by Richard King.
Like everyone else the first thing I noticed about Revolver Records was its peculiar entrance. The shop was situated on the scruffy edge of The Triangle, a thoroughfare in a smartish part of Bristol. There was no storefront, any potential customer had to walk up three steps off the street only to be met by a permanently closed door, they then had to turn immediately right and walk up another few steps before eventually continuing down a corridor that was just the right length to be slightly intimidating. The passageway was covered in layers of concert posters, drummer wanted ads, rave flyers, cheap studio pamphlets and all the other detritus of low level, localised, musical entrepreneurship.
At the end of the corridor was a door. I only ever remember it being closed about five times, particularly once, when we were laying new carpet in the hope that it would attract that year’s student intake (it didn’t). The doorway led into a featureless square room in which had been crammed every conceivable genre of music that had ever been pressed onto vinyl. Racks and racks of records were arranged with little sense of chronology. The wooden boxes and display bins occupied every available bit of floor space and just about held the clusters of PVC sleeved album covers that threatened to spill out of them. The ska section was full of second hand Trojan compilations and was located next to a bin full of Captain Beefheart albums, the reggae took up four rows and was bookended by a pretty threadbare selection of country records, mainly low budget Hank Williams and Johnny Cash collections with faded sleeves. In amongst them was every independent record released in Britain, boxes of hip-hop and electro imports on twelve inch and aisles and aisles of second hand albums. There was a token wall of CDs that went largely unnoticed and was certainly unloved. At the end of the room was a counter that could only be accessed from a side door in the corridor, giving the staff who sat or stood behind it that air of impregnable grumpiness which is the sine qua non of any decent record shop anywhere in the world.
I went into Revolver every other day for four years before finally standing behind the counter. Once I was there I was determined never to leave. I had been allowed around to the back of the shop to use the bathroom, one of the most disgusting constructions to ever be associated with the word. It had no light fitting and little discernible plumbing, but it did have a door covered in graffiti. Its felt tip signatories included The Cure. The Pornography-era line up had written their names underneath a spindly attempt at the band’s logo – THE CURE in capitals with a dropped letter C – Lol, Simon, Robert. In different coloured ink next to this was the assertion: ‘LIVERPOOL -THE GODS ARE ON THE MARCH AGAIN.’ Underneath in a distinctive and tightly wrought hand someone had written a rejoinder: ‘unfortunately in the wrong direction’ and had added their signature – John Peel.
Revolver had been the West Country wing of Rough Trade’s Cartel distribution network. When I became a regular at the shop that relationship had come to an end, but there was still an ante room of unsold Cartel stock, the sort of records that would sell for a fortune on EBay today: This Heat originals, On U Sound 10”s and rows and rows of 7” singles. All the detritus left over from The Cartel entranced me. There were enough records to start another shop entirely from the room at the back, added to which were the rows of records hidden from the customer. Leading away from behind the counter was a sort of indeterminate lounging area, it acted as a bike rack, or packing space or after hours cider club or usually all three. Every shelf, sidewall and cupboard brimmed with records. They were records that, being a shop, we should have probably tried selling, but Revolver never worked like that. It was less a retailer and more a ridiculously conducive environment for listening to and arguing about music. It was great. Time stood still, particularly behind the counter, where days would drift by and we would find ourselves still there long into the night unable to leave, the shop lights off, our listening illuminated by the blue lights of the stereo.
A select few customers were allowed access to the hidden caches of vinyl. There was a shelf of original 70s dub LPs kept in a blocked off stairwell that only a mechanic from Montpelier who always turned up in his garage overalls was allowed to see – although the England cricketer Derek Pringle once bought ten of the secret stash of dub albums sight unseen, he just pulled out a handful without thinking twice. Some records were never shown to anyone. There was a wall of jazz that contained some of the rarest records ever released, including over thirty private press Sun Ra LPs with primitive crayon lines on white thick card for sleeves. There were piles of back issues of magazines, rows of cassettes, abandoned styli cartridge displays and never-ending mounds of junk, but most of all there were records, rows and rows of records. We were insulated from the outside world by an endless supply of vinyl.
Revolver had a history. When The Cartel had been thriving in the early eighties Adrian Sherwood would arrive from London in a white van full of reggae. He’d spend the day hanging out in the back room smoking weed with Mark Stewart as the shop’s sound system took a pounding. Daddy G had worked there and taken the samples for the first Massive album from records lined up in the back room, although he disputes it to this day. Jeff Barrett of Heavenly and Caught By The River had managed the shop in its heyday. In between pricing up some electro imports he came across a speed written scrawl advertising a brace of badly recorded 7”singles, the folded A4 sheets of confrontational angst were the earliest example of a Creation Records marketing strategy.
I was aware of all that history within two or three days of working at Revolver. I was also made aware, as people started buying Blue Note LPs with litre cans of olive oil rather than cash, that I was not spending my days in what might be considered a normal retail environment. For one thing we only took cash or cheque, no plastic, and only provided handwritten receipts. Such idiosyncrasies were incidental in comparison to the chain of events that define Revolver for me. The most dramatic was probably the day the police arrived in full riot gear and held everyone in the shop for over five hours. They had taken up surveillance in a room above a solicitor’s office over the road and launched Operation Record Bag; Bristol’s finest were convinced that the shop was in fact an LSD factory. If only they’d known, it was much stranger than that. There was the day, a few months previously, that the owner had been kidnapped by reggae promoters who thought he’d ripped them off over ticket sales. In the end the kidnapping proved unsuccessful, as they couldn’t get rid of him. He was enjoying hanging out with them too much and besides, no one had really missed him or noticed that he’d gone. Then there was the slightly heavier incident, when some serious looking men in long leather coats arrived asking of we’d had a recent delivery of imports from Jamaica. “Yes. All racked out in the reggae section over there’ I replied. ‘No Mate, a delivery’ I cleared my throat and pointed at the bin full of Studio One represses with off centred labels and reversed corn flakes packet sleeves that had come in straight from the source. They stared me down, shuffled their feet and walked out. What I didn’t know was there had been an envelope stashed tightly in between the vinyl of the delivery, none of us had noticed but the envelope came in handy when the landlord appeared asking for his rent arrears. A crisp pile of dollar bills changed hands a few days later.
Record shops are different places today. They are busy places in a busy world, multitasking their way through the hire wire act of selling music, headphones and books in competition with the Internet. Revolver was one-dimensional it was a record shop selling, or at least thinking about selling, excellent records. People kept coming back for more; we didn’t have to do anything apart from open the door in the morning. But if you’re having too much fun to notice that time has started to stand still, the chances are everyone else is thinking about moving on.
Richard’s book, How Soon Is Now: The Madmen and Mavericks Who Made Independent Music 1975-2005, is out now. Copies can be bought from the Caught by the River shop, priced £13.99
Richard will be appearing at the forthcoming Caught by the River events on London’s Southbank, The Dinefwr Literature Festival and Port Eliot.