History of Oval Music

Charlie__gordon_at_the_oval_tube_station  Oval Music was established in1972 by South London neighbours Charlie Gillett and Gordon Nelki (pictured outside the Oval tube station in 1972), who named their company after the local cricket ground, the Kennington Oval. Music journalist and author Charlie had recently started his own Sunday lunchtime radio show on BBC Radio London, Honky Tonk.

Among the records getting most reaction from radio listeners were records from New Orleans and South Louisiana, many of them unavailable in the UK. The duo went to the Southern States on a scouting trip for material to release on a compilation album, and to see how independent record labels operated. But having unearthed a treasure trove of good music, much of it sung in French and featuring accordions and fiddles in the Cajun style, they failed to find a British distributor interested in releasing it.

Oval Records was put in abeyance during 1973 while the partners became co-managers of Kilburn and the High Roads, invited by its lead singer Ian Dury to look after his motley group of former students and free-jazz musicians. With help from Paul Conroy at the Charisma Agency, the group became one of the leading lights of what has since been called the Pub Rock circuit. Among the others were Brinsley Schwarz, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Elvis Costello and Dire Straits. For all the gory details, check two books published in 2000, Will Birch's Don't StopTill Canvey Island and Richard Ball's Sex and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: The Ian Dury Story (Omnibus).

In 1974, a record deal for Kilburn and the High Roads was secured with Raft, a UK subsidiary of Warner. But Warner's US bosses sunk Raft on the very day the finished album was delivered. At the newly-formed Virgin label, the A&R team were made an offer that Ian spurned. When the disappointed A&R men at Virgin asked if C & G had anything else, the tapes of the Louisiana album were dusted off, and the Oval label was belatedly launched with Another Saturday Night. Since widely acknowledged as the best introduction to the music of the region, the album almost spawned a hit single when "Promised Land' by Johnnie Allan made playlists on several of the recently-established commercial radio stations throughout the UK. Re-released twice on vinyl by Oval with added tracks, Another Saturday Night is still available as a 20-track CD on Ace Records.

During 1975, Oval began to receive tapes from artists lured by the music of Another Saturday Night. Scottish song writer Jimmy O'Neill sent a tape of over a dozen songs, including several that sounded like hits to the neophyte A&R men. Jimmy played virtually all the instruments on a single, 'Achin' in My Heart' by Jimme Shelter, which was kindly reviewed in the NME but entirely neglected by radio. Jimmy later went off to form first Fingerprintz (three albums on Virgin), and then the Silencers (three more with BMG), achieving the difficult trick of making a living in the music industry for over twenty years without ever becoming well-known.

In 1976, with no thought of trying to establish a consistent sound or genre, Oval reissued albums by Sir Douglas Quintet and Barbara Lynn, and licensed three new reggae singles. All three singers later became famous - Dennis Brown, Michael Rose (as lead singer in Black Uhuru) and Horace Andy (thirteen years later, with Massive Attack) - but the label's idealist directors failed to match their A&R perspicacity with any idea of how to persuade mainstream radio to play reggae.

In 1977, budding song-writer Declan McManus recorded four songs in his bedroom and sent the tape to Charlie at Radio London with the name D.P.Costello on the box. Appreciative of his first-ever airplay, Declan followed through by asking if Oval could help launch his career. C & G took the songs to a couple of major label A&R men, who just shook their heads.

Undeterred, Declan went to the Notting Hill office of Stiff Records, whose joint bosses Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera threw the singer into an 8-track studio in Stoke Newington under the production guidance of one of their other artists, Nick Lowe. With the black-rimmed spectacles of one rock 'n' roll icon (Buddy Holly) and the first name of another, Declan morphed into Elvis Costello.

In 1978, Gordon conceived a band put together on the principles of a football team, with a back line of drums, bass and rhythm guitar, a mid-field of song-writers to supply the vision, and goal-scoring vocalists to deliver the victories. Although the concept was partly designed as a showcase for the songs of Jimmy O'Neill, he dropped out of sight before rehearsals began, so fellow Glaswegian Bobby Henry was hauled in to supply the bulk of the songs and share vocal duties with Nicky Shy, who had answered a Melody Maker ad for budding singers.

On saxophone and backing vocals was Lene Lovich, a flamboyant, effervescent Yugoslav American with an improbable history, who introduced her partner, bald guitarist Les Chappell, and their friend who played drums, Bobby Irwin. Bobby turned out to be one of the finest drummers any of us had ever heard, but he soon figured out that a dark rehearsal room in Wandsworth was not where he wanted to spend his time. Unaccountably unreachable for rehearsals, Bobby developed a knack of becoming miraculously available for recordings.

Lene turned out to have all the vivacious attributes of a star; over-riding her protestations that everybody would hate her voice, C&G prevailed on her to perform a couple of songs. After some months, the fluctuating line-up of musicians was eventually whittled down to a recording unit which assembled at the same Pathway Studios where Elvis Costello had recently recorded his debut album.

After ten tracks were recorded, C&G shopped the resultant tapes around the record industry under the project name, The Oval Exiles. A&M Records offered a label deal. At Stiff Records, Dave Robinson hated everything except the female vocalist, whose version of 'I Think We're Alone Now' he wanted to put out straight away, tomorrow if not this afternoon. Lacking a B-side, the Oval duo called Lene and asked her to write one. She came back next day with 'Lucky Number.' On hearing it, Dave assigned Lene to a spot on the forthcoming Stiff tour of the UK and called for an album. Thus was Stateless commissioned, recorded and the tour embarked upon, from which Lene emerged as the artist all the promoters wanted back.

Meanwhile, Stiff had released Ian Dury's album New Boots and Panties and followed up with several singles, each of which did better than the one before. At the end of the year Stiff and Ian had their first number one, 'Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick.' On the B-side, Ian had stuck a song he co-wrote with former Kilburn pianist, Russell Hardy, '(There Aint' Half Been Some) Clever Bastards,' 50% published by Oval Music. The record sold over 900,000 copies and earned Oval and Russell the first money either party had made in the music business.

Invited to go out on her own national tour early in 1979, Lene made it a condition that Stiff release a single from her album. Dave Robinson took the multi-track of 'Lucky Number' into a studio, speeded it up, told a drummer to hit a snare hard on the second and fourth beats throughout the song, and rounded everybody he could find to chant 'number two' at the end. The next release on Stiff after Ian Dury's chart-topper, 'Lucky Number' was instantly picked up by radio and made number 3. With UK sales of over 490,000 copies (a hair's breadth from a gold record), it was a hit through most of Europe.
Although Lucky Number didn't chart in the USA, Lene made a big impact there, touring twice and laying the foundations for a fan-base that re-emerged in the CD era, when Rhino released all three Stiff albums and 'Lucky Number' wound up on uncountable compilations. The support band on one of the tours was Bruce Wooley and the Camera Club, whose keyboard player Thomas Dolby wrote 'New Toy' for Lene, the closest she came to an American hit single. In the UK, Lene's only other top twenty single was 'Say When,' contributed by Oval's first writer, Jimmy O'Neill.

Oval's label deal with A&M was much less successful, to put it kindly. Mickey Modern and Benny Leopard, a couple of wide-boys from South London, made an album under the name of The Secret, and produced two singles and a mini-album by their protégé Shrink. Lene knitted a jumper which Bobby Henry wore on the sleeve of a single that nobody noticed. Nicky Shy went back to his original name as Nick James, joined City Limits magazine as its film critic and wound up in his current role as editor of Sight and Sound.

Pioneered by Rough Trade, there was now a way for independent labels to be distributed through the UK without going through a major company. In 1979, Oval launched itself as a solo venture with The Honky Tonk Demos, a compilation of tapes played during Charlie's seven years at BBC Radio London. Tracks by Dire Straits, Graham Parker, the Darts and Charlie Dore mingled with less well-known names.

By now, artists were submitting tapes in on a regular basis, sometimes calling first to make sure we would listen to them.
American guitarist Holly Vincent launched her career with Tell That Girl to Shut Up by Holly and the Italians, which sold 15,000 copies over a period of several months but never enough in any one week to make the charts.
We put together a band around teenage guitarist Kevin Armstrong, who released two albums under the band-name Local Heroes SW9. Matthew Seligman played bass on the first album, Thomas Dolby played keyboards on the second and recruited the other two for his own much more successful career on EMI.


To be continued, featuring Direct Drive, the Reluctant Stereotypes, Airstrip One, First Light, Woodhead Monroe, the Rhythm Sisters, Jali Musa Jawara, African Connection, George Darko, Paul Hardcastle, Carey Johnson, Jack 'n' Chill, Jah Wobble, Deep, Billy Rain, Dreamcatcher and Touch and Go