Phil (The Collector) Swern Interview: The Six Million Record Man
He has one of the biggest record collections in the world – some six to seven million tracks – has produced and written several UK and US smash hits, once had cucumber sandwiches with Jimi Hendrix, and even washed The Walker Brothers’ and The Mamas & The Papas’ hair (yes, we really said that). Oh, and he also writes questions for Radio 2’s Pop Master quiz. Andy Jones enters the incredible world of Phil ‘The Collector’ Swern…
Phil Swern is disarmingly modest about his record collection. “I don’t know if it’s the biggest collection in the world, it’s hard to say as there are so many collectors out there, but it is probably one of the biggest collections in Europe.”
Mounted on a stage in an ex village hall, with huge movable units in which the records are kept – all temperature controlled and as secure as you can imagine – it is bigger than anything you or I have ever seen. It’s simply massive. That’s all there is to say. It’s a bit like trying to describe the Grand Canyon. You can’t.
The collection is now used as the backbone of a commercial music library called I Like Music – more on this later – an understated name for a business that prides itself on being able to provide a wealth of commercial music to clients including the BBC. It includes every Top 40 hit single since 1952, although that is just five per cent of the collection, as it turns out…
The first question is obvious, then: how many recordings does Phil own? “I have no idea,” he laughs like it’s the first time he’s been asked that question. “All I can say is that the last time I counted them, there were just over 200,000 vinyl singles, 80,000 albums and getting on for 300,000 CDs. The problem is, that was many years ago. We reckon now that we have got
Phil and his collection have been partners throughout his life and career. He started collecting records before he could read or write and consequently received them instead of toys as a child. Later, as we shall see, he worked for record labels, pluggers, studios, radio and TV shows and has become a master of pop-quiz questions.
It’s an amazing CV, but you might notice all of these jobs are linked not just by music, but also the fact they give Swern easier access to yet more records – and he would perhaps agree this was an important factor in his career choices so far. Phil has had some good fortune in this quest, as the gods of collecting really do seem to have smiled on him. Yet his understated modesty and ability to laugh at himself make every decision and every purchase easy to understand, even if you have just an ounce of a love for music and collecting.
“I decided to own every Top 40 hit ever released, and I did it. The aim was to get ‘just’ the singles, but think I might have all the albums now, as well…”
“I used to go around to my grandparents and was fascinated, as they had a radiogram and a pile of 78s,” Phil recalls of ‘the moment’ the collecting began. “My grandfather bought me a wind-up gramophone for my third birthday and they gave me a pile of records. The party piece for my parents when they had guests was to ask me to put on, say, Perry Como singing Dream Along With Me and I’d do it, and everyone just couldn’t believe it, as this was before I could read or write!
“Growing up, I didn’t want toy cars or aeroplanes or anything like that,” he continues. “I just wanted records. My parents couldn’t understand it. So on a Saturday, for a treat, if I was well behaved, they would try and get me come into the toy shop – but I wasn’t interested. But funnily enough, I can’t remember the first record I bought with my own money, as I was earning pocket money working at my grandparents’ shop and just spending it on
so many records. This was when I was nine or 10.”
Let there be… records
Swern’s collection, then, was based on a continuation of his grandparents’ collection and the easy-listening aspects of it. “I was buying things like Michael Holliday, but the first really poppy or rock ’n’ roll record I bought was Sandy Nelson’s Let There Be Drums. After that, I started buying Elvis Presley records and I guess the first thing that really made an impression, where I thought ‘Oooh, that’s different,’ was Move It by Cliff Richard. It was on the radio all the time and I then started to discover more radio programmes, as there wasn’t a lot to hear in the late 50s and early 60s. I got Radio Luxembourg, so got into Elvis Presley and Little Richard. That’s when ‘turn that bloody row off!’ from my parents started…”
By his teens, the Phil Swern collection was already large, but he can’t really put his finger on where the bug came from. “Well no one knows – my parents weren’t really that interested in music and rarely played records, so maybe the obsession came from the milkman!” he laughs. “I just enjoyed having the physical record. I just got so excited going into a record shop back then and seeing all of the various records and just wanted them in my home. As the collection built up, I filed the records by label. So at the top left there was A&M and at the bottom right there was ZTT!”
Fate would now deal its first blow in helping Swern’s collection grow and also make a first connection with the BBC. “I was also fascinated by radio,” he recalls. “So I’d write into the BBC and ask to get tickets for radio shows, programmes like Easy Beat – and I got to meet quite a few people. I also went to panel shows and there was one called Many A Slip which was introduced by a pianist and arranger called Steve Race, who happened to live a few doors away from me. One day, I went to one of the broadcasts and saw him coming out and plucked up the courage to introduce myself. When he found out where I lived, he offered me a lift home. I told him about my obsession with records and he said, ‘Oh, I do this weekly programme on the BBC where I get masses of records sent in to me. I don’t use them, so you can have what you want!’ I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve died and gone to heaven!’
“I went into his house and he said, ‘There you go, there’s the stuff that’s come in in the last couple of weeks, help yourself!’
“I thought, ‘Well I can’t really,’ so only took about four or five and he said, ‘No, no, take more!’ He said to drop by every couple of weeks and take as many as I wanted!”
Through Race, Phil met a young Johnny Beerling who would go on to be the controller at Radio 1 – and a connection that would help him in his future career as the two became good friends – but Swern was not BBC-bound just yet. At one time, he did think he’d make use of all of his records by becoming a DJ. “I built my own little studio in my bedroom with a mixer and two turntables and made my own little private shows.” However, no one was to hear them just yet, as his parents stepped in to force Swern to choose a ‘proper’ career, one that would take him away from music, and at quite a tangent…
“After I left school, I ended up hairdressing for three years, as my parents thought, ‘This is ridiculous, you can’t make a living from records’. I’d already applied to the record companies and the BBC but didn’t get anywhere, so I went into hairdressing and worked for Vidal Sassoon for 18 months.”
However, though his parents thought this a more suitable career, it didn’t keep him away from collecting. “I was only a junior, but I met quite a few famous people because in the evening, quite a few of the stars came in to get their hair done. The Walker Brothers would come in and go down into the basement to get their hair done in private, and I’d wash their hair. I also washed Mama Cass’ hair and she was my favourite customer. She would always ask if I would wash her hair and always gave me a five-pound tip, which was a lot back in 1969. So, when Mama Cass came in, I thought, ‘Right, I’m going down the record shop soon!’”
You now begin to realise that Phil’s collection was almost destined to grow, and fate was gearing up for yet another intervention. “There was a lady who used to come in called Penny Valentine and she was the record reviewer for a magazine called Disc And Music Echo. I got on really well with her and used to wash her hair and moan all the time. One day, she came in and said, ‘Look, there’s a new record label called Strike Records that has started up and they are looking for someone, but it won’t be much of a job.’ I said, ‘Anything!’ She rang them up and got me an interview, I went along and got the job as a runner, delivering tapes to studios and records to the BBC. Going around the BBC, I was meeting pluggers from other record companies and they would give me records, too. It was great!”
More records, more collecting, hello fate. Now the story takes a properly surreal twist…
“Strike Records’ only real hit was That’s Nice by Neil Christian, but they also had a really good artist called Roy Harper. They ran the place from a block of flats in Upper Berkeley Street in London and the flat beneath it was owned by Jimi Hendrix. One time I got back from delivering, I got in the lift and there was Jimi! He said to me, ‘Hey man, do you work upstairs, because there’s a new Roy Harper album that I know is coming out soon – any chance you can get me a copy?’ So I ran upstairs, took a copy out of the cupboard and then went back and knocked on his door. He answered and said, ‘Thank you so much, do you want to come in for a cup of tea?’ I said ‘I’ve got to get back…’ so he said, ‘Well, come back tomorrow at 3.30 and have tea with me.’ So I did and he made cucumber sandwiches and tea and I ended up staying and chatting with Jimi Hendrix for half an hour…
“I was only 18 and thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s going to give me drugs,’ or whatever,” Swern continues. “But he was so gentle and quiet. We chatted about the blues and other music. He was lovely, but then I got told off when I got back to the office, because I’d been away for half an hour instead of a 15-minute tea break!”
New career, more records
“At this point, I was still collecting everything and anything. I just liked records. I did like particular songs, but I even kept what I didn’t like. I don’t know why, I just did. In fact, I’ve never really thought about why. I knew the records I liked, filed away the ones I didn’t like and thought, ‘Maybe I’ll come back to them and listen to them again one day,’ but I never did. I still hung on to everything, though.”
Strike Records went bust, but luckily, Phil moved with the team to RCA “for pretty much the same job – and I made lots of contacts there.” He then moved to Transatlantic Records, and worked there for a year before landing another dream job.
“There was a sales manager there called Paul and we were always winding each other up and playing pranks on each other. One day, the phone rang in my office and this American voice said, ‘It’s Jerry Moss here, from A&M Records,’ and I said, ‘Shut up, Paul,’ and put the phone down. After it happened three times, I realised it really was him! He said they were setting up an independent UK operation and wanted me to work for it. So I did – it was a humungous amount of money, more than I could dream of and triple what I was earning at Transatlantic. The record collection grew faster and faster, especially after they sent me to LA and I discovered all the record shops over there. I was about 19 or 20 and had about 20,000 records at this time. They were all still in my bedroom in my parents’ house!
“So I was working at A&M for a while and working on a record by Sonny Charles And The Checkmates called Black Pearl. I thought it was a great song, but too slow, so I decided to do a reggae version with the arranger Johnny Arthey who did Young, Gifted And Black – so we recorded it and it was our first Top 20 hit.”
What to do with so many records?
I Like Music is the company that Phil runs with Andy Hill. With Phil’s collection and Andy’s digital background, it’s the perfect partnership…
PS “Andy had a company called Mars and started one of the first digital music companies in this country, supplying library music. A lot of his clients asked him for commercial music, but he didn’t have the product, so we got together and started I Like Music. For several years, we quietly started digitising everything, starting with ABBA and finishing with ZZ Top and not telling anyone. And when we digitised the whole of the Top 40, it was too late for any other company to offer it. So when the BBC wanted a digital library, they put it out to tender about six or seven years ago and quite a number of companies bid for it and we were shortlisted. Then the BBC gave a list out asking for 30 to 40 titles – some were hits, some were quite well known but not hits and the rest were quite obscure. We supplied all but four and I don’t think the nearest competitor came close. We won the contract, so now it’s our library that they use.
“Every producer at the BBC has a computer on their desk and it’s called the Desktop Jukebox. It has a BBC skin and looks like a BBC product, but it’s our library – so basically, they type in, say, ‘Madonna’ and ‘Holiday’ and they can download it ready for broadcast. It’s what they used to do with a library, go and pull out a record, play it and put it back. But now it’s at their fingertips and they are PRS and PPL registered, so everything is accounted for.
“I Like Music provides music to lots of production companies. As well as the BBC’s digital library, it also services ITV and a number of other major broadcasters. We also work with all sorts of independent production companies and people like London Transport. A lot of Underground stations are playing classical music. We supply that and there’s been less violence on the platforms because people are more calm and relaxed.”
Every chart hit, please
From around 1973, Phil went on to write and produce dozens of hits by acts including The Pearls, R & J Stone, Blue Haze, Horace Faith, The Seashells, The Edwin Hawkins Singers, Duane Eddy and Manhattan Transfer. He also wrote and produced Polly Brown’s big US Top 20 hit, Up In A Puff Of Smoke.
“I was doing quite well at this, but I was getting a little bored with the studio and production work,” Phil recalls. “One of the big guys at A&M moved to Warner’s in LA, so I went out there and they offered me a job. I remember thinking about it and turning it down when I got back home, as I really wanted to be in radio. Then I got a call from Johnny Beerling and he asked me to put together a music-quiz marathon for charity.
“It turned out it was a 32-hour-long quiz, with music clips for each question, so I put it together on reel to reel, one reel for every hour. It went like clockwork and they were thrilled and I thought I’d get a job with Radio 1 but, no, nothing!”
“However, another colleague of mine, Tim Blackmore, was head of programmes for Capital Radio and he was putting doing a programme called You Ain’t Heard Nothing Yet, but he was about to end it as he didn’t have enough wacky and strange records for it. I said, ‘I could probably keep you going for another five series,’ so I got involved in that. I was helping with the questions and getting annoyed if I didn’t have a copy of something. I then spent a week with the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles and marked off the ones I didn’t have and made it my task to get all of them!”
And so started Swern’s ambition to get every Top 40 hit since the charts began in 1952… “It took an absolute age,” he says of the collecting task. “In the end, if I went to a record fair and looked at something, they doubled the price as they knew I’d buy it, so I ended up taking friends along with me to buy the records! Initially, though, it was simple. I’d go to three or four record shops, like Beanos in Croydon which was brilliant, and I absolutely milked them – I’d pick up 30 or 40 at a time. Beanos eventually gave me the key to their stock room and said, ‘There you go…’”
“I’d play each record once to make sure the quality was good enough,” he adds. “I was never obsessive enough to get, say, the original pressing of a Buddy Holly record. I’d buy the original if I found it, but I’d rather get a good-quality copy. So I was just ticking them off my list. The late 50s and early 60s were tricky, as a lot of it only came out on 78. As the list got shorter and shorter, it became harder and harder to find the remainder. Sometimes, I’d pay up to £100 for a 45, but I didn’t mind.”
Phil completed the task at the end of the 90s and has since been on many record-company mailing lists, so the chart-compiling side of his purchasing is over. Perhaps somewhat ironically, his parents were key players in that final purchase…
“I remember the last record I needed was Diana Decker’s Poppa Piccolino. I eventually found it at a car-boot fair that my parents had dragged me along to. There was a
man with a box of records that I flipped through and there it was – it was amazing. He wanted 90p for it and I offered him 50. I would have paid £90 if he’d asked me.”
Master of pop
Phil spent quite a while at Capital Radio and ended up working at Capital Gold with Richard Park from 1988 onwards, putting together the programmes on the station until one of the DJs, Roger Scott, moved to Radio 1 and asked Phil to come with him. Johnny Beerling offered Phil the chance to finally work at the BBC, where he looked after programmes like Round Table with Mike Read and Alan Freeman’s Pick Of The Pops. “Round Table was the ultimate show for me to do, as I got every record sent to me by the record companies. I took it over and sped the show up considerably, because I wanted to get more records – it completely fed the habit!”
At Radio 1, Phil came up with the idea of The Chart Quiz: “Basically, taking the week’s Top 20 and making a quiz about it,” and also ran Pop Of The Form, so all the time, Phil’s reputation as a master quiz-question compiler was growing.
“One of my oldest friends is Tony Blackburn,” Phil says. “We go right back to the days of pirate radio. He was on a show called Pop Score, which was introduced by Pete Murray and then Ray Moore took over. Tony was the captain of one team and Terry Wogan the captain of the other. Tony asked me to go along one day and sit in the front row while they recorded two shows. Tony would ask me the answers to the questions, but then Terry Wogan realised what Tony was doing and kicked off and said, “Right, if he’s going to sit close to Tony during this show, he’ll sit close to me during the next’. This went on for more recordings until the producer Richard Wilcox came out, picked me up by the scruff of the neck and threw me out! I shouted after him, ‘Don’t worry mate, I’ll have your job one day!’ And sure enough, two years later, he rang me – we’d made up by this point – and said he was really busy and could I help out writing Pop Score, which I think Ken Bruce took over at that point. It was like a big Archers fan being asked to write the script – I was made up. I did it with Ken for a long time.”
Phil then moved into the world of TV and worked for Channel 4 on Pop The Question, before returning to the BBC to help produce That’s Showbusiness. “Then Ken was given the slot he does now on Radio 2 and they were looking to revamp it. We went out for lunch and came up with Pop Master.” This daytime quiz has become huge in households and offices around the country. “Now I have a couple of helpers on it, as in the end, I just couldn’t do it on my own. It’s 20 questions a day with six music clips. I’ve been doing it for about 20 years now and we’ve written more than 90,000 questions with over 5,000 contestants.”
From collector to quiz expert, then, but the shadow of that collection still looms and the record shops still beckon. “I still enjoy listening to new music and I still go to record shops and still find things that I want. I guess I always will.”
Phil will be appearing at Popmaster Live on 22 April at etc.venues, Bishopsgate in London. He’ll be supplying some of the questions, but don’t expect to see him on anyone’s team…