Simon Napier-Bell was the most colourful of the young British sixties managers, and wrote the best book about the era and the record business Black Vinyl, White Powder. The later Ta-Ra-Ra -BOOM-De-Ay: The Dodgy Business of Popular Music (2014) is a comprehensive history of music wheeling and dealing. His management career extends from The Yardbirds via Marc Bolan and Japan to Wham! And he co-wrote You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me for Dusty Springfield.
While dishing the dirt on many of his contemporaries entertainingly over several autobiographies, Napier-Bell is reticent about his short lived 1969 label, SNB. There is an air of aping his rivals’ efforts with Immediate, Reaction and Track. Napier-Bell was in dispute with EMI. He’d signed a production contract with them in 1966, but then had taken John’s Children (with Marc Bolan and Andy Ellison) to Track Record. He was told he could get away with a new record label as long as his name never appeared as “producer.” So cheekily he called it SnB. He did appear as named co-writer, and the usual publisher was SnB Music. Test pressings for the first release, Flamma Sherman’s Move Me, credit him as producer. Issued copies omit his name.
He joined forces with CBS as backer and distributor in April 1968 and was told Art is for artists! Running a record company is all about shifting black vinyl. Napier-Bell says that most of these manager / entrepreneur independents labels had only a thin veneer of independence.
This period was described as a low point by Napier-Bell, even if around that time he managed to find Forever More, one of the greatest undiscovered bands of 1969-1970, though he blagged them onto RCA for an advance rather than signed them to SnB. He’s credited on their first album, Yours Forever More, with “sexy brass and string arrangements.” He also got them into the cult 1970 film Permissive which is a cult because it’s the worst hip-scene movie anyone has ever seen. They eventually became the core of the Average White Band.
Napier-Bell likes to pose as a money-minded, stoned dilettante (who just happened to make several seminal singles). In his (first) autobiography he says:
(CBS) printed up a pretty blue label with SnB stamped all over it, and I went off and made a few records. They came out with quite a splash. There were a few good ones and a few not so good, but their success as records was not the real purpose. It was simply to let EMI know they’d lost me and that the only way they’d ever get me back was to make friends again and let me out of their contract.
SnB was co-owned by Simon Napier Bell and the actor David Hemmings, fresh from the success of Antonioni’s Blow Up. Napier-Bell had obtained a role in the movie for The Yardbirds, who he then managed. Hemmings was at his peak with appearances in Camelot in 1967 and Charge of The Light Brigade in 1968. He’d recorded an album and single in Los Angeles a year earlier, featuring several of The Byrds. He recorded a duet with an actress for SnB (Napier-Bell says he forgets which one) but it was shelved because she couldn’t sing well enough.
SNB were uncharacteristically unsuccessful, with Napier-Bell’s mind already on the next thing, and CBS far too busy elsewhere. CBS had just started its independent UK operation and had launched the Direction label for newer material.
Most internet links go to the releases by Flamma Sherman, a group of four Liberian girls studying in England. They were the daughters of the Liberian Consul-General, and resided at the embassy in London, aged 16 to 22. Their first record, No Need To Explain, started to get good airplay on Radio One, but the momentum was lost in a BBC strike (according to Brian Matthews).
All their releases ( No Need To Explain / Bassa Love, Love Is In the Air / Superday and Move Me / Where Is He) are collectable. Love in The Air is excellent and unusual. Loud, loud bass player, pure young voices, vibes and brass way in the background. It has “major hit” written all over it, but it wasn’t.
It’s uncannily reminiscent of the theme from the internationally successful 1990 Australian TV Show Round the Twist. Unfortunately, it’s missing from the 2008 SnB CD compilation, Sunday Sunshine. Corina Flamma-Sherman made a record with Kindred Spirit in 1982, Put Your Spirit Up, then became a graphic artist. Lady L. Nefertiti Flamma-Sherman reappeared in 2013 with Still In Love With London.
gallery – click to enlarge
SnB records came with white, blue or pink centres in a standard blue sleeve, and were distributed by CBS, and existed for a year from April 1968 to September 1969, releasing twenty-five singles (according to the 2008 CD) or nineteen singles according to 45Cat.
The catalogue numbers are part of the general CBS catalogue sequence with a 55 prefix. I was told blue centres were first pressing, pink were later, but the pink Love Is In The Air has a DJ copy “A” so it has to be the opposite. Most copies in circulation are pink with large As which figures: they manufactured more promo copies than they had hard sales. The promo version of No Need To Explain is a white one. Love is In The Air comes in pink or blue and pink copies have the large A, so are promos. 45Cat has nineteen of them, and most of the pink ones have an A for Advance.
Andy Ellison was the frontman for John’s Children when Napier-Bell managed them, and did Cornflake Zoo for SnB with a fascinatingly different version of the Beatles’ You Can’t Do That on the B-side. He then moved over to CBS. Napier-Bell always says he liked Ellison very much, but his voice was tuneless. Unfair, but I guess he was competing with Marc Bolan.
The songs SnB recorded do have an overall feel. It’s a hazy, gentle, patchouli-scented, slightly over-produced (strings and French horns) psychedelic-lite selection, with lyrics about cornflake zoos and strawberries and cream and junkies in the bathroom. Apart from the outstanding Flamma Sherman, one other characteristic is that the voices are light and not especially distinctive.
The producers and engineers at SnB all went on to better-known things (and the production is the high-point of most songs).
Not so the artists (Jon Plum, Rory Fellowes, Hubert Thomas Valverde and the HTs, François Pascale, Nicola Davies). Hubert Thomas Valverde and the HTs song Genevieve is a conscious Scott Walker imitation.
Chris Duffy, who sang a Simon Napier-Bell composition, Mr Jones, Mr Brown, Mr Smith (And Not Forgetting Charlie Green), was twelve years old and agreed to do the session to get money for a train set. The B-side Something For Now has excellent organ playing to lift it.
Mellow Candle later made a collectable acid/folk album Swaddling Songs for Deram in 1972. Their SnB release Tea With The Sun sounds a lot like Flamma-Sherman in style. The other side Feeling High is pretty messy, though employs the same low brass as Flamma Sherman.
Rory Fellowes rocks more than most, still lightly-voiced, even if his Endlessly, Friendlessly, Blue sends me searching for Subterranean Homesick Blues.
The CD is a good overview of a label that never had a chart hit, and as far as I can tell never issued an album: