Caught by the River

Going for a Song

Ian Preece | 13th June 2018

Ian Preece mulls over Garth Cartwright’s ‘Going for a Song: A Chronicle of the UK Record Shop’,  out now with Flood Gallery Publishing.

Like someone with a disorder, I visited Berwick Street or Neal’s Yard most Monday lunchtimes or evenings – sometimes both – while I was working in central London. That’s 1990 to 2012 – maybe not so much towards the end of the month during the early days, but the best part of 22 years spent sweating at my desk over whether new releases were in stock or not, and whether there’d be any left by the time I got there. Sounds of the Universe, Ambient Soho, Selectadisc, Sister Ray, Reckless Records’ promo box on the counter, occasionally Daddy Kool, Phonica or the Record & Tape Exchange under the tower block by the market – and Rough Trade in Covent Garden, where there was virtually always something great on the shop stereo. I once stood next to Lawrence of Felt in Reckless (but was too shy to say anything). Chances are that at some point I would have been flipping through the racks next to Garth Cartwright, a New Zealand music writer resident in London since 1991, and a vinyl nut who has written Going for a Song, a lovingly detailed and authentically lived-through Chronicle of the UK Record Shop.

The truth is, these days, I get more of a buzz – that tingling feeling/adrenaline jolt of finding something that’s NEW – sitting at my desk at home, perusing new-release emails from the likes of independent distributors Boomkat or Juno, or Honest Jon’s ‘latest 100 arrivals’ – or even labels themselves: Pressure Sounds’ latest dub LP or stash of Jamaican-stamped 45s; Superior Viaduct or Unseen Worlds pressing up some lost 70s underground gem on clear vinyl. Cartwright’s last chapter, ‘Things Fall Apart: Apocalypse Now for Record Retail’ ponders the ‘changing culture’ of record shops: he entertainingly skewers the bland behemoths like Our Price – Virgin’s transformation from cool retailer–label with cushions and headphones selling Faust LPs to, well, Our Price – and traces the story of that Japanese bindweed of the high street, HMV, where, back from the point of extinction a few years ago, you still have to spend ten minutes hacking through DVDs, computer games and mobile-phone accessories before you can actually find a record (and whether you’d find one you’d actually want to buy . . .), laying it all firmly at door of retail chains embracing the supermarketisation of the record store, their deals with major labels choking the supply line to the good stuff by ruthlessly undercutting independents who relied on chart sales to fund those experimental imports. (Check out Graham Jones’s Last Shop Standing, Whatever Happened to Record Shops? from a decade ago for an account of Tesco’s brutality when it came to CDs.) That, and the fact that for kids today it’s all skate films and grime, music and video on the internet, streaming and phones. It’s all gone a bit long tail, and the 7-inch single – new music – doesn’t quite have the impact or concentration it once had given the babble of froth and distraction that is social media.

But, then again, folks once thought that bingo would see off football. And one thing you definitely take from this book is a sense that it has always been thus – record shops have always been opening and closing; retail has always been a precarious business. The likes of Dobell’s, the Kenny Lynch Record Centre and Morrissey’s seat of learning, the Paul Marsh shop in Manchester, may have given way to independents such as Musicland and One Stop, who stocked all the cool imports, but pioneering dance and hip-hop shops – like Groove Records in Soho – live on in Phonica or Rye Wax, and progressive emporiums like Sounds of the Universe or (online) Boomkat. That the chains who elbowed many independents off the high street have now succumbed to boxes being packed for dispatch by Amazon drone from a mega warehouse by the side of the M1 near Milton Keynes is a case of reaping what you sow – all part of the death of the high street, of capitalism eating itself.

What’s beautiful about this book are the scenes Cartwright breathes life into: jazz nuts, whatever their background or race, nodding to a clarinet solo cutting through the fug of tobacco smoke in the old Dobell’s on Charing Cross Road (a shop where ‘artistry and inclusivity served as unacknowledged legislators’); Levy’s of Whitechapel, which morphed from an East End bicycle- and sewing machine- parts market stall to a sort of department-store-sized Honest Jon’s of its day; early HMV assistants handling 78s with white gloves; Viv Stanshall shopping for ‘The Laughing Policeman’ in Imhoff’s Melody Bar; the revolutionary hot-bed that was Chris Wellard’s jazz shop in Deptford – customers in duffel coats and CND badges listening to Ornette Coleman, Goldsmiths students emptying the shop of John Fahey albums, a local Windrush-generation resident seeing the cover of Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder in the shop window and walking straight in and up to the counter to buy a copy.

I love the equitable broad sweep of Cartwright’s take too: Small Wonder (punk and post-punk distributor-cum-label-cum-Walthamstow record shop often subject to police harassment) gets equal billing with the better-known story of Rough Trade and the Cartel; the histories of jazz, folk, blues, ska and reggae shops are given due (if not greater) prominence alongside, you know, The Beatles and the Stones and all that – there’s detailed accounts here of Emil Shalit’s Mr Blue Beat and Lee Gopthal’s Musicland and Muzik City chains, as well as the fundamental role The North End Road Music Store played in educating not only messrs Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr but also the son of the owners, one Brian Epstein. Cartwright doesn’t shy off tackling the intimidating nature of some establishments either: staff at Desmond’s Hip City and the Notting Hill Tape and Record Exchange are administered some of their own medicine. (Anyone who has recently frequented the latter will be laughing. That shop must be surviving on the tourist dollar/yuan alone: nothing rare or interesting – everything overpriced. Far better to head north to Alan’s in East Finchley: plenty of guitar stuff on vinyl, and a deep jazz stock retailing for around a tenner.)

If there’s one complaint, it’s that Cartwright can’t fit it all in. I hoped that tantalising glimpses of life in my own alma mater, Selectadisc in Nottingham, might bloom into something more substantial (in the way that, say, an account of the heyday of Probe records in Liverpool does). I’d certainly love to read more from Stephanie Pulford, former manager of Tower Records’ folk, country, blues and jazz section in Piccadilly Circus. From her wittily caustic observations of Evan Dando, Mariah Carey and Shabba Ranks at various instore events, there’s a full chapter brewing (if not a book). Ditto the recollections of shopping in These Records in Lambeth from customer Carl Glover.

But these flashes of gleaming thread all add to the rich and varied tapestry. Going for a Song is a great book, more than worthy of the price of an LP. On finishing it I headed straight out to the super-cool newly opened Stranger Than Paradise records in Mare Street Market, Hackney, and bought the new Ryley Walker LP. OK, they didn’t have Abu Obaida Hassan and his Tambour: The Shaigiya Sound of Sudan, the album I was looking for – ‘distributor problem; on order’ – but they did have Ostinato Records’ fine previous release: Sweet as Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa, and I’m already fretting about the future availability of the Steve Lacy and Don Cherry LP I dithered over and should have picked up. Stranger Than Paradise, and Honest Jon’s over the other side of London, are the present day equivalents of Cartwright writing about Dobell’s and Collet’s in the 1950s: ‘In conservative times part of an underground empire for those who railed against what Vladimir Nabokov characterised as his essential loathings: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty and soft music’.


Going for a Song: A Chronicle of the UK Record Shop is out now and available here, priced £12.99.