By Gordon Thompson
When George Martin first entered the recording industry in the early 1950s, assisting Oscar Preuss at EMI’s Parlophone, he encountered the end of the mechanical era. The company’s facilities on Abbey Road in genteel St. John’s Wood still used lathes to record sound by cutting grooves in warm wax with energy provided by weights and pulleys, like a child of Big Ben. The sheer mechanics of this kind of professional recording demanded large centralized studios with coteries of technicians and in-house staffs of artist-and-repertoire managers; but all of this and more would soon change.
By the mid-fifties, spools of magnetic tape and electric motors had replaced the wax and lathes so that tape decks had become the preferred method for recording music. Consequently, around London and the world, independent recording studios began to pop up like mushrooms after a summer rain shower. Independent artist-and-repertoire managers (who would soon call themselves “producers”) started creating recordings they could license to corporations like EMI and Decca, who still owned the industrial factories capable of pressing disks and fleets of trucks to distribute their product.
Perhaps the earliest of these independents, Joe Meek first had national hits (e.g., Johnny Leyton’s “Johnny Remember Me”) and then international success (the Tornados’ “Telstar”). Meek’s skills as both engineer and A-and-R manager (and no less his personality) led him to operate his own studio; but, as additional facilities became available, newer versions of the independent producer emerged.
The independents that helped drive the explosion of British pop in 1964 included a remarkable diversification of talents. Musician Mickie Most had hits with the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, and the Nashville Teens; American transplant Shel Talmy succeeded with the Kinks and the Who; and marketing prodigy Andrew Oldham set his own model with the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithful. These independents covered the costs of studio rentals, session musicians, and engineers out of their pockets; nevertheless, if the recording succeeded, they stood to reap significant financial rewards.
Remarkably, the most successful artist-and-repertoire manager of the era worked for a flat salary. As a corporate artist-and-repertoire manager, George Martin’s hits with Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer with the Dakotas, Cilla Black, and, of course, the Beatles went financially unrecognized by EMI. His revenge came while the Beatles toured the United States in the summer of 1965, when he and colleagues Ron Richards and John Burgess announced the formation of Associated Independent Recordings (AIR). He would still work with the Beatles and other artists and with EMI; but they would now pay him for his services and he would earn a percentage of the profits.
AIR would set up its own modest facilities in the center of London’s shopping district at Oxford Circus, a stone’s throw from the Palladium where the press had less than two years before declared Beatlemania. Thirty-five years ago on September 2, AIR opened for business.
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. Check out Thompson’s other posts here.