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Jesse Coffey

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Pye Records Story - Both Sides Now UK · 3:09am Jun 15th, 2017

In 1955, Pye Laboratories purchased shares in Alan Freeman's 'Polygon' company and Hilton Nixon's Nixa Records. Pye kept the Nixa label but got rid of Polygon, co-founded by Petula Clark's father to partly finance her recordings; the result was the Pye Nixa label. In 1958, Pye Nixa joined the game of imports for the UK market, forming Pye International Records, which signed up releases from Chess, A&M, Kama Sutra, Colpix, Buddah, Cameo/Parkway, Scepter, and King for distribution, in response to Decca's London Records, and some of EMI's own output of the era. In 1959, Pye dropped the Nixa part of the name, leaving it as just Pye Records; 50% of that label was sold to ATV in the same year. Pye was initially based at 10a Chandos Street in London, and recorded pop, classical, comedy and jazz music; the company had its own dedicated label for that genre from 1961 to 1964. It also released ballroom-oriented music under a label known as Pye Strictempo between 1961 and 1962. There was also a budget label called Golden Guinea, from Pye.

The company wasted no time finding a hit artist. It did, in Lonnie Donegan. Hailing from Glasgow, Donegan was described by a book called British Hit Singles & Albums as "Britain's most successful and influential recording artist before the Beatles". In July 1954, he made a fast-tempo version of "Rock Island Line", with Chris Barber's Jazz Band. The disc was the first debut record to be certified gold in the UK, where it helped trigger the skiffle craze; he had many more UK hits, including "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)" (#3) and he had three #1 hits, including "My Old Man's a Dustman", recorded 20 February 1960, at the Gaumont Cinema in Doncaster, which switched him to music hall status. He was a regular on the British charts until 1962, when he succumbed to the Beatles and beat music. His career continued steadily if less strongly sometime thereafter. He died on 3 November 2002 after a heart attack in Market Deeping, Lincolnshire mid-way through a UK tour and before he was due to perform at a memorial concert for George Harrison with the Rolling Stones.

The 1960s were a time of expansion for Pye. It was about to benefit from a variety of different events in England, most famously, The British Invasion, where Americans in all 50 states (and it got that way in the same year Pye axed Nixa from the record label's name) were about to delight in the sounds of rock and roll from across the Atlantic. Pye was going to play a big role in all this, and its first artists of consistent choice in the Invasion were the Searchers. Like the Beatles, they hailed from Liverpool, and shared the Merseybeat scene with the Hollies, the Fourmost, the Merseybeats, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. During the Invasion, they scored many hits with Pye (and Kapp, in America) and they included remakes of Jackie DeShannon's "Needles and Pins" and "When You Walk in the Room"; an original song written for them, "Sugar and Spice"; a cover of the Orlons' "Don't Throw Your Love Away"; and a cover of the Clovers' "Love Potion No. 9". The Searchers unfortunately left Pye for Liberty in 1968.

Their next hitmakers for the Invasion, the Kinks, came from the wave of groups specializing in British rhythm and blues and Merseybeat, and were briefly part of the British Invasion of the US, with classics such as "You Really Got Me" (their third single, a top 10 British-American hit) until their touring ban in 1965. The group had many hit singles on Pye as well. Their studio albums, on NPL 18096, NPL 18112, and NPL 18131, were well-received but didn't sell much compared to compilations of their singles. The band began their transition from beat music with NPL 18149, Face to Face, and transition into making albums with a story-telling structure by 1971, when they abandoned Pye and entered the then-two-year-old British unit of RCA.

Another person who briefly figured in the Invasion was Sandra Ann Goodrich. Born in Essex, she left school to work at the nearby Ford Dagenham factory, and did some part-time modelling before coming second as a singer in a local talent contest. Her prize was a chance to sing at a charity concert in London, where her potential was spotted by singer Adam Faith, who introduced her to his manager, Eve Taylor. She won her a contract with Pye Records in 1964 and gave her the stage name of "Sandie Shaw". Sandie Shaw would never reach the top 40 in America but was a force on the UK Singles Chart. Her first single, "As Long as You're Happy Baby"/"Ya-Da, Ya-Da" didn't chart, but then she went straight to #1 with among the first recordings of "Always Something There to Remind Me" (later also a hit for the group Naked Eyes on EMI). Her next recording was "I'd Be Far Better Off Without You"; however, DJs were quick to lay their preference at the B-side, "Girl Don't Come", which hit #3 and almost cracked the top 40, at #42. A few singles later, she became the first Briton to win the Eurovision Song Contest with "Puppet on a String". The record hit #1 but Shaw has grown to loathe the song with a passion, stating that she "was instinctively repelled by its sexist drivel and cuckoo-clock tune." Her contract with Pye expired in 1972; she recorded less frequently since and retired in 2013.

Also in the '60s, Pye had many US-UK hits with their founding artist, Petula Clark, who would become the First Lady of the British Invasion. Her first big American hit was scored about the time, as Tony Hatch's "Downtown", which hit #2 in England, went right to #1 in each of the 50 states in the Union. The US distributor of the record was Warner Bros., who were rewarded with a switchover in UK distribution. They left UK Decca for Pye in 1965. She impacted both the US and UK charts strongly, with "I Know a Place", "My Love", "A Sign of the Times", "I Couldn't Live Without Your Love", "Colour My World", "This Is My Song" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway". In 1968, she impacted US television too, as NBC and the Chrysler Corporation revolved a special around her. "On the Path of Glory," an anti-war song that she had composed, was performed with guest Harry Belafonte, whose arm she held (a snapshot of this fact is above). A representative from the Chrysler Corporation (the show's sponsor), was unhappy about this because he feared that the moment would incur racial backlash from Southern viewers, and Southern stations (by this point, WLBT in Jackson, Mississippi, would have put a technical difficulties slide over that part of the Petula Clark special had it not been for how subdued in racism the station was becoming, as it aired before WLBT's initial FCC license was revoked). When the Chrysler representative insisted that they substitute a different take, with Clark and Belafonte standing well away from each other, Clark and the executive producer of the show—her husband, Wolff—refused, destroyed all other takes of the song, and delivered the finished program to NBC with the touch intact. It aired four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., when the sight would have been timely, scoring high ratings and great reviews and it was also the first time a white woman clung to a black man on American tellies. Alas, two more specials (including the pilot for a proposed TV show on ABC) were to be the last America was to hear of her.

One more strong figure in America was Donovan Leitch. Growing from the British folk scene, in which he recorded "Catch the Wind", "Colours" and "Universal Soldier", he became famous in the United Kingdom in early 1965 with live performances on the pop TV series Ready Steady Go!. He then joined Pye; one of Clive Davis' first acts at CBS/Epic was to gain American rights for Donovan's recordings there. Donovan soon hooked up with Mickie Most, an alliance which gained him "Sunshine Superman", which was America's chart-topper for one week, and went to number two in Britain, followed by several other strong records like "Mellow Yellow" (US No.2 in December), then 1968's "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in the Top 5 in both countries, then "Atlantis", which reached US No.7 in May 1969. After parting company with Mr Most in 1969, a decline for him set in and he left the industry for a while. It did not help that particularly punk rock was subjecting his style and hippie image to mass scrutiny. His performing and recording became sporadic until a revival in the 1990s with the emergence of Britain's rave scene. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.

Aside from these five artists, Pye Jazz had Kenny Ball's Band; he hit #2 both in the US and in the UK with "Midnight in Moscow", Status Quo debuted on Pye with the Top-10 smash "Pictures of Matchstick Men", and the late great David Bowie made his first records for Pye, all of which were flops. It also hit with "That Same Old Feeling" from a group called Pickettywitch, and recruited Max Bygraves for a series of SingalongaMax albums. It also had consistent hit-makers in a West Indians, White British, and a Sri Lankan R&B group called the Foundations, who hit with "Baby Now That I've Found You" (number one in the UK Singles Chart and Canada, and number eleven in the US, and also the first #1 UK hit from a multi-racial group), written by Tony Macaulay and John MacLeod; and "Build Me Up Buttercup" (number two in the UK and number three on the US Billboard Hot 100), co-written by Macaulay with Mike d'Abo, at the time the lead vocalist with Manfred Mann. The group disbanded in 1970. Pye signed Irish singer Val Doonican as well, and had hits with him such as "Memories Are Made of This" (originally recorded successfully by Dean Martin), "Two Streets", "You're The Only One", "Now", "If I Knew Then What I Know Now", and the theme from a film from ABC-TV-Radio and the Rank Organisation called "Ring of Bright Water". His album Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently knocked the Beatles' Sgt Pepper off the #1 spot on the UK Albums Chart. He left Pye to go to Philips in 1970.

Additionally, Pye signed more deals, with Dot (1964) and Buddah (1969) and formed its own Progressive Rock subsidiary, Dawn, at the start of fall 1969.

Corporately, in 1966, more changes took place. Another 50% of the label was bought by ATV, making it a wholly-owned subsidiary with the company moving to the ATV House at Great Cumberland Place in London. Pye was poised to become part of a powerhouse fronted by talent-agent-turned-influential-producer Lew Grade, who became Sir Lew Grade in 1969. This powerhouse included England's largest independent film and TV studio ITC Entertainment, which we will discuss at another point in time. And its distribution was to be a meaningful asset in other respects too, as it was on board to handle a good deal of American independents, large and small, throughout the '60s and '70s. The definition of large American independents could even include independents owned by large corporations, such as 20th Century, the LP/45 arm of 20th Century-Fox, which was one of the world's largest movie studios even during those two decades.

On 25 June 1969, Pye announced that it had formed a joint company with American firm GRT, the intent being to market Pye product in the States after an exhaustive decade of having many top US labels pick up their stuff and to provide American material to be released in the UK. On 23 July, it announced that the combined firm was named Janus. 24th January 1970 came with the announcement that Pye was going to enter the cassette tape manufacturing business, via another joint venture with GRT; the article said that the new company would be called 'Precision', and that it was expected to be up and running in April. In the event the link-up with GRT proved fairly short-lived, and the partnership broke up in May 1971, with Precision becoming entirely Pye-owned from that month. The split had brought to an end Pye's bid to crack the US market for a little while.

1970 delivered a few new notable efforts for Pye, which included The Magic Shoemaker by a group called Fire, and Roy Budd made NSPL 18348, an album of film themes highlighting his tune from the controversial film Soldier Blue.

August 1971 saw the introduction of a 'Mini Monster' series of EPs, featuring popular 'oldies' and another series, this one of LPs, called Pye Chartbusters, which consisted of soundalikes of then-current pop hits (predictably, the artists on them, whoever they were, did a poor job on them). Aside from the first two hits scored by Olivia Newton-John (above in a still from Grease), respectively "If Not for You" and "Banks of the Ohio", 1971 was a lukewarm year for the company on other fronts and by 29 January 1972, Pye said it was going to reduce its artist roster and make a bid to develop a new image for the company. 30% of Pye's artists had been let go in the past year.

In 1972, Pye signed Lena Martell (above) a contract but was a year with more important things happening corporately than on the charts, as Pye sold its 50% stake in the Irish pressing plant Carlton Productions. It said it would prefer to either press its Irish releases in the UK or to have them custom pressed elsewhere, and in the US, it likely meant it would go to RCA or CBS for pressings. When no offers for custom pressings came, Pye closed down its Irish operation completely, turning to Polydor to handle its records in that country. Only Olivia Newton-John's "What Is Life" and "Take Me Home, Country Roads" hit the UK Top 20 for Pye that year.

1973 was a little better but not much. With the rights to the newly relaunched 20th Century label came Barry White (again, above), a native of Galveston, TX, who hit with "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More Baby" and "Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up" in that year. Other than that, Frankie Vaughan was signed well past his prime and comedian Dick Emery made an attempt at a Top-40 hit entitled "You Are Awful", which was coined from the last three words in the title of his 1972 film.

In 1974, things started to improve quite a bit for desperate Pye. "Long Live Love" hit #11, but its performer Olivia Newton-John would grow to loathe the song; she left for EMI in that year. Next came Millican & Nesbitt. Formerly miners from Northumberland, England, Alan Millican and Tom Nesbitt (above) won the UK television talent contest, Opportunity Knocks, in 1973. They contributed "Vaya Con Dios", which hit #20, and "For Old Time's Sake", which hit #38. Les Paul and Mary Ford had taken their version of the first hit to #7 in the same chart twenty years prior. Pye continued to recruit older talent, as the albums by the late greats Johnny Mercer and Debbie Reynolds and Phil Everly would attest. Pye tried to return to America, forming a company under its own name in the same year. Pye also launched the Disco Demand series as well, which focused on Northern Soul and the consequent black market in disco rarities. This series had an immediate hit in "Goodbye, Nothing To Say" by the Javells, basically a vehicle for Stephen Jameson. And then there was Jamaican singer Carl Douglas (also above), whose "Kung Fu Fighting" was a major hit, hitting #1 in most of the major countries. "Dance The Kung Fu" was the follow-up, but it only hit #35 in the UK.

By 29th March 1975, the new Disco Demand label had been cited "astonishingly successful" by Pye's management. Among several hits, Wigan's Chosen Few recorded "Footsee" which hit #7. The music journalist Stuart Maconie cited it as an "execrable", "embarrassing novelty".

With a quiet year behind them, 1976 was taken with stride by Pye's management. They first got Britain's highest-selling disc of 1976, "Save Your Kisses For Me" from the Brotherhood of Man (above). The group, not a new one by any means, was created in 1969 by songwriter and record producer Tony Hiller and was initially an umbrella title for a frequently-changing line-up of session singers signed to Deram Records. Early on, they scored a worldwide hit on that label with the song "United We Stand". By 1973 the concept had run its course and Hiller formed a definite four-member line-up consisting of Martin Lee, Lee Sheriden, Nicky Stevens and Sandra Stevens. This line-up joined Pye subsidiary Dawn in 1973 but wound up on Pye when that label folded. When "Save Your Kisses For Me" went to the Eurovision contest (and won; the album was released the day before) it went right to #1 in the UK and #27 in the US, becoming the only top-40 hit of the US Pye label. Pye had another British R&B group to hit with as well, as "You to Me Are Everything" by The Real Thing hit #1 in the UK as well. Their album went to #34, with another single, "Can't Get By Without You", going to #2.

In early 1977, Pye shut down the US unit of the company; the head of it Marvin Schlachter, continued it as Prelude Records. That year, Pye had another hit on their hands, this time as an album. Their only chart-topping UK album of the 1970s, the soundtrack of The Muppet Show, was the winner of the 1977 Grammy Award for Best Album for Children. Above is the title card of the title show, with Kermit the Frog in the O. In keeping with Pye's exile from the US market, such rights for the album went to another Clive Davis concern, Arista. Another album with the same sense of humor was the self-titled debut of the Fabulous Poodles, who are known for blowing up ukuleles and singing songs with humorous lyrics; they toured with Meat Loaf, Sha Na Na, Tom Petty, Bill Bruford and played back-up for Chuck Berry. Also, there was a Japanese performer named Meri Wilson, who became a favourite of Dr Demento's thanks to her hit tune "Telephone Man", which contained a breathy squeal and suggestive lyrics set to a tale of a woman's love life with a phone operator. It went to #6 in the UK and sold over 1M copies in America alone. The Real Thing came back too, with "You'll Never Know What You're Missing" and "Love's Such a Wonderful Thing" hitting the top-40. A French group called Space also had a hit on Pye in '77, with a song called "Magic Fly". And just as a bonus . . . Brotherhood of Man had a chart-topper again too; their 1977 one was "Angelo" and they also went to #8 with "Oh Boy". Their other #1 hit of 1977 was with another novelty song, "Matchstalk Men And Matchstalk Cats And Dogs" by Brian Burke and Michael Coleman; Brian and Michael, so to speak. The song was written in tribute to the artist L. S. Lowry, who had died in 1975. For the song, Coleman remembered Salford and Ancoats as well as the paintings of Lowry. The St Winifred's School Choir appeared on the record, singing the children's song "The Big Ship Sails on the Alley-Alley-O", which was sung by children in the Salford area with reference to the Manchester Ship Canal. Mick Coleman received the Ivor Novello award for 'The Outstanding Lyric Of The Year'.

Things slowed down for Pye in 1978. Their most consistent hitmakers that year were The Real Thing, who were still going strong with "Whenever You Want My Love", "Let's Go Disco", "Rainin' Through My Sunshine". Paramount Pictures, America's oldest film studio, had the shot heard 'round the world in the summer of 1978 with Grease, partly the film debut of Pye's big castoff of the earlier part of the '70s, which would be Olivia Newton-John; when Pye heard of the film, they were quick to have offered a novelty version of one of the movie's songs, "You're The One That I Want" from comedians Arthur Mullard and Hylda Baker. They hit #22 with the tune, enjoing a comfortable place slots below John Travolta and Newton-John's big hit version of it. The 1978 annual Brotherhood of Man UK chart-topper was "Figaro", and they also hit with "Beautiful Lover" and "Middle of the Night", their last top-50 UK hit.

1979 was even more of a letdown for Pye; not only did they miss the soundtrack of The Muppet Movie (which went to CBS in the UK) but they only got to enjoy one more #1 UK hit, Lena Martell's rendition of "One Day At A Time" (above), which was co-written by Kris Kristofferson; her recording of it was originally released in 1977. The only other hits of the year for Pye were from The Real Thing: "Can You Feel the Force?" (#5) and "Boogie Down (Get Funky Now)" (#33).

With this it was time for the label to be brought to a close. It was, in 1980, as the agreement which allowed Pye Records to use the Pye logo expired at the end of September that year. From 1 October it was announced by (at this point) Associated Communications Corporation that Pye would be changing its name to Precision Records And Tapes (which suited the new Precision Video company too), but before the change took place there were long and serious talks between Pye Records and RCA. First they were to embark on "some sort of joint operation" (by 22 May) and then they wanted to go on a "joint sales and promotion force" . . . all this just as they were trying their darndest to merge (by 21 June) Merger terms had been agreed by 5 July but "many important decisions remain to be taken". Then, Pye and RCA called the merger off by 30 August. The news was heartbreaking to Magnet's Michael Levy. He had been poised to sell his company to the newly merged firm and was supposed to be heading the new joint company. He had been given firm assurances that the deal would go ahead, and was not told about it falling through until after the news broke. The change of company name to Precision Records And Tapes duly took place that autumn. The Pye International label closed down completely and the main Pye label was rebranded, its owners ATV renaming it PRT.

ACC was purchased by the Bell Group of Australia, helmed by Rupert Holmes a Court, in 1982. In 1988 the Bell Group was purchased by the Bond Corporation, but that company was suffering financial problems itself and proceeded to quickly sell many of its assets. PRT had its last top-10 hit with a 1988 remix of Petula Clark's first US-UK crossover "Downtown", then sold off record and cassette factory to another record manufacturer, Meekland. The masters of PRT's catalogue were sold to Castle Communications. Precision Records & Tapes Ltd; formerly Pye Records Ltd; was officially liquidated in December 2013. Pye itself was briefly reactivated by Sanctuary Records as an indie and alternative label, featuring artists such as Scottish alternative rock group Idlewild. However, plans for continued usage of the Pye name were thwarted by Universal Music Group because that company bought Sanctuary in 2007.

Alas, the original Pye/PRT will be sorely missed. It was a fun refuge both for American indies of a time of prosperity and had its many ups and downs and even played home to the Muppets at some point. But Pye will best be remembered for the excellent records it made during the British Invasion, records that are played now more than ever before, and records whose legacy would far outlive the label.

An LP discography on Pye, which will also include those for the Dawn and Janus labels, will come up soon.

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