During its ninety years as one of the music industry’s most venerated institutions, Decca Records shows no sign of slowing. From the earliest sound recordings of Bing Cosby and Vera Lynn to David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Luciano Pavarotti, Eric Clapton, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday – it’s not just the names that have passed through Decca’s studios but the diversity of genres it’s helped pioneer. Having famously dismissed The Beatles with the spectacularly ill-judged words, “Guitar groups are on the way out”, the label resisted temptation to look back at what might have been, instead ceaselessly working to uncover the finest musical talent of the 20th century.
The Story of Decca Records: 1929-2019 is a new book that chronicles the label’s journey, from its inception in 1929, through the 20th century and up to the present day. More than just an annal of music history however, the impetus for the book is driven by inspiration, as its co-editor Daryl Easlea explains in the conversation below. Featuring a collection of respected writers, all of whom are experts in their own field, as well as rare and unseen archive material from its lengthy list of stars, it’s an unprecedented insight into the label and the era-defining sounds its helped promote.
In conjunction with the publication, Decca’s 90th birthday will be celebrated with a host of different events, including a Ron Howard-directed Pavarotti feature film, a celebration at the British Library, a unique series of concerts in London, Berlin and Paris, 90 reissues and releases, podcasts, radio shows and an event at the V&A.
Clementine Zawadzki: Why do you think signing such a diverse range of artists worked for Decca? Usually – and especially in more recent years – label’s look to a ‘sound’ to speak for the label, and work within those parameters.
Daryl Easlea: It’s interesting… It’s a sort of formula, which isn’t a formula. ‘The Home of Diverse Music’ is one of the many names it’s had over the years, and I think there has been an open-mindedness, even though when we think of ‘Classic Decca’ between 1929 – 1980, the main years of Edward Lewis running it, it was inherently conservative, but in a paternalistic way. He was a stockbroker, but he surrounded himself with people who knew music, and the view was that if you like it and you think it works, then do it. I think today’s company is amazing because it’s all very music people and the conversation when you’re in the building is about music and the various things you do with it, but everyone is very passionate about the roster. I think that’s the similarity between 2019 and 1969.
“…it’s like everyone in British music comedy or opera sort of passed through or had some direct involvement with Decca…”
CZ: I understand one of your early jobs was working in a record store in Essex. It always makes me think of High Fidelity in the way that environment is full of material that helps shape ideas and your place in the world. How instrumental was that for you in deciding you wanted to build a career in music?
DE: My first job in a record shop was working in the record department at WHSmith, and because WHSmith had an older customer base, you would see Decca records in the chart that were selling, but my knowledge of classical music and easy listening – Pavarotti, especially – came from being at Smith’s. You always got the sense that Decca represented a quality. This is in the late 70s, early 80s where pop was changing, but the classical stuff you knew was a mark of quality. There’s this album I made sure went in the book called Classic Commercials that’s got two sheep on the cover. The reason for this is because a piece of classical music was used in a very famous wool advert in Britain at the time and Decca coined onto the fact that all these classical pieces that were in adverts would sell really well. I just remember selling that by the bucketload at the same time you were selling an ABBA record or a Police record. I think that’s what interested me about Decca at the time, and then it intrigued me when Rolling Stones were on the label, and The Beatles auditions, and Tommy Steele, and then going back to see all these bizarre easy listening things like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, it’s like everyone in British music comedy or opera sort of passed through or had some direct involvement with Decca.
CZ: You kind of touched on my next question when you mentioned associating Decca with ‘quality’. That idea of community surrounding a label interests me, what do you think Decca’s output says about its community?
DE: People feel very personal about Decca, it’s almost like a family. They had a building in London that was on the Southbank opposite the Houses of Parliament, and people would talk about that building with the most tremendous affection, and the affection for Sir Edward Lewis by his employees was immense. The community Decca fostered with a listenership was very broad. In one sense you only have to look in charity shops now for just the sheer amount of Decca records you always see in there, which means they were in so many people’s collections. They had a series called The World Of, which was sort of a low price introduction to an artist from David Bowie to Eric Clapton, you name it and it was on there. These were available in supermarkets for about a pound, and as a result, loads of people had them. I think people knew that if they had a Decca record it was always going to be interesting and it would be of a good standard.
CZ: How much did you know about Decca going into this book?
DE: I knew quite a lot, but there was a lot of joy in then finding out the stories, unpacking beyond the topline facts and writing a chapter myself – as well as editing all of the others, I’m very close to it. One thing a lot of people are saying is that they had no idea of Decca’s role in developing a thing called the Navigator System. I knew Decca was involved in technology, but this was like GPS before GPS, and it was used during D-Day in landing some of the aircrafts at the docks, so I think that side of it is enormous as they developed a radar system that went around the world. In China, the word for radar is Decca, so it’s facts like this that are fascinating. Also, the whole reason the record company came about is because they bought a hardware company selling gramophones and Sir Edward Lewis said, “We need something to play on them,” so they started making records. The Decola was this beautiful portable record player, and then you’d have radiograms, television, all these things came out under the Decca name.
CZ: Is there a story about Decca you heard while compiling this book that’s stuck with you?
DE: There are a lot of interesting and quirky stories, and a lot of business stories. To me, in my chapter, I’m looking at the end of Decca’s golden years, just before it was sold off. I think the fact that The Smurfs were signed just after Adam and the Ants, for instance, is Decca in a nutshell. When The Smurfs came out it was one of the number two best selling singles in Britain, and they’ve obviously gone through this whole franchise since, but it started by this gentleman who was sort of an International A&R guy who would go abroad and come back to meetings and say, “I’ve got this,” or, “I’ve got that. One day he brought in The Smurfs who were only available on videocassette, and the only person who had a videocassette was the Head of Publicity, who took it home and put it on, and every time he went to take the videotape out, his two-year-old daughter would burst into tears, so that’s how The Smurfs came to be signed to Decca. There are big stories of the [Rolling] Stones signing and Tommy Steele breaking through, but it’s those little human-interest bits along the way that show the diversity of Decca. I also like the story about The Lumineers’ Ho Hey record, which was one of the first records released with algorithms, Spotify, all of that. The A&R guy at the time scoured the global iTunes chart, and Spotify had just started at that point, and he was looking for anomalies and saw this record that was doing really well, and he went and found it in America and signed them to Decca, and it became this enormous hit. I think it’s fascinating how record companies such as Decca have developed.
“…the whole reason the record company came about is because they bought a hardware company selling gramophones and Sir Edward Lewis said, “We need something to play on them,” so they started making records.”
CZ: Can you shed some light on the rare archival material in the book?
DE: There are a lot of things that people wouldn’t have seen for a long time. Universal and Decca have an archive that contains hundreds of first press albums which were donated by Gramophone magazine. We photographed hundreds of pictures of original albums from Genesis to Pavarotti, even things that were almost like podcasts, like How to Pass Your Driving Test and the soundtrack to Le Mans ’66 a very famous motor race. The press department also kept these big press books which were huge, one was actually nicknamed The Holy Bible because it’s so vast, and they cut out every time Decca was mentioned in the press or their adverts ran, so one of the fabulous things for me was just seeing all these adverts from the time, and we did collages of them. You’d have an advert for The Everly Brothers’ single, but on there also is Peter, Paul & Mary’s Puff the Magic Dragon, and Val Doonican next to The Rolling Stones, so it’s an alternate history of what was happening at the time, not just what was happening in pop, or country, or easy listening. At the back of the book we selected supreme albums that defined Decca, and in that I didn’t want to separate classical and pop, I wanted to make sure it ran chronologically, so you’d have Van Morrison’s Them which came out in January 1966, and then you’ve got Mussorgsky Romantic Russia in February 1966, and then you go to ’67 Marianne Faithfull Love in a Mist, and soon after you have Bowie’s first album. Looking back it sums up just how eclectic the releases were.
“…the fact that The Smurfs were signed just after Adam and the Ants, for instance, is Decca in a nutshell…”
CZ: Do you think it was a risk back then to be so diverse?
DE: I don’t necessarily think so; it’s a very good question. There were a lot more places you could buy music, there were a lot more opportunities, and there were fewer diversions, so I think research would’ve been done on how many copies could be sold etc. Of course, any label is littered with ones that didn’t make it, and for every number one they had, there were another 30 records that didn’t make the chart. But I suppose the diversity maybe leads it to not being as defined as Blue Note (jazz) or Deutsche Grammophon (classical), and in a way diversity is its strength. In a way, that hasn’t changed in Decca today.
CZ: I think it’s so charming that the book turns you on to all these new musicians and stories – it’s a real document of social history.
DE: I love that it’s a story that hasn’t been told and there are things that you will learn, there are enjoyable things. You may not read and enjoy every chapter because it might not be to your taste, but the story, the social history kicks in and reflects what was happening at the time (primarily in Britain and America, but around the world also). We’ve actually done playlists for every chapter on Spotify, like an audio guide. It’s something I just thought would be really nice to make it come alive.
Decca – The Supreme Record Company: The Story Of Decca Records 1929-2019 book is available now. For more information, head here.