I first met John Fruin in 1972 when I joined Polydor Records from Disc and Music Echo, largely thanks to a man called Clive Woods who was their then press officer, but about to go to Germany to do a similar job for the Beat Club TV series. John was and forever remains one of my top three bosses. He was a great motivator and was quick to recognise hard work (frequently with very welcome brown envelopes!) Those who have read previous interviews will have found him often mentioned and always positively. When he left Polydor to go to Warner Brothers (succeeded by the extraordinary Freddy Haayen from Holland and then the, to me, immensely unlikeable Tony Morris) I pleaded with him to take me too……..maybe as life turned out, his polite and gentle ‘no’ was correct! John died in October 2006. When I talked to him in early 1999 he was recovering from a heart valve replacement but was in good form.
As with so many music business executives in England, available photographs are thin on the ground, so I bring out this one again, dating I’m guessing from either 1972 or 1973, on the roof of Polydor’s Stratford Place offices. If you can find me, the bearded guy partly hidden behind my upraised arm is Clive Woods.
When I was running WEA (Warner Elektra Atlantic), Obie (Maurice Oberstein, Chairman of CBS) and I were the two highest paid people in the management side of the UK record industry. In the late 1970’s I was getting about £80,000 a year which was very good. In a few short years after that the level of of salaries escalated incredibly. I know that from looking for people (to work at) Zomba. When I left EMI after twenty years to go to Polydor I had £1500 in the pension scheme. I drew it out – you could draw out your own contributions. I should have left it in…and I can well imagine people like Wally (Ridley) who were employed for all those years, the first thirty years of their employment would mean bugger all in terms of pension.
Strangely enough, the relationships I formed in the first twenty years have stood up much more than the very good friendships I built in the following twenty years.
I was a sales manager by the end of 1963 and an area manager for the London depot from 1960-63. The guys who worked for me then have a reunion every November. Because the business was so different then and the whole idea was that you joined EMI for life, there was never any idea in my nineteen years there that I would ever be anywhere else. When I got to a certain level, Ken East said ‘you’ll be taking over from me (as MD) at the end of the year.” (1969). When I went to Polydor I was the first person of consequence to leave EMI like that, not being fired, but to say ‘I don’t want to stay here – I want to go to Polydor.’ which in EMI’s eyes was ‘good gracious me.’
Ken East had gone home for Christmas (1970) and was to make a decision on his return
I hadn’t any doubt; it was me or Ron White. Over the years that followed I became quite a friend of Ron, but at that stage we didn’t particularly like each other and we had been competitors through the company. I was confident I was going to take over from Ken. It was difficult to give anybody any logical reasons why I chose to leave. I got on well with Ken but we were violently estranged for three years. He was perfectly justified and it wasn’t until I went to Australia for Polydor that he rang me up and said ‘this is bloody silly, come up to the house’ and we’ve become good friends again. I was so close to Bhaskar (Menon), but it was one of those things. At that stage I guess I was fairly prominent in the industry and it was that which made me decide I would leave. I thought if I do become MD of EMI, I’m always going to be thought of as ‘young Fruin who’s good at sales and distribution and this thing he calls marketing.’ I thought if I’m going to go any further in this business, I’ve got to go somewhere else to show I can do it. I was offered a fantastic deal. I was getting £5,000 a year at EMI as the sort of heir apparent and Polydor offered me £7,500 and a Mercedes 230SL. People always say ‘it wasn’t the money’ and it wasn’t. We were living quite comfortably, but I was so disillusioned with the money at EMI. From the middle 1960’s the industry went like this – it was well spattered with EMI people and I was the first.
Did you think that move would lead to a series of later moves?
No. Having never worked for myself, I nearly made the army my career, when I went to Polygram (the umbrella company for Polydor and Phonogram), I was just very impressed with what they were trying to do around the world at that point. I knew the UK company was in an appalling state, because Roland (Rennie) was in a state himself, but in terms of what it had actually done from being an import company just a few years before to having The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Bee Gees, Arthur Brown; and at that stage it also had the Atlantic and Elektra deals, I thought ‘Right, I’ll go for this; for the second half of my working life I’m going to build my career with Polygram’. I started to learn German but didn’t in the end because I realised it was only necessary if you were going to work in Germany. I assumed I would become a Polygram person – that was always my intention when I went to the States with MGM – and I became successful within the Polygram set-up and I was thinking that would be the future
I can’t think of anyone you could say was a Polygram person
Coen Solleveld was being seen to be one of the heir apparents in Philips, which America destroyed. It was a very ambitious and progressive set-up.
Where I consider I’ve been very lucky, and your own ability contributed towards this (is that) I’ve never wanted to be an A&R man, so you have to try and get a team of people around you who are better A&R and marketing people than you are, and hold them all together. That’s a trick. When you think of Tim Harrold (Polydor Marketing Director) and Wayne Bickerton (A&R) you couldn’t get two people less alike. So that’s where I’ve been very lucky in my three or four big jobs – EMI, Polydor, WEA and Zomba – I was able to repeat virtually identically at WEA what I’d managed to achieve at Polydor. Of course some were the same people – Ian Walker and for a time Roger Holt, whom I knew, at the levels they could work, would do what I wanted and would be totally loyal to what I was trying to achieve, very important. Those two periods were pretty identical, in both cases but more so at WEA eventually. I found I was tilting at EMI but never in a bitter or twisted way. I always enjoyed competing with EMI. I was close with Obie, but then nobody is close with Obie; you’re only ever on the surface. He would shaft you as soon as look at you – he’s a strange emotional mix of a person. He and I competed vigorously when I was at WEA. I got to know him at Polydor when he was running the old Oriole plant (factory)
Did he try and poach you? (This question was loaded because he twice tried to poach me to CBS and then Polygram!)
He didn’t, but CBS in New York did. When I was in the Polydor period and went to America with MGM, I became known in America. MGM was miniscule, so CBS did and Pye did. I can remember being flattered when Benjy (Louis Benjamin) and Les Cocks tried to lure me to Pye – this was when I was at EMI. I always admired the Pye setup because they were such entrepreneurs and such mavericks in what they did when they came in. EMI at that period, the L.G.Wood level and Bill Townsley at Decca, were so contemptuous of them. They just grabbed this team of washing machine salesmen and adopted their techniques of selling door to door . And did it brilliantly. They had old style Reprise Records but they hit the complacency of Decca and EMI before CBS did. It was a fascinating period.
We’ll leave it there, but in case the EMI alumni were wondering, John does come back to the company and its characters..at length, and we will pick up on that next.