Cliff Cooper, Orange Amps Founder and CEO:

Whilst I was in The Millionaires – a name which Joe Meek himself gave us – we had a top twenty hit record ‘Wishing Well’, which I wrote with my brother Ken, and Joe recorded and produced.

The Millionaires

Joe was a very special talent who – like Phil Spector with his pioneering ‘Wall of Sound’ recording techniques – was way ahead of his time. Joe was completely dedicated to music, and with his company, RGM, was forever experimenting and trying to discover new sounds. It was a privilege to watch him at work in his Holloway Road home studio [pictured below].

Unfortunately, towards the end of his life, he was beginning to get very stressed and was living more and more on the edge. I remember one particular incident at the studio. Our bass player, Staz, was coming up the narrow stairs into the recording room as Joe was coming down them. Really, Staz should have returned back down the stairs, but instead he tried to squeeze past Joe. Joe suddenly flared up and just threw his tea all over Staz!

At the time, I heard that the reason Joe was so stressed was to do with a copyright issue regarding his hit single ‘Telstar’ [performed by The Tornados, it reached Number 1 in the UK and USA charts in 1962].

Joe committed suicide in February 1967, which shocked everybody in the music business. We hadn’t had the opportunity to work with him for long, and he was planning a follow-up single for us.

From left: Ken Cooper, Cliff Cooper, Tony Searle, Terry Johnson

Cliff Cooper, Founder & CEO of Orange:

By the time I opened the Orange Shop I’d played in two bands – The Rocking Chairs and then The Millionaires. I had also set up two very basic recording studios, so I had some experience of recording and music amplification.

I loved the early Vox amplifiers and their sound and played my Hofner Verithin bass (see above) through a Vox T-60 head and 1×18” bass cab. I had revamped the CTI Pixy (read about it here) but couldn’t afford to produce them in any quantity. I took it to Tom Jennings of Vox (pictured below), and asked him if he might be interested in marketing it under the Vox name with a royalty for myself. He thought that the Pixy was a great idea but that it didn’t fit in well with the Vox brand. Nonetheless, he certainly encouraged me not to give up. Tom was a very nice man – a man who brought so many ground-breaking developments into the market.

When Orange amplifiers and loudspeaker cabinets first appeared in late 1968, their striking colour and the picture-frame design of the amp sleeves and speaker cabinets marked a revolution in amplifier styling. What’s more, a completely new approach to musical instrument retailing began with the opening of the Orange Shop in London’s New Compton Street on September 2nd 1968.

What is now known as the Orange signature sound really kicked off in 1971 when the company designed the Graphic ‘Pics Only’ amplifier with its unique hieroglyphic symbols and distinctive warm and crunchy sound.

In the early 1960s, Yorkshireman, Ernest Tony Emerson, was a member of ‘The British Interplanetary Society’ – a group of H.G. Wells-inspired space-age futurists. He designed a state-of-the-art hi-fi amplifier – the Connoisseur HQ20.

The Connoisseur HQ20 designed by Tony Emerson

His friend, Mat Mathias, owned ‘Radio Craft’ – a small repair business based in Huddersfield. In early 1964 Mat employed Tony as a design engineer, and with the HQ20 as a starting point Mat then built his own guitar amplifier called the Matamp Series 2000 which was initially a 20 watt, and then a 30 watt model.

Cliff Cooper:

“In the beginning, manufacturers would not supply the Orange Shop with new equipment for us to sell, so I decided to build my own amplifiers. I had studied electronics at college, which of course assisted me greatly. Soon, we were looking for a company to manufacture our amplifiers.

We had a choice of two or three firms but decided to go with Mat Mathias of Radio Craft. The amps that Mat made were basically hi-fi guitar amplifiers. They were very clean-sounding and beautifully built, but when he sent a sample down to us we found we needed to modify it somewhat because it didn’t sound quite right for the market we were aiming for. It was great for bass guitars because it was so clean, but it was too clean and flat for electric lead guitars. The new generation of guitarists back then wanted more sustain, which you don’t really get with a clean sound. Therefore, in our first year we modified the front end and changed the chassis material from lightweight aluminium to robust enamelled steel.We designed the Orange logo so that it would be bold and clearly visible on stage, and sent it up to Radio Craft for use on our front panel. Mat then suggested that we put a small Matamp logo on it as well, which we gladly agreed to do. Mat assembled our first amps in the back room of his tobacconist shop in Huddersfield town centre. The first Orange speaker cabinets were made and covered in the basement of the Orange Shop.”

Cliff Cooper recalls the early years when his company changed the style of music retailing:

Orange enthusiasts worldwide will probably recognise the Orange World Tree logo. It was first used in 1969 on our record label and crest and then on the cover of our 1973 catalogue, and I think it is an image which still captures the spirit of the company.

After leaving college, I studied electronics, passed my Radio, Television & Electronics Board exams and worked for Imhof’s Radio & Television store in London’s New Oxford Street. I worked in sales, as well as doing on-the-spot radio and television repairs. Little did I know in 1963 that five years later I would have my own shop only two hundred yards away from that store.

In 1964, tragedy struck our family when we lost my brother, Michael, who was just two years younger than me and died from Lymphosarcoma, aged only eighteen. I left Imhof’s soon afterwards, and went to work for my dad’s company, Cooper’s Papers Ltd, which was a small business based in Walthamstow on the outskirts of London.

Founder & CEO of Orange Amps, Cliff Cooper

There, I designed and built the world’s first vertical Cellophane slitting machine, which was five times faster than the machinery in use at the time. Looking back on my invention now, I wish I had known about patenting in those days.

However, I never stopped thinking about a career in music. I learnt to play the violin as a boy, and later learned to sing and play the bass guitar. In 1965, I formed a band with my brother Ken. Soon afterwards we signed to the legendary producer, Joe Meek, who gave us our name, The Millionaires. I shared the vocals with Ken, who played keyboards, and in 1966 we recorded a hit single that charted at Number 12 called ‘Wishing Well’ – which Joe Meek produced.

In the same year, I built and ran a small demo recording studio in Amity Road, Stratford, London. Complaints from neighbours about the noise inspired my second idea: this was the CTI Pixy portable guitar ‘micro amplifier’ with an earpiece instead of a loudspeaker. I made and marketed about one hundred of them myself. This was my first taste of manufacturing and selling musical equipment – and I loved it.

Early in the summer of 1968, an opportunity arose to rent a near-derelict shop in London’s West End at number 3, New Compton Street. I wanted to convert it into a professional recording studio and went along to Greater London Council to be interviewed as a prospective tenant. I was seen by a kind gentleman called Mr A.M. Jones, who agreed that I could pay the rent in arrears. The rent he quoted was much lower than I had expected, although he did emphasise that because the shop was due for demolition, the lease would be renewable on a yearly basis.

So I now had my own premises – which for the time being, would have to double as my home – in New Compton Street, situated in what was known as “the music walk”. This area stretched between Denmark Street and Shaftesbury Avenue where many of the important music retail shops were situated. As such, this was a highly desirable location for my new business, but it was also an area where vice and corruption was right on my doorstep. This was Soho, after all, and it was all rather new to me. But learning to survive in such a cut-throat part of London definitely gave me a fighter’s mentality. This mentality would come in very useful, and it’s no exaggeration to say that from then on in those early days nearly everything was a fight.

At first, I tried to make the basement recording studio into a going concern, and when this didn’t happen I was forced to open the empty shop upstairs and sell my own band equipment to pay wages. For a brief while, I actually found myself washing cars to help raise cash.

The psychedelic era had arrived and world-famous British bands such as The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were all going in for bold and experimental sounds and visuals. None of the other music shops really catered for these bands and this new style. I wanted the Orange Shop to be different and not like many of the old established shops who worked together to keep prices high. I chose a bright and energetic colour as a brand name: Orange has always been my favourite colour and as it is also a fruit, here was a brand name that crossed international language barriers.

As none of the main distributors would supply us with their amplifiers, I decided to make my own. Thankfully, the Orange Shop was successful and provided the income to launch our own company, Orange Amplification. As the money rolled in, we upgraded the Orange Studio. Stars like Robin Gibb, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder and many more famous artists began booking sessions there. Next came Orange Hire, which raised our profile, especially at outdoor festivals.

I then signed a very talented artist, John Miles – famous for his 1976 worldwide hit ‘Music [was my first love]’ – and created Orange Management.

After this came Orange Records, Orange Publishing and the Orange Artist Booking Agency. Whilst I didn’t realise this at the time, it was a textbook case of horizontal integration, and as Orange expanded I gained invaluable insight into every facet of the music business.

By the time the Orange Shop was forced to close in 1978, the Orange brand was already well established and recognised worldwide.

Cliff Cooper, Founder & CEO of Orange Amplification

“ I named it the CTI Pixy Mk V…. there weren’t any earlier ones but I figured Mk V was a good starting point. ”

In 1966 I built my original studio on the first floor of a commercial building I had rented in Amity Road, Stratford, East London. Neighbours soon started to complain about the noise, so I had the idea of making a miniature transistor guitar amp and fitting it with an earpiece.

CTI stood for ‘Cooper Technical Industries’. About a year later, other companies were bringing out similar products which could be used with headphones.

I made the Pixy amplifier on a tag board and I found that this worked very well. The earpiece was a crystal design made by ACOS and the amp itself was powered by a 9-volt battery which fitted into the base of the unit. For the case I rolled thin aluminium using a metal forme, and covered it in black vinyl. The circuitry fitted into this case. I named it the CTI Pixy Mk V… there weren’t any earlier ones but I figured Mk V was a good starting point.

I remember going to the Melody Maker offices, where I met two journalists – Chris Hayes and Chris Welch. I showed them the Mk V and asked if they could give me a write-up in their weekly music paper. They told me that they couldn’t personally help me, but put me in touch with the advertising department, who then quoted me what I considered to be a small fortune for a half-page advertisement. Needless to say, I decided to economise and take a small square space advert instead. I was really surprised when, within a month, I had sold about a hundred for just under £2 each.

A CLOSER LOOK BACK AT THE VERY EARLY DAYS OF ORANGE

Orange Amps’ enthusiasts well know that the Orange Story began 45 years ago on Monday, September 2nd 1968 when founder and Orange Amps’ CEO, Cliff Cooper, opened the Orange Shop in London’s New Compton Street. On display in the window was the shop’s entire stock: this amounted to one secondhand Vox PA that Cliff still owned from his days as bassist in The Millionaires.

It was sold that same day and the Orange Shop soon grew to become much more than a music equipment store – it was the place where famous musicians such as Marc Bolan, Peter Green, Eric Clapton and Paul Kossoff would often spend their free time.

orange-store-window

Perhaps what is not so generally known about those very early days is just how quickly things did move forward when Cliff decided to diversify and make his own amps and cabs as well retailing secondhand guitars and gear. The following timeline speaks for itself.

In early October 1968, Orange Amps didn’t exist; the company was called Orange Music – which meant the Orange Shop selling secondhand guitars and amps.  But then Cliff had no choice but to make his own amps, having been given the brush-off by all the major manufacturers when he tried to buy new equipment from them to retail in the Orange Shop.

And yet by the first week in November Orange’s first endorsees, top UK blues-rock band Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, had a full Orange PA . This comprised 6 100-watt amps (2 with stand alone spring reverb units) and 16 speaker cabinets (a mix of rectangular 4x12s and 2x12s). The band first road tested the PA in the north of England before taking it with them on a three-month tour of America starting in December.

The picture-frame amp sleeves and speaker cabs with the unique Lloydloom basket weave front cloth; the psychedelic, once-seen-never-forgotten logo: and the orange finish itself – all these were colourful new design features  that grabbed the limelight in what had become a rather monochrome and  conservative industry.

And all this came together at New Compton Street in less than 28 days – and almost as many sleepless nights most probably – in what must have been a pretty relentless burst of creativity.

Those first six prototype amps (100 watters powered by two 6550/KT-88 valves  not 4 EL34s) were branded Orange Matamp. But a lot of confusion still surrounds the Orange Matamp years – 1968-70.

Wrongly, many people still think that Orange Matamp was a company and joint venture between Cliff Cooper and Matamp’s founder, Mat Mathias. Guitar magazine articles and histories about guitar amps referred to Orange Matamp as a company and partnership, which simply reinforced this confusion.

The truth about Orange Matamp emerged, almost incidentally, during one of the many interviews given to me by Cliff, about halfway through researching The Book of Orange (most of which was done during 2007/8). The truth being that although Orange Matamp was a brand it was never a company…. There was only ever Orange – at first called Orange Music and then Orange Musical Industries (OMI).

What actually happened was that one Sunday in early October 1968, Fleetwood Mac’s new road manager, Dinky Dawson, took Peter Green to the Orange Shop and Cliff was delighted to land an order for the first ever Orange PA. But Dinky and Peter insisted that the amps had to be 100 watters.

Having been recently been put in contact with Mat Mathias, Cliff appointed Matamp as a sub-contractor to manufacture amplifiers for the Orange brand. At that point Mat was making his own 30-watt Matamp Series 2000 guitar amps in small numbers in the back of his tobacconist shop in the north of England, in Huddersfield town centre.

Cliff supervised the Series 2000 upgrade to the100 watts specified by Fleetwood Mac.  Meanwhile, the picture-frame amp sleeves and speaker enclosures for Mac’s PA were being built in the Orange Shop.  In order to save precious time, Cliff sent the newly-designed Orange psychedelic logo up to Mat so that the white Traffolyte amp front panels could be engraved by a local firm Mat had used before.

orange-matamp

It was at this point that Mat asked if the Matamp logo could also be featured on the front panel and, out of courtesy, Cliff agreed.  Ironically, it was in this way that the confusion began:  music press such Beat Instrumental subsequently wrote about “Orange amplifiers” but the branding on the actual product was Orange Matamp.

The rise of Orange Amps during 1969 was no less than meteoric – so much so that there was even talk at Orange HQ about the company’s motto being Voice Of The Universe!   By spring 1969 world-class guitarists such as BB King, gave Orange amps the thumbs-up and also that year the BBC made Orange their PA of choice for the corporation’s outdoor events. So in less than a year Orange rose from obscurity to being the coolest brand around. As a consequence, the 100-watt and 200-watt OR models were selling in big numbers,

Huge back-orders prompted Cliff to bankroll Mat Mathias’s move from his small shop to a much larger production facility at nearby Cowcliffe in early 1970. The big picture Cliff had in mind was that this factory in the long term would not only meet Orange’s orders worldwide but expand and also become a sub-contractor (called Cooper Mathias) for other amp manufacturers.

Mat’s preferred plan was not as ambitious and so eventually there was an inevitable though very amicable parting of ways. The two remained good friends right up until Mat’s untimely passing in 1989.

In 2013 any Orange Matamp amps and cabs that appear on eBay and other auctions command very good prices as collectors’ items. Of course, in terms of their design and sound the first OR100 and OR200 series were low distortion “hi-fi guitar amps.” Sonically, they had little if any resemblance to the characteristic Orange mid-range crunch that began with the introduction in 1971 of the 100-watt Orange Graphic  ‘Pics & Text’ amp – a distinct sound back then that resonates today with the critically-acclaimed OR15 and OR100 models.

Interestingly, though,  I know of one 1960s’ valve amp enthusiast in the north of England who is pretty sure that he owns one of the very early Orange Matamp 100-watt prototypes powered by two 6550/KT88s, fixed ratio, and featuring two chassis and an ‘umbilical’ connecting preamp and output stages. Alas, that highly collectable amp mysteriously went missing a few years ago but when we last spoke determinedly he was on the trail to recover it.

An ‘Orange 1968 Prototype Reissue’ head to commemorate 50 years of Orange Amplification in 2018?  Now there’s an exciting thought….

Written by Martin Clemins