Tuesday, 13 December 2011

UNSUNG HEROES

I'm less of a Christmas party animal than I used to be.  Stop sniggering at the back.  The reception I never miss is thrown annually by PPL (www.ppluk.com), the organisation which licenses recorded music played in public and broadcast on the radio, TV and on the internet.  PPL also distribute licence fees to those who created the music in the first place. They are worthy people doing worthwhile work, and they simply get on with it.

PPL's board, drawn from within the music industry, comprises an impressive list of unsung heroes.  I am always reminded, when I pitch up for their generous seasonal shindig, just how many such folk in the music industry there are.  Their names and faces are rarely known outside the business, but their contribution is huge.  Fran Nevrkla has served magnificently as chairman and CEO of PPL, and has never done it other than with great style and dignity. Then there's Jonathan Morrish, their director of PR & Communications, with whom I go back all the way to CBS and then Sony Music days.  Jonathan was Michael Jackson's publicist, becoming his close friend and confidant for 28 years. My  eyes water when I recall some of the stunts we got up to in the BAD old days. 

Another PPL party fixture is Andy Hill, CEO of I Like Music (www.ilikemusic.com) - sole supplier of music across all genres to the BBC and some 300,000 commercial clients worldwide.  Andy did a brilliant thing some years ago, when he rescued an incomparable record collection and created an entire business around it, just like that. This was of special interest to me, as the man who created that record collection has been a cherished friend of mine for 3 decades, as well as another unsung hero of the music industry. Let me tell you about him.

So it was the Sixties, Vidal Sassoon was a stellar name in hairdressing, and Cass Elliot, ample American Mamas and Papas vocalist, was one of his many celebrity clients.  The junior she always asked for was a tongue-tied, pop-obsessed teenager called Phil.  She would slip him a £5 note each time: in those days, a fortune.  When Cass died in 1974 aged 32, little did she know of her contribution to what would become the world's largest and most comprehensive record collection.

Hairdressers say it's all in the tips.  It was for Phil Swern.  Addicted to the pop chart since its inception in 1952, Phil grabbed his gratuities and made for the record shop on South Molton Street, snapping up the new releases.  He spent so much time in there, hanging out with fellow record collector Reg Dwight - better know to the world today as Elton John - that the owner gifted Phil his samples and demos.  Thus began an obsession with records which would consume his life, lead to careers as a record producer, songwriter and television writer, and to Phil becoming one of the most acclaimed  producers in radio. 

Responsible today for Radio 2's Pick of the Pops with new boy Tony Blackburn (who replaced the long-serving Dale Winton), Sounds of the Sixties with octagenarian Brian Matthew, and Ken Bruce's Popmaster quiz, Phil has produced shows for everyone from Bob Harris to the late Roger Scott and Tommy Vance.  He also continues to update his own collection, which currently comprises some 3 million titles and is accessible online through I Like Music. 

That collection is housed these days in a lovely old converted church hall in Richmond.  Before it moved there, and the last time I had seen it, it choked 3 bedrooms, the back room and half the staircase in Phil's bachelor semi in Wembley Park.  It's journey had been hazardous.  There was indeed a time when Phil feared it lost for good.

I first met Phil when I was a graduate with a cameo role in a long-forgotten Eurovision video. He was making his name at London's Capital Radio, where he later launched Capital Gold. The video agent was our common denominator: he happened also to be Phil's. 
'Tell him your date of birth', said the agent,
'he'll tell you off the top of his head what was Number One that week.  Never gets it wrong'.

Nor did he.  Nor did he fail when listeners phoned his show, Vinyl Vaults, with requests.  Phil pledged to locate any record within 60 seconds: a doddle in this digital age, but which then involved a fumble through racks of dusty vinyl stored by catalogue number.  Phil knew these numbers by heart, and the process had to be seen to be believed.  When the You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet (YAHNY) quiz started, I became a regular guest on the show.  Phil and I, together with pop journalist Robin Eggar, wrote the best-selling Sony Rock Review.  Radio and television ensued.  Decades later, we collaborated on Vintage TV ... but that's another story.

'My problems began when I started replacing all my vinyl with CD, and then put my vinyl collection on loan to the BBC', recalls Phil.

'They paid me a retainer for the vinyl, as mine was in perfect condition.  Theirs had been damaged -out on roadshows, or left in the sun, or had got scratched.  They'd run out of decent copies of many classic tracks.  I let them use mine. But then they lost the collection.  200,000 records.  Dave Price, Head of Resources, was the guy given the task of curating the collection.  Unfortunately, Dave suffered from diabetes.  He went out on Hampstead Heath with his dog one morning, had a fit, fell in the pond, and drowned.  It was tragic.  But it got worse:  the BBC had only just asked Dave to move my collection.  Only he knew exactly where it was.  It was years before it turned up in a storage space somewhere - by which time it was in dreadful disarray. I almost had a breakdown when I heard about it. They asked me to sort it out, but I didn't have time'.

Enter knight on white charger.  Andy Hill, an entrepreneur with extensive online experience at companies like IBM, knew the legend of Phil Swern.  He was aware of Phil toiling away with a vast CD collection, making some of the finest music shows on radio.  Hill convinced Phil to maximise the collection's worth by applying digital technology.  He took the CDs, brought back the vinyl, and found a building in which to house it all.  Their original company Broadchart metamorphosed into I Like Music when Hill added to the mix young James Suddaby:  founder of the I Like Music online magazine. 

Today, the world-famous Phil Swern Collection includes a CD copy of every UK Top Forty hit since the charts began in November 1952, as well as original, mint-condition single and album vinyl versions where recordings were released.  The armoury also contains almost all recordings which made the US Hot 100 singles chart since 1954, and a vast selection of non-chart pop, jazz, country, comedy, classical, musical and film soundtracks.  It is the most complete collection of its kind, anywhere in the world.

It was always going to take a very complacent wife.  Die-hard bachelor Phil rediscovered Lyndsey, a former Radio One colleague, over the coffin at Alan Freeman's funeral in November 2006.  They got married.  Like the rest of his life, you couldn't make it up.

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