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
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
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!
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)
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.
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
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.