This Used to Be Clint’s Playground: The Dynamic, Explosive, Super Bad World of K-Tel Records

Winnipeg businessman Philip Kives died on April 27. You may not know Kives by name, but if you (or, um, your parents) came of age as a pop fan anytime within close proximity of those loopy years between “Gimme Shelter” and “Blitzkrieg Bop,” you surely are familiar with one of Kives’s key contributions to the (then nascent) “random shuffle” aesthetic: K-Tel Records. Kives founded the label in the mid-sixties, employing the power of TV advertising to fry the brains of bubblegum music fanatics everywhere. By the time 1970 rolled around, the K-Tel brand was firmly entrenched in households across North America. Slicing vegetables and listening to two minute extrapolations of three-and-a-half-minute chart toppers would never be the same.

In honour of the man’s oddball genius, I am posting a reprint of the K-Tel chapter from I Wanna Be Sedated: Pop Music in the Seventies (Sound and Vision Press), the book I co-authored with Phil Dellio in 1993. One little bit of unfortunate, messy business to deal with upfront: In the book, we misspell Kives’s last name (as “Kieves”). The rather obscure task of sourcing out actual print information about K-Tel in pre-Internet times is our only alibi, and we regret the error. I have corrected the spelling here, of course, but have left in the opening quote, credited to one Gary Kives, whose presence (via Google) also remains something of a mystery. As anyone who has read Sedated is fully aware, the book is nothing if not fact-based, so I trust that either our original quote source was incorrect, or that Gary simply did not figure prominently in the operation.

[Note that you have to scroll to the bottom of the piece to get to the footnotes.]


(Illustration by Dave Prothero)

“The consumer must receive value for money. That is the first truth of the music business—of any business.”
— K-Tel International’s Gary Kives.

The chasm that was created by Sgt. Pepper in 1967—separating ‘pop’ from ‘rock,’ ‘frivolous’ from ‘serious,’ ‘fake’ from ‘real,’ and ‘Peaches’ from ‘Herb’—became even more pronounced in the early seventies. On one side were art-rockers, singer-songwriters, HRS [1] galumphs, and whoever else took pride in belonging to the great Pete Seeger/Frank Zappa/Rod McKuen tradition of quality, seriousness, and musicianship; on the other side was the slime pit, where the only thing that mattered was money, money, and number-one singles. The pit was a unique and troubling place, a murky, dank, frightening netherworld of Polka Rock, Martial-Arts Rock, and million-selling singles by nuns, Swedes, truckers, and popcorn machines. It was ruled by a company called K-Tel International. It made no sense then, it makes even less sense now.

Inside the pit, the music played and the kids danced while a frantic voice issued non-stop bulletins: “That’s Right 24 Original Hits By 14 Original Artists You’d Pay Over $43.50 If You Bought These Songs Separately You’d Also Be Clinically Insane Please Call Now Operators Are Standing By I’m Out Of Breath Help—” It was the voice of K-Tel International, a Canadian-based record label that licensed the tackiest, strangest, and crassest Top Forty hits of the day from bigger record labels, crammed as many of them as possible into garishly packaged compilation albums bearing the crudest titles imaginable, and then pedalled the finished product via hyper-driven TV commercials that made the records themselves seem modest by comparison.

K-Tel’s roots go back to Western Canada in the mid-sixties, where Philip and Raymond Kives came up with the idea of marketing a record album called 24 Goofy Greats (1966) directly over TV. As this was the first time in recorded history that the Aristotelian ideals of ‘goofy’ and ‘great’ had been so closely linked, curious citizens flocked to their telephones and ordered up a storm. 24 Goofy Greats was about as tasteful as K-Tel ever got, and by the early seventies its expanding roster of titles began to suggest the onset of dementia: Block Buster, Dynamite, 22 Explosive Hits, Super Bad, Kooky Tunes, Polka Voodoo, Whammo Blammo, Psycho Wing-Dings, The Best of Eddy Arnold, there seemed no limit to the madness. Album jackets featured swirling colors, violent starbursts, ridiculously oversized lettering, and the ubiquitous “as advertised on TV” bubble that was the K-Tel equivalent of the toxic skeleton symbol. For hardcore K-Tel collectors, there were ordering instructions on the back cover for the ‘Record Selector,’ a “space age device for storing and selecting your records.” [2] Once you’d been mesmerized by the commercials, received your album in the mail, filed it in the Record Selector, retrieved it from the Record Selector, fully absorbed the packaging, and placed it on your turntable, all that remained was to curl up into a little ball and marvel at the music. Come and hitch a ride with us, then, as we embark on a roughly chronological tour through the K-Tel compost heap.

Bizarre hit singles started popping up everywhere in 1970, and bizarre was where K-Tel did its recruiting. Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime” and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” were early K-Tel archetypes: brash, quirky, exuberant, preposterous, and easy to chop up into three-second snippets for TV. One of the hallmarks of K-Tel right from the start was its trailblazing commitment to the pan-global World Beat sound, so you could always count on the inclusion of foreign intrigues like the Shocking Blue’s “Venus” and the Tee Set’s “Ma Belle Amie,” two Dutch bands that unclogged your synapses and gently rotated the windmills of your mind. Straight outta Pittsburgh came the Jaggerz with “The Rapper,” a dope (i.e., incredibly stupid) gangster epic by a band whose name terrified many—wasn’t one Jagger enough already? No one knew what Sugarloaf’s “Green-Eyed Lady” was all about, but without Sugarloaf, Meat Loaf would have been unthinkable. Alive & Kicking’s “Tighter, Tighter,” Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ a Ride,” and Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” were pop masterpieces that carried on the pre-Pepper Beatles legacy proudly, while Bobby Bloom’s “Montego Bay” added some tropical Caribbean ambience to the K-Tel experience. K-Tel’s influence was also felt at Motown, where a couple of the label’s white artists, Rare Earth (“Born to Wander”) and R. Dean Taylor (“Indiana Wants Me”), became symbolic leaders in the ongoing battle for racial unity. Rare Earth even offered to rename themselves Young Black Teenagers, but Berry Gordy felt it was “too much, too soon.”

Nineteen seventy-one was a crucial transition year for pop music, and K-Tel was right there at the scene of the accident. Three Dog Night, who a year earlier took “Mama Told Me (Not To Come)” to number one and then remained a Top Forty mainstay until 1974, came up with their biggest hit ever in “Joy to the World,” 1971’s top single; between “Joy”‘s 100-proof bullfrog Jeremiah, Sesame Street‘s beloved Kermit, and the classic Ray Milland vehicle Frogs (1972), America suddenly found itself targeted by an unprecedented amphibious assault. Lobo’s “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” created a worldwide scandal, not only for its hint of a clandestine ménage a canine, but also for the way Lobo typified the solipsistic arrogance of the one-name Warholian superstar (Madonna, Prince, Zamfir). [3] “Boo” itself was a gentle number, suggesting a rich gospel/folk/country tradition behind the average K-Tel collection that was also movingly captured by Brewer & Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line,” the Stampeders’ “Sweet City Woman,” and Ocean’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” The footsteps of Hank Williams and Mahalia Jackson echoed through each: Brewer & Shipley sharing a bong with Jesus, the Stamps pining for the metropolitan thrills of Medicine Hat, Alberta, and Ocean rocking the pews and casting out sins by the truckload. Religion also figured heavily in the Five Man Electrical Band’s “Signs,” a vivid parable for what it must have felt like to be turned away at the inn.

The Raiders’ “Indian Reservation,” a devastating attack on America’s genocidal past, proved that K-Tel could also embrace the more radical politics in circulation. The Raiders’ disgust was especially brought home at the 1972 Academy Awards presentation, where they appeared in ceremonial Cherokee costume to pick up an award for their friend Marlon Brando. Over in the rubber room, meanwhile, Daddy Dewdrop’s “Chick-a-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It)” was weird, weird, weird—but not as weird as the Buoys’ “Timothy,” which stands alongside Hasil Adkins, Cannibal & the Headhunters, Fine Young Cannibals, and Total Coelo’s “I Eat Cannibals” in the yummy subgenre of Hannibal Lecter Rock.

The K-Tel agenda for 1972 was set early when the Belgian group Chakachas hit the charts in January with “Jungle Fever,” a proto-Donna Summer/Spike Lee/Plastic Bertrand orgasmatron that appalled millions. Another Nordic act, Holland’s Mouth & McNeal, avoided such backlash on “How Do You Do?” by simply referring to the sex act as “na-na-na-na-na.” Turning to dance music, Hot Butter’s “Popcorn” became the first song ever to incorporate acid-house rhythms into a Jiffy Pop setting. Hardcore fans will also want to hear Hot Butter Unpopped, which contained a special acoustic remix of “Popcorn” by the band’s legendary manager, Kernel Tom Parker.

K-Tel reeled in a couple of 1972’s best youth anthems, too: Looking Glass’s “Brandy” was a rollicking sea shanty especially popular among Newfoundland trout-fishing posses, while Gilbert O’Sullivan explored suicidal tendencies on “Alone Again (Naturally).” Erotic obsession was the focus of Mac Davis’s “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me,” and certainly one look at the virile, strapping Davis made it perfectly obvious why he was turning away hungry women ten at a time. Wayne Newton, a Las Vegas legend, popped his head out of the casinos long enough to plead “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast,” then disappeared again until “Mr. Repo Man Don’t You Walk So Fast” some twenty years later. Finally, nothing captured the rugged frontier spirit of the seventies better than Daniel Boone’s “Beautiful Sunday,” a big favorite during concerts thanks to the ritualistic ‘donning of the coonskin’ by the entire band.

K-Tel remained in a holding pattern for 1973, a year heavy in quality but light on quantity. Hurricane Smith reached deep into the past for “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?”, updating the dearly missed Rudy Vallee sound of the 1920s; of interest to Dylanologists, Hurri­cane later changed his name to ‘Idiot Wind’ and toured as a one-man Dylan tribute band. In the field of Prussian Nihilism Rock, Deodato’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” ingeniously bridged the gap between Jack Nietzsche’s “The Lonely Surfer” and Will To Power’s “Say It’s Gonna Rain.” “Delta Dawn,” one of three number-ones for Australia’s Helen Reddy (flanked by “I Am Woman,” 1972, and “Angie Baby,” 1974), was a sinister helping of rural blues which told of a downtrodden woman knocking hard on heaven’s door. Swampier still was Jim Stafford’s “Spiders and Snakes,” an arachnophobic howl produced by “Dog Named Boo” creator Lobo. The greatest K-Tel flag bearer in 1973, however, was Clint Holmes’ “Playground in My Mind.” There were a lot of other important Clints in the seventies—Clint Eastwood, Clint Howard, reserve Dallas QB Clint Longley—but none had the impact of the man who spent the summer of 1973 singing about the swings and slides that rattled around between his ears.


After the calm, the storm. Nineteen seventy-four was K-Tel’s year of triumph: when Richard Nixon sits in his study nowadays pondering the cataclysmic series of events that removed him from office that fateful year, you can be sure that his memories are filtered through the distant echoes of Carl Douglas, Mocedades, and Terry Jacks, all part of an improbable soundtrack for a nation crumbling underfoot. Lunacy was so pervasive in 1974 that bands actually waged bitter cross-continental battles over the rights to prime K-Tel material. Witness the saga of “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” which was first taken to number one in Britain by the group Paper Lace, and then within a matter of weeks a version by Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods topped American charts. Paper Lace was naturally incensed, so they immediately issued a bloody hands-off warning via “The Night Chicago Died,” a gangland shoot-out that similarly grabbed the number-one spot in America.

Elsewhere, the ethnic diversity of K-Tel was never richer than in 1974. The Polish community got a shot of adrenaline from Bobby Vinton’s “My Melody of Love,” the first major polka anthem since Lawrence Welk’s “Calcutta” (1960). Blue Swede’s cover of “Hooked on a Feeling” introduced ‘ooga shaka, ooga shaka’ into the English language (Swedish for ‘wild cranberries, wild cranberries’), while Native Americans Redbone made it into the Top Ten with “Come and Get Your Love,” a song they dedicated to the “tireless efforts of the Raiders in exposing the plight of the American Indian.” From Spain came Mocedades, whose “Eres Tu (Touch the Wind)” sparked a meteorological craze whereby people stood in the middle of empty fields holding one finger against the breeze. K-Tel even scavenged the Far East for hit singles, where Carl Douglas (born in the far east corner of Jamaica) combined Bruce Lee films and the emerging disco sound to produce “Kung Fu Fighting,” the only record ever to jump directly from platinum to black belt.

A couple of mysterious studio groups, First Class and Reun­ion, provided a more American sound: Britain’s First Class rode the wild surf down the Thames River on “Beach Baby,” while ex-Ohio Express singer Joey Levine led Reunion through “Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me),” a rap forerunner that paid long overdue tribute to B. Bumble & the Stingers and other giants of rock. Andy Kim was another bubblegum legend who resurfaced in 1974, launching an aggressive attack on the heavy metal movement with “Rock Me Gently.” Canada also gave the world Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun,” a Jacques Brel composition that spent three weeks at number one and later became the basis for a hit Broadway musical, Terry Jacks Is Alive and Well and Living in Winnipeg.

Rounding out K-Tel’s highlights for the year were Ray Stevens and Sister Janet Mead, a couple of anthropological wunderkinds who exploded the myths and counter-myths of the sexual revolution. Ray celebrated one of the decade’s great sex stories on “The Streak,” a short-lived mania that called for removing one’s clothes and running madly through public gatherings; after a sensational beginning, the psychological dangers of streaking became apparent when a quick dash across the stage by Edgar Winter shocked a defenceless concert audience into mass catatonia. Sister Janet Mead had no such inclination for erotic games: “My name ain’t baby, it’s Janet—Sister Mead if you’re nasty,” she warned on “The Lord’s Prayer,” a record that ranked her right alongside Father Daniel Berrigan and the Reverend Jim Jones among the seventies’ preeminent spiritualists.

K-Tel started to wind down some in 1975, soon to hand over its empire to an even cheesier record label/dumpsite, but not before scooping up a handful of keepers for its vaults. The George Baker Selection’s “Little Green Bag” had provided some early K-Tel thrills in 1970, and five years later an older and wiser George re-emerged with “Paloma Blanca,” a polka monster that drank Bobby Vinton under the table. Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” joined Tommy Roe’s “Jam Up and Jelly Tight,” the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams,” and Moby Grape’s “Grape Jam” in the Preservative Hall of Fame, and their costumes were even fruitier. Best of all—indeed, the climactic farewell of K-Tel’s wonder years—was C.W. McCall’s “Convoy,” a number-one trucker’s anthem that paid homage to another meteoric seventies fad, the Citizen’s Band Radio, in all of its boot-scootin’, eighteen-wheeler glory. To paraphrase Wayne’s World, “Convoy” was living testament to everything that was noble and visionary about Top Forty radio in the seventies—negatori!

Because the truest kind of K-Tel icon was a one-hit wonder by definition, it’s almost a philosophical betrayal to nominate a multi-hit artist as best representing the label’s heart and soul. If you do allow that there was such a thing as a ‘K-Tel career,’ however, the nod would have to go to Cher. Three Dog Night had more hits, but they were just regular guys caught up in the K-Tel maelstrom; it was Cher who, for the duration of the K-Tel epoch, stood front and centre in her ability to make people squirm and make them enjoy it. For starters there was The Sonny & Cher Show, where each week she was joined by a short Italian man with a moustache, and the two of them proceeded to spend an hour insulting one another’s physical, intellectual, and sexual deficiencies. Then there was Cher’s wardrobe, which might just as well have been designed by K-Tel’s art department: Labelle without modesty, Bowie without discipline, rhyme without reason, crime without punishment, everything she wore inched us a little closer to the end of the world.

But most of all Cher was K-Tel because she made K-Tel records, three of which comprised a self-contained trilogy of deception, lust, and miscegenation that stunned the pop world like nothing since Larry Verne’s “Mr. Custer.” All three hit number one—“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” (1971), “Half Breed” (1973), and “Dark Lady” (1974)—and taken together they map the psychological landscape that made K-Tel both possible and necessary. They were part of the missing eighteen minutes on Mr. Nixon’s Watergate tapes—Cher’s trilogy, “Kung Fu Fighting,” a couple of Bo Donaldson tunes—helping to explain why it was crucial for national security that those eighteen minutes be erased: the nation could survive a resigned presidency, but whether it could accept a president who listened to “Half Breed” and Carl Douglas, that was a Pandora’s Box that dare not be opened.

The explosion of junk radio in the first half of the seventies was too all-consuming for a single chapter to contain. So far we’ve covered the nerve center of any given K-Tel collection, an enigmatic assortment of international nomads brought together by the marketing genius of Winnipeg’s Kives brothers. Around the edges of those K-Tel records, however, there was much else happening—things like a battalion of K-Tel understudies engaged in reinventing the generation gap all over again, urging listeners to think twice before trusting anyone over the age of thirteen.

[1] Hard rockin’ shit.

[2] Much to K-Tel’s credit, the original blueprints for the Record Selector would later play an important role in the development of the space shuttle.

[3] Tragically, Boo was killed in 1980 after a head-on collision with a Mack Truck, and to this day the singer wanders the streets a lost Lobo.



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