Friday, 11 March 2011

Lament for a 1970s Record Shop

Twenty years ago they were an important part of our culture and community with over 2000 of them to be found on High Streets up and down the country. Today new technology and changing consumer habits have made them a rarity with another one closing every week. I’m talking about independent record shops of which, according to a recent book by Graham Jones, there are now less than 300 remaining.

To anyone for whom Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity strikes a chord this is a sorry statistic. Much of my youth was spent in these places rummaging through racks of alphabetically arranged and beautifully packaged vinyl, donning headphones to listen to some obscure American garage band while anticipating the thrill of getting it home, dropping it on the turntable and whacking up the volume.

There are many long vanished favourites I could mention, recalling in obsessive detail which classic single or groundbreaking album I first discovered in each but there’s one in particular I want to discuss both for the fond memories it inspires for being the first of its kind I fell in love with and because the more I think about it the more surprising it seems that it ever existed at all.

The first surprise is its location. Porthill View is a terraced street well outside the town centre which in the 1970s was dotted with barber’s shops, butchers and newsagents. Further along an eternally optimistic aunt sold wool from a drab establishment that was always teetering on the edge of going bust until one day it did. There may even have been a pet shop. Some of these businesses survive today but not the one where I spent my pocket money. Curiously winter evenings feature in the bulk of these memories. Headlights piercing the  after-school gloom, the glow from the window illuminating wet paving stones and reflected in frozen puddles, as though the sun never shines on Porthill View. Which of course it did and does.

Leaning my bike against the wall I push open the door and step into the familiar warmth where I discover the second surprise. Instead of finding a young man, long hair swaying back and forth as he nods along to Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin, a silver haired old lady slowly makes her way out of the back and takes her position behind the counter. The lads at school call her Mrs Sharples but I’m not convinced this is her name. Above her head album sleeves it’s difficult to imagine her being familiar with are pinned to the wall - Ziggy Stardust, Dark Side of the Moon, Transformer. Next to the tiered record racks stands a revolving cassette display that squeaks as it turns.

Most of the time I’m alone in the shop and exchange no more than a polite smile with the old lady but on other occasions gangs of older kids, trailing a cloud of patchouli and cigarette smoke, descend noisily on the premises. The boys are wrapped in Afghan Coats and fading denim while the infinitely better dressed girls flaunt sprayed on bell-bottoms, polo-necks and orange cork platform sling-backs. On these occasions, like a benign bird of prey, the old lady’s eyes follow every move the intruders make as they rummage through boxes of ex-chart 45s with a disinterest I don’t yet understand.  Naturally they ignore me and I don’t say a word.

On the day the new chart is announced on the Radio 1 lunchtime show I watch the old lady arranging the top twenty display on a notice board with tiny holes into which she presses molded plastic letters. Sometimes they don’t fit properly or there are characters missing. It takes her a long time. Although the suppliers  provide ready printed versions these days she prefers to do it this way. It’s what my customers  expect she says.

Tiger Feet, Rubber Bullets, Teenage Rampage - Bohemian Rhapsody, 48 Crash, Waterloo.  These are just a few of the hits that make it onto the board. One day I ask for Substitute which has been re-released and made the charts. She shows me something that looks like an LP explaining it’s one of these new 12” singles and I should play it at 45rpm. It has I’m a Boy and Pictures of Lilly on the B side. It’s the latest fad she tells me slipping it into a plain paper bag.  Next come the Beatles and the Kinks and a profound regret for having missed out on the 60s, which a bookish neighbour tells me  were  laden with so much more substance than the grey and empty 70s, but things are about to change.

Discovering Dr Feelgood I begin to outgrow the adolescent exclusivity I share with the shop and embark on simultaneous relationships with cooler, hipper outlets where I’m introduced to similar disaffected bands who like to play fast and loud. When the Sex Pistols release God Save the Queen I notice the old lady leaves the chart position blank. There’s no number two during Jubilee week, no molded plastic to upset the establishment and spoil the party. Later she negotiates her distaste for Never Mind the Bollocks by covering the offending word with a topical hand written sticker saying BUS STRIKE. This is the last memory I have of the place and it still makes me smile.

I don’t know what happened to the old lady or her shop after this but one day it just wasn't there anymore. Did I miss it? I’m not sure. As I’ve said I’d already moved on but I miss it now. I miss the way places like this became the focus of so many teenage lives and I’m sorry that so few remain. There’s no future Johnny sneered but he was wrong. It’s just that records you can’t hold in your hand are a development we could never have foreseen.

Surprisingly vinyl enjoyed the biggest growth rate of any music format last year. Enthusiasts and the curious alike should visit Rubber Soul Records in Stoke Town.  A twenty first century Independent Record Shop.

Jones, Graham. Last Shop Standing (Whatever Happened to Record Shops) 2009

1 comment:

  1. There were record shops everywhere in the 70's - including one in Hartshill! Can anyone recall what that shop was called ?