Farewell then EMI, your tunes were the background to our lives | Simon Napier-Bell

The company that brought us Cliff, the Beatles and the Sex Pistols is disappearing. We should salute its contribution to our culture

In the 1930s, after a merger with Columbia UK, EMI became the biggest record company in the world. By the 1950s, its worldwide sales outdid everyone else's. Yet its artists were uniquely British: Cliff Richard singing the likes of Living Doll and Summer Holiday; balladeer Matt Monro, an ex-London bus driver; and Frank Ifield, who yodelled.

Amazingly, with these artists EMI built world dominance. Only in America were sales lacking. So the company bought Capitol Records and picked up Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and the Beach Boys. And this was all before the Beatles. With the Beatles added, the competition was annihilated. In 1964 the company held the No 1 position in the UK charts for 41 of 52 weeks.

The company's decline started in the 1970s when it signed the Sex Pistols. Their manager, Malcolm McLaren, was an anarchist on a mission; not so EMI's holding company, Thorn Electrical, which made brain scanners and came with a very pukka board of directors. In fact, a whole decade of EMI inaction could be traced to the moment when the Pistols' Johnny Rotten arrived at Heathrow the worse for wear. His ensuing public vomiting got into every newspaper. "Vile Sex Pistols", "Disgusting Punks", "Teenage Filthies". To add to the fun, a week later the group said naughty words on television.

When Thorn Electrical said the group had to go, McLaren turned it into class warfare. The ensuing row froze EMI's record division for a decade. Demoralised. Not signing new acts, losing staff, re-packaging old songs, living in the past. In the '80s the company perked up with its Now… compilation albums of hits. Then again in the '90s with the Spice Girls, Coldplay, and Robbie Williams.

But in 1996 Thorn Electrical set EMI adrift. It was put on the stock market as a music company and nothing else. When it had hits, shares went up; when it didn't, they tumbled. And the boardroom panicked. The top man was paid £15m to leave. A few months later his replacement was given £6m to go. The next man decided to run the company from America. And all the time the company's value dropped.

In 2007, Guy Hands's private equity outfit Terra Firma pulled off a takeover. Bouffant and blond, Mr Hands thought the world of himself and his hair. But he didn't much like artists. When he told them so, Radiohead left, then Paul McCartney, then the Rolling Stones. And things slid downhill. Citigroup, who loaned Hands the purchase price, took over the company and now – finally – it's been sold to the French-owned Universal.

With EMI no longer a power in the industry, it feels as if there's a void. But culturally, Britain doesn't lose much. We still provide the world with singers as quirkily British as Adele and Susan Boyle, and with the likes of Radiohead, Coldplay and Gorillaz.

EMI was the first company to sell flat discs, records as we know them. The company's history and the history of the record business have been interlinked ever since. So with sales dying fast and records about to fade from our lives, perhaps it's fitting that EMI fades out too. Records are what the company did but records are finished. And a nice place in history isn't a bad place to be.

• This article was amended on 17 November 2011. The original referred to the Sex Pistols' manager as Malcom MacLaren. This misspelling has been corrected.


Simon Napier-Bell

The GuardianTramp

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