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About Transacord - The History

1961-1980 - Argo Transacord

Usill was recording an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows in which he wanted to include authentic railway sounds for Toad’s train, hence what turned out to be a timely approach to Transacord. What was mildly ironic was that Peter Handford had already considered asking Usill for advice or assistance, but hadn’t ultimately followed up the idea. After recordings for Toad’s train had been arranged, Usill suggested that Argo could be interested in releasing a few railway records, so a deal between Transacord and Argo was drawn up. According to Peter Handford:

Early in l96l an agreement was drawn up between Argo and Transacord, by which Transacord would cease to manufacture and sell records, the existing stocks would be gradually run down and any future records would be produced for a new Argo Transacord label. Argo, backed by the superb technical resources of Decca, would take over responsibility for the manufacture of records, the printing of labels and sleeves, and the distribution and sales of records. Transacord retained full responsibility for all the original recordings, the choice of subjects for records and the production of master tapes for the records and copy for the record sleeves.

Transacord’s deal with Argo was very similar to that between Argo and Decca, with Transacord maintaining complete autonomy over what to record and release, with Handford maintaining copyright on all Transacord recordings as well as on the sleeve notes and sleeve designs. In view of Handford’s wish not to have to bow to commercial pressure, a better deal could not be imagined.

Argo’s choice to take on Transacord was quickly vindicated from an artistic point of view with almost all Argo Transacord releases receiving a great deal of praise, especially from Gramophone is Roger Wimbush, in whom Transacord found something of a champion - though one not afraid to criticise when he felt it appropriate. On a commercial basis Argo was also vindicated; Usill later stated that Transacord releases began to chalk up sales of between 30,000 and 40,000 records per year

Argo’s first Transacord releases were issued in November 1961 and comprised re—cut versions of the three recent Transacord 12” LPs in new sleeves, plus a new LP, West of Exeter, and an EP, Gresley Pacifics. As the original pre-Argo Transacord records sold out, they were deleted, though much content later reappeared on Argo LPs and EPs.

In 1962 Handford released his first two stereo records, Trains in the Night and Newfoundland Heads the Waverley. Original stereo copies of these LPs are very rare and hard to come by nowadays (the later ZTR reissues from the 1970s are much more numerous). An upshot of the deal with Argo was that Transacord product was now available in the shops, thus widening the available market and inviting the sort of impulse purchase precluded by a mail order system. Peter Handford noted that the records even began to appear in, “...enterprising bookstalls at one or two stations.” Indeed, the author seems to remember a range of the EPs being available in the late 1960s or early 1970s in the now long-gone W. H. Smith kiosk on what is now Platform 3 at Bristol Temple Meads.

In September 1970, the budget issue, The World of Steam, was released on Decca’s World Of... series (this evidently outsold the extremely popular The World of Tchaikovsky from the same series) and two further volumes were issued in the early l970s. In late I971 a handful of the best-selling titles were issued in cassette format. The first cassette issues were The World of Steam, Trains to Remember and Echoes of Engines, which were listed at £1.66 each.

Based on the healthy sales of the three World Of... series issues, the December I975 Transacord newsletter announced the introduction of a new series within this budget priced catalogue sequence:

This new series is intended to replace the old EP records, all but six of which had to be withdrawn during the year. The best and most interesting recordings, formerly available on EPs will, from time to time be included, with other material, on The World of Railways LPs. These re-issued recordings will be brought up to date by
electronic reprocessing to give a stereo effect, when played on stereo equipment.

Fourteen further Transacord records were issued under The World of Railways banner: the last, Midland and North Western, appeared in 1980 very shortly before Argo was dropped from the Decca roster - more of which later.

To retum to the main (Z)TR sequence, as the 1970s progressed further nonTransacord records were issued. These were either transport-related or included sound effects and all were listed in Transacord catalogues even though of non-Transacord provenance.

In 1974 Argo was approached by two pop musicians, Nigel Fletcher and Rob Woodward, to see if the company would be interested in releasing LPs devoted to diesel, rather than steam, recordings. They were pointed toward Peter Handford, who gave the project the seal of approval. Nigel Fletcher explains:

Back in the summer of 1974 my friend, fellow musician and business partner Rob Woodward made a suggestion one day whilst we were out trainspotting on Taunton Station (our interest in railways balanced our hectic lives as members of both the bands Stavely Makepeace and Lieutenant Pigeon at the time, and we found a day out on the railway both relaxing and therapeutic). Rob said that if albums of steam locomotives would sell, why not diesels. At the time diesel hydraulics were being withdrawn so we opted to record them before they became extinct. Having a recording studio of our own meant that it was fairly simple for us to adapt professional sound recording equipment for outside use. We recorded a few tapes and then arranged to meet Kit Shuttleworth of Argo Records to see what she thought of the idea. She was prepared to give it a go but said we must first consult Peter Handford who had dealt with all the Argo railway recordings in the past. Peter was charming and he gave us his blessings, adding that he could never see sounds of diesel engines selling.

However, the first diesel LP was destined to sell very well indeed, though the means by which a major source of advertising came about could never have been foreseen:

The album (ZTR141) came out in 1975 without much fuss but a curious twist of fate stepped in. Lieutenant Pigeon were booked as guests of the week on Granada TV’s Bay City Rollers Show. In a chat with the producer, Rob and I revealed that Sounds of the Westerns had just been released. She found this rather quaint and got one of the Rollers to interview us on ‘live’ TV all about it. At the time the Bay City Rollers were enjoying an enonnous amount of success so the plug for our album was going out to a huge audience. Within days the sales had leapt. In fact the album went on to be the biggest selling ‘non-music’ album ever for the Decca group of companies. We feel sure that many Bay City Rollers fans would have been disappointed however when they played their new purchases!

After the success of the first record of diesel sounds, which was credited as “an Argo/Stavely Makepeace recording”, four further diesel records were planned out, but as events turned out, only two of these ever made it as far as LP. Again, Nigel Fletcher explains:

Kit Shuttleworth asked if there was scope for 4 more albums so we drafted out the following. No.2 Sounds of the Deltics, No.3 Diesels in the Highlands, No.4 English Electric Power and one more to be announced when we’d seen what direction sales were going in. In the event only numbers 2 and 3 were ever made. This was not because of poor sales but Rob and I were getting deeply involved in setting up our own record label at the time. Kit was happy to complete the series but by the time we decided to look at the project again, about 1980, the market was becoming saturated with diesel locomotive recordings and we decided there was little point. As a footnote, in an episode of Only Fools and Horses a copy of ZTR141 can clearly be seen on Del’s market stall!

Peter Handford’s relationship with Argo continued to go well, with 49 Transacord records remaining on catalogue as at 1979. The only major casualty of deletion had been the series of EAF EPs, which had been, for the most part, comprehensively withdrawn between 1973 and 1976, the EP format now having been phased out by most record labels. In Sounds of Railways and Their Recording, written in 1979, Handford confidently stated of deleted EP content that, “Some of these recordings...will be, electronically re~processed and re—issued on LP in the Argo SPA ‘World of Railways’ series.” This reiterated the plans in Transacord’s December 1975 newsletter, but by the time that the book was published in 1980 these plans had been thrown into doubt somewhat by goings-on at Decca. As the new decade began, all seemed well in Argo’s relationship with parent company, Decca, but behind the scenes, Decca’s now elderly Chairman, Sir Edward Lewis, had been forced to face the reality that he was running Decca in a dangerously anachronistic fashion, totally out of step with the current state of the music industry, which was suffering major downtum. Decca still put quality output first - in both performance and product - rather than looking for ways to reduce spend. Lewis had talks with the Dutch~based major label, PolyGram, the upshot of which was that Decca was sold to a non-UK company, whose main current concern was to remain competitive by a combination of reducing costs, whilst expanding its product base through takeover.

Unfortunately Lewis, who had run Decca since his acquisition of the company in 1929, died within a few weeks of the sale leaving the way open for PolyGram to ruthlessly streamline the company. There probably never was any hope for a label with a deliberate policy of producing quality, non-mainstream output, and Argo was, in the words of Harley Usill, “snuffed out”.


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