Vertigo Records: the label that changed the world
As the 70s dawned, so did a brand new sound - progressive rock. And at the centre of it all was influential British label Vertigo, home of Gentle Giant, Magna Carta, Black Sabbath and more
The spiral logo. The eclectic range of bands and albums…Vertigo Records represented the vibrancy and expectation of progressive rock in its infancy. But if the heritage left behind by the imprint has inspired and impressed for the past 40 years, then its birth was far more prosaic. In fact, it happened simply because of the impotency of its parent company, Philips.
“You have to understand where things were when I joined Philips,” recalls Olav Wyper, the man who created the Vertigo concept. “I’d started off in the music business with EMI, before spending three years at CBS from 1966, as head of marketing and sales. Then I took over running Philips’ UK operation in 1969. And the company I inherited had lost its way. They had two separate A&R departments, each following their own policies. There was nothing at all unifying everyone.”
Wyper’s first task was to get the whole of the label working on the David Bowie single Space Oddity, ensuring that this was a massive hit, thereby giving the whole of Philips a much needed boost. However, such was the complete lack of credibility at the label that Wyper determined a new subsidiary had to be introduced, which could actively pursue hot young bands.
“I already had an interest in progressive music through my time at CBS. When I joined, we had a lot of progressively-inclined names – from Laura Nyro to Big Brother & The Holding Company – who enjoyed considerable media coverage in Britain, but couldn’t sell anything. So, I came up with the idea of sample albums like The Rock Machine and The Rock Machine Moves On, which showcased all these acts, and gave them the chance to get noticed. As a result, we sold loads of records.
“What I wanted from Vertigo was to create a progressive music label. I already had the name in my mind – as a former advertising copywriter and journalist, I was always good at coming up with that sort of thing – so now we just needed the bands to go with it.”
Working together with young A&R executives Mike Everett and Dick Leahy, Wyper went out in active search of talent: “In those days, no label would think of signing anyone who wasn’t already working with a solid fan base, so we saw loads of gigs, looking for the sort of acts who fitted in with our vision.”
The first signing to Vertigo were Colosseum, who were already working on their second album.
“Gerry Bron, who was a manager and booking agent at the time, was producing the new album from Colosseum, Valentyne Suite. And, as the first record (Those Who Are About To Die Salute You) had been on Philips, we met up to discuss things. That’s how they became the first band to sign to the new label. I was a fan of theirs anyway; I loved the band’s jazz-rock approach, and also knew many of the band personally. Through Gerry I also picked up Juicy Lucy, Uriah Heep and Manfred Mann Chapter Three, which was the new, progressive project from Manfred Mann.”
Wyper also momentously signed Black Sabbath – almost by accident.
“I’d gone up to Birmingham for a meeting, but gone a day too early. So, I ended up in my hotel that evening with nothing to do.”
On the advice of a young hotel worker, he ended up seeing Black Sabbath play a local pub. He was so impressed that…
“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 [a tentative contact] on the tablecloth.”
With this first batch of signees, Wyper set the tone for the next two years, a period which would also see the likes of Jade Warrior, Magna Carta, Dr. Strangely Strange, Nirvana (the original one), Warhorse and Gentle Giant sign to Vertigo.
“Our attitude was, obviously, that anything we signed had to be good. But it should also broadly fit into the progressive style, whether it was folk, jazz or rock. We did pick up a surprising range of acts, but they were all characterised by being ‘progressive’ in nature.”
However, what made the label stand apart was its attention to detail, and the fact that each release was presented as a work of art.
“I was determined that the packaging would be fresh and innovative, that every record would be seen as totally artistic. So, we put out our records in gatefold sleeves. Back then, this rarely happened, and only for big names. The idea of having new acts treated in this way was unheard of.”
On top of this, Wyper also hired an aspiring young photographer to design most of those initial sleeves, giving them a coherence that helped to create a label style.
“The first British pop promo was for Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross, and I’d gone down to the shoot, when I was at CBS. 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. In the end, 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.”
Equally as vital was the famed spiral logo, which has become so much a part of the Vertigo lore. The initial idea was created by Wyper himself.
“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. For collectors, it was these releases that are especially sought-after today. After I left, the powers-that-be reduced the size and the impact, which was such a shame.”
The Vertigo imprint enjoyed considerable artistic and commercial success in its infancy, fuelled by Wyper’s desire to drag Philips as a whole into a fresh era.
“I changed so much about the company. Even the reception area, which I completely overhauled, and made sure that it was staffed by young people who were music fans. Before there had been a very unwelcoming concierge.”
However, Wyper’s tenure at Philips and Vertigo lasted only two years. In 1971, he was headhunted by RCA and their boss Keith Glancey. Once more inheriting a label in total disarray, Wyper tried the same trick as he’d pulled off with Vertigo, by establishing Neon Records, and signing the likes of Quintessence, Centipede (Canterbury band led by pianist Keith Tippett) and Fair Weather (with Andy Fairweather Low). However, this time it didn’t quite work as well.
“We had a few successes, but couldn’t do it again. I think everything about Vertigo was just aligned so well…the people at the label, the artists we signed, the way we packaged and marketed the albums. It was a special time.”
Some have suggested that Vertigo was Philips’ direct response to the fact that EMI had launched the Harvest label so successfully. But Wyper sees things a little differently.
“To my way of thinking, if you look at where Harvest were in 1969, they really had lost their way artistically. So yes, they were the first to do this sort of thing – create a special label for young progressive acts who reflected the times – but they’d gone past their best by the time we arrived on the scene.”
Vertigo, too, suffered from a loss of focus once Wyper left. He himself attributes this to the way the parent Dutch company took control of things, to the detriment of the original vision.
“When I first joined Philips, the UK office was regarded as a lame duck by the rest of the European companies. Anything we released they automatically rejected. So, when the first batch of releases was ready for Vertigo, I personally went round to every managing director of Philips at each office round the continent, to get them on our side. The German company, in particular, was very enthusiastic about it all.
“But it was always a constant struggle to convince the Dutch that it was worthwhile putting records out on Vertigo. They were always badgering me to put them on Philips releases instead, and could never understand the advantages which Vertigo offered. They hadn’t fully appreciated the battle I had to wage because of Philips’ bad reputation when I joined. So, there were a succession of arguments between me and them, which I won, but it was a battle.”
So, when Wyper left, Philips began to impose their own ideas…
“The people who took over from me suddenly found themselves under intense pressure. Philips decided to dump a load of inappropriate bands onto the label. For instance they put Status Quo onto Vertigo – which to my mind was just crass lunacy.”
There’s little doubt that the glory years for Vertigo were those early times, when Wyper and his team proved than an innovative, imaginative and quality-fuelled approach to a label could reap dividends. It’s for this reason that Vertigo has remained among the most acclaimed of labels.
“There was a long period of time, when Vertigo’s stock fell dramatically, mainly because of the way it was handled by the parent company – which is now Universal. But in the past few years, the early releases – with the original logo – have become collectible again, and I am quite proud of the way there is now a real respect for what we tried to do – and for the most part delivered. There was even a three-CD box set a few years ago (Time Machine, 2005), which helped to underline what we achieved.
“My philosophy with Vertigo was always to involve everyone. Even the head of classical music for Philips at the time, Jack Boyce, came up with ideas for the label. At its height, the whole of Philips became a hive of activity, centred around Vertigo.”
Therein lies the secret to why Vertigo was such a considerable success. It was a specialist label that was inclusive, rather than exclusive. A unique vision from a record company visionary. A one-off that’s left a legacy so dynamic and enormous that, when the label was activated a few years ago, even the likes of Metallica deemed it an honour to have the famous spiral logo swirling on their releases.