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going for a song

BooksApril 7, 2019

Every day is record store day

going for a song

Kiwi author Garth Cartwright is on the shortlist for the UK’s prestigious Penderyn Prize – the Booker of music books – and the winner is announced any minute now*. His subject? A history of the British record shop.

I’m often asked, “What inspires you to write books?” I wish I could answer, “Money.” I’d like to be rewarded for my efforts. Instead, they are – pitifully – labours of love. Or, more correctly, the result of odd obsessions. Princes Amongst Men found me traversing the Balkans because I wanted to know more about these people we call “Gypsies”. More Miles Than Money had me riding Greyhound buses due to being haunted by US music (and the places the songs described) ever since I first ever heard Glen Campbell, Tom T. Hall and Freddy Fender as a kid. My New Zealand travel book Sweet As? Well, after writing on foreign lands, I wondered just what Mt Roskill and environs looked like after two decades away. And now to my latest book Going For A Song, a history of the UK record shop written by someone who has spent far too much of their life in music emporiums.

I bought my first 45 from Marbecks in Queens Arcade, near Auckland’s ferry terminal, as a child in the mid-1970s. It was The Monkees’ ‘I’m A Believer’ – the quintessential boy band’s TV show then being repeated as post-school entertainment – and that experience, well, it made a believer out of me. Since then I’ve bought tens of thousands of 45s, LPs, CDs, 78s and cassettes from record shops and stalls across NZ and the wider world. My hunger to own new music has never faded and whenever I return to NZ I hit every record shop still standing. That certain veteran record men – and, predictably, it remains largely a bloke business – I once bought from in the 1980s are still in the trade today reflects, I guess, on both the seductive and obsessive traits record shops foster in staff and clientele.

The author in SuperTone Records, Brixton.

Arriving in London in 1991, the huge number of record shops available – grungy punk squat shops and Jamaican dub shacks that stank of marijuana, Tower Records’ huge three-floor temple in Piccadilly Circus and dance music vendors trading out of little more than walk-in wardrobe space, dusty record recyclers run by miserable misanthropes and elegant jazz emporiums run by gentlemen on a first name basis with B.B. King and Ben Webster – provided an Aladdin’s cave of crate digging and made me the proverbial kid in a candy shop. Records I had only read about in Auckland fell into my hands while my interest in music from non-Anglo lands was fed by African, Latin and Mediterranean shops where cassettes from “back home” were often sold alongside groceries and hair products. It was a moveable feast hindered only by my lack of income – working minimum wage jobs doesn’t leave much for non-essentials.

But records are, to my mind, essential: go without dinner because I’ve found a Bo Diddley 45 on Checker, or a copy of Isaac Hayes’ Black Moses? Hey, cornflakes aren’t so bad for an evening meal.

It was these experiences that would, some 20 years later, inspire me to begin writing a book detailing the rise and fall of the UK record shop. And this task would also prove both seductive and obsessive – years of researching, more than 100 interviews and, for the first time, exploring parts of the UK I’d never considered venturing to before: Sheffield, Birmingham, Preston, Manchester, Blackpool and beyond. At times, as I navigated rural Suffolk or sought out pensioners in London’s outermost suburbs, I felt akin to the likes of John Fahey who once trawled Mississippi looking for ancient blues singers from a bygone era, as I too hunted lost oracles who knew how the pioneering record shops had operated.

“Describe,” I’d insist, “those days when brittle shellac 78s were what introduced American jazz and blues to Britain!”

“Tell me about record shops that served as a combination of youth club, musicians’ hook-up, philosophers’ temple and retail outlet!”

Not only did I learn a lot about the hustle and flow of the music trade, I also got to explore this damp nation I now call ‘home’. Prior to beginning work on Going For A Song I’d traversed Romania more thoroughly than the UK.

So I learnt a lot. About how music, like food, travels well and immigrant communities often set up record shops alongside their restaurants. About how the CD made the record chains – HMV, Virgin, Tower, Our Price – a fortune and allowed for the opening of mega-stores. But, once the supermarkets got in on the act of selling CDs as loss leaders, they kneecapped the chains more effectively than Napster ever did. How the vinyl revival has saved certain veteran stores and allowed for a selection of boutique newbies to open. How the world’s oldest record shop is Spiller’s in Cardiff (established 1894 and still trading to this day). How the world’s most influential record shop was NEMS of Liverpool – managed by one Brian Epstein. Amongst his customers were a group of lads Brian considered “yobs”. They would crowd into NEMS’ listening booths, shouting to the girls behind the counter to “play the other side” (of the 45). Eventually Brian would see the lads’ charms and offer to manage them. His prowess as manager of what was then a very successful emporium is what finally ensured EMI gave The Beatles a record deal.

The most Jewish? Levy’s Of Whitechapel which also ran a record label issuing Yiddish and cantorial 78s. Eventually, the Levy family would hold the Motown franchise in the UK and supply Woolworths with ersatz hits on the Embassy label. Not bad considering Levy’s began as a market stall offering sewing machine repairs.

The most-likely-to-launch-a-billionaire? Virgin, of course, founded by one Richard Branson (who had no interest in music, beyond its profitability).

The punkiest? A tie between London’s Small Wonder and Rough Trade and Belfast’s Good Vibrations – all of which set up eponymous record labels and, in doing so, unleashed upon us Crass, The Undertones, The Smiths, The Cure and many other bands comprising underfed white-boys-with-attitude.

The coolest? Well, Dobell’s attracted every jazz, blues and folk musician and even recorded a badly behaved Bob Dylan in its basement in January 1963.

Going For A Song is a chronicle of all this. And much else. I didn’t realise when I started writing that I’d be reflecting on the rise and fall of the high street – while in Auckland, in January, I got a call from the BBC wanting me to address their listeners on the HMV chain’s stumbling into administration – or how so much pioneering UK urban music (from Smiley Culture’s Cockney Translation to dubstep) was shaped in specific black music shops. It says something about the British that their mix of music fandom and wideboy graft has lead to record shops pioneering plenty of developments across popular music.

That noted, if I’d realised what a huge task researching/writing the damn book would be I’d never have started on it. Writing is an obsessive trait and this tome tested the limits of what I could endure. Still, there’s the chance I might see some reward: Going For A Song is shortlisted for the Penderyn Prize – the Booker of music books. If I win I get to attend a ceremony in Laugharne, the Welsh town where Dylan Thomas now rests. Considering the Welsh bard’s liking for a glass of single malt it’s appropriate that the prize sponsors are a whiskey distillery. And, things being what they are, I wonder if there’s any space in the bone yard for another worn-out writer?

*Bugger. The prize went to folk singer Shirley Collins, for her memoir All in the Downs.

The 2019 Penderyn Prize will be awarded at a ceremony on April 7. Finalists include Coal Black Mornings by Suede singer Brett Anderson, and Beastie Boys Book by Mike D and Ad-Rock.

Going For A Song: A Chronicle Of The UK Record Shop by Garth Cartwright (Flood Gallery Press, $35) is available at Unity Books.

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