Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The saddest I've ever felt in a record shop

I bought this today in the closing down sale at the big HMV near Oxford Circus. It's the saddest I've ever felt in a record shop. They were literally taking the place apart as I was shopping.

In the basement the Classical department is long gone, absorbed into the jazz department, which in itself doesn’t seem as big as it used to be. The shrinking of even these specialist departments means this is structural; if it’s happening with Classical and Jazz you can’t blame the decline of the CD business on The X-Factor.

I passed the rack of Spoken Word recordings and thought, I bet that lot doesn’t resurface in the new store down by Bond Street. I’ve been there and it seems to be aimed at selling records to tourists, which no doubt makes sense.

When I worked at HMV, which is 40 years ago, it made most of its money selling the hits of the day, just as it does today, but it also prided itself on its curatorial role, on the fact that it stocked the records that other record shops had never heard of.

Here there was an International Department long before anyone had come up with the term “world music”. Elsewhere you could get LPs of train noises, stereo test records, EPs of nursery rhymes, Hoffnung at the Oxford Union, BBC sound effects, Count Ossie and The Mystic Revelation of Rastafari pressed on extra-heavy vinyl, military band music from Stalinist dictatorships, the Songs Of The Hump-Backed Whale, records for self-hypnosis and even some that went round at 16 revolutions per minute.

When there was a record business there was always something interesting going on in the margins of the record business. Records that were made because there was a tiny market, records which catered for some special interest group and records which did OK by selling in tiny quantities, worldwide, for ever. Records which came out because somebody somewhere wanted to put out a record with their name on, something they could hold up and say, there, there it is, this is what I did.

The Ferry record above is a classic example of that. There is nothing quite so self-indulgent as Bryan Ferry putting his name on a record of Roxy Music tunes done in the idiom of 1920s jazz. I scoffed as much as anyone when it came out and didn’t take any notice of the odd review that said, actually, this is quite good. It’s taken a few years to find a way into my heart.

Nobody’s going to get behind a record like this. No DJ’s going to shout about it from the rooftops. It won’t produce a hit single. Like so much good music it was thrown a lifeline by Hollywood, when Baz Luhrmann heard it and asked Ferry to provide some music for his soundtrack of the Great Gatsby. "The Jazz Age" hasn’t happened yet and it may not but, even a few years ago, it was just conceivable that a record like that could move out of the margins and temporarily lend its spice to the mainstream.

It happened before for records like The Buena Vista Social Club, Le Mystere De Voix Bulgares and Missa Luba. When I was at HMV people would approach the counter with a piece of paper and a “you won’t have heard of this” look on their face. If you told them they were the fifth person to ask for it that day you’d be spoiling their fun. They needed to feel they were free spirits.

In the end it happened for these records and quite a few others because they were records, briefly precious objects as well as means of delivery, tangible monuments to the self-esteem of the people who made them and bought them. The music on them was made because somebody wanted to make a record, not a recording. Nobody's going to go to that trouble to get something on Spotify. Watching them take down the old HMV today I was more than ever convinced that it will take a lot of the record business with it and maybe the area at the margins is the bit it will take. If there’s nowhere to sell records like that, why would you bother making records like that?


  1. Your piece made me feel sad and nostalgic. I remember HMV when it was in black and white with teenagers tapping their feet to the latest platter in a listening booth. Perhaps we should march around Soho with a coffin, but instead of 'Death of Hippie' we should have written on it 'Death of Pop Music' then we can just get on with the rest of our lives. RIP fun and innocence.

  2. Without my local record shop in Bristol in the 70's and 80's my collection would not include such gems as the aforementioned Count Ossie, the Aggrovators v the Revolutionnaires, the best of Johnny Carson Show and The Temple City Kazoo Orchestra. Who is going to make records like that now? We need to keep the few independent records shops left.


  3. "...tangible monuments to the self-esteem of the people who made them and bought them..."

    In a few short decades there will be no one alive who understands what this means.

  4. That was great. I worked in the record dept. of a WH Smith in the late 70s-early 80s and while it might not have been as groovy as HMV I felt every word you wrote there.

    Back then the kids working there were actually music fans and we had a big Classical section, sold Sound Effects records, even lots of Indie releases.

  5. Very sad affair. I started shopping at this HMV in the 80s, and would get requests from friends (fellow Soutehnders)- to bring back this/that or an imported version of the other. As an avid collector (then) of Eno's EG label, I eventually became something of a trainspotter for the oddities and curiosities in HMV the inventory.. and am sure there were recordings of football commentaries in one section..

  6. Anonymous5:21 pm

    Isn't £7.99 cheaper than 2 for £15?

  7. Can't forget one of your lines on Newsnight -'going into these shops makes you feel ill'.

  8. The end of an era, but music itself is as diverse as ever. The internet brings increased opportunity to self-publish anything you want. Its not going to make you much money, but it makes it lot easier for punters to find this album for instance if all you're interested in is the music not a physical product.

    I guess it was alright if you lived in London, but I was stuck in a provincial town with a tiny record shop (prog-orientated) and Woolworths. I'm not nostalgic for those limited choices.

  9. The Jazz Age Cd is actually good. It was even better played live on Ferry's recent tour.

  10. For me, I'm sad about the loss of browsing. A pleasure in its own right, but also a lovely way to learn and discover. Not just browsing the physical records in all their forms but also browsing the information that they revealed. Now, I can easily learn about the history, personal life and current thoughts of any band and its members, and buy or stream or 'borrow' the complete discography on my phone, and so on. When I think how long it took me to piece together the phenomena that were Talking Heads and Grateful Dead by browsing and hunting (Post-Google, 'searching' actually means 'finding') in record and book shops, I get seriously nostalgic for a journey enjoyed as much as the destinations. I don't think we should go back there, but damn I miss it.

  11. "The Ferry record above is a classic example of that... I scoffed as much as anyone when it came out and didn’t take any notice of the odd review that said, actually, this is quite good. It’s taken a few years to find a way into my heart."

    Word to the wise, Dave. It came out last year.