This year one of the most iconic record labels in the world, Decca Records, turns 90. Since its formation, Decca has burgeoned from a prosperous British company to a fully-fledged international powerhouse. Jeremy Blackmore caught up with author Daryl Easlea, who is writing the official book of the label.
Ninety years in any business is a remarkable record, but it’s especially impressive given the mercurial, fast-paced nature of the music industry.
It’s an industry, though, that Decca was perhaps uniquely equipped to navigate from the start, even at times when other labels struggled such as during the Great Depression. It’s not only its longevity that confounds any easy descriptions of its place in music history. Decca has always been more than just a label: it was also a major innovator in recorded sound – its name dates back to the Decca Dulcephone portable gramophone, one of the first of its kind, and famously taken by soldiers into the trenches in the First World War. Later the company was also involved in revolutionary work developing radar with theDecca Navigator System, which had a significant impact during the Second World War. The system played a key role in guiding the invasion fleets on D-Day.
Decca has been home to countless legendary stars from Luciano Pavarotti to David Bowie, Dame Vera Lynn to Bing Crosby, Tom Jones to Billie Holiday, The Rolling Stones to Mantovani and is now providing the platform for a new generation of ambitious artists such as Andrea Bocelli and Gregory Porter, who continue to represent the label’s cultural legacy. It’s known as the home of diverse music for good reason and its roster of acts is as eclectic as ever in the 21st century.
Decca’s is a fascinating story and one that writer Daryl Easlea tells in a new book: The Supreme Record Company (Decca’s original strapline). It forms part of a year of celebrations, Decca 90, marking the label’s illustrious past, exciting present and future with a compelling series of releases, concerts and events.
As a gramophone company, Decca was rather late to the record label business. The story might have been very different but for the role of one man. Enter Sir Edward Lewis, whose company were acting as brokers for Decca Gramophone when they floated on the stock exchange in the late 1920s.
Explains Daryl: “He couldn’t understand why a company that made gramophones wouldn’t want to make the thing to play on the gramophone. So, he bought the company effectively, and thus Decca Records was born. He looked at making those records available as cheaply as possible and riding that popular wave of gramophones in the early 1930s.”
Lewis had an extraordinary role in shaping the company, Daryl explains. “He loved music, but he wasn’t a music man. What he was able to do was assemble the best people around him to make those records. There was a great deal of luck as well. They bought a company called Crystalate in 1937 and inherited their studios and their engineers, including Arthur Haddy, one of the great pioneers in sound recording.” As Technical Director of Decca, Haddy earned the nickname ‘the father of hi-fi’. In 1950, under his guidance, Decca was the first British company to issue long-playing records.
Lewis was willing to let people have their head but Daryl describes him as ‘old school’ which did cause problems later. “He was late to the cassette market because he loved records. As he got older, that was the criticism of Decca that he didn’t have a succession plan. So, when Decca was sold to Polygram in 1980 [after Lewis’s death], he didn’t have an heir apparent to takeover. But yes, an absolute visionary.”
Early recordings ranged from Jack Hilton and novelty big band records to symphonies and choral works – and capturing all these various strands was a challenge for Daryl when compiling his book. “When I started looking, it was almost like, ‘which Decca are you?’ Are you the classical Decca? The opera Decca? The spoken word, comedy, rock and roll, rock, pop? It means so many different things to different people.”
The research was fascinating. Daryl found an abundance of curios including comedy records by the likes of Spike Milligan and Kenneth Williams as well as Dirk Bogarde reciting the words to love songs because he couldn’t sing: a real cornucopia.
Variety and range remain part of Decca’s identity to this day with serious classical music, experimental piano music, Michael Ball and Aurora on the roster. “Decca in 2019 could almost be Decca in 1959 where you had Tommy Steele doing rock ‘n’ roll and Mantovani doing easy listening.”
When Decca took its giant steps forward in recorded sound post-war, it ushered in a golden era for classical music. Decca created the world’s finest opera catalogue, thanks to such singers as Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland, and large-scale projects like the first release on record of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle.
However, it was also at the forefront of a very different type of music. Decca helped birth the rock’n’roll explosion when it released two singles recorded on opposite sides of the Atlantic within a month of each other: Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and Rock Island Line by Lonnie Donegan. The latter helped trigger the skiffle craze and inspired so many beat groups who went on to dominate the scene in the 60s.
“There was clearly something in the air! Rock Around The Clock became the big hit and then Decca looked for anything with rock in the title to ride that wave. They found this song by Lonnie Donegan, which was done completely by accident.” (Part of the Chris Barber Jazz Band, Donegan had recorded the track in downtime during sessions.)
“It’s a very unassuming start to British rock’n’roll. He didn’t look like a matinee idol. He looked like you and me holding a guitar and inspired so many bands, including one very famous one…”
That brings our conversation around to 1 January 1962 and to a subject Daryl has clearly been expecting: The Beatles’ audition at Decca’s West Hampstead studios. He’s frequently asked ‘isn’t that the label that turned down the Beatles?’.
Daryl argues that Decca has been unfairly maligned for its role in Beatles history, though. “The session didn’t go well. The material is all right. I don’t know if it really points to what came, but it’s certainly workmanlike for that era.”
Decca producer Mike Smith was also auditioning Brian Poole and the Tremeloes and wanted to take both acts. “He’d seen The Beatles in the Cavern, he knew what they were capable of, but his boss, Dick Rowe, said ‘we can only take one’. On the day Brian Poole was stronger, and he lived in Essex, which was much nearer.”
Beatles manager Brian Epstein claimed Rowe told him ‘guitar groups are on the way out’, although Rowe always disputed this. That year, Decca worked with Joe Meek on Telstar, a big number one hit. As Daryl says, “When you listen to those futuristic sounds, you can almost see why they might say guitar groups are on the way out. But everything has a silver lining and George Harrison said to Dick Rowe, ‘you better look at these lads from Richmond’ – and hence signed The Rolling Stones, who were the only real rivals to The Beatles’ supremacy in the 60s.”
Heading the albums department at that time was Hugh Mendel. “He was a towering figure and a very lovely man,” says Daryl. “He was very much in that era where you had these urbane characters that could turn their hands to lots of different things. He had a fabulous ear for music.”
Mendel was behind classic Moody Blues album Days of Future Past, which was originally intended to be a stereo test record in Deramic Sound (Decca Panoramic Sound, a pioneering way of improving stereo recordings). “It was all about sound,” Daryl explains. “It was all fabulous because when you had a company that was making the technology to play these things, you wanted to showcase your stereogram in the hi-fi store with the best record possible. So, it was all feeding each other.”
Decca had split into two companies, one British and one American, just before World War II. In 1980, the UK arm was sold to Polygram and Decca became a classical label again, with its pop releases largely going out on its London Records imprint. But the phenomenal success of the Three Tenors changed everything and made Decca a force again within Polygram.
Decca is now part of the Universal Music Group. “That has been fabulous for Decca,” says Daryl, “because American Decca and UK Decca are both part of Universal. Being all under one roof is fascinating… in a way, this is the first time Decca has been able to celebrate for many years, because it’s all back together – but there have never not been releases on Decca in all those 90 years, which is astonishing.”
Decca continues to thrive. It has served as the official label partner to three Royal Weddings, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. Last year, it had No.1 albums with Rod Stewart and Andrea Bocelli, helped teenage cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason sell 100,000 albums worldwide and was home to the winner of the Country Music Association’s Album Of The Year by Kacey Musgraves.
As part of this year of celebrations, music fans have the chance to visit Decca’s recording studios in West Hampstead. While the building is now a rehearsal space for English National Opera and no longer houses working studios, visitors can see where the Moody Blues recorded Nights In White Satin and Tom Jones belted out It’s Not Unusual. Then there’s Studio 2, where Django Reinhart and Eric Clapton both recorded. “Bowie did his first album there. Also, that was where The Beatles auditioned and where Lonnie Donegan invented British rock and roll and it’s all within this room that’s probably no bigger than your living room. It’s amazing…”
To find out more, post your memories of Decca and listen to 45 unique 90-second podcasts that outline key aspects of the label’s history, see Decca90.com