From The Word magazine, June 2012, this was the second in a series on Vinyl Culture.
You can see the first part, on the Art of the Album Sleeve, here.
And the final part, on B-sides, is here.
Why do we still call music companies “record labels”? Actual records, vinyl ones, are now a tiny aspect of what they do. And the physical label – that circle of paper they glued on to a plastic disc – is correspondingly rare. Vinyl may never die but its time as pop’s definitive medium is obviously over. And just as I miss the album sleeves, those big cardboard squares that I cherished for years, so I believe those round paper labels are worth a pang of our regret as well.
Labels used to matter. Sometimes they were beautiful, sometimes not. Usually they were informative. But those magic circles shaped the mythology of music. That’s why we can’t stop saying record labels. Without that mental picture, music companies are just... music companies.
So let’s hear it for record labels. I mean the paper ones, not the businesses. A label was the livery that vinyl wore, with its own heraldic traditions. Selecting a record, coaxing the needle, you saw the label spinning – in full sight – for as long as the music lasted. Only vinyl had that kind of presence, a pleasure for the eye as well as the ear. Compact discs are occasionally decorative, but they disappear inside the machines that play them; cassettes had the same problem; and digital music is a world of invisible things. Move along. Nothing to see here.
There are record collectors who specialise, not in particular artists or genres, but in niche imprints like Piccadilly, or Dawn or Regal Zonophone. The names alone can flood you with romantic associations. And labels were statements. If 2-Tone really stood for something, it’s because of the acts it signed and the records they made. But that something was powerfully reinforced by the little black-and-white man (“Walt Jabsco”, if memory serves,) languidly turning somersaults on the record deck as The Specials sang Ghost Town.
The paper label was more than branding. Part of the fabric of the record, it became part of the music. More visible on singles in bags than on LPs in sleeves, labels gave identity to the musicians who made the music and to the company that financed it. They conferred authenticity. Somebody said to me: “I don’t know about you but I couldn’t listen to a Beatles single if it were on some nasty reissue label – or even on Decca.” How many book publishers or film companies could ever claim the same levels of recognition and loyalty that record labels did?
From Sun, Stax, Motown and Blue Note, to 4AD, Creation, Rough Trade and Postcard, the legendary labels became virtual genres in their own right. But I doubt if that’s been quite as possible since the demise of vinyl. The disappearance of paper labels has undermined our awareness of record companies themselves.
Colours were a big thing: Polydor red, RCA orange, Warner green… The logos and images ranged from little dogs with big gramophones to Roger Dean’s design for Virgin Records (a trippy, twin-hippy effect that lingered, incongruously, as late as The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen). Butterflies fluttered across Elektra records and Chrysalis too. John Peel chose fairy-folk horticulture for his Dandelion venture. A&M had Herb Alpert’s trumpet. The Vertigo label presented a swirling pattern that hinted at derangement, suitable for the home of Black Sabbath, Juicy Lucy and maximum heaviosity.
Some designs were more functional. Decca Records played the science card, in a time when hi-fi equipment was still new to most living rooms. Their labels liked to proclaim “ffrr”, or Full Frequency Range Recording. To drive the point home, even such fabled records as The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet had to carry a not-very-nice drawing of a human ear, just above the track listing. In this regard the Stones were lagging behind The Beatles, who had by now launched their very own Apple label: the records’ playfully conceptual style (crunchy green on one side, crisply white on the other) dealt a blow to staid formality.
Apple aside, one of the classic pictorial labels bore the slogan “Burbank: Home Of Warner Bros Recordings” and its West Coast chic was conveyed by an avenue of sunlit trees. We were already a long way from human ears and “ffrr”. Back in England the producer Mickie Most invented RAK Records and illustrated them with a photo of his sailing boat. If you didn’t know the story, you could only wonder why Suzi Quatro or The Vibrators were revolving around the image of a rich man’s plaything on an azure sea. More worrying still, Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label carried a winged figure apparently plunging from the sky. Rumours arose that this was a satanic depiction of Lucifer, the fallen angel.
Music was always the soul of any record, but a label was its face, name, rank and serial number. The very idea of a “white label” was excitingly perverse. It’s practically an oxymoron. As soon as I knew they existed, with their implicit promise of the illicit or elite, I couldn’t wait to own one.
Some labels, like Island, were genuine entities. Others were only sub-divisions of something bigger. And some were only sub-cultural fig-leaves for something so evil it probably wore a suit.
To take one example, EMI was the flagship of British music for 80 years. Sadly, it’s sailing to the breakers’ yard. Like the conglomerates who will inspect it for scrap value, EMI too was a product of mergers and acquisitions, formed from older firms like Columbia and His Master’s Voice. In fact for much of its history a typical EMI disc was not branded that way. Nobody in the 1960s spoke of The Beach Boys or The Beatles as being “on EMI”: so far as fans were concerned, the acts they loved were on Capitol or Parlophone, or some other imprint of Electrical & Musical Industries.
Pink Floyd were initially on EMI’s Columbia (like Cliff Richard, no less) and then transferred to Harvest. This was a classic manoeuvre of the times, circa 1970. Harvest had a slightly psychedelic green-and-yellow logo, unlike most of EMI’s soberly traditional styles, and was used to house the wilder and hairier types, like Deep Purple and the Edgar Broughton Band. In other words, Harvest was a flag of convenience, a marketing ploy to conceal The Man, who still controlled The Kids’ music. (Decca’s Deram, Pye’s Dawn and Philips’ Vertigo were similar acts of corporate camouflage.) Not until later in the 1970s were new signings such as Queen and Kate Bush openly branded as EMI.
That’s not to say that EMI’s involvement was ever a secret. Their name was prominent on the sleeves, whatever the actual label. Their factory address at Hayes, Middlesex, became more familiar than your mother’s maiden name. And a routine feature of EMI packaging, from A Hard Day’s Night (Parlophone) to the LPs of Tyrannosaurus Rex (Regal Zonophone) was an advert for EMITEX, a mysterious sort of cloth that promised “an effective means of ensuring groove cleanliness.” There were always vinyl owners with a fetish for groove cleanliness. Oddly they often chose to live in unimaginable squalor.
If EMI loomed as a vague corporate presence behind the actual labels, Island Records was a company that came for a time to represent a whole way of life. Its paper label of the late 1960s/early 1970s was itself a revelation, a sort of pink moon, shining in a sky of black plastic. By the time of Nick Drake’s real Pink Moon, the label had gone for a literal “island” design, though it retained a pink surrounding circle. But the very boldness of Island vinyl played to the company’s strength: here was a label that drew attention to itself because it was its own best selling point.
Those were the years when Island could make its name as the natural home of gruff organic rockers like Free, Jethro Tull and Traffic; then smoothly introduce us to the camp artifice of Sparks and Roxy Music. Greater yet was their achievement in bringing Bob Marley & The Wailers to a white rock market that knew little and cared less for reggae. The power of Island’s reputation, I am sure, persuaded many a denim-clad sceptic to overlook his disdain for novelty singles by Jonathan King and give this new Jamaican bloke a spin. I mean, he even had long hair, like a real musician.
And where is Island now? The answer, boringly, is that it’s part of Universal, who bought its previous owners Polygram. The label Chris Blackwell founded in Jamaica in 1959 (his Marley signing was really a return to roots, not a mad departure), ceased to be a real independent many years ago. Its name pops up on modern records here and there but I’d be hard-pressed to say what Island stood for any more. Paul Weller is an Island act and I’m sure he likes the heritage its name still implies. In the same way, Morrissey, one of pop’s great curators, must have enjoyed reviving His Master’s Voice.
But there is a difference between a registered trademark and a living company, one with a recognisable owner, dedicated staff and its own building. What technology has done to wipe out physical labels, economics has done to labels as businesses. The smallest go the wall; the promising ones get bought up; the biggest are so sprawling they lack anything you might call an artistic vision. Labels and businesses are both about a human relationship, of the listener to the object, and the artist to the company.
Labels were de-mythologised by The Sex Pistols. For six months between 1976 and ’77, the central question in the band’s drama was who would sign them next. EMI ran away, A&M took over, and after more upheaval the band went to Virgin. The workings of the record business had never looked more exposed. It was as if a pantomime backdrop had collapsed to reveal the ropes, pulleys and stagehands behind. Today, the bidding would be less frantic. In the 21st century A&M belongs to Universal while Virgin belongs to EMI. And most of EMI is now headed for Universal.
Thankfully there are still plenty of great labels in the world, usually small, whose name alone is a recommendation to the faithful. Whether or not their music is your tipple, words like Warp, Domino and Fierce Panda promise a better time than something called “Warner Strategic Marketing” who handled the last Madonna album I saw.
Album sleeves are the stuff of coffee table books now, but don’t overlook the humble 45. The painter Morgan Howell likes to fill vast canvases with favourite singles. You can commission your own (supersizeart.com) or buy a print for £500. He understands the potency of those seven-inch squares – all the more powerful at 27 inches – and the scruffier the better: “It’s not just a flat image for me, it’s the wrinkles and the disc inside the bag and the label on the disc. I celebrate the wrinkles, it shows it’s had a life.”
Customers ask him for anything from Buddy Holly on Coral to Marc Bolan’s Metal Guru. “They become more than a single. They’re absorbed into your history. I’m fascinated by the personal journeys people have taken with their singles, from bedroom to bedroom, off to some party then finally to a box in the loft.”
Downloads don’t have labels, of course; there’s nothing to glue paper on any more. But Spotify streams don’t even mention record companies. Tracks now exist in the isolation of the ether. Alias the sound cloud. Or the “celestial jukebox”. Nothing is inherently bad about that, it’s just different. But I wish I could see who the songwriters were and what year the music was made. The record executive Jimmy Iovine, who’s smarter than most, told the San Francisco Chronicle recently: “Right now, subscription music online is culturally inadequate. It needs feel. It needs culture… Subscription has an enormous hole in it, and it’s not satisfying.”
Twelve-inch cardboard squares and pretty paper circles, the paraphernalia of vinyl, aren’t the answer. But they were always more important than they seemed. They added feel. They added culture. They satisfied. “Happy To Be A Part Of The Industry Of Human Happiness” as the Immediate label always said. Asylum, Charisma, Korova… Stiff, Chiswick and Trojan…. Marble Arch, Cherry Red and Chess… “Add These Outstanding LPs To Your Collection”… The butterflies and the dandelions, the twin-headed hippies, the little dog and his master’s big gramophone, the pink moon and Mickie Most’s boat. I wouldn’t have missed them for the world