Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Record shop memoirs, part two

As anyone who’s ever worked in a shop probably appreciates, regular customers tend to earn themselves handy nicknames.  Not that they have a clue what these monikers are themselves.  These useful identification and reference labels are an important secret, closely guarded by the knowing assistants on the other side of the counter.  So I was one of those knowing assistants in an independent record shop from '83 to '87; it was a long time ago and sadly I can’t recall many names now, but... let me think… well, there was Worzel Gummidge… and Bog Monster… and Tiger Man…and the Fraggles… and plenty of other less imaginative tags too - and we knew who we were talking about, even if they didn’t.

Other regulars, however, actively introduced themselves in the way they wanted to be addressed. For example, there was ‘Neil the Mod’.  The ‘Mod’ part of his name was emphatic.  I don’t think we ever knew his surname –  I mean, when we reserved, say, the latest 2 Tone release for him, it was just ‘Neil the Mod’ that we wrote as his name on the order slip.  As instructed by him.  He was never seen wearing anything but full (‘80s) mod regalia, such as his parka (with target), pork pie hat, sta-prest trousers, etc.   

I remember the first few times he came in - he must only have been in his early teens and he was just a little too exuberant.  If there had been such a thing as ‘The X Factor’ or ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ back then, you might have thought you’d accidentally walked into an audition on any occasion that he was in the shop.  Before you had time to say ‘Green Onions’ he’d be singing to you.  Mind you, that was nothing new when you worked in a record store.  People frequently came in and said, “There’s this single I want, and I can’t remember what it’s called, or who it’s by, but it goes a bit like this…” and then self-consciously proceeded to ‘da-de-da’ a few bars with maybe the odd memorable word thrown in (something really useful like 'love' or 'baby'- not much narrowing down to be done there, then).  But these were quietly sung by the enquirer at close range, and only after checking that the shop was devoid of other customers and possible eavesdroppers.  Conversely, Neil the Mod actually wanted everybody to hear him.  He sang at full volume and even threw in a few dance moves too.  It was as if he had no embarrassment filter; the more attention he could get, the better.  At first this was a little tiresome but, I suppose, at least we knew we were in for a bit of free entertainment when he was around. 

However, over time he calmed down as he grew from a rather over-enthusiastic teenager into a more focused young man.  It was then I realised that his career as some kind of performer had been inevitable; he started to get entertainment work at holiday camps and local events, and in a way he’d been practising his art on us in the shop.  Maybe it was really quite a privilege to witness his early forays into singing publicly.  A few years after I’d left my job there I bumped into him (and his guitar) in town where he’d apparently been doing a bit of busking between seasonal leisure resort bookings.  He'd ditched the full Quadrophenia gear in favour of a more subdued retro look.  We had a bit of a chat before he said “So what song is it gonna be – fancy a bit of Beatles?”  Then, right in the middle of a busy retail centre full of Saturday shoppers he launched boldly, and perfectly, into ‘Everybody’s Trying To Be My Baby’, the Carl Perkins number, as performed by the early Fabs.  If you’re familiar with this you’ll know there is no handy guitar intro, no time to take breath nor get in tune with a few chords at the start….  It's just the vocal that kicks it off.



Then in came his vibrant, strumming guitar.  His performance was strong, captivating, pitch-perfect and LOUD.  The shoppers all stopped to watch, their worn-down faces lighting up with admiring smiles, feet tapping in time.   You just couldn’t fail to be both impressed and uplifted.

(Pork pie) hats off to Neil the Mod.  I hope he's doing well, wherever he is now, and I hope he's still singing.

(Btw I dread to think what nicknames have been thought up for me over the years by smirking shop assistants.  Best not to go there…)

28 comments:

  1. I'd forgotten how good those early Beatles tracks are ! Mind you I'd also forgotten the sheer thrill, the frisson of ordering the latest 45 from the record shop, I miss that ! And now I dread to think what they called me when I went in (almost every day....) but I bet it wasn't a sobriquet I'd have chosen for myself, its not part of the service you get from Amazon....

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    1. I know exactly what you mean about that thrill! And behind the scenes the best moments were when the deliveries arrived, unpacking those boxes of vinyl and examining the goodies inside (as long as they were the indie ones, usually!) then pulling something interesting out to give it a first spin. And I'm sure any name you may have been given would've been nothing but highly complimentary

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  2. You'll appreciate this, I was walking down Rhuddlan High Street yesterday and was stopped in my tracks by a poster in a shop window. It was advertising a Northern Soul night in Wigan!!! I looked all over the poster but it actually seems to be current, I thought I'd gone through one of those Donnie Darko wormholes back to the 80's for a second ;o)

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    1. ...At the Wigan Casino?!
      It's funny really how things are now retro-retro-retro, if you see what I mean. But proof perhaps of how good they must have been in the first place!

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  3. Great post.

    Judging by some forums Neil has a lot of relatives still into his bag judging by the amount of others with "The Mod" as a surname.

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    1. Thanks v much, Monkey. I can imagine that about certain forum contributors all still being, erm, 'related' in that way. Whatever happened to originality..?

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  4. During those years I was harassing the clerks and college kids at Vinyl Fever. Me and my buddy were making nuisances of ourselve's there before we were teenagers. Lord only knows what they called us.

    One of the things I love about the movie Salt Lake City Punk is that those were the kids we stayed under the feet of back then. They had Southern accents of course but they wore the same kit and came from the same cliques.

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    1. I'm sure the Vinyl Fever folks must've had very affectionate names for you and your buddy, they probably enjoyed knowing they were helping nurture the musical tastes of ones so young!
      I confess I don't know the film at all but now I think I should check it out - thanks.

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  5. I didn't realize how you g I was until I ran the timeline. We left Tallahassee in 86 when I was 13. By that time I was was well established as a pest in that place. I can still remember a lanky curly haired clerk that would take me through the bins and make suggestions. He was big on Fad Gadget I remember.

    Girls would come in and talk about going to Atlanta and seeing the The Cure or whatever...Quadpus, the Close To Me ep was the first record I ever bought with my own money.

    Ha...wonder why?

    The movie's pretty cool...the narrator can take some getting used to but, it's worth it.

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    1. Oh that's funny: "well established as a pest.."! I think we had a few young 'pests' too but it wouldn't have been the same without them (she says now). And it was around the same time, but I've, ahem, a few years on you. Oh yes, the days of Fad Gadget and Cure fans and... pests!

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  6. I love rush of fresh vinyl! I'd like to think my nickname is 'that goofy chick with the supermodel body' but probably is more like Jo Ann Kelly's taller sister or something. (trumpet squawk sound effect here)

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    1. Yes, CDs don't have that evocative smell, do they...? I think I'm making everyone paranoid about their possible nicknames now. I like your 'goofy chick with supermodel body' one though! I'm sure, if there is one at all, it would be very cool and respectful!

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  7. When I first ventured into record shops the assistants always seemed to be middle-aged (actually probably in their late twenties/early thirties) blokes with pony tails who would make sarcastic remarks about whatever you were buying. As I was always after the latest Slade or Gary Glitter single I used to feel a bit self-conscious. But I remember saving up and going to get the Ziggy Stardust LP and as I went up to pay for it, a group of ‘heads’ browsing the progressive section said to me “hey man, cool choice!” - and I felt I had the seal of approval at last!

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    1. That's interesting - your early experiences sound like the opposite of the 'Hi Fidelity' scenario, i.e. you had older assistants being sarcastic about younger customers' purchases, instead of the other way around which I how I always think of record shops and is what makes me paranoid about going into one now! Love your Ziggy Stardust initiation into the world of cool. And 'heads'??!! Oh wow, that's a word I've not heard in ages..!

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    2. I do of course mean "High Fidelity"...

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    3. You;ve reminded me that we had two record shops in town - one staffed by mainly women in their 50s (and one bloke who seemed to be in charge of the 'serious' music), the other by a guy who looked like Shaggy from Scooby Doo - whilst the latter could get all the best stuff in without you having to order it the latter had the advantage that they didnt know what they were selling when it came to the more valuable vinyl - I think it was there that I got an original pressing of 'Their Satanic Majesty's' from under the dust at the back of the shop. Bowie figured heavily there too in my memories - my mates all got banned for nicking copies of every Bowie album in the shop....

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    4. "having to order it" - Gosh, I'd totally forgotten about that: you'd ask for the latest this-that-or-the-other, they didn't have it but they'd order it for next week. How exciting was that?! (not being sarcastic). Continuing the Bowie theme I think the first disc I actually 'ordered' was 'John, I'm Only Dancing'....

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    5. Ah, yes "having to order it"! Well from my position behind the counter it was a pleasure to source said item, perhaps from the large and heavy 'Tracks' catalogue (the musical equivalent of the Encyclopaedia Britannica), and know that in a week's time or whatever you'd make that customer's day when they came in to collect it having anticipated its eventual arrival so excitedly. I liked that. Everyone's a winner!

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  8. Much like 'A', I was also made to feel uncomfortable by comments made from behind a record shop counter. As an 12 year old in search of the new T.Rex single, I didn't quite know how to react when the entire staff started calling to each other for the new 'T-Rash' single - then collapsing into heaps of laughter at my expense. Clearly this was cutting edge record shop humour in 1972! I ran from the shop without the record.

    My Dad worked behind a counter for most of his life, so knew a thing or two about customer service, and was horrified to hear of my humiliation and, like any good Dad would, phoned the shop and demanded an apology. Unfortunately he then marched me back to the shop with him to receive the apology in person and buy the record I originally went in for. Needless to say there was much clenched teeth muttering from the staff, but I got the single and never darkened their doors again.

    That experience stayed with me in all my own subsequent years behind a counter. Oh yes there were nicknames for certain customers - some of them probably libelous - and humour at their expense - it was often the only way to get through a day, but it was all kept well away from the counter.

    I never forgot the young boy walking nervously into P&J Records in Walthamstow High Street back in 1972, with pocket money in his sweaty palm, just wanting to buy 2½ minutes of magic in the form of a 7" single. Little moments like that mean a lot.

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    1. Ah, that's quite a story, and very poignant. Good for your Dad! It's awful that anyone should be made to feel silly or humiliated when going into any shop, and I'm getting the impression that certainly in the years before I worked in one myself there was a sort of condescending/judgemental attitude prevalent amongst older staff in those places.
      From a shop assistant's later perspective, at least, as you say, the nicknames were kept v private - and really did just help to lighten the day, they were rarely that cruel. And most customers were great; several became friends. Some however were, sadly, obnoxious! The good ones absolutely made my day, the nasty ones could break it. But I hope nobody could ever say the latter about the staff!!
      Have you read Giles Smith's 'Lost In Music'? There are some interesting references to an independent, regional record shop that you may relate to as well.

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    2. 'The good ones absolutely made my day, the nasty ones could break it' I couldn't have put it better myself C!

      I don't know about you, but having served time behind a counter, I seem to be a lot more patient with shop assistants than those who haven't.....having said that, if they're texting or tweeting when they should be serving it does kinda make my blood boil!!

      Yes I read Lost in Music a few years back - it certainly rings a few bells!

      I really enjoyed part 2 of your record shop memoirs - I hope there'll be further installments in the future.

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    3. Ah yes I'm the same, I can't help but remember what it's like being behind the counter all day and can empathise. Thanks so much for comment, I'll be rooting around in my memory banks for other experiences that might end up as future posts. Would like to read more of yours too on UOTS!

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    4. I love these stories about Slade and TRex irritating the old hippies or whatever.

      Crap like that is why we never went to the mall or the Record Bar. Places smelled like chapoole and they were always blarring Led Zepplin.

      "I don't want a Jim Morrison poster...I want you to bathe."

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    5. Oh no, I don't actually know what chapoole is but I'm imagining it all too well!

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  9. "I don't want a Jim Morrison Poster... I want you to bathe" I love that quote!

    All of this is making me envious... I would have loved a cool record store or even a patchouli smelling one full of condescending Prog Rock Dinosaurs back in my youth. Like many here my first pocket money purchase was a Bowie single - "Sound & Vision", and that was from Woolworths! Back in the 70's in North Wales I don't even think most of Woolies staff realised they had a tiny record counter and the only real record store was miles away in Chester, a place I wouldn't be allowed to go without adult supervison for quite a few years yet!

    Back then Wales was cut off from the rest of the world, Holiday makers seemed to find their way in (inexplicably heading for Rhyl, a place the rest of us headed away from at great speed) but we were rarely allowed out. So unless you loved Male Voice Choirs and colliery Brass Bands, music seemed literally "foreign". Bless the Manics for changing all that ;o)

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    1. That's interesting, Yve, and it's quite strange to think it was so different, not all that long ago really. I've been reminiscing with others of a similar vintage too, about how you could find records in other (unlikely) shops - boxes of obscure albums in the corner of your local grocery store or a rack of singles in the electrical shop, etc. Our local branch of Martins had a whole section of the shop devoted to records, as did Boots. Oh how times have changed...but we probably don't really miss those surly, condescending old staff that get a mention here!

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  10. As always I am loving your blog posts!!!

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    1. Aww, thanks so much! Very honoured :-)

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