Labelled With Love: A History of the World in Your Record Collection by Andy Bollen - book review -

A History of the World in Your Record Collection by Andy BollenA History of the World in Your Record Collection by Andy Bollen
A History of the World in Your Record Collection by Andy Bollen
You live and learn. As a child I was fascinated by the shape and style of the 13-storey Capitol Records Building, a graphic of which appeared on many of the late 1950s record sleeves in my music-loving mum and dad’s extensive collection.

I count myself lucky to have finally seen the eye-catching tower in real-life in Hollywood in 1994 on a memorable California holiday. The world’s first circular office block, with a tall spike emerging from the top, it resembles a stack of records on a turntable. Purposely designed, or so I had always assumed.

But in his book, long-time music obsessive Andy Bollen claims this was just an urban myth and – sure enough – my Google trawl that followed his disclosure revealed that the very effective resemblance was indeed coincidental, the client’s identity kept secret from the designer back in 1955.

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Labelled with Love is packed with such short and snappy ‘fanorak facts’ about the featured record labels, their founders, artists, success stories and, yes, even the odd failure. Would you have known, for instance, that Atlantic Records signed hard rock pioneers Led Zeppelin on the recommendation of 60s songthrush Dusty Springfield?

Or that cash from the sales of the Harvest label’s bestselling release, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, was used to subsidise the cult film Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Or that the B side to Napoleon XIV’s zany They're Coming To Take Me Away was a flip side in every meaning of the word because it was the hit song played backwards, with even the printed Warner Bros. label reversed.

And who would have guessed that Sub Pop sends out rejection letters starting with the harsh yet funny ‘Dear Loser’ to those getting their hopes dashed of becoming the next big thing on the label?

As interesting and informative as these many panels are, they ultimately serve as tasty bite-sized appetisers for the satisfying feast that runs to more than 300 pages. Bollen takes readers on an insightful, sometimes quirky, journey through the many influential labels which have kept our toes tapping and our ears burning throughout the decades.

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Through extensive research on a subject he obviously lives and loves, he combines historical fact with personal memories of the music and bands he grew up with or discovered later. Many labels are given their own chapter to show how talented teams – some working to the tightest of budgets and constraints of expensive studio time – understood great music and, just as importantly, knew exactly how to promote and sell it to the rest of us.

But maybe not the customary know-how in the case of A&M Records whose UK arm – having signed those darlings of punk, the Sex Pistols, in 1977 after they were ditched by EMI – promptly sacked them after just six days when the company’s founders, trumpeter Herb Alpert and promotions man Jerry Moss (the A&M in the name), baulked at the growing controversy surrounding the band.

Instead of enjoying the expected sales bonanza, A&M ordered the destruction of all 25,000 copies of the yet-to-be-released single God Save The Queen. Within weeks, Richard Branson had signed the Pistols to his Virgin label, and in doing so started to shake off its hippy image.

As Bollen, at that time still at primary school, notes: ‘It was a gamble that proved a smart move – to offer the most notorious band in the UK, perhaps even the world, a deal. The publicity around the band had already upset and captivated millions in equal measure.’

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Virgin reaped the benefits where EMI and A&M had failed. But, just like a record, what goes around definitely comes around and those sackings and hirings mean little today when consolidation in the industry sees A&M, EMI and Virgin all answering to the same bosses at Universal Music Group.

For an industry entrenched with round numbers – top 10 LPs, top 20 singles, top 30 downloads and even Bollen’s personal playlist of the top 5 albums released by each of the labels he puts under the spotlight – it comes as a surprise then to find the book’s tally inexplicably stacks up to... 59 labels!

A pity perhaps that Bollen has not given readers an extended play and stretched to chapters on 60 labels. That is no criticism, of course, but I would have been interested to know his take on, for instance, the fortunes and ultimate misfortune of Pye which was certainly a key name in the record shop racks from the year I was born in the early 1950s until just after disco’s glitterball faded in the late 1970s.

Label identity probably has limited significance to today’s younger buyers brought up on a diet of streaming, downloading and online purchases rather than a frantic or leisurely browse through boxes of singles, LPs or shiny CDs in shops which were par for the course for previous generations. You would even be hard pressed to find a record rack in a supermarket these days.

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But the unfolding, informative tale of recorded music – from pioneering techniques to ever-changing public taste, and the way Bollen puts all this into perspective – should provide more than a passing interest to any music lover, regardless of their age or favourite sounds.

The big five companies, which later became four, now stand at just three conglomerates with a worldwide reach. Universal, Warner and Sony effectively control the bulk of what we listen to, whether these are reissued legacy sounds from a seemingly bottomless archive or the latest release from the proverbial next big thing.

They have swallowed up so many long-standing labels – including maverick independents such as Immediate, Island and Stiff, along with bigger pioneering names like Polydor, Parlophone, Columbia, Motown, Decca, RCA, Reprise, Fontana and Chess – each, at one time, labelled with the love of the listener.

(The History Press, paperback, £20)

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