Saga were originaly the “record division of Saga films” and after starting with a strong classical focus, like other minor British independents they turned their hand to niche areas: folk, children, reissues, budget.
The name Saga has been firmly identified with elderly people’s holidays and car and health insurance for years, but in the late fifties SAGA must have had Icelandic connotations of tales of derring-do. They were going in the late fifties and still hanging on in the 70s with a number of variations of label design, all based on their “letters on discs” logo.
The early EPs had a generic company EP sleeve, of stiffer card, much like early EMI generic sleeves, though the discs were pressed in France for nefarious financial reasons.
The history of Saga is available in more detail than most independents. We are indebted to the Blog of Garth Banks for the inside information as well as Music Webb’s interview with Robin O’Connor. You thought dubious record industry practices were the preserve of rock ‘n’ roll? Think again.
Saga was one of the earliest budget independent labels, growing out of Saga Films. Saga Films had been established by Leonard Cassinni to make filmed documentaries about classical composers, with new recordings accompanying them from 1955 onwards.
Major Wilfred Alozo Banks was brought in to effect a financial rescue when they ran into stormy waters in in 1958. The idea was to sell the films to cinemas as support features, and to TV. They found it hard to do, but realized they had a stack of new recordings, commissioned for the unsalable films. The commercial potential of releases such as Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks concerto, was after all, limited.
Stravinsky Dumbarton Oaks: The Haydn Orchestra, Harry Newstone, Saga EP 1961
A meeting with Kays, who ran a mail order catalogue, found there was common ground. Kays had wanted to do mail order records, but found the majors would not co-operate. Garrard & Lofthouse, who produced EP and LP sleeves for the majors were happy to print Saga sleeves, but all the majors declined to custom-press Saga discs.
Major Banks had the records pressed by Pathe Vox in France and imported them, selling them mail order for 25/- when most LPs cost 32/-. This led Pye to enter the budget market to compete, even lower in price at 21/- with Golden Guinea.
Major Banks found himself invited to visit Sir Joseph Lockwood at EMI. Pathe Vox was an EMI subsidiary, and Lockwood had visited them and seen stacks of Saga LPs ready for export. He was amazed to discover how many they were selling (some were selling enough to top the classical chart) and then agreed that EMI might as well press them in Britain.
In 1958, they employed William Barrington-Coupe, who was married to a Saga artist, the concert pianist, Joyce Hatto as a producer. Barrington-Coupe had run The Concert Artists record label which had been wound up in 1956. Barrington-Coupe was aware that Musicians’ Union rules made recoding a orchestra expensive in the UK, so commissioned non-union recordings in Hamburg with musicians moonlighting from various orchestras. Barrington-Coupe’s wife Joyce Hatto and another pianist, Sergio Fiorentino travelled over to record with them.
William Barrington-Coupe then found a young and cheap recording engineer to record West Side Story star, George Chakiris for Saga, and that engineer was Joe Meek.
Out of Saga, grew Triumph Records. Triumph was distributed by Saga. The film Telstar has told the story of Triumph (Joe Meek left it in 1960) and then the story of Meek from then on, with Kevin Spacey playing the role of Major Banks.
The original Saga Records operation collapsed in 1960. Barrington- Coupe did a deal for fifty unissued master tapes with Marcel Rodd, the owner of several existing labels, Associated, Allied, Classics Club and Dandy. Rodd took over Saga. Saga Films mutated into Saga Records Limited.
Barrington-Coupe then walked away, taking his artists with him, and Wilfred Banks was left with the master tapes and the Saga name. With no staff, facilities or artists on his books, Banks traded the business and its rights in over 300 master recordings to Marcel Rodd in exchange for a thousand albums from Lyrique Records.
I can’t unscramble the deals. I’ll leave it to Wikipedia:
WIKIPEDIA: The tapes that Rodd’s Allied Records had acquired from Saga’s Saga Films included musicals, “light classical” releases, dance and jazz bands, theatre organs and popular singers as well as classical favourites.There were over three hundred Saga titles, fifty that had belonged to Barrington-Coupe plus another hundred mono Russian recordings that had originally been imported in 1954 by the James Quality Recording Company and partially released under the Monarch label between 1954 and 1956. Saga had not used them, possibly because they were not stereo.
Barrington-Coupe by now had set up a new budget label, Fidelio, retailing at 12/6 (62½p) and Rodd responded with Fidelity. He reused some of the Lyrique masters which he had previously sold to Banks and acquired tapes from the French budget label Guilde Européene du Microsillon (GEM), many without documented attribution. Label manager Ted Perry was left to sort out the details, including inventing artists for unattributed tapes and deleting tapes which had deteriorated, such as the Urania catalogue. Rodd was a difficult employer and Perry left Saga within eighteen months.
In 1963, Marcel Rodd bought out The Record Society / ARC which had subsisted by licensing Czech LPs from Supraphon and Russian LPs from Melodiya. They opened the 326 Kensal Road offices in a disused paint factory. The non-classical material was hived off as Society and Presto labels. These were later brought back under the Saga name as “series.”
The character of the label is shown in these extracts from an interview Robin O’Connor, a one time Saga employee did with Music Webb in 2007.
Robin O’Connor: I responded to an advertisement and in April 1964 went off to be interviewed by the Managing Director of Saga Records. It was an unusual interview, to say the least. It was held in the MD’s bedroom at 15 Maresfield Gardens just off the Finchley Road, where the man himself was propped up in bed, resplendent in black pyjamas. It was my first sight of Marcel Rodd and, like everything else about him, it was unforgettable. The applicant – and it was I, dear reader – was awed by the setting – never been interviewed in a bedroom before – the papers strewn all over the bed, the man’s piercing gaze, the gruff voice barking out sharp questions. But somehow I staggered through it and got the job. Never found out what the job actually was, but my duties were to produce recordings, write sleeve-notes and generally do whatever it was Marcel dreamed up next.
Music Web International interview
They eventually had a bewildering number of ‘series’ some of which appeared to be whole other labels: Saga Fidelity, Saga Eros, Saga Society, Saga Opp.
Then Society, Associated Recording Company (ARC), Allied Records, Fidelity records are interwoven. Some are at 326 Kensal Road (Saga, Fidelity, Allied), others at 127 Kensal Road (ARC, Society).
Pop goes Saga
Saga also tried pop singles without any success. Larry Page (aka Larry Page the Teenage Rage) made three singles between spells at Columbia and Decca. See his labels Page One and Penny Farthing (in preparation). One was a cover of Big Blon’ Baby by Larry Page and the Saga Satellites in 1959. That was directed by John Barry, which may be why the two on sale on Discogs in July 2022 are £80 and £166.
Page with John Barry also recorded How’m I Doing, Hey, Hey. That’s listed on Discogs at £6 to £25. The Larry Page Sings His Personal Choice EP is rated at £5. See what happens to price without John Barry.
The Saga Satellites also did instrumentals.
Saga sagely followed American labels in declining to put a date on some EP and single centre labels.
Silver Dollar was a strict tempo dance sub-label, with a card die cut sleeve and a plastic inner liner, both unusual. Pity about the material.
One has to wonder why. SAGA did make one notable pop record by signing up ex-RSM Brittain, ‘The loudest parade ground voice in the British Army’, to record Regimental Rock, the ‘B’ side was Swinging Sporrans.
Bert Weedon recorded Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Instrumental) in 1959 as ‘The Rag Pickers.’
Once you’ve got a good photo, why change it?
Roy Guest & His Guitar (EP) 1958. Copies also have yellow lettering instead of red. Same track list. EFID 1009. Also the one in the company Saga sleeve earlier is EFID 1009
Favourite British Songs (EP): Roy Guest, same front photo and lettering, different track list EFID 1016
The Wandering Minstrel (EP): Roy Guest, Saga 1960 EFID 1015
Same cover photo, different catalogue number and tracklist
Roy Guest did EPs and LPs of British Songs and followed with American songs, both firmly folk specialist stuff. Cockles and Mussels anyone?
More popular releases …
Cha Cha Bar (EP): Chico Fernandez & His Cha Ca Leros, Early Saga EP- and label indicates it’s a Pathé French pressing.
Jazz brought in Mick Mulligan. Not only is the sleeve odd for a trad jazz EP, but Mick Mulligan was recording for Tempo. Decca and Parlophone. How did he get on Saga?
Benny Lee’s Words and Music EP. Lee was a Scottish comedy singer.
Saga Fidelity Classical
The classical labels often utilised tapes of Iron Curtain orchestras, recorded off-air live broadcasts, with fake musician’s names on. In 1962 Fidelio released a recording of Scheherazade by William Havagesse (Have a guess) and the fictional Zurich Municipal Orchestra.
No one has traced the recording actually used, but they utilised speed and pitch changes to disguise the frauds. Barrington-Coupe went to prison in 1966 for non payment of purchase tax of £84,000 (well over a million in 2022 money).
Some Saga LPs were emblazoned with STEREO with a small label revealing they were electronically processed stereo.
Robin O’Connor: In those days the studio was beneath Marcel’s house at 15b Maresfield Gardens while the disk cutting and record pressing was done at a factory in Kensal Road, now the site of a Virgin Group office, I think. The studio wasn’t well-equipped – won’t go into the technical details, but it was too small to handle anything larger than a string quartet or pop group. Jim Dalton was the man in charge of the studio and his office was lined with rows of tapes – all 15ips, most mono but some in stereo, including a few rarities in staggered head stereo from Russia – and these provided me with one of my first tasks. The phone rang one morning and Marcel’s voice demanded to know why our disks weren’t all in stereo. I explained that we only had mono tapes of most of them but he replied that he had in his possession an RCA recording of Toscanini recorded in mono but issued in ‘Electronically re-processed stereo’. Why weren’t we doing the same? I didn’t like to say it was because we didn’t have an RCA budget but I never got the chance, because he ordered me to embark on a project to re-master most of our mono catalogue in stereo, authorising the expenditure of anything up to £100 for the task … I blush now to think of it, but ‘orders is orders’ so we began a long, hot summer in that sweltering basement studio transferring many mono tapes into a sort of stereo. There were problems. What do you do with a solo piano which suddenly produces a sound image twelve feet wide? And because the volume of work meant we were operating a sort of production line, mistakes were made.
Some time later I had a phone call from the cutting engineer from the factory who asked if we’d heard our ‘stereo re-mastered’ version of the Dvorak ‘New World’ symphony. ‘Listen to the middle of the slow movement’ he said. I found our copy of the disk, played it – and discovered that because we didn’t have time to sit through each transfer, we sampled bits, set the machines running and moved on – so we’d inadvertently transferred an unedited tape containing some false starts, complete with the conductor’s comments – ‘No, no, too loud, back again please to letter B’. Don’t know how many disks we sold of that one, but to my knowledge no one ever complained.
Music Web International interview
There was always something slightly dodgy. Dvorak’s Symphony No 9: The New World has 1961 on the inner label, but the sleeve notes are allegedly from Art and Sound in 1967. This magazine also reviewed the Saga folk LPs as well as classical. I can find no trace of its existence.
The notes make no mention of the conductor or the ‘Budapest Symphonic Ensemble.’ It’s electronically re-processed stereo too. The same recording appears on the budget A.R.C. label. Imre Joseph Molnar turns up again on a 1991 Saga Classics CD. Otherwise he has no Google footprint. The Budapest Symphonic Ensemble is NOT the renowned Budapest Symphony Orchestra … as far as we know. The classical LPs went for generic photo library scenes, not that Saga were alone in going for that.
Robin O’Connor I never knew Barrigton-Coupe personally, his name was occasionally mentioned by Marcel Rodd, the Saga supremo, and never in a very complimentary way. He once said he believed Barrigton-Coupe had a hoard of dubious tapes secreted under a bed in a Paddington hotel which, whether true or not, seemed to me at the time to cast a somewhat comic light on the sacred ‘Music Business’. Barrigton-Coupe was also indirectly responsible for the creation of a new Saga record label which I was supposed to manage. Through devious channels Marcel had heard that Barrigton-Coupewas about to issue recordings on an Allegro label which would undercut the price of our cheapest offering – Fidelity or Society, I think it was, though can’t be sure. Anyway, at a hastily convened meeting of the studio staff (all three of us) Marcel said we must meet this challenge with a new and even cheaper label of our own – and did anyone have any ideas for a title? Rustling up a bit of musical knowledge I said Presto was faster than Allegro. Marcel liked the idea and I suddenly became a sort of Artistes and Repertoire Manager with my own label.
It’s unusual that Saga went for custom SAGA inner sleeves for LPs. The blue one has LP specific text on the reverse.
Saga Pan was a classical LP label, with elaborate sleeves … gold is a “fifth colour” in printing, so expensive. They also had printed inner sleeves with detailed notes in English, French and German. The sticker said STEREO AND MONO (i.e, stereo). The example is from 1966, and so much attention had been paid to the design and finish. The inner sleeve is a custom one with an article printed on it … guess where from? iThe mysterious Art and Sound magazine again. Then there’s Orchestra da Camera Nardini. Well, the Orchestra Camera Milano was famed for Nardini recordings. I find no trace of this one. Eldon Pucci (Puke-ee?) has only one entry on Discogs: this one. So has Giorgio Etto.
I overpaid for the example a £1.00. Most go for 99p. I guessed it was bought in from an Italian label, now I suspect it’s a faked reworking of a recording by someone else.
All the sleeves were elaborate. The USP seems to be more obscure works by famous composers, or works by lesser-known composers.
The label kept going. This is from 1973.
Folk, Saga Society, Society
Society was also presented as a whole different label, with the same logo, with credits to A-R-C, The Associated Recordings Society at 127 Kensal Road.
The most famous LPs were both by Alex Campbell, and the bible for budding folk musicians in 1963. Everyone I knew had a copy. It was cheap. The recording was good. The material was the classics. That was Society on the label.
Then in 1964, AlexCampbell Sings Folk / Folk Session reappeared with a new front sleeve, but with an identical rear sleeve (except for the bottom line) and identical track list. That was Fidelity on the label.
SOC 960 and STFID 2171. They’re the same record,
It was soon followed by Way Out West, which has the best sleeve design (only good sleeve design?) that Saga ever did.
Both the above Alex Campbell share this Society centre label design. So then Saga issued an EP with four sections. The centre says it’s an “33 1.3 rpm LP” which is unusual for an EP which would normally be 45 rpm. Maybe they define their EPs as 7″ LPs.
So now the EP is ARC, not Society. As record labels often overprinted on a base design, I wonder if like reggae singles, they used whatever bae designs they had printed and in stock.
By Roy Guest’s Cowboy LP, a year later, Society has become Saga-Soc.
This is Saga-Soc. It would be licensed in. Jimmy Webb has recalled being booked for a whole day by Rod McKuen for $50. They recorded fifty-two songs in a very. very long session. Never mind the quality, feel the width. Perhaps this is some of them.
They were still confusing matters in 1966, with Folk ’66 by Colin Wilkie, Shirley Hart and John Pearse.
Here’s the rear label
Here’s the centre label:
This appears around 1966, with a different slant. In 1966 they released three Charlie Parker compilations.
Saga released a Lightnin’ Hopkins LP as EROS 8001 in 1966, and I suspect it’s the second Eros release though there’s no Eros logo. Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy et al were lost in a copyright morass and a dozen labels released material.A Memphis Slim collection is EROS 8000.
In 1967, two desirable Saga records were released, both LPs featuring Sandy Denny: Alex Campbell & His Friends and Sandy & Johnny (with Johnny Silvo). These were all released in 2005 on CD as Where The Time Goes.
Alex Campbell had first been on Fidelity for The Swirl of The Kilt in 1958. Then he had been on Society, then he had been on Saga Society, but this is Saga Eros. Was it a pricing code? Anyway, Eros’ logo was the statue in Piccadilly circus, so did it suggest ‘urban’ in some way?
In 1968, Eric Delaney’s Live at the London Paladium appeared on Saga Eros, followed by Eric Delaney. This is surprising as Delaney was playing major summer shows, combining the roles of backing band and a solo spot (I did lights on him) and I’d’ve thought he had the choice of larger labels.
There is a Joan Baez album The Best of Joan Baez in 1968. What? Discogs reveal that it is a version of a 1960 American LP on the Veritas label. On the original version, Bill Wood and Ted Alevizos get equal billing. When Saga reissued it they suddenly shrink to small print. Why would that be?
By 1967 and 1968, Saga were reissuing early work by Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong.
The Brunning Sunflower Band
Bob Brunning, the first bassist with Fleetwood Mac, did three Saga albums. He’s rather on the too good side for Saga.
Bullen Street Blues, Saga Fid 1968
Trackside Blues, Saga Eros 1969
I Wish You Would, Saga Eros 1970
So we thought FID (Fidelity) was the classical label. It begins to seem random.
In 1972 they were among the many labels shoving out early Jimi Hendrix recordings, in this case as Jimi Hendrix At His Best Vol I and II. Perhaps as an i joke, they had the Saga Pan classical logo on the front. Volume 2 is identical, except for the number..
They also launched Saga OPP, presumably named for the optical illusion logo, well nearly optical illusion. Wendy Peters cover of Bonnie Dobson’s Morning Dew was the first release (OPP1) followed by Alex Campbell with a cover of Tom Paxton’s Victoria Dines Alone (OPP 2).
This is a straight cover version album by Russ Saint from 1967. In the same year, Beat Club was a straight forward album of covers of recent hits by anonymous artists.
Saga issued an oddity: Five Day Week Straw People which was their attempt to cash in on psychedelia. It’s Saga Fid. (Why? Surely Saga Opp was more relevant.)
The band consisted of John Du Cann (from The Attack, who recorded for Decca) on guitar and vocals, Mick Hawksworh on bass and Jack Collins on drums. They were paid £25 each, and were recorded in a London schoolroom. It took four hours and Collins was playing on material he was hearing for the first time. The three of them founded the band Andromeda. The album was listed in Record Collector’s 100 Greatest Psychedelic Records. It was reissued on CD and vinyl for Record Store Day 2018.
Saga’s psychedelia albums are collected. Expensive, even. The Magic Mixture also featured Jack Collins and existed a butterfly life span fr one album This Is The Magic Mixture. Then The Good Earth did It’s Hard Rock and All That, as well as sharing the Swinging London LP with The First Impression.
Swinging London came in an earlier version with Russ Sainty instead of TYhe Good Earth.
This is a different album.
Swinging Saga was a poorly titled compilation LP of Saga’s more innovative material. Had no one told them that Swinging was already five years out of date?
Then Saga released Beat Party To The Classics, credited to Bing and The Birds. This is weird attempts to do psych classics.
Barrington-Coupe & Joyce Hatto
In 1970, Barrington-Coupe released Joyce Hatto’s (genuine) recording of Bax’s Symphonic Variations, on yet another label, Revolution, and it was highly acclaimed. She had recorded through the 60s, often for Saga’s even lower budget labels. She stopped performing in 1976, and the couple quietly disappeared from public view.
In 2002, Barrington-Coupe and Joyce Hatto began releasing CDs on his revived Concert Artists label. They released 103 of them, saying they had recorded them over the previous 13 years. They were favourably reviewed.
In 2007, these were proved to be copies of recordings by other artists which had been digitally manipulated. Their story (Hatto was dying of cancer and Barrington-Coupe wanted to create a “shrine to her”) was retold in two novels, and dramatized by Victoria Wood as a BBC TV play in 2012, Loving Miss Hatto.
It is also said that in the 50s and 60s, Hatto had ghosted as other pianists on many budget recordings, so had suffered from uncredited performances herself. Of course Hatto’s CDs are virtually unobtainable now, so are sought after, and the phenomenon of “fake Hatto” CDs have already appeared. She genuinely recorded Rachmaninov in 1963, but the available CD which claims to be this is obviously a recent digital recording.