Singles night at the Norfolk Arms: Who's had a big hit with a pub pop trivia quiz? Larry Foster, to name but one. John Windsor meets the men who hold the records

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The Independent Online
LARRY FOSTER owns 14,200 hit 'single' records, 82.10 per cent of the 17,296 listed in the pop pickers' bible, the biannual Guinness British Hit Singles. His colleague, John Kutner, owns 13,585, or 78.54 per cent.

These are quizmasters' working collections. Mr Foster, Mr Kutner and a collector retailer, Mick Stringer, invented the craze for pop music quizzes that has swept pubs and clubs in London and the Home Counties, and inspired radio quizzes and national contests in smart hotels, attracting up to 300 entrants.

By buying discs for as little as 5p each from collectors' fairs and - especially - junk shops, where they are often unsorted and unappreciated, the Brain Drain Promotions trio has built up a collection that lacks fewer than 100 listed in BHS.

They perform solo at a dozen gigs a week. Before each one, Mr Kutner nonchalantly scans the computerised inventory of his collection while the other two, still 'on manual', scour shelves or burrow under stairs in pursuit of obscure discs with which to tease the memories of pop buffs. It takes Mr Foster four hours to think up an evening's music quiz.

Scions of the music industry and amateur fanatics travel up to 20 miles to answer such questions as: 'Which chart act had a No 1 in 1970, a No 2 in 1982, a No 66 in 1986, a No 64 in 1988 and a No 1 in 1990?' Answer: the English World Cup squad.

That was an easy one. At their most irritating the quizmasters might ask for title, artist and date before playing off-standard discs not listed in BHS, such as the novelty translucent flexi- discs given away with teenage pop magazines of the Eighties: 'Things they've never heard of,' said Mr Foster with a grin. Another of their wheezes is to ask contestants to identify hit singles by their 'intros'. No fewer than five versions of 'Viva Espana' have virtually indistinguishable opening trumpet notes.

Mr Foster's cunning does not go unrepaid. On quiz nights, the Norfolk Arms in Hackney, east London, reverberates with howls of 'you bastard'. 'I thrive on the abuse,' he said, 'love it.' He told one persistent heckler, 'I've got a soft spot for you.'

'Yeah?'

'Yeah. Hackney marshes.'

It all started at the Albion public house in Forest Gate, south London, 13 years ago. Fed up with playing golden oldies one after the other, Mr Foster told the pub's governor, 'I like to talk to people. Let me ask them questions with pints as prizes.' Within four weeks, bar turnover on 'Larry's nights' had quadrupled.

'People with answers would actually sprint up to the stage in the hope of a free pint. On more than one occasion they sent the stylus flying. Then we had a run of people, very good on pop knowledge, who started bringing friends and whispering answers to them. Then people started saying 'My team can beat yours'. That's how it all began.' Today, quiz groupies follow the quizmasters from gig to gig.

Mr Foster thwarted the cognoscenti by making the questions more difficult. But he came unstuck when he invited customers to quiz him. Flummoxed by such questions as 'What is the second track on the second side of The Jam's second album?' he ended the evening owing the bar pounds 76.

Last year, at the Holiday Inn in Swiss Cottage, north London, his winning team was playfully pelted with rolls and fruit by defeated record executives, music publishers and song writers when, for the second year running, it won a charity quiz in aid of the Nordoff-Robins Music Therapy Centre. 'Swots]' they cried.

But Mr Foster insists he never revises. As a working DJ, he seems to metabolise the knowledge. A former bus driver and postman, he was the London Union of Youth Clubs' DJ of the Year in 1976. John Kutner was Guinness's top DJ in 1984. Both are now full-time quizmasters.

Besides Mr Foster, there are three other organisers of contestant-only regional events (see below). The first organised by Mr Foster, at the Oakland Hotel in Chelmsford last year, drew 56 contestants in 14 teams.

At the weekly quiz nights at the Norfolk Arms (the longest running, now in its eighth year), the genteel pursuit of roll-throwing is eschewed. Instead, vulgarity is studiously cultivated. Contesting teams invent complicated or rude titles for themselves, challenging Mr Foster to speak them out whenever he announces the scores. By no means the longest was 'I Ran Out of Sleeping Tablets So I Watched Sampras v Courier on Television'. One team called itself a mathematical formula consisting of eight complex terms. Mr Foster pronounced it in full every time. The rude have included the 'Essex Crutch Busters', 'Steaming Dump', 'Richard Cranium' and others unprintable in a family newspaper.

Winning teams can expect a bottle of champagne or a bag of crisps, depending on whether or not Mr Foster considers them to be industry experts demanding to be put in their place. He has handicapped the experts by awarding amateur teams a number of 'joker' cards entitling them to score double on chosen rounds. The booby prize is invariably a batch of worthless 'hit singles' - mispronounced to emphasise their execrated status.

Unlike LPs, which can fetch more than pounds 1,000, most hit singles can still be bought cheaply. The Rare Record Price Guide's most expensive listing is pounds 100- pounds 150 for early (1956) limited editions of Elvis Presley's 'Heartbreak Hotel' and 'Blue Suede Shoes' with gold lettering on the labels.

Mr Kutner picked up the De Castro Sisters' 'Teach Me Tonight' (1955), listed at pounds 25 in the Guide, for 50p in a junk shop. Mr Foster is missing The Wedding Presents' 'Why are You Being So Reasonable Now?', which went to No 42 in 1988 and is priced at pounds 4 in the Guide. One sold for a measly pounds 1 at a record fair in Bedford this month. Significantly, he does not possess a price guide.

The days of pocket-money prices for 'classic' vinyl singles may be numbered. Although some are being reproduced on CD, notably by the Old Gold label, most will remain available only in their original vinyl. The first non-vinyl single to hit the charts - the CD 'Cold' by Annie Lennox - came last year. Two others have followed. Record companies producing only in CD have begun to issue limited-edition vinyls, deliberately creating rarity value. The vinyl of U2's hit 'The Fly', on the Island label, was actually deleted while at No 1 in October 1991.

Mr Foster hopes to challenge the most renowned pop quiz brains to a national contest. They include Robert Richland, also a Scrabble champion and formidable 10-pin bowler; Mike Read, the veteran DJ on Capital Gold with a reputation for memorising singles catalogue numbers; Paul Gambaccini, co-editor of BHS; and Phil Swern, Radio 1 broadcaster said to have the country's most nearly complete collection of British hit singles.

Finally, an easy one: which artist had No 1 singles as a soloist, a duo, a trio, a quartet, a quintet and a conglomeration? Answer next week.

British Hit Singles by Paul Gambaccini, Tim Rice and Jo Rice (Guinness Books, pounds 10.99). Rare Record Price Guide (Record Collector magazine, pounds 12.95).

Venues: Mr Foster, Sunday 8.45pm, J J Moon's, London N19; Monday 9pm, Norfolk Arms, London E8; Tuesday 9pm, Black Rose, London N19. Mr Kutner (081- 207 3761): Sunday 8.30pm, George and Dragon, Bedford; Tuesday 9pm, The Hogshead, London W11; Wednesday 9pm, Blacksmith's Arms, St Albans.

Clubs: Thursday, Saturday, 9pm- 2am, West One, Welwyn Garden City. Mr Stringer (0708 724767); Wednesday 9pm, Coach and Horses, Saint George's Street, Walthamstow, north-east London; Thursday 9pm, Dutch House, 148 High Road, London N17; Friday 9pm, The Bell, Walthamstow.

Regional Organisers: London, Larry Foster (0708 375059); Yorkshire, Ray Marshall (0625 520879), Steve Burdin (0924 848892); Edinburgh, Ron Grigor (031 453 2547).

(Photograph omitted)

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