Beatlemania: A label to love

The Beatles’ U.K. home throughout their years of greatest success and popularity, the story of the Parlophone label is, basically, the story of George Martin, the former navy pilot who joined the label in 1950 as assistant to A&R manager Oscar Preuss.

It was a tiny label at the time, dwarfed by its compatriots within the EMI Group: HMV, Columbia and Regal Zonophone, and content with an output of orchestral, dance, light jazz and childrens’ music. Martin recorded all this and more — Eve Boswell and Cleo Laine, Kenneth McKellar and Jimmy Shand, the Luton Girls’ Choir and the Kirkintilloch Junior Choir all passed through his studio.

Preuss retired in 1955 and Martin stepped up to replace him, immediately making changes in the Parlophone policy. The label’s bread and butter remained much the same as before (one now notable recording featured Dick James, later renowned as owner of the DJM label, voicing the TV theme “Robin Hood” — MSP 6199), but Martin also began bringing in new talent, singer Edna Savage, the skiffle band The Vipers and the King Brothers.

In December 1959, Adam Faith brought Parlophone (but not Martin — Faith’s producer was John Burgess) its first-ever British #1 45, “What Do You Want” (R4591). He followed through with the equally successfully “Poor Me” (R4623). But if Parlophone was renowned for any one thing at this time, it was for Martin’s painstaking recruitment of the cream of Britain’s radio-comedy community. Such records were unheard of in Britain at that time, but under Martin’s aegis they became one of the fastest-selling genres of the late 1950s.

Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine, individually brilliant and collectively The Goons, cut a string of hits with Martin. So did the musical duo Flanders and Swann, actors Bernard Cribbens, Peter Ustinov and Charlie Drake. The Temperance Seven event provided Martin with his own first U.K. chart-topper, when their “You’re Driving Me Crazy” (R4757) went to #1 in May 1961. Had Martin never made another “musical” record in his life, his modern collectibility would be assured by the barrage of comic brilliance which Parlophone issued between 1955-62.

1962, however, brought him The Beatles, and Parlophone embarked upon its next phase as home to the most successful act in recording history. Today, the black Parlophone imprint dominated by a giant 45, introduced in 1962 shortly after the release of The Beatles’ “Love Me Do” debut (R4949), is among the best-known identities of all, and one of the most heavily researched.

Whereas labelology — the minute study of record label design and variations — has long been an accepted part of the record-collecting hobby in the U.S. and Japan, British collectors have seldom shown any interest in pursuing it. It was, therefore, an American collector Mitch Scharoff, author of the handbook “The Beatles: Collecting The original UK Pressings 1962-70,” who first ventured into the field, to be followed by members of the Tokyo Beatles Fan Club in Japan.

Their research isolated and dated the most minute Parlophone label varieties and even cracked the long-standing mystery of the indented numbers printed on the push-out center of Parlophone 45s, identifying them as coded references to EMI pricing and the government’s Purchase Tax (the then-equivalent to American sales tax and modern European VAT). These letters can then be used to date the period during which a particular record was pressed, an important factor in identifying 45s which remained in print, and largely unchanged, for over a decade.

The Beatles aside, 1963-65 saw the label issue hit after hit by Cilla Black, Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas, the Hollies and so many more. Of course, these are highly collectible, but so are many more less-successful releases for which Martin and Parlophone were responsible, acts like Freakbeat pioneers The Action,  pop-soul specialists The Marionettes, The Roulettes (Adam Faith’s former backing band) and a host of others.

Martin departed the label in 1965 to concentrate on his responsibilities as the Beatles’ producer — his years at the label are best chronicled within the box set Produced By George Martin: 50 Years In Recording (EMI 07253 532631 2 6).

His replacement was Norman Smith, engineer at the first Beatles session and the man responsible for bringing EMI both Pink Floyd and The Pretty Things. The change did not affect Parlophone’s output; neither did The Beatles’ own departure to establish their Apple imprint (distributed, of course, by Parlophone) in 1968.

1965 brought the young Marc Bolan (his “Hippy Gumbo” — R5539 — is one of the label’s highest-priced non-Beatles issues); 1966 introduced the Art Woods, featuring Deep Purple’s Jon Lord and Ron Wood’s brother Art; 1967 introduced Nick Lowe’s Kippington Lodge and Simon Dupree and The Big Sound, the pop band which would soon metamorphose into prog heroes Gentle Giant; 1968 saw Parlophone secure Love Sculpture, featuring guitarist Dave Edmunds, and the return of Jon Lord with Deep Purple.

Nevertheless, the 1970s would see the label enter a period of sharp decline, and in 1973, Parlophone was closed, to be merged (alongside Columbia, HMV, Stateside and several other EMI subsidiaries) into the new EMI imprint.

Parlophone re-emerged in the late 1970s with Beatle Paul back on board and new-wave hopefuls The Flys heading a small but impressive roster of new talent — McCartney’s “Goodnight Tonight” 12-inch (12R 6023) is an entertaining rarity from this period. Another quiescent period then ended in 1985, when it was revitalized with the arrival of Duran Duran and The Pet Shop Boys. Since then, Parlophone has reestablished itself as a major power on the U.K. scene, with acts as disparate, but universally acclaimed, as Morrissey, My Life Story, Radiohead, Supergrass and The Sundays maintaining this new era of prosperity, capped by the restoration of the classic 1960s Parlophone label design.

Many of these latter-day signings have proven as collectible as (almost) any past Parlophone artist; however, Parlophone’s own inherent collectibility is firmly locked within those first generations of George Martin-inspired talent.


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