One record label arguably shaped and reflected British life more

In the 70s and 80s, one record label arguably shaped and reflected British life more than any other – BBC Records & Tapes. It was the type of label that released an album of sound effects called Death & Horror (sample tracks: Neck Twisted and Broken; Red Hot Poker Into Eye) as well as keep-fit music for new mothers, like Diana Moran’s Get Fit with the Green Goddess (sample tracks: Boobs, Chest and Underarms – I Heard It Through the Grapevine; Back and Legs – Who Pays the Ferryman?). It scored big with Top 10 singles (including Nick Berry’s No.1, Every Loser Wins in 1986), but also had a thing for puppet ducks (Orville and Edd the Duck both released songs on the label). And it was equally praised and moaned about in the national press.

Then, sometime in 1991, it suddenly closed up shop, pulled down its shutters and disappeared from history. Some of its releases have become cult classics, most have been lost to time, as has its story. Until now.

Bizarrely diverse

“It put out the most bizarrely diverse set of records I’ve ever seen,” says Tim Worthington, author of Top of the Box, a complete guide to its almost 300 singles. “Nothing that comes out has any correlation to what came before or after it, and sometimes you just think, ‘Who on earth thought anyone was going to buy that?’

“But it gives you this amazing insight into life back then. I always think you can tell more culturally about a time from the mundane things than the landmark things. Like, you can tell more about the 60s from listening to Rod Stewart than The Beatles because he jumped on every trend going. It’s the same with BBC Records. Its releases tell you what was actually popular; what people were thinking about; what they were hoping for. It’s absolutely fascinating.”

The label, founded in 1967, was initially called BBC Radio Enterprises before changing name to BBC Records in 1970, then BBC Records & Tapes two years later. It was amateurish – charmingly – from the start, releasing albums of Chinese classical music and a lecture by astronomer Sir Bernard Lovell. “It’s just some bloke talking about how big the universe is,” says Worthington, “but it has the most amazing cover.”
Another early favourite of Worthington’s is The Seasons, a “fascinatingly terrifying” album of “scary electronics with equally scary poems read over the top” (it was recently reissued by cult label Trunk Records). One track, October, features lyrics comparing autumn leaves to “severed hands… that lie flat on the deserted avenue” – quite something for an album that was part of a series aimed at school teachers looking for music to accompany dance lessons. The poems were by Ronald Duncan, the music composed by David Cain of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, creators of the Doctor Who theme and whose own first, legendary compilation album came out on BBC Radio Enterprises in 1968.

The label soon decided to move into singles, too. A normal record label would have probably released a pop song for its first 7″; the BBC instead put out seven pieces by David Munrow’s Early Music Consort of London from the soundtrack to 1970 hit drama called The Six Wives of Henry VIII. Clearly a success, they quickly released a follow-up of Munrow’s music from the 1971 series Elizabeth R starring Glenda Jackson.

The Tempest cometh

In 1973, Billboard reported that the BBC had decided to “move aggressively into the record business in an attempt to offset some of its annual losses”. In doing so, they searched outside the corporation for a music industry insider to run the label and hired Roy Tempest, who came to BBC Records from Philips.

Confusingly, there was another man of the same name causing ripples in the music business at the same time. “There were two Roy Tempests,” says Mark Rye, who worked for BBC Records for a year in the 1970s as a plugger (he would try to get DJs to play the label’s records – a job that you can imagine was tough at times). The first was a legendary – but controversial – impresario, who was once sued by Motown records for holding concerts by people pretending to be their stars. He had to declare bankruptcy soon after the court case.

The other Roy Tempest had been Philips’ pop product manager (among other jobs), and also had something of a reputation. “I only met him once, but he was a maverick,” says Humphrey Walwyn, who ran BBC Records & Tapes from 1984 to 1988.

“Roy was one of the nicest people we had,” adds Alan Bilyard, who was in charge of the business affairs and finance of the label at the time. “You see, in the early days we were stuck with really off-the-wall sort of music, and it needed jazzing up, so the BBC decided to go outside to find someone. He really turned it around.”

Unfortunately, the BBC couldn’t keep even this Tempest in line. As Billboard reported, he started working as a songwriter on the side and in 1976, after just three years, was forced to leave.

The Bilyard years

Tempest’s replacement was Bilyard, who seems slightly surprised to have got the job. “It was quite a move from a fairly lowly role sitting behind a desk, adding up figures and writing contracts,” he says. “To be quite honest, I didn’t know a lot about the ordinary music industry. I was just a punter like anybody else. I used to go to Boots and Woolworths to buy my records. But I thought there were lots of opportunities that I could bring to the table, like releasing more theme music, or music from kids’ programmes. Mums would watch those, find out there was a record available and, ‘Wham!’ that was it [it’d be a hit].”

Bilyard’s first week as head of the label was something of a shock. He was booked onto HMS Ark Royal – a Royal Navy aircraft carrier on its final voyage – and, with producer Mike Harding, had to record the ship’s company singing a cover version of Rod Stewart’s Sailing. Bilyard had little experience of naval life, let alone producing a record, and one night had to borrow a suit from the ship’s meteorological officer just so he could have dinner with the captain. On the final day, near Gibraltar, they cleared the ship’s hull of fighter jets and turned it into a theatre, getting the ship’s choir to stand on the platform that normally takes aircraft up to the deck. They then tried to record them singing to the surprisingly funky sound of the ship’s band, but quickly got “into a muddle” due to the rest of the crew apparently being determined to join in.

“There were all these beer cans – tinnies, they called them – fizzing everywhere, and they were getting merrier and merrier,” Bilyard, now 77, says. “And I was trying to get them to behave so the record didn’t sound like a brawl. How we managed it, I don’t know, but it turned out to be a fantastic record. It sold in its thousands.”

The B-side featured covers of The Wombling Song and Remember You’re a Womble.

Bilyard says there was little logic to what records they decided to release. Sometimes a TV or radio producer would ask them to release the theme music from their show. Other times members of the public would phone up and beg them to. In the worst cases, “meddling people” high up in the organisation would get in touch and tell them to release something (that explains some of the bagpipe records, Bilyard says).

Often, ideas would just come to Bilyard’s team. “There was a woman called Eileen Fowler who used to do keep fit exercises on Woman’s Hour, the radio programme,” he says. “And one day one of our producers said, ‘Let’s do an Eileen Fowler record.’ Generally, things like that were greeted with a big yawn, but we did, and, because we had the publicity from the programme – 300,000 people being told there was a record out, or even three million people being told there was a record out – it sold.

“We didn’t rule out anything, and I was never surprised when our records sold unexpectedly, even quirky things like birdsong. We issued probably 10 bird records: back garden birds, woodland birds, sea island birds…”

Bilyard’s biggest hits were down to such savvy. He had a No.1 with a recording of Charles and Diana’s wedding in 1981 that was rushed to shops within 24 hours (“an amazing achievement for the time,” he says). They scored another No.1 with an album of music from the TV series Fame. It stayed there for 12 weeks and Bilyard’s team released four follow-ups, showing the label’s tendency to milk any success for all it was worth.

The most satisfying successes were accidents, says Mehmet Arman, the label’s business manager at this time, now the owner of one of Turkey’s biggest record labels. In 1981, for instance, BBC Wales asked them to release Chi Mai, a piece of syrupy classical music by film composer Ennio Morricone. It was soundtracking a TV series based on the life of politician Lloyd George.

“In the office we didn’t think much about it at the time,” Arman says. “It was BBC Wales’s wish to put it out, so we did. Then suddenly it was the best day ever.”

It sold over 500,000 copies; Arman still has the gold record on his wall.

Another such success was choirboy Aled Jones’s first records. “I met his father and offered him a small advance, about £2,500 or something,” Arman says, “then the record started breaking out and all the newspapers said we’d cheated him.”