1970, part 5: Vertigo Records

One day in 1969 Olav Wyper received a phone call from a headhunter. Wyper was considered a prime candidate for the role of running a new record label that can produce, market and sell the emerging progressive music capturing the hearts and minds of youth across the world. Wyper was working for CBS at the time and was involved with releasing the sampler album “The Rock Machine Turns You On” that combined the music of top CBS artists including Simon and Garfunkel and Blood, Sweat and Tears with lesser known bands including Spirit, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy and others. Reluctant at first to reveal who he is hiring for, the headhunter finally disclosed that it was Phillips. The giant company that up to that point focused on classical recordings and easy listening music, started producing psychedelic and rock albums since the mid-1960s. However they needed to compete with other major labels such as Decca and EMI who created subsidiaries (Deram, Harvest) to focus on progressive music. Olav Wyper was quickly flown in a private jet to Eindhoven, Netherlands, to meet with the suits at Phillips’ headquarters. He quickly signed a deal to have full control over a new label, supervising its A&R, marketing and art direction. The Vertigo label was born.

With a keen eye on the visual aspect of long play albums, one of Wyper’s first tasks was to create a striking logo and give the label a unique identity. He remembers: “I wanted something that was very visual. You have this large space on a twelve-inch record that really doesn’t do anything. I have always been a very visual person. When I worked in advertising that was one of my strengths. I wanted the label in the center of the album to be very visual. One thought I had – make it spell something only after the record is turning at speed – was something we tried to do without success.” As in many great inventions, necessity came to the rescue: “I was sitting in traffic, it was raining; my car windows were steamy and I wanted to look at something in a shop window across the street. I drew an increasingly large circle, like a spiral, in the fog of the auto glass.” Applying the label to the center of the vinyl albums, the hypnotic effect of the rotating swirl gave the label its name – Vertigo.

“I wanted something on the A-side of a record that drew you in. So that when the record spun you felt as if everything was pulling you towards the record. I did the rough designs, and then a lady – Maggie – in our art department came up with the final version. What we did was use this to take up the whole of the label on the first side of a record, so it really stood out.”

Vertigo was founded late in 1969 and got busy quick signing artists and releasing albums. The first band to sign with the label was Colosseum, a band who had the honor of releasing the label’s first album – Valentyne Suite. The group consisted of excellent musicians who could play long instrumental pieces and lengthy solos. They had eclectic tastes in music, the reason for the varied styles that you can hear on this album. Keyboardist Dave Greenslade, who will later form the progressive rock outfit Greenslade with Colosseum’s bass player Tony Reeves, talks about his background: “We would listen to Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, and all these other wonderful composers. I don’t suggest that I’m anywhere near these artists, but it opened my mind to another way of writing; something different to rock and roll in the 1950s which was great fun but limited. With Jon Hiseman and Tony Reeves, I used to go to Ronnie Scott’s quite a lot and listen to Bill Evans. We’d also go to the Royal Festival Hall and hear Duke Ellington and Count Basie. What I’m trying to do is set the scene of my musical influences; we’ve gone from Stravinsky to Duke Ellington!”

Colosseum – Valentyne Suite

The second side of the album features the side-long title track, one of the band’s crown achievements. The final movement in the suite is also the last track on the album. Band leader and drummer Jon Hiseman wrote about the track in the original sleeve notes: “The third there – The Grass is Always Greener – begins by reflecting the calm before the storm. Written by dick and myself it features Dave and Tony briefly before James emerges to push us all over the edge and destroy the relationship.”

Dave Greenslade – Hammond organ, vibraphone, piano

Dick Heckstall-Smith – saxophones, flute

Jon Hiseman – drums

James Litherland – guitars, lead vocals

Tony Reeves – bass guitars

1970, the focus on this article, saw the prolific label coming out with a string of wonderful albums, about 30 of them. We will review a few of them now.

Colosseum followed in 1970 with the album Daughter of Time, by this time expanding to their classic sextet lineup. Bass player Mark Clarke and guitar player Dave “Clem” Clempson replaced Tony Reeves and James Litherland. The band also added a fantastic vocalist, Chris Farlowe, famous for his #1 1966 hit Out of Time. His voice and style of singing made a big difference on the overall band’s sound on this album. Farlowe talks about how he joined the band: “Jon Hiseman was looking for a good singer because Clem Clempson – who was the guitarist and singer with the band – never had a strong voice. So Jon got me down there for an audition. I sang two songs and he gave me the job and said: ‘You’re exactly what we’re looking for.’”

Colosseum – Daughter of Time

A favorite from this album is the opener Three Score and Ten, Amen, with fantastic contributions from all band members. Notice the brilliant bass lines by Mark Clarke and the horns by Dick Heckstall-Smith and a guest: Barbara Thompson, Jon Hiseman’s wife, on saxophones.

Mark Clarke – bass guitar

Dave “Clem” Clempson – guitar

Chris Farlowe – lead vocals

Dave Greenslade – organ, piano, vibes, backing vocals

Dick Heckstall-Smith – soprano and tenor saxophones, spoken word

Jon Hiseman – drums, percussion

Guest appearance by Barbara Thompson on flute, alto, soprano, tenor, and baritone saxophones.

Perhaps the two best-known releases for Vertigo in 1970 were by the same band. Time to introduce Black Sabbath, one of the first bands to join Vertigo’s roster. Olav Wyper ended up one night in Birmingham, arriving a day too early for a meeting. Always on the lookout for new talent, he asked a hotel worker for a recommendation. Later that night he ended up in a local pub watching a band he never heard of. He was impressed. Well, more than impressed: “I took them and their manager Jim Simpson out for a meal at a Chinese restaurant three doors down from the venue. And we ended up signing a heads of agreement on the tablecloth.”

What he saw in that pub is likely a set that was later recorded for the band’s debut album. His experience was similar to that of other listeners in the audience. Guitarist Tony Iommi remembers Black Sabbath’s early performances: “They just stopped and stared in disbelief: ‘What IS that? We knew then we had something special. That’s what sealed our future direction, when we saw the look on their faces. We arrived at the height of the Vietnam War and on the other side of the hippie era, so there was a mood of doom and aggression.”

Black Sabbath

Like many other early albums on the Vertigo label, Black Sabbath’s debut was essentially a recording of the band’s live set, completed in a single day. Olav Wyper on the label’s recording technique: “The reason these records sound good is because these bands didn’t need to do much overdubbing. They could all play in the studio as they played ‘live.’ So that’s the reason it sounds less processed and more lifelike. One of the criteria my joint heads of A&R (Mike Everett and Dick Leahy) and I had for signing bands was they had to be able to play their music live.”

Black Sabbath’s debut

Black Sabbath’s debut album was released on 13 February 1970 and it opens with a song called, what else… Black Sabbath. If the beginning of the song sends shivers down your spine, you are not alone and you can come out from under the bed. Iommi remembers the recording of the song: “When I first played the riff to ‘Black Sabbath,’ that set the standard for the rest of the album. When you heard those doomy guitar notes behind Ozzy, the hairs on your arms prickled. We knew it was good and different. The special effects like the chiming bell and the thunderstorm were put afterwards. I think it was Rodger’s idea.”

Producer Rodger Bain worked with the band on their first three albums, and later continued to work with hard rock bands including Budgie and Judas Priest.

Tony Iommi – guitar

Geezer Butler – bass

Bill Ward – drums

Ozzy Osbourne – vocals

As you may have noticed from the album covers for Colosseum’s Valentyne Suite and Black Sabbath’s debut, the striking photographs are very unique and bear similar artistic style. This is the work of a young photographer whom Olav Wyper met at a photo shoot: “I got talking to the young guy who was the focus puller, and he’d told me that he was studying photography at the Royal College of Art. He invited me down to an exhibition he was mounting there at the end of term. It was stunning. His work and ideas were just incredible. So, I hired him on the spot. His name was Keith MacMillan, who did a lot of those early Vertigo covers under the name of Keef; that helped us to have an identity.”

Keith MacMillan, also known as Marcus Keef, used infra-red film when shooting these photographs. It gave the effect of false colors, a technique that was developed in World War II to detect military presence under camouflage. The film renders leaves and grass as magenta while blood and human skin becomes green.

The photo shoot for Sabbath’s debut took place at Mapledurham Watermill on the River Thames in Oxfordshire, England. McMillan recalls that they were initially going for less doom and more smut, with the model being nude under the black cloak, but “We decided none of that worked. Any kind of sexuality took away from the more foreboding mood.”

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

Black Sabbath quickly followed up with a second album in September of 1970, an album that sealed their place in the pantheon of hard rock/metal. We are talking about Paranoid, a record that produced three of the band’s most acclaimed songs: War Pigs, Paranoid and Iron Man. The title track got to #4 in the UK charts and earned the band a performance at Top of the Pops. Tony Iommi remembers: “It was like – oh no – we don’t really want this. We are not a pop group – We’re heavy underground. We were on the same show as Cliff Richard and Engelbert Humperdinck and must have stuck out like a sore thumb.”

My favorite song on the album is one that features no heavy guitar riffs, no satanic messages and no pounding bass and drums. Ozzy Osbourne’s voice is fed into a rotating Leslie speaker in this atmospheric track called Planet Caravan. Bassist Geezer Butler: “We didn’t want to come up with the usual love crap, so it is about floating through the universe with your loved one.” And about that jazzy guitar solo: “Tony, he used to love Django Reinhardt, Joe pass, and he used to play that a lot which didn’t really fit in with the heavier stuff. But it gave him a chance to show where his roots were.”

Ozzy Osbourne – vocals

Tony Iommi – guitar, flute on “Planet Caravan”

Geezer Butler – bass guitar

Bill Ward – drums, congas on “Planet Caravan”

One more heavy rock band to release a debut album on Vertigo in 1970 is Uriah Heep, named after the manipulative character from David Copperfield, written by Charles Dickens in 1850. The band’s line up was formed when organist Ken Hensley joined the ranks of the band Spice late in 1969. This boosted the band’s sound significantly, as guitarist Mick Box remembers: “We’d actually recorded half the first album when we decided that keyboards would be good for our sound. I was a big Vanilla Fudge fan, with their Hammond organ and searing guitar on top.”

Uriah Heep

Their debut album …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble (Very ‘Umble was Uriah Heep’s catch phrase in the book) starts with Gypsy, a track which was also released as a single. One minute into the song Mick Box unleashes one of heavy rock’s best-known guitar riffs, backed up by Ken Hensley’s fantastic Hammond work. The song became the band’s anthem for many years.

The story of the album’s spooky front cover is told in the 2003 CD release on Sanctuary Records: The album hit the racks in a striking sleeve that featured a cobweb-covered human being screaming as if in torment. Look very closely and you’ll see the subject is none other than David Byron. Bron had set up a photo session at which a cobweb machine had been hired to create the olde-world effect. Box wasn’t too enthusiastic about the results so went off to the pub and upon returning in a ‘suitably refreshed’ state decided it might be amusing to spray the contents of the device all over his singer.

Uriah Heep – …Very ‘Eavy …Very ‘Umble

“I tapped him on the shoulder and I went ‘Ssshhssssshhh!’ with this glue all over his face,” guffaws Mick at the memory. “I found it absolutely hilarious and the photographer was quick enough to pick up his camera and snap away. And of course they were the pictures that we used. The cover looked fantastic, it really caught the eye.”

“David wasn’t too pleased because it took him about two weeks to get the glue out of his hair, eye-brows and everything else!” he continues. “But we got our album cover, and the pair of hands on the back actually belong to the tea-boy…it’s his claim to fame.”

David Byron – lead vocals

Ken Hensley – piano, organ, mellotron, slide guitar, vocals

Mick Box – lead and acoustic guitars, vocals

Paul Newton – bass guitar, vocals

Alex Napier – drums

Vertigo Records was a major force in the emerging progressive rock movement of the early 1970s in the British Isles. While most of the major acts in the genre signed with more established labels or their subsidiaries, the latecomer label had to start with lesser known acts. But there was no compromise on quality. Lets review a number of these bands who released albums in 1970.

Like Uriah Heep, Cressida also took its name from a literary giant: William Shakespeare, and his tragic play Troilus and Cressida. Bass player Kevin McCarthy remembers them becoming one of the first bands to sign with the label: “We had never heard of Vertigo and of course had no idea how iconic the label would become. But it didn’t matter. We just thought it meant we were on our way to achieving some success.”

Cressida

Their debut album was recorded at Wessex Studios, located inside a former Gothic church hall built in 1881. For a band that up to that point only recorded demo tapes at small studios, a professional recording studio that hosted groups such as the Rolling Stones, The Who, King Crimson and The Moody Blues, was a major step up.

Cressida’s debut

A favorite track from the album is Depression. The combination of Hammond organ, acoustic guitar and the voice of Angus Cullen works wonders for this band, and this track is a great example. Reminds me of the rockier side of the Moody Blues at times.

Drummer Iain Clark: “I don’t think we knew what to expect. We had made the album and then it was more a question of waiting to see what the critics thought. We were obviously blown away by many of the reactions. It was very rewarding.” Kevin McCarthy: “I always thought that this album was a good debut album. It took a couple of weeks to create, I remember.”

Label head Olav Wyper said of the album: “That first Cressida album is as good as it gets – those guys were entitled to the crown of ultimate ‘progressive’ bands as much as King Crimson, but unless you are into Vertigos or deeply into progressive music from the era, my bet is you never heard of the band.”

Angus Cullen – lead vocals

Kevin McCarthy – bass

Iain Clark – drums

John Heyworth – guitars, vocals

Peter Jennings – organ, piano

Another progressive rock debut album in 1970 was by the band Gracious!, formerly a pop outfit who changed direction after they shared a double bill in July 1969 with King Crimson. This also triggered the use of mellotron by their keyboard player Martin Kitcat. Drummer Robert Lipson: “That changed our lives. Martin got a Mellotron and we were off!”

Their self-titled debut album was recorded at Philips studios in Stanhope Place, Marble Arch, later owned by Paul Weller. The producer was Hugh Murphy who a few years later produced the multi-million selling ‘Baker Street’ for Gerry Rafferty.

Gracious!

My favorite track on the album is Heaven, a great listen for lovers of the mellotron, with keyboard player Martin Kitcat using the instrument with a unique configuration. Damon Fox of Bigelf: “Kitcat was the first person to put ‘lead’ sounds on both sides. Most bands had Mk II’s and used them as they were sold: the rhythm sounds on one side, and then flutes, strings, horns — the lead sounds — on the right side. But Martin was the first guy to contact the Bradley brothers (UK-based Mellotron manufacturers) and have his made custom, with lead sound on both sides.”

Sadly the band recorded only one more album and disintegrated before its release in 1972.

Paul “Sandy” Davis: lead vocals, 12-string guitar, percussion

Alan Cowderoy: guitar, backing vocals, percussion

Martin Kitcat: Mellotron, organ, Hohner pianet, piano, backing vocals

Tim Wheatley: bass, backing vocals, percussion

Robert Lipson: drums

More debuts were released on Vertigo in 1970. The next one is by Beggars Opera, a Scottish band who had their eye on the classics. The band’s name is taken from a 1728 play by the English poet John Gay, and a number of tracks from the album adapted material from classical compositions. Light Cavalry, the epic track that closes the album, is based on Austrian composer Franz von Suppé’s operetta Leichte Kavallerie Overture from 1866.

Beggars Opera – Act One

Guitarist Ricky Gardiner, who later played with David Bowie (Sound and vision) and Iggy Pop, talked about the make-up of the band:

“Musically, the band was an interesting mix of influences. There was a strong classical influence from Alan Park. The drummer, Ray Wilson, was like a wild man and wore a Scottish kilt, a long beard, a large hat and nothing else. He was an admirer of Ginger Baker. The first bass player, Marshall Erskine, was widely experienced in popular music. Our first singer, Martin Griffiths, admired Frank Sinatra and enjoyed putting a lot of drama into his singing, to good effect. He was very theatrical.”

Martin Griffiths – vocals

Alan Park – organ

Raymond Wilson – drums

Ricky Gardiner – lead guitar

Marshall Erskine – bass guitar

We continue with debut albums and come to Affinity, a band with strong jazz influences starting with their name, taken from a title of a 1961 Oscar Peterson album. They started out as an instrumental jazz-rock group named “Ice” and then added a singer, the excellent vocalist Linda Hoyle.

In 1968 they secured a performance contract at the prestigious Ronnie Scott’s jazz club, starting at the Upstairs room and then moving downstairs to play along well-known jazz acts such as Stan Getz and Les McCann. This led to a contract with Vertigo Records.

Affinity

Their self-titled debut album included a number of great interpretations of well-known songs, including a long jam on Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, made famous by Jimi Hendrix’s timeless cover. This is a treasure for lovers of the Hammond organ (the band bought the Hammond that was previously used by Brian Auger). Another great cover from this album is Mr. Joy, composed by Annette Peacock and featured on a Paul Bley album a couple of years earlier.

Affinity’s debut

Although the album received great reviews and the band was touring, they did not last long and remaining recordings with a modified lineup were released only many years later.

The album’s cover resembles Black Sabbath’s debut in style, again the distinct coloring created by photographer Marcus Keef.

Linda Hoyle – vocals

Lynton Naiff – Hammond B3 organ, piano, Wurlitzer electric piano, harpsichord, vibraphone, percussion

Mo Foster – bass guitar, double bass, percussion

Mike Jopp – electric, acoustic and 12-string guitars, percussion

Grant Serpell – drums, percussion

Moving on to two very different groups, both representing the folky side of the label.

After releasing their debut album on Fontana in 1969, Magna Carta signed with Vertigo, starting a brilliant streak of three albums over the next few years. The first was Seasons, an excellent progressive folk album made even better due to the involvement of Gus Dudgeon, Tony Visconti and Rick Wakeman. The three collaborated on David Bowie’s single Space Oddity the previous year. The album features the acoustic guitars of Chris Simpson and Lyell Tranter and heavenly vocal harmonies.

Magna Carta – Seasons

Rick Wakeman plays as a session musician on a number of songs on the album, including a nice organ accompaniment and short solo on Ring of Stones. Magna Carta remained a favorite of Wakeman. After they released their milestone album Lord of the Ages in 1973, he hailed it as “arguably one of the greatest albums of its kind ever made.”

Excellent work by guitarist Davey Johnstone before he joined Elton John.

Double Bass – Spike Heatley

Drums – Barry Morgan

Electric Bass, Recorder – Tony Visconti

Electric Guitar, Sitar – Davy Johnstone

Flute – Derek Grossmith

Nylon-strung Gibson guitar – Lyell Tranter

Steel-strung Martin D18 guitar, Vocals – Chris Simpson

Organ, Piano – Rick Wakeman

Recorder – Tim Renwick

Cello – Peter Willison

Producer – Gus Dudgeon

From the opposite end of the folk spectrum comes Dr. Strangely Strange, a wonderfully wonderful band that sadly released just one album with the label, and even sadder, their last one.

The Irish trio, with Tim Booth, Ivan Pawle and Tim Goulding, started life in a commune called The Orphanage. Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band came to visit them, liked what he heard and recommended them to ISB’s producer and manager Joe Boyd. Their first album Kip of the Serenes was released on Island Records in 1969. For their second album Heavy Petting they were joined by guitarist Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy. Joe Boyd: “I think I remember discussing using Gary Moore with them. The mix of acoustic and electric was in the water in those days – The Incredible String Band were using electric bass by then.”

Dr. Strangely Strange

Gary Moore remembers the recording sessions: “The studio was weird because it was on the ballroom floor and they’d bring out all these screens and put them around the instruments. It was a four-track so everything had to be bounced down.”

The LP package featured an elaborate cutout designed by Roger Dean. This was one of his first hand-drawn fonts, for which he became world-famous with album covers for Yes and other artists. Dean on the cutout sleeve: “You had to treat it very gently – you can’t really slide it on a shelf next to other record covers without damaging the flaps – it’s a real pain – though it’s not like Sticky Fingers, which will do damage to other covers!”

Dr. Strangely Strange – Heavy Petting

Here is Sign On My Mind, a fine track from the album featuring a wonderful electric guitar solo by Gary Moore. Credits on this track:

Bass, Backing Vocals – Tim Booth

Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar, Organ, Whistle – Ivan Pawle

Mandolin – Andy Irvine

Lead Guitar – Gary Moore

Drums – Dave Mattacks

We started the article with a jazz rock outfit and we close it with that genre, though a group quite different in their sound and style from Colosseum. The band is Nucleus, an excellent instrumental group formed by Ian Carr in September of 1969. The following year they won the European Broadcasting Union prize at the Montreux festival and later performed at the Newport jazz festival and the Village Gate club in NYC. Their debut album Elastic Rock is a great artifact of early British jazz fusion, a parallel universe to the more celebrated American scene. That same month Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew was released.

Nucleus – Elastic Rock

The album features another Roger Dean early album cover art.

Baritone Saxophone, Oboe, Piano, Electric Piano – Karl Jenkins

Bass, Electric Bass – Jeff Clyne

Drums, Percussion – John Marshall

Guitar – Chris Spedding

Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Flute – Brian Smith

Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Ian Carr

I cannot possibly review all albums the label released in 1970, about 30 albums in total. I should mention that other releases included albums by Gentle Giant, Lucifer’s Friend, Manfred Mann Chapter Three, Rod Stewart and Patto, all interesting a worth a listen. Gentle Giant’s debut was reviewed here: A Year in Music – 1970: Progressive Music, part 2

For more info on the history of Vertigo Records, visit this interview with Olav Wyper.


If you enjoyed reading this article, you may be interested in these articles about 1970 albums:

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  1. Another fine article! I have a few of these Vertigo releases on vinyl from back in the day, like Sabbath, Uriah Heep, Magna Carta and also a pair of Ian Matthews LPs. We loved the ‘swirl’ and like Island, we always knew Vertigo was putting out really cool stuff. Thanks so much for the background!

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