Ace Records History Part 1
By Roger Armstrong
ROCK ON ~ BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE
I get my records at the Rock On stall,
Teddy boy he’s got them all”
So sang Phil Lynott on Thin Lizzy’s 1973 single, ‘The Rocker’, and he was not the only rock star cruising down to Ted Carroll’s Rock On stall in a flea market at 93 Golborne Road, off Portobello Road. Ted had been selling the coolest wax in town there since 1971, with Elvis wallpaper behind him and squeezed into a space barely bigger than a phone box. Oldies were Ted’s sideline, actually. His main business was co-managing Thin Lizzy.
Ted Carroll pictured with Thin Lizzy
By 1974, Ted had made sure Phil and the boys were safely nestled into the bosom of Phonogram Records and on the verge of superstardom. This left him free to settle into the occupation of oldies dealer to punters and pop stars (Page and Plant, for example) alike.
Then an opportunity arose to expand when Ted’s friend Sylvia Keogh discovered a new market in London’s Chinatown. The Rock On stall in Soho market opened at the beginning of September 1974 and initially was open three days a week Monday / Tuesday / Wednesday with Sylvia’s vintage clothing taking care of the rest of the week. Ted and future Pogues manager Frank Murray manned the stall for the first few weeks. Then Ted recruited former Queens University Social Sec Roger Armstrong. He took early retirement from a brief career in band management and moved in behind the counter at the Rock On Soho stall.
Adrian Thrills With Joe Strummer
Business was brisk and soon the record department of the joint venture ventured out on its own, expanding to fill three units of the blue and white plastic awning-covered lock-ups that were Rock On Central premises.
THE EARLY YEARS - CHISWICK RECORDS
In 1975 Ted opened a third outlet of the Rock On empire in Camden Town and, with Roger, started a record label that was to be a mix of noisy low-budget recordings and reissues of classics from the past that through the retail outlets they knew were in demand. Greg Shaw already had Bomp! Records in L.A. and Marc Zermati had Skydog in Paris, linked by the Flaming Groovies’ records. He and Larry Debay of the Bizarre record shop in London set up a distribution company that was to come in handy.
In mid-1975, rock’n’roll may not have been dead, but it was looking distinctly queasy, with only the likes of Dr Feelgood and a few other stalwarts of the drinking fraternity really raising a proper ruckus and the above mentioned labels helping to keep it alive.
The name Chrome leapt off the pages of Melody Maker’s comprehensive gig guide and it was in the Lord Nelson pub on the Holloway Road that Chrome got their first opportunity to be blasé about an approach from a record company. But who could blame them from keeping the champagne on ice when the approach was from a pair of dodgy looking Irishmen with nothing more than the possibility of forming a record label?
Ted Carroll and Roger Armstrong
Chrome evolved into the Count Bishops and became the debut act on what now, at least, had a name, CHISWICK RECORDS, called after a then suitably low rent part of London. For the grand sum of £92, the first Chiswick record was cut one hot summer night at Pathway Studios in Stoke Newington. Three months later, the Count Bishops’ “Speedball” Extended Play was released to an enthusiastic response from a handful of people in London and a few in Paris. In fact, after garnering some good notices in the weekly music press, it sold surprisingly well and the Count Bishops hit the road in leather jackets, playing revved up speedy R&B just as the whiff of punk was in the air.
Ted Carroll at Golbourne Road
From the start, the idea was that the label would put out a mixture of new recordings and reissues of highly rare and collectable blasts from the past. The second release was a reissue of the best British rock’n’roll record ever, ‘Brand New Cadillac’, issued in 1959 by the amazingly strange Vince Taylor. Licensing it was facilitated by the addition of Trevor Churchill to Chiswick Records’ board of directors. Trevor’s background was in “real” record companies; big, corporate things that wielded vast power and controlled the listening habits of millions of innocent children. He had also managed the formation of Rolling Stones Records.
Trevor With Reparata & The Delrons
Another of Trevor’s former employers, EMI, obliged with a license for ‘Brand New Cadillac’. Coincidentally, just as Chiswick put out the best ever Brit rock’n’roll record, Hank Mizell’s ‘Jungle Rock’ rocketed to #3 in the charts and in its wake Chiswick started to get radio play on the Vince Taylor record. Distribution shifted immediately from the back of Ted’s clapped-out Peugeot to President Records — though the first hit record didn’t materialise.
The third 45 was a new recording by a second London band, the 101ers, whose lead singer was Joe Strummer. Three years later, his next band, the Clash would cover Taylor’s best-ever Brit rock’n’roll tune.
The low-budget 45s rolled off the presses throughout 1976: a mixed bag ranging from the aggro-glam of the Gorillas to doo wop revivalists Rocky Sharpe and the Razors to French powerhouse R&B act Little Bob Story, to one of the best early Chiswick 45s ‘Train Train’ by the Count Bishops, now shorn of their original lead singer. They all shared one thing, though, a certain enthusiasm. Which was very much in the air at the time: punk rock was starting to poke its head up out of the mire.
Annoyance of the year – the 101ers broke up the day Chiswick put their record out.
Rock On Camden
In 1977 Trevor moved back from Hamburg, where he had been working for Polydor Records. He was installed in the attic above Rock On’s recently leased shop in Kentish Town Road, right by Camden Town tube station. Over the year, Chiswick put out seven albums, 16 singles and an EP. Still, the operation had to be financially supported by a combination of Ted’s retail business and the profit made by just one of those seven albums, a tape of an Elvis interview made in Vancouver in 1957. The focus of the company was on new artists, but the reissue programme was also getting off the ground, with “Hollywood Rock’n’Roll”, the iconic rockabilly compilation of tracks licensed from Era Records, which had a wonderfully moody biker photo on its cover.
Halfway through 1977 Motorhead arrived on Chiswick’s doorstep, in the shape of Lemmy Kilmister. Their debut album had failed to be issued by UA and the band was calling it a day. Chiswick volunteered to record and issue a Motorhead swansong. What was intended to be a single 45 grew, in one 36-hour non-stop session, into backing tracks for a whole album. Suddenly Chiswick had stopped making low-budget records. Having, in Motorhead, the first “name” act on its books, meant another change in distribution, this time to Anchor/ABC. The eponymous album even charted at #35 in the UK.
A roster of acts was evolving and already under contract. There were the (Count) Bishops with their uncompromising R&B, two punk rock bands: the Radiators (From Space) from Ireland and Johnny Moped, Croydon’s finest and most idiosyncratic, and Radio Stars, the bridge between 60s Pop and Power Pop. There were also one-offs, some of them quite peculiar and some of them career-launchers: Jim Kerr (Johnny and the Self-Abusers), Billy Bragg (Riff Raff) and Kirsty MacColl (as the wonderfully named Mandy Doubt in Drug Addix) all contributed to the Chiswick story.
B-side of the year: Lee Kristofferson’s ‘Night of the Werewolf’
Somehow the whole thing stayed afloat through 1977 and into 1978, but leaks were beginning to spring and a watch was kept for any likely rescue ship on the horizon. Trevor’s contacts in the real world had already secured a licensing agreement with Metronome in Germany and a series of other agreements around Europe. In the UK, EMI hove into sight and Chiswick Records was dragged screaming and cheering to the bank.
At the tail end of our independence there was discographical mayhem as releases were shelved waiting for impending issue through EMI. With heavy heart our relationship with Johnny Moped ended as there was little chance of EMI selling their brand of outsider punk rock. Two more catalogue LPs came out on Chiswick, but what records they were. The prosaically titled “Early Recordings” by Link Wray disguised 14 tracks of the string-ripping guitar mayhem that had inspired budding pickers including Townshend and Page. This is the album with the longest continuous stay in catalogue. Both parts of the irresistible ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu’ led off an LP by Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns. The LP was dedicated to Guy Stevens of the UK Sue label, another great inspiration for Chiswick. When Roger presented him with a copy of the LP, Guy burst into tears when he read the dedication.
Rocky Sharpe and the Replays secured the first UK hit under the new arrangement with EMI. This was closely followed by massive European and US success with Sniff ‘n’ The Tears’ ‘Driver’s Seat’, lifted from their “Fickle Heart” album. The revised post-Stiff version of the Damned scored a Top 20 hit with ‘Love Song’, their first effort on Chiswick. Their second, ‘Smash It Up’, was banned by the BBC for being too anarchic but is the band’s live anthem to this day. The album of the singles, “Machine Gun Etiquette” is now widely regarded as their finest.
Over the following three years, the label delivered a mix of pop, rock and R&B records which, if not always commercially successful, certainly stand the test of time. The Tony Visconti produced “Ghostown” by the Radiators is still hailed as one of the great Irish rock records of all time. Sniff ‘n’ the Tears made three further well-received LPs but didn’t quite repeat that initial worldwide success. The Bishops made one live and two studio albums but couldn’t survive the death of rhythm guitarist and main driving force Zenon De Fleur. Three Mike Vernon-produced Rocky Sharpe and the Replays albums and a slew of 45s kept the band on the radio, in the charts and they were even bigger in Spain and Germany than the UK.
Great effort went into London rockabilly band Whirlwind, who became the support act of choice to Blondie, the Clash and Ian Dury. The Meteors opened for the Cramps; their ‘Radioactive Kid’ was a full-throttle slab of rockabilly on steroids: psychobilly, as it was soon dubbed. Classical music engineer Adam Skeaping recorded it straight to 2-track digital in a theatre. The explosive sound at the end is the sound of a grand piano being dropped and the tape slowed down.
Though Chiswick concentrated on the main acts, they managed to fit in one-off 45s from the Nips, with future Pogue Shane MacGowan on vocals and shabby suit, and another 45 by one of his future band mates, Terry Woods (with Phil Lynott). Tom Petty featured on the Kathy Valentine-led Textones single and there were outstanding releases from Welsh soulsters Red Beans ‘n’ Rice and the one-man a cappella of the Stick Shifts.
More unusually, Albania, from Scotland, cut a very fine and lavishly packaged LP more in what would become known as an ‘indie’ vein, with highly articulate and not too obtuse lyrics and a very fresh approach to the music. They followed their debut album with the gloriously eccentric single ‘Go, Go, Go’ that didn’t feature the band apart from singer K.Y. McKay but did feature Paddy Maloney on Uilleann pipes. It was very nearly big in Italy.
The party lasted until 1981 when Chiswick and EMI bade each other a fond farewell, signing off appropriately with a cover of Ritchie Valens’ ‘Come On Let’s Go’ by Rocky Sharpe and the Replays as the deal turned full circle.
Rocky Sharpe & the Replays
TV appearance of the year was The Damned doing ‘Love Song’ on BBC TV’s Top Of The Pops. It would have been even better if Captain Sensible had not been banned from wearing a wedding dress, because the BBC worried that viewers might think he was taking the piss out of David Bowie’s ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ video which was debuting on the same edition.
Post-EMI, it was back to independence. Distribution arrangements were made over the next year with IDS and then moved to PRT.
Two Two were a pop duo playing that funky music by white chaps a year before Wham, with sharp lyrics and a World view of music before its time. Jakko was more in the New Romantic territory but with sophisticated arrangements and exceptional musicianship. A delightful beat group 45 by Minor Classics, ‘Sign Language’, was lost along the way: Chiswick took aim at the charts but missed.
There was a return to the roots with a very fine Dr Feelgood album and eventually one more hit in 1982 with a cover of Ernie Maresca’s ‘Shout Shout (Knock Yourself Out)’ by label stalwarts Rocky Sharpe and the Replays.
The wolf was kept from howlin’ at the door too loudly by making a lot of the earlier Chiswick back catalogue available.
But by the end of 1982 the Chiswick label had effectively wound down, with just one record each issued in 1983 and 1984. In the years since, the label has resurfaced episodically, to present the occasional new recording and re-issue old favourites on CD. Essentially, the three directors felt that, as far as the mainstream pop business went, they were getting more remote than ever from the new sound of success. Combine that feeling with the extravagant promotional cost of the increasingly necessary video and a general upping of the marketing ante, and it became clear it was time to get back to basics and concentrate on the reissue business. Better the devil you know…
Unexpected release of the year: Isla St Clair – “The Song And The Story” – the LP of the TV programme. Another great notion of Ted’s.