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SAGA REMEMBERED

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young man in search of a fortune in the record business will, sooner or later, find himself working for a small independent label.

And so it was that having worked for EMI editing tapes, writing sleeve-notes and generally enjoying myself I got married and needed a bit more money. So I responded to an advertisement and in April 1964  went off to be interviewed by the Managing Director of Saga Records.

It was an unusual interview, to say the least. It was held in the MD's bedroom at 15 Maresfield Gardens just off the Finchley Road, where the man himself was propped up in bed, resplendent in black pyjamas.  It was my first sight of Marcel Rodd and, like everything else about him, it was unforgettable. The applicant - and it was I, dear reader - was awed by the setting - never been interviewed in a bedroom before - the papers strewn all over the bed, the man's piercing gaze, the gruff voice barking out sharp questions. But somehow I staggered through it and got the job.  Never found out what the job actually was, but my duties were to produce recordings, write sleeve-notes and generally do whatever it was Marcel dreamed up next. Much later, I found I was following in the footsteps of Hugh Scully, who'd worked for Marcel before going on to achieve fame elsewhere.

In those days the studio was beneath Marcel's house at 15b Maresfield Gardens while the disk cutting and record pressing was done at a factory in Kensal Road, now the site of a Virgin Group office, I think. The studio wasn't well-equipped - won't go into the technical details, but it was too small to handle anything larger than a string quartet or pop group. Jim Dalton was the man in charge of the studio and his office was lined with rows of tapes - all 15ips, most mono but some in stereo, including a few rarities in staggered head stereo from Russia  - and these provided me with one of my first tasks. The phone rang one morning and Marcel's voice demanded to know why our disks weren't all in stereo.  I explained that we only had mono tapes of most of them but he replied that he had in his possession an RCA recording of Toscanini recorded in mono but issued in 'Electronically re-processed stereo'. Why weren't we doing the same? I didn't like to say it was because we didn't have an RCA budget but I never got the chance, because he ordered me to embark on a project to re-master most of our mono catalogue in stereo, authorising the expenditure of anything up to £100 for the task. 

I'd poached an excellent engineer from EMI shortly after I'd started at Saga called Stan Horobin - now in Canada with CBC I think - and together we trawled the Edgware Road, returning with a phase splitter and a couple of Altec 'tone compensators' , the idea being to split the mono signal into two, adding judicious amounts of top frequencies to the 'A' channel (where most of the orchestral strings are usually placed) and a bit of bass to 'B' to emphasise the cellos and basses.  I blush now to think of it, but ‘orders is orders’ so we began a long, hot summer in that sweltering basement studio transferring many mono tapes into a sort of stereo. There were problems. What do you do with a solo piano which suddenly produces a sound image twelve feet wide? And because the volume of work meant we were operating a sort of production line, mistakes were made. Some time later I had a phone call from the cutting engineer from the factory who asked if we'd heard our 'stereo re-mastered' version of the Dvorak 'New World' symphony. 'Listen to the middle of the slow movement' he said. I found our copy of the disk, played it - and discovered that because we didn't have time to sit through each transfer, we sampled bits, set the machines running and moved on - so we'd inadvertently transferred an unedited tape containing some false starts, complete with the conductor's comments  - ‘No, no, too loud, back again please to letter B'. Don't know how many disks we sold of that one, but to my knowledge no one ever complained.

Marcel sometimes claimed he was not particularly interested in music, but he certainly was a great marketing man. 'Best Loved Gems of ....' was one of his favourite portmanteau titles, the idea being to round up a number of piano pieces, for example - bits of Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninov - culled from different tapes in our library made by various pianists transferred across to make a copy master. The resultant 'Best Loved Gems of Piano Music' was then supposed to be played by one pianist - and so Paul Procopolis was born. I can't claim to have invented him, but I certainly helped his career. I'd noticed that EMI were putting a little text box containing biographical details of their artists on their sleeves, so I thought I'd do one on our Paul. Born in Athens in 1934, studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris (well, didn't we all?) didn't tour much but lived and taught in Greece etc etc. There were two unexpected consequences of this. One was letter from a lady who said she'd heard him play in Greece and was so happy his career was progressing well, and the other was a review - in the Sheffield Argus, I think it was - that said 'Saga has a real find with Paul Procopolis --- the man plays in a bewildering diversity of styles'. And so he did.

The Hampstead Theatre was just around the corner and we were often called upon to provide a bit of non-copyright music for their productions. I remember one director wanted something 'other-worldly' for the end of a Greek tragedy he was producing and however hard I tried I couldn't find anything to please him in our non-copyright library. In desperation I taped the last few bars of Stravinsky's 'Symphony of Psalms' from a disk, reversed the tape and played it backwards.  Despite my protestations about the work still being in copyright, (if played the right way round) the director thought it was perfect and took it away. Lo! and behold, a week or so later we were visited by a chap from the MCPS who'd been to the theatre, correctly identified the piece and wanted some money.

But somewhat more to our credit, we also did some 'live' recordings with a few wonderful artists. Louis Kentner spent three or four days in that tiny basement studio recording 'Islamey';  Maurice Cole, a lovely bookish man, adored his Bach and it showed; Albert Ferber, mostly French piano music I think; Clive Lythgoe did a fine Liszt B minor sonata; and  Hugh Bean, then leader of the Philharmonia was joined by David Parkhouse and Eileen Croxford as the Boise Trio for Ravel and Debussy works as well as some modern music. I remember sitting in a Finchley Road pub with Hugh Bean after one of these sessions and asking if he enjoyed playing this (to my ears) tuneless stuff - though I hope I put it more diplomatically. 'Not really,' he said, 'But you have to do it to prove you're a serious musician'. From a musician of his great stature I thought that a revealing statement. Then there was John Shirley-Quirk and Martin Isepp with 'Songs of Travel' I edited this one weekend with Shirley-Quirk sitting beside me, and when we'd finished he gave me a lift home in his car to Maidenhead where we both then lived. And Humphrey Lyttleton managed to cram his band into the studio for a couple of sessions, the first proving to be somewhat lack-lustre, the second - after a visit to the pub - going with a real swing.

But without doubt I think our finest moment was the recording of Schumann's 'Frauen liebe und leben' song cycle with Janet Baker and, once again, Martin Isepp. To this day I don't know how Marcel Rodd - or maybe Jim Dalton - had persuaded Janet Baker to record for us. But this was around forty years ago and she was at the start of her wonderful career  - but whatever the reason I reckon we caught her voice at just the right moment for this particular work. And many reviewers far more competent than I tend to agree.

Most unromantically, the sessions were  held in a small Church Hall in Acton, chosen for its good acoustics though we hadn't reckoned on the sparrows outside which still make their contribution in the quieter passages if you listen carefully. But the most abiding memory of that session is the smell of disinfectant. We'd had to put the recording gear as far away from the artists as possible, which meant taking refuge in the ladies loo at the far end of the hall. Overcome by the glamour of the occasion the  caretaker had done an extra-thorough cleaning job in there, sprinkling liberal amounts of Jeyes Fluid around the place. So we crouched over the ancient Ampex machines trying not to breathe too deeply while all those heavenly sounds were coming from Janet Baker and Martin Isepp at the far end of the hall.  Every time I hear it I smell Jeyes Fluid! And can't help feeling just a little proud of my time at Saga. We were very far from state of the art, technically, but I think we made some small contribution to music nevertheless.

And we only cost 12s 6d!

Robin O'Connor

Additional comments

The revelations concerning the "fake" Joyce Hatto recordings and publication of the fascinating piece about Saga by Robon O'Connor appearing at the same is quite a coincidence.

I feel that he does not do the Saga label full justice as they had some really remarkable recordings in their catalogue including what was, for some years, regarded as the best recording of the Brandenburg Concertos (Harry Newstone) and a superb "Gaite Parisienne" and they were undoubtedly the pioneers in the UK of "affordable" records along with Selmer's Gala label, long before Decca's "Ace Of Clubs" and Pye's "Golden Guinea" labels appeared on the scene.

More importantly, they also had several Joyce Hatto recordings which were undoubtedly genuine, such as the Grieg Piano Concerto and a collection of Film Themes (such as The Warsaw Concerto and Dream Of Olwen), the latter conducted I seem to recall by Gilbert Vinter, and it would be interesting to know if Robon has any detailed information about these.

Strangely, although I worked in a record shop when the label first appeared and for several years afterwards, I have no recollection of the pseudo-stereo material mentioned in the article being issued under the Saga logo.

In fact the company was an off-shoot of Saga Films and was started up by a musician called Leonard Cassini and I recall that the original Saga releases were pressed in France which leads me to suspect that Robon's piece deals with a later period when the original Saga had become part of the ill-fated "Associated Recording Company" which had many cheap re-issue labels such as Eros, Top Hat, Society (which re-issued some of the Hatto recordings) and others.

This suspicion is reinforced by the fact that the original Saga issues cost around 25 shillings - the 12/6d issues only appeared after ARC bought the label.

Perhaps Robon could be persuaded to write a bit more about the label.

Sincerely,

Alan Bunting

Robin O'Connor replies

My days with Saga (I was there for about two years) were many years and several careers ago, so my recollections are somewhat hazy in some areas, but I'll try to be as precise as I can. Incidentally, my recollection of once briefly meeting Sigmund Freud's widow Anna, in the house opposite the Maresfield Gardens studio was wrong - Anna was his daughter.

The recent furore concerning W H Barrington Coupe rang a bell, because although I never knew him personally, his name was occasionally mentioned by Marcel Rodd, the Saga supremo, and never in a very complimentary way. He once said he believed BC had a hoard of dubious tapes secreted under a bed in a Paddington hotel which, whether true or not, seemed to me at the time to cast a somewhat comic light on the sacred 'Music Business'.

BC was also indirectly responsible for the creation of a new Saga record label which I was supposed to manage. Through devious channels Marcel had heard that BC was about to issue recordings on an Allegro label which would undercut the price of our cheapest offering - Fidelity or Society, I think it was, though can't be sure. Anyway, at a hastily convened meeting of the studio staff (all three of us) Marcel said we must meet this challenge with a new and even cheaper label of our own - and did anyone have any ideas for a title? Rustling up a bit of musical knowledge I said Presto was faster than Allegro. Marcel liked the idea and I suddenly became a sort of Artistes and Repertoire Manager with my own label. I don't remember doing any original recording sessions for Presto - with the possible exception of a cover version of Oliver! we recorded in a town hall in Whitechapel - for most of the disks were compiled either from masters already in our library, or re-mastered from tapes which came into our possession via a somewhat mysterious man who appeared in the studio from time to time carrying a large suitcase. This contained a vast number of 15ips tapes, mostly from American sources and almost all unmarked. It was part of my job to listen to these tapes and produce reports for Marcel, telling him whether, in my opinion, they were suitable for issuing. This was a somewhat daunting task. I usually had no idea who the artists were, the recording quality varied greatly and my recommendations had to ignore the commercial potential of the content, about which I knew nothing, but which was the main thing Marcel wanted to know. This led to some interesting releases and a few missed opportunities. I remember once sending a scathing report on a tape of Gilbert and Sullivan hits played by what sounded like an amateur piano, bass and drums group with vocals in an echoing drill hall somewhere in the American mid-west. There was no way we could possibly issue this, I said. Marcel descended to the studio from his house above and demanded to hear the tape. I played him a couple of hideous bars of the thing - a few seconds, that was all - whereupon Marcel ordered me to stop, then described in great detail the sleeve illustration. It would depict a beautiful woman in a ballgown standing beside a grand piano beneath an ornate chandelier. And it would be called - what else - 'Best Loved Gems of Gilbert and Sullivan'.

The suitcase sometimes yielded some real gems though. There was some excellent jazz - tracks by Willie 'The Lion' Smith, Jack Teagarden and Coleman Hawkins found their way onto Presto 657 'Jazz Greats' (I still have a copy) - and one tape I remember in particular. The recording quality was truly awful, as if someone had put a microphone close to a radio speaker - which in fact they had. These were 'off-air' tracks of radio broadcasts made by the great Charlie Parker and though I'm not a jazz buff I thought they might have some value to enthusiasts. I rang a contact at EMI who knew about jazz, he came over, identified the player and became very excited. But when I recommended to Marcel we issue the recording he turned it down. I'm sure he had very good commercial reasons, but I still wonder whether those tapes were unique - and if they still exist.

I'm sorry Alan Bunting doesn't feel I did Saga full justice. He's right that in my day we were part of ARC and we did have some excellent recordings - Gaite Parisienne I do remember in particular - though these had mostly been recorded before I came on the scene, though Marcel did have some grand plans about new recordings - he was an archetypal Grand Plan man. I remember him coming into the studio one day with the idea that we record Holst's 'The Planets' with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. We gently pointed out that we really didn't have the facilities to do a big orchestral recording - think of the number of microphones we'd need, for a start. 'Ah,' said Marcel, producing the sleeve of a Mercury Living Presence Technique recording from the States, 'It says here they do it with one microphone.' And so they did, but they'd been recording in the same hall for years and knew precisely where to put the mike! Sadly, we never went to Bournemouth.

I don't remember the Joyce Hatto tapes, but that's the passage of years I'm afraid - our tape library was pretty large and I only wish I could browse through it now with a little more knowledge than I had then. Also, I operated mostly in the bargain basement department, with a few hopefully glorious exceptions. No, I think that all in all ARC - and Saga and Fidelity and Society and even puny little Presto - did a marvellous job in putting music, some of it very good indeed, into the hands of many people who couldn't afford the prices the Big Boys were charging in those days. Marcel Rodd may have been more interested in Marketing rather than Music, but I reckon he was instrumental in changing the face of the record industry in the UK and I'm still a little proud of the tiny part I played in that.

 


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