Glittering prizes : ARTS

So, it's once more unto the Brits. Thanks to Rob Dickins, the annual record-industry awards are an event worth watching
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TOMORROW night, 1,500 people will gather at the Alexandra Palace in north London for the 1995 Brit Awards ceremony. Some of them may even be looking forward to it. Last year the Pet Shop Boys were accompanied by a crowd of Welsh miners, Bjrk duetted with P J Harvey, and Take That played a Beatles medley. The guests, and the 10 million people who watched the proceedings on ITV, realised to their surprise that they were enjoying themselves. The man they had to thank was Rob Dickins. Previously, the Brits were the pits, even by the subterranean standards of the awards genre - as anyone who witnessed 1989's dbcle, with Samantha Fox and Mick Fleetwood struggling over the long words on their autocue, will know. Dickens took over in timefor the 1993 awards. He expanded the electorate to include the media, retailers, publishers and promoters, instead of just record companies: "It's supposed to be the record industry awards, so I thought, Let's bring in the whole industry." He opened the show to new acts, and persuaded artists not just to perform their latest single. "It used to be just like Top of the Pops, but now it's a fairly unique television programme." Dickins makes a habit of repair jobs, of taking the poisoned chalice and filling it with champagne. In 1974, aged 23, he became Managing Director of Warner Brothers' British publishing company. It was the 11th-biggest music publisher in the country. Dickins signed deals with the Sex Pistols andVangelis, and by 1977 Warner was No 1. In 1983, Dickins, by now in charge of all of Warner's publishing outside America, switched jobs. At 29, he became chairman of the conglomerate's ailing WEA Records UK. He signed Howard Jones, whose dbut album sold two million copies, and he helped Prince, Madonna and ZZ Top conquer Britain. The Brits, he says, happened by accident: "I never planned to run them. I was in Australia and I got a phone call from Maurice Oberstein, the chairman of the BPI [British Phonographic Industry]. He said, `Would you come on board if we needed you?' I vaguely said, `Yeah'. I came back, and at the next BPI meeting they announced that I had kindly consented to be the chairman of the Brits. "All my career's been like that. I didn't want to be a publisher, I wanted to get into the record business. I wrote to all the companies and nothing came of it, so I took a job on the publishing side. I loved my boss, so when he left, I thought, `What a drag, who do I get now?' And they gave it to me. It freaked everyone out. I had people 50 years old working for me. I was The Kid." He was once described by an American colleague as "arrogant and imperious", but when we meet in his west London office - complete with en suite picnic terrace - he seems open and chatty: smooth, maybe, but not oily. You can tell he's in the record business: no tie, hair touching collar. He could never have worked in any other field. He is mates with Rod Stewart ("I give him ideas about what songs he should do and how he should do them"). His girlfriend is Cherry from Pan's People. And his father, Percy Dickins, was one of the founders of the New Musical Express in 1952. It is a nice irony that the NME recently set up the alternative Brits, the Brats. It is a nicer irony that Percy Dickins used to run the Brats' ancestor, the NME Pollwinners Concert, inmuch the same way as his son runs the Brits. "He'd come home with all the review singles," Dickins says of his dad. "I had `Please Please Me' a week before its release." His big brother Barry, meanwhile, was already making a living from live music. Barry Dickins, now a leading concert promoter, worked as Otis Redding's errand-boy before becoming The Who's agent. "When he was 18 he brought Jimi Hendrix over," the younger brother recalls. "The first time I saw him was Boxing Day '66 at lunch-time, at the Upper Cut in Forest Gate. It had a capacity of 2,000 and 125 people turned up. The owners didn't bother to turnthe heating on. Hendrix came on, and to this day, he's the best, most exciting live act ever. "He ruined live music for me. In '66, '67, live music was Hendrix. I thought that all shows would be like that. Afterwards it took an incredible dip. I went to see the Byrds and all my friends said the show was terrible, and I said, `Yes, but they make great records'. That was the turning point. For me, if you make great records you don't have to be great live. And we started getting Pet Sounds and Revolver and people doing things with records that they couldn't do live. I got into records really heavily." It is this love that sets him apart, he says, from some other record company bosses: "I produced quite a few records in the Seventies. Nothing very successful, but I can do it, so I can relate to the artists. There's no point in running a record company if you don't know how to do that." NB

! The Brit Awards 1995 are presented tomorrow. Highlights of the awards ceremony are broadcast on ITV on Tuesday, 8.30-10pm.