British v American pressings

45 pressings

There are diametrically opposing views on American and British pressings. 

British 45s, versus …
American 45s

British 45s are more likely to have retained their original company sleeves. When I was fifteen, in 1962, I worked for the summer holiday for £2 and fifteen shillings (£2.75) for a forty hour week. A single cost 6s 8d (33 1/3p). So a 45 cost me as a teenager most of a day’s work. An LP at 32s 6d (£1.62) was three day’s work.

Six shillings and eight pence (33 1/3p)

Singles in the USA were vastly cheaper in terms of time worked, and therefore regarded as disposable. LPs took off far more quickly in the American teenage market. 

The cost of LPs also meant that EPs were far more important in the UK and the rest of Europe than in the USA. In France, EPs dominated the market.

In Britain, the LP chart at the beginning of the 1960s was a list of musicals, bought by the older generation. Elvis did well among the twenty-somethings. As did trad jazz, Lonnie Donegan, Joe Brown and Ray Charles. The New Musical Express  LP chart wasn’t even on the main chart page … that had British singles. American singles and Sheet Music. LPs were tucked away at the bottom of a news page.


New Musical Express, 12 September 1962

Because 45s were so much cheaper, and therefore disposable in the USA, there was less concern about putting them back in the sleeves, which were also flimsier paper. In American secondhand stores, there seems a preference for new plain white sleeves. Whatever, American discs carry the cachet of being the originals in the classic pre-Beatles era, and still do for soul or blues.

You would think that the version nearer the master tape would have an advantage , so American pressings of American recordings. Once a record had passed beyond being a regional hit though, the majors had pressing plants at three or four different locations within the USA. In Britain, when a record was a huge hit, the major labels regularly bought pressing capacity from their rivals … so that Beatles collectors can be obsessed about which company actually pressed a copy. So generally, records were pressed from copy masters, not original masters. Also, the way a disc was mastered and pressed varied.

London-American pressing

 I Like It Like That is a Chris Kenner classic New Orleans disc. A UK mint copy on London-American is rated at £35 in the Rare Record Price Guide. During the 1950s it was held that Decca’s ffrr (full frequency response recording) system was superior to rivals. London-American is a Decca label. By 1961 or 1962 others had probably caught up.

I bought the Instant original for $2.50 in New Orleans. No original sleeve, just a scruffy white one … few records in the store had original sleeves. I will add that the lady at the cash register, who was my age, turned round to a young guy and said, ‘What you doin’? Pricin’ Chris KENNER at two-fifty?’ He replied ‘Who’s Chris Kenner?’   Fortunately she handed me the disc and said, ‘You have a bargain.’

While I was pleased, not really a bargain. Discogs has it on sale from 60 cents to $20, but the median is £2, so about what I paid.

Original Instant pressing

The quality image carries over to all London-American releases.  From the advent of stereo, London (USA) sourced their vinyl LP pressings in Britain, and placed them in American printed sleeves … and some came back to the UK like that, or rather they imported the sleeves back … the savings on a long production run would far outweigh the transport cost. London-American’s sound advantage had run out by 1961 or 1962. 

George Martin takes the opposite view. Before he met The Beatles he was responsible for EMI’s list from King Records in the USA. Then The Beatles played him American imports. 


Finger Poppin’ Time: Hank Ballard & The Midnighters,
King USA 1960. George’s favoured King label
(I Do The) Shimmy Shimmy: Bobby Freeman, King USA, 1961

“What amazed me about King label records, and the music the Beatles played me was the sheer technical ferocity of the stuff. The US studios managed to pack so much more volume onto a disc, much more than we could over here in the UK. I could pick up the newly imported piece of 45 rpm vinyl, look at it, and actually see the ear-splitting loudness before I had even out it on. It was, as they say, in the groove. If we had tried to cut a record as loud as that, the needle, probably the whole playing arm of your Dansette record player would have jumped straight off the vinyl and fallen onto the floor. But the American records didn’t make the needle jump. They were technically streets ahead of us, and they could make records that didn’t just shout – they roared.”
George Martin, Summer of Love: The Making of Sgt. Pepper, 1994

(I Do The) Shimmy Shimmy: Bobby Freeman, Parlophone UK, 1961. As George Martin was responsible for Parlophone, we can’t argue that this is the inferior copy.
I Cried: James Brown, King USA 1971

Beatles collectors enthuse about Oriole’s pressing. As Britain’s biggest label OUTSIDE the big four, Oriole had its own pressing plant. That was because they pressed Embassy cover version discs for Woolworths on a large scale. Oriole discs were weighty affairs. When they started licensing Tamla-Motown, they started the Oriole-American label. All nineteen releases are collectable. The Valadiers I Found A Girl is rated at £1000 mint in Rare Record Price Guide.

Fingertips-Part II: Little Stevie Wonder, Oriole-American UK, 1963

Stevie Wonders Fingertips Parts 1 & II is at the cheapest end (they actually sold a few) but still rate at £40 mint. Discogs highest sale is £25. They’re on sale at £7.50 to £50.

Fingertips-Part II: Little Stevie Wonder, Tamla USA 1963 – I nearly put this copy in a repro sleeve, but I found it in this sleeve, and Tamla used plain brown sleeves for a while in 1963

So to the American copy. It was an American #1 hit. Discogs ‘highest’ price is £4. There are lots on sale at $2.50 to $15. Then there are two copies at £20 (Near Mint) – both on sale from UK dealers. First rule: soul is a lot more valuable in the UK than USA. But is it the paper label in the centre that makes that massive difference?

Listening test: It’s not a hi-fidelity recording in the first place. It’s a live Motown Revue recording from Chicago in 1963, and far muddier than the 1962 LP track, which was also on EP. Both fifty-seven year old 45 discs are at least Very Good quality. Though the Oriole-American sleeve and paper label show deterioration, the disc doesn’t. The American recording definitely has greater presence, bass and sheer volume. The drums, which were played by Marvin Gaye, have more attack on the Tamla disc. It’s not a disc with great separation, but I’d say the American soundstage was more muddled. Yes, they sound different. I prefer the Tamla one.

LPs and EPS

SEE ALSO: LP PRESSINGS

There was a major difference in vinyl. In the 50s and 60s, British and other European pressings were new vinyl. Jon Grooscock wrote an article on the UK jazz label, Esquire, comparing it with Prestige in the USA. Esquire licensed Prestige classics, and collectors will often pay more for the Esquire pressing of these jazz classics. Because of the weakness of British high LP prices, Esquire is renowned mostly for its EPS (and 45 rpm helps).

US record companies recycled vinyl (it’s estimated that the average US pressing of the 50s and 60s was30% recycled). Often the recycling involved only a cursory attempt to remove the paper label rather than “dinking” out the middle, which resulted in a milky look to the run in and run off grooves; and annoying surface noise. Couple this with federal legislation that forbade 100% PVC products on health grounds, and regardless of pressing quality, a US version was likely to be inferior to a European one, which always used pure, unrecycled vinyl. Also US pressings with variations in quality.
Jon Grooscock, The ESQ Factor, Record Collector 473, December 2011

Prestige was different from other labels:

Instead of sending over master tapes, Prestige sent over the metal stampers. There were rarely more than two runs of any issue over here so this was cheaper and more practical … they went off to the best pressing plant in theUK, Decca, and on precious virgin vinyl a miracle was created … these are monster pressings, up to 220 grams.
Jon Grooscock, The ESQ Factor, Record Collector 473, December 2011