Final part, in which Cliff gives his views of life as a salesman, the HMV franchise and the impact of the arrival of new Chairman Sir Joseph Lockwood.
As HMV Record shops were part of EMI, did you have a particular involvement with them?
In the late 1970’s when I was MD of United Artists, I used to have the most terrible rows with (MD) James Tyrrell – you wouldn’t believe. He and I are very good friends but we used to have the most shocking rows. He always wanted more discount that I was prepared to give. I understood his point of view and he understood mine, but it didn’t stop us having a row.
What was the biggest change you saw in the record industry over your 35 years – was it the compact disc?
No no, it wasn’t that – I think it was the dropping of retail price maintenance. That opened the flood gates for the big chains to control the business, and started the demise of the independent store. That was the biggest demonstrative change in the business because suddenly you could sell a record (Singles used to be 6s8d (33p) – three for £1) at whatever price you wanted. The inevitable conclusion was that the smaller retailer couldn’t survive. It just got tougher and tougher.
When you joined in the 1950’s how were salesmen treated – were they the backbone of the company or were they put upon?
Not very well. When I went on the road in 1959 I wanted the London area because I lived there and had a wife and a new daughter. I couldn’t get that so I went to Bristol. Part of my area was Herefordshire and I’ve got to tell you there was sod all up there. I went there on a Thursday and this particular retailer didn’t buy any records – maybe an LP occasionally – but he wanted me to stay all day. I can remember the manager at the Birmingham depot -a man called Hardy. We used to have these huge order sheets and we couldn’t phone the orders in, we had to post them. If you put the order for one record in the wrong column he used to send it back. Those were the days when HMV had its own depot. Columbia, Parlophone and the other labels were handled separately, and he used to say ‘you’ve got this HMV record in the Columbia column – I can’t accept it, rewrite it.’ Oh, he was terrible, but when he went we all got a bit more professional.
The HMV franchise was very important. It worked in the sense that you were an HMV appointed dealer and had access to the whole HMV range. Bear in mind that in every sense except pop, HMV was the premier label. I’m sure Sir Edward Lewis (Decca Chairman) would have denied that, but if you managed to get an HMV franchise you were something else. Many dealers used to apply and not get it – the restrictions and limitations were enormous. For a start you had to stock £X worth of stock – HMV was the premier classical label and that’s the way it worked. If you could get an HMV franchise you were a complete dealer; if you couldn’t you weren’t. That didn’t mean you didn’t do business, but it did mean you didn’t have that finishing touch. There was a minimum distance between stores.
Sir Joseph Lockwood changed it. George Marks, who was the HMV sales manager, resigned over it. You’ve got to remember, back in the 1950’s HMV was everything a label should be. It had history, it had prestige, and to get a franchise was very difficult. But of course by creating the franchise you were limiting your own sales. For instance, in Worcester the HMV franchises were either end of the city, so someone going to a record shop in the centre couldn’t find an HMV recording so he’d probably buy a Decca record instead.
What do you remember of Sir Joseph Lockwood? What was his background?
Sir Joseph Lockwood with some chaps you might recognise
Flour milling. He’s supposed to have written one of the best books ever on flour milling. He came from Nottingham somewhere but he was like a revolution, a much needed revolution. I’ve got to tell you this, because the company was about to go straight down the tube as I understood it. Bear in mind I was only a mail boy, I mean I didn’t know very much. But he was wonderful..tough, believe me he was tough. But he was what the company needed and he turned it round. Maybe one of the worst things he did was to discover “Diana” by Paul Anka as he suddenly became an A&R man! But he was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. To deal with him was very difficult and he did once give me the biggest bollocking of my life, and then told me why. I never wanted to suffer that again.
What had I done? I refused a dealer. We used to have what was called a priority system at Hayes. You had a list of dealers whom you phoned for their orders – HMV Oxford Street on a Monday, HMV Manchester on Tuesday and so on. And we had this dealer called Bernie Schwartz who had two shops, one in Hackney and one in Walthamstow. And I cancelled one of the calls because we were trying to cut down on costs. So what he did was to combine the two orders and tell me to deliver them separately. I said I’d add them together but I wasn’t delivering them separately. So he phoned the Chairman! And did Sir Joseph give me a bollocking! Jesus wept, but at the end he said “I understand why you did it and I would have done the same” But he had to stand up for the dealer. In the end Bernie and I became good friends but I still refused to give in to him.
Next up…a short but perfectly formed interview with the man who created the charts – Percy Dickins. He died in 2002 and here is his obituary in The Guardian from February 19 that year
The man who brought the Top 10 charts to Britain
A song’s popularity in the early 1950s was measured by the sales of its sheet music. It was the idea of Percy Dickins, who has died aged 80 of heart failure, to supplement this system with figures for weekly record sales – a chart that was to become the Top 20. The listing was published in the New Musical Express (NME), the weekly that Dickins co-founded in 1952, and his idea changed the British music business forever.
Dickins correctly predicted that these record-based charts would attract advertising revenue from the burgeoning record industry. His starting point was to telephone 20 or so shops every week, asking for their biggest-selling records. The concepts of payola or chart rigging had not occurred to him – or to anyone else for that matter – but soon the Top 20 charts were serious business. So, too, was the NME, where, over three decades, Dickins embraced a cornucopia of styles, from pop-rock to punk and beyond.
Born in London’s East Ham, Dickins left school at 14 to work in the advertising department of the magazine publishers George Newnes. He had a natural musical aptitude, and, concentrating on tenor and alto saxophone – his taste was for the likes of Coleman Hawkins and Zoot Sims – played around the numerous local dance halls to supplement his wages, often with the future jazz writer Benny Green.
He served in the Merchant Navy during the second world war, and later worked briefly as a transatlantic liner steward. During long American stopovers, his temporary jobs included shifts in a canning factory and guiding tourists at Niagara Falls.
By the end of the 1940s, Dickins was working in the advertising department of the Melody Maker, then the required trade paper for professional musicians. But the weekly took itself too seriously, and, with journalist Ray Sonin, Dickins planned a more pop- and show business-oriented competitor.
At the time, Beaverbrook Newspapers was publishing its Musical Express as a weekly supplement to the Daily Express. With financial backing from entrepreneur Maurice Kinn, Dickins and Sonin audaciously launched their New Musical Express as a stand-alone title, with Dickins responsible for advertising and production. The success of the NME’s sales charts led the Melody Maker to follow suit, using its financial muscle to undermine the struggling NME by licensing its own pop charts to daily newspapers.
The pop idols of the day were crooners like Dickie Valentine, Lita Rosa and Dennis Lotis, but, with a fleetness of foot that still characterises it, the NME recognised the emergence of rock ‘n’ rollers like Elvis Presley – who was denounced in the Melody Maker – and British aspirants such as Tommy Steele and Billy Fury.
With Dickins’ talents as a salesman, the NME was still expanding in the early 1960s, as sanitised pop-rock capitulated to Merseybeat and the bratty R &B of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The paper trebled its print run to cover this phenomenon, though the expansion strained a company that had rarely been profitable even in the 1950s.
By the time Kinn sold out to the International Publishing Corporation in 1965, and Sonin retired, Dickins had come up with another bright idea, the NME poll winners concert. These often breathtakingly diverse events, staged at Wembley pool, became the forerunners of stadium rock and the numerous awards shows that are a dubious hallmark of today’s pop music industry.
Dickins counted many of the new breed of managers as friends and confidants; he once advised the dapper Andrew Loog-Oldham to dress down a little if he was to maintain credibility as manager of the Rolling Stones. He was able to get the biggest stars to Wembley, often for a pittance. But then, as the Beatles press officer Derek Taylor observed, he was an innocent, and, in a business increasingly overrun by spivs and hucksters, this counted for much.
Nor did Dickens lose his touch for innovation. In the early 1970s, he launched the annual NME awards for record producers and graphic designers, whose importance had grown as flower-power, and then progressive rock, grew to dominate the music industry.
Dickins retired in the 1980s, though throughout that and the previous decade he continued his dance band playing. He also discovered he could make money as a toastmaster. As for the NME, it has outlived Melody Maker – and several other copycat titles – as the sole remaining pop weekly.
Dickens is survived by his wife Sylvia, whom he married in 1946, and his sons Rob and Barry, now respectively chairman of the British Phonographic Institute and co-chairman of the ITB agency.
Percy Dickins, publisher and musician, born December 2 1921; died February 11 2002