(Editor’s note 1: Warning – reading this article may be hurtful to many of our readers. Among other things, Rob Bell explains why he had to destroy large quantities of Trojan vinyl singles back in the days.)
(Editor’s note 2: You find the perfect soundtrack to this article here, on a playlist of The Trojan Story.
Rob Bell was born in London in 1946. His family relocated to Winchester when he was two years old. His father repaired and dealt in antique clocks but Rob, who discovered rock n roll in 1955 with the advent of his first wind up gramophone and Bill Haley and his Comets, hankered after working in the music business.
Seeing Little Richard and Sam Cooke in Southampton in 1962 sealed the deal and by the age of 18 Rob had forsaken his planned career in journalism for a junior position at Island Records. During the late 60s and early 70s he held key posts at Island and its cousin Trojan overseeing what many view as the reggae explosion in the United Kingdom. In 1972 he exited the business just as Trojan was going into decline three years prior to its controversial takeover by Saga which left its artists complaining that they had not been paid. In the 80s he uprooted to the USA where he became publicist and then manager for the R&B outfit Roomful of Blues. Now retired he still keeps his hand in, managing Californian blues-turned-reggae singer and guitarist Rusty Zinn. Angus Taylor got a word with the man who helped facilitate the flow of reggae in to the UK…
You started working for Island kind of by accident, didn’t you?
My father knew I wanted to go into the music business. Through his bank manager he set up an interview for me with Leslie Perrin [publicist for the Rolling Stones]. I didn’t really know who he was. He really gave me tremendously good advice. He said “Forget about hooking up with a record company. You really want to get into music publishing”.
Kind of ironic given that you went into Jamaican music where publishing rights were sorely lacking?
(laughs) With music publishing, copyrights last so much longer than they do with sound recordings. If you start doing well in that, you’re made for life. Never really met any poor publishers, but I’ve met people who’ve had failed record companies (laughs). I got out of the interview and realised I had probably five or six hours to pass before I was going to meet my father so I thought “I know, I’ll call up Sue Records and see if they’ve got any jobs going”. I’d got a few Sue records and I really liked the stuff they put out. I knew it was a subsidiary of Island Records and Island had something to do with West Indian music but didn’t really know much about it. I had My Boy Lollipop by Millie and a few things that had crossed into pop and ska. In Winchester I don’t remember seeing any black people apart from an occasional visiting African, so there was no West Indian music played down there as far as I knew. I called up Island and it turned out they wanted a van rep for North London. I didn’t have a driver’s licence but I lied to David Betteridge and said “I haven’t passed my test yet, but it should be any day now!”
I certainly knew his name after I’d been there for a very short time because we had records out by him. Almost as soon as I got there I started going through all the racks looking at and playing the different records and trying to figure out what this strange music was. I worked in Cambridge Road which was a sales office. I learnt years later the entire building was owned by Lee Gopthal [Founder of Trojan] and he rented it to Island. Island’s head office, Chris Blackwell’s place was on Oxford Street, so had Ernest Ranglin been coming in it was much more likely that he would have gone there than Cambridge Road. I remember Rico coming in on occasion.
Then you were let go by Island in May the following year.
They were going through a fairly acute financial crisis. I remember David was actually in tears when he fired us. I went to work for Transatlantic Records which was horrible. Nat Joseph owned Transatlantic Records. He was the tightest man I’ve ever met. My deal there was £14 a week with £1 worth of luncheon vouchers or £15 a week and no luncheon vouchers! My brief at Transatlantic was to open up a route in northern London. I had to use my own car and the first two weeks on the job it broke down and it cost me about twice as much as I was making each week to get the damn thing repaired. I just sort of floundered around driving around looking for record stores.
They can be quite grumpy, can’t they, record store owners?
Yes (laughs). I started off in this business thinking all these people loved music, that they’re all knights in shining armour, and they’re just grumpy businessmen most of them, couldn’t give a shit about what it is they’re selling (laughs).
So you went back to Island in ’68 to their new premises Music House in Neasden to work on distribution for Trojan.
Yes, I did. We had a pretty big warehouse at the back of the Music House and they wanted someone to run it. The first week I was the only guy in there and it was getting busier and busier. At that point Trojan had just started, I think we were up to about TR 611 Spanish Harlem, Place in the Sun, stuff like that. Those records were starting to be bought by little white kids as well. All of a sudden it got really busy. We hired a guy and within about six months I probably had about 20 guys working for me in there. Nothing moves faster than the music business when things are selling. My first week on the job I had four 45s in the top 10, or top 12. There was Liquidator, Elizabethan Reggae, and a Jimmy Cliff. When you’ve got a record in the top 10 or the top 20 it’s probably selling a from three to seven or eight thousand copies a day. If you go out of stock for a day or two you’re losing thousands of pounds in business. The factory will call and say “Rob, you wanted 25,000 of these things, we’ve only got enough labels for 4,000”. I’d get up at about 4.30am, drive west of where I lived in Hemel Hempstead to High Wickham, pick up a box of labels and drive like a lunatic along the north circular all the way to Dagenham, drop off the labels, fill the car up with whatever urgent releases I knew we were getting short of and I’d be at Music House by about 9 o’clock in the morning, having already worked four hours getting stock in. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, dreaming catalogue numbers, with cold sweats that we’re going to run out of this or that! (laughs)
In Michael De Konighe and Lawrence Cane-Honeysett’s book Young Gifted and Black – The Story Trojan of Trojan Records you say you had to destroy large numbers of records for tax purposes.
I know, funny isn’t it? Back then manufacturers could basically legally set the retail price of their product; the purchase tax was based upon the retail price and it wasn’t very easy to effect a price change and therefore your tax liability. We also had a finite amount of space in the warehouse at Music House and with putting out so many records quite a lot of stuff just didn’t sell. So the pragmatic way to free up space and not get into the purchase tax quagmire was to just take the records to the dump in St Albans. I’d need the tax guy up there and he’d watch me chuck the boxes out the back of the truck and the bulldozer would come and bulldoze them and that was it. Then records started turning up in stores around St Albans. You can just imagine these rabid reggae fans in the thick of the night scrabbling through the city dump. After that we had to physically destroy them in front of the tax guy with axes and electric drills, then they’d go in the back of the truck and to the dump.
What do you think about what the vinyl market has become today when second-hand original records and even re-press records, go for hundreds of dollars? Do you ever think “This is my fault”? (laughs)
Funnily enough I was talking to a guy yesterday called Danny Holloway who worked for Island during the 70s and the 80s and he said “Do you realise the prices some of this shit goes for now?” and I said “Yeah, and I’ll tell you why. Because I destroyed most of them!” (laughs) I’m a huge record collector. I’m sitting here in my office here and I’m surrounded by shelves of 78s and 45s and stuff, so believe me what I did back then, I did it with a heavy heart, and I knew this would happen. So don’t you dare print my address! (laughs)
How aware were you of what was going on, whether the money was trickling down to the artists on the Jamaican side of things?
I had no awareness at all. I just basically assumed that 95% of the people we dealt with were probably crooks to start with. I didn’t deal with producers one on one myself very much. I mean, I knew people like Bunny Lee, Byron Lee, Lee Perry, Rupie Edwards, Harry J, Winston Riley. Those people would come by the office, they’d come over to England, some of them quite regularly, but it was Lee and David and Graham [Walker] who really dealt with them. Then when Graham came to America to try and kick off Trojan in America, I took over more of his duties but it still didn’t really involve actually cutting deals with producers. I think by that point most producers had already been signed up. One of my frustrations when I was there was that the power of the producer was far too great and it seemed to me that there was no artists system. We’d be putting out records and artists would crop up on various different labels, with different producers, the artists were just hired guns really. The producer was the equivalent of the record company, we were licensing stuff from Jamaican record companies. So the deal was with them and whatever deal they had with their artists was between them and their artists. Certainly knowing how a lot of them operated, one had to figure there probably weren’t very good accounting systems in place (laughs).
In his book Bass Culture, Lloyd Bradley talks about the dilution of reggae in the Trojan era, adding strings and so on, but actually at the time some artists were quite enthusiastic about it.
That’s something you could talk about for weeks on end. I took the purist point of view back then, which shows how basically un-commercial my instincts are, but you’re right, the majority of the artists wanted to have strings and a big arrangement put on it, and why? It meant the records would sell and it would be more money in their pocket. These people that decry that sort of thing, if they had a look at themselves in the mirror and say “If I take that sort of attitude, then I should never, ever go to my boss and ask for a raise” (laughs). Sure it diluted it, but I think success in anything dilutes something. I just think that when things sell an awful lot and get introduced to a lot of people, things are going to change a bit, it’s just the nature of the world. I don’t think you can keep something totally pure all the time.
Ken Parker, Slim Smith, Alton Ellis, Owen Gray, Delroy Wilson – all those cats that sung with such soul and taste.
You also did some work with Clyde McPhatter of The Drifters.
I loved Clyde McPhatter, he was one of the most influential singers in America in the 50s. He had a huge influence on popular music around the world. He turned up in London around 1970 or so. He did a session with the Rudies and they were assigned two Songbird titles, there were four sides in the can. I remember when they were mastered I thought “Jesus, I should order some test pressings, it’d be fun to hear them”. Then something happened and of course I didn’t and I’ve kicked myself for 40 years since! I remember Clyde came into the offices and Lee had told me “Clyde’s going to be coming by. Don’t give him any money”. Not that I had any money to give him, I couldn’t sign any cheques or anything. I had to be the person in the company who basically had to tell one of my idols that I couldn’t get anything for him. I think it was the nastiest day I remember. He was depressed and I think he saw it as another record company guy ripping him off. Quite honestly I felt he was pretty right.
What were you most proud of doing at Trojan?
One of the things I am quite proud of was putting together the first Trojan Story. That came out as a box-set of three LPs and that was really the first, I sound like a scholar here, but it really was, in quotes, the first “serious look at Jamaican music”. I didn’t necessarily include songs that were just good big sellers at the time but more things that were representative of changes in the styles in the music since the early 60s. It seemed like we covered a long span of time then because it started off with some sort of Jamaican R&B and ended up with reggae. Of course looking back at it now it just covered about eight or nine years, but that’s a long time in the music industry! (laughs) Another thing that I enjoyed doing although I was never really very happy with the results of it was recording the first live reggae album with the Trojan Reggae Party that we organised at the White Hart, a pub over the road from the Music House. We had the Cimarons there, Delroy Wilson, Slim Smith, the Pioneers. We recorded it in end of ’71, I think. I don’t think it actually came out until quite late in ’72, perhaps even later than that.
I’ve seen video footage of live stuff from Jamaica from the very early 60s, so whether any actually came out on record, I don’t know, but stuff was recorded. We did record the reggae festivals that we did at Wembley in ’70 or ’71, but they never got issued. I think we had terrible technical problems with the first one and I don’t know what happened with the second one.
Then in 1971 you moved back to Island for practical reasons.
It was probably getting on towards the end of ’71. Graham had gone to the States to set up Trojan, hadn’t known that the trade name Trojan is synonymous with condoms in America (laughs). It’s like starting a record company called Durex in England! He came back with his tail between his legs and of course, he wanted his old job back. Tom Hayes, who ended up being chairman of Island, was running the international department of Island so I went and worked with Tom. Island handled Trojan overseas, so I was still involved in Trojan promotion. I would take people like Bob and Marcia or Jimmy Cliff to radio or TV shows in Europe.
Jimmy Cliff is someone who is quite cagey now about talking to the media and so on, he’s quite a private person. What was he like then?
I liked him a lot, I thought he was a great guy. We went on two or three different trips together. He was living down in Hammersmith and I’d pick him up in the morning and go off to Heathrow. We had a lot of interests in common. He’s a very, very smart guy. Very, very intelligent. As you say he’s quite quiet and reserved. I wouldn’t say we were bosom buddies but we had a lot of respect for each other. I thought he was a wonderful artist, wonderful songwriter. I’ll never, ever forget until my dying day the day that the tapes came through for The Harder They Come LP and playing them at the office in Music House, obviously this was before they had all the arrangements overdubbed, and I just remember thinking “My God, this is the heaviest shit I’ve ever heard!” It was fantastic.
Then you decided to leave Island due to musical differences?
That’s absolutely fair to say. When I was working with Tom, I was doing tours in Europe with people like Fairport Convention and Grand Funk Railroad, Island had licensed a album or two by them. I’d grown to love reggae then and if it wasn’t reggae that I was listening to at home I was still really heavily into blues and R&B. Things like King Crimson, Jethro Tull and Emerson, Lake and Palmer left me cold.
You must have amassed some good records though!
(laughs) When I was at Island it didn’t take me very long to realise that we put out probably 80% of our releases using dubs from Jamaican 45s, and because there were so few master-tapes there was no company archive and it behove us to save some of these releases. For about four years I had the guys in the stores take three of each release on all the Trojan labels and then I’d take them home for a couple of weeks for safe-keeping. When I left Island at the end of ’72 I had many, many large cardboard boxes filled with 45s. Like an idiot, but like the honest guy I am, when I left London I thought “These aren’t mine, this is Trojan’s heritage “. So I delivered them to the guy who was running the stores then and said “Look after this” and I guess someone promptly walked off with them (laughs). I’ve kicked myself ever since!
You took some time out to work on a couple of farms in Somerset between ’72 and ’79 before returning to Island to work on their archives. How did you feel the music had gone in the time you’d been away? Did you feel it was going in a good direction?
While I’d been in Somerset I’d really lost contact with the whole West Indian music scene because I was working on a farm and didn’t have any money. When I got back to London it was the beginning of the two tone sort of thing, so the music I really like Jamaican-music-wise was coming back into fashion again. Island’s offices then were in Hammersmith, at St Peter’s Square. People like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Dennis Bovell would be in and out, so there was the whole roots sort of thing going on there. I liked it a lot, it seemed pretty good. I preferred the more soul-influenced, more singles-influenced in terms length of the form, I sort of liked that better because I thought it was less self-indulgent. I still feel that way.
As you mentioned, when you were involved in the record business American soul was a big part of what was happening reggae, and today American music – as in hip hop – is very much a part of reggae again.
What I think is rather interesting is I wouldn’t say that rap evolved directly out of toasting but there’s a certain sort of jagged affinity between the two styles. We were putting out U Roy records and stuff before I left, and I liked some of them, but to me that was getting a bit weird. We were also so often just putting out the rhythm track on the B-side as a version, which I thought was an utter rip off. II’ve never really particularly enjoyed the dub side where there’s a lot of studio trickery. I’m old-fashioned, I really just want to hear people play and people sing. I can understand the art in a production. It’s just like disco, these things are the product of a lot of time in the studio. It may sound like a really strange analogy but to me it’s more like classical music. I can dig the concept of the artist in classical music, but it’s a whole bunch of people basically being manipulated by one person, which is how I feel a lot of modern studio productions are. The producer has all that power and he brings people up and down in the mix, so you’re hearing something several times removed from the actual performance.
You’ve talked about how when you were at Trojan producers had a lot of power and the artists didn’t have very much power. But today it seems that, because people don’t seem to be buying music as much, the artists actually have more power because they do live shows and the Jamaican producers and record industry seem to be in crisis.
I think the record industry period is in crisis. On the surface it’s good for the artists and perhaps given the history of the Jamaican record industry it’s better for the artists now because finally they have a chance of actually doing something for themselves. It’s not a parallel that necessarily crosses over to the rest of the music industry. I’ve worked with a Roomful of Blues for over 20 years in the USA, touring the world, and record companies were important because they provided promotional muscle, which we didn’t have time or resources to do ourselves. Now record companies can’t afford to do that because they can’t make enough money from selling CDs, vinyl, downloads or whatever. Probably the Jamaican music scene is in some sort of limbo right now, but music generally is in some sort of limbo. With Roomful, the first ten years or so, one of the hats I wore was as a publicist and it was really fairly easy to publicise dates. I’d have a press kit with a photo in it and their latest LP or CD or whatever, when we were doing a tour I knew all the clubs and I knew the markets. I’d send my packages off to the newspapers and radio stations several weeks before we went there and I’d make the phone calls. But now there are a zillion websites that will list your gig and maybe put a photo up but when you learn the vagaries of entering your information into each one and then multiply that by how many markets you’re in, it’s a colossal amount of time! (laughs) So there the digital thing, rather than making things easier and putting people in charge of their own destiny, in many ways has erected a lot more hurdle.
You’re a fan of the blues and of reggae – today you manage Rusty Zinn. Do you see any parallels between the British Blues revival and what’s going on now with reggae where traditional reggae is arguably more popular outside Jamaica than it is actually there?
Yeah, I do. I look at it as I did back in the 60s when I did the Trojan Story. I did the Trojan Story then because I thought “People are going to want to know the story of these musicians, the story of these little labels”. I was buying blues magazines back in the 60s and they were doing discographies on obscure labels from the 30s or 40s or whatever else, pulling out musicians that people thought were dead, and I thought that this was always going to go on, especially in Europe. There’s something special about European musical fans that somehow is lacking in America. It’s the Europeans who have become this manic about this obsession with detail. It’s not surprising that the blues revival in the 60s did start from England, even as badly as they played it (laughs).
The German version of this interview has already been published in issue 10 of Rockingsteady magazine.
Further reading: Young, Gifted & Black – The Story Of Trojan Records (aff link), Tighten Up- The History Of British Reggae