Few labels can boast as long, prestigious and varied a musical history as Polydor Records. From the 60s ‘beat boom’ onwards, through the eras of progressive rock, disco and punk, the label has been in the vanguard of every significant new musical development, while today the likes of the Lady Gaga, HAIM, Ellie Goulding and Lana Del Rey maintain Polydor’s enviable cutting-edge reputation.
Founded in Germany in 1946 as the popular music arm of the long-established Deutsche Grammophon label, the UK division of Polydor was not established until ten years later – perfectly timed to coincide with the rock’n’roll revolution that was transforming the musical landscape and establishing youth culture for the first time as a significant phenomenon. Initially, the label concentrated on releasing continental-made recordings – but with Germany a popular touring destination for the emerging British ‘beat’ groups, there were rich pickings to be had. In August 1961, German Polydor released a single called My Bonnie by Tony Sheridan and The Beat Boys. Nobody realised it at the time, but the record was destined to change the face of popular music, for the backing group was none other than the Beatles. Recorded in Hamburg during the band’s legendary three month residency at that city’s Top Ten Club, My Bonnie was the first official release by the group and was reissued two years later, when it briefly charted in Britain during the first flush of ‘Beatlemania’. Polydor went on to place itself at the centre of the creative melting-pot that was British music in the 1960s by signing a series of adventurous production deals with some of the most dynamic pop entrepreneurs. At the time the approach was highly unusual, but it established a model that has since been much-copied. Giorgio Gomelsky, who had discovered the Rolling Stones and managed the Yardbirds, brought in Julie Driscoll and Brian Auger. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp brought in the The Who, and via their Track Records imprint, Jimi Hendrix, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Thunderclap Newman. And Robert Stigwood brought two big-hitters to the label with the Bee Gees and Cream.
Between them, they created an enviable pop and rock roster of British-based talent that left the competition trailing in its wake. At the same time, Polydor developed its American connections to become a significant soul and r’n’b powerhouse. Among the acts who came through Polydor was the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown, while the UK license to the Stax and Atlantic labels gave them Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and a host of other top names. In the 1970s, a combination of enlightened deals with entrepreneurs such as Stigwood and the adventurous policy of the label’s in-house A’n’R team, built an impressively broad-based roster. Progressive rock was represented by the likes of the late, great Irish guitarist Rory Gallagher, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton, both solo and with Derek and the Dominos. Glam rock was represented by Slade and the Rubettes. Then there was a Swedish group who won the Eurovision song contest in 1974 and went on to dominate the charts all over the world for years to come. They went by the name of Abba and their greatest hits Gold album still sells strongly to this day.
Via Robert Stigwood’s RSO stable, Polydor also led the way in disco, with the Bee Gees and the chart-topping Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. At one point in 1977-78, Polydor/RSO held the number one slot in the American charts for 23 consecutive weeks, with six different singles. At the same time, Polydor was in the forefront of the punk revolution, signing the Jam, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Sham 69, among others.
Into the 1980s, the dance-funk of Level 42, The Wonder Stuff and Paul Weller’s Style Council added further diversity to the roster. In the 1990s the label became even more eclectic. Credible singer-songwriters such as Van Morrison and Eagle-Eye Cherry were signed alongside Britpop heroes Cast and Shed Seven. Former Stones Roses frontman Ian Brown launched a solo career on the label, while the Lighthouse Family and Boyzone flew the flag for the mainstream. Polydor’s link with the Interscope, Geffen and A’n’M labels also brought on board an impressive roster of American talent, including Eminem, 50 Cent, Lady Gaga, Will.i.am and Imagine Dragons as well as the Nirvana catalogue.
Into the new millennium, the label continues to boast plenty of big pop names from Ellie Goulding to The Rolling Stones. But it has also built an adventurous roster to revive the potent excitement of the halcyon days of the 1960s. From the realm of contemporary British music came the trailblazing Mercury Music Prize-winners The Klaxons, while HAIM, The 1975, Lady Gaga and Lana Del Rey spearhead an impressive pop contingent.