Some years ago a customer posted something on the Hymie’s facebook page about wishing they could make mix tapes on vinyl — and moments later another customer commented, “They exist! They’re called K-Tel compilations!” Over this long weekend we realized how many are scattered all around the 4000 square feet of your friendly neighborhood record shop and had a great time listening to them.
The history of K-Tel International seems like a Coen Brothers film waiting on a backer. The ubiquitous bargain bin label’s US distribution was based here in the Twin Cities (with addresses in Minneapolis, Hopkins, and most recently Plymouth) but it began up in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the 60s. Its founder, Philip Kives, began his career marketing products like the Veg-O-Matic and the Feather-Touch Knife. Their primary market was “As Seen On TV” advertising and promotion.
In 1966 K-Tel released its first album, 25 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits. Kives has claimed, incorrectly, that his business invented the compilation album. They had healthy success in the competitive country compilation market, but it was really in producing pop collections that the label found a mass market. Eventually, K-Tel collections acknowledged (although didn’t always accurately represent) everything from disco to metal and punk rock.
The label branched out into original recordings a few times over the years, including the original “classical gasp” mashup, Hooked On Classics, which was distributed by RCA, and a UK-only spoken word album about the Loch Ness Monster by Alex Harvey. On a local note the label also reissued Distortions by the Litter in 1990 with three extra tracks, but only pressed 500 copies making it as rare as the original album these days ’cause who on Earth was buying records in 1990 besides weird-o’s like us? K-Tel also issued a super bizarre kids album called The Loliwinks which has a cult following.
While K-Tel collections are found all over the world, we in Minnesota seem to have more of them than any other record collectors. If you don’t pay attention to your record collection they just seem to appear between other albums over time like mildew. And when you go to get rid of some albums to make room for more, you can’t toss out the K-Tel comps, because they’re just so wonderful.
Here are nine favorites of ours…
20 Great Country Artists Singing Their Original Hits may have been K-Tel’s first record, but Country Roads is their greatest country collection. The collection includes two of country music’s best songs of all time: “Stand by Your Man” and “Behind Closed Doors.” It also pretty well known hits by Ray Price (the awesomely honky tonky “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You”), Johnny Horton and David Houston. Our favorite tracks are by two Carls — Carl Smith’s “Hey Joe,” which is not to be confused with the rock standard introduced by the Leaves and by Jimi Hendrix in the 60s, and “Don’t Let Me Cross Over” by the great Carl Butler
Heavy Metal starts with so much promise: the first two tracks are the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams” and “Iron Man.” Sure, it’s the censored “Jams” but at least its not the single edit of the Black Sabbath classic — and no other collection is going to put these songs alongside Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.” The whole first side rocks, but then the double album devolves into what your mom called “heavy metal.” Songs like “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Ramblin’ Man” are great 70s jams, but they don’t belong on this album.
With its Happy Days-themed selections and jukebox-shaped jacket, Jukebox Jive must have been very successful. It’s one of the most common K-Tel collections these days. The television commercial from the famous “as seen on TV” label celebrates its selection:
Jukebox Jive offers a few deep cuts not often found on 50s collections, making it more interesting than Fonzie’s Favorites or the American Graffiti soundtrack. It’s also the first of two collections on this list to contain “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
Like the budget disco collections which were probably sold more in gas stations and drug stores than record shops like ours, there are so many truck driving collections its hard to choose a favorite. 20 Great Truck Drivin’ Songs doesn’t have a cover as awesome as Gusto Records’ Road Music or Starday’s Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves and Other Truck Drivin’ Favorites. but it does contain a box of “CB-Trucker Talk” on the back. This is how we know the classy gal on the cover of Road Music is what’s called a “pavement princess.”
K-Tel proves their licensing prowess by proffering the best collection of truck drivin’ jams: “Convoy” and “Truck Drivin’ Cat with Nine Wives” make appearances, as do lesser-known classics like “Give Me 40 Acres to Turn This Rig Around” by the Willis Brothers.
Released by K-Tel subsidiary Dominion Music in 1984, Electric Breakdance is the most progressive collection the Minnesota label produced. Sadly, we have never found a copy which still has the “giant detailed poster on how to break,” so we have yet to learn the hard way about the warning on the back of this album:
If you have any ankle, knee back or other physical problems, you should have a medical checkup before attempting the dances described in these materials. Parental supervision is advised for children who attempt these dances.
The album’s notes (uncommon for a K-Tel release) remind listeners that breakdancing had a decade’s history before Michael Jackson did the moon walk on Motown’s 25th anniversary special. In spite of this claim the tracks are mostly pulled from early 80s electro and hip hop records, but the collection contains tunes you’d otherwise spend a couple hundred dollars to collect. The only song on Electric Breakdance which wouldn’t cost you $20 on a playable 12″ single is Run DMC’s “It’s Like That.” The rest of the album represents the grey area that existed between hip hop, electronic music, and rhythm and blues on the sweaty streets of New York, including the Double Dee and Steinski debut “Play that Beat Mr DJ,” performed by GLOBE and Wiz Kid, and the Grandmaster Flash standard “White Lines.”
Goofy Greats isn’t as manic as the Dr. Demento collections, but it is far more fun than Ronco’s inferior Funny Bones compilation. Many aren’t really intended to be novelty songs, but just have a silly bend, such as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Two local bands make an appearance (the Fendermen and the Trashmen) and it’s probably the only way you’ll find Piero Umiliani’s original “Mah-Na-Mah-Na,” which made its first appearance in the score to Sweeden: Heaven and Hell, a 1968 Italian documentary about the wild sexual behaviors of Swedes.
There are so many disco collections in the K-Tel discography its difficult to choose a favorite. Let’s Disco! is unique in that it contains a side of instructions. The b-side offers a short selection of “non-stop disco” highlighted by Foxy’s “Get Off Your Aaah! and Dance.”
DISCO, A single word has captured a nation’s imagination. No longer thought of as an amusement strictly for the “beautiful people,” DISCO has become a national entertainment. People from 6 to 60, tired of watching a select few have all the fun, are shedding their 9 to 5 humdrums, donning their dancing shoes and stepping out!
Our copy of Street Wave was released by K-Tel’s Canadian subsidiary based in Mississauga, Ontario, so maybe this album wasn’t intended for the American market. We can’t say we’ve ever looked at the notes on the back of another copy — who looks at the notes on a K-Tel compilation? Street Wave seems like it would be a lot more fun based on the cover, but when you play the album you’ll be disappointed to find the selections, with the exception of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right,” represent the softer side of these acts on the fringes of K-Tel’s usual landscape. The Talking Heads’ weirdly soulless “Take me to the River” is included, as is Pat Benatar’s “We Live for Love,” which is absolutely the lightest song on In the Heat of the Night. Our assumption this album was intended for the Canadian market is solidified by the inclusion of Teenage Head, whose “Somethin’ on my Mind” was a minor hit in the great white north in 1980. Where Street Wave succeeds is in capturing the 60s pop influence on new wave, with bubble gum-y tunes like “Somethin’ on my Mind” and the Ramones’ cover of “Baby I Love You.”
Super Bad is the single best K-Tel compilation in spite of its faults. The 1973 collection does not contain “Super Bad,” and offers “Good Foot (Part One)” in its place, which was only James Brown’s first single certified gold because previous successes were not accurately reported by King Records. It’s not a bad song, but it’s no “Super Bad.” The album is actually less heavy fun and more heavy soul, with funky jams from soul standards like the Staple Singers (“Respect Yourself”) and Joe Tex (“I Gotcha”). With a copy of Super Bad you can sample primordial disco in the form of Jerry Butler’s “One Night Affair” and a cover of “Give me your Love” by Barbara Mason, as well as the borderline acid jazz of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together.”
The tracks on Super Bad are dramatic (though the Dramatics do not appear) and dynamic (though the Dynamics do not appear). Barry White’s “Walkin’ in the Rain” and (a Love Unlimited single) and Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from Shaft” are exceptional three minute epics, and “I’ve Been Lonely for so Long” just hits a sweet spot around here.