A Personal History of the British Records Business #16 part 1

The Hound is delighted to post, for our readers delectation,  the first instalment by EMI’s very own David Hughes MBE A Personal History of the British Record Business.

Wayne Bickerton – #16 – part 1  

First posted on vinyl memories December 10, 2015

I really needed a strong nudge to resume these unpublished interviews after such good intentions ….The death of Wayne Bickerton was the biggest nudge I could have received. Wayne, a scouser and one of the gentlest and least ego-struck music business folk I ever met, was head of A&R at Polydor when I joined in the 1972 as the company’s press officer. I think we got on well – certainly we never fell out over anything – and his signing of Billy Connolly was a hard fought masterstroke. This interview dates from around 1999. – David Hughes

Wayne Bickerton

What was your first exposure to music?

I was in Liverpool groups in the late 50’s/early 60’s. I was in the first Liverpool group to come to London, (Steve Bennett &) The Syndicate. Eventually I joined a band called Lee Curtis and the Allstars.. I was bass player and vocals and for two years we were probably the most popular band in the North West, according to Merseybeat. We made records for Decca. That was my introduction to Decca Records where I ended up working when I came back from The States.

How did the group get that recording contract?

It was the Liverpool thing, the same time as The Beatles. Every A&R man was running around Liverpool trying to find the next Beatles and we ended up being signed to Decca. Peter Sullivan was our A&R guy and he came to Liverpool. It was also the first time I met (Tremeloes etc., manager) Peter Walsh. The band was managed by a guy who wasn’t going to let anyone encroach on his patch. That was the first taste I had of the record industry and I was fascinated, the studios and all the rest of it. We recorded in London, but with Pete Best we had previously recorded with Joe Meek. God knows what happened to those recordings. We were dotted around his house – someone was in the toilets – the usual thing with Joe. The band unfortunately never quite made it. Pete Best joined having left The Beatles and we then left Lee Curtis and formed a group called the Pete Best Five (actually Four!) which also recorded for Decca. We had a wonderful record called I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door which did absolutely nothing – the cover of an American record.

Wayne is third right below..and Pete’s mum was the manager!

Did being billed “Decca Recording Artists” help the bookings?

It did, yes, and we had all those little Decca handout postcard pictures, provided by the Decca press officer.

Did you have dealing with the press office?

Yes – Brian Gibson, a great guy. So I went through all that Liverpool scene, did all the things with Pete Best..we eventually ended up in America. We made the recordings that were subsequently released to hang on the coat-tails of The (Beatles) Anthology series.

They weren’t released earlier?

No, they were bootlegged extensively across the world. We were the last people to receive a royalty; in fact it’s only recently I’ve seen anything from those recordings which I have to say were highly embarrassing – they’re atrocious. We did about an album’s worth. We came back (from America) eventually, reopened the Cavern and met the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. I loved New York, one of my favourite cities. We were a Beatles link. These guys had a so-called marketing plan so we were flown across to New York with The Undertakers and played at places like The Peppermint Lounge. One day these guys stepped up; they were from the Immigration Department and said ‘OK, you’ve been here for 9-10 months as tourists, you’re going to have to deal or leave.’ The deal essentially was that they would put us down for a Green Card. ‘What does that mean’, we asked. ‘If you’re down for a Green Card you have to do things like the rest of the American people are doing, and what we’d like you to do is to volunteer to play for the troops.’ So it was ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ – I was up for it, Tony Waddington was up for it, but Pete wasn’t and neither were a couple of the guys, so we left for Canada, did a tour with Roy Orbison and then came home. I had basically become disillusioned with the band.

Were you doing all this under the auspices of a manager?

Basically through Pete Best’s mother! The problem with bands is that it’s the most undemocratic platform you can ever be involved in – your life’s not your own; other people do things and make commitments and you find yourself somewhere you don’t want to be. So I’d had enough. I decided I wanted to get on the other side of the industry. I got the taste of being a producer. (In New York) I loved being in the studio; it was a great experience, ending up on a demo session with Charlie and Inez Foxx, meeting heroes like Luther Dixon who wrote The Shirelles’ hits. James Brown’s band used it a lot, and great drummers like James Purdie. It all rubbed off and I got a taste for it.

The funniest thing that happened in New York when we were there as musicians, was when all the lights went out. We were in the studio, and of course in England it wasn’t unusual to have a power failure; in New York the lights didn’t just go off, they went down gradually and we went to emergency lighting. The Guy who owned the studio came upstairs and the and the guy who was producing the record was Bob Gallo who was the first cousin of the Bobby Gallo of mafia fame – it was that kind of set up. Someone said to the engineer ‘Christ, what have you been doing this time?’, so they went out into the hallways and opened the electrical boxes to see what the problem was. There was a huge window on 42nd Street and they looked out and all of a sudden the lights just went out, bang bang bang, all down the street, and there was total darkness. Then we were getting static through the speakers from the emergency power and within five minutes the Americans had convinced themselves they had heard the sound of approaching Russian bombers. Within minutes there were police on top of police cars to stop looting. There were people out on the streets – talk about commercial enterprise – with trays selling candles which a few minutes earlier were 5 cents and now were $5! It went on all night, the first time it had ever happened all up the coast – 1963 I think.

(According to Wikipedia-The Northeast blackout of 1965 was a significant disruption in the supply of electricity on Tuesday, November 9, 1965, affecting parts of Ontario in Canada and Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Vermont in the United States. Over 30 million people and 80,000 square miles (207,000 km2) were left without electricity for up to 13 hours.)

Was Decca your first port of call, and were there still House Producers?

Yes.

I did cabaret gigs in Liverpool for a while, which I hated, but I’d met my wife, got married and we had a small flat. My actual profession is an engineer which I hadn’t practiced since I’d left Liverpool, so I went back to being an engineer during the day, played cabaret, and sat in the toilet of the flat until 2am writing songs. Survived – God knows how – on about four hours sleep. I used to go down to London and a friend of mine, Tony Booth, used to let me sleep in his flat, so I took days off work, went down (to London) with my tapes and did the rounds. That was when I first met Dick Leahy for example when he was at Philips. I did EMI, Decca, Pye. I was offered a job at Pye and at Decca, as a producer, joining the staff and making the tea. People like Peter Sullivan had moved on because of Tom (Jones) and was on a different planet. I found out later that word had got round that Dick Rowe had hired an American producer – of course it was a scouser who had been to America! Today it’s difficult to get a job in the music business, and years later I was talking to Dick Rowe and asked him why I’d got the job – all those letters that he must have received week in and week out, He’d had too much to drink and he said ‘Well I’ll be absolutely candid with you, I thought you were a very interesting engineer. I thought about not having signed The Beatles and thought I’d give this guy a chance.’ That’s why I got the job, the Liverpool connection.

To be continued – Deram label, Sir Edward Lewis, Tony Hall and many more names along the Bickerton path.

Text ©David Hughes 2016, photographs sourced by Google for illustration purposes only.

About David Hughes Mini Biography 

In 1966, David began working for a local Kent newspaper, starting a music column alongside the more traditional elements of cub reporter life, before later joining weekly music newspaper Disc & Music Echo in 1967. He became a press officer for Polydor Records in 1972, working alongside artists such as Slade, The Jam and The Osmonds, before moving to EMI Records in 1978. There, he was general manager of the Tamla Motown label, working with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and later with Duran Duran, Nigel Kennedy and the NOW That’s What I Call Music series

After 15 years, he moved back to public relations in 1993 becoming the company’s Vice President of Communications and External Affairs and assuming responsibility for EMI’s calendar of corporate events until retiring at the end of July 1998.

In 2014  David Hughes was appointed MBE for services to the UK music industry and charities the EMI Music Sound Foundation & EMI Archive Trust.

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Century of Spinning Plastic Discs

By Wayne Shevlin

Opening salvo of the 21st century: announcing the end of the copy economy – sunset on the century of spinning plastic discs.
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Viktor Vasnetsov – Grave-digger (1848 modified by WS) – Public Domain   

The Byrds once advised aspiring rock n’ roll stars: “Sell your soul to the company, who are waiting there to sell plastic-ware”.  The goal was crystal clear: multi-platinum.  “The name of the game, boy – we call it riding the gravy train”. That meant millions of copies. Copies of plastic discs.  Plastic discs that must be pressed, be warehoused, be shipped, unpacked & racked, sold and be played.  Millions upon millions of plastic discs – they formed the basis of my personal existence and shaped the culture of my generation for many decades.  They were also the foundation of an entire industry.  An industry based on the unquestioned premise that copies had value.  And now they don’t.

Running a record section in late 1970s New York City we knew all these plastic discs by their catalogue numbers – it was a matter of pride:  Billy Joel’s The Stranger, the first Boston album, Frampton Comes Alive and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.  You may wrinkle your nose, but these were monsters.  They arrived by the truckload.  The boxes lined the walls and filled every available corner of the shop.  We ran out of room.  I threw my back out lifting them all.  Records had weight, let me tell you.  When an album hit it big, you knew about it – physically.   Queues stretched out the door and around the block.  In the surreal rush of a hot new release we were the shamans. We had the mojo everyone was desperate for.  We had gravitas and impact because we were the source – the only source – of the plastic discs.

You could see the sense of awe in peoples’ faces as they held the latest big album in their hands for the first time.  We felt real pride in getting the hot new music to the people.  My father queued up at midnight for the release of The Beatles White Album.  And now, strange as it seems, these once ubiquitous plastic discs are now nothing more than the artefacts of a bygone culture – mine.  They are now relegated to curios that might be dug up by an archaeologist.  Once upon a time, in a place far away, these things really mattered.  How sweet.  How sad.

Once, a serious music collection made a design statement: ceiling high spines of vinyl LP album sleeves replacing the need for wallpaper.  Alan P’s entire flat was wall to wall coloured cardboard in milk crates.  Nowadays, this personal statement of his intense commitment to music would fit in his shirt pocket.  Kind of loses its impact.  Hard to point at it with pride and impress your date by saying “that’s mine”.  (Probably didn’t impress your date back then either, but we always hoped for the best.)  A thousand vinyl albums against a wall had gravitas.   Sharing your space with them proved that you really cared.  It said something about you personally.

Vinyl was superseded by the CD – the new, modern plastic disc.  The CD heralded a new age and an extraordinary renaissance where, for over a decade,  music spanning the entire 20th century was dusted off and given a new lease on life.  New music continued to be created and thrive while, simultaneously, three older generations re-purchased the music of their youth.  I kept an eagle-eye out for über niche artists, waiting for them to make their way to the top of the re-issue schedule: Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, Passport’s Cross Collateral, Gentle Giant’s In a Glass House, and hundreds of others equally obscure. And they all appeared eventually. And then, when the concept of re-mastering became the rage, we waited and bought many of them all again.  How many industries can convince their customers to buy the same thing three times in this way?  The 90s music industry wallowed in sheer mania of it all.  Boy – that was a gravy train.  And now it’s over.  And it won’t happen again.

It won’t happen again because the CD was not just another kind of plastic disc like the 78, the 45 and the LP before it.  The CD was – as it turned out – a Trojan horse.  The CD had – hidden within its friendly, familiar plastic disc persona – the razor sharp teeth of digital bits.  Shiny and round, it masked the truth about itself.  It was not just a copy.  It was a clone. What it contained could be set free from the plastic, every bit as good as the bits that originally made it – the music was not bound to the media. The CD put a digital production-master of its content into the hands of anyone who held it.  Ironically, its very power made it valueless.  The media was no longer the message.  The media was superfluous and the copy had no value.  If CD began the process, then the online digital file completed it: from media is the message to media superfluous to media non-existent.  MP3 killed the value of the copy and signalled the death of the artefact.

Are artefacts important at all to this new generation?  For these digital natives, is there any value in stuff – or does mere access to content trump ownership?  Music is now just bits in the ether.  A 60GB MP3 player may contain the same content, but it is not the equivalent of Alan P’s ceiling high wall of vinyl.  How do we now show our intense, personal commitment to music?  Do we have one?   Somewhere we lost the gravitas.  We lost the mojo.  We lost the love of the artefacts.

Spinning plastic discs: they’re so 20th century, really.

From Outside, In: Discovering the EMI Archive at Hayes – part 1

 

SOTH is delighted to welcome our latest contributor Brian Kehew who join’s our ever growing list of esteemed contributors.   Brian is a LA based musician and music producer. He is a member of The Moog Cookbook and co-author of the Recording The Beatles book, an in-depth look at the Beatles’ studio approach. Kehew is also currently the Archives Historian for the Bob Moog Foundation.  Enjoy!!

By Brian Kehew

Kevin Ryan and I spent about 15 years researching how the Beatles made their records – the technical and procedural side of things. Even with Abbey Road studios still in existence, the records and information there were incredible, but limited. We canvassed the rest of the world, seeking out anything that might illuminate the picture of that 1962-70 era. In our travels, we sometimes came across mention of “Hayes” or “CRL”, as in “They took that down to Hayes”, or “That was done at Hayes/CRL”. Both terms came up enough that we realised this Hayes-thing must be something to uncover. Whether it was a building, a town, or a company – we didn’t know at first.

Eventually, the concept became clearer, and quite a promising treasure itself. Hayes was indeed a town, an industrial suburb West of London. At the time we learned of it, Hayes was simply the location of what was called The EMI Archive – a group of buildings housing EMI’s own company history in a well-protected archive. The famous studios at Abbey Road had long connected with “Hayes”, or rather – the other way around: Abbey Road Studios was originally just a small subset of the gigantic EMI company, most of which was based in Hayes. Hayes was literally a small city of EMI holdings and development. There were many buildings, offices, plants, testing areas, factories, and more. The research lab there (CRL – Central Research Laboratories) was a ‘research and development” wing of EMI; CRL designed everything from microphones to radar, medical CAT-scan machines, guided missiles, computers, television apparatus, and some things not-so-ponderous: the classic home furniture cabinet (then called “radiograms”) containing turntable, radio, amplifier, and speaker that were found in almost every family’s main room. With EMI’s genesis and focus being recorded sound, the area was home to some of the world’s most innovative and influential audio work. (This spilled over, of course, into EMI’s worldwide studios, including the now-famous address at 3 Abbey Road…)

The record business? Its always been about the technology.

Edison, Berliner, Johnson invented the record business. They brought into being the modern music industry. Capturing sounds from the air so that they could be played back in any place and at any time. Imagine the revolution in thinking that brought about. And what do the three fathers of the music business have in common? They were all techies, not “music guys”. In fact, the more we trawl back through the history of recorded music and the more we look around today’s Apple led world it becomes clearer that all the great surges in music consumption have been driven by technology not necessarily by the prevailing quality of music. Sure there have been exceptions – Sinatra, Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson who have shifted game changing volumes and were exceptional in many regards, but ultimately people bought 78’s, 45’s, LP’s and CD’s not Frankie, Elvis, Ringo or Jacko themselves. And what also drove that 50 year upward curve of music sales from 1950 to 2000 was that people sometimes bought the same recording on each of those new formats as they came out. Conversely if it was the quality of music that drove the sales increase for those 50 years, then that must mean in these days of declining sales that our music is of inferior quality?


So why the rant on this site dedicated to the history of recorded sound? Because at the weekend I took the plunge and bought a Spotify Premium package and finally joined the latest music revolution. I’ve been using Spotify for free for a year or so but much as I found it useful as search and listen engine I never enjoyed the experience of listening on the computer and I don’t have space for my computer on my hi-fi rack….so I played about on Spotify and then bought the occasional record I liked on CD to listen to properly.


No longer. With the Spotify Premium account I can still search and listen but now I transfer what I like the sound of to my phone and can listen on headphones as I commute and can easily plug into the high fi and the docking station. So now I have pretty much all the music I could possibly want in the world at my fingertips. To be played anywhere, anytime. Its Edison to the power of Elvis x The Beatles + Berliner. Quite, quite fantastic.

This morning I threw on three new albums, Gruff Rhys, Sbtrkt and Little Dragon. Never heard of them? Neither had I really. I chose them because of reviews I’d seen. Pre-Spotify I would never have explored further as they were not on my top list to check. Boy, they are now. All three albums contain superb work and I’d recommend all of you to try them. Get Spotify. Treat yourself to the Premium model. And start trying the new music once again. Its the greatest music discovery engine ever and so easy to use. Edison, Berliner and Johneson would approve.

Whatever happened to Decca Studios?

When The Beatles couldn’t agree to visit Everest for a photo shoot for their final album which they intended to name after the mountain and instead named it after the studio in which they had recorded much of their wonderful music, they bequeathed upon Abbey Road the greatest marketing gift of all time. Abbey Road Studios is still going strong and approaching its 80th bithday in rude health.

But there was another recording monster on the block in London in the 1960’s. Decca Studios at Broadhurst Gardens was the home of many great recordings and had the equipment and a team of engineers to rival The Beatles Studio. Take a look at this picture of Decca Studio 3 which was forwarded by a former Decca engineer “to prove Abbey Road No.1 (its rival for recording orchestra’s) was nothing special”

But whilst there is much information about Abbey Road, there is little on the web about Decca Studios, other than that it was the venue for The Beatles audition with Decca in 1962 – which they failed. Its Wikipedia entry doesn’t even list opening and closing dates for the studio (the building is now rehearsal space for ENO). I believe Decca owned the studios from 1920 until 1980 which means it predates Abbey Road by 11 years. Can that be right? Does anybody out there have more information, pictures, videos of the great Decca Studios?

I did find this picture of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli recording in Decca Studio 2 in 1938:

Roger Chaput, Naguine, Django, Eugène Vées, Stéphane Grappelli, Louis Vola

Please get in touch with your memories of Decca Studios. And see here for an obituary for former Decca staffer, Kevin Daly.

Setting up a record company: #1 Get the technology right

When William Barry Owen and Trevor Williams shook hands to establish the UK’s first record company, The Gramophone Company, in 1897 they sent for Fred Gaisberg, an American “recording expert” to come over to England to help them by setting up the recording department and the UK’s first recording studios in Maiden Lane.

Fred’s involvement in the American parent company, The United States Gramophone Company, went back much longer – to its very inception. We plan to tell the story of how that record company came into being in seven blog entries over the next seven days….

You might remember from an earlier blog entry that Fred had been working for Thomas Edison’s Columbia Phonograph Company before meeting the eccentric inventor, Emile Berliner. Berliner had worked out how to record on flat discs that were a marked improvement on the cylinders being used by Edison. He called his playback device the gramophone. Fred asked Berliner for a job when he felt he was was ready to take the new invention to market.

Later in 1893 Fred recalls that he “received a postcard asking me to come and see him [Berliner]. In great anticipation I called at his house. he informed me that in recent months his laboratory experiments had culminated in the production of a recording and reproducing process sufficiently advanced to place on the market. He also confided to me that three of his relatives and friends had formed a small syndicate to exploit his gramophone. With the limited funds he wanted to make a small programme of songs and music for demonstration purposes in order to raise capital for promoting a company. He told me I was just the person he was looking for….My value to Berliner rested in the fact that I could collect quickly a variety of effective talent to make these demonstration records.”

Fred of course said yes to Berliner’s offer and they switched into business start up mode. Over the next six days we plan to highlight some of the key moments in the setting up of what would become the record business. All the great recordings from Sinatra to The Beatles to Lady Gaga can be traced back to the events of the next few years. 1893 to 1897 saw the invention of recording sound become a business.

HMV 363 Oxford Street

This was the Daddio of record shops. HMV 363 Oxford Street, London in the late 1950’s:

The shop plays a part in The Beatles story. HMV, which was then part of EMI, had a small recording studio that members of the public could record songs for their sweethearts. In February 1962 Brian Epstein was in London doing the rounds of the London record companies trying (unsuccessfully) to get a record deal for the boys. He stopped at HMV Records at 363 Oxford Street to get some acetate discs made from the (unsuccessful) reel-to-reel Decca demo. The disc-cutter was Jim Foy who mentioned the group to publisher Sid Colman who in turn mentioned them to George Martin at E.M.I.’s studios in Abbey Road NW8. George gave The Beatles a recording test some months later and the rest is history.

People also bought music there!

You can browse more wonderful photos from HMV in the 1960’s here

The original HMV shop burnt down in 1937 to be rebuilt and reopened 2 years later on 8th May 1939. Sir Thomas Beecham, the famous conductor, opened the store. Here is his speech and photos of the fire.

The original shop was opened in 1921 by Sir Edward Elgar (who also opened Abbey Road Studios ten years later)

The shop closed down on April 2000. A certain George Martin was there to send it on its way with a Blue Plaque.

“No place for a woman in a recording studio”. Delia Derbyshire denied by Decca invents (soundtrack to) time travel.

There are not that many prominent women in the history of recorded sound. Indeed there are not that many women working in recording studios even today. Boffins and creatives have tended to have the odd Y chromosone or two. The recording studio can be like a gang hut. A step from Lord of the Flies in one direction and a hop and a skip from a soldering iron in the other. Not a place for a lady then….at least that was what the head of Decca Recording Studios in London thought in the late 1950’s. When recording enthusiast Delia Derbyshire applied for a job, she was told unequivocably that Decca did not employ women in their recording studios. (An executive from Decca Records would also famously turn down The Beatles a couple of years later as they thought guitar bands were on the way out…..)

Like The Beatles, Delia was not one to be put off easily. She landed herself a job at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1962 and went on to create some of the most experimental music of the 1960’s and in doing so turned the recording studio itself into a star. The workshop is best known for having created the most famous theme music on British TV, Doctor Who. But there was way more to its story and that of Delia Derbyshire, one of its central characters.

In 1966, she founded a music entity/pop group called Unit Delta Plus with fellow Radiophonic Workshop member Brian Hodgson and EMS founder Peter Zinovieff. This organisation pre-dated the British Electrical Foundation by 15 years and Kraftwerk by 4 years and was a vehicle to create and promote electronic music. They played at The Million Volt Light and Sound Rave at which The Beatles’ “Carnival of Light” had its only public performance in 1967. Delia also helped set up the Kaleidophon studio in Camden Town with Hodson and fellow electronic musician David Vorhaus. The studio produced electronic music for various London theatres and, in 1968, the three founders made an album as the band White Noise.

Here is part one of an excellent radio documentary about Delia with appropriate images (you can find the other parts on youtube)

And here is a fascinating snippet of Delia playing the tape machines:

And finally here is Electric Storm by White Noise.

George Martin documentary review

Thanks to the wonders of the BBC Iplayer I finally watched the Arena documentary Produced By George Martin last night. It was even better than I’d hoped for. If you are in the UK you can still just about catch it here and I’d advise you to ignore the Bank Holiday sunshine for an hour and a half to do so immediately. It went over many familiar tales that make up the George Martin story but also uncovered some things that were new to me:

1. The device of using son Giles to interview his father really worked, with Giles gently needling his father to reveal some of the steely drive that is not always apparent when you meet George (who is one of the most polite, generous and entertaining men on the planet).

Giles teased his father, in the way that only sons who get on very well with their Dad’s can do, into opening up slightly. He revealed glimpses into George’s competitive nature, his workaholism and his very obvious pique at the relatively tiny rewards that EMI offered him as a reward for the phenomenal success that he’d delivered with The Beatles and the other Parlophone acts. The hurt at John Lennon’s comments and behaviour during Let It Be was also palpable.

2. I thought I knew a lot about George’s pre-Beatles career but was delighted to find he’s recorded even more seminal recordings across a range of genres that I’d thought including The Archers theme tune. He really was a key player in inventing the modern recording industry.

3. The scenes where George talked to Paul McCartney were wonderful. The pair of them were incredibly affectionate, respectful and deferential to each other. Clearly old warriors with a lot of shared battle scars enjoying each others company as they reminisced. George remained encouraging to the younger man, gently praising Paul each time he remembered what was happening in the photos they were looking at. I wonder if there is anybody left on the planet who Paul can enjoy this sort of relationship with.  He certainly seemed to value it.

Just as this documentary focussed on George Martin’s contribution to musical history and the wonder-story that was The Beatles I’d like to see more about how Abbey Road Studios and its engineers – Ken Townsend, Ken Scott, Alan Parsons and the rest – helped George and The Beatles make their sounds. Is there anybody out there making a documentary on this? Its Abbey Road’s 80th Birthday in November – would be good timing for such a documenatry.