The success of Mike Oldfield’s album, Tubular Bells (1973) immediately put Virgin Records, Richard Branson’s brand new label, on the map. Before it lost its way, and became just one more bauble among billionaire Branson’s crown jewels, Virgin Records was what PKM’s Anthony Mostrom says was “by far the hippest, most experimental-leaning rock record label in the world.” He explains how and why in this survey piece about the label’s history.
I went to Van Nuys High School in the San Fernando Valley, that incubator of a significant number of pop-cultural greats (decades before my time) along with, of course, the thousands of accountants, miserable suburbanites, ex-cons and alcoholics who also went there, some of whom I would meet later at reunions.
Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Don Drysdale, Robert Redford, Philip Proctor of the Firesign Theater, and Marilyn’s onetime co-star with the shockingly pointed tits, Jane Russell…they all went to Van Nuys High. (Did I mention Stacy Keach? So yeah, a lot of actors…maybe too many.)
When I was serving time there in the mid-1970s, a stroke of good luck occurred that made school days all of a sudden much more pleasant. At a certain point, one of the best record shops in Los Angeles opened up a store just down the block from the faculty parking lot. It was called Moby Disc.
This meant it was now a part of one’s high school education to stroll down to Moby whenever you felt like it, whether after school or during lunch, and take in the cool sensory overload of wall-to-wall record covers and music blasting away inside, as if you’d just walked into some sumptuous hole-in-the-wall club, shoehorned into a small, narrow, low-ceilinged room the size of an average thrift shop.
For a callow youth just diving into music after an earlier immersion in the avant-garde rock of early Zappa and Beefheart, Moby Disc was an entrée into a new and wider world…yea verily, a world to aspire to!
When you walked in there was an “import wall” on the left-hand side, a long horizontal grid of lush and painterly European album covers from groups that at that time were unknown to me: Strawbs, Caravan, Gentle Giant, Soft Machine, Tangerine Dream, Edgar Froese, whoever he was (though I remember looking up at his record and thinking: what a great name).
Musically the wall was a mixture of different things, but I was informed that a lot of this was considered “progressive rock.” An alternative world was suddenly opening up, becoming revealed unto me.
(There were also what you might call cartoony album covers up there, by bands like Gong, Neu! and Can. The German world of so-called “krautrock” was another frontier for me to traverse hopefully in the near future, teenage dollars permitting.)
Those sexy imported records in Moby, I noticed, were all sealed in loose, crinkly plastic, which somehow made them that much more desirable (yes, I was already a comic book collector). Moby even carried import 45s from these same exotic bands, on labels like Island, Virgin, French or Dutch Philips, and British CBS. (Ahh, where are all those 45s now? Probably for sale on Discogs…I should check it out.)
And who were these Italian groups? (Italian rock, really?) PFM, Banco? Sumptuous paintings those covers had, anyway…I remember buying one of PFM’s records, just on the strength of its pleasingly oceanic blue artwork, but…after one or two listens, I sold it. It was kinda awful…oh well, next!
As a little bit of background: in 1974 you could buy a new album and take it home for just a few hard-earned teenage dollars: a new American LP cost $3.99, while an import went as high as (gasp!) $7.99…but really, who could afford that?
So was British “prog” popular among my fellows at Van Nuys High in 1975? Yes (pun intended) it was, in certain circles…
There standing on the quad at school every day at lunch was a small and constant, tight-knit group of hip and very scholarly dudes who seriously discussed the ins and outs of groups like Genesis, Yes, Pink Floyd, ELP and Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra (ELO)…you know, the bands who favored elaborate and baroque Roger Dean-type artwork for their album covers.
Of all of those bands I liked ELO, but I didn’t know the others, and I was somehow wary of them…maybe I sensed they were too stadium-like and loud, just like the mainstream groups I found off-putting and boring: somehow these groups’ singers were always “shouting,” as if their lives were being threatened…and in retrospect I probably didn’t like Phil Collins’ voice, even then.
I never fell under the Pink Floyd spell either…the stuff was too “showy” and operatic, I suppose…it just didn’t click with me, larval as I was back then.
But I noticed these guys’ talk rarely extended to the bands I was starting to love like the Mothers of Invention or King Crimson, who had been dubbed by one critic as “the thinking man’s progressive rock band,” or some such. (Was I a “thinking man” at age 16? Mmm, don’t think so…)
At a certain point in ’74, my school friends Bruce Hollihan and Mike Webber were already intently listening to records by the British band Soft Machine, a group that tended to be categorized as either progressive rock or jazz-rock or both, as the albums were heavy on the saxophones. The double album Soft Machine Third was, to my ears, a long jazzy “jam,” and I didn’t really take to it, but I much preferred the rock songs from their other albums, especially those that featured the drummer Robert Wyatt and his oddly appealing, straining voice and humorous lyrics:
Moby Disc meanwhile was so super-hip they carried the latest issues of the best British music papers: Melody Maker and the New Musical Express (NME) which we started devouring for their hyper-cool interviews with prog rock gods like Robert Fripp and Greg Lake of King Crimson, Roxy Music’s lead singer Bryan Ferry, as well as reviews of records by Eno, Faust, and Robert Wyatt himself.
It became clear to me after dipping into those articles that the music I was getting into was considered part of something called the “Canterbury Scene” in British rock. They didn’t define what that was, but it was obvious where it had started and who it was: a certain small number of artists and bands who tended to show up on each other’s records and were creating a type of rock that was extremely avant-garde, quirky and experimental, especially (like the early Zappa) in the matter of instrumentation, quick-change rhythmic complexity, and even the singing: Brian Eno, Robert Wyatt, and Dagmar Krause of the group Slapp Happy all possessed voices that were distinctive and impressively, shall we say, non- commercial. Quirky.
(Eno was from Roxy Music, a London group with no real Canterbury connection, but man his pop records sure fit the profile.)
If I may quote the almighty Wikipedia: “the real essence of ‘Canterbury Sound’ is the tension between complicated harmonies, extended improvisations, and the sincere desire to write catchy pop songs. In the very best Canterbury music…the musically silly and the musically serious are juxtaposed in an amusing and endearing way.”
Gradually the Canterbury scene, which was a more experimental and more “playful” thing than the Genesis-Yes-ELP-ELO axis, was opening up to us.
At Moby I bought two delectable import albums by Matching Mole, which was Robert Wyatt’s group (circa 1972) which he’d formed after deciding to leave Soft Machine. Both records (Matching Mole, and Matching Mole’s Little Red Record) featured large dollops of jazz noodling and extended rock instrumentals backed by Wyatt’s excellent drumming, with songs colored by Wyatt’s blokey nasal voice and his funny lyrics, which were alternately “conversational” and surrealistic (“If you call this sentimental crap / You’ll make me mad”) and sweetened here and there with the ecstatic, glowing sunset chords of that miraculous and recently invented instrument known as the Mellotron, which produced a whirring and charmingly cheap, ersatz orchestral sound.
The casual poetry of this group’s lyrics cemented for me the fact that this music was pure art-for-art’s-sake. There was no dorky teen-appeal or youth agenda that I could see behind the music at all. It was aesthetic art music for (extremely) hip kids, adults and probably deep down, other musicians.
Robert Wyatt himself made for a great interview: I remember reading a 1975 Melody Maker piece that included his slightly haughty disclaimer (delivered from his by-then rarified position in the world of art-rock) on the subject of rock n’ roll and youth culture generally: “I don’t have any affiliation with those gangs out there,” he said…and that was that.
Bruce bought a copy of Wyatt’s brand new 1974 solo album Rock Bottom, and the three of us listened to it at his house. The music was lush, overwhelming, sweetly flavored, and very strange.
Rock Bottom was greeted unanimously by, as the saying goes, rapturous reviews:
“The album you’ve been hoping Robert Wyatt would make for years (and) it is 100% better than you dared hope it would be,” one critic wrote, and it remains a one-of-a-kind. Here was a new species of leisurely paced, barely-rocking music that shimmered more than it rocked or rolled (the album’s title may have contained a few puns, I’m now thinking). The music seemed intentionally guitarless or almost that, and about 80 per cent drum-free as well…but it worked because Wyatt’s strangely bittersweet melodies were so catchy, and his satiny nasal voice so purely English (was that a Cockney accent? I didn’t know) without a trace of the usual American-imitating snarl that you came to expect from virtually all British rock singers.
Wyatt’s dadaist wordplay was paired with ambient and oceanic sheets of sound with organs, piano, and bits of squawking saxophone thrown in like raisins in your rum-flavored ice cream. On Rock Bottom you heard drums and cymbals way back there, behind the shimmering wall of echoing horns, but you also heard almost-clumsy tabla drums being played up front. There is something transcendent about the entire record. Released on Virgin Records, the album has consistently ranked high among music critics and fans. In 2015, NME ranked the album at 358 on its list of the 500 “greatest albums of all time.”
Thanks to the album’s success, Robert Wyatt was a certified rock star in Britain…at least for a while. Dig this mind-bending clip from Britain’s Top of the Pops broadcast from 1974:
Meanwhile back in Van Nuys, I loved Rock Bottom and soon bought both it and the two follow-up British Virgin 45 rpm singles that came after it: the above-heard I’m a Believer and Yesterday Man, this in between purchasing the highly esoteric Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley LPs of British free improvisation that good ol’ Moby Disc, bless their hearts, also had up there on the imports wall. (Gosh, maybe I was a “thinking” 16-year-old after all!)
My school buddies (that was Mike and Bruce, remember) were next turning me on to the German band Faust, a supercharged and noisy, early-Zappa-inspired group who had recorded for German Polydor and later on for Virgin: an album called The Faust Tapes.
I remember buying this beauty and letting the shiny new disc slip out of the satiny-plastic inner sleeve and there it was, the same elaborate Roger Dean-designed Virgin label like you saw on the Tubular Bells album by Mike Oldfield, but here it was in simple, sumptuous black and white:
Unlike the German band Kraftwerk, who’d made it surprisingly big in America in 1974 with the, I thought rather limp hit song Autobahn (sung in German, mind you), Faust were not charming or cute, not ingratiating in any way. The Faust brand of rock music was rough-edged, loud, grating and drone-level repetitive, but they often would sweeten the pie with little seductive songs and charmingly sweet interludes of acoustic guitar. (Their LP Faust So Far was more or less one long, drawn-out electronic drone.)
Some Faust records were studio-based tape collages (very handy with the scissors, don’t ya know), which made me wonder sometimes how they could possibly sound in concert. Even on record, Faust liked to include the sound of actual buzzsaws in their music.
In the midst of all this ravenous curiosity and consumption, Bruce and Mike soon turned me on to the extraordinary, experimental avant-garde rock group Henry Cow, whose records were also on Virgin, the independent label that hit it very big in 1973 with their very first release: the aforementioned Tubular Bells, a piece of classical Romanticism-meets-rock that conquered the world when it also became the soundtrack for the movie The Exorcist…which meant a resounding ching ching for Virgin Records and their young entrepreneurial founder, Richard Branson.
Henry Cow were instantly it for me. Like the early Mothers of Invention, “the Cow” combined catchy songwriting, martial-drum rock beats and classical piano passages with free improvisation and odd time signatures, played largely on what most people would think of as “classical and jazz” instruments: oboes, bassoons, multiple saxophones. Sometimes with Henry Cow (as with Faust) you would hear “the tape” unwind at the beginning of a song!
One music critic wrote that “whatever Henry Cow are doing, it ain’t no rock n’ roll.”
And the consumption continued, as one album led to another. (Good thing I had a summer job at this point.) Cambridge-educated Fred Frith was Henry Cow’s guitarist, who brought a fascination with the hollow-body instrument as a “sound source” to the group’s music. As mentioned in my earlier PKM article on the British guitar avant-gardist Derek Bailey, Frith himself put out a fascinating solo guitar record in 1974 on Virgin’s budget subsidiary label, Caroline (called Fred Frith: Guitar Solos) that went even beyond the “experimental rock” sounds he would employ with Henry Cow, producing freely improvised pieces that were as atmospheric as anything such electronic “drone” practitioners of the time as Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schultze were putting out.
With releases like Guitar Solos and the Faust Tapes, Virgin Records was now by far the hippest, most experimental-leaning rock record label in the world.
In 1974, Henry Cow collaborated on an album with the quirky trio Slapp Happy, whose sometimes cartoonish blend of chamber music and rock seemed inspired by Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera music from Weimar-era Germany.
Slapp Happy’s German-born singer, Dagmar Krause, sounded like an uncanny reincarnation of cabaret singer Lotte Lenya, warbling the two bands’ comical, pun-filled lyrics. The songs were poetic little sketches with titles like A Worm Is At Work, Apes in Capes, and Some Questions About Hats (“Can one wear uncanny hats? Can one weather hats? / Can one wear feather hats?”), accompanied by guitars, acoustic piano, drums, French horn, oboe and bassoon.
Much of the album gave off the relaxed, wistful atmosphere of a cabaret tango, so that you could almost see the melted wine bottle candles, emptied glasses and the roses in dancers’ teeth.
Uncategorizable and brimming with catchy tunes, the Desperate Straights record teetered on the edge of something that was hardly rock at all. One reviewer called it “the beginnings of what could become a strange and interesting new rock form,” and personally, it was and still is one of my favorite records ever. (As Brian Eno said recently about Slapp Happy’s music, “nobody else does anything quite like it.”)
A lingering source of mystery for Henry Cow fans has been the origin of the band’s name: was it inspired by the 1930s American composer of percussive noise (and an early teacher to the young John Cage), Henry Cowell, as most people would reasonably think?
A recent book on the band’s history, Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem by Benjamin Piekut, disputes this but without answering the question, since former members of the band tend to wax coy about it: “The obvious reference is the US composer Henry Cowell…but there is no deeper story beyond that, despite (members) Frith and Hodgkinson’s occasional evasiveness on this question over the years.”
Personally, yours truly would like to hereby throw into the pot that there was once an English composer by the name of Henry Coward, a man who went on record back in the 1920s as possessing a seething hatred for (of all things) jazz! So clearly some kind of joke was (pardon me) “afoot” here…
Despite the heavy politics (Marxism-Leninism) that was increasingly so loudly proclaimed in the lyrics of Henry Cow’s later records, the Virgin label seemed generally committed to aesthetic music-for-music’s-sake. In terms of sophistication, this young upstart label was now successfully outdoing their onetime “model” Island Records, who gave the world Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music.
There was even room for humor in the roster of the albums they released:
the Scottish poet Ivor Cutler for example, was a popular “village zany” in England, well known to the British public as a composer of humorous doggerel which he would duly declaim over the BBC…for years he was a regular feature on John Peel’s radio broadcasts, and he’d even issued some records of his naïve comic verses back in the 1950s (his American equivalent would probably be Lord Buckley).
Cutler had even had an acting role in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour in 1968, playing “Buster Bloodvessel,” the bus driver.
Cutler had made some oddball vocal cameos on Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom album, and Virgin was smart enough (and kind enough) to issue several Ivor Cutler solo LPs during the ‘70s. Probably not gigantic sellers, but so what?
So how did Richard Branson of all people, a lad who’d once said he had no real taste for music, come to be the man responsible for bringing these hyper-avant-slash-art-rock bands, these multicolored musical jewels, to the world’s eardrums?
How much of the “early Virgin” music was Branson’s idea, the product of his own personal input or influence, especially considering that there are people now who once worked for the label like recording engineer Tom Newman, who remember Branson as having, quote, “no musical taste whatsoever?”
(And to quote from a recent biography of Robert Wyatt: “Hard as it may be to believe, given the contemporary associations with everything from airlines and trains to mobile phones, Virgin was in those days an alternative, slightly underground operation, its very name an allusion to their lack of business acumen.”)
But let’s do some digging…there are so many Branson biographies out there, all of them concentrating on, shall we say…non-musical themes, that I have hereby done you the public service of sifting through all of them to find out what, if anything, the great man has had to say about the early music he was putting out, back in ye olde days.
In Branson’s book Losing My Virginity (ahem…yuck), you will learn that before there was a Virgin Records label, there was a hyper-cool Virgin Record Shop in early ‘70s London, a place that was hyper-hip and customer-friendly and explicitly catering to the city’s most knowledgeable record purchasers.
“Virgin doesn’t ever, ever stock Andy Williams” was one of the store’s unofficial mottos.
“We only ever dealt in albums because singles either were crass or were loss leaders to promote albums,” Branson writes in the book. “In the 1970s serious bands such as Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis rarely released singles. The serious bands didn’t produce dance music. Theirs was music to savor while lying down.” Well okay, that sounds hip and aware enough.
The early Virgin store (he writes) dealt only in the best, “serious” rock records, and that of course included what most people would consider the “progressive rock” of that time.
Branson in his book mentions Jefferson Airplane, the Velvet Underground, Kevin Ayers and even Van der Graaf Generator as the kind of choice vinyl his cool customers were after in the early ‘70s.
But in this book, Branson gives full credit for the kind of music that his shop would carry and the kind of records his fledgling label would eventually produce (thereby making his fortune) to…his distant cousin, a South African former disc jockey named Simon Draper.
They met in 1971. “Someone my age (20) with a South African accent walked into my office…and introduced himself as my cousin. By the time we were drinking coffee I had persuaded Simon to work at Virgin. Simon agreed to be the record buyer for the Virgin record shop and the Virgin mail order list.”
Here Branson admits: “there was a thin dividing line between what was hip and what wasn’t, and Simon made Virgin the hippest place to be.”
By contrast, Branson makes fun of the attitude and atmosphere of your average record shop (er, shoppe) back in those days when Virgin got started:
“The dowdy staff registered no approval or interest if you bought the new Jefferson Airplane, they just rang it up on the till as if you had bought Mantovani or Perry Como…a record shop is not just a record shop. It is an arbiter of taste itself.”
“Simon was obsessed by music. Because I had left school so young and had never been to university, I had missed out on those long evenings spent lying around listening to music…If I heard a record, I knew whether I liked it or not, but I couldn’t compare it with some other band or recognize that it had been influenced by the Velvet Underground.
“It seemed to me that Simon had listened to every record released by every band…I soon realized that he knew more about music than anyone else I’d ever met. He knew so much about music that that he knew which bands would sell even before they were a proven success. To that extent he was already using the antennae that enabled us to set up the record label two years later.”
(Indeed, even as a teenager Draper was an especial fan of Soft Machine.)
So the mystery of how the musically indifferent Richard Branson eventually became Richard Branson the flashy young record mogul, several years before the Sex Pistols came along and shot his company off into the stratosphere, isn’t really a mystery at all: all you have to do is open up (some of) his books to find out precisely who it was that possessed the exquisite taste in then-current progressive rock, the man who basically created the Virgin roster of releases…a quiet, unassuming chap named Simon Draper (who now publishes limited edition photography books and lives a nice, quiet, wealthy life).
As if to prove the point overtime, if you look in the index of any one of Branson’s books you won’t find one mention of Robert Wyatt or his groundbreaking albums on Virgin, but you’ll sure find Steve Wozniak all over the place. Branson’s own attitude toward music is truly revealed by what he leaves out: hidden, erased, never-happened-ish…like when he describes “that rather awkward patch between 1974 and 1976 when Mike Oldfield was our only superstar.”
You know, that awful period when Virgin “failed to sign The Who and Pink Floyd.” When he “pitched for the Rolling Stones,” but failed. “I’m more cynical than 99 percent of the people who work for Virgin,” Branson told an interviewer once. “Simon loves records and his whole involvement is through that. With me it’s different,” he said, adding, “it’s not a love of music.” Right!
Meanwhile in an exceedingly fishy, related case of amnesia: if you never read this article, and wanted to learn about the early days of Virgin by going onto the empire’s own website, you would learn not one thing about the early Virgin Records bands…nothing. Forget Henry Cow, Robert Wyatt, Kevin Coyne, Faust, David Bedford, Gong, Hatfield and the North, Ivor Cutler, even Tangerine Dream who were huge sellers throughout the 1970s. They all seem to have been erased from the company’s official and homogenized “origin story.” The Virgin site’s so-called “timeline” leaves completely blank the years from 1970 when the company was founded, up to 1980.
So much for Branson’s vaunted praise of Simon Draper and the great music that he brought to the world. (To quote Frank Zappa: “bizarre!”)
In his 2017 book Finding My Virginity, Branson proudly mentions some of the “stadium-shaking superstars” who now make up Virgin’s recent acquisitions…I will spare you the names. But Virgin’s descent into the mainstream began a lot earlier, like back in the 1980s: Human League, Culture Club, Spice Girls, Massive Attack, Simple Minds…really, must I go on? (No, I shan’t.)
The current, popular conception of Branson and of his company “making it big” in music is of course always refracted through the lens of Malcomb McLaren and the momentous signing of the Sex Pistols to Virgin, which didn’t happen until (you know the year) 1977. I won’t go into that here, because (sorry, punks and punkettes) that marks the end of my story.
But I will close with a snapshot of that earthquaking change that altered Virgin, music and the entire Western world forever…the moment this artsy little record label, which once conquered the world with Mike Oldfield’s sweet, pastoral, non-threatening melodies, alongside the dissonant experimentalism of Henry Cow and the sternly enigmatic and Germanic Faust…the moment, I mean, when the label and John Lydon were about to sign on the dotted line.
To quote from an issue of Melody Maker, circa late ‘77:
“’Oh, I see we have a group of intellectuals in the audience,’ John Lydon snarled down from the stage at London’s 100 Club. He was not far wrong,” the reporter noted. “Practically the entire staff of Virgin Records was in attendance.”
So there you go…and by that famous year zero, Moby Disc had moved westward out to Woodland Hills, far out on the fringe of the Valley and very close to the rocky foothills of Santa Susanna Canyon…you know, Manson ranch territory. I went in a few times, and even found a nice shiny Derek Bailey LP, wrapped in crinkly plastic.
After graduating from Van Nuys High meanwhile, Bruce Hollihan at 18 amazed all of us Valleyites by deciding to hitchhike (solo) from L.A. to Toronto (“an amazing experience”), then fly to Amsterdam. He saw Derek Bailey play with all of the Dutch free improvisors there, and then among many other prog rock shows, he saw guitarist Steve Hillage of Gong perform live in Paris…early on in that fabled year of 1977.