Vinyl Frontier

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‘The two things that really drew me to vinyl’, runs the caption to a recent New Yorker cartoon of a man showing his friend his hi-fi set up, ‘Were the expense and the inconvenience.’

Despite the sad truth in this, a few years back half a dozen like-minded muso-nerds and I began to get together for an evening of vinyl delight and, I hardly need add, getting trollied. Gawd only knows we’ve had our various problems with valves, turntable belts, pre-amps and subwoofers since that time, but when it all works, slipping a record out of its sleeve and lowering a needle onto it is quite simply the most glorious way to listen to recorded music.

Each month at Vinyl Club, the host picks a record to play, which is listened to ‘blind’ and in silence, at least until the end of side one, when ‘bio breaks’ are allowed (or, as we say in the UK, going for a wazz and another beer). If the music is unfamiliar, guesses are allowed before the record is turned over and the album cover is passed round along with, hopefully, a lovely fat joint.

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The variety of music played has been amazing: From the Velvets to Chic, Boards of Canada to The Streets. True, one member left after a Focus album, never to return, and even I blanched on spotting The Wombles’ difficult second album Remember You’re a Womble on the top of the host’s pile (it turned out to be a beard cover to throw us off the scent). But one thing I’ve learned is that I can happily listen to one album’s-worth of anything. Even reggae. Apart from anything else, it’s 45 mins of dream time, combining the twin pleasures of soft furnishings and a tinnie.

With my turn coming round again soon, I decided to do a mini-crawl of some local vinyl shops to see what I could turn up. Half-life’s eyes lit up when I told him and he decided to tag along to off-load some surplus records and see if he, like some kind of wonky Jesus, could ‘turn music into beer’.

Rat Records, Camberwell

Had it been open, we would have met in The Bear in Camberwell, which has a tremendous array of beer on offer but only after 4pm, like we’ve got better things to do until then. Instead we met in the Old Dispensary up the road, where I was surprised to be introduced by Half-life to my own cousin, Max.

‘Raider, meet Max, my “vinancial advisor”,’ he said, looking pleased with himself at a joke that plainly needed some more work.

‘Yeah, you met him through me, remember?’’ I said.

‘He’s helping me with my vinyl salary pension,’ he continued, ignoring me, and they chuckled happily together.

‘Thanks for having me along for Record Store Day!’ said Cousin Max and proceeded to tell us about his extensive record collection back home in NYC. ‘I have one room you literally cannot get into because of the wax,’ he said, ‘And I only have two rooms!’

Our first port of call was Rat Records, the popular second hand record shop across the road from the Dispensary. Appropriately enough, since we were in Camberwell, the very first record I saw in the racks was the third release by ex-locals and proto-shoegazers, The House of Love. The cover even features the Camberwell Beauty butterfly – by the look of it a treated shot of the large mosaic on the side of Lynn Boxing Club on Wells Way.

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Confusingly (and, somehow, excellently), the first three The House of Love releases were all called The House of Love and they featured the distinctive psychedelic guitar work of Terry Bickers.

‘I shared a flat in Camberwell with Terry for a while,’ I said.

‘Bonkers Bickers?’ said Half-life

‘One time we got fed up with him not doing his washing up and left it on his pillow when he was out.’

‘Jesus. No wonder he had a fucking meltdown.’

‘Actually come to think of it, that was someone else,’ I said. ‘Terry was a lovely bloke.’

‘Is that it?’ said Half-life. ‘Is that your rock ’n’ roll story? “Terry was a lovely bloke”?’

I apologised and pressed on through the racks. Ideally, I was looking to find something from this century, a period somewhat under-represented in the Vinyl Club historical spreadsheet. But this is not always easy, and rarely cheap.

Obviously, a lot more vinyl was made pre-CDs. A million seller in the ’70s would mean a million records. Now a million seller might include a run of just a few thousand ‘vinyls’, as the young ’uns call them (and which actually strikes me as more sensible than ‘records’), and they immediately become rare and expensive.

Rat Records is a ‘pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ type of place, relying on volume and fast turnover. Indeed a sign on the wall proclaims ‘Every Saturday is Record Store Day here’, when at 10.30am they put out everything they’ve been picking up all week from around the country. It’s certainly cheaper than Soho, which is great, but it caters mainly for the older music fan and the dance crowd.

While Max was busying himself with Heavy Rock/Metal and Half-life was hunched over Punk and Indie, I came across an album by another South London lad.

Bowie: Brixton, Bromley, Beckenham
Bowie: Brixton, Bromley, Beckenham

We haven’t had a Bowie album at Vinyls, surprisingly. We should, and surely will, but perhaps for the moment it would still be too raw.

I was transported back to a cold Brixton day in January. The day the news came out that Bowie had died. I’d gone down to Brixton in the morning, met Half-life and Dirty South and stayed all day.

‘There’s a wake party planned for 6pm!’ said someone on Twitter, excitedly. Fuck that, we thought, we’re here already and the party’s started: A once-in-a-lifetime impromptu outpouring of love and respect – a celebration, by people of all ages – for this extraordinary man who touched and inspired so many, on such a personal level.

His death stills ties me in a knot when I think about it, still catches me by surprise. 2016, the year David Bowie died. It scarcely seems credible, even now.

I stared some more at The Thin White Duke.

‘Come on,’ said Half-life, ‘Let’s get you out of here.’

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Brixton, the morning of January 11th, 2016

On the 68 bus to West Norwood, Half-life flipped open his record bag and showed us his wares. Along with some Whitney, a Sinead O’Connor and a No Doubt was a copy of The Beatles’ Rubber Soul.

‘God, they loved a pun, didn’t they?’ I said.

‘Original mono,’ said Cousin Max. ‘There’s 30 of your British Pounds right there. At least.’

‘Blimey. So where’d you get that lot?’ I asked Half-life.

‘The Actress left them at mine,’ he said, referring to one of his ex-girlfriends. ‘Along with her handcuffs and her dignity.’

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Ah, soul

The Book & Record Bar, West Norwood

Yes, it’s got books and yes, it’s got records, but the special thing about The Book and Record Bar – first covered in our West Norwood wander last year – is that it also has booze. So while Cousin Max’s eyes lit up at the vinyl, Half-life and I made a bee-line for the bar.

After hearing several ‘Wonderful!’s and a trademark ‘Oh, my giddy aunt!’ from Cousin Max we joined him at the racks. This was more like it, for my purposes at least: Röyksopp, Aphex Twin, Nick Cave, Hot Chip, PJ Harvey…

‘Ah-ha!’ I said.

‘No thanks,’ said Half-life.

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The Book and Record Bar

‘The stock! So much stock!’ breathed Cousin Max, picking up an original EMI pressing of Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, one of the records to which I had treated the boys of Vinyl Club last year.

‘My uncle used to live on her road in Brockley,’ said Half-life. ‘Said she was crackers. Up all night, wailing at the joanna. He reckons Running up that Hill was written about him having to traipse over to her gaff every night to get her to use the fucking soft pedal, the mad witch.’

‘I take it you’re not a fan,’ I said.

‘Fucking love her.’

Meanwhile, Cousin Max had got talking to the owner, Michael:

‘You see, I’ve got Led Zep four, utterly mint, original Atlantic colours – plum and orange – in the original outer sleeve, but no inner sleeve. Honestly, I’ve been looking for a spare inner sleeve for years. I must have asked in every shop in London and NYC…’

‘Do you know, I think I’ve got one downstairs,’ said Michael, and Cousin Max looked over at us, his bottom lip trembling.

Turnstyle Records, Streatham

From West Norwood we walked up and over Streatham Hill and down Streatham Common to Turnstyle Records on the High Road.

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We wondered if the name Turnstyle is a portmanteau of “turntable” and “stylus”, but it turns out it’s much simpler than that: Owner, Chris, is a Crystal Palace fan and sitting at the front of his shop, in pride of place, is a turnstyle from the original Crystal Palace Park stadium.

‘The Eagles – Their Greatest Bits, ’ I offered, to no acclaim.

Chris’s shop, not far from Streatham’s famous Hideaway Jazz Cafe, majors on jazz but also has a meaty rock section and Cousin Max pointed out an AC/DC album.

‘Another local connection,’ he said. ‘Highway to Hell.’

‘Why, is it about the A23?’ said Half-life.

‘Picture a dark and freezing February night, 1980,’ began Cousin Max, solemnly, ‘A Renault 5 makes its way from a gig in town to a flat in East Dulwich. Number 67, Overhill Road, to be precise. On board, asleep in the passenger seat, is the charismatic singer with AC/DC, Bon Scott.

‘Arriving at his flat, the driver is unable to wake him and so he reclines Bon’s seat, gives him a blanket and leaves him to sleep off the night’s excesses. The next day, wondering where he’d got to, he steps outside to find Bon, now wedged down against the gear stick, dead from a lethal cocktail of booze, hypothermia and a throatful of vomit.’

‘Oh, my giddy aunt,’ I said.

Highway to Hell was the last album he made with AC/DC,’ went on Cousin Max. ‘The very day he died he had been due to start work on the band’s next album, Back in Black, the record that would define the band. That album opens with the tolling of a bell and the title and cover – plain black – was chosen by the band in memory of their lost friend and colleague. The album went 22 times platinum in the US alone and is the second biggest selling album of all time.’

‘Now that’s what I call a story,’ said Half-life, and looked at me: ‘“Terry was a lovely bloke”.’

I’ve never really been into AC/DC but this 1976 interview filmed in Covent Garden is a thing of joy, firstly for Bon Scott’s attire, secondly for some great ’70s London backgrounds and lastly for the comedy run to the pub at the end of the interview. AC/DC, I bloody love ’em, now.

Half-life and Cousin Max approached Chris to talk through the records they had to sell and I waited outside, like the coward I am, to avoid the uncomfortable money talk.

‘How much did you get?’ I asked, when they joined me.

‘Well…’ said Half-life and opened his satchel to show me an Adverts album, the first Monochrome Set LP and the new one by local boys, Fat White Family.

‘I used to play with them in Stockwell,’ he said.

‘Maracas?’ I said.

‘No, it’s true.’

‘I thought you were turning music into beer?’ I said and Half-life shrugged.

‘Got the bug now, innit. Can you lend us a tenner?’

And with that we headed round to the Earl Ferrers where Half-life persuaded the barman to let him use the decks to play some Adverts and celebrated by buying me a pint with my own money.

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