A Personal History of the British Record Industry Pt.34: Tony Barrow 2

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As mentioned in Part 1, there were a few mystery breaks in transmission with this interview, reasons for which are lost in the mists…but we jump right into Brian Epstein…I am rashly assuming I’d asked Tony how he first met Brian and that it was Brian who contacted him, looking for anyone who might help him in getting The Beatles a record contract.

So I did to Epstein what I didn’t have any right to do, which was ‘don’t call us we’ll call you.’ It was nothing to do with me, I wasn’t there (at Decca) to hire or sign. He was there to interest me because I was a Decca person and he was interesting anyone he could possibly interest at that stage. He knew the retail side of the business and the artistic side not at all. He knew the marketing department and he knew the Beecher Stevens of this world, but he did not know any of the A&R men at all. Nor did he know anyone on the NME or Melody Maker. He knew Merseybeat and that was the total of it. So he was very interested to come across someone like me. I’d already started to make contacts socially, not necessarily for work purposes, with people from the trade papers. We tended to socialise, but it was also partly because of the record column. I was in the record business but I was also doing a record column so I got into the circle of people who were trade press writers or record company PR’s.

How did you do that?

DeHems (a pub off Shaftesbury Avenue) was one way. At Decca if there was good reason I had the OK to farm out some sleeve notes. So if I knew someone was a specialist in this or that, I would put it out to them. Didn’t Nigel Hunter do the Latin American releases for The Gramophone? Therefore, when an Edmundo Ros release came up – it may have been from a prompting from Peter Clayton, I can’t remember now. Peter may have said ‘The guy for that would be Nigel Hunter – I’ll give you his number’. So I would then get to meet Nigel because I was commissioning him.

Nigel Hunter and Latin music…..!!!

Were you allowed to by-line yourself?

Yes. I was churning the things out, adapting American sleeve notes etc. If my name is on one it’s because I was quite proud of it; if my name isn’t there it’s because it was at the very beginning because I didn’t have my name on for the first few months. After that I put my name on the ones I wanted to do…so a lot of the crap didn’t have my name on! I think I took to sleeve writing and wanted to get into that because I had found sleeve notes so useful in the second half of the fifties, from the age of 17 when I started the record column.

At ‘Disc’ the LP’s that remained at the bottom of the reviewing pile were always from Philips because they didn’t have sleeve notes and you had to play them!

There was someone at Decca who wrote classical sleeve notes for Philips. Anyway, when Brian Epstein had left that day I didn’t ring the A&R department but the marketing department and said ‘This guy is a retailer so maybe you’ll feel you have to give an audition. Don’t ask me about the band because I can’t assess it from what he’s played me, but if he’s an important Decca customer…?’ ‘I don’t think so. Epstein? Is that the name of the shop?’ ‘No, NEMS.’ They said ‘Oh NEMS, good grief yes, one of our best customers in the North West. Oh yes, they’ll have to have an audition.’ So that phone call of mine was one of several triggers. The local salesmen were also coming back to London saying ‘There’s a guy up there with a band who thinks he should have an audition.’So the marketing department was getting pressure from people, and then hearing it internally from me, it was the marketing department that forced the A&R department to lay on the original audition on New Year’s Day.

Do you recollect who actually took that audition?

It was Mike Smith because Dick Rowe was away. Dick Rowe was in charge and he went on his holidays saying ‘there’s this band, this artist – do those for me and let me know about them when I get back.’ and went off on his holiday. Mike Smith thought enough of that audition to say to me (I was keeping in touch for the Echo, nothing else at that stage) ‘Dick isn’t back yet but I’m sure you can say they’re going to get a Decca contract.’ That actually appeared in my column in the Echo. Local group about to make good. Watch this space – they’re about to sign to Decca.

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Then of course Dick Rowe gets back and makes this classic remark to Mike about ‘groups with guitars are out’ and ‘in any case, Liverpool – what can we do up there? What’s that other one you’ve got? Brian Poole and the Tremeloes? Where are they from? Tottenham? oh yes, we’ll have them. On our doorstep, a group we can work without having to hitch all the way up to Liverpool every time we want to see them.’

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Dick Rowe (above) with some of the acts he did sign, and Mike Smith (below) with Wee Willie Harris

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Prior to that the place to be spotted was the ‘2 I’s’ in Soho. Nobody went out of town. But skiffle and trad jazz did get represented from the regions.

Wasn’t that because first of all they broke in London, but nobody looked beyond London until that happened? They were cheap to sign and record. The material was all there in the public domain.

Epstein was the one who tried hardest to make a record company aware (of Liverpool)?

There is another break in the minidisc at this point, but I’m guessing this next episode was pre-Beatles. Freddie Starr did record for Decca in 1963. Someone (Mark?) will tell us!

There were 300 groups on Merseyside. I remember during a period when I went home to Liverpool and Epstein took me over the Mersey to a ballroom in Birkenhead to see this group and ask if he should sign them – Freddie Starr and the Midnighters.

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Freddie Starr at that stage was a rock & roller – he wasn’t a comedian at all. It was a pop act. Did they go to Decca?  (they did, releasing singles in 1963) He was thinking of signing them but didn’t – I think he took Gerry or the Fourmost and signed them instead. He was only feeling his way. The other thing to be said about The Beatles is that the myth is that all the record companies turned them down, so Decca couldn’t have been wrong. But the truth is that the turn-downs were based on the Decca audition tape, not on separate auditions. People think The Beatles must have been so bad that they gave all these auditions and none of them were successful. It was not like that at all. Epstein had nothing else but the Decca tape to hawk around and it was that tape that was turned down. You may well think that was a very stupid thing for the man to do, because if you’ve been turned down by a major like Decca he must have realised that this was not going to be picked up very readily by anyone else either. You would have thought he would have put some money into recording them locally – that was feasible; it was perfectly possible to do it; he had plenty of money. The family had the furniture stores as well as the electrical and record shops. There was plenty of backing money there. If he’d been 5-10 years later in the business he’d have done that.

I guess there was no one to advise him

No, he was totally new to it himself. That was his first big flaw if you like. Why should a man like that think that if Decca had turned them down, why should anyone else be interested in that tape? If he’d taken it to other people and readily admitted ‘don’t go by this tape too much – I’m just trying to give you some idea of it here. Come and see them in Liverpool; believe me, they’re ten times better than this…or whatever’ But he didn’t do any of that. He just tried to sell them on that tape. With the great wisdom of hindsight….

The tracks that Brian copied at the HMV shop  – were they different recordings?

No, I think they were some of the Decca audition ones. It was just that it was a right time, right place situation. It seems to me that George Martin wanted to get into the pop side of things and was being urged to do so by his masters. Other people at EMI were the golden boys – he was not. He was the guy who was recording all kinds of absurd things that occasionally would sell enough to give his department some profit. He was known as the madman; he was the eccentric guy.

It was a call from someone at Ardmore and Beechwood, and the session was given to Ron Richards.

Then he (George) nicked it in effect -‘I’ll do that myself!’ To compensate, Ron did have some of the other Epstein acts.

He certainly did The Hollies

They were not Epstein’s, but as I recall, he had Gerry & Pacemakers, though George was what would now be called the executive producer, rather than hands-on.

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Ron Richards (in glasses) with The Hollies

The assistants were actually delegated most of the work and the producers got the namecheck.

What was your awareness of what was going on four hours away in the north? One group had been turned down by Decca in January, then nothing seems to happen until the end of that year. Here you are writing for the Liverpool Echo…

What it really should have taken (to bring attention to the provinces), was a Larry Parnes of the recording industry, but in those days there were no such people. It was the day of the A&R department – they had complete control. I think when The Beatles went into the recording studios for the first time, they found it a very unfriendly workplace. It was not a friendly comfortable place to do their work. The producer was in control; the producer would say precisely where in the room they had to stand :’this is your microphone, no you can’t have that microphone over there; we’ve set it up now.’It was almost like the X on the floor in a television studio – that how it was set up for a four-piece, that’s how it’s done, that’s the set up. Bright lights, very clinical. Not conducive for musicians to work. They hated that. But they only got the treatment that every other newcomer got. The producer would say ‘OK, I’ve got a songwriter for you – his name’s Mitch Murray.’ The tie-up was directly between producers and music publishers. They brought the songs in. There was the great B-side thing where either it was written by the producer and was rubbish, or the producer would have written a couple of lines in and was say to the band ‘OK, this is going down as band/producer and I want a quarter of the action.’

That was one of the few ways the producer could earn more than their pitiful salary.

OK, they were not getting much. You could condone it because nobody played the B-side.

But it worked so much better in the Sixties with The Beatles because the songwriters were also part of the band. Once they were able to get into the studio on a more open-ended basis, they were able to (take their time). It wasn’t just the roadies who sat in the corner playing poker – it was also possibly Ringo or, from time to time, George. Certainly Ringo spent a lot of time with the roadies because until they needed a drummer in there, the others would get on with constructing the final version of the song, maybe even changing some of the lyrics or the notes or what have you. What part George Martin played in that construction is now open to debate. According to who you listen to he was more, or less, influential in the finished version.

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Brian Epstein, George Martin and Geoff Emerick in the control room at Abbey Road’s Studio 2

Lots more to come……

Text ©David Hughes, all photographs from Google search for illustration only.

 

 

 

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About dhvinyl

Lifelong obsession with music, 33 years in the music business, 40 years immersed in selling old records, 18 years retired!
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