Record Store Day Australia (RSDA) falls on Saturday 16th April this year. It’s the third year that I’ve been asked to be an ambassador, something I’m extremely proud of. Ever since I left school in 1979 at the age of 16, I’ve earned my living working in the music industry in one form or another. Physical formats such as records, tapes and CDs are almost part of me; in many ways they define me and who I am. I live in a house that has a whole room devoted to my music collection; rather metro-sexually I refer to this as the “media” room. This curated musical collection tells the story of my life, which hopefully is still a work in progress. Planning and writing about RSDA has got me reminiscing about the first record that I ever bought and about some of my favourite record stores that I’ve visited over the years. The first record that I ever bought was a 7” vinyl single of Son Of My Father by UK band Chicory Tip. I vividly remember budgeting 37 new pence (70 Australian cents) of my birthday money to buy this record from Shakespeare Records, located inside Paragon railway station in my birth city of Hull. The word ‘Paragon ‘ is an interesting choice here as the word means “a person or thing regarded as a perfect example of a particular quality”. The station actually took its name from the street it stands on, Paragon Street, but I still love the way the word is misappropriated.
Back in 1972 there were approximately 39 record stores in Hull city centre serving a population of around 200,000 people. This begs the question why did I choose Shakespeare Records and not Sydney Scarborough, Stardisc, Sheridan’s or one of the large department stores such as Hammonds or Debenhams or any of the other 39 stores? Paragon Station was a fabulous unmodernised Victorian building so much so that it has appeared in numerous feature films and TV shows. One attraction was that Shakespeare Records was a small building, more a pre-fab really, inside another enormous building. Subconsciously it could be the 11 year old me signalling that music and travel would forever be connected in my life.
Originally this record store was called Shakespeare Brothers but in a bid to move with the times in the early 1970’s they dropped the ‘Brothers’ and replaced it with ‘Records’, very hip and groovy. Mid December 1972 and it was a right of passage type day as my Dad drove me to Hull city centre in a tepid blue Vauxhall Viva to make my first ever purchase of what I now know would be many future records. I didn’t know it at the time, but this record is actually a cover of a Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte tune that was released in 1971 under the name Giorgio. The 1972 Chicory Tip version features the very first top ten appearance of a Moog synthesizer in the UK. AIR studio manager Roger Easterby heard the Giorgio original and persuaded Chicory Tip to re-record their version, with additional lyrics added by vocalist Michael Holm, in a weekend. The Chicory Tip version was rush released where it went straight into the top ten and eventually hit number one. AIR’s resident record producer Chris Thomas played the dominating Moog synth part.
Released in February 1972, it took me almost 10 months to get around to purchasing this record. Listening back to this record I can see why I developed my lifelong love and obsession with synth pop. This record has all the DNA of 1980’s synth-pop, such as the synthesizer as the dominant musical instrument, which I came to love a decade later. For an 11-year-old kid from a cultural backwater like Hull, this record demonstrates a musical maturity way beyond my tender years.
This visit to Shakespeare Records set me on a course that would see me visit many record stores all over the world for both business and pleasure. Only 16 years after purchasing my first record I’d left school and was working in the music industry, albeit on the very bottom rung of the ladder. Over the next 36 years I was lucky enough to travel the world many times over and visit record stores in just about every major city that I’ve visited. One of the biggest stores I regularly made visits too was Tower Records at 1 Piccadilly Circus, London. This massive 2,300m2 store opened in 1986 and was their European flagship store. London also had the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road and that was also enormous. These enormo-dome type record stores ushered in the ear of the ‘in-store’ performance or as we called them in the USA music business “the shake and howdy”. If someone had told back then that this behemoth of a record store chain would completely disappear off the face of the planet within a few short years (along with all the other major high street retailers) I would have thought them completely insane.
In these big stores a small stage and PA could be incorporated onto the sales floor allowing for acoustic performances. These performances normally coincided with whatever touring band was in town playing at the local venue. The normal schedule would be an in-store early afternoon, sound check late afternoon and show on the evening; we liked to work our acts hard back then. These in-stores would pay a dividend in terms of record sales, through in some ‘specials’ some free nibbles/barrel of beer and significant sales would follow. In-stores are now a common component in the arsenal of engagement tools of the music retailer.
The sheer scale of some record stores is breath taking, such as Amoeba Music in LA, which is the world largest independent record store spread over 2,230m2 and holding over 100,000 titles. It’s the sheer variety of independent record stores that I love. Some are genre specific, some location specific but all of them love and know music. Some of my favourites, in no particular order, are: –
- Aquarius Records in one of my favorite US cities San Francisco. This store has been a fixture of San Francisco’s music scene since 1970, making it one of the longest-running independent record shops in the United States. The store carries a wide range of stock, but is most famous for its extensive selection of psychedelic, metal, and drone music, as one would expect of a San Fran store.
- Spacehall Records on Zossiener Straße in Berlin, which I first visited in the mid 1980s. You cannot even begin to talk techno or house or dub or any electronic music for that matter without bringing up Berlin’s Spacehall. The beautiful minimalist, modernist design of the store suits its refined, highly stylish musical aesthetic. It’s like a classic 1980’s BMW, stark, functional but never out of style.
- Rough Trade East is the daddy of UK record shops. London’s Rough Trade East, which opened in 2007, may be the younger brother of Rough Trade West, but is also one of the biggest independents in the UK. The store sells predominantly new stock of vinyl and CDs, racked up across a huge 465m2 sales space, and has a handy cafe at the front. Rough Trade is more than just a shop, it’s also one of the most influential labels in the UK, and has put out influential records by The Smiths, The Fall, The Strokes, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian and more. Rough Trade East also plays host to in-store gigs, film screenings, and talks on film, music and literature. This is more than a record store, it’s an institution and I can’t get enough of the place.
- Probe Records, in a city where I lived for over a decade, Liverpool. In a city with such a fine musical pedigree, it takes a lot to stand out and Probe does that. Though it’s moved premises through the years, Liverpool’s Probe Records has been going strong since 1971. Established by legendary Twisted Wheel DJ Roger Eagle and music entrepreneur/producer Geoff Davis, it was more than a record store it, was the epicenter of a movement. Pete Burns of Dead or Alive and Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes to Hollywood have both worked there along with countless other wannabes and rock stars. In the wake of punk, Probe Records became Liverpool’s go-to record shop, attracting clientele from Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lighting Seeds and OMD. The shop launched its own record label Probe Plus in 1981, which has released work by cult Merseyside act Half Man Half Biscuit.
- Good Vibrations, Belfast. The film Good Vibrations named after the legendary Belfast record store of the same name and released last year, was brilliant. It told the story of local music lover Terri Hooley’s attempt to expand his store into a label that would go on to release DJ John Peel’s favorite record Teenage Kicks by The Undertones in 1979. But the film’s popularity also sparked the store back into life. Now in its 13th incarnation, and proclaiming itself as “Belfast’s poorest record shop”, shoppers can still bump into Hooley, now aged 65, working behind the till. Visit it soon as it has a history of going bust very quickly.
- I know I’m very biased but my favorite of favorite record stores is Grimey’s in Nashville. Nashville is a town of institutions and Grimey’s is no exception. It’s a store beloved by the city’s residents, and has a sort of hometown family feel about it. I first Mike ‘Grimey’ Grimes when he played guitar with local rock band Bare Jr. who I was working with at the time. Grimey has an uncanny King Midas knack of turning whatever he touches into cool. When I lived there he took over a run down bar, The Slow Bar, in the very un-trendy East part of town and within a few weeks it became Nashville’s coolest, muso bar and late night hangout. It’s exactly the same with his record store. The store has a vast selection of new music, and next door at their “too” (sic) store they have an abundance of “pre-loved” music. They supply their consumers with all formats including CD, vinyl and cassettes. But what really makes them stand out is they do a lot of activities to bring artists into the stores and make them accessible to their patrons. They have many releases and after hour in-stores in ‘The Basement’ located obviously beneath the store. This is a cozy little live music bar to catch a local artist performance while drinking a beer. This is a very special kind of record store that I recommend to anyone that stops in Nashville. This place holds a special place in my heart just because it’s so damn cool. And who knows? Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll visit at the same time as locals like Taylor Swift, Steve Earle, Bobby Bare or Ke$ha.
In my now adopted hometown of the last three years of Melbourne I’m totally spoilt for choice. From recollection there are approximately 87 independent records stores, a number that grows each year, in the metropolitan area alone. There are some fine record stores in this city as there probably are in your city/town/suburb of residence. My suggestion is to go out on an adventure and find the one you like. Find the one that stocks the style and genre of music you like in the part of town that appeals to you. I’ll be out and about but it’s doubtful I’ll physically be able to visit every single independent record store in Melbourne on RSDA on 16th April. If you see me in an independent store around Melbourne on Saturday 16th April come up and say “Hi”, I might even show you what I’ve bought.