Volume 16 of the That’s What I Call Music compilation series will hit Number One on the next Billboard album chart. The mass consolidation of the record industry into essentially two giant conglomerates has made such star-studded compilations more star-studded and lucrative than ever before. Back in the day, we had to depend on K-Tel.
TV ads for the latest K-Tel compilation were a staple of after-school TV in the 70s and early 80s, and always ended with an address to send for the album. Just as today’s infomercials exhort you to “call in the next 30 minutes,” K-Tel asked you to “send before midnight tomorrow.” While I rarely hustled to the mailbox, I bought my share in record stores, and here are five noteworthy examples from among the 28 K-Tel compilations you’ll find in my record collection.
Bright Side of Music (1973). This was, I believe, the first album I ever bought after switching over from 45s, and it summarizes the main problems with mid 70’s K-Tel releases. First, a liberal sprinkling of hits that either just scraped into the charts, such as “Boogie Woogie Man” by Paul Davis (which made it to #68), or didn’t, like “It’s Lonely Out There” by the Sweet. And second, edited versions that border on brutality–K-Tel was famous for hacking off intros almost entirely and indiscriminately chopping out verses. On this album, they took out at least half of “Bell Bottom Blues.” (Ronco, which also released compilation albums, preferred to fade records early, sometimes in ways that made no sense.)
Dynamite (1974). Seriously essential 70s trash on this one: “The Night Chicago Died,” “Seasons in the Sun,” and the DeFranco Family version of “Save the Last Dance for Me,” which does not suck. I bought–hell, I buy, because I picked up a couple earlier this summer in an antique store–I buy most of my K-Tel albums used, but this one I bought new and paid full price–$4.99.
Disco Mania (1975). OK, I am admitting right here in front of the whole damn Internet that I bought a record called Disco Mania. And why not? It features one of the greatest disco records of all time, “Doctor’s Orders” by Carol Douglas, along with the Blackbyrds’ “Walkin’ in Rhythm.” Plus it’s got Styx, BTO, and Kiss to take some of the curse off.
Right On (1976). Possibly the strongest K-Tel collection in my library–all killer and little filler. Apart from a couple stray hits from three years before (Elton John’s “Daniel” and “The Cisco Kid” by War), this disc has lots of the best stuff from My Favorite Year–Thin Lizzy, ELO, the Manhattans, and Firefall, to name four. Gets extra points for the heavily made-up blonde in the navel-baring denim shirt on the cover.
Starlite (1983). Sometime around 1978 or 1979, K-Tel decided that it was better to compile 12 or 14 fairly solid cuts at something approximating their full length than it was to edit the hell out of 20 songs, some obscure at best. Starlite is a fine sampler of the lighter side of early 80s Top 40: “Only the Lonely” by the Motels, “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson, and the best singalong song of 1982, “A Penny for Your Thoughts” by Tavares.
K-Tel lives on at K-Tel Classics.com, a website managed by Lisa the K-Tel Chick, who has track listings, album covers, TV commercial clips and lots more on her site–and who was recently invited to K-Tel HQ in Winnipeg, where she got to tiptoe through every K-Tel album ever made. I’m tellin’ ya, if I wasn’t already married . . . .