Exclusive: The World Record Club

Posted on 11th May, 2014

Exclusive: The World Record Club

The World Record Club had a profound influence on music lovers all over the world, giving each access to bargain priced LPs the equal of the expensive mainstream recordings. Yet few know its fascinating history. For the first time one of its founders, Australian John Day, gives StereoNET readers an inside view of one of music’s most loved icons.

Beginnings

The World Record Club was formally incorporated in London, England, in early January 1956, and published its first advertisement soliciting membership on the 29th of that month.

Its creation sprang from the association developed over the preceding two years between two disparate characters:  John Day, an Australian advertising copywriter working in London as Sales Director of Victoria Publications, the then mail-order arm of the Good Housekeeping Institute, itself part of the William Randolph Hearst publishing empire; and Norman Lonsdale, distinguished scion of the British merchant bank Kleinwort Benson Lonsdale.  They were both 28 – about their only point of likeness apart perhaps from a passion for tennis.

The two had been introduced by John Day’s one-time secretary and later assistant Fiona Bentley (later to become Fiona Lonsdale), and despite the many differences in background and experience they became firm friends – so much so that Lonsdale suggested they might go into business together.

Day had previously been Promotions Director of Colorgravure Publications, the mail-order division of  the Melbourne Herald and Sun, and had wide experience in that field – and in particular the launching in Australia of the Companion Book Club.  Lonsdale had access to funds – both his own and his family’s – and a wide-ranging circle of valuable contacts, including Richard (later Lord) Attenborough.

World Record Club

Above: John Day, left, Fiona Bentley, Richard Attenborough, Norman Lonsdale

Birth Of A Unique Club

So the company was formed.  The initial shareholders were Lonsdale and family members; and Day, who had a very minor holding in line with his contribution of capital.  The board was comprised of four:   Lonsdale as Chairman and Managing Director, Day as Sales Director, Fiona Bentley and Attenborough.  The latter was the fledging company’s connection to show business, and Bentley’s organizational talents were invaluable; she later also became heavily involved in record production.  Prominent light-music conductor/composer Cyril Ornadel was recruited as music director.  

The Club had a difficult first year.  Day had insisted that the road to success lay in a unique formula:  that members received no inducement to join, and were required to take only one record a year. (The normal formula for mail-order record or book clubs had always been a handsome gift upon enrolment and a commitment to a certain number of issues per year.)  Moreover, virtually all clubs to that time had operated under the formula that members were required to indicate monthly that they did not want that month’s product, or it was sent automatically.  World Record Club sent its members six-monthly programs and required them to choose in advance the records they wanted.

Many critics pronounced the formula a recipe for disaster.  And so it might have seemed:  Lonsdale was out of pocket one hundred thousand pounds (a very considerable sum in the 1950’s) before a first monthly profit was achieved.  And even that may not have occurred had it not been for a fortuitous intervention by Decca Records.

The Turning Point

There had been several major problems confronting the Club:  one was the reluctance of the British public to accept that a cut-price record could possibly be of the same quality of material as the normal shop offering.  The other, of course, was the rather eccentric nature of the deal the Club offered (where’s the catch?).  A third was the lack of headline artists, conductors and orchestras, although this was soon to be dramatically changed, especially in Australia where the Club was soon to start.

The first problem, too, changed dramatically.   Decca Records, in concert with all the major British record companies, had been a staunch opponent of the Club and now introduced what was meant to be a killer-blow.  “We will ace the record clubs” its spokesman announced.  The instrument of destruction was to be the Ace of Clubs, a new record label put on sale at a few pence below World Record Club’s price.

The launching at once conferred legitimacy to the Club’s offering.   If Decca could put out a record cheaper, then the Club’s records must be all right – so the public’s reasoning went, and correctly too.  Certainly the Club never looked back from that point.

Expansion to Australasia

John Day had been enticed to London by his ex-Colorgravure boss Terence Cresswell-George.  By this time Cresswell-George had parted company with Victoria Publications and was at a loose end.   Well aware that Australia – by reason of geographical considerations alone – was a paradise for mail-order, Day now persuaded Lonsdale that they should expand the Club to Australia, and if possible employ Cresswell-George to do so.  With typical courage (if against his better judgment) Lonsdale agreed, and put up a further substantial sum to effect the launching.  Cresswell-George took with him as his General Manager the former Victoria Publications production manager Cyril Fisher, and with typical flair had the Club firmly established within a very few months, several years later expanding to New Zealand with similar success.

The Club in Australia became a classic case of the child outgrowing the parent.  Cresswell-George laid very sound foundations; and later, after he returned to Australia and took over the company on Cresswell-George’s departure, Day expanded the Club to extraordinary levels, particularly in the field of classical music.  Some of the companies whose repertoire the Club secured – either on an exclusive or shared basis – were EMI (which by a series of part-purchases was ultimately to own both the U.K. and Australasian clubs) Decca, Deutsche-Grammophon, Erato of Paris, R.C.A., Capitol Records, Westminster, Vanguard, Everest, Lyrita, Bertelsmann of Germany, Philips, Harmonia-Mundi of France, L’Oiseau-Lyre, the Russian catalogue Melodiya, Telefunken, Ariola-Eurodisc, Electrola,  Unicorn and such pop and jazz labels as Horizon and World Pacific.

The Club in Australia had also launched its Light Music Club, and now initiated a large number of light music and show recordings, employing the newly-formed London production company FCM (the initials of Fiona Lonsdale, Cyril Ornadel and Morys, Lord Aberdare).   Cover recordings of most of the successful Broadway productions of recent years, plus classic operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan etc. were commissioned by the Club, as well as children’s records et al.  Jazz, mainly from the World Pacific label, and light and vocal recordings mainly from Capitol were also released on a regular basis.   The main focus of the Club, however, remained classical.

The World Record Club Studio

The Club, particularly perhaps in Australia, was distinguished by the quality of its sleeves, nearly 100% of which were original as a matter of deliberate policy.  It was fortunate in having the services of Geoffrey Digby, a contemporary of Day’s and long-time friend, and a brilliant art director, who established and maintained a studio whose output from a wide range of staff and free-lance artists became a matter of legend.  Digby was especially fortunate in one important respect:  since the Club’s records were never on shop display in the ordinary sense, it was not necessary to publish much – if any – detail on the front:  the artist had virtually a blank canvas to work on.   The studio under Digby’s direction became a Mecca for aspiring young artists throughout Australia - and WRC records are usually immediately recognizable through the consistent quality and nature of its sleeves (see Geoff Hocking’s remarkable book on the subject).

In all, the Club endured in Australia for less than thirty years.  Its place was taken by other musical media.  But it provided for a generation an introduction to good music which was unequalled in its time.

The U.K. Operation

Existing distribution arrangements to some degree prejudiced the Club’s early success in the U.K.   Unable to source the wide range of repertoire which steadily became available to the Australian operation, it turned perforce to the production of much of its own material, employing mainly Sinfonia of London under the baton of Muir Mathieson, and emerging young conductors - Colin Davis perhaps the most notable.  Later, of course, after E.M.I. bought into and then took over the Club, a far greater range of repertoire became available, though never to the extent enjoyed by Australia.  The appointment of Anthony Griffith as recording manager was a major step forward and resulted also in the production of a stream of valuable vintage material from E.M.I.’s archives.

NOTES ON QUALITY AND OTHER ISSUES

  • It has often been said that the quality of WRC pressings was different (essentially inferior) to normal commercial product.   In fact, Club pressings were identical in every single respect, using precisely the same vinyl, pressed from precisely the same stampers, and produced on the same machines by the same workers.  The ONLY difference in Australia at least is that in Eric Cleburne the Club employed its own quality control officer:  test pressings of every record were forwarded well in advance to Cleburne for approval, and were not infrequently rejected by him on grounds of quality  - a source of some minor friction at times between the Club and E.M.I. as can be imagined!  The very flexible L.P.s latterly issued by the Club were pressed using the highest-quality vinyl obtainable and in the industry were considered superior to the more rigid types.   In general, it may confidently be asserted that WRC pressings were at least equal to, or superior to commercial pressings.   Indeed, they had to be to combat the popular perception that they were inferior!
  • The Club could at any time have used the cover designs or labels of the companies from which it derived its issues.  It chose not to do so because it was intent on establishing and maintaining its distinct identity – although of course it always acknowledged in its sleeve notes the originating record companies.  The only exceptions were Deutsche-Grammophon which insisted on the retention of its sleeve and label (a condition which the Club welcomed to tell the truth – Day had spent years trying to snare this prestigious repertoire); and Vanguard was concerned to retain its label – it wasn’t concerned about sleeve design.
  • There is some popular misconception that the Club released only reissued material.  In fact such artists as Cat Stevens, Glen Campbell, Van Morrison, Rod McEwan, Hoyt Axton and many others made their debut in Australia on the Club label – as of course did a great many classical artists, including even Pavarotti on his first solo album!  
  • Similarly, it has been written that the Club was required at times to amend or delete tracks from existing recordings before release under the Club label.  Such a condition was never at any time imposed on the Club by any company whose records it issued;  if differences exist it would probably only be because the originating company added tracks on re-release of its material.
  • There also exists a popular misconception that the Club’s “heavy” classical offshoot Record Society issued records of superior physical quality.  Not so – Record Society sleeves were generally more elaborate, but its pressings were identical.   Basically, Record Society was a useful medium for the release of very modern or very ancient or relatively obscure music which Day felt neither he nor the average WRC member was yet quite ready for!

John DayThe author, John Day, has indicated he'd be more than happy to answer any questions. Please submit them below or via the StereoNET Discussion Thread.

Follow up: Michael Main's Recollections of “World Record Club”.
Follow up: Stories from “The Club” Part 1.

Peter Familari's avatar

Peter Familari

One of the veterans of the HiFi industry, Peter was formerly the Audio-Video Editor of the Herald Sun national newspaper in Australia for over two decades. One of the most-respected audio journalists in the industry, Peter brings his unparalleled experience and a unique story-telling ability to StereoNET.

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Posted in: Hi-Fi Music Industry
Tags: world record club  vinyl  turntable 

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