And Finally Beef Of The Week

CMU Beef Of The Week #26: Island Records v Tom Jones

By | Published on Saturday 10 July 2010

This week began with news of a ‘leaked’ email sent to staff of Island Records by the company’s senior vice president, David Sharpe.

Sharpe, it seems, had taken exception to the new direction Tom Jones had taken on his forthcoming new album, ‘Praise & Blame’. He wrote: “Imagine my surprise when I walked into the office this morning to hear hymns coming from your office – it could have been Sunday morning. My initial pleasure came to an abrupt halt when I realised that Tom Jones was singing the hymns! I have just listened to the album in its entirety and want to know if this is some sick joke?”

He continued: “We did not invest a fortune in an established artist for him to deliver twelve tracks from the common book of prayer. Having lured him from EMI, the deal was that you would deliver a record of upbeat tracks along the lines of ‘Sex Bomb’ and ‘Mama Told Me’. As venerable and interesting as Tom’s story is, this is not what was agreed and certainly not what we paid for. Who put him with a ‘folk’ producer and who authorised that he should go off on this tangent…?”

In conclusion, he warned: “Please don’t give me the art over commerce argument, it’s run its course… what are you thinking when he went all spiritual?”

So, on the face of it, it would appear that Sharpe is indeed a little miffed that Jones has turned in a record that seems very uncommercial. That said, many have suggested that all this is merely a clever marketing ruse to generate interest in the album, pulling in people who’ll be intrigued because the big bad ‘suits’ at the record label don’t like it.

But let’s give Sharpe the benefit of the doubt for a moment and look at a little of Jones’ history. Tom Jones has become quite well known for changing direction sharply in recent years. His last album, ’24 Hours’, saw the Welsh singer at his most experimental, the title track (which is brilliant, by the way) almost veering into the territory of Scott Walker’s more recent work. In 2002, his ‘Mr Jones’ album saw his collaborate with Wyclef Jean, and in 1999 he recorded an album of covers in collaboration with many of the top pop, rock and indie stars of the day, including The Stereophonics, The Cardigans, Space, The Divine Comedy, Simply Red and Portishead.

It’s fair to say, Jones has tried a few things in his time, and he’s certainly tried to grab the attention of suit-hating musos as much as pop-lovers in recent years. So, how many of these were successful? One: ‘Reload’. That album went to number one, spawned numerous hit singles and, despite being released 34 years into his recording career, is pretty much the album that defines him. Up until then, he’d spent nearly 20 years releasing duds. He managed to release a staggering thirteen albums in a row that failed to chart at all and only managed to scrape the top 40 once between 1974 and 1998. In the subsequent decade he’s only once achieved a top ten album again, a collaboration with Jools Holland.

Even if the whole ranty email thing is simply a bid by Island to try to sell this record to people who think record labels are evil, then it’s still likely to be because they’re not confident that it will sell very well. Whatever kind of critical success ‘Praise & Blame’ has (and the reviews have largely been positive), so-called ‘proper’ music fans still won’t be tempted into buying it because, well, it’s a Tom Jones album. And if those people are your last resort, where do you turn?

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Sharpe defended his outburst, saying: “Parts of this record company wanted to deliver an album for the typical Tom Jones fan and I don’t know if that is what we got. Shall we say we’ve paid for a Mercedes – we’ve got the hearse that’s arrived”.

This Beef Of The Week comes from this edition of the CMU Weekly. Subscribe to the CMU Weekly here.