SAILING ON RADIO SONGS

Book Review of:

‘GOING FOR A SONG:

A CHRONICLE OF THE UK RECORD SHOP’

by GARTH CARTWRIGHT

(Flood Gallery Publishing, ISBN 978-1-91137-40-46

Softcover. 292 pages)

 

Born in Auckland, New Zealand, Garth Cartwright arrived in the UK in 1991 where he’s been a DJ and music promoter, as well as writing music journalism. His latest book ‘Going For A Song’, is the in-depth history of the rise, fall and rebirth of the UK’s independent record shops,

as Andrew Darlington discovers…

We all have our stories.

The record shop was the product of a time and a technology. There are tales of wax cylinders, but it really began with the big old shellac 78’s, but went into overdrive with the advent of the minigroove 45rpm single, and the twelve-inch LP. By the mid-sixties the industry was fine-tuned from pressing plant through a distribution network to high street shops in every town, promoted through back-up infrastructures of juke-box, radio, TV and the music press, with sales compiled into Top 40 charts generating fanatical followings. Some – like NEMS in Liverpool, were simply part of an ‘Are You Being Served’-style department store, with listening booths where kids hung out to sample the latest sides, and packing a pledge to track down any record on the punter’s behalf. Which sent Brian Epstein scuttling out hunting the Beat-group backing Tony Sheridan on those German records. From niche stores, specialists in Jazz, Folk, or Reggae, which became the haunts of elitist cliques and subcultures, to Woolworths which had cheap-copy Embassy Records recorded by cover-acts, which at one time included Elvis Costello’s father.

We all have our stories. I have mine. Growing up at the outer periphery of East Yorkshire, we haunt ‘Sydney Scarborough’ beneath the Hull City Hall, or Hammonds Record Department. Seeing the gatefold sleeve of ‘Elvis Is Back’ in the ‘Gough & Davy’ store window down Whitefriargate. Cycling back to school with news of the first glimpse of ‘With The Beatles’ in the local shop. Hearing the jingle-jangle play-in to “Mr Tambourine Man” hooded by the listening booth. And the second-hand shops dotted across the city from Spring Bank to ‘John Sheridans’ on Beverley Road, flipping through boxes of trade-in albums or ex-jukebox singles hunting that elusive title. Finding the Warner Bros Grateful Dead “Born Cross-Eyed” single for just 3s/6d. Bootlegs too. There’d been music-pirating since the Bebop days of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, but Dylan’s ‘Great White Wonder’ transfigured it into a parallel culture, enhanced by the enticing sniff of illegality. Manchester shops were busted. There were prosecutions. But they thrived.

Until, with record sales peaking in the 1970s, there were thriving new outlets, from Virgin megastores to Indie shops for discerning rare groove tastemakers. This meticulously-researched book is a labour of love that sails on radio-songs, with archive photos so tactile you can smell them, mapping ‘a collective history, or historical memory’ of shops that trafficked in joy. Then itemising cult shops, with sizzling tales and tasty anecdotes about One Stop, Andys, Rock On, Reckless Records, Dub Vendor, Daddy Kool, Rough Trade… you know the names. The 1976 Kursaal Flyers hit “Little Does She Know” opens ‘I was outside the One Stop’, immediately establishing its terrain. While the Freshies declare “I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Check-Out Desk”, censored to a ‘Certain Megastore’ to satisfy BBC radio-play strictures. We all have our stories.

Home taping never killed music, but mp3s came close. The vinyl revival, bartering physical product for your shelves, continues the Record Shop experience for millennials. Wakefield has ‘Wah Records’. Leeds has ‘Jumbo’. Still.

TALKING TO GARTH CARTWRIGHT

Andrew Darlington: Did you find any Record Shops on your trip to Skegness?

Garth Cartwright: Yes! The Tamla shop – run by a Northern Soul DJ who imports large amounts of old US 45s, so I found some good stuff there. And, yes, fire away, we can do the interview here and now.

AD: That’s great. I think we share a passion for records and record culture, and you’ve discovered a unique aspect of that history which has not – to my knowledge, been previously documented. ‘Going For A Song’ is very obviously a labour of love, was there a key incident that made you decide to write the history of the record shop?

GC: Thanks and correct it’s not been documented before – which made the book a helluva lot of work as I had to dig out all the information and stories seeing there were no books or academic studies or magazines to go to! Key incident? Noticing in 2009 how Soho and surrounding environs was changing from a record shop Mecca to a record shop graveyard. ‘Selectadisc’ and other shops on Berwick Street all closed rapidly, ‘Tower’ got out of their huge Piccadilly Circus store and were crashing in the US, ‘Virgin’ became ‘Zavi’ and quickly shuttered all the chain’s shops, HMV were in retreat… it struck me that the record shop era was over and someone should at least document the great shops that were game-changers in UK music history.

AD: So how long did the project take, from starting the research to completion of the manuscript?

GC: Years and years. I started the research in 2009 and even had an agent who offered a basic outline of book around – I think back then I was imagining more of a coffee-table tome with images and some text – but there were no takers. Thus book was sidelined, though I kept taking notes and thinking about it. In 2015 I was introduced to Chris Marksberry, owner of Flood Gallery Press, and he asked if I had any book ideas. I told him of this one and he ‘got it’ straightaway. Then I had to start the serious research and requesting interviews. This engaged me for the next eighteen months, pretty much full time. More work was done in 2017 as publication got delayed. It really has been never-ending and extremely exhausting. As I say at the end, if I knew what a huge amount of work was involved I never would have started out on ‘Going For A Song’!

AD: What a long strange trip it’s been! You were born in Auckland, New Zealand, was the record shop experience there a similar adolescent rite of passage as it was here?

GC: Sure. Not quite as intense here – we didn’t have specialist shops only selling jazz or reggae or punk or classical. But we did have good record shops with kind and helpful people behind the counter who encouraged my youthful quest for musical knowledge. Back then, pre-internet, I don’t know how I would have developed my interest in country and zydeco and such without their advice.

AD: Which was the first record you actually bought, and from which record shop?

GC: I have a horrible feeling it might have been “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace but I can’t recall where I bought it, and after playing it a dozen or so times quickly grew tired of it so give me a pass on that one. My next purchase was a Monkees EP in a colour picture sleeve that featured “I’m A Believer” – a perfect pop song! The Monkees was being repeated on Kiwi TV and to this eight-year-old it was the best thing I’d ever seen! I begged my dad to get me a Monkees record so he took me to ‘Marbecks’, the oldest established record shop in Auckland. They had deep stock, so they still had Monkees records from the sixties! I was enamoured and still am.

AD: Your earlier books include ‘Miles Davis: The Complete Illustrated History’. So which section of the record shop would you check out first, the Jazz section?

GC: Today? I tend to crate dig for 45s and 78s – I’m a fiend for old jazz, blues, soul, Rock ‘n’ Roll, ska, reggae, pop, country etc. If I’m in a new shop then I will tend to look at what jazz and soul they have first, yes. Unless it’s a rock shop then I look at the punk section!

AD: So when did you actually relocate to the UK, and begin writing here?

GC: 1991. I spent a year in the US then came here as a backpacker and remained as such for the next couple of years, working menial jobs to earn enough to do more travelling. In 1994 I got back from India and decided I had to get serious about journalism again – I’d been a fulltime freelance writer in NZ. It took me a couple of years to get a break but I’ve been living off writing since late 1996 and writing for all the broadsheets, lots of magazines and such.

AD: You’ve identified what you call an ‘underground empire’ of record shop culture through interviews and anecdotes. It must have been a journey of exploration for you too. What were the peak moments of that journey?

GC: Yes the underground empire is a beautiful term for the energies and creativity that exists in the best record shops and I’m pleased I got to recognise and celebrate it. And, yes, I learnt so much over the years – I’d never given much thought to how strongly immigration played a central role in developing UK record shop culture but this came through the more I learnt. You think of how migrants bought restaurant culture to the UK, well they also bought music culture and it enriched us all. As for peaks – hmmm, too many, but getting to interview the likes of Geoff Travis, Martin Mills, Pete Stennett, all of whom put out records I loved as a youth, was an honour. And meeting old school Soho characters like Steve Bernstein and John Jack was a trip! I love to hear of a London that no longer exists and what Soho once was like.

AD: You seem to blame the corporate rise of the Megastore for the demise of the indie record shop, as much as the innovation of the online MP3?

GC: Yes the rise of ‘Our Price’ on every high street certainly wiped out a lot of local record stores – the usual tactic of under-pricing via bulk buying. ‘Virgin’ was a radical chain across the 1970s but by the time I got here it was very dull and engaged in trying to siphon off money that would otherwise be spent in smaller shops. Tower’s main shop in Piccadilly Circus was exceptional so they get a pass.

AD: Do you have a favourite Indie record shop where you’d hang out?

GC: Sure. In Peckham there’s ‘Lorenzo’s Record Shack’, in Camberwell ‘Rat Records’ and Brixton has ‘Super Tone Records’ – a reggae shop that’s been in existence for thirty-five years!

AD: What’s the next book project for you?

GC: I’ve several on my mind, none definite (as I don’t have an agent to filter them!). I regularly return to the Balkans and would like to write on those lands in the twenty-first-century and why they are so beautiful yet terrible. I’d like to do something about London and its musical characters, a book that ranged across the centuries. Maybe a biography of Willy DeVille and one on Rory Gallagher – unsung heroes I believe deserve greater respect. As you can see, I have plenty to carry on with.

AD: Yes, that sounds great. Like I say, we obviously share a passion. The biggest reward for me from Music Journalism has always been the opportunity to meet and interview my heroes. I do very much enjoy your book, and appreciate your generosity in answering my tedious questions. Is there anything we’ve not covered that you really feel should be mentioned?

GC: Your questions are fine and I appreciate you reading the book and thinking about it – sometimes you find interviewers have only read the press release or back of the book… I guess the one question that most people ask which you didn’t is the ‘is there a future for record shops?’ If you want it answered I will. But I don’t mind if we leave this out.

AD: That’s a good one. There has been a recent vinyl revival. There’s a record shop in Wakefield called ‘Wah Records’ which is wonderful. I kind-of gave it six months… but hey, it’s still here and prospering. So perhaps there is a viable market there? I’d like to think so. What’s your take on it…?

GC: I like to think we’ve gone full circle of sorts and are in a situation akin to what Doug Dobell found post-WW2. Back then ‘Smiths’ and ‘Menzies’ dominated the mainstream record trade yet by opening Dobell’s he operated a specialist shop that thrived and attracted all kinds of music lovers. Today’s boutique shops can offer a similar service to Dobell’s – showcasing non-mainstream music you can’t buy in supermarkets or ‘HMV’, putting on events, celebrating both local and further flung artists, encouraging customers to use the shop as a gathering place to meet other like-minded people and share knowledge. It’s a tall order but the best record shops in the twenty-first-century thrive because people who love records love to have somewhere to hang out and meet others who share their enthusiasms. I wish them all well!

 

BY ANDREW DARLINGTON

 

All photos courtesy of
‘GOING FOR A SONG: A CHRONICLE OF THE UK RECORD SHOP’

by Garth Cartwright

(FLOOD GALLERY PUBLISHING) www.thefloodgallery.com

ISBN 978-1-91137-40-46 Softcover. 292 pages

 

 

 

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