Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The star-crossed story of Planet Records: part 2

Following Part One of this series, which was really more of a prequel, we come to the action-packed hey-day of Planet Records, the country’s first record label dedicated to all-Australian talent. Once again, the stars of the show are the label’s founders Bob King Crawford and Marcus Herman...
Remember these two? Bob (L) and Marcus (R) pose with a Planet record
Missed part 1? Catch up here. This instalment won’t make much sense otherwise.

What’s especially striking about the story of Planet Records is that even now, 55 years after the label folded, it reads like a step-by-step guide for aspiring independent record labels. Which is why it seems apt to name this post…

So you want to start a record label? An interPLANETary guide to success, steps 1-6


1) Define your point of difference 

Around the time of Planet’s rebirth, Bob King Crawford is quoted in an article as saying “I know what Australian artists can do. All they need is encouragement and this company aims to give them that.” By focusing solely on home-grown performers, Planet established its niche from the get-go, setting itself apart from majors such as Festival Records and EMI Australia, both of which released a lot of overseas talent in addition to local artists. 

In another newspaper story from the time, the Planet policy is defined even more clearly: “No artist is recorded who is not an Australian, a naturalised Australian, or, if British, has not lived in this country for two years.” And just in case any room for doubt remained, Planet record covers were emblazoned with the words ‘Proudly made in Australia.’ 

As Marcus Herman says, “We both had a terrific urge to make Australian stuff that was as good as, or better than, anything else.”
Like every other Planet release, this Trailblazers record was 'Proudly made in Australia'
2) Have faith in yourself and others will too 

A cursory glance at Bob King Crawford’s personal website says it all: this is one man who’s never suffered a moment of self-doubt in his life. 

Without such confidence propelling it, Planet Records may not have got off to the flying start it did. Its two young founders knew they were destined for greatness, but how did they convince others give them a go? To launch the label, Bob and Marcus decided an album of famous movie themes would be a sure-fire hit — especially if these themes were performed by popular local entertainer Stanfield Holliday on the prestigious Regent Theatre’s in-house Wurlitzer organ. Easier said than done.
The Regent Theatre's mighty Wurlitzer!
Somehow, this pair of untried entrepreneurs needed to convince the theatre’s management to let them set up their recording equipment on-site and cut a record. Says Bob: “Here we are with no real experience of anything but our own expertise, and we go to the manager of Hoyt’s Theatres [which owned the Regent]…and we talk them into letting us record their organ!” 

“Which was a big decision for them in those days,” adds Marcus. “We were such a small company.” Small in size, maybe, but big in bravado.

The result, a 10” LP called Themes from the Films, was a hit when it was released in the second half of 1954. Planet was back in orbit!
See here for the tracklist
Of course, when you’re onto a good thing, why stop at one? Themes from the Films 2 was released not long afterwards. 
See here for the tracklist

3) Choose the right artists

Let’s face it: Stanfield Holliday looks like a big old square, judging by the Themes from the Films covers. But the next Planet artist had considerably more ‘star quality’. Kenny Arnott was -- wait for it -- a hillbilly from Horsham. A self-taught guitarist who played his instrument upside-down and left-handed, Kenny was about 17 when he hit Melbourne-town in 1954, and soon gained a following as a result of his live performances and the radio show he hosted on station 3AK. 

Of course, as explained in the first instalment, the inspiration for Bob’s decision to resurrect Planet was his belief that Australian audiences would enjoy hearing country music performed by local artists. And who better to test his theory than this teenage sensation? 

Unfortunately, it’s all but impossible to track down any of the songs from Hillbilly Classics to listen to (a common problem with Planet Records releases), but take a look at this spectacular cover and tell me you wouldn’t buy it based on that alone! I’m not even a country-music fan, but I love the sepia-toned photo of Kenny all decked out in his finery, serenading a (seemingly ambivalent) dog under a tree. The bright yellow rope-lettering is fabulously old-school, and the Planet logo in the top left-hand corner seems oddly appropriate, given that the photo appears to have been taken at night.

Recorded in December 1954, Hillbilly Classics was, according to Bob, the first album in the world to have a full picture cover. The back cover was also put to good use, featuring informative liner notes about the artist plus details about the recording – something that no other labels bothered doing in those days.

Another (unofficial) world record set in the making of this album was the fact that it was recorded in what Bob described at the time as the “smallest studio in the world”: the hallway of Marcus’s parents’ house in Glen Iris!

Hillbilly Classics sold about 10,000 copies, a huge quantity for the era. It also launched what would be a long and prolific relationship between Planet and the handsome Horsham hillbilly. 
When was the last time you saw someone smoking on their album cover?
...or sitting in a tree, playing left-handed guitar?
Besides going on to become a big Planet star, Kenny Arnott was inducted to the Australian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1988.  


4) Be innovative 

Concentrating solely on local artists when nobody else was — being first in the world to use photo sleeves — many independent record labels would feel content to rest on their laurels by now, but not Planet.

In fact, if this was a late-night TV advertorial, someone would be exclaiming ‘But wait, there’s more!’ right about now. Unlike a late-night TV advertorial, however, what Planet came up with next was a damn sight more exciting than a free set of steak knives: it was a revolutionary recording technique invented by Marcus Herman known as the Marco Process.

Developed by Marcus because “there was a limit to how far the recording could go,” the Marco Process gave Planet the ability to fit more music on a record – without compromising the sound quality or tone. So instead of squeezing four tracks onto a 7” record (if they were lucky), they were now able to fit six: all sounding pristine.
On the back it says, Microgroove 45rpm, extra extended play
Asked to explain the technicalities behind the process in layperson’s terms, Marcus obliges: “Technically for one reason it was to make anything that had an automatic cut-off not to cut off prematurely before the track had finished. I worked out a way of getting the grooves closer together and equalising or reshaping the grooves on certain frequencies so that it wouldn’t break into the next groove. So that was really what it was all about.” 

Right then. I assume someone out there understands that! Still, even the most technologically challenged numpties among us can appreciate what a massive leap forward this represented for the recording industry in general. 

So how long did it take Marcus to perfect? Six months? A year? Try one week. 
“Today, that wouldn’t be anything,” he remarks modestly. “Because everything’s known about how to work with audio. But just the fact that I was the first to think it up…” 

Needless to say, once the major players in the industry got wind of Marcus’s invention, they were falling over themselves to acquire it. Phillips even offered him ₤10,000, only for him to turn them down and take off on holiday, leaving the media gob-smacked in his wake. 
Clipping from one of Bob King Crawford's innumerable scrapbooks
“I was on holiday and Bob rang me up to tell me, The Herald cars are going around with you on banners on the side saying ‘Recording Engineer Goes on Holiday after Being Offered 10,000 Pounds!’ That would have bought me a home and set me up as a youngster. But I would’ve had to agree to never do anything for anybody else, Today it’d be called restricted or something else [restraint of trading laws?] but back then we could make any deal at all. Rightly or wrongly, I said no.”

“Basically you were keeping it for Australian talent,” Bob reminds him. Indeed, in the article pictured above, Bob declares: “We feel this new development will give us the chance we’ve been waiting for to make a dent in the Australian record business. For the present we will hold it exclusive to Australian artists and use it to help sell Australian talent to the Australian public.”

5) Work hard, have fun and don’t waste time

During Planet’s first few years, Bob and Marcus worked like Trojans from their Tooronga Road HQ (ie the Herman family home) to establish the label. They’d get the important stuff done during the day, have dinner with Marcus’s parents, then concentrate on more menial tasks (like sticking tax labels on records) into the night.

Says Marcus: “Sometimes we’d work up until about 1 or 2 in the morning. Mum and Dad wanted Bob to stay over when we did those late nights but Bob was very strict about wanting to go home. Yet he’d always make his deadlines the next day regardless of how late it was.”

Far from finding it a drag, they loved every minute of it. “It was great fun!” Bob remembers fondly. “It was fantastic! We laughed and laughed.”

“Producing things and being so involved with them – that gave you a good feeling too,” Marcus says. “The last thing Bob and I ever seemed to think about was the money. Just the fact that it was all working.”
Just another day in the studio for baby Bob Crawford!
This sense of fun and passion for their work filtered through to their recording sessions, as Bob describes here: 

“It worked this way: we had a three-hour call. First hour: lots of fun, lots of laughter, great. Second hour: a little bit more serious, Third hour: very serious! But sometimes we’d do a whole LP within three hours. We had no money. A three-hour call was a three-hour call.”
Clearly Bob's work ethic didn't change post-Planet

“I can recall so many of the artists saying You guys relax us, we’re never as relaxed as this normally,” says Marcus.

“While they were lying on the floor!” adds Bob, laughing.

This efficient system of having fun while working fast served them well: according to Bob, the whole turnaround time between recording and release occurring within a couple of months. “We had no option. We had to make a recording, get it out and get sales, because we financed ourselves – we had no-one else financing us.”

No wonder Planet was so prolific! According to an article in Big Beat of the Fifties magazine, they released about 40 7” EPs between 1955 and 1961 – and that’s before we even get to the full-length albums and 7” singles. A pretty impressive output for an indie label, wouldn’t you say?

6) Make your brand instantly recognisable

With his instinct for standing out from the pack, Bob Crawford was well aware of the power of first impressions. And it’s fair to say that Planet’s eye-catching record-cover artwork -- usually designed by husband-and-wife team Gordon Wall and Helen Powell -- contributed to its success (not to mention its enduring charm even now). Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but these records are a different matter.

Hillbilly Classics is an early example, but wrap your eyes around these beauties:
‘For singin’, for dancin’, and vitalizin’ lame parties’— that’s what you need in a record!

Patti Stewart had been Bob’s singing teacher and featured on several Planet releases, singing and playing piano and piano accordion. Yet again, I’ve been unable to find any of her music to listen to online, but her legend certainly lives on through unbelievably fantastic record covers like the one above. 

And, best of all, inside a glass of beer on the masterpiece below:




Surely one of the funniest record covers ever, 30 Party Songs stars none other than Bob King Crawford as ‘Mr Smooth’, a persona he sometimes adopted when doing stand-up comedy. Indeed, it was not unheard of for Planet to use its own staff and family as cover models in an effort to cut costs…with eye-popping results, as you can see.

Another cover featuring Planet people – artists, staff and family -- is Time for a Party, below:


This cover is also noteworthy for being a very early example of the four-colour process printing the label started using for its covers (yes, another world record), and has an appealingly technicolour feel about it.



Then there's this doozy:

You see, Planet’s performers may have all been natural or naturalised Australians, but the music they played wasn’t limited by geography (or genre, for that matter). Latin rhythms, Irish and Scottish folk music and Italian party songs comprised some of the label’s more multicultural moments, while World War favourites, marching-band tunes, yodelling and Christmas carols were among its more esoteric genres (in this author’s opinion at least!).

And here is one of Planet’s most iconic, historic and downright legendary albums:


Released in late 1958, Rock’n’Roll Party was the first full-length rock’n’roll album featuring all-Australian performers.

True, the likes of JOK, Frankie Davidson, Vic Sabrino and the Schneider Sisters may have recorded rock’n’roll before any Planet artists, but only on EPs or singles. This really does seem to be the first 12-inch album. Why it doesn’t have more of a name in the rock’n’roll history books, I’m not sure.

The candy-coloured cover is a story in itself. “It was the first record cover ever paid for by an outside firm,” Bob explains – the outside firm being Saba of California, a fashion label that agreed to foot the printing bill in exchange for their clothes being featured on the cover. 

Taken in Fitzroy Gardens, the cover photo features the LP’s stars, Peter McLean and the Henri Bounce All Stars performing in the background as four glamorous young ladies dance together on the grass. In the centre, wearing the hot-pink frock, is famous model and TV personality Arlene Andrewartha.

Below is the track listing: as you'll see, the album was comprised of a series of rock’n’roll medleys rather than single standalone songs.


Obviously, they’re almost all American compositions, but the sharp-eyed among you may notice an intriguing title on Side B called ‘Deniliquin Rock’. Penned by Bob King Crawford himself, this song was for the ‘juvenile deniliquins’ (geddit?!). And from the super-brief snippet of this tune that I’ve heard (go to about 22:40 on this podcast), it sounds like it was a cracker! (For those not from Australia, Deniliquin is a country town in Victoria.)

Anyway, this is one of the rare Planet releases where I’ve been able to track down some audio! It’s a crackly recording, but the energy and talent are palpable:

 

And another one. OK, so Jerry Lee did ‘em better, but they still get the feet tapping!



NB: A regular Planet performer, Henri Bounce was a well-known saxophonist and band leader around Melbourne. The year after the Rock'n'Roll Party album, he joined The Thunderbirds, one of the city's best-loved early rock'n'roll bands. But by the sounds of it, Bounce was also something of a hard man: even though he actually had half his leg bitten off by a Great White in 1964 when he was swimming in the ocean off Lady Julia Percy Island (hence the bizarre slides in this Youtube track), he, ahem, bounced back soon after, and never let his injury cramp his style. 

Stay tuned for part 3 of the Planet Records story...

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