How could anyone not love London? The crowded trains, decrepit underground stations, the high costs, and the off-handed attitude of many of its residents.
But a city is what you make of it, and a music fanatic like myself can easily turn into a child in a sweet shop. Gigs every night, of all types, and music stores on all corners. Well, there were in the late 1990s when I arrived in South London, for a new career adventure.
I landed in Croydon, a booming sub-city in what was once part of green Surrey, now just another overcrowded borough of London, in 1998, to work for the local newspaper. It was a characterless place littered with high-rise office blocks, a very busy train station, and the Crystal Palace football team.
To massage all this economic fanaticism, there were a surprising number of record stores. Like Groucho’s in Dundee or One Up in Aberdeen I was drawn to the Daddy of them all, Beano’s, reputedly the biggest in Europe at the time. It was huge. Three independent stores had merged into one, on a humdrum side street, containing three, or was it four, floors of just about everything. They had boxes of old seven inch singles you had to ask to view, divided into genres, the punk and new waves ones being the ones that would have my nimble fingers pawing over.
Beano’s was always busy on Saturdays, but obviously not busy enough as it closed in 2009, due to falling sales. I am absolutely certain a small punk store near the railway line would have gone the same way some time before then. It was owned by a weedy looking chap, who while not appearing like a record store owner, was an incredibly affable gent. He ensured it had excellent stock and they would have bands such as the Moldy Peaches on occasional Saturday afternoons.
Down in Redhill, in Surrey, near the train station, was a store that sold great post-punk records for reasonable prices.
But London proper was where it was at, and there were clumps of stores and markets where you could find everything and anything. Camden or Berwick Street, the miniscule Rough Trade Records in Neal’s Yard and another branch in the west end, several outlets of the Music & Video Exchange in Notting Hill, a reggae-only vinyl store in Finsbury Park (on my first visit in the 1980s), Tower Records in Piccadilly, and what was probably the biggest Virgins and HMVs in the country on Oxford Street. I could have spent a fortune on a day-trip to the centre, and often did. Virgin held regular in-store band shows, with Ultrasound and the Warm Jets (a sort of new wave revival band) being two standouts, while even Rough Trade, in a store that could have held about 20 people before the Fire Service became worried, had decent acts squeezed into a corner. The briefly-feted Spitfire played there in a haze of sweat and loud guitars.
After Porky left, and made a trip around the world, he landed in Suffolk in eastern England. Nothing stands out though there was an Andy’s Records in Bury St Edmunds, and a neat CD store down a seriously obscure backstreet in Ipswich.
And that was that. The flying pig took off to New Zealand.
The first stop was Auckland and this brought me back to the wonders of Real Groovy, the aural equivalent of a giant chocolate shop. Think of a Virgin Megastore with a wooden floor and dust in appropriate places. Add in sections such as New Zealand alternative, an in-house clothing store and in-store bands. A day or two after I arrived, The Shins played there.
At that time, all the main centres, other than Hamilton, had a Real Groovy. However, financial problems closed the Dunedin and Wellington stores and the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011 forced the closure of the one there. In 2005 CD-DVD Stores and Sounds were plentiful as Kiwis indulged in a major passion outside rugby and wine, but alas all these stores, which stocked a range from mainstream to obscure, have virtually all closed down, as has Borders. The famous Records Records in Dunedin which first stocked Flying Nun material, is also sadly no more.
Still, many outlets remain, Slow Boat is now the daddy in Wellington but new ones have popped up over the last 18 months: Rough Peel (which came out of the ashes of Real Groovy), Vanishing Point and Evil Genius which both specialise in vinyl; while Wonderland right out in the sticks survives. There’s still Everyman in Nelson, Real Groovy and Conch in central Auckland, The Rock Shop in Hastings, Vinyl Countdown in New Plymouth and several others dotted around the two islands.
Good on them all, though you have to wonder how they can survive in such an environment, with stores closing on a regular basis. But they do and going back to the future is the key, so says Vinyl Countdown owner Mark Thomas.
“People are obviously really keen to sell and buy vinyl, and because we offer both services and can import almost anything, we’re tapping into a niche market.”