Paul Gilbert worked at MacNeill Press Ltd in London in the heyday of vinyl albums, the early–mid 1970s.
RareRecordCollector.net has interviewed him for his recollections of working at MacNeill’s and also obtained some fascinating insights into the sounds, sights and smells of a commercial record sleeve print company…complete with a superb reminiscence of Led Zeppelin turning up one day…!
1. Paul, you joined MacNeill Press Ltd in 1972 as an apprentice. How old were you when you started? Can you remember the amount of your first pay check?
Yep, I was just 16, a fresh-faced boy from Surrey, not prepared for the harsh East End life! I started in June ‘72 on probation, on the day shift 8am-5pm. I signed my 5 year indenture papers on 7/7/72 with my late father and he said: “There you go boy, they own you for five years now!”. My weekly wage was £7 before tax.
To get to London Bridge on the tube from Morden was 50p return and 10p each way on the bus from North Cheam. One thing I would say is that the walk from London Bridge station was interesting! The area was alive despite the bomb sites, and the general dilapidation.
As you came out of the station and headed towards Bermondsey St, you went past Gonzalez Byass Sherry. They used to store huge barrels under the train arches and the air was about 80% proof! You then staggered off and on your right you had Tate and Lyle Sugar refinery, the air around here was sickly sweet. Walking up Bermondsey St there was a flag makers on the left with the Sarson’s Vinegar factory behind it. That too smelt awful. But to top everything were the tanners around the Leathermarket area, this area really smelt as they cured the hides in manure and shit! You could always smell the guys that worked there before you saw them, they had thick aprons on with wellington boots and their clothes and jeans were normally in tatters. All this was before you got into work!
Not the place to be walking around if you had a hangover!!
2. So, where was MacNeill Press situated and can you describe the building?
2 Newhams Row, 175 Bermondsey Street, London SE1. (see photo, MacNeills was the white building about 50 yards down on the left hand side).
The factory entrance was down Newhams Row on the left. As you went in we had a clocking-in machine on the right, stairs in front. The ground floor was the paper warehouse. The basement housed the letterpress machines that used to print and cut out the finished album sleeve shapes. We had Heidelberg, platens, cylinders and Miehle Vertical presses. On the 1st floor was the litho printing presses, which was where I worked. On the 2nd floor was the bindery, and the top floor was where the compositors were and where any hand finishing took place. Reception was over the road in a separate building with the offices.
The factory used to be an old sail loft. When I first started as an apprentice, I was told to clear out the attic. I found a load of thick needles they used to sew the sails with and the metal cupped gloves they used to push the needles through the canvas. One of the guys who worked there said his gran worked there sewing sails, but they could only do it for about 8-10 years because the work was so tough and caused arthritis in their hands.
3. Did you find any interesting record sleeve stuff in the attic, too?
Oh yes…Rolling Stones EP artwork and printing plates, Elvis artwork and plates, blocks for the presses, concert stuff from the 60s…we just threw it all out! It’s worth a fortune now! And we found loads of rats too, big problem back then.
4. Was it just record sleeves you printed or were there other commercial jobs too?
Yes, we also printed all the inserts for albums, words and books for operas, small posters, EP covers, some 45 sleeves (mainly for Warner Bros) and general items for the music industry.
5. MacNeill Press Limited was founded in 1946 and dissolved in 1995. Do you know how and when the company came to be owned by Polish family?
I understand they bought the name ‘off the shelf’ but as an apprentice you do not get to speak to ‘management’ types! Most of the staff were Polish WW2 veterans, ex-army or RAF and couldn’t get back to Poland because of the Iron Curtain. They wore their medals on Independence Day, 11th November. They had some amazing war stories! The owner’s son ran the place; Mr Maclejewski. His dad was in the RAF, a pilot in 308 squadron.
(Note: 308 Squadron was a Polish squadron of Hurricanes and then they converted to Spitfires in March 1941 flying out of RAF Northholt).
Bagington, end of 1940. Pilots of the early 308.
Front row P/O F. Szyszka (left); P/O Wandzilak; F/Lt Jasionowski; F/Lt Wiorkiewicz and P/O Kawnik; middle row: P/O Maclejewski; F/O Grudzinski; P/O Koczor; Sgt Kowala and unkown; back row: F/O Wielgus; unkown; Sgt Majchrzyk; unkown and unkown. Photo courtesy of Piotr Sikora.
6. Were there any other factories owned or run by MacNeill Press?
Not that I was aware of but the same Maclejewski family did own SFI (Sound For Industry) the flexi 45 single maker, it was in the building behind the print works. They made most of the flexi disks in magazines or promos. The reception and offices in the building over the road from the factory used to be some kind of debtors’ holding jail before they were sent to trial.
7. Why and when did you leave?
I came out of my apprentice ship in June 1977. In my last apprentice year I was on £23 a week and after that was on £35-£40 per week as a qualified printer. I heard there was a job at Bradbury Wilkinsons the stamp and banknote security printers in New Malden going and my mum and aunt worked there. So I applied and got the job. I started on £65 on day work, that then went up to £85 on double day shift, which was a huge increase in the 70s.
So I left MacNeills in September 1977. Mr Maclejewski asked me to his office and was not impressed that I was leaving as they had ‘invested’ in me! One of the only times he ever spoke to me.
As with most things back in the day it was the smells, sights and people that you remember the most and boy, did it smell! Who would think that Rick Stein has a flat and a restaurant in Bermondsey Street, how trendy is that!
I also remember kids trying to steal album covers from the factory and being chased away!
8. What were the working conditions like?
I was an Apprentice Lithographic Printer, which meant I did most things like make the tea, sweep the floor, ink in the plates, get the rolls and food, collect the printers’ winnings from the bookies (which was not clever as all the Dockers had hooks on their belts and used to try and get you and steal the money from you!)
I then went on the printing presses and ended up as a machine minder. The ‘top’ people in the factory were the two compositors, they always had clean overalls on and wore a tie. They were both Polish. One was called Carl, a very gentle old man (or he seemed it then). He once told me how he had seen all his family shot by the Russians and was then captured by the Germans but escaped.
There was around 30 people worked in the factory. The conditions were dreadful. Health and safety would have a field day today! The noise was deafening (I am very deaf now!) All the chemicals we used to clean the ink off the blankets are now banned and carcinogenic!
One was MEK, very nasty and you could pass out using it. (Methyl Ethyl Ketone, also known as Butanone is a colorless liquid solvent with an acetone-like odor. It is volatile and potentially explosive. It is an irritant, causing irritation to the eyes and nose. Its main uses are in the manufacture of a number of resins, waxes, and coatings, as well as a general industrial solvent for nitrocellulose coating, vinyl film, and smokeless powder manufacture)
I used to hand mix carbolic acid to etch printing plates, no gloves or goggles (I also used this to clean ink off my hands!). We used gum Arabic to gum up the printing plates that I had to mix up and sometimes it was like lumps of gum off the trees! I used to have to go over the road to collect plates and they had arc lights that were just two sticks of carbon with electricity going through them, the fittings did not have shields and if I close my eyes I can still see the arc!
The place was in a poor state of repair and if the lift broke, which it often did, they used to call in a Polish guy called Leon, who was a huge man about 5ft 4 tall and 5ft wide, his arms were massive. He would carry ¼ pallet loads of card up the stairs for the presses; he spoke very little English but was keen to tell me how many ‘Germanski’ he killed with his bare hands, making all the hand movements!
There were lots of rats, as big as cats some of them! They came in from the docks and were not scared of you at all. The rat catchers used to wear thick brass neck chains and wrist chains, because they said if they fell into an old barge where the rats were they would never get out alive and chains was all that would be left of them!
9. What were the social conditions like in the 1970s? Were there strikes? Power cuts? Oil crisis problems? 3 day weeks?
We were in the NGA union, so I think we did strike a few times but I can’t remember specifics. There were regular power cuts! Yep had my fuel vouchers. And there was the nuclear war warnings, shelters and the regular siren testing. When the ‘3 day week’ came in we worked 12 hour days for 3 days to keep up, and used to finish and go to the pub!
10. Can you name/describe the presses and talk us through the record sleeve printing process?
We had 4 x Solna 225 2 colour presses, 2 Solna 125 single colour presses, one Thompson Crown and one 1275 multilith. The album sleeves just fitted the Solna machine with very little margin for error. All the larger album sleeves like Yellow Brick Road (6 page double gatefold) were farmed out but still had the Printed by MacNeill’s line on the sleeve.
The process was not really any different from other types of printing except all the machines were set up for card printing (rather than paper), and we used to go through a lot of rubber blankets. If you had card that folded during the print run and you had a ‘cruncher’ that was the end of the blanket!
We’d start with receiving the proofs, plates and art work. Plates were fitted to the machines and set up as per the proofs. We could only print 2 colours at a time so cyan/black first then magenta/yellow. The customer/art consultant/designer or artist was then asked to pass the job and off we went. Some artwork used to come with security guards, the Roger Dean art work was always signed in and out to stop it going missing…! Sometimes a member of the band used to turn up. I know Led Zeppelin did once, in a limo but it was far too dirty and noisy for them!
Print runs were from 200 upwards. Albums like James Last (any one), Crazy Horses by the Osmond’s or Puppy Love seemed to be always on the presses. We did a lot of short run for the opera market too. Plus reprints sometimes of albums from the 1960’s. I remember Elvis and the Blue Hawaii Album being reprinted.
Once printed, the flat sheets went down to the letterpress to be cut and then up to the bindery to be folded and glued, where they were boxed up and sent out to the record companies Most of the finishing (folding and glueing) was done in house, but any covers that needed laminating were sent out to a place in Peckham..
11. Tell me more about Led Zeppelin turning up…
I think it was one or two of the band with the usual hangers-on/flunky types. They turned up in a limo in the afternoon, they were all smashed!
There was some arty person too. They were supposed to sign off the Houses Of The Holy sleeve but they didn’t like the colour of the sky on the inner gatefold picture. So, we overprinted a 5th colour to make the sky darker as we couldn’t get it how they wanted with standard 4 colour process.
12. Can you remember any other ‘famous’ sleeves that you worked on? Any of these:
https://rarerecordcollector.net/miscellaneous/polydor-2383-212-pink-fairies/ Yes this was stuck up in the changing room.
https://rarerecordcollector.net/track-record/2406-112-golden-earring/ Yep remember this one as it was quite rude!
Yes, remember this one. I even used this cover as the basis for some art work I did on my course at the London College of Printing.
Yes, ‘Oh Lucky Man’ the film soundtrack by Alan Price was an absolute pig to print due to the amount of ink on the cover. Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, they were weird and one of them came in. I think Richie Havens did once too. Not sure if any of the Osmond’s turned up, but I vaguely remember something…but it’s a long time ago!
The Strawbs “Bursting At The Seams” was a nightmare job. It should have had a foil coating on the lettering but it stripped off on the press and we scrapped loads of these. Not many were ever gatefolded and glued. It was a massive pain and we had to work through the night on a reprint to get these out on time.
I did a Velvet Underground one too, and there was a slight problem with the press I was running and the spine ended up out of alignment. I got a bollocking for that one!
I was, and still am a soul man and the James Brown, Curtis Mayfield stuff was great plus we did most of the Stax record label artists. Most of the other guys were not into music but I was and I used to ask for the albums, this was a bit cheeky as I was the lowest of the low. But a great man at MacNeills called Bill Bonner, made sure I got them. I still have some of them albums like, Taking You There (Stax sampler album), William Bell, Phases of Reality, Mavis Staples, Jean Knight and the Dramatics, brilliant stuff!