The Man Who Loves Music

With a name as unpretentious as Les Hodge, it’s hard to imagine the impact he’s had on the music industry. From marketing huge acts like Kate Bush, The Rolling Stones and Queen, to coming up with the name Ticketek, Les has left fingerprints everywhere. Now he is responsible for bringing some of the world’s most beautiful classical music into Australia, and the Southern Highlands is its first port.

We’re meeting at the EOS Music office and warehouse at the back of five acres in Fitzroy Falls. It’s an expansive shed outfitted with shelves of CDs, colourful point-of-sale stands, boxes and a playground of bubble-wrap.

“I’ve loved music since I was a kid,” says Les. “But I didn’t like school. I used to get on the train in my full school uniform and wag so I could read my book, The History of Music.”

“My first job was at Grace Brothers at Bondi Junction in the record department,” says Les. “Reps from major companies like EMI and Festival would come and talk to us about new releases. I was desperate to work in the industry so I used to talk to them and finally managed to get a job in a warehouse at EMI.”

EMI was the biggest music company in the world at the time. The job was to run around the facility, pulling orders from the shelves and packing the boxes for delivery.

After a year and a half, Les was promoted to the Artists & Repertoire division. Soon, he was producing music, including major recordings of Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, Albert Landa, Carl Pini, Donald Smith, operas of Margaret Sutherland, and performer Jeannie Lewis.

“Jeannie Lewis was an artist that I loved,” says Les. With classic psychedelic cover by renowned pop artist, Martin Sharp, Lewis’ first album went on to win the Best Female Vocal Album award at what would now be the ARIAs. “We did three albums together. She filled the State Theatre with her shows.”

It’s not hard to work out how the young Les went from factory floor to music producer. His manner is soft-spoken and warm. He radiates a gentle but irrepressible energy. Whether it is for the soaring euphoria of a Mozart symphony or the delight of being served his favourite mineral water (Badoit), Les is always seeking and indeed finding things of which to be appreciative.

In the early ‘70s, the Australian music climate was pulsing. A plethora of Australian artists were building big international profiles, including the Easy Beats, ACDC, the Bee Gees, and Little River Band.

By the late 1970s, Les was promoted to International Marketing Manager for EMI. He and his wife moved to London to be at the epicentre of the action.

“The Rolling Stones were already big. Mick Jagger was, and still is, the Man. Also Cliff Richards. Then another little band came along called Queen. Queen was a monster success. I used to travel with them on their tour buses.”

It was the young Kate Bush who really impressed him. “She was very modest and focused as an artist. She had a natural flair for art direction. She melded art, music, choreography – the whole package. Her rehearsals were awesome,” says Les.

“We started her European tour in Copenhagen. Wuthering Heights was her first single. At the end of the song there was deathly silence. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Thirty seconds later, the whole place went berserk,” says Les, casting shining eyes to the ceiling. “She was a star!”

After son Simon was born, the family decided to leave the rock-n-roll environment and return to Australia. Les was 33. In 1985, he found himself working for Kerry Packer at Consolidated Press.

“My goal was to rejig BASS – the ‘best available seating service’. I negotiated the rights for the software worldwide, but at the eleventh hour, the copyright owner refused to release the name and logo.

“We had to launch the new system at midnight. I remember sitting in my Park Street office at nine that night and having to come up with a new name. I wanted to use the word ‘ticket’ but also to convey technology.” Ticketek was born.

Les stayed there for three years. The CD revolution came. Les dreamed of distributing music.

“I couldn’t get the albums that I wanted in Australia, so I thought I would do it myself. I had two kids by then, a wife and a mortgage. It was a risk,” says Les.

Sonart began as one shelf in the family’s Killara garage. It grew from $35,000 turnover in the first year to over $5.5 million with staff of 18.

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As a young woman in the family boarding house in Paddington, Les’ mother was raised in a Catholic environment. But her natural mother had been Jewish and had died during the childbirth. The family’s part-Jewish heritage remains much of a mystery that has intrigued Les for years.

“For a long time I’ve wondered why, as a civilisation, people have gone from having lots of deities and gods — like the sun and animals — to notions that there is just one God and that it is to the exclusion of all others. The fact that more people have died in the name of religion than from any other cause in history, I find staggering.”

After many years of collaboration with a transnational team, Les began work on a documentary tracing the origin of monotheism.

Interviews were conducted with the Knesset (Israeli parliament), orthodox Jewish rabbis, and a number of Catholic and Muslim clerics.

“We’d been filming in Italy and throughout Israel. One day we were walking toward the car and my mind went blank – totally. My speech was up and down and then gone.“

The stroke left Les in a Jerusalem hospital for 12 days. After this, he returned to Australia, sold Sonart, and undertook extensive rehabilitation.

“I had to learn how to use a knife and fork again. I couldn’t even remember my address. It was the love and support of my family that got me through.”

Speaking with Les, it’s hard to imagine just how incapacitated he was. The only trace of the stroke is a lingering stammer over the enunciation of a difficult phrase. His mind will find the perfect word from his vast, well-stocked vocabulary, but it may take him a heartbeat to begin articulation and at times his tongue may transpose a syllable.

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The journey to Les’ property is a series of changes. There’s the Range Road split corridor of vaulting pines, then the bushland and dirt roads of Fitzroy Falls before Les’ verdant mini-oasis is revealed. Three jersey cows are at the gate. Beyond the entry is an olive grove plump with fruit, and a large cloud-reflecting dam jutting with water reeds.

The Hodge family discovered the property in 1993 on a weekend stay in the Southern Highlands.

“When we first came here, they were playing The Nun’s Chorus by Strauss. It was my mother’s favourite music,” says Les. “The cottage was totally ruined inside. Wombats lived in it. It hadn’t been inhabited for years. We loved it! We renovated it in keeping with the character of the farm.”

The intention had been to keep the property as a weekender. After the stroke, Les moved in and planned to retire. The plan failed. After two years, Les felt restored and energised to create his original dream.

In 2007, Les and son Simon began classical and world music distribution company, EOS, named after the Greek goddess of dawn. A suite of exclusive international labels and retailers including ABC shops are among their clients.

One of his joys is distributing the HUSH collections. Now up to the 13th in the series, HUSH recordings are used to reduce stress and anxiety for children undergoing painful procedures in hospital.

“At the age of 66, I am doing what I always wanted to do. I’m in the Highlands with a business I love. I get so much satisfaction from what we’re doing, especially the HUSH series because music is another word for love,” says Les.

“Sometimes you can’t find the words you need to say, but you can find them in music.”

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 Published in Highlife, March 2014