Hit Machine

(Before we begin: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today.)

The video embedded above represents the most enjoyable half-hour I’ve spent in a long time. It collects 38 vintage K-Tel ads, mostly from the US, a few from Canada, and a couple from the UK, spanning the early 70s to the early 80s.

K-Tel ads shilled albums featuring “original hits, original stars” to distinguish them from knockoff albums of sound-alikes by the Sound Effects or the Countdown Singers. Albums generally cost from $3.99 to $5.99, with another buck or two if you wanted an 8-track or cassette, although K-Tel also marketed two-disc sets that often went for $9.99. K-Tel would release a new compilation every few months, mostly with songs that had recently been hits, although they often included a song or two that went back a year or two, and sometimes a minor hit or a never-was to fill out the track list.

During their 70s heyday, the albums generally contained 20 songs (sometimes more), a number often featured in the compilation title, such as 20 Explosive Hits or 20 Dynamic Hits, 10 to a side. If you bought a K-Tel album, and I have a lot of them, it was always caveat emptor: K-Tel was famous for making their own edits to shorten songs, snipping intros or hacking out entire verses. (I can still remember the clanging disappointment I felt when I heard their edit of Sugarloaf’s “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You” on the 1975 release Disco Mania.) They did this less as time went on, until by the 1980s you could count on getting lots of full-length versions.

K-Tel did not sell only compilations of recent hits. There’s no one my age who doesn’t remember the ubiquitous Goofy Greats collection of novelty songs. An album of 50 kids’ songs (“Old MacDonald,” “London Bridge,” etc.) sounds positively hellish. A polka compilation featured such famous names as Frankie Yankovic, Myron Floren, and the Six Fat Dutchmen, and there were collections of country hits, rock ‘n’ roll oldies, and even metal.

Watching 38 K-Tel ads in a row reveals how cheaply made they were. The same announcer is on most of them—not a mellifluous radio voice but a shouting hard-seller of the kind you’d hear on a car dealership or dragstrip ad. The spots are tightly edited, usually, to cram as much information as possible into 30 or 60 seconds. The graphics are simple, often just the names of featured artists appearing with a snippet of their songs or scrolling by in an endless list, and sometimes both. Artist names are sometimes misspelled—Dianna Ross, Steelers Wheel, Alvin Bishop, Roy Clarke, and Dotty West, to name a few. The ad for 50 Children’s Favorites features a skeevy-looking bearded dude and a nightmarish giant rabbit. The oldies album Girls Girls Girls, made up of songs with girls’ names, is advertised with a bizarre spot in which a middle-aged man lying in bed is teased by visions of pretty young women, but they disappear before he can get to them. Some of the women are beautiful in a distinctly 70s way, although the talent budget did not buy gifted performers: the girl in the spot for Right On! dances without actually moving her feet.

It occurs to me that K-Tel’s oldies compilations might have represented my first exposure to stars of the 50s—Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and such. The ads would have been all over after-school TV in the early 70s, when we came home to watch Gilligan’s Island or The Flintstones. I would have taken from them that such people were important—important enough to be on a K-Tel album like more familiar artists from the radio. It seems reasonable to think that the ads may have planted a seed for something I would recognize in later years when I finally heard “Tutti Frutti,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Great Balls of Fire” for real.

So take a half-hour and watch the video, which was compiled by a YouTuber called FredFlix. After you’re done, explore the other compilations on the FredFlix channel—it’s a remarkable trove of vintage TV with lots of stuff I haven’t seen anywhere else.

(I did not realize until I started researching this post that our friend HERC has a site devoted to K-Tel compilations. If you will excuse me now, I’m going over there to get lost for a few hours.)

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5 responses

  1. The “Surf – fairies”? That can’t be the real pronunciation, can it?

    1. Sure it can….. in K-tel Land.

  2. ‘Flashback Fever’ must’ve been running a temperature, since several of those years were bass-ackwards.

    Though they haven’t been there in decades, I smiled when I saw the K-Tel Drive sign while driving through my old stomping grounds in Minnetonka last evening (the last time I checked, the only remaining K-tel office is their HQ in WInnipeg.)

  3. Never bought any of ’em back in the day, but I collected a lot of them during my days of vinyl madness in the 1990s. They’re all gone now, and Terry at Cheapo Records in Minneapolis told me after he sifted through about 2,000 records (in three batches) that the K-Tels (and Roncos) didn’t net me much.

  4. I always liked the lesser known cuts on these. There always seemed to be songs by Lighthouse, the Stampeders, Stories and Five Man Electrical Band that never hit our local airwaves.

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