Proportionally, the late 50s / early 60s was the EPs strongest era. Philips eschewed the single and only issued EPs on 45 rpm right up to 1958.
On this site, all the label sections will be heavily illustrated with EPs as they are the best visual guide to a label’s repertoire.
It was standard practice to break an LP into three EPs for release. Classical EPs are of little interest, invariably being supplanted in quality terms by the LP version. The age gradation in the 1950s was based on money … and EPs joined LPs in being aimed at older buyers initially.
Some stuff was perfect for EP. While it was seen as a format to sell stereo and hi-fi, it was also quieter than a 45, and more compressed. Areas where this admittedly slightly lower fidelity and noticeably lower volume was unimportant were spoken voice, children’s, sound effects and comedy.
Music will be treated separately.
An early case in point was Sparky’s Magic Piano. It was recorded in 1947 using a Sonovox talk box, and was regarded as pushing the boundaries of recording technique. The record was issued on three 78 rpm discs in “an album” (the original meaning) and has never been out of print since 1947 in one format or another. It was too short for LP (unless you included the other, less popular Sparky stories) and too long for a single. It had to be abridged slightly for EP release in 1957, but that quickly became the default version.
Children’s records have an advantage: you can keep selling them from generation to generation. Kids in 2020 love Nellie The Elephant, just as kids did in 1980 and 1960. The Danny Kaye Children’s Favourites (Brunswick OE 9022) stayed in print for years.
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William Boyd (aka Hopalong Cassidy) was the star of Saturday Morning pictures in Britain, where little boys would take cap guns to fire at the screen of their local Gaumont. For us it was the Moderne in Winton, Bournemouth. His narrations to music were years ahead of the fine Rabbit Ears CDs series from Windham Hill which also put together an actor and a musician. It took two sides of a 78 rpm to cover The Story of Topper, or to cover Hopalong Cassidy & The Great Mail Train Robbery, but both sides of the 78 fitted comfortably on one side of an EP.
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Children’s favourite books were done on EP. Enid Blyton read Noddy herself, and four EPs were issued. Sometimes it’s best left to a professional actor.
Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series was greatly truncated to fit on EP, read by Leslie Crowther.
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HMV did a Playtime series then a Junior Record Club series. Note the Jennings EPs survived to see HMV replaced by the EMI logo. HMV Junior Record Club had famous narrators and good artwork (and its own lengthy section will appear eventually under labels).
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They’re not particularly collectible, but may turn out as good investments. Like toys, most copies got wrecked, so excellent to near mint examples are rare, and the cover art was often of high quality.
Comedy was a suitable and successful EP format in the days of limited radio, and two TV channels. Gerald Hoffnung, Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Bernard Miles, Flanders and Swan, The Goons, all did well with comedy EPs. Bob Newhart’s comedy EPs were a mainstay of early Warner Brothers releases.
Paddy Roberts, Charlie Drake, Rolf Harris, Bernard Cribbins, Benny Hill and Mike Sarne were slightly different, specializing in comic pop songs. There is a crossover to pop and the charts … Benny Hill, Peter Sellers, Mike Sarne, Rolf Harris, Bernard Cribbins all did comedy songs that did well in the singles charts.
Putting the images together, I noticed a new point. Few comedy EPs have the date of recording on the centre label. Generally, American records avoided dates on the centre, but UK discs had them. A lot of comedy discs don’t have them, and many stayed in print for ten, fifteen years or more.
Popular comedy / comedy song EPs gallery … click to enlarge
Into the 60s, Tony Hancock, Steptoe and Son and Peter Cook and Dudley Moore kept comedy EPs selling. Highlights From The Blood Donor by Tony Hancock isn’t as common as the full The Blood Donor, one of the most common LPs on budget labels in charity shops of all time, but there are still a great number of them about.
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spoken voice and sound effects
Sound effects on specialist labels also sold well on EP.
Decca’s Argo label provided Shakespeare, poetry and the sound of railway engines, but presumably not to the same buyers. The train sounds discs are legion. You may be surprised to see them at £5 or £6 in a secondhand store. Don’t be. I’ve seen them in Toy Fairs at £12 to £15. I guess you play them in the background while playing with a model train layout.
Gallery – EMI Sound effects
The BBC did a long series of Sound Effects on LP. We had the complete set for doing English Language Teaching recordings in the 1970s. I will recognize the BBC’s thunder clap in any TV programme or film to this day.
EMI in 1967 went for EPs. Judging by the sleeves, they lived under the illusion that people making home movies with Super 8 film were a viable market sector.
There was a suggestion that EPs might be more useful for finding the right track for amateur stage productions, after all the LPs could have thirty very short tracks on a side. Only in the imagination of a comedy scriptwriter did amateur dramatics drop a stylus onto vinyl for live sound effects in the dark at the side of a stage. Even in my youth club days we assembled the effects on a mono tape on a Grundig tape recorder. By the time we were doing theatre shows in the 70s, we used open reel with coloured leader separating tracks . We used colour as a double check, so the script might say: YELLOW: toilet flushing BLUE: thunder clap. One would not want to use the wrong one and you could hand wind the tape between effects to cue them. Then as we did weekly sketch shows where the running order might change, we switched to cassettes with one effect on each. We used two minute leaderless tapes designed for radio adverts. Rewind. No leader tape. Hit play. Instant effect. If you’re into doing this, the Disney LP Chilling Thrilling Sounds of The Haunted House is great and can be used again at Halloween.
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Note they were “copyright free for amateur users only.” Castle had worked out that these effects were only any use when put on tape, and also that people could use the tape tracks to blend sounds.
Possibly the next two should go into children’s.
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Plane Sounds were on kiddie label Dandy, and perhaps designed as background when assembling and painting an Airfix model kit. Trains (subtitle Railway Rhythm) was made by Triang, manufacturers of model railways and indeed intended as background to playing with your engines. Don’t laugh! Rod Stewart does it.
Sounds of nature
Shell are the petrol company. Between 1966 and 1969 they produced an elaborate series of EPs of bird song, published by Discourses from “Royal Tunbridge Wells” and these were “for Shell-Mex and BP Ltd.” These are not names that usually bring up images of bird song and sylvan landscapes, but Shell invested large sums in books on nature, such as the Shell Nature Lover’s Atlas, The Shell Guide to Flowers of the Countryside and The Shell Bird Book. The EPs, ten in all, included a Sounds of The Countryside children’s EP, which was narrated by Johnny Morris. The aim was to create an image of environmental concern.
The front sleeve paintings were by John Leigh-Pemberton, and the fold-out sleeves contained detailed notes. Respighi’s The Pines of Rome and the works of Messiaen explored bird song with classical music. This though is just the pure twitcher stuff. I originally saw a set of these at 50p each and chose just the one for this project. Looking at the painting in detail when I got home, I realized I should have bought the lot. I got more later.
Gallery … famous books … click to enlarge
Argo worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, producing multi-LP sets of plays, as well as EPs of the good bits. So one EP features Vanessa Redgrave doing Rosalind from As You Like It plus Katherine from The Taming of The Shrew. Caedmon specialized in children’s EPs read by famous actors, and also released Dylan Thomas reading his own poems, and Claire Bloom reading The Book of Ruth.
Soundtracks were faithful divisions of the LP version, but with the running order altered, and again, the LP will be preferable.
Education went for EPs, and the BBC were the specialists. HMV came up with The Game of Lawn Tennis in 1961. Not only did Lew Hoad explain the strokes, but you could listen to a game as a demonstration! What a pity it was mono. Surely no record ever called out for ping-pong stereo more than this one. It’s undated so I looked on Discogs to get the date, only to find that it sells for £10.
Know Your Car and Get The Best Out of It was an example of a BBC “publication on record” rather than “recording”. It was sold mainly via bookshops and was a 33 1/3 seven inch record. At 7/6d it was cheap for an EP too. The going rate in 1964 was 10/8d to 11/3d. It’s subtitled “Motor car noises – mostly bad!” and contains audio stuff that tells you how to detect that your car is knackered. ‘Carburettor spit-back’ predates punk by thirteen years, while ‘Worn gudgeon pin’ is a personal favourite. The theme music from the series was a Joe Meek production: The Tornados doing Monte Carlo. That was not on BBC Records, but on Decca.
Chinese Pronunciation dates from 1966. This guide to Mandarin sounds appeared right in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, when “intellectuals” were having their spectacles broken, then being handed a shovel and made to dig until they dropped. The BBC decided that an authentic text on the trade of rickshaw puller would be the best way of demonstrating pronunciation.
Gallery: Embassy holiday EPs from Woolworths … click to enlarge
If you browse charity shops, you’ll find that foreign holiday EPs were a major market sector, as souvenirs from the country, which then was inevitably Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, France and Spain. You can add Belgium, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Monaco and San Marino. The tour operators added them so they could advertise eight or nine or even twelve countries in seven days. Embassy brought out Holiday in Hawaii but did anyone who could afford to fly that far in 1962 buy their records at Woolworths? It was probably based on the popularity of South Pacific and Blue Hawaii.
Holiday EPs were seen as straight collections, often on budget labels (see Embassy.) They’re essentially worthless.
EPs were the first 45s in stereo, with RCA trumpeting its “Living stereo” on early EP releases in 1958. There was a tendency to release “hi-fi” stuff in early stereo at a higher price than a normal EP. The Jonah Jones Swingin’ At The Cinema from 1958 isn’t yet stereo, but stresses its HIGH FIDELITY recording. The Arthur Fiedler example is early “Living Stereo.” For stereo enjoyment you needed an old buffer like Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Having told you it was stereo quite clearly on the front, they added a red rubber stamped message on the back warning you only to play it on stereo machines.