This one has been LITERALLY FIFTY YEARS in gestation – so sit down and take notes!
These days, I have some THREE THOUSAND HOURS of records, tapes and disks. But one has to start somewhere and in my case it was 1959, when my Mum and Dad presented me with their old 78-only record-player and 150 78s – their entire record collection.
And one of these 150 was Anton Karas’ “The Harry Lime Theme”. Now unusually, this record had been recorded DIRECT from the film “The Third Man” – not re-recorded in a studio. You see, in those days the Musicians’ Union INSISTED on film “soundtrack” records being re-recorded – even if it was on the same day, in the same studio, with the same musicians. But Anton was Viennese, thus non-union (early “outsourcing”!) and so his single-instrument score was up for grabs.
Anyhoo, the record sold about half a million copies – one of which was bought by my folks, sixty years ago and is currently sitting in a rack, not four feet from where I am typing these words.
But it was not until the ’70s – when I first saw The Third Man, on TV – that I discovered the record had been SCISSORED! In order to make it into a single, the engineer had cut the recording at the point where, in the film, the titles end and the theme peters off into background music – and had duplicated the beginning of the piece and glued it onto the end.
And in the ’50s, it seems this was not the only record to get this sort of treatment.
Vocal records of the time often repeated the last verse of a song, right after the instrumental break in the middle. And the lyric sheets for them would reinforce this – “(repeat last verse)”. And although at the time this seemed to me like acute LAZINESS on the part of the lyricist (couldn’t they have just written another four lines?) I have now discovered it may not have been their fault.
The thing is, the other day, I was scouring the Interweb to see if there was a clean copy of “Nellie The Elephant” on it – recorded by popular British ’50s child star, Mandy Miller. I have it on a 78, but it’s cracked.
And it was on this search that I discovered an ANOMALY. There are TWO versions of the record. They differ in that on one of them – available on a compilation – the verse before the instrumental section is MISSING. It’s on the end only.
This puzzled me. Why cut 30 seconds out of the recording? Certainly not for censorship – it’s a KIDS’ record. And anyway, the verse is still played at the end. And not for length either – the FULL version isn’t that long.
So I examined these two versions more closely and discovered what had happened. The SHORT version of Nellie was the CORRECT version (they had obviously lifted the master from EMI’s archive). The long, originally-released version had had the last verse duplicated and inserted INTO the middle – to make it LONGER.
You have to remember that Britain had just come through a war and thanks to EMI and Decca having a virtual monopoly of the British record industry, prices of records were HIGH. Thus even novelty records like Nellie needed to be long enough to justify the price.
But it got me wondering – how many OTHER ’50s records got this treatment?
I don’t have the time to start checking all my ’50s records to see, but there’s one man who would know. George Martin (yes, THAT George Martin). For it was he who PRODUCED Nellie – being Parlophone’s A&R man at the time.
Before achieving World fame producing the Beatles on that imprint, he’d spent years producing comedy and novelty records on it, by people such as Peter Sellers, Bernard Cribbins and Flanders And Swann.
When HMV (who had already acquired Zonophone) had taken over (UK) Columbia (who had acquired Regal) in 1931 to launch EMI, they had also roped in Parlophone. The label’s routes were GERMAN and its once-proud history went back to the Victorian era. But following WW2, it had become an embarrassment – so they dumped all of their jazz output onto it.
And it was during this era (1950, to be precise) that George Martin – a gifted musician – was taken on as Parlophone’s assistant A&R man, being promoted to head honcho five years later (although given EMI’s attitude to the label at the time, it was akin to being sent to the Russian Front).
Then when the mainstream popularity of jazz began to wane at the end of the ’50s, EMI re-assigned it as their comedy/novelty label.
Thus, before going global in the ’60s, George Martin was witness to ALL the shenanigans in the record industry of the ’50s. AND HE STILL LIVES!
He’s 83 now – and a Knight, thanks to his involvement with the Beatles (with ’60s “super-tax” pegged at 95%, the collective earned more than a bob or two for Queen and country). And as far as I know, he is still in possession of all his marbles.
Therefore, if anyone out their KNOWS Sir George, ask him about those last-verse-repeats. Were they REALLY a result of bad planning or acute laziness on the part of the lyricists? Or did EMI get the engineers to muck about with any records deemed too short, in order to try to justify their EXORBITANT prices?
If you DO find out, leave a comment at the foot of this piece. Okay? I’ll leave you now…