I’ve come to know Brent James as the dean of the Classic Hits format in Australia. He’s the APD/MD of 4KQ Brisbane, which racks up FM-style numbers on AM. Hit-oriented during the week, 4KQ first got my attention through its feature shows, “Friday Night Fever” (heard Friday morning in U.S. time) with its mix of not just disco but other party songs, and “Jukebox Saturday Night.” For anybody frustrated with the tightness or the newness of Classic Hits in America, “JBSN” is a treasure trove of songs you don’t get to hear on the radio—Australian ‘60s hits but also garage and bubblegum that was a hit in America, but no longer gets played there. And in its time slot, it’s often No. 1 in the market.
It’s that same aesthetic that has made James his country’s foremost compiler of CD reissues. Some of those are compilations of lost Australian hits, but others are international hit compilations from an Australian frame of reference. In America, Dr. Hook might most endure for “Cover of the Rolling Stone.” In Australia, it’s for covering the folk anthem, “The Wild Colonial Boy.” From the Sweet to Bette Midler, artist’s discographies are different from what we know here. Even for a long-time collector, James’ compilations have been revelatory for me.
In this article, James talks about the compilation process—finding the right hits of “cume songs” and nuggets, and the (universal) problem of clearing songs, even relatively well-known ones, when forty years of label mergers have made ownership rights and master recordings hard to trace. Those challenges are familiar to anybody who’s tried to put together a compilation in America as well.
If you’re both an oldies fan and a broadcaster you know that there’s still something special about hearing an “oh wow” song on the radio, even if it’s right there in your personal collection. There’s also still something exciting about the right compilation CD. More than a decade after online music weakened the viability of compilation CDs in America, James’ various series continue to thrive at home and abroad, a testament to his love of music and the effort he puts into them. – Sean Ross
I often consider myself lucky that my great passion for music has spilled over from my radio life into putting together compilation CD packages and concepts (mostly for Sony Music Australia) over the past 20 odd years. Actually, like radio, putting these together does come with similarities and challenges, comparable to say, putting together a music feature for the Classic Hits format.
Firstly, comes the concept, and with that knowing precisely who you are targeting. I’m not a huge fan of compiles that target quite broadly – everything from the Ames Brothers to Puff Daddy on the one set. I tend to focus strongly on genres or more specific eras.
As for the track listings (depending on what the clearance/licensing gods allow), like those music features best to go for some well-oiled titles known to most, along with a bunch of interesting and often hard to find stuff, or even material that charted here in Australia (often uniquely) that perhaps has not seen the light of day maybe since the original release (for the “trainspotters” as one label exec called them). It is these titles that give the collections one of the most essential ingredients – the all-important “point of difference” in a sea of ‘70s or ‘80s compilations with many of the usual over re-issued suspects.
As Australia has often had its own unique radio airplay and chart history, titles from well known artists that notched up a mighty hit here, that never surfaced back on their home soil (or elsewhere) are great targets. The Hollies are a perfect example considering their 1971 # 1 hit down under with “Too Young to Be Married” or even “Slow Down, Go Down,” and “Magic Woman Touch” which rarely surface on Hollies retrospectives (often compiled outside Australia).
In America, even the follow-up to “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” is a trivia question. In Australia, Vicki Lawrence is one of the many artists who had not just the one, but three major hits, including a No. 1 hit with “He Did With Me” (the song in question) and “Ships In The Night.” The latter can be found on one the instalments of Living In The 70s, of which the fourth volume was only released recently. Even major artists have hits that never surface on various artist compilations often opt for the most obvious one or two titles.
With all this comes the frustration of finding ownership for some of these recordings, made tougher when a record was big here but remains an obscurity back at the U.S or U.K. head office. In America, Brother John’s “Polyanna” is a 1970 A&M obscurity, yet another alias for Johnny Cymbal/Derek. In Australia, it was a chart success (which, in Australia, can mean airplay in only one or two states and anonymity in the others). But it couldn’t be cleared until Sean Ross helped connect me with producer George Tobin. The labels involved were unable to find it. Now it’s on Living In The 70s, Vol 4.
There are many similar examples across the assortment of compilations I’ve produced. How many outside this territory know Diane Kolby’s power packed “Holyman,” a major hit here that received limited regional exposure back in the U.S. Another win was the first time CD release of the faster single version of Peter Paul & Mary’s 1964 hit “Tell It On The Mountain,” which finally made print on Feelin’ Groovy 4 Swinging 60s Singles. Many of these titles may never make it to the radio airwaves again, but they do remain implanted in the minds of people who grew up hearing these on local radio at the time. Including them on re-issues does give them that “point of difference,” and it seems to work!
Those are the ones I was able to clear. Duke Baxter’s “Everybody Knows Matilda” was a big enough U.S. hit to be known to chart fans, but the rights to that song on long-defunct VMC records remain elusive, and the song is found only on bootlegs. Neil Sedaka had hits in Australia long before his American comeback. In 1968, “Star Crossed Lovers” was No. 1 in Australia. It’s one of my most-requested songs, but nobody will claim it. That includes Atco/Atlantic, producer Wes Farrell, and Sedaka himself. (It still ended up on a local Sedaka anthology in the ‘90s.)
The list goes on, including a 1974 Australian top 10 hit from Bobby Russell, “Go Chase Your Rainbow” on CBS. Not being an American hit, however, means it does not seem to exist! I even tracked down the artist’s widow only to struggle after several phone hang-ups, as she was assuming I was an overseas tele-marketer! I wish I had a dollar for every time I’d been asked about that track, one that has essentially not been touched by local radio since 1974. It’s syrupy and dated now, but even if radio wanted to play it, they couldn’t find it. The list is huge for these difficult titles, but you never know as patience and persistence has paid off for a few of these in the past.
Easily one of the more in demand of the compilation series has been the Australian Pop Series. I’ve just released the six double sets of three more CD sets, one for the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. I remember putting the idea some years back to the amazing CEO and legendary head of Sony Music down here, Denis Handlin, that Aussie music heritage was much more than “Down Under” and Daddy Cool’s “Eagle Rock” (obscure in America, but a “Tainted Love”-level anthem here). Many of the songs featured are rarely re-issued elsewhere, and the reaction hasn’t just been at home, but outside the country, where the interest in Australian heritage music seems to have rapidly increased in recent years.
Now the blatant plug. All the CDs (many of which are also available digitally online) come with detailed liner notes, using the best possible master sources, as well as detailed chart performance, which in Australia means showing how songs differed from state-to-state and market-to-market. Many of the CD sets are actually available as imports through Amazon.com, or other Amazon variants around the world. Other options are Aussie retailers on line including www.jbhifi.com.au
Check out all the compilations and track lists at www.brentjamesmusic.net.au
Plans are in the works for more next year. What gems will actually get over the line? It’s up to those clearance gods . . . and a bit of luck!