EMI is no longer. Split into two and sold to both Sony and Universal, the “last truly British record company” is now extinct. Its history, however, will endure on vinyl and digitally. The company released some great records. Forget the obvious for a moment (we’ll come back to those) and just think fondly about Art Brut, about The Decemberists’ “The Crane Wife”. About Gorillaz, and about REM’s earlier work.
But going back to the obvious, we can’t start elsewhere than all 35 minutes and 57 seconds of “Pet Sounds”. It’s, quite simply, amazing. You’ll have heard this a million times already but it always bears repeating: “Pet Sounds” is a masterpiece and influenced practically everything that followed. Released on 16 May 1966 on Capitol, then wholly owned by EMI, Pet Sounds came about only because Brian Wilson listened to the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul”. And that was it. He was, in his own words, “challenged to do a great album”. The greatness of “God Only Knows” aside, the rest of the album is also awesome because Wilson decided that normal instruments weren’t quite good enough for him. So he incorporated the noises of bicycle bells, dog whistles, even Coca-Cola cans. You can’t hate an album that uses Coke cans and manages to make them sound good. The fruits of Wilson choosing to go it alone – he wrote the majority of the album on his own, collaborating only with Tony Asher – were better than anyone expected. “Pet Sounds” is one of the first psychedelic rock masterpieces and – because, as I said, it always bears repeating – became one of the most influential records in the history of popular music, even inspiring a number of tribute albums. Well done, EMI. Even if you didn’t promote it properly.
One of the records that cites “Pet Sounds” as a major influence is the Beatles’ own “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. This is the thing: the records from EMI aren’t just the greatest records from EMI – they are some of the best records of all time. Everything that can be said about “Sgt. Pepper” has probably been said already, multiple times – and not undeservedly. The concept of a washed up rock ‘n’ roll band recording their comeback album was familiar at the time. Cynics had predicted that the Beatles would by 1967 have reached the end of their creative lifespan. The irony is, of course, that by mocking what they saw as a passé performing band, the Beatles managed to establish themselves firmly as legitimate artists. And the record is nothing short of innovative; the band took full advantage of studio technology, utilising double tape and tracking effects. This must represent the peak of the Beatles’ musical collective works. Agree or disagree, Sgt. Pepper is something special.
Six years later, EMI released Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”. Poetic and heartbreaking, it’s a predictable choice maybe for the EMI pantheon. But there’s just no getting around the fact that “Dark Side” deserves its place. It was an album of its time, characterised by (at this point) ex-member’s Syd Barrett’s deteriorating mental health, something that comes across clearly, so interworked into every chord and lyric that it is all-pervasive. Floyd worked hard to make every song individually of the highest standard – particularly note-worthy when compared to some of the more nonsensical songs that seem to characterise Floyd albums like “Ummagumma” or “Atom Heart Mother”. The band’s eighth studio album, “Dark Side of the Moon” is the nearest to flawless that Pink Floyd ever came. And let’s not forget that you can always sync it up to the Wizard of Oz.
A Night at the Opera was the most expensive album ever recorded. And wow, does it show.
Perhaps a less obvious contender is Blur’s “Parklife”. No doubting that “Parklife” deserves to be lauded, even if it is a step away from the more universally recognised albums previously mentioned. Hailed as a “landmark in British rock music”, I love Parklife. The title track alone is brilliant, and “Girls & Boys” is one of those songs that, no matter how overplayed it might be at every so-called ‘indie’ club night in the country, it’s just near-on impossible to get sick of. “Parklife” is fun. It’s bold. And did what British pop music needed in 1994: took all the best of style and wit and threw it all together in what is, essentially, a near perfect album that (cheese and wine comparisons aside) gets even better with age.
Back to the classics and Queen’s “A Night at the Opera” which, at the time of its release in 1975, was the most expensive album ever recorded. And wow, does it show. Starting with the vitriolic “Death on Two Legs”, (really just a hate letter written by Freddie Mercury to their then-manager), “A Night at the Opera” never loses its intensity. Every single song is worth wearing out the repeat button to listen to, with a particular nod to Mercury’s attempt to do ‘sci fi skiffle’ on “’39”, the purely vocal bridge on “Seaside Rendezvous” which sees Mercury and Roger Taylor imitating tubas, clarinets and kazoos, and “Good Company”’s elaborate recreation of a Dixieland-style jazz band. Plus of course, karaoke favourite and rock-opera anthem, the legendary “Bohemian Rhapsody”. As the BBC once said, “A Night at the Opera” was Queen’s finest hour.
Smashing Pumpkins’ “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” maybe isn’t the first choice when thinking of landmark EMI records – and is, at that, only just an EMI record. Released on Virgin in 1995 just a few years after the sale to Thorn EMI, “Mellon Collie” is a two disc album that is definitely a mainstay of any record collection. The Pumpkins – back when they were still the Smashing Pumpkins, not just Billy Corgan and an assorted backing band – knew what they were doing. Better yet, they knew how to do it well. The record is that of youth; Corgan said he was using it to tie up everything he felt when he was younger and inarticulate. Something about it can immediately throw the listener back into angst-filled teenage years of ‘no one understands me’. Honest and heartfelt, with just the right amount of haunting nostalgia, “Mellon Collie” avoids the pitfalls of being trite and emerges triumphant.
EMI have a legacy, and it’s sad to see it go.
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