From Humble Beginnings
Quiet London Street
The 70s are remembered as a golden age of pop music. But it wasn't such a good time to be a rich rock star. In 1974, as the economy crumbled, the top
rate of income tax went up to 83%. So Britain's pop aristocracy simply took their fortunes abroad. The Rolling Stones were already in the South of France.
Rod Stewart fled to California. David Bowie took his family to Switzerland. And even Thin Lizzy left for West Germany.
If you had been a regular viewer of top of the Pops, you might scarcely have noticed. When it came to the very biggest names in pop and rock, the
audience were used to enjoying the delights of Pan's People rather than a live appearance.
Britain's rockstar refugees were leaving behind a country that seemed to have become a closed shop of highly unionised, state-controlled industries.
Car-making, steel-making, mining and railways, all relying on billions from the taxpayer to survive a harsh new world of global economic competition.
Many foreign observers thought that Britain was in terminal decline. As one commentator put it, it was an "offshore industrial slum". But behind all
the dereliction, you might have noticed the beginnings of a rare British success story.
In one of the most unexpected twists of modern times, a new model for private enterprise had emerged from among the anti-materialistic hippie generation of the 60s.
1967 – the Summer of Love. And in this quiet street in a well-to-do part of London, a small group of friends were at work on the first issue of a new
magazine that would speak for Britain's youth.
Somehow, I doubt that anybody back then would have imagined that for just one of them, this would be the birth of a global business empire and a
personal fortune worth billions. But it was, and it all began down there.
The magazine that started in this shabby basement is called, appropriately perhaps, 'The Student'. The driving force behind it was a 17-year-old
former public schoolboy with one A-level and an ambition to become a journalist. His name was Richard Branson.
'The Student' was typically idealistic and just as typically, it quickly ran out of money. And at that point, Richard Branson hit on an idea that he
hoped would keep his magazine afloat. He started a mail-order business.
But selling records didn't save 'The Student'. It made it redundant. Branson quickly spotted the much greater potential of his new venture and three
years later, Virgin Records not only had its first shop in central London, it was a record label.
The Virgin studio was in this 17th century Oxfordshire manor house, which doubled as a comfortable country retreat for the head of the company.
From mail order and music shops to his very own record label. The Branson legend has become one of the 70s most familiar success stories. Nothing
symbolised it better than this, one of the best selling records of the whole 1970s and virgin's very first release all the way back in 1973. It is of
course, Mike Oldfield's 'Tubular Bells'. If you really want to hear the genuine sound of the 70s, listen to it. A 49 minute new-age Symphony without
a single lyric. The perfect soundtrack for the new sophisticates of the aspirational 70s.
At the age of just 23, Richard Branson had made himself a millionaire. In five years, he'd gone from a basement squat to this. And part of the secret
of Branson's success as an entrepreneur was that he created a very distinctive identity for the Virgin brand. That identity was based largely on himself.
Branson had found a way of selling music to a newly affluent market, not just as pop culture, but as a kind of expression of identity. And his own
self-consciously outrageous persona, was, of course, all part of the package.
What Branson had realised long before many other people was that the future wasn't going to be about public ownership and heavy industry. It was
going to be about private enterprise and selling pleasure.
Branson had grown up in an era full of dreams of a brighter future. From full employment to better housing. What these dreams had in common was the idea
that the state knew best how to make them come true.