About three years ago I was commissioned to write sleeve notes for two upgraded CDs by a singer-songwriter originally signed to the Deram label who found greater success elsewhere. Part of the brief was to write something about the label itself. Since it appears that this project has been put on indefinite hold, I have decided to post the piece about the label on my blog. In the fullness of time I may post the far longer pieces about the albums and artist involved who, for now, must remain nameless.
The Deram label was launched by Decca Records in June of 1966 as a subsidiary outlet for more experimental pop music. Decca, which like its great rival EMI also manufactured other electrical goods, had already used the term ‘Deram’ on a cartridge device for holding the stylus that was detachable from the arm on the turntable of a stereo record player. It was also an abbreviation of the term ‘Deramic’ which Decca had coined for their brainchild Decca Panoramic Sound, designed to create a more natural sounding stereo spread.
Decca’s Deram label initiative reflected a need on the part of major record companies not to appear staid in an era when pop was changing fast and more forward-thinking, fleet-footed independent labels like Island, Immediate, Track, Chrysalis and Charisma were on the rise. The response from EMI was to launch Harvest Records while Philips inaugurated the Vertigo label with a design on the actual label in the centre of vinyl LPs that, when spinning, rendered the viewer as vertiginously dizzy as the name implied.
Based in Decca’s offices on the Albert Embankment, the label’s key man was Promotions Manager Tony Hall, with A&R under the control of Dick Rowe and his assistant Hugh Mendl, all of whom were technically Decca staff. Dick Rowe, of course, became famous as the man who turned down The Beatles but history has been unkind to an A&R executive who was otherwise eminently successful and, in any case, John, Paul, George & Pete Best were pretty lacklustre during their audition for Decca on New Year’s Day 1962.
Deram made its debut with Denny Cordell’s production of 20-year-old Beverley (Kutner, soon to be [Mrs] Beverley Martyn) singing ‘Happy New Year’, a sprightly take on an early Randy Newman song on which she was accompanied by half of the future Led Zeppelin – Jimmy Page on guitar and John Paul Jones on bass – alongside ace session pianist Nicky Hopkins and drummer Andy White who took over from Ringo on the Beatles’ first recording of ‘Love Me Do’. As the first ever Deram release it was given the catalogue number DM 101. Cat Stevens’ ‘I Love My Dog’, the label’s first hit (#28, 1966) was DM 102.
Deram soon went from strength to strength. As well as other early hits by Cat Stevens, most notably ‘Matthew And Son’ (#2, 1967) and ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun’ (#6, also 1967), it released the first two hits by The Move – ‘Night Of Fear’ (#2, 1967) and ‘I Can Hear The Grass Grow’ (#5, also 1967) – and the evergreen ‘Nights In White Satin’ (#19, 1967) by The Moody Blues.
The label’s most significant early success, however, was Procol Harum’s debut single ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ (#1, 1967), the defining song of that year’s Summer of Love and, arguably, British psychedelia. With surrealistic, impenetrable lyrics and an undulating melody that sounded like an inversion of JS Bach’s ‘Air On A G String’ (Orchestra Suite No 3, BWV 1068), ‘… Pale’ held the top place on the singles charts for six weeks, went on to become one of the best-selling singles in history and is now recognised as the most-played record by British broadcasting of the past 70 years. The track, also produced by Denny Cordell, was the only Procol Harum record to be released on Deram, Cordell electing to switch labels – to EMI-controlled Regal Zonophone – thereafter. The Move went with them.
Cat Stevens’ debut LP Matthew And Son reached number seven on the LP charts in 1967 but Deram wasn’t so successful with David Bowie whose own debut album, titled simply David Bowie, was released by the label on June 1, 1967. Produced by Mike Vernon, it was engineered by Gus Dudgeon, producer of Bowie’s first hit ‘Space Oddity’, who later commented: “Listening to it now I can’t believe that it was actually released because it must have been about the weirdest thing Deram had ever put out. In fact it must be about the weirdest thing any record company have ever put out.” Dudgeon was probably correct in this assessment. “[It]… consists of 14 short narrative vignettes delivered in a mannered cockney indebted to Anthony Newley,” wrote Bowie biographer David Buckley. “Newley’s 1960 ATV surrealist comedy programme, The Strange World of Gurney Slade, had been a prime influence on the young soon-to be musician, a world within a world in which inanimate objects speak, and poster girls come to life.”
As well as these recordings by artists of note, Deram released a number of records by lesser known but noteworthy acts that enjoyed cult followings, many of which were one-off records designed to fulfil the label’s original premise of experimental pop. These included Timebox, Eyes Of Blue, Denny Laine (after he left the Moody Blues), drummer Keef Hartley, Alan Bown and East of Eden, led by violinist Dave Arbus, who had a hit with ‘Jig-A-Jig’ (#7, 1971) and played the outro solo on The Who’s ‘Baba O’Riley’ on their 1971 LP Who’s Next.
The label also enjoyed hits by Amen Corner, the Welsh R&B septet led by Andy Fairweather Low (‘Bend Me Shape Me’, #3, 1968, and ‘High In The Sky’, #6, 1968); The Flowerpot Men (‘Let’s Go To San Francisco’, #4, 1967), a group formed from session musicians that included future Deep Purple organist Jon Lord on keyboards; ‘I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman’ (#5, 1967) by Whistling Jack Smith; and the exquisite baroque single ‘I Can’t Let Maggie Go’ (#8, 1968) by Honeybus, which became the soundtrack to a TV commercial for Nimble bread.
Like Procol Harum, Amen Corner, The Move and Cat Stevens, most Deram acts left the label after their initial success which suggests that those in charge of the its affairs viewed it more as an incubation chamber than a long term home for successful artists. Nevertheless, it continued into the seventies by releasing albums by Caravan, the progressive rock band from Canterbury, Cream lyricist Pete Brown, Daryl Way’s Wolf and, later, Way’s group Curved Air. Far and away the label’s most successful act of the seventies, however, was Ten Years After, the Nottingham-based blues rock quartet led by guitarist Alvin Lee who for a period early in the decade was a contender for the title of ‘fastest guitar on the block’. Four of the first five TYA albums made the top ten LP charts between 1969 and 1971.
Deram appeared to have become moribund in the late seventies but was revived in the early eighties with singles by new wave acts like Splodgenessabounds, whose novelty hit ‘Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps Please’ reached number seven in 1980, The Modettes’ ‘Paint It Black, a ska arrangement of the Rolling Stones’ 1966 hit that reached number 42 in 1980, and Bananarama whose recording of ‘Really Saying Something’, a cover of a song by US girl-group The Velvelettes, became their second top ten hit (#5, 1982). Like so many others before them, however, Bananarama left the label immediately afterwards – moving to Decca subsidiary London Records – for the long string of hits they enjoyed from 1982 onwards.
While never as acclaimed as other progressive labels – Vertigo, Harvest or Elektra – Deram nevertheless helped reposition Decca as a force to be reckoned with at a time when it was regarded by many in the industry as a rather unadventurous label, especially after the Rolling Stones left to sign with Atlantic, simultaneously carping about the label’s conservative outlook. The label is now owned by Universal Music which acquired Decca in 1998.