The album covers featured primitive graphics. The titles were often cheesy. The songs lacked great sound quality and sometimes were sloppily edited. Yet K-Tel albums introduced me to a number of great artists and ultimately helped form my musical tastes.
K-Tel albums compiled the hits of the day into one album, offering convenience for the consumer who lacked time or money to purchase individual singles. These compilations were organized by theme—rock, R&B, new wave, country, or dance—and ranged from well-known artists to one-hit wonders. Today, Now That’s What I Call Music CDs fill this role, but in the 70s and 80s K-Tel dominated the American market.
Founded by Canadian entrepreneur Philip Kives, the company sold items such as nonstick fry pans, the Veg-O-Matic, and the Feather-Touch Knife (similar to Ron Propeil’s Ronco). In early 1966 Kives decided to branch out into the music business, releasing his first compilation album, Twenty-Five Country Hits, that same year. He named his company K-Tel in the late sixties, and went on to sell half a billion albums worldwide by the eighties, according to K-Tel’s website. Like his products, Kives also created splashy TV ads to announce the latest record releases (such as the below example).
As a child, I loved receiving the latest K-Tel collections for Christmas or birthday gifts, and would play the LPs until the grooves wore down. Many years later I realized that my first introductions to rap and various seminal rock artists came from K-Tel.
The first two albums I remember receiving were Wings of Sound (1980) and Dancer (1981). The former’s cover featured, appropriately enough, multicolored wings and offered a selection of top 40 hits. Most notably, this album introduced me to Nick Lowe and Bob Dylan, along with the still-catchy one-hit wonder “Driver’s Seat” by Sniff ‘n The Tears. Lowe’s “Cruel to be Kind” remains one of the most clever rock songs of the early 80s, and Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” marks his overtly religious phase. As a kid I couldn’t quite grasp Dylan’s sound, but of course later learned of his tremendous influence on rock and folk.
Dancer focused, not surprisingly, on what turned out to be the dying days of disco. While it may have marked disco’s last gasp, it also signaled the gradual rise of hip hop. Frankie Smith’s “Double Dutch Bus” and Lakeside’s “Fantastic Voyage” have since become old-school (and heavily sampled) classics, but back then I heard nothing like them on the radio. In addition, the album introduced me to the gritty funk of the Gap Band, with “Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)” remaining one of my favorite funk hits.
A year later, The Beat exposed me to then-alternative or “new wave” music. While the terms seem laughable now, the artists on the album existed on college radio or MTV, if you were lucky enough to have cable.
Sure, some of the selections hardly seemed edgy—The Go-Go’s perky “We Got the Beat” being the prime example—but there were a few gems as well. Graham Parker’s “You Hit the Spot” introduced me to the quirky singer-songwriter (do track down his serious reading of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”), and The Waitresses’ sneering “I Know What Boys Like” still sounds unusual today. Depeche Mode also made an appearance here with “Dreaming of Me,” and Bow Wow Wow’s enthusiastic cover of “I Want Candy” combined punk with just a hint of ska.
Christmas 1982 also brought me Blast Off, a collection of pure pop.
While the cover art portrayed—yes, you guessed it—a spaceship taking off, the music ranged from classic rock to R&B. Then-John Cougar’s “Hurts So Good” opened my eyes to his brand of roots rock, while I continued my R&B education with Ray Parker Jr.’s “The Other Woman.” Blast Off also brought me my first taste of Van Halen with their cover of “Dancing in the Streets,” with David Lee Roth’s screaming vocals front and center. It remains one of my favorite Van Halen tracks.
My next purchase, Get Dancin', proved to be crucial in my rap education. Amazingly I first heard the masterpiece “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five courtesy of K-Tel! At 11 years old, I couldn't quite grasp the song's grim message about inner-city life, but I could still chant “Don't push me/'Cause I'm close to the edge/I'm tryin'/Not to lose my head.” As an example of K-Tel's editing practices, Get Dancin's version of “The Message” featured a long beeping noise during the lyric “People pissing on the stairs/You know they just don't care.” Imagine my shock when I heard the unedited version for the first time! To this day, I cannot listen to that song without hearing “people [beeeeep] on the stairs.” Nevertheless, I can thank this 1983 album for showing me how rap lyrics can effectively shed light on serious issues.
Get Dancin' is where I first heard Luther Vandross's velvety voice on “Never Too Much,” converting me into an instant fan. Countless old-school classics abounded on this compilation: “Forget Me Nots” by Patrice Rushen; “I'm So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters; “I Really Don't Need No Light” by Jeffrey Osbourne; and “Love Come Down” by Evelyn “Champagne” King. I think I can trace my passion for R&B to this album. Strangely, Get Dancin' also included Laura Branigan's “Gloria” and Toni Basil's “Mickey.” Perhaps this apparent hodgepodge represents the variety of music on the charts at the time; after all, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Musical Youth, and Eddy Grant scored unlikely hits around that time.
In contrast to Get Dancin's more urban feel, Hit Explosion (also 1983) contained general top 40 fare. Interestingly this compilation contained more classic rock figures that were relatively unknown to me at the time, such as Rod Stewart (“Young Turks”), Steve Miller (“Abracadabra”), Santana (“Hold On”), and Rush (“New World Man”). Soon-to-be classic rock staples included Survivor with their massive hit “Eye of the Tiger” and REO Speedwagon's “Keep the Fire Burnin'.”
At that time I had little idea of the significance of Stewart, Miller, or Santana, but this album gave me an initial taste of their work. Among these songs was the still outstanding single “Steppin' Out” by Joe Jackson, which inspired me to investigate more of Jackson's work. His Night and Day album still exemplifies some of the more creative work of the 80s.
Hit Explosion also contained some girl power, as Pat Benatar (“Shadows of the Night”) and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (“Do You Wanna Touch Me [Oh Yeah]”) proved that women could rock just as hard as the men. At a time when the Go-Gos were once introduced on TV's Solid Gold as “an all-girl band…and they all play their own instruments!” hard-rocking female artists were a bit of a revelation.
1984 marked the final year I would purchase K-Tel albums. Sound System represented another top 40 sampling, combining established artists with up-and-coming British acts such as the Fixx (“One Thing Leads to Another”) and Spandau Ballet (“Gold). While one-hit wonder Frank Stallone made an appearance with the kitschy “Far from Over,” the album also noted the emerging careers of Bryan Adams (“Cuts Like A Knife”) and Huey Lewis and the News (“Heart and Soul”).
Most interesting is the Kinks, whose “Don't Forget to Dance” was included. At the time I had no clue of the long history (and superlative writing skills) of the band, merely knowing their single “Come Dancing.” Since then I have become an admirer of Ray Davies, and love the band's work from the 60s and 70s. If K-Tel can be credited for further exposing me to the Kinks, I cannot blame them too much for putting Stallone on the same album.
My last K-Tel album, Street Beat, defined itself as presenting “new music, hot sounds” on its cover. It turned out that this album provided the best balance of pop, rock, and R&B, along with a few curiosities. Old-school music was in evidence with “Stay with Me Tonight,” the very danceable Osbourne classic, and the fantastic “Ain't Nobody” by Rufus and Chaka Khan. I thank K-Tel for introducing me to Khan, who possesses one of the best voices in soul. Of course she went on to even greater success with “I Feel for You” a short time later. However, “Ain't Nobody's” funk recalled her earlier work with Rufus, and is representative of her best work. As for Osbourne,”Stay with Me Tonight” perfectly exemplified K-Tel's tendency to edit music down to cram as much as possible onto a record. I later learned that the song contained extra verses that provided better transitions to the chorus; now, when I listen to the Street Beat version, the song seems awkwardly edited.
The token one-hit wonder made an appearance, this time “Just Got Lucky” by the JoBoxers. Huge hits also dominated: Irene Cara's “Flashdance;” Men Without Hats's “Safety Dance;” and Madness's “Our House” were just a few examples. But Elton John's defiant “I'm Still Standing” further educated me in John's work, and Eurythmics's haunting “Love Is A Stranger” showed me that all pop music need not be conventional.
After that, I drifted away from K-Tel collections, instead purchasing individual artists' albums and 45 RPM singles. But I look back on those compilations fondly, as they served as overviews or Cliff's Notes for current music. Having no access to MTV and listening to top-40 radio stations aimed at teens, I would never have heard definitive rap tracks like “The Message” if not for these albums. I also gained an education in classic artists that later inspired me to investigate their back catalogs.
K-Tel also exposed me to creative artists that buck the mainstream, such as Joe Jackson, Nick Lowe, and Graham Parker, later converting me into fans of these musicians. At a time when female rockers were seen as an anomaly, these collections proved that they could rock just as convincingly.
Today K-Tel exists as a music licensing company, customizing compilations for companies. They also sell products such as the Clever Cutter, marketed by the same kinds of late night TV commercials that helped establish their reputation. Sadly, many K-Tel albums are unavailable, although the K-Tel website promises a chronicle of their albums and commercials on a separate page, K-Tel Classics. Hopefully the company will follow through on this promise.
While some music fans may scoff at compilation albums such as today's Now That's What I Call Music series, these collections serve a purpose: in addition to saving the consumer time and money, they provide listeners an introduction to established and upcoming artists, and expose people to new sounds. Through these overviews, fans can develop their own music tastes. Despite corny cover art, silly album titles, and dubious song edits, K-Tel will always have my gratitude for furthering my music education.