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…)