 1972, all depending on whether the kids liked to dance to each particular record.
Each week, the majority of hits belong in one of the previous two categories, whose audience is in some sense already there, waiting for the right record to come alone.
But each week the records that attract my attention are those which don’t seem to know who might like them, records which are not “aimed “at anyone but which just “are.” In this week’s chart, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Ace, and Rupie Edwards. On the fringe, Billy Swan.
Waiting his chance, Johnnie Allan.
CASE HISTORY: ‘PROMISED LAND’ by JOHNNIE ALLAN (Oval)
Only by a series of chance events is ‘Promised Land’ available here at all.
A couple of years ago, a friend, Gordon Nelki, and I decided to start a record company. Just like that, with not much money, less idea of what you had to do to be a record company, but a bit of cheeky confidence.
Both Gordon and I lived in Lambeth, so Oval Records seemed a good local name with weird connotations.
Guessing that there must be some good records in America which had never been issued in Europe, we booked a round trip to various cities – New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, half-price air-fare to non-Americans – and when we got there, made phone-calls to names in local yellow-page directories.
New Orleans was not quite the hot-bed of great music we had hoped to find, but one night in a bar on Canal Street I nearly tore the green gauze in the pool table when a version of ‘Promised Land’ came on the juke box, featuring an accordion break where Chuck Berry had always played guitar.
The record was almost finished by the time I had located the strip title with the name of the singer, Johnnie Allan.
‘Promised Land’ was the B-side, but when we tried the top-side, ‘Somewhere On Skid Row’, it was just a fair country ballad.
Still, it seemed worth checking out the record company. Jin, which we traced to a town three hundred miles away in Ville Platte, Louisiana.
Jin Records had more than catalogue of more than 200 singles going back 15 years, and the owner of the label, Floyd Soileau, agreed to license his material to us for European release, not only the pop music on Jin, but also Cajun music on the sister label, Swallow.
Back in England, we spent weeks sifting through the singles in search of the best compilation album, and then months looking for a British record company interested in distributing our album.
Everybody’s reaction was the same. Nice, very nice, impossible to market it. What else have you got?
What else? We hadn’t thought of having anything else until we had done something with this.
Eventually, we crossed paths with Virgin Records, whose A&R men Simon and Jumbo not only liked the music but were prepared to wait for us to find something else to follow it up with.
So we called the album Another Saturday Night after one of the best tracks, fixed a medium price of £1.46 because it hadn’t cost a fortune to produce, and organised a promotion tour of local radio stations, papers, and stores.
ALMOST EVERYWHERE, the reaction was the same. The disc jockey would cautiously put the needle on the record, listen to the music for a minute or two, and slowly relax, smiling. They all expected something ethnic, if not arthritic, and were speechlessly relieved to hear attractive pop music.
But confident as we were that the music had all-round appeal, we weren’t prepared for the reaction in the Midlands.
First Pete Waterman, who runs the Soul Hole record shop in Coventry and plays at discos most nights, asked us when – not if, but when – we were going to release ‘Promised Land’ as a single. His disco dancers all loved it, but the album cut was not loud enough.
Still reeling from this information, we found Robin Valk just as sure after playing the track on his five nights-a-week rock spot on Birmingham’s commercial station, BRMB.
The track was not exactly in a conspicuous place on the album. Feeling that its breathless pace would somehow unsettle the feel of some of the other more restrained songs, we buried ‘Promised Land’, side two, track three.
Digging it back out was more of a problem that we had anticipated.
Learning a new game of ‘mastering,’ where a tape is transferred to grooves in plastic coated on a metal acetate, we first put too much volume, then too much bass. Third time, it came out right, doing justice to the spirit of the musicians who had raced through the song in Louisiana .
Just to hedge our bets, we put a song for soul fans on the B-side, ‘Betty and Dupree’ by Shelton Dunaway.
Then came the hard part, waiting to see if the record would find an audience.
Radio One Club played it several times, having recently put its faith in Bachman-Turner before the rest of Radio One accepted it.
But it still seemed like a painfully long wait after sending out copies to discos, shops that specialize in singles, radio stations, and the music papers. Would anything happen?
Capital made it a climber, Steve Clarke in NME named it single of the week (together with Marvin Gaye’s ‘Grapevine’, company we were proud to keep), and Robin Valk chose it as his Hit Pick on BRMB.
A Climber on Capital Radio gets played four or five times a day for a week, and as ‘Promised Land’ sprang out of car dashboards, shop counter transistors, and mantelpiece wireless sets, it seemed that everybody in South East England must be on their way to the local record store.
Just in case, we sat down to phone up all the shops to warn them of the impending hordes of customers, chasing a record they might now know how to find.
Too many of them “only stock the top 50,” and it seemed like weeks before the sales figures climbed to more than 100 copies a day.
ACTUALLY, IT didn’t take that long, but we were grateful at first for Capital Radio’s attitude that records should be played according to their sound rather than their sales. After a while, the record picked up momentum, zooming to number eight on Capital’s chart.
Londoners knew about the record, and hit-pack on Radio Clyde, but reach every corner of the country we needed daytime play on Radio One. The experts at Virgin and Island, our distributors, advised us that to persuade most shops to stock the record, it had to be on the Radio One playlist.
Kind advice, but how do you do that? The playlist is based closely on the national top 30, plus a few records which the daytime producers expect to be hits. By reputation, these producers play “safe,” choosing follow-ups to hits, or records with similarities to current hit styles.
The problem, everybody kept telling us, was the lack of image and identity for the singer. Who is Johnnie Allan?
Good question, we hardly knew the answer ourselves. All we could say was, he’s a school-teacher in Louisiana who sings two or three nights a week locally with a semi-pro band.
Ted Carroll, who sells imported American 45’s from his Rock On stall off Portobello Road, taped a live set by Johnnie mixture of oldies and newies including ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’. But Ted never took no picture, and all we have is a couple of mug shots from Johnnie’s LP covers.
While we were wondering how to try to get onto the playlist, ‘Promised Land’ was put on it, meaning plays by Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker, Noel Edmonds, David Hamilton.
From Louisiana, Johnnie sent a message that he and his band would be glad to catch a plane to work over here, if we could pay for their fares and assured them of good paying gigs, which we can’t guarantee until the record is in the charts and hordes of fans are clamouring to see him, in person and on Top of the Pops.
A week later, it was off the playlist again.
Obvious, the record kept selling a thousand copies a week, and there was no way we could find out who had bought each copy, or how each person had found out about the record.
Reports have come back that it was going down well at discos in Haverfordwest, Coventry, Ashford, Redruth, Derby, and yesterday it sold 624 copies.
But to get into the NME top 30, it will have to sell more than 1,000 a day, every day of the week. Whether or how it is going to do that, you have more idea than we do.
© Charlie Gillett, New Musical Express, 21 December 1974