He's been called "the necromancer of rock" (Record Collector), "the barman at The Last Chance Saloon" (Mojo), a "Fat Ageing Old Git" (himself), and none of the acts on his roster will ever trouble the editors of teenage pop magazines. They have, however, all sold more than a million records each, appeared in Melody Maker on a weekly basis and gigged at every student union in the country. They just haven't done it recently.
His name is Barry Riddington, his partner is Malcolm Holmes, and they are responsible for HTD - the most outrageously unfashionable record label in Britain - and singlehandedly resurrecting the college circuit acts of bygone days and giving them long-term record deals.
And they're doing rather well. "We've got five bands in the studio at the moment," says Barry. "Wild Turkey, Caravan, the Albion Band, the Albion Dance Band and Amazing Blondel. We're doing a previously unreleased live album from 1972 next month and a brand new one shortly after."
It all began eight years ago on a plush sofa. "We used to run a company called B&M Promotions, trying to take old artists like Fairport Convention and promote them back to major record companies. We found ourselves visiting a lot of offices, sitting on comfy chairs and getting gobbed on a lot," says Barry. Somebody suggested they start their own label and, with no useful experience whatsoever, they did, signing first an offshoot of the Groundhogs. No, not the Groundhogs but an offshoot of the Groundhogs.
"We lost lots and lots of money and nearly went bust, but we'd actually done a cheap recording of a Groundhogs' concert for our own pleasure, and Tony McPhee, bless his cotton socks, let us release it. It was that album that saved our backsides, basically."
An album with Richard Sinclair, bass player in Caravan, followed, and Baz and Mal suddenly realised there was a reliable core audience for what they affectionately termed AOG music: "Malcolm and I are FAOGs, which stands for Fat Ageing Old Gits, as opposed to what Rolf Harris rather crudely suggested."
"Yes, we nearly did an album with Rolf at one point. It turned out he had bigger offers, but it was a real pleasure meeting him 'cos he was such a nice bloke." Being a nice bloke carries a lot of weight with Riddington, not least because Riddington is himself a nice bloke (carrying a lot of weight). He makes friends with his artists and is willing to pour serious cash into studio time for Renaissance, Roger Dean sleeve-designs for Uriah Heep, solo albums from people who used to be in Camel, and endless box- sets of unreleased material from Ashley Hutchings, godfather of folk-rock.
In their own terms, most of HTD's artists actually turn out material that, far from disgracing their back catalogues, is surprisingly sprightly. There must, however, be some acts that even Riddington wouldn't sign? "Well, yes. Sometimes people can lose it," he says, with the care-worn sound of a man who deals in painful home-truths to those for whom the footnotes of rock are the summit of their achievements.
"But the incredible thing is, people like Pye Hastings and Ashley Hutchings are so vibrant. You wonder how they've kept themselves so enthusiastic over so many years. And they all seem to be very popular elsewhere..."
Indeed. Barring the 3,000-5,000 faithful, whom HTD rely on, most of their acts couldn't get arrested in the UK. Yet Riddington is almost as incredulous as the next man at stories of Hutchings and his Albion Band being huge in Korea, or Uriah Heep packing out 10,000-seaters in Mexico.
"We don't want to work with these people for one album," he says. "We want to work with them over the next 10, 15 years. There's an awful lot of people aged 35-plus who'd love to buy new albums by these artists if only they knew the stuff was out there. It's hard to reach those people. But we're doing something we really love. We're dealing with artists who are world-class musicians and really nice guys. It's a joy to do, frankly."
n For further information write to HTD, 159 Blendon Road, Bexley, Kent DA5 1BT
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