Voltarol - related music

Friday, 9 January 2009

(High) Street life

From my earliest memories of getting together with friends to play records I have enjoyed sharing music with other people, so it seemed only logical that I should start work in a record, hi fi and musical instrument shop when I was just nineteen. I was newly married, had a three month old daughter and took a 20% pay cut from my previous occupation as a stock handler and counter cutter (don’t ask) at Hallmark Cards in Perivale. With hindsight I realise that this was not one of my smartest moves in terms of financial security for my family, but I was desperate to do some kind of job that involved music and no force in the land would have kept me from answering the advertisement in the local paper. I started work at the shop in August 1964 at a wage of £10 per week.

One of my first jobs when I started there was to take down the window display which was advertising the Rolling Stones first LP (the cover of which was title-less, consisting only of a moody profile photo of the group) and replacing it with one promoting the Beatles’ ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, which would be showing the next week at the local cinema. I think the number one single that week was Manfred Mann’s ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy’, which was soon to be replaced by The Honeycombs with ‘Have I the Right?’. The Honeycombs were possibly the first pop act to feature a girl drummer and certainly the first to achieve a number one hit. Manfred Mann, the South African leader of the eponymous group, had previously come to my attention with a personal advertisement in the back pages of Jazz News, offering jazz piano lessons at reasonable rates.

I quickly got into the swing of things and began to learn how to monitor the charts and construct record orders, how to create a ‘master bag’ for a new record, how to file stock numerically and alphabetically and how to use a record catalogue. The shop had two listening booths and two turntables for the benefit of record customers, as well as several functioning ‘quality rigs’ in the hi-fi department. We also had a small selection of acoustic and electric guitars and a selection of accessories appropriate to our three areas of trade – plugs, cables, batteries, styli (both sapphire and diamond), cartridges (crystal, ceramic and magnetic) ‘dust-bugs’, record cleaners and cloths, anti-static mats, paper and polythene inner sleeves for both LPs and singles, guitar strings and straps, sheet music (to order only) and Reel to Reel tapes (the cassette recorder was still a year away in the UK).

The shop had an ‘in depth’ selection of music. There was a large classical section, a wide range of jazz , folk and blues, an international section and a range of spoken word and specialist material (location recordings of steam locomotives, bird song etc. We also had a large selection of Indian music (see Indian summer). Apart from the latter, this was the pattern for all good general record shops then. The money generated by the chart material allowed one to stock material which turned over more slowly but did not date – the absolute opposite of today’s ‘supermarket shelf space’ approach of the average high street record outlet.

It was a great time for me – musically, at any rate - because I suddenly had access to unlimited music. Anything that I wanted to check out was there for me to listen to whilst I was at work. And if it wasn’t, I could order it for stock and still audition it before spending any of my (extremely) limited cash. Thus it was that I discovered the music of Ravi Shankar, Jorge Morel, Baden Powell, Jaques Ibert, Leoš Janáček, William Walton and others too numerous and diverse to mention.

And meanwhile the (now) classic hits kept coming. By the end of 1964 I had participated in the sale of the following number one hits – The Kinks - 'You Really Got Me', Herman's Hermits - 'I'm Into Something Good', Roy Orbison - 'Oh, Pretty Woman', Sandie Shaw - '(There's) Always Something There to Remind Me', The Supremes - 'Baby Love', The Rolling Stones - 'Little Red Rooster' and that year’s Christmas number one - 'I Feel Fine' by The Beatles. I was to support my attempts to make a living as a musician by (mostly) working in record shops on and off for the next twelve years and - apart from some of the people I had to work with, I enjoyed every minute of it, and I certainly wouldn’t have developed as catholic a taste in music without those years. I sometimes day-dream about starting a little record shop again, and then I remember that the internet has sounded the death knell for that kind of shop. Mind you, if it wasn’t for the internet I wouldn’t be doing this…