Biography: 3. Argo Years

Kevin had now begun to write. He had been planning for some time a history of sound recording itself, going back to its roots, with Edison, the Phonograph and recordings of Gladstone, Florence Nightingale and Sir Arthur Sullivan. Kevin was intending to have it released as an LP. There would be no newly written script; instead Kevin hit upon the inspired idea of “letting the past speak for itself” by using narration consisting entirely of contemporary reviews, adverts and commentary, interspersed with original nineteenth century recordings. He began working on it in 1968, travelling to the British Library in his spare time, and typing up his drafts at the kitchen table. By early 1969 the script was finished and Kevin, naturally, wanted to have it released on Decca; he was told it was too specialist and it was suggested that instead he approach Argo Records, a Decca-owned label which specialised in high quality spoken-word recordings. 

LP COVER OF 'THE WONDER OF THE AGE'

LP COVER OF 'THE WONDER OF THE AGE'

Later that year Kevin met with Harley Usill, founder and Managing Director of Argo Records, a meeting which was to change the course of Kevin’s professional life. Harley had started Argo in 1951, releasing primarily spoken-word recordings. Due to cash problems, the company was taken over by Decca in 1957, though with Harley remaining as Managing Director, and being given pretty much full autonomy to run the label as he wished. Harley liked the script very much, and in July they agreed a deal for its release as a double LP box-set; at this point it was still called “The New Phonograph”. Harley insisted on Argo’s involvement in casting of narrators for the spoken elements; in return Kevin insisted on recording and producing those elements himself and integrating them into the whole. The result, by now called The Wonder of the Age – Mr Edison’s New Talking Phonograph was released in 1970. For a twenty-seven year old recording engineer, it was a bolt out of the blue and was instantly hailed as a significant and original contribution. Gramophone magazine said:

“At long last the gramophone has worthily recorded its own history… now it [the material] can be had all in one piece and brilliantly edited, linked by a narration that does not eschew the social consequences of Mr Edison’s invention…there are many fascinating quotes not least from the pages of The Gramophone…all in all this is more than a worthy record of the industry to which we are all devoted, and it is pleasant that Argo, a comparatively young label, should have produced it. For this production, the whole industry will be in its debt.”
Gramophone, July 1970

Looking back many years later, Kevin paid tribute to his old friend from the markets, Alf Brightman: 

“But for the early influence of Alf, The Wonder of the Age would never have been written.”
KEVIN AND PETER HANDFORD DURING 'THE KNOTTY' RECORDING SESSIONS

KEVIN AND PETER HANDFORD DURING 'THE KNOTTY' RECORDING SESSIONS

Kevin and Harley hit it off and, while negotiating for the release of The Wonder of the Age, the feeling was that it would be mutually beneficial for Kevin to join Argo. Kevin’s first work for Harley was with renowned sound recordist Peter Handford, and the two men got on well immediately, remaining good friends for the rest of Kevin’s life. In 1969 they recorded and co-produced The Knotty, a musical documentary about the great days of the railways. It was Kevin’s first producer credit. Handford is well-known not just for his fine film recording work (he worked with Hitchcock and David Lean, and won an Oscar® for Out of Africa) but also as a railway enthusiast and creator of the Transacord label (distributed through Argo) specialising in recordings of the disappearing sounds of the steam age. He was a fellow quirky individual, passionate, and with bags of talent so it’s natural that he and Kevin were immediately drawn to each other. Handford lent constant support and encouragement for Kevin’s writing projects. In his book, The Sounds of Railways and their Recording (David & Charles, 1980), Handford writes about The Knotty recording: 

“The record, issued by Argo in 1970, was produced jointly with Kevin Daly, then a Decca engineer, who has since produced many interesting and historically important records and has given much valuable assistance to Transacord.” 

In the fly-leaf of the book, which he gave to Kevin on its publication, he wrote,

“Kevin – in admiration & with thanks for many, many things.” 

At the same time as Kevin’s career was blossoming, his personal life was undergoing profound change; in February 1970 he left Margaret and his sons, and Broadhurst Gardens, moving to North London’s Crouch End with his new partner, Lesley Barber. He and Margaret divorced in 1972, and by the end of the year he and Lesley were married with a son, Alastair.

Kevin’s other work at this time was as recording engineer on Argo’s ZFB folk music series, but it was apparent that with his engineering skills and experience, and growing confidence, he was asserting himself during these recordings as producer too. In fact he felt confident (and cheeky) enough to describe Dead In Tune, released in May 1970, as his first production, although his first solo producer credit didn’t come until several months later in November 1970, on the Keep A-Runnin’ album by Dorset folk group, The Yetties.

KEVIN WITH DEBEN BHATTACHARYA, TAKEN IN A PHOTO BOOTH IN GARE DU NORD, PARIS, 25 FEBRUARY 1982

KEVIN WITH DEBEN BHATTACHARYA, TAKEN IN A PHOTO BOOTH IN GARE DU NORD, PARIS, 25 FEBRUARY 1982

Another highly talented individual Kevin soon met through Argo was pioneering musicologist and film-maker Deben Bhattacharya. Born in India but living in Europe since 1949, Deben had first met Harley Usill in 1950. Deben was planning his first recording trip to India, and despite Argo’s straitened circumstances, Harley was generous, giving him £25, a Gaumont-British Kallee professional tape recorder as a replacement for the Baird machine he’d been using, and twenty blank tapes, their cost offset against future royalties. The result was Deben’s first LP: Songs from Bombay. He produced many more albums for Argo, recorded around the world, under his own ‘The Living Tradition’ label. Kevin and Deben became close from the start, and their friendship deepened as the years wore on. Despite their differences in age, culture and musical expertise, Deben became like a brother, and Kevin would make many trips to Montmartre to visit him and his family. He was the closest confidant Kevin had, and they enjoyed a unique and mutually supportive bond which was to last until the end of Kevin’s life. 

Another important meeting was with talented recording engineer Iain Churches, who Kevin first worked with in 1972. This was the start of a long, warm, close working and personal relationship, and they worked together on pretty well all of Kevin’s productions for Argo and Decca. The chemistry between the two men, and their natural ability and attention to detail contributed to the high quality of their albums. They shared a lot of time and experiences, probably more for Kevin than with any other single person in his career, and Kevin was always grateful for their time together, realising how lucky he was to have found such a good friend and unique team-mate. Martin Haskell was another excellent engineer Kevin often worked with, and Kevin’s time in the studio with him and Iain were undoubtedly among the happiest of his career. Martin also became involved with Kevin’s 'Living Era' reissues for ASV, and became ASV’s chief engineer in 1990.

KEVIN WITH THE YETTIES, DURING A RECORDING SESSION IN 1970

KEVIN WITH THE YETTIES, DURING A RECORDING SESSION IN 1970

This was the start of Kevin’s happiest and most productive professional time. The previously mentioned album by The Yetties was an auspicious start to his career as they’d hit it off immediately, and their close professional and personal association would continue for ten years (resulting in a Decca gold disc for them and Kevin). Kevin not only produced their albums, but took a keen interest in shaping their recording career, taking them into new areas and introducing them to new musicians. The result was a terrific body of work, something The Yetties are still proud of today. For a very funny (and characteristically Kevin) story about the genesis of an album read Yettie Bonny Sartin’s account here. »

Kevin’s new job at Argo took him squarely into folk music territory; apart from The Yetties, some of those he worked with are Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, Cyril Tawney, The Druids, Martyn Wyndham-Read, Tom Paley, Gothic Horizon and Barry Skinner. This was a new departure for Kevin, a long way from his beloved 30s and 40s 78s. But – and this is important as it’s a key component of how he thought – Kevin held a deep conviction that popular words and music – those of the people, rather than of cultivated professionals, with their rough honesty, humour and warmth, reveal a social history of what it was really like, which is not necessarily how it was handed down from on high. This is what attracted him to a project like Songs and Music of the Redcoats – the story of life as a soldier, with songs of the period. It was inspired by Lewis Winstock’s excellent book on the subject, Songs and Music of the Redcoats 1642-1902 (Leo Cooper, 1979), and, apart from those that Kevin wrote and compiled himself, it remains one of his most satisfying albums. 

Kevin soon became known for his ‘cross-pollinating’, throwing disparate artists together and watching the results unfold. The most extreme example of this is probably Giles Farnaby’s Dream Band (1973), with its psychedelic album cover, consisting of Broken Consort, St George’s Canzona and a pop rhythm section. The result, a mesmerising mish-mash of crumhorns, folk song and rock drums, remains a much sought-after album even today. Another example is the album Mornin’ All in which Bob Arnold (Tom Forrest from ‘The Archers’) sang songs accompanied by The Yetties, jazz composer and pianist Michael Garrick, and celebrated jazz bass player, Dave Green, who Kevin seconded into many an album during his time at Argo. Kevin produced many of Michael Garrick’s albums – TroppoHome Stretch BluesCold Mountain – and worked with many jazz musicians, including Keith Nichols, Norma Winstone, Don Rendell, and Digby Fairweather. In December 1972, he recorded the celebrated album of Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige, with the Alan Cohen Orchestra.

THE FRONT AND BACK COVERS, DESIGNED BY ROBIN MUKERJI, FOR THE DOUBLE-ALBUM 'LET'S ALL GO TO THE MUSIC-HALL'

THE FRONT AND BACK COVERS, DESIGNED BY ROBIN MUKERJI, FOR THE DOUBLE-ALBUM 'LET'S ALL GO TO THE MUSIC-HALL'

Five years on from the release of The Wonder of the Age Kevin finally wrote and produced another double album of his own, again blending original recordings from the distant past with comments, reviews and adverts from the time. The result was Let’s All Go To The Music Hall, a brilliant survey of life in the ‘Halls’, and this time Kevin chose the narrators himself: Stanley Holloway, Ted Ray, Jessie Matthews and Sandy Powell. It was well received, and, much to Kevin’s delight, the cover design by Robin Mukerji won an NME Cover of the Year Award. 

'THE BISTRO VINO' 303 FULHAM ROAD, IN A POSTCARD PAINTED BY ANN MAVROLEON, WHERE KEVIN SPENT MANY A LUNCH HOUR. PATE AND TOAST, STEAK AND CHIPS, AND CASSATA. AND MUCH WINE. NATURALLY. 

'THE BISTRO VINO' 303 FULHAM ROAD, IN A POSTCARD PAINTED BY ANN MAVROLEON, WHERE KEVIN SPENT MANY A LUNCH HOUR. PATE AND TOAST, STEAK AND CHIPS, AND CASSATA. AND MUCH WINE. NATURALLY. 

Kevin’s rise through Argo was swift – in 1971, two years after joining he became production manager and in 1973 he was made General Manager and was given control over the day to day running of the company. He was also put in charge of its budget; the very first thing he did was to have a small studio built in the basement of Argo’s offices at 115 Fulham Road, making it not only more convenient, allowing him to nip downstairs when required, but cheaper – why budget for a large Decca studio to record a musical duo or spoken word album? The new downstairs studio was put to good use, with many spoken-word albums recorded, including Tom Sawyer, read by Bing Crosby. These were extremely productive times at Argo. Harley would be in his office at the top of the steep staircase, Kevin in the ground floor back room or of course, in the downstairs studio. Lunchtimes were often spent at the nearby Bistro Vino or The Admiral Codrington for a few ‘nutritious pints’ as Kevin invariably called them. 

KEVIN WITH BING CROSBY IN DECCA STUDIO 3, RECORDING THE ALBUM, 'FEELS GOOD, FEELS RIGHT', 1976

KEVIN WITH BING CROSBY IN DECCA STUDIO 3, RECORDING THE ALBUM, 'FEELS GOOD, FEELS RIGHT', 1976

In 1976 Kevin was offered a prestigious (and well-paid) job at Decca’s head office: A&R Manager for Decca’s MOR product. He accepted, but Kevin was not designed to be an office executive, (blindingly obvious to those who knew him) and he was like a fish out of water, feeling stifled and bored, longing to be back in the studio, which he made sure happened as often as possible. One project at this time was the highlight of Kevin’s career – producing an album with Bing Crosby, with a full jazz orchestra, back at the Broadhurst Gardens Studio No.3: Feels Good, Feels Right. Another LP was planned with Crosby, but sadly this never happened, as Crosby died the following year. Soon after this, Kevin became a freelance producer, though still doing production work for Decca and Argo as well as EMI. He contributed a chapter to the book The Music Goes Round And Round and spent time helping Deben Bhattacharya as production director on two documentary films. 

Around this time, Kevin’s second marriage broke up, and Kevin found himself, for the first time since 1957, with no woman in his life; this wasn’t to last long. He was introduced at the Argo offices to Charlotte Jennings, who was there photcopying a manuscript by her father, acclaimed film-director Humphrey Jennings. It would become his epic story of the Industrial Revolution: Pandæmonium. Kevin’s own work, such as The Wonder of the Age, bears a striking similarity in approach, in the exclusive use of first-hand reports, poetry, and articles of the period. After a while, Kevin and Charlotte became an item, creating more Argo social links – Harley Usill had been Jennings’s assistant director in the late 1940s. Not long after this, in early 1980, disaster struck the Decca Record Group. Its Chairman, Sir Edward Lewis, died, only weeks previously having done a deal to sell the company to Polygram. The attention was now on ‘streamlining’, not on quality and individual excellence. Inevitably, Argo was axed. It was the end of an extraordinary time for Kevin, and the beginning of a slow decline.

Kevin’s feelings for his Decca colleagues were clearly expressed in the final part of the introduction for his (unfinished) book version of The Wonder of the Age

“I would like to thank among many others Arthur Lilley, and Arthur Bannister, who were so generous with their help when I was a young engineer, Harley Usill, Arthur Haddy, and Tony D’Amato for consistent encouragement, Iain Churches and Martin Haskell for many happy hours in the studio and The Osborn; and to all the artists and recording engineers I have had the good fortune to work with.”

Go to Part 4: ASV and Australia »