With Virgin Records celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, and TV and music mags alike profiling the label's "headline" discoveries... with Tubular Bells, the label's first release, at the head of that tree... it's interesting to ponder what might have befallen the label if Tubular Bells had not come along.
If that sterling sequence of lesser lights that bridged the gap between Oldfield's first two LPs (Hergest Ridge followed a year later) had instead been the headline attractions.
We can get a glimpse into this intriguing parallel universe via the first in a series of five three CD box sets released this month to celebrate Virgin's birthday. Four are thematically arranged to cover the label's punk, reggae, art and electronic strands; but Losing Our Virginity is a strictly chronological dance through the delights of Gong, Fred Frith, Tangerine Dream, Faust, Steve Hillage, Clearlight Symphony, Ivor Cutler and more.
It's a terrific selection, too. Serious collectors and obsessives could probably knock together another disc filled with all the deserving oddities that didn't make it onto the bo, the likes of Mike Oldfield's "Don Alfonso," and the vintage V vinyl sampler in its double album entirety. Slapp Happy's "Johnny's Dead" and Supercharge's still uprorious "She Moved The Dishes First."
But still a box that moves from Tubular Bells to Can's "Silent Night," via Kevin Coyne's "Marlene" and Tom Newman's "Sad Sing" (both surely ranked among the finest 45s ever released); that rehabilitates the almost universally despised second Comus album, and resurrects Link Wray cannot be accused of standing still. And lurking suitably close to the start, two songs from an album that has still to see its maiden CD outing, but which rates among the most intriguing that Virgin has ever released.
Titled for the Latin name for the giraffe, then subtitled for the less Linnaean among us, Camelo Pardalis - Manor Live was an all-not-quite-star gathering convened by Vinegar Joe bassist Steve York, following his return from a stint in the US touring with the American band Climax—and his recovery from an horrific car accident that left him with a broken pelvis and a fractured skull.
“When I was released from hospital, Ray Robinson, former roadie with Manfred Mann, offered me a place to stay. He was working for the band Mark Almond. They were recording at [Virgin founder Richard Branson's] Manor Studio, so he was going to be staying there. He returned after a few days, and said that the band had broken up and abandoned the recording.
“They had paid for two weeks of studio time and it was non refundable. Would I like to go there and use the time?
“On the one hand, I was on crutches and unable to walk without them and also in a lot of pain which precluded me from touring with Vinegar Joe for six weeks. On the other hand, I was broke and homeless and the studio time included meals and accommodation.
“Having been in the US for a year, I had a lot of musical ideas and I was anxious to record with my old friends. I invited all my favorite musicians at the time. Some of them were close friends. Some I barely knew. We recorded for a few days.”
“Richard Branson wanted to know what was going on. I had a meeting with him in London and he gave me a green light to finish the project and offered me a contract to release the album on Virgin.”
John Greaves, whose Henry Cow followed York into the studio, catches a taste of the studio vibe. “The Manor had world-wise lovely women serving food, Bentleys in camouflage paint, a snooker room, Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke around the table.”
French television cameras descended, documenting the bucolic charm and communal atmosphere. Once, a few years before, it had been fashionable for bands to go get their heads together in the country. The Manor, in a manner of speaking, was designed for the country to get its head together around the bands.
“The first thing that comes to mind were the wonderful breakfasts,” York continues. “And Richard Branson's dog Bootleg—don't forget that he made his business start by dealing in bootleg records! The best memory was having all that talent coming and going and never knowing what was going to happen next! Also the studio had great acoustics.
“I was taking a lot of painkillers during the initial sessions and getting around on crutches. Everyone was sympathetic and that helped tremendously. A few weeks later, I returned to the Manor to record the second Vinegar Joe album as Elkie loved the studio. I was healed by then and this was a much saner and more enjoyable experience!”
Manor Live personifies the studio atmosphere. Tom Newman heads up the backroom staff; Ollie Halsall, Lol Coxhill, Mike Patto, Tim Hinkley, Graham Bond, Ian Wallace, Mick Moody, Marc Charig and Vinegar Joe bandmate Dave Thompson are numbered among the featured musicians, and the pregnant giraffe pictured on the cover was apparently brought to England from Spain especially for the occasion.
York continues, “I pulled it together by standing in a phone booth on crutches with bags of change! Everyone that was invited accepted and showed up when they could. Musicians were constantly coming and going at all hours!
“Who played on what track was governed by who was at the studio at the time. I wrote my songs in the studio as we went, although I had the ideas before we went in. The whole thing was done very fast, as we had a limited amount of time."
The haste does not show. Elkie Brooks’ lead on the opening “See The Light” certainly rates among her most impassioned performances; Boz gives “Keep On” a supremely soulful air; and a trim trio of Patto, Boz and Wallace turn in one of the all time wonderful Randy Newman covers, in the shape of “I’ll Be Home.”
But York was unhappy. “The production suffered as a result [of the rush]. I initially invited producer/engineer Vic Smith to produce the sessions. He had produced the first Vinegar Joe album. He engineered most of the sessions but was unable to complete the project due to other commitments, hence there was no producer.”
In the end, York and Graham Bond mixed the album with Manor engineer Tom Newman, but when York departed to the US on the next Vinegar Joe tour, some of the tracks were mysteriously remixed in his absence.
“When I returned, I wanted to remix the whole thing and told Virgin that I did not want it released [as it was].” A compromise was reached, but the tapes then found themselves a pawn in another game, as Island Records refused to give clearance for the Island artists who appeared on the set. That issue was finally resolved when Island became Virgin’s UK distributor, but Manor Live was not out of the woods yet.
Although royalties were due to be split between all participating players, not one of them has yet seen a penny from the record. York believes only 5,000 copies were ever pressed, of which just 3,700 (according to his one royalty statement) sold. “There was never any chance of the figures going into the black.”
York is not especially kind about the album. “To be honest, I regard the album as a failed experiment and I find it hard to listen to. I was twenty-four years old. I feel that I was capable as a music director, but not as a band leader. I had no production skills back then, and, even if I had, it would have required me to wear too many hats at once (not to mention ten times the recording budget)!
“When I think about the album it saddens me that so many of the musicians (seven to date) have passed on. At least three of them died not long after the recording, and at least three more quit playing for various reasons, so I am really glad that the recording exists as a historical document."
But he also concedes “if one can get past the poor production, there are some remarkable performances.” And Losing Our Virginity will let you hear two of them. Picking up a copy of the original vinyl will bring you the magnificent rest.
A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of over 100 books, including Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” as well as Goldmine’s “Record Album Price Guide 7th Edition , both of which are published via Krause Publications and are available at www.krausebooks.com