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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

Sometimes you just think, 'Who on earth thought anyone was going to buy that?'
Tim Worthington

"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."

Sometimes you just think, 'Who on earth thought anyone was going to buy that?'
Tim Worthington
Three early releases on the label, with covers now seen as design classics
Three early releases on the label, with covers now seen as design classics

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.

Members of the Radio 1 Road Show production team in Bristol, 1972. Included in the shot is Roy Tempest, arms crossed, kneeling down
Members of the Radio 1 Road Show production team in Bristol, 1972. Included in the shot is Roy Tempest, arms crossed, kneeling down

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).

Eileen Fowler (right) with Desert Island Discs presenter Roy Plomley, 1974
Eileen Fowler (right) with Desert Island Discs presenter Roy Plomley, 1974

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
Alan Bilyard

"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.

We didn't rule out anything, and I was never surprised when our records sold unexpectedly
Alan Bilyard

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."

Three of BBC Records' hits, including a recording of the 1981 royal wedding
Three of BBC Records' hits, including a recording of the 1981 royal wedding

Bilyard says BBC Records & Tapes was nothing like the image of your typical record label in the 70s and 80s. There was no sex, no drugs and very little rock 'n' roll. "I've just been listening to a documentary about punk," he says. "And I can tell you our BBC record label was a lot different to that."

But that doesn't mean it was without controversy. In 1977, they released the Death & Horror sound effects record on black vinyl that turned translucent blood red when held up to strong light (see below). Many effects were created by "mistreating large white cabbages", as the sleeve notes explain. "The results were highly realistic and we even had some coleslaw left for dinner."

Sound Effects: Death & Horror. In strong light, the vinyl turns red. (Photo: Rob Shiret)
Sound Effects: Death & Horror. In strong light, the vinyl turns red. (Photo: Rob Shiret)

A few days afterwards, Mary Whitehouse, an anti-obscenity campaigner, heard about it, and announced she was horrified at the BBC's "utter sense of irresponsibility", as Billboard reported, for releasing it.

The morals of Britain's youth were at stake. "It shook us a bit to start with," Bilyard says. "We had to suspend the record, but ultimately I got approval to put it back on the market and it sold about 20,000 copies due to her."

Whitehouse apparently didn't complain when the label issued actress Marti Caine's B**** is Love as the B-side to 1981 single I'll Never See You Again and on her album Point of View, or any of its numerous close-to-the-bone comedy records.

By the end of Bilyard's time, BBC Records & Tapes was responsible for over five per cent of UK record sales.

The 80s boom

My boss said, 'Would you like to run a record company?' And I said, 'That sounds rather fun.' That's how it happened. Literally
Humphrey Walwyn

That success continued under Humphrey Walwyn, now 69 and living in retirement "in beautiful West Dorset with a view over the fields and a little river". Walwyn had been the World Service's head of music, ensuring rock fans from Delhi to the Soviet Union could get a fix of The Rolling Stones. He was quite happy doing that, but one day his boss called him up. "He said, 'Would you like to run a record company?' And I said, 'That sounds rather fun.' That's how it happened. Literally."

Walwyn didn't really change the label that much, continuing to release records from the bizarre to the wonderful. His first hit was a release of news reports from the D-Day landings timed to coincide with its 40th anniversary; his proudest release an expensive, intricately-designed 13-cassette boxset of the Lord of the Rings, complete with "a beautiful booklet and map of - what's it called? - Hobbit Land?" (Everyone told him it wouldn't sell, but he was so in love with it, he kept pushing regardless and even hand-delivered 20 copies to Harrods in London, which sold immediately).

My boss said, 'Would you like to run a record company?' And I said, 'That sounds rather fun.' That's how it happened. Literally
Humphrey Walwyn
Enya, whose debut album was released by BBC Records
Enya, whose debut album was released by BBC Records

Walwyn's era was when the label started having proper successes. Looking back, you may think the biggest hit would be helping break Enya - the Celtic singer who almost single-handedly invented new age music in the 80s. In 1987, BBC Records released her self-titled debut album - songs culled from a TV series called The Celts. It eventually sold over a million copies and included Boadicea, a track that has since been sampled by the Fugees (for Ready or Not) and Puff Daddy (for Mario Winans's I Don't Wanna Know).

But Walwyn says their actual biggest hit was something that's been less critically acclaimed: EastEnders' actor Nick Berry's Every Loser Wins, written by Simon May, who also composed the soap opera's theme tune.

Tom Watt as Lofty and Nick Berry as Simon Wicks
Tom Watt as Lofty and Nick Berry as Simon Wicks

The track was sung in the show, then used in a particularly memorable episode - as Lofty Holloway's break-up song after Michelle Fowler had jilted him at the altar (the lyrics give you the gist: "We nearly made it / We nearly found perfection / The road was right, we must have read the signs wrong / And now it's all gone"). BBC Records had been told of the song in advance, and made sure to have it in record shops the day after broadcast.

"I remember going to a club the day it was released and there was a TV on, and they announced that Michelle didn't turn up at the wedding," Walwyn says. "Suddenly all the girls just stopped, turned and looked at the telly, mouths open. And I turned to my friend and said, 'I guarantee we'll have a No.1 tomorrow. Look at that. They're transfixed.'"

Tom Watt as Lofty and Nick Berry as Simon Wicks
Tom Watt as Lofty and Nick Berry as Simon Wicks

They sold out in the first hour. EMI - then BBC Records' manufacturer - had to stop production of Olivia Newton-John's latest release so they could print more Nick Berry. "We sold something like 250,000 in three days. It was extraordinary." It became the year's second biggest-selling single.

Chart success was, though, the beginning of the end for BBC Records & Tapes. Other record companies had long complained it had an unfair advantage because it could plug its records on TV, getting millions of pounds of free advertising.

"I gather it was even asked in the House of Commons on one occasion whether the BBC had a right to plug itself so desperately," Walwyn says [we can't find any evidence of that]. It seemed the label had just become too big for its own good. "After my boss - head of BBC Enterprises - said to me, 'I want you to keep doing what you're doing - making money - but don't make too much. You understand what I mean?'"

Walwyn understood, and soon afterwards decided to leave. He eventually took over Mainstream Records - a Californian record label, which released Janis Joplin's first records - spruced it up, "then sold it to Sony and went fishing for three years".

Humphrey Walwyn today, with two BBC Records gold discs
Humphrey Walwyn today, with two BBC Records gold discs

The end of the road

It just seems to lose its way
Tim Worthington

What happens next? It's unclear, to be honest. "It just seems to lose its way," says Worthington. Its final releases included songs that have very little to do with the BBC itself, like a "dance rave medley" of Mungo Jerry songs to coincide with the 20th anniversary of their hit In the Summertime (the British public was very into "dance rave medleys" at the time).

Perhaps it got too professional - something that shouldn't be a bad thing, but in BBC Records' case it was. "The fact it used to be quite amateurish comes across in a very good way," Worthington adds. "It seemed to be people thinking, 'Oh, that's interesting. Let's put that out...,' rather than, 'What'll shift most units?' The BBC was always the most important part of the name, not the records and tapes.'"

It just seems to lose its way
Tim Worthington

There's no data on whether sales plummeted, or whether running a business turned out to be too much work, but sometime in 1991 the decision was taken to close the label. The news was revealed in a single sentence in BBC Enterprises' annual accounts. It's a strange, unexplained ending. But it's also a fitting one, given just how many strange and unexplained records the label put out during its time.

You would be hard pressed to find many of those strange and unexplained records now, outside of the vinyl bins in charity shops. But that doesn't mean you haven't heard any BBC Records & Tapes music. Plenty of their classical releases are now considered classics, for one, and many of the albums discussed here have been reissued by other labels. Then there's the children's TV song - Fearless Fred's Amazing Animal Band from Play School. The surprisingly funky drum break in it, played by Ollie Octopus, has been sampled by everyone from pioneering electronic music duo Coldcut to celebrated producer DJ Shadow.

The BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, has kept on releasing records since closing the label. But it's mainly been comedy shows or spin-offs from well-known radio programmes. The days of the BBC trying to top the charts with singles by its stars is over. Which is either a huge shame, or a blessed relief, depending how much you'd like to see Emily Maitlis or Gary Lineker rap.

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