Biography: 4. ASV and Australia

After the Decca takeover, Kevin and Harley had immediate discussions, wondering what they could do next. They decided to launch a kind of ‘Argo, Mk.2’. or at least that’s how it seemed in the beginning. They were joined by classical record man Jack Boyce, and in 1981 launched a new record label: ASV (Academy Sound and Vision). The ‘Academy’ coming from the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, the top-class orchestra conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, and top Argo artists. The Phoenix, newly risen, moved into its old offices, at 115 Fulham Road, and set about trying to quickly get some product off the ground.

 KEVIN'S ILLUSTRATION FOR THE ASV LIVING ERA LP, 'MOUNTAIN GREENERY'

KEVIN'S ILLUSTRATION FOR THE ASV LIVING ERA LP, 'MOUNTAIN GREENERY'

Kevin had a stroke of genius, creating a label dedicated to producing 78rpm reissues: 'Living Era'. It set new standards, not just in the compilations and quality of Kevin’s transfers, but the wonderful cover art, much of which Kevin commissioned from artist Phil Duffy, and some he painted himself. 

With Kevin’s attention to detail, Living Era soon became the byword for early jazz and nostalgia, and an internationally acclaimed label. It was, in those early days, by far the best thing about ASV – they had little else to offer except a job lot of classical masters hurriedly bought in. Peter Handford’s Transacord label, and Deben Bhattacharya’s The Living Tradition label were also soon brought on board. Kevin took advantage of the studio he’d had built in the basement, working with The Yetties again, plus jazz big band The Midnite Follies Orchestra. Eventually, the classical side of the label would also acquire considerable prestige: the Lindsay Quartet would join the company and record their definitive Beethoven and Bartok cycles, and their early music catalogue would boast some impressive artists.

In September 1982 Kevin moved to Australia. He had grown frustrated with the way things were progressing at ASV, and the difficulties and pain of the final stages of his second divorce, which finally came through in November. He decided, rightly or wrongly, to up-sticks and get away. He settled in Sydney, near Bondi Beach, the irony of which, as a hydrophobic sports-hater, wasn’t lost on him. In May 1983, he and Charlotte married; by this time, he’d been working for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for a while, writing and producing radio programmes, and worked on a radio comedy series, 'Slightly Out To Lunch', which included musical numbers instigated by Kevin, performed by a band of excellent jazz musicians, led by renowned conductor and arranger Arthur Greenslade. ‘Eli Bickerstaffe’ at last was given the opportunity he’d always craved, of singing Formbyesque songs in front of a top-class line-up of musicians. 

His other main contribution to the programme was the invention of ‘Otto von Bismuth’ – a spoof professor of classical music, who was writing his ‘Monumental History of Music’. It’s hard in this not to see a cathartic attempt to express his frustration at what he increasingly perceived as the classical mafia at ASV, by regularly, on air, taking the piss out of classical music’s pretentions and self-importance. His fears that he wasn’t taken seriously because he wasn’t ‘classical’ were soon borne out. Meanwhile, his work at the ABC came to an abrupt end when they axed his job in a series of ‘cost-cutting measures.’ For the moment, nothing seemed to be going right. 

In 1986 he and Charlotte moved to Fremantle, over a thousand miles away on Australia’s west coast. Relations with ASV were not going well. Argo, it wasn’t; the whole ethos of the company was in many ways the complete opposite of what Harley had set out to achieve back in the 1950s; it was really trying to become a mainstream classical label while thinking of itself as a special-interest independent. This schizophrenic outlook was in part caused by a certain amount of disagreement between its founders, partly explained by personality differences, but also in their outlook on the record business, and their own tastes and attitudes. Their 1985/86 catalogue says a lot about its musical worldview: “But part of ASV’s strength is undoubtedly that we do not see classical and orchestral music as the only source of recorded pleasure.” Well, as only 5% of records sold in the mid-80s were ‘classical’ this is hardly a great insight! It’s certainly not a ‘strength’ of a newly formed record company, particularly one originally conceived as an Argo replacement. But it does say a lot about the company’s mixed attitude to non-classical repertoire, as being a tolerated poor relation, grudgingly acknowledged. Kevin’s Living Era label gets a brief mention in the catalogue blurb, right at the very end. The track listings are so full of mistakes it’s shocking; it all seems to reflect the animosity which by that time was present between Boyce and Kevin, and the indifference the company felt towards him. Kevin was also finding it increasingly difficult to get payment from ASV: “Out of sight, out of pocket” he sadly reflected. It became clear to Kevin that, despite having been one of its founders, and creator of its prestigious Living Era label, he was now not warmly regarded by certain of the ASV team. His contract was not reviewed, by mutual agreement. He lost the Living Era name, and all of his work on the label.

Kevin began doing some reissue work for small Australian companies, and formed his own production company: Tall Poppy Transcriptions, a tongue in cheek reference to the Australian ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ – the resentment towards and ‘cutting down’ of people of superior talent (especially Brits). Then, his old friend and Argo colleague, Harley Usill, alone among ASV staff in supporting Kevin, stepped in to help, and introduced him to Conifer Records, based just outside London, who though primarily a classical label, had an established 78rpm reissue series. Kevin began work on a ten-CD set of reissues, part of a multi-CD exclusive and ground-breaking deal with Boots the Chemist, incorporating classical and light music as well as nostalgia and jazz. It was one of the very first attempts to sell CDs through ‘non-traditional outlets’ (that’s ‘not record shops’ to you and me), and was a success.

 KEVIN IN HIS HOME STUDIO IN AUSTRALIA

KEVIN IN HIS HOME STUDIO IN AUSTRALIA

Following this, he began work on a new programme of LPs for Conifer, all produced by Tall Poppy in his Australian home studio, the masters being posted to Conifer in the UK. It was familiar fare, though Kevin, as ever, gave it his best, even managing to help out old friends like Decca producer Geoff Milne, by commissioning many LP sleeve notes from him. For someone so committed to the idea of the ‘total product’, and for whom graphic design was a vital part of the concept, the first Conifer LP covers were a shock to Kevin, who now, for the first time in his career, had no control over things like cover art and marketing. It provoked one of his most heartfelt (and hilarious) letters, a long, eloquent rant from across the sea, describing the offending covers as “Dead heads floating in a sea of cremated custard” seems to have had an effect; many of Kevin’s subsequent Conifer covers are excellent. In fairness to Conifer, Kevin’s outburst was largely caused by what he privately perceived as his ‘downgrading’ – from Argo General Manager and Decca producer and executive, a founder of ASV and creator of Living Era – to a nostalgia supplier for a relatively unknown company twelve thousand miles away. 

By now, he had fallen into depression, as much of his correspondence from this time reveals. It’s hardly surprising, given his circumstances. He made increasing trips back to the UK, and decided in 1987 to return home for good, even going so far as shipping back his possessions to England; he spent the entire trip agonising about his decision; he finally accepted he couldn’t go through with it, and had the containers holding all his belongings, by now sitting in Southampton Docks, sent back on the next boat to Australia. He was happy in neither country; he felt England held no future for him, whereas he hoped Australia would come up trumps eventually. But he felt lonely there, with so many he loved being on the other side of the world. In March 1989, Kevin left Australia for what was planned as one more brief trip to England. 

Go to Part 5: Final Months »