Careful readers will note not only another long gap in posting, but a change of interviewee. The recent death of Tony Barrow, a name known to everyone if only for one famous client, prompts his replacement for Brian Gibson, who will follow….promise.
N.B. If you spot some jumps in the conversation, they were apparently technical faults – i.e. something went wrong with the Mini Disc or maybe Tony asked me to press the ‘stop’ button. So, if you find a non-sequitur that’ll be why!
I knew Tony Barrow no better or worse than millions of others. By the time I joined Disc in 1967 he was running his own PR company with a host of (still largely Brian Epstein) artists and was a hugely important and influential figure. This interview took place on January 5, 2004 in London. My memory tells me he initially asked for payment! Tony has been interviewed many times and also wrote his autobiography, so it will be interesting if aficionados find any new titbits from this conversation.
How did you start?
From school days I was interested in writing, and I actually started an unofficial school magazine in opposition to the formal one at Merchant Taylors, and got a lot of publicity within the school as this guy who’s started the 4A Flash which then became the 5A Flash and so on. Then when I was in the sixth form, aged 17 in 1954, I’m looking in the Liverpool Echo on a Saturday, the magazine Echo, and it has everything in it, chess, bridge and things, but nothing about pop.
Just, I guess, It was Frankie Laine, Guy Mitchell, Doris Day, Jo Stafford – all that little lot. The very first record I bought was Winifred Atwell Black and white rag. I wrote to the Liverpool Echo and suggested they have a record column and that I was their man. They couldn’t understand at first why I couldn’t come into the office to discuss the initial things before 5’oclock. The truth was I was nipping out of school at ten past four, shoving my cap into my back pocket, getting on a bus from Crosby to Liverpool, and I could just make it to their offices by 5’oclock. When they took me to do this they didn’t mind a 17-year-old schoolboy reviewing the records, but they didn’t want to admit it publicly. They said ‘you must have some sort of nom de plume – you can’t use your own name.’ Travelling home on the bus I saw this huge poster, a 48-sheet or something for the Liverpool Empire and it said ‘Guy Mitchell – the world’s top selling disker.’ I thought ‘great name – that’s me, Disker’ and that’s what I’ve been ever since for passwords and all sorts of things.
Were you getting paid for this?
Yes, they paid me half a guinea – 10/6d (52p) a week. I didn’t even have all the records. The guy who took me on had first choice of the albums but he didn’t mind about the singles. Initially they demanded that the records came through their office – they used to send me the order form, I’d fill it in, send them back. They’d send it back to Philips of wherever, and records would come to their office.They would never review any of them but the guy who took me on took his pick and wasn’t reviewing any of them! Occasionally there would be an overlap where I’d say ‘I’m reviewing that one’ and he’d say ‘can you let me have it back when you’ve finished it?’ It was the biggest provincial paper; in those days it sold over a million copies every evening. I very soon diverted records straight to me. It was really Decca and EMI then – though there were some small specialist labels around. Philips launched with the American Columbia label which had previously gone through EMI. Decca seemed to have everything else in the way of American labels.
My guess is that because EMI had bought Capitol it probably thought it had its American representation.
But it was just the two biggies that mattered in the industry. As far as I can remember Decca also had its distribution sewn up – it had its own distribution outlet called Selecta. That side of it I got into pretty early on because when I was doing the Echo column I compiled Liverpool’s own Top Five. To get that I thought ‘I’m not going to record stores who are going to lie to me – I’ll go to the actual wholesalers’. I went to Selecta, Richardsons and two or three other wholesalers in the North West and got their top sellers each week. It was very strange – they used to talk catalogue numbers not song titles!
From newspaper columnist, Tony decided to apply to EMI, Decca and others for a non-existent job as sleeve note writer.
I can’t remember if there were any offers from other record companies, but back came a ‘yes’ from Decca. I went to see them and got the job.
You found a non-existent hole in the business?
Basically – I think I was the only full-time sleeve writer. I don’t know of any other full time sleeve note writer. I know of people who are pretty prolific like Nigel Hunter and Norman Jopling. I was the only one sitting behind a desk working one day on Gracie Fields and going up to see her in Maida Vale and the next day be writing about Duke Ellington for the Ace of Clubs label. It was right across the board. With the jazz stuff I remember ringing Max Jones (Melody Maker legend) and telling him I’d got this Ace of Clubs jazz things from 1934 and ‘I’m lost here for personnel’ because I always wanted to do the kind of sleeve note that would include who plays what – which is why I did that on the first Beatles’ one even. It did say ,’rhythm guitar, vocals.’ Max would say ‘July 13, 1934 – that would be so-and-so on guitar…wait a minute..no, July, he had a broken leg at that time, he was in hospital. It would have been so and so.’ He was such marvellous mine of information and he would always lend me his notes or a book. That was between 1959 and 1961.
That was Decca’s best period. EMI’s fortunes came later, but Decca had more nous with their UK signings and the cream of the American rock’n’roll stuff.
Everly Brothers, Bill Haley, everything. I actually remember the demise of Bill Haley through working in the sleeve department alongside Peter Clayton and Peter Gammond.
Over at EMI there was Doug Pudney – I think he was at Decca first. There was also Alan Crowder looking after one of the American labels and has now been for a long time with McCartney. There was Tony King, who eventually finished up at Apple. He was the Dale Winton of Decca! He was the one man cabaret; he would come into the sleeve department and we’d just down tools and listen to him for twenty minutes while he did his turn!
Alan Crowder, centre, with spectacles
You had a free rein when it came to writing the sleeve notes. Didn’t the A&R men want a say?
The only time anyone queried anything would be something like Anthony Newley and ‘Stop the World..’ They (A&R) never asked to see the stuff. I got quite adventurous and did some quirky sleeve notes sometimes. Often they were everything to do with the record, but occasionally I went off and did something that was nothing whatsoever to do with the record – almost Goon Show style humour. Far from getting picked up and told not to do that, on the contrary they said ‘that’s a great idea, keep it up.’ It’s a ‘Now it can be told’ sort of thing as far as jokey sleeve notes were concerned. It was because there was nothing to hear half the time. With rush releases they used to need the sleeve notes almost before they’d done the session, so you’d be writing sleeve notes before you knew what the tracks were, never mind what they were like. So I did a number of humorous ones like that and it worked.
One tends to forget the volume of LP’s and EP’s a company like Decca was putting out.
At its easiest, as far as I was concerned, it was a matter of taking the American sleeve notes and putting the ‘u’ in colourful. At its hardest it was a matter of going to see Anthony Newley about ‘Stop the World..’ or going to see Gracie Fields about an album of old stuff and getting her to tell the anecdotes connect with the old tracks.
It was good you had contact with the artists
I found that very interesting.
Were you still “Diskering”
I eventually passed that over to Brian Mulligan. Brian did it for a spell. That was after I left Decca and had joined NEMS. I was doing it through the Decca period., If ever there was a Decca bias it was because I did have early access to the new Billy Fury or Bill Haley. Decca knew I was doing it, but nobody was into hyping in those days. I was about to say earlier that I saw the demise of Bill Haley in that suddenly…we used to order 5,000-10,000 sleeves of anything really big. You would order or re-order sleeves of ‘South Pacific’ by the 5,000. They were into that with Bill Haley, but suddenly there were 4,900 Bill Haley sleeves sitting in our office, still in the form of flats, not even gone to be made up. What would happen was that the sleeve department in Decca would stock the flats – some of the printers stocked them but Decca also stocked quite a lot so you could pull off 100 or 1000 at a time and send them to be laminated and made up very quickly if you suddenly saw something was selling.
A Tony Barrow sleeve note you may recognise!
I was hired as an in-house journalist if you like, to write those sleeve notes so I was really in my own little backwater. If anything Decca’s press office or marketing department gained a little from me having that position on the best-selling provincial paper because I would give Decca records good coverage, not through any loyalty to Decca but because the acetates were available to me early, and if I could review the new Everly Brothers’ single before Liverpudlians had even seen it in Pat Doncaster’s Daily Mirror column, that to me was a great feather in my cap. I always tried to be the first to review a record and I used to scout around to be first. When I knew there was a new Elvis coming up, Geoff Milne and people like that, they would help me. Once they got to know what I was doing they would say ‘here, I’ve got the new Neil Sedaka, come over.’ And I’d go over right away and hear it. Far from not co-operating, they did co-operate with me.
Geoff Milne with Bing Crosby
He (Sedaka) was first, but musically superceded so quickly.
People thought that was rock’n’roll – they now know different. I remember interviewing All Martino for the Liverpool Echo – that must have been around 1956 – and asking him about rock’n’roll. He said ‘there’s nothing new about rock’n’roll’ and explained its roots to me. ‘There is a rock’n’roll festival each year in Wildwood, New Jersey and suddenly everybody thinks that’s the new thing, whereas the bands have always been playing that and going to specialist festivals to do that kind of music.’ He explained the roots of it, which of course was black and jazz. The musicians in the big bands hated playing rock’n’roll – it was almost like having to do ‘Uno paloma blanca” again.
We continue next time with Tony’s first meeting with Brian Epstein
Text ©David Hughes, 2016. Illustrations courtesy Google search.