East of the M60 look back at the heady days when Ronco and K-Tel were noted for compilation albums
Before the iPod became popular, we used to make our own mixtapes, or buy compilation albums. They would usually have a prosaic title like ‘Hit Explosion’ or thematic ones like ‘Space Invasion’. Some may have had original artists, others at the lower end of the price scale had session musicians trying to be Cliff Richard and the Shadows.
The compilation album itself is probably older than you think. Album, in the context of recorded music meant exactly that: a selection of ten or so separate tunes on their own discs. A 1934 equivalent of ‘Now! That’s I Call Music’ would have been a nightmare to carry around to most parties. He or she would have had the job of carrying 10 heavy 78s which would break halfway down to the village hall, pub, or rich relative’s house.
In 1948, some lucky persons wouldn’t have had this luxury no more. The Long Playing record was born. Instead of the eminently breakable shellac, vinyl became the material of choice. Even so, they were still referred to as albums. By the early-1960s, record players became affordable, and the ‘must have’ accessory for any with-it teenager. Along came the budget priced compilation, and F.W. Woolworth’s stores were quick to capitalise on this, with the Embassy label formed in 1954.
Unlike present day compilation albums, Embassy’s back catalogue used session musicians, some of which becoming ‘original artists’ in their own right. Paul Raven became the later popular and more recently hated Gary Glitter from there. The voice of Postman Pat, Ken Barrie, was known as Les Carle. By 1964, the original Embassy label was discontinued, leaving a 7 year vacuum.
In 1970, CBS’s budget imprint Pickwick followed Embassy’s footsteps, launching a successful range of budget priced hit compilation albums. Entitled ‘Top of the Pops’, the only link it had with the BBC One programme was the same title, nothing else. Even with the lack of original artists, the albums sold in their thousands. The reason was less so the music, but more the cover art. Each album had an attractive female on the front cover. Great for testosterone heavy teens, less so for audiophiles. The formula worked until the early 1980s, and unlike the Embassy releases, they were sold in newsagents, supermarkets and petrol stations rather than just record shops.
Targeting the same market however were two American companies better known for household devices, aggressively advertised on television. One was Ron Popeil’s company Ronco formed in 1964. The other was K-Tel, with the K standing for Kives as in the founder, Philip Kives who formed the company in 1965. Soon, the phrase “But Wait, There’s More…!” would reverberate from television sets the world over. In 1966, inspired by his cousin, Philip Kives would unleash a monster: a budget price compilation album with original artists.
K-Tel’s first release, 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits became the first of many, following a theme of original artist compilation albums. Thematic albums including Super Bad and Goofy Greats. Their more prosaic hit albums had self-explanatory titles like 20 Dynamic Hits. Ronco followed suit shortly after. With the onus of trying to fit as many tracks on one album as possible, sound quality was compromised. Tracks were also edited. Each album had a disclaimer which read “to ensure the highest quality reproduction, the running times of the titles had been amended”, a practice perpetuated till around 1982. Unlike conventional record companies at the time, they dealt directly with the artists.
Even with these shortcomings, both Ronco’s and K-Tel’s compilation albums sold in their millions worldwide. A fair few even made the Top Ten of the UK album charts, with K-Tel releases dominating most of 1977’s album charts. Two years before the first Now! album hit the stores, Chart Hits ’81 was a UK No. 1 album in early December of 1981. The BOGOF approach was also applied, imploring music lovers to buy Part 1 of Chart Hits ’81 and the like, with the other part free.
Around 1982, the track listings of both Ronco and K-Tel chart compilations still had the mix of minor hits and chartbusters, though the path was turning towards the latter. Discerning listeners wanted the full tracks without edits, and excellent sound quality. Inevitably this meant fewer tracks per disc, though this approach paid off. By the close of 1982, Ronco’s Raiders of the Pop Charts hit the UK No. 1 spot of the album chart. As well as the BOGOF offers, there was other incentives to keep the listener loyal to Ronco or K-Tel. September 1982’s Breakout compilation album offered a giant poster of a tiger breaking through a brick wall. Their Raiders of the Pop Charts exploited the Indiana Jones franchise with a Raiders of the Lost Ark inspired cover – complete with Harrison Ford lookalike clutching a guitar. The incentive was to win an Indiana Jones jacket.
Besides the customer loyalty factor, one wonders whether this was to stave off the onslaught of a pig voiced by Brian Glover in 1984. Too late. Ronco’s lead compilation compiler Ashley Abram was nabbed by an alliance formed by EMI and Virgin. By Christmas 1983, they stitched up the compilation market good and proper, issuing double albums as standard, with complete and unedited tracks by original artists. Almost every one of their artistes had Top 40 hits. Attracting top name artistes became harder for the pioneering labels. The unique and random nature of Ronco’s and K-Tel’s thematic compilations were virtually no more.
Though Ronco ceased producing compilations by late 1984, K-Tel soldered on, launching Hungry For Hits, which turned out to their swansong contemporary hit compilation album. Elsewhere, they were enjoying massive success with the Hooked On Classics series of albums. Spinning off from a single release, classical music’s response to Stars on 45 spawned four albums, a ‘Best of’ compilation and non-classical spin-offs. One of them was Hooked on Number Ones, which was a Stars on 45 style compilation with 100 Number One hits featuring session musicians. In Canada, they were enjoying great success as the record label of the much-derided and ridiculed paedophilia-tastic Minipops (which started as a music show on Channel 4 in early 1983).
Meanwhile, in the UK, the Now! franchise was enjoying great success, to the point other major labels issued imitators. WEA Records’ effort was the Hits series of compilation albums, MCA and Chrysalis’ was the short lived Out Now series, none of which had the staying power of Now! That’s What I Call Music‘s albums. 27 years on, the Now juggernaut is still with us, forming a contemporary record of the hits of the day. The only thing they dropped was the Pig mascot, used to advertise the third and fourth albums in 1984. Ashley Abram, however, is still in charge of compiling the albums through his own company, Box Music.
I am the proud owner of a few compilation albums by K-Tel and Ronco, and also have the early Now! releases. Unlike the modern day post-modern compilation albums, I consider them as more of a record of that era’s music. By this I also mean the filler tracks which were minor hits, as well as the million sellers of their day. Whereas the Now! compilations of recent age focus on the major hits, some of K-Tel’s and Ronco’s fillers are seen by some as underrated classics.
I absolutely adore Panic by The Scoop, which featured on Chart Hits ’81, yet never charted. Also, I love the cheesiness and irritating nature of the (also uncharted) The On and On Song by Precious Little seen on Raiders of the Pop Charts. Most of my purchases came from car boot sales. Therefore my copy of Space Invasion from a boot sale in Stalybridge opened my eyes to more alternative music than Radio One ever did at the time (June 1996). Thanks to Ronco and K-Tel, rather than chart music, I discovered the joys of Dancing in Outer Space by Atmosfear – now one of my all time favourite disco tunes. I wonder how many others wouldn’t have heard of King Trigger’s River or Frank Chickens had it not been for them? Needless to say I’m one of them.
Through curiosity value as well as historical value, K-Tel’s and Ronco’s albums are long overdue for reissue. Ideally in electronic and physical formats, with the original artists and running times, righting the wrongs of those people scarred for life by a bricked version of Souvenir by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (Chart Hits ’81, part two).
These include a few of my personal favourites. As per usual, feel free to comment on the albums, and any memories of compilation albums before the Now! era.
- 20 Dynamic Hits (K-Tel, 1971);
- Space Invasion (Ronco, 1981);
- The World’s Worst Record Show (K-Tel/Yuk Records, 1978);
- Rock ‘n’ Roller Disco (Ronco, 1979);
- Chart Hits ’81 (K-Tel, 1981);
- Axe Attack (K-Tel, 1980);
- Hits Hits Hits (Ronco, 1981);
- Raiders of the Pop Charts (Ronco, 1982);
- Hotline (K-Tel, 1983);
- Now! That’s What I Call Music (EMI/Virgin, 1983);
- Hits (WEA Records, 1984).
S.V., 24 September 2010.