Marmalade is one of those groups that just seems to endure. They are best remembered today for one record, their cover of the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," although they charted number one records and even Top Ten American singles into the 1970s. The group, especially as constituted up through the early '70s, had many sides, including white soul, harmony dominated pop/rock, and progressive pop, all very much like the Beatles in their middle years. However, it was their cover of a Beatles song, oddly enough, that weighed down their reputation.
In point of fact, they did somewhat resemble the Beatles musically, having started out as a band of teenagers eager to play hard rock & roll; like the Beatles, they developed a great degree of sophistication in their singing and playing, but they never had the freedom to experiment with the different sides of their music. Ironically, in their prime, their career arc most resembled that of the Tremeloes, who made incredibly well-crafted pop/rock but were never taken seriously.
The quintet's history began in 1961 when teenagers William "Junior" Campbell and Patrick Fairley met on Campbell's 14th birthday and discovered that they both enjoyed playing rock & roll. Their early inspirations were the Everly Brothers and Cliff Richard & the Shadows. Soon they were playing together, Campbell on guitar (and, increasingly in later years, keyboards) and Fairley on guitar, and then they added bassist Billy Johnson and drummer Tommy Frew. They took the name the Gaylords and played local clubs for little or no money, and Johnson and Frew were later succeeded by Bill Irving and Raymond Duffy, respectively. The group began getting decidedly better gigs when singer Thomas McAleese -- who took the stage name Dean Ford -- joined. For a time, they were known officially as Dean Ford & the Gaylords, in keeping with the notion that many successful acts (Cliff Richard & the Shadows, et al) had one member as their focus.
This was still the early '60s, when Liverpool bands had scarcely made an impression and Scotland's rock & rollers faced an even more daunting task just getting record company executives to hear them. For Dean Ford & the Gaylords, a recording contract didn't become a reality until almost a year after the Liverpool sound started to explode across the English charts and in early 1964, Dean Ford & the Gaylords were signed to EMI-Columbia. Their debut record, "Twenty Miles," sold well in Scotland, but never charted in England. Their success remained confined to their native Scotland, the group regularly supported visiting English acts like the Hollies, and they were regulars on BBC Radio Scotland. By the end of the year, with their hard yet melodic attack on their instruments and good close-harmony singing, Dean Ford & the Gaylords had made themselves the top band in Scotland, borne out in music poll results. As they were already commanding the best support spots and the highest fees promoters were willing to pay any homegrown act, there was just no place left to go in their own country and no easy way to get heard in England.
The group finally took up residence in Wimbledon, just outside of London, but at first this had little effect. Irving left the band and was replaced by Graham Knight on bass and harmony vocals; a fourth single as Dean Ford & the Gaylords was recorded, but it failed to chart and marked the end of their EMI contract. The Gaylords were now living far from home in a place where they were largely unknown and they were at something of a loss as to how to continue.
It was the Tremeloes, a band from London who'd had a pair of hit singles (including a chart-topper with "Do You Love Me") who came to their rescue. The two groups had played together and the Tremeloes admired the Gaylords' sound so they suggested the band sign with their manager Peter Walsh. He was impressed with their sound and their level of musical and performance expertise; all of those hard-rocking gigs to demanding audiences in Scotland had the same effect on the Gaylords that playing the Star Club in Hamburg had on the Beatles.
Walsh's first order of business after signing the group was a change of name, from the Gaylords to Marmalade. The name supposedly came to him over a breakfast that, reportedly, indeed did include the sugary preserve. Whatever its inspiration, however, it worked. Walsh got them work and bookings, most notably at London's Marquee Club, billed third behind a then-new outfit called Pink Floyd and a soul-oriented band called the Action. The management, impressed with Marmalade's performance, eventually gave them a two-night a week spot.
Their representation by Walsh also got the band another crack at that most coveted of opportunities in music: a recording contract. In 1965, Columbia Records, the American label that had previously licensed its music for British release to English companies like EMI, purchased the British Oriole Records label and used it as the foundation for its own British label, CBS Records (the "Columbia" name being unavailable in England, as it was already trademarked and used in England by a division of EMI). Walsh got Marmalade signed to CBS Records, which was hungry for homegrown talent to augment their American release schedule (the company would later sign the Tremeloes as well). They also shared the same producer, Mike Smith, who later ran the Tremeloes' recording sessions.
Marmalade's first CBS single, "It's All Leading up to Saturday Night," showed just how far they'd come. The radiant harmonies and the powerful attack, boosted by the group's reliance on twin six- and four-string basses made it irresistible listening. Their second CBS single, "Can't Stop Now" (on which Alan Whitehead joined the lineup on drums, replacing Duffy), never charted in England, but managed the unusual feat of becoming a regional hit in the United States, getting to number one on some charts in Ohio. They were getting a lot of exposure as well, including an appearance in the movie (Subterfuge) and television work on (The Fantasist).
The group seemed poised for greatness. "I See the Rain," an original by Campbell and Ford (using his legal name, McAleese), become their third CBS single, described by Jimi Hendrix as the best British single of 1967. Somehow it never charted in England but did well in Holland, which resulted in a tour of the Netherlands and Germany. Their fourth CBS single, "Man in a Shop," didn't make the charts in England either.
The group was at a complete loss as to what to do or where to go from there. They'd given it their best shot and all they had to show for it was a demand for their music on the continent, but not at home. Finally, in early 1968, Marmalade decided to go for the most commercial sound they could live with and cut a pop/rock number called "Lovin' Things." This broke them through into the U.K. Top Ten, peaking at number six and selling 300,000 copies. The chart action was a welcome event and took some personal pressure off the band.
Unfortunately, they'd also opened an artistic Pandora's Box. Having gone the commercial route, they now found the record company insisting that they stick with it. Songs that they didn't care for were foisted on them for follow-up singles, and they got too little time to record their debut LP, entitled There's a Lot of It About.
Disaster struck (though no one thought it disaster at the time) with their late 1968 single version of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da." It was publisher Dick James who offered them the Beatles song ahead of the issue of The Beatles (aka The White Album). Marmalade cut the song not even knowing that it was a Lennon-McCartney composition.
It become a number one hit in England and sold millions of copies around the world, generating a massive amount of radio exposure. The problem was that it wasn't really what the group was about. Marmalade was much more influenced by American soul, folk-rock, and progressive rock, but they had become locked into an image as a soft, bubblegum-type pop/rock band.
And then, with a number one record behind them, they left the label. Their contract was up and CBS was eager to keep them, but their manager recognized that with that hit to their credit, they might never be in a better position to demand favorable terms. English Decca, the label that had the Moody Blues, had (and lost) the Small Faces, and was in the process of losing the Rolling Stones, outbid CBS both in monetary terms and an offer of artistic freedom.
The group re-emerged in the winter of 1969 after nearly a year of inactivity with "Reflections of My Life," a daring original by Campbell and Ford incorporating pop/rock and harder progressive elements, including some superb guitar work. It topped the English charts six weeks after its release, in the final week of January 1970, and became a Top Ten American single as well. They followed this up with the equally appealing (though less successful) "Rainbow," which charted in both England and America.
These twin hits were followed by the LP Reflections of the Marmalade, which proved to be something less than a success, owing to the sheer diversity of sounds on it that ranged from soulful rockers and harmony dominated progressive-sounding material to their covers of singer/songwriter-type repertory. The LP never found an audience in England, but did in America, where it was retitled Reflections of My Life and reached number 71. The group had an opportunity to open for Three Dog Night on a tour of America, who were then rapidly ascending to their peak of fame; their manager turned it down, thus costing the group a chance to expose the full range of their music to millions of listeners who only really knew the one major hit.
By 1970, the band was beginning to show the first real signs of serious internal stress since their founding. The hefty advance they'd received from the label had been welcomed and their three initial singles (but especially "Reflections of My Life") had justified it. Now, however, they were being pressured to repeat that success, just when they were least able to pull together effectively. The bandmembers, pleased with the adulation they'd received, were eager to experiment in different directions, which created strains within the lineup.
Junior Campbell, who'd arranged the Reflections of the Marmalade album and written the string parts for one of the follow-up singles, quit the band and enrolled in the Royal College of Music. The group was inactive for months after Campbell's departure until they recruited Hugh Nicholson, an ex-member of their one-time rivals from Scotland, the Poets. Nicholson's arrival heralded a new era for the band as he brought with him original songs as well as a heavier approach to music. Curiously, Campbell continued to write arrangements for the band, even after his sudden departure. Ford was pushed to the sidelines as Nicholson insisted on singing lead on certain songs himself, and then drummer Whitehead, who'd been with the group for five years, was dropped and replaced by one of Nicholson's ex-bandmates, Dougie Henderson.
The switch in drummers accentuated the change in Marmalade's sound, from a progressive pop/rock outfit to a much harder, more straight-ahead rock & roll band. The group's next album, Songs, represented both the new and the old groups' sounds. By the spring of 1972, the band was down to a quartet as co-founder Pat Fairley decided to give up performing, taking over as their publicist and coordinating their publishing activities.
An article in the lurid U.K. tabloid News of the World (which had revelled in the sex-and-drugs exploits of the Rolling Stones in the late '60s) dealing with Whitehead's more debauched activities as a member of Marmalade, had the surprising result of commercially helping the group. They got a number six British single out of "Radancer in the spring of 1972.
Just when it seemed as though they'd not only dodged a bullet, but turned its trajectory to their advantage, Nicholson quit Marmalade. The surviving trio -- Ford, Graham Knight, and Dougie Henderson -- left Decca and signed with EMI, taking on Mike Japp to fill Nicholson's spot.
When the smoke cleared, Marmalade reinvented themselves once again as a hard rock boogie band in the manner of Status Quo. The lineup changes had taken their toll, however, and even if they'd been able to establish credibility in this new form, the door now seemed open for more exits. Knight was the first out, and with his exit, there wasn't much left of Marmalade beyond Ford.
Their history then took an utterly bizarre turn, one that anticipated the lawsuits over the use of classic group names that would become common in the 1990s -- and even anticipate the development of acts like Creedence Clearwater Revival. Ford had dropped the band's classic hits from their set, choosing to perform only their recent, heavier material in hopes of reinventing Marmalade. Audiences, however, were having none of it. They came to the shows expecting to hear at least some of the old hits, and got none.
Meanwhile, the group's ex-manager, Peter Walsh, knowing a good thing when he saw it, got Whitehead and Knight together with two more players, Sandy Newman (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Charlie Smith (guitar), and put them on the road as Vintage Marmalade, doing nothing but their old songs. Eventually, Ford and Marmalade gave up trying to reinvent themselves and Knight and the other group took over the original name. Ford went off to a solo career while the "new" (actually old) Marmalade got a recording contract in the mid-'70s and returned to the English Top Ten in 1977 with "Falling Apart at the Seams."
This unit kept recording for the rest of the 1970s and since then, Knight and Newman have kept Marmalade going as an oldies act, playing at cabarets and clubs and touring Holland and Germany. Like the latter-day Tremeloes, Marmalade, in whatever lineup they're sporting, can always find an audience, even a quarter century or more after their last chart entry. ~ Bruce Eder
- London, England