Original Rockers By Richard King
Faber & Faber, hardback 356 pages, April 2, 2015
Review by Ben Myers
Nostalgia, so the saying goes, is not what is used to be. Though judging by the growing cultural fondness for all things pre-digital nostalgia is in fine fettle. And isn’t it a natural human conceit anyway to indulge in sights, sound, tastes and scents of one’s formative years – to seek solace in the artefacts of times gone by? It’s just possible that nostalgia can be a celebration without ever once feeling the desire to re-visit them and, similarly, without ever disparaging the modern world. Nostalgia is only poisonous when it forgets that the mind consistently edits, censors and re-shapes memory and instead blindly leaps to the false assumption that things were better then.
There’s certainly a strong nostalgic tone to Richard King’s Original Rockers, a warm account centred around rogue Bristol record shop Revolver, but which frequently spins off on tangents on all manner of related subjects including various musical obscurities, the many graduates of the varied Bristol music scene, the obsessive nature of collecting, and the author’s own life. Here, like a spinning piece of scratched old vinyl, life revolves the shop – around music itself. Original Rockers is not just about the auditory experience of music either, but music as a lifestyle decision, a philosophy, a design for living. And, in some cases, an entire reason to be.
When King admits in the opening paragraphs that “at my most supercilious I considered my refusal to contaminate my record collection with the unconvincing and digitally compressed binary audio of the compact disc a moral victory,” one’s hearts sinks somewhat. We’ve all been cornered at gigs, in pubs and record shops by the equipment bore, the format freak. The trainspotter or the Luddite. King pulls it back though, as he gradually peels away the layers of Revolver, in which he worked in the 1990s, but whose roots run far deeper into Bristol’s recent past. In doing so he captures a golden cultural, commercial and retail period for music, the likes of which are probably never to be repeated.
Revolver is a destination that staff and (some) customers imbue with an almost mystical aura, and Original Rockers packed with insight and meditations on the unique life-changing effects of works by Tapper Zukie, King Tubby, Can, Brian Eno, The Pop Group, Massive Attack, Sarah Records and countless others.
It was to Revolver that people interested in all things alternative and esoteric gravitated, often to be persuaded by staff to re-think their purchases or sometimes to be berated by manager Roger. As well as King himself, previous shop staff also included members of Flying Saucer Attack, The Third Eye Foundation and The Wild Bunch member Daddy G, who worked alongside one Jeff Barrett – who, with Revolver’s support, was about to launch an independent record label called Heavenly Recordings.
Shedding members The Wild Bunch soon morphed into Massive Attack, one of the most important bands of their era. It’s upon hearing Blue Lines for the first time, on a borrowed cassette, while walking through the very streets that inspired much of the album, that King’s writing is particularly vital – here time, place and music coalesce in symbiosis, with the author drawing comparisons between this virgin auditory experience and the work of another Bristolian, artist Richard Long, where landscape, experience and poetry exist in harmony. Heavenly Recordings went on to do quite well too.
There are also plenty of other cameo appearances – Burning Spear, U Roy, Prince Far I and countless other reggae and dub originators pass through the shops in the 70s (“the worse the sleeve looked, the better the record” is one piece of advice offered when buying obscure reggae), while King makes the acquaintance of John Peel and perfectly captures his droll but ultimately shy mannerisms. King recognises in Peel an awkwardness that is a common characteristic amongst fans of indie music, and one that many of us would recognise: only when talking about music did Peel and thousands like him appear comfortable: “Although the shop was often the location and starting point for animated conversation, if the subject ever deviated from music, little was shared or discussed with the same levels of enthusiasm or articulacy…Peel had surrounded himself with such people, people who had taken a decision to devote themselves to the margins.”
A particularly moving section takes in the nascent Young British Artists scene via his flamboyant school friend and East London art gallery owner, the late Joshua Compston (the pair met at an Oxford boarding school; King’s memories of boating on the Thames has definite shades of Charles and Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited) while simultaneously considering Rod Stewart’s early work, and concludes with the pair drinking champagne with Francis Bacon in Soho’s Colony Room. What such meandering chapters have to do with the record shop are initially unclear, yet King skilfully weaves together such narratives with a song or an album – or even the memory of a long lost cassette – that somehow manages to draw these loose memory strands back together.
King’s prose approach is that of fervent fan rather than dry academic, and though many of the artists discussed are clearly already part of the modern alternative musical canon, there are new discoveries here too, such as Virginia Astley’s quintessentially pastoral/ambient classic From Gardens Where We Feel Secure. In shop manager Roger, there is also a character to rival anything Nick Hornby created in High Fidelity – a world into which Original Rockers frequently strays.
So while many of the tropes of the crate-digging world are in place in Revolver’s rich history – snobbery, a near-autistic level for detail, or the occasional realisation that they’re just records – it’s still a tale that any music fan of a certain age will be drawn to. Nostalgic, yes, but when a world is gone forever, nostalgia, more than anything, is what keeps it alive in memory.