Time to drag this photo out again! Here I am in the summer of 1978, having just joined EMI’s Licensed Repertoire Division as the General Manager of Motown, the company’s prime licensed label. I joined on a Monday, The Commodores’ ‘Three Times a Lady’ was released on the Friday with an advance order of over 900,000, and a month later I was the closing act at the LRD conference in Ireland. Talk about baptism of fire. So here I am nervously on the right with Ken East towering over LRD MD Alan Kaupe and Motown’s Barney Ales. At that moment Ken, whose history will emerge in this interview, was Motown’s International chief, a position sandwiched between high office at Decca and finally at EMI again. Born in Sydney Australia in 1924, Ken died on November 25 2007.
After serving in World War II as a radar technician with the Royal Australian Air Force in New Guinea, he moved into the import/export business in his hometown, handling engineering and automotive products. In 1952, he joined EMI as a salesman with its Australian company. It proved to be the first phase in a long and fruitful career with EMI both at home and in the U.K.
In the 1960s, he rose to managing director of EMI Records Gramophone Company, and by October 1970 had been appointed managing director of EMI Australia. The following April, he rose to CEO of EMI Australia. (did you spot I lifted this from an obit.?)
By 1979, East had risen to the upper echelon of the company, serving as president and COO, EMI Music – Europe and International with responsibility for the company’s operations outside North America and Japan. This interview dates from 1999.
How did you start?
I was in the (Australian) Customs Department as a messenger boy during the was and went back to it after the war, but I found it boring, so I fiddled around doing other things and just accidentally got into the retail record business in 1948-9. We brought the first long playing records to Australia because it was EMI policy. The then chairman of EMI, (Sir Ernest) Fisk, didn’t believe that there was a future for the long playing record and it was EMI policy not to get involved with them. However, EMI was Decca’s licensee in Australia so there was a bit of a conflict of interest. EMI wouldn’t sell us locally pressed records because there was a shortage; you needed a franchise (see the Cliff Busby interview for details of EMI’s HMV franchise system) to even have permission to sell, and they would only sell us imported records. As result of that our business boomed because we were importing Glenn Miller and those old RCA records, and Brunswick, which was American Decca and we were the only shop that had this stuff. Then when the long-playing record came we started importing them through EMI in Sydney but ordering from Decca, and we did very well with them too.
EMI had the Decca licence and via EMI UK they had the RCA and Columbia licences. They didn’t have Capitol. Festival Records started and because they had a second option on American Decca product, American Decca was licensed to English Decca for the world outside North America and released under the Decca and Brunswick labels. Festival had a second option; EMI passed on “Rock around the clock” and Festival grabbed it. From there on they ingratiated themselves, quite correctly, with American Decca and when the licence for Australia ran out, Festival got a licence direct from Decca and it really kicked them off.
So the dealings were with the UK rather than with America?
The three big companies in America were Decca, RCA and Columbia. EMI held the Columbia and RCA licences, Decca held the Decca licence and that was it. Then the independents started to spring up and old Ted (Sir Edward) Lewis was a little more active than the EMI people who had no base in North America, issued them on the London label in England and we issued them on their original labels in Australia. All the South American, South East Asian and Indian companies had the Decca licence also, and we were in a war with the Indian company. We got the records out quicker because we had a market for them. The Indian company didn’t so they issued them especially for export into South East Asia, mainly to Hong Kong and Singapore. But we had them on the market quickly anyway because the radio stations were playing them. Bhaskar (Menon, Chairman of EMI India at the time) and I used to compete.
The whole thing came to an end of course, rightly, depending on which side of the fence you were on. EMI would cover the Columbia and RCA hits and we in Australia would constantly be rubbished for not releasing their version. We said ‘well, nobody wants your version, it’s a cover; they want the (American) original.’ Eventually both RCA and Columbia woke up to what was going on and supported their own licences. I think Columbia went to Philips and RCA went through Decca.
Was the affinity of the Australian public with the American music?
Yes, and it still is. We used to sell Cliff Richard but we couldn’t get his Living Doll away because of a local version by Col Joye & the Joy Boys. Cliff was known of course, but not all that known. By and large the Australian pop market was Australian and American.
When EMI lost the Columbia licence to Philips and they knew they were going to lose the RCA licence they decided they should wake up a bit. I’m not saying this in any immodest way but because we were fairly successful and because of the nature of our retail business, I had a better idea of what was going on that some people at EMI, they offered me a job to go and work there which I took. That was in 1952. In 1957 I went to a Capitol International meeting in Hollywood not long after EMI had bought it. At the end of 1962 Geoff Bridge and Joseph Lockwood (Deputy MD and Chairman respectively) came to Sydney and three or four months after that I was offered a job at Hayes as Deputy General Manager, Overseas Division. There was a man named George Petty who had that job. Overseas division was run by Geoff Bridge. George was pulled out to become Managing Director of EMI Electronics because corporately the whole company was centralised and there were no product divisions. Geoff and Lockwood decided they’d offer me this job as Geoff’s deputy – Lockwood was really into the record business; he loved the record business; he did great things for EMI, no doubt about that and they wanted someone with a bit of record knowledge I suppose. I came to Hayes in 1963 and no sooner had I arrived than Geoff was appointed Managing Director of EMI Records, and then (L.G.) Wood moved up as Group Director of Records and Bill Stanford, who was Personnel Director, became general Manager Overseas Division.
I used to have to worry about Morphy-Richards irons being sold in Beirut and audio/video tapes being sold in the Middle East, all that sort of rubbish. We made television sets in Belgium, for example, and bought a building in Brussels. I’d never bought a building in my life. All this stuff with a man named Jacques Bevier. The company was divided into territories. There was a man named Dines who ran Germany Austria and Switzerland, Bill Morris ran South America and Bevier ran Scandinavia, France, Belgium and the Middle East and they had to work on everything, the whole group’s interests.
What was the most important business?
I considered it to be records. Also important was electronics, both military and commercial because of the television cameras they sold to the BBC. A couple of blokes, I won’t mention, I think they were spies – they spent an awful lot of time in the Middle East, didn’t seem to do much in the way of results, but we sold video tapes to the Arabs. There were half a dozen HMV shops at that time.
Did the impact of Sir Joseph Lockwood reach Australia
I never met him until he came to Sydney in 1962 but he was acknowledged as a bit of a firebrand – you’d better look out and take care of business while he’s around. For example, one of the first jobs I had to do was to go and fire the man running the company in Turkey. Sir Joseph had been there and he wanted to be taken to a record dealer and this man didn’t know where one was! His name was Collins. His wife had been a cashier at Hayes and he was a clerk and those days it was ‘where’s Turkey? Collins, he can go there.’ – that sort of thing. He lived right by the airport. It was magnificent set-up. He had raw materials in old stables because there was a great lack of shellac and other stuff at the time. He was renting those stables out to American army officers for their horses stationed in Istanbul, copping the rent and things like that. I had to take him and his wife and and physically see them on the boat to leave Istanbul. He was such a villain in terms of ripping off the company.
Was that often the case, English people put in these territories?
All over the world, and of course it was wrong. Not necessarily that Germans should be running Germany but it shouldn’t be all English. At one stage we were boasting that we had a German running Brazil and a Frenchman running Belgium. We gradually brought the local people up in the organisation.
Was it unusual for an Australian to come to London?
I guess it was. I maintained a very good reputation because I enjoyed it, the liaison with EMI Records and (A.) Mackenzie Smith who ran the export division. So I knew more about EMI Records than most people thought – just because I was interested. Whenever I had to go and see our people in Athens or Beirut or Stockholm I could at least speak intelligently about it because the corporate system was such that the operating companies were blocked from (talking to) each other. Lockwood cleared all this up. I don’t think there was anything evil about it; they just didn’t care or understand that they were part of the great group and should work together
The bosses of each territory were taking care of all the businesses?
Yes. I remember poor old George Alexander in Spain tearing his hair out because he had to worry about Morphy Richards’ irons and he was a music man – he loved the record business. One of the reasons Morphy Richards failed I think, was because there was no enthusiasm for it. The company’s international operations were founded on the music business and they were mostly music business people, for better or worse, and they really didn’t want to be bothered. In Australia the company was a mini-model of the UK, and manufacturing of radio and television and we had a commercial electronics division, a military defence division and a music division. So when Morphy Richards came as domestic electronics, the radio and television people really weren’t happy because these were electric irons and we only knew about radio.
The head office was Jupiter House in Hayes. That was called EMI Head Office. The record factory was across the road, the electronics factory was just down the road and the tape factory was further down at the end of Blythe Road, It was all on that site.
More, much more to come!
Text©David Hughes, 2016