Saturday, April 18, 2009

Record Store Day!

Today, April 18th, is Record Store Day. Since we have no local record store - I live in a cultural desert - I won't be celebrating it with a nice vinyl purchase, or even a nice CD purchase, but it did bring to mind the record shops of yesteryear.

I grew up in a small town in England that also had no record store - the closest one was in the next town. I'd save up five weeks "spend" (pocket money) and walk to the next town to buy the latest album. It was usually a bit more complicated than that as the store never actually had any of the ones I wanted, so I used to get them special order. I think the only one I bought that they ought to have in stock was Led Zeppelin IV - and they didn't, as it happens, stock that one either. The girl explained that, since it had been released with no name or band name on the cover, people did not know what it was, and so it hadn't sold. In fact she told me it had hurt the sales of the album everywhere. That's not what Led Zeppelin's publicity machine told me, either then or now, but I'm inclined to believe the record shop girl. Why not?

The last record I special-ordered from the record shop was Eddie and the Hot Rods first single. I went in to pick it up and on getting it home, found it had a bubble on the vinyl that threw off the stylus and made it unplayable. I went back to hand it in for a refund. At the time, I believe, I was wearing a home-made Ramones t-shirt and home-altered drainpipe jeans (it being impossible to buy anything but flares at the time). Sending back that proto-punk record meant that I arrived in London in 1976 still mostly listening to such things as the aforementioned Led Zeppelin IV, having not completely moved over to punk. My life may have been completely different if only I'd kept the record. Instead I became one of that last tranche of hippies and lived the double life of one who secretly went to see the Ramones one day and with half a dozen friends to see Hawkind the next.

Things have changed. Yes, we still live in towns with no record store - not much change there - but "special ordering" means at best downloading an mp3 instantly the fancy takes you, unless it's really obscure, in which case firing off a one-click request to Amazon's associates gets it to arrive at your door in a week. Music was actually hard to come by, growin up. In Yorkshire, where we had bad Radio Caroline reception, there was literally only one radio station that played any music I might want to hear. That being BBC Radio 1, the times that music was played was 10pm to midnight. There were clubs, which played Northern Soul and Motown, and older brothers (mine and girlfriends') who were always happy to fix us up with some Who or Terry Reid or something. And of course, music was limited your house, and probably a designated room of the house, as the smallest unit of music playback was the size of a suitcase, the famous Dansette portable record player. Yeah, Compact Cassettes, but did anyone ever buy an album on a cassette? No. They were limited to geeks who could do mix tapes. (At which point we were told we were killing music. Sound familiar?)

One more record shop reminiscence. The final time I walked to the record shop, I was walking on the sidewalk beside the main road, lanolin-stinking woollen mills and oil-drenched garages on either side of me, when a man came up to me and asked me the way to the next town. Obviously, this being the main road, he knew it already, and equally obviously, I was going there. He started walking beside me. I'd been stalked. I was sixteen and had been walking the route since I was nine or so, but was now too old to walk on my own. I couldn't shake him off - there was nowhere to branch off to, and no residential houses around. He didn't do anything until I was in town, when he physically assaulted me. I ran for it, ending up, of course, in the record shop, where they hid me in the stockroom and gave me reports on his progress ("He's outside...he's gone now...") until it was safe to leave. After that, whenever I needed a vinyl fix I took the bus.

So, support your local record store on Record Store Day, because they might come in unexpectedly handy. Mine did.

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