The Retail Experience – Work In A Provincial Record Shop, Late 1979

Preface

Much of what follows is intended to be a snapshot of music retailing in the UK at the end of the 1970s.  In the interests of continuity, and because I have waffled on at some length, certain events from outside of this time frame have been allowed to sneak in.


The Intro

In the hot summer of 1976, in a small market town in eastern England, a little record shop was opened, at the far end of a back street.  Despite being quite compact – about the size of a small clothes boutique – the shop was stocked with thousands of albums, including many that could not be found elsewhere on the high street.  Nor, apparently, in the large London mega stores. 

I asked for a Saturday job but was declined, being only 15.

“All you kids that just sit and whine
You should have been there back in '79
You say we're giving you a real hard time
You boys are really breaking my heart.”

- Tom Robinson; Summer of ‘79

It was the end of a turbulent decade.  Unemployment, interest rates, taxation and inflation were high; industrial relations were appalling.  Manufacturing was down.

In May 1979, Britain elected its first female Prime Minister.  There were only three TV channels, which went off the air after midnight, as did most radio stations.  Some TV programmes were still made in black & white.  Breakfast TV consisted of The Open University, daytime TV featured The Test Card.  Newspapers were still printed in black & white.  Petrol was 79p/gallon (17.5p litre), milk 15p/pint; bread 9p/800g loaf, draught lager 35p/pint; 20 cigarettes 60p. Pubs shut in the afternoon and closed at 10.30 in the evening.  The average weekly wage was £32.  VAT almost doubled to 15%; basic rate income tax dropped to 30%.  Interest rates increased 2% to 14%.  Prescription charges went up from 20p to 45p.  Car tax was £50/year or £18.35 for 4 months.

A serial killer, nicknamed The Yorkshire Ripper by the media, was on the loose.  Irish republican terrorists murdered MP Airey Neave and Lord Mountbatten of Burma.  The USSR invaded Afghanistan, The Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran after 15 years exile.   Rhodesia became Zimbabwe; Egypt and Israel signed an historic peace treaty.

Sid Vicious, Lowell George, Donny Hathaway and Minnie Riperton died.  Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Jamie Cullum and Will Young were born.  John Lennon, Bob Marley, Ian Curtis, Bon Scott and John Bonham were still alive.

In August, the record shop advertised in the local newspaper for a full-time sales assistant.  By then I was 18.  I applied and was accepted. 


Our Favourite Shop

The window display comprised of a mixture of chart, new-release LP and special offer sleeves, with (heavily-discounted) prices written on white card in black chisel-tip marker.  There was a selection of accessories laid out at the foot of the display (LP and singles cases; blank tapes); promotional posters & lists of the latest special offers were taped to the inside of the glass.

The shop aimed to keep practically every available album by all major and many lesser-known artists.  There was everything by The Beatles, including all the available solo albums, compilations and imports.  Everything by Hendrix, The Stones & Dylan.  And Jethro Tull, The Band, Status Quo, Frank Zappa, Van der Graaf Generator, Eagles and Barclay James Harvest.  As well as Gordon Lightfoot, Poco, The Grateful Dead, Barbra Streisand, Gil Scott-Heron, The Ohio Players, Jefferson Airplane/Starship, Amon Duul II; Curved Air, Edgar Broughton, Birth Control, The Pink Fairies, Don Williams, June Tabor, Ashra Temple, Pure Prairie League, Otis Redding, Dory Previn, Planxty and Curtis Mayfield. 

Hundreds of picture sleeve singles were displayed on the walls.  Most of these were independent punk and new-wave records.  There was a small rack of (mainly disco) 12” singles on the counter plus more 7” indie singles piled next to the cash register. 

UK LPs were about £4.99.  Chart albums were discounted by £1.10, unless they appeared on TV Advertised labels such as K-Tel and Arcade – these listed at £5.99 and were discounted by 25p.  Catalogue LPs were reduced by 40p.  Singles were 89p, 12” singles ranged from 99p to £1.99.

New American import LPs were £5.75.  Import 12” singles were £3.49.

Cassettes tended to sell for 20-30p more than the LP counterparts. 

The shop stereo was terrific.  There was a Goldring Lenco turntable with a Shure M44E cartridge; an Alba UA 900 amplifier[1] and Goodmans RB20 loudspeakers.  The deck seemed able to play the most sibilant and difficult records without mis-tracking; the speakers  produced an extraordinarily good sound, despite being on the small side.

[1] A surprisingly good piece of kit.  A real freak of hi-fi nature; the Alba UA 900 could compete with amplifiers that cost far more


New Beginnings

Monday, August 20th, 1979 – my first day at my new job. 

Drums & Wires, the third album by XTC was released.  The first few thousand copies were bundled with a free single (q.v.).  A few weeks later, Making Plans For Nigel was lifted from the album and became their biggest hit.




We Don’t Talk Anymore by Cliff Richard was the number one single. There would normally have been 30 to 50 copies of a no. 1 single kept in stock; but there was no Cliff.  EMI’s distribution depot was on strike; we were turning customers away.  The industrial disputes of the 1970s are now a distant memory; yet at the dying end of the 70s consumers seemed quite prepared to accept the sporadic shortages that had plagued the country since the miners’ strike of 1972.  Meanwhile, EMI’s distribution would remain chaotic (industrial action or not) into the mid-1980s.


The number one album was an uneven collection of soul & disco tracks assembled by WEA.  The Best Disco Album In The World was being advertised on television (q.v.); but not in our TV region.  We weren’t selling that many copies[1]

I was finally working behind the counter of a record store.  I imagined myself as a local celebrity; I wanted to spend the rest of the day playing records but instead I was serving customers, pricing and albums and filing away stock.  Nonetheless, I was in heaven.  University would have to wait.

[1] Years later, many more TV-advertised albums would appear claiming to be The Best (enter musical genre here) Album In The World/Universe/Cosmos, Ever! 



Way Back When

Our store was one of a chain of five shops. Smoking was permitted in the store, on both sides of the counter. Ashtrays were everywhere. 

In 1979, everybody smoked.

In addition to records and cassettes, we stocked a sizeable range of accessories, including plastic & paper sleeves, replacement styli, blank audio and video cassettes and record tokens.  In addition, we kept posters, music books, and badges. 

We kept all The Beatles’ singles and EPs (all were still available in picture sleeves) plus many of the Rolling Stones’ Decca 45s.  For no apparent reason, Questions by The Moody Blues sold frequently as a single.

Albums were filed behind the counter using a numbering system.  Human error meant that albums were on occasion incorrectly numbered and lost, sometimes permanently.  Otherwise, the numbering system provided a fast method of LP retrieval. 

We subscribed to, and relied on, the trade papers Music Week and Record Business.  We also took NME, Sounds and Melody Maker.  In 1979, our shop did not contribute sales figures to the BRMB weekly chart.  As a consequence, record company reps, desperate to hype their latest acts up the charts, seldom called in.  But we received regular visits from album display teams, who would staple album sleeves, posters and cardboard cut-outs over any available wall space, to promote the latest new releases.  

If customers asked nicely, they could listen to an album or single.  Teenagers and students liked nothing more than hanging out in the shop and listening to their favourite records – a practice that was slowly discouraged over the years.   The days of the head shop were numbered. 

Local mobile DJs called in on Friday afternoons to stock up on the new releases and whatever had been featured on Top Of The Pops the night before.  They expected (a) to be able to listen to anything and everything for as long and as loud as they pleased and (b) receive some form of trade discount.  Which was another practice that was phased out.  

Mums & dads as well as kids bought quantities of singles on the weekend.  Watching Top Of The Pops[1] could be a family thing, if only for Father to comment upon the length (or colour) of a performer’s hair.  The programme had a viewing audience approaching 19 million[2].  An appearance on TOTP was a practical guarantee of increased sales.   

The Old Grey Whistle Test[3] was presented by Anne Nightingale.  The programme's best-remembered presenter, Bob Harris,  had resigned in 1978.  Whilst it did not have the viewing figures or clout of TOTP, the programme did much to promote and raise awareness of underground and alternative music.  We could sell several copies of an album following a band’s appearance on OGWT. 

Even considering Top Of The Pops, The Old Grey Whistle Test, the music papers and Radio[4], it was still difficult to explain why certain albums sold and others did not.  For instance, Long John Baldry’s 1979 LP Baldry’s Out was a steady catalogue seller.  We had no idea why; there was no hit single, the LP had not graced the charts.  There were no positive reviews, tour dates nor heavy radio play that we were aware of. 

Home video had not caught on as of 1979.  It was an expensive pastime – VHS machines cost c. £800; a blank 180-minute tape was £20; the first pre-recorded video stocked were £50.  In 2018 values, that’s £4200 for the recorder, £105 for blank tapes and £264 for a pre-recorded film. 

Our first pre-recorded movie stocked was The Stud, starring Joan Collins and Oliver Tobias.  Which, at the time, was considered somewhat raunchy.  This was followed by a video album of The Average White Band's Shine LP.   Not raunchy at all. 

We had a thunderously mechanical cash register – it could not give itemised receipts, we had to total up figures in our heads.  Calculators were frowned upon.  Our phone had a dial; connection to a London number could take 30-40 seconds via the antiquated GPO exchanges.  On Monday and Wednesday mornings, orders were placed by reading out catalogue numbers and quantities to sales departments via telephone.  This arduous task was made easier with strong coffee and cigarettes. 

The oldest record in our store was Live Libel by Pete Atkin and Clive James.  It had never sold a copy; we kept it in the racks as a kind of heirloom.

[1] The UK’s most durable and famous chart-based popular music programme
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2004/nov/29/popandrock.television accessed 2nd January 2018
[3] One of the UK’s few album-based music television programmes
[4] In August 1983, the pirate station Radio Caroline began broadcasting again.  Their playlist was comprised of mainly contemporary and traditional rock. 


On The Day

In 1979, charts were compiled by British Market Research Bureau from the previous week’s sales.  Thus, to maximise sales data, albums and singles were issued, i.e. arrived in-store, on a Monday.  Today, many websites - including Wikipedia – incorrectly quote Fridays as being LP release days.

Pink Floyd’s The Wall entered the albums chart on Sunday 8th December 1979, the charts being unveiled the following Tuesday 10th December.  Thus, the record went on sale on Monday 3rd December 1979.  Wikipedia records that the LP was released on Friday, November 30th, 1979. 

Some quote the release date of Tormato, the ninth album by Yes, to be as early as Friday, 8th September 1978[1].  The LP arrived in store on Monday 2nd October 1978.  However, the LP was being played on the radio a month before its release.  It was often difficult to convince customers that although some records could be heard on the radio, they were not yet on sale.  

Shipments of new release albums were sent to local distribution depots on Fridays.  These were delivered to stores on the following Monday.  Occasionally, due to administrative errors[2], the new release shipments were delivered to stores two days early i.e. on the Saturday - before anyone else had them in stock. 

[1] https://rateyourmusic.com/release/album/yes/tormato/; accessed 17th January 2018
[2]Enticements offered to delivery drivers?  We couldn’t possibly comment


Guilty Pleasure

Home entertainment was not always available free and on-demand.  In 1979, hearing a desired piece of music often required purchasing a record or tape.  Otherwise, one could listen to the radio or watch one of the few music-based TV shows in the hope that they’d play your song.  You could try sending in a request to a radio station, on a postcard.   Perhaps you could borrow/request that particular record from a friend or library.  Or maybe try Dial-A-Disc by calling 160.

You could even ask a friendly shop assistant if they might play a few tracks. 


Records bought on speculation, personal recommendation or on the strength of a favourable review would invariably be afforded plenty of hearings, no matter how awful the album turned out to be.  When money was short, you’d play your new LP record until you jolly well did like it.   Amongst friends, one might even damn a recent purchase with faint praise by asserting that, “There’s a couple of good tracks on it…”

Behind the counter, we could listen to anything - within reason.  We obviously couldn’t play Derek & Clive.  I was dissuaded from playing anything by The Residents - they were considered too weird.  And we had to take turns in making the next audio selection. 

This freedom to pick and choose liberated us from the rigid views imposed by the oh-so trendy music press.  Not to mention favourable bias given to a paid-for record collection. 

We formed our own opinions.  We did not need Julie Burchill & Tony Parsons, Charles Shaar-Murray or Paul Morley[1] to tell us what was acceptable to like or buy. 

It became clear that a large percentage of music raved over by the UK music press was (in my humble opinion) badly written, performed and produced tosh.  The albums listed top right were amongst the NME’s 1979 albums of the year.  In the shop, we had listened to them all.  Which was hardly a pleasant experience[2]

Being able to pick and choose from thousands of albums from any number of genres, free from the haughty ideals of the media’s self-appointed tastemakers, began a musical journey that continues to this day. 

And if any of the albums listed above floats your boat, that’s not a problem.   Dig, and dig deep.  But don’t write off Jackson Browne and Steely Dan because you like New Order and The Cure.  Or vice-versa.

[1] Just a few of the influential and highly-opinionated writers at the New Musical Express in 1979
[2] In 2018, one may listen to any of these albums via streaming services or, for certain titles, YouTube.   Be my guest.  I’ve included the links, top right.



Here And There

The music in our store was racked out into several genres.  Confusingly for some, artists were filed under first names.  Furthermore, many records were filed by association - Peter Hammill solo LPs were filed under Van Der Graaf Generator, John Entwistle’s LPs with The Who.  A soundtrack album by the member(s) of a group (for instance, Mahoney’s Last Stand by Ronnie Lane and Ronnie Wood) would be filed under The Faces. 
 
Got that?

UK Groups & Solos
As opposed to US Groups & Solos.  Canadian bands such as Rush and Bachman Turner Overdrive were filed under US.  European bands such as Focus and PFM were filed under UK.  Jimi Hendrix was filed under UK (don’t ask…)  Unsurprisingly, the US and UK Groups & Solos browsers were the biggest and most popular sections. 
 
Punk/New Wave
Soon to be replaced by Heavy Metal (q.v.).  There were never quite enough punk/New Wave albums to fill out a whole section, so we had little option but to include artists such as Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker & The Rumour and Dave Edmunds.  Father, forgive me.   
 
Country & Western
Our most popular specialist music section.  We received huge shipments of budget country albums from the USA each fortnight.  Many of these had notoriously short playing times (i.e. those on the Gusto and Starday labels).  Typically, such LPs featured 5 songs per side, each one little over 2 minutes.  LPs by Red Sovine, Grandpa Jones and Boxcar Willie were exceptionally popular. 
 
The more discerning country fans paid premium prices for American imports by artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Jimmy Buffet and Terry Allen.  In 1979, artists signed to Columbia and RCA in the US were churning out albums – Bobby Bare, Moe Bandy, Alabama, Janie Fricke and Joe Stampley all released two or even three albums a year.  Records by such artists arrived first as American imports (£6 each), a month or so later as UK releases (£5), and in a year to six months, we’d receive quantities of the same titles as remaindered, or cut-out, American stock.  These sold at between £2 and £3 a copy.  Meanwhile, Don Williams’ records for the ABC label had been carved up into several highly successful TV advertised compilation albums on the K-Tel label. 
 
Soul & Disco
European disco albums such as those by Voyage, Giorgio Moroder and Cerrone were filed alongside black American funk and soul i.e. Earth, Wind & Fire, Chic and Kool & The Gang.  Jazz musicians and singers that had crossed over to soul, such as Roy Ayers, George Duke and Al Jarreau were also filed under Soul & Disco.  Many records in this section had a brief shelf-life, as a lot of hot new soul/disco albums were often 90% filler/10% killer.  Furthermore, many records sold more copies as American imports – being first to own the latest hot album or 12” was especially important amongst the somewhat elitist disco crowd.  Some collectors would not consider buying UK copies.
 
Easy Listening
Much of the easy listening section was devoted to LPs by M.O.R. bandleader James Last[1].  Barry Manilow’s catalogue was selling amazingly well following a successful TV blitz on his Manilow Magic compilation.  The hideous Classic Rock albums by The London Symphony Orchestra were also filed in Easy Listening[2].
 
There were comparatively few albums by Frank Sinatra, Nat Cole or Julie London still in print - the big nostalgia reissue programmes of Capitol, CBS and RCA would not happen until the mid-80s. Many albums in the easy section were tawdry budget label compilations, or TV Advertised records (q.v.), few of which did the artists any justice.  For example, Sinatra’s magnificent Songs For Swinging Lovers album was only available in a ghastly fake stereo reissue.  
 
Folk
Records on independent labels such as Topic, Shanachie, Celtic, Fellside and Transatlantic sold rather well.  The Houghton Weavers, June Tabor, The Chieftains and Nic Jones (q.v.)  were remarkably popular.  All Sandy Denny & Fairport Convention’s Island catalogues were still in print.  In 1979, John Martyn, Nick Drake and even Joni Mitchell were kept in the folk section.  Old habits…
 
Blues / R&B
Our blues section mainly consisted of records major American blues players such as BB King, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. Charly Records and the Swedish Sonet label (re)issued many American albums, typically by Albert King, George Thorogood (q.v.), Roy Buchanan and Champion Jack Dupree.  Cajun and Zydeco music by artists such as by BeauSoleil, Nathan Abshire and Doug Kershaw was filed at the back of our blues section.   
 
Soundtracks
We were often complimented on our selection of film soundtracks and stage shows.  We didn’t employ anyone with an exhaustive knowledge of stage and screen, rather we just stocked virtually every new release and whatever remained on catalogue.  Classic musicals such as South Pacific, The Sound Of Music, Carousel, High Society, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Oklahoma! were regular stock items.  We even had the soundtrack album to the adult movie, Deep Throat.  The recently released double album to Apocalypse Now was a best seller[3]
 
At the time, it was regular practice for movies to be screened in the USA months or years before the UK release date.  Nonetheless, the soundtrack albums would be issued almost concurrently, occasionally even before the US film release date.  Thus, the double LP to Star Wars (the film later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope) was issued in the UK in May 1977.  The film was not shown in the UK until late January 1978.  Certain soundtrack albums sold even though the films had tanked – Urban Cowboy, John Travolta’s follow up to Grease, failed at the box office.  But the double LP soundtrack, containing music by Jimmy Buffett, Eagles and Boz Scaggs, sold surprisingly well. 
 
Comedy
In 1979 home video was still in its infancy.  The best way to re-experience comedy performances was via album or cassette tape.   Our comedy section did great business, especially from records by Tony Hancock, Jasper Carrot, Billy Connolly, Jimmy Jones, Blaster Bates, Gerard Hoffnung, Tom Lehrer, Derek & Clive, Fawlty Towers, The Goons and, of course, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. 
 
Reggae
Thanks in part to extensive marketing by Virgin and Island records, as well as support from radio and the music press, reggae was becoming increasingly popular in the UK.
 
Aside from the many albums by Bob Marley & The Wailers, our reggae section was replete with LPs by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Steel Pulse, Culture, Peter Tosh, The Mighty Diamonds, I-Roy, Culture and U-Roy.  Many reggae albums, however, were produced for the UK and American market.  It was no secret that Island Records supremo Chris Blackwell deliberately tweaked the sound of The Wailers’ Jamaican albums for the UK market.  Furthermore, Peter Tosh’s Legalise It album was remixed from the original Jamaican version to suit European tastes. 
 
Meanwhile, original Jamaican albums were much harder to source - and were considerably more expensive. 
 
Jazz
We had a great jazz section for such a small record store in the heart of East Anglia.  Polygram/Verve were reissuing plenty of LPs from the 50s and 60s, i.e. by Lester Young, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Roy Eldridge.  Polydor had the rights to the Pablo catalogue, including many albums by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Bellson and Joe Pass.  Jasmine were reissuing albums on the Impulse! label. 

There were surprisingly few Miles Davis albums in the CBS catalogue – only favourites such as Kind Of Blue, In A Silent Way, Live Evil, Bitches Brew, Greatest Hits and Sketches Of Spin were available in the UK.  CBS were otherwise marketing crossover/fusion Jazz by the likes of Herbie Hancock, Bob James and Weather Report, whilst WEA were delivering tremendous fusion albums by Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton.  RCA had the rights to the Milestone & Galaxy catalogues, they imported small quantities of recent LPs by Art Pepper, Hank Crawford & Sonny Rollins.  Blue Note were issuing previously unreleased sessions, such as Dexter Gordon’s Clubhouse, Grant Green’s Solid and Bobby Hutcherson’s Spiral.  Atlantic's That's Jazz series, featuring reissues by John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Milt Jackson were still in print.  It was a good time to be getting into Jazz.
 
Second Hand
Thousands of second hand LPs were on sale between 25p to about £2.49.  Any rare and collectible titles bought in were sent over to our collector’s store in Cambridge.  We took in lots of second-hand albums from American servicemen from the local US military bases.  Stacks of original pressings of American rock albums (Dylan, Zappa, Grateful Dead) came into the store, many were sold at, by today’s standards, ridiculously affordable prices. 
 
Special Offers were split into two categories – clearance items, reduced for quick sale and stock bought in as special purchases. 
 
Many current and chart albums were available from Portugal and Greece[4] at bargain prices, although in honesty, these were not of first-class quality.  But German records bought in via the EEC and from Canada were pressed to an exceptional standard and were considerably cheaper.   There was a price war on the high-street, many independent dealers could only keep up with the major chains by buying-in what became known as parallel imports.  The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) managed to stem the supply of records from outside The EEC but were powerless to stop albums from Germany, Belgium, Spain & France. 
 
We didn’t have a classical section until 1983.  There were a couple of very good classical record stores in town.  Occasionally we’d get a customer order for a classical LP or tape.  Usually Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. 

[1] James Last issued c. 200 albums between 1966 and 2008.  Hundreds more compilation albums were created from the music on these LPs.  It was not unusual for Polydor to issue upwards of ten different compilations in any year, many of which only available in certain countries.  Records by James Last are a collector’s nightmare. Or maybe, delight.  
[2] Rock classics such as Life On Mars? Bohemian Rhapsody & A Whiter Shade Of Pale, slaughtered by a 40-piece symphony orchestra and sold on a TV advertised label.  Kill me now. 
[3] The double LP contained a great deal of dialogue from the film.  When the soundtrack was issued on compact disc in 1988, the dialogue had been removed, leaving only the music.  The full version (i.e. music & dialogue) was not issued on CD until 2001.  
[4] Not yet members of the EEC

Forty-Five

Best-selling albums are often peppered with hit singles.  A sizeable percentage of our customers flatly refused to buy 45s, preferring to wait for the LP release – their logic often being that LPs sounded better and represented better value than singles.  Furthermore, many singles were edited from their LP versions.  Before the mass availability of 12” singles, the most complete version of a song was usually found on the LP.


It is worth considering the relevance of chart singles in correlation to the success of chart LPs.  Whereas in the 1960s, it was unusual to feature more than one hit single on a long player, by the end of the seventies three or four album tracks from an album might be issued as 45s.  Record companies realised that the best possible advertisement for any LP was the inclusion of a hit single.  Three hit singles from one LP would practically guarantee triple-platinum status.  At which point, the album should and would continue selling substantial quantities, minus any further promotion.  Triple-platinum status remains the goal of record labels everywhere.

Meanwhile, as discussed elsewhere on this site, the inclusion of several hit singles does not always make for a great LP.   Nonetheless, albums that do not contain a hit single or two will rarely stay in the charts for long.

By the early 1980s, American major record companies were insisting that all singles were included on accompanying albums.  In the UK, bands such as The Jam, The Human League and Madness continued to release non-album singles.  US and Japanese record companies responded by assembling a group’s A & B sides plus assorted rarities (remixes, live tracks) into a new format – the mini album.


For example....




On The Box

In June 1972, Canadian TV marketing company K-Tel leased 20 singles from the EMI and CBS rosters and compiled (crammed!) them on to one album.  The record was advertised on television, it sold for £1.99 – the price of four 7” singles.  20 Dynamic Hits was the first mass-marketed LP to collect chart singles from more than one record label.  The record became the biggest selling UK album from 1972 – it toppled The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street from the number one position and stayed at the top for nearly three months.  The track selection was surprisingly rocky – the LP opened with Argent’s Hold Your Head Up, also included were Deep Purple’s Fireball and Black Night, Santana’s Everybody’s Everything, Sly & The Family Stone’s Family Affair, Redbone’s Witch Queen Of New Orleans, The Move’s Tonight and Blood Sweat & Tears’ Go Down Gambling.



K-Tel followed up with 22 Dynamic Hits Vol. II – by which time, A&M, B&C and Pye records had also agreed to lease tracks to the label.  More TV advertised LPs on other labels appeared - Arcade records issued 20 Fantastic Hits, Ronco released the LP 20 Star Tracks. 

Pre-K-Tel, the only LPs that attempted to collect chart music consisted of hideous re-recordings by struggling session musicians.  Albums such as Hallmark’s Top Of The Pops[1] and Music For Pleasure’s Hot Hits cost c. 50p, sounded dreadful and invariably featured scantily clad models as part of the sleeve design.  It was seldom mentioned on the LP sleeves that the recordings were cover versions and not by the original artists. 

Post 1972, the album charts were littered with 20-track-plus TV advertised compilations.  It didn’t seem to matter that the 30 minutes-plus per side playing time blunted the sound quality.  Few noticed or cared when the songs on such LPs were cut short from the 45 rpm versions.  

In 1976, EMI issued the first of many 20-track sole artist TV advertised albums.  20 Golden Greats by The Beach Boys (catalogued EMTV 1) immediately went to number one; albums by The Hollies, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Shadows, Frank Sinatra and Glen Campbell followed in the series.  Nearly every album in the EMTV series topped the LP charts.   

The UK’s top 50 best-selling albums of 1979 included the TV-advertised various artist compilations Country Life, Action Replay; Don’t Walk – Boogie and The Best Disco Album in the World (q.v.).

Bridges by John Williams; A Collection of Their 20 Greatest Hits by The Three Degrees, String of Hits by The Shadows, 20 Golden Greats by Diana Ross and The Very Best of Leo Sayer also made the top 50; all were advertised heavily on television. 

The TV advertised album changed the way that pop music was marketed in the United Kingdom, and arguably, throughout the world.  The mums & dads that had not bought records since their teen years were now within reach of marketing departments.  Teenagers could now own 20 chart tracks for a fraction of the price of buying them individually.   

In 1983, the major labels (EMI, Virgin, Polygram, WEA and Island) sought to break the dominance of the TV labels such as K-Tel, Warwick and Arcade by launching the Now! That’s What I Call Music series.  These albums compiled on average 40 recent chart singles across a double album and sold for £6.99.  The availability of so many recent chart tracks for such a low price proved irresistible for many. 

The demand for TV advertised albums – especially those by various artists – was entirely driven by the TV campaigns.  Many record stores were left with piles of tawdry LPs and tapes that were impossible to sell once the TV adverts ceased.  However, some of the better-quality artist compilations (such as EMI’s 20 Golden Greats series) often became regular catalogue items.  

[1] No relation - The BBC had neglected to copyright the name of their flagship TV programme

Hot Cookies


In late 1979 Bon Scott, the lead singer of hard rock band AC/DC, was still alive.  Highway To Hell was released in late July.  It would be his last album with the band – he would die from alcoholic poisoning the following February.  The first single from the LP only just slipped into the top 60; meanwhile to date the album has spent 40 weeks in the top 100.  AC/DC were (and remain) an albums band; their LP sales resoundingly unaffected by the singles chart.

In 1978, the Commodores achieved five weeks at number 1 with Three Times A Lady.  In late 1979, their new LP Midnight Magic was selling on the strength of the syrupy ballad Still and the country-tinged[1] Sail On.

In 1978, Dire Straits sold copious quantities of their self-titled debut album and hit single, Sultans Of Swing.  The new LP, Communiqué was well received and sold keenly but some noted that the single, Lady Writer was a bit too much like Sultans.  Communiqué was their difficult second album.   

Formed in 1970, Earth Wind & Fire had become a global success in the latter half of the 70s.  The LP I Am was issued in summer 1979, it was raided for no less than five hit singles and spent 41 weeks on the UK chart.  It is their best-selling and possibly their most fondly-remembered album. 

The Electric Light Orchestra – better known as ELO – had scored four top 20 singles with tracks released from their 1977 double album, Out Of The Blue.  In May 1979, the follow-up LP, Discovery was released; it produced four top ten singles.  The former LP spent over 100 weeks on the chart, the latter more than 40.  Meanwhile, in the United States, their record label (Jet) had switched distribution from United Artists to Columbia/CBS.  Tens of thousands of remaindered American United Artists pressings of Out Of The Blue ended up in the bargain bins.  Whereas UK copies retailed at £8.99, the US remaindered (cut-out) versions went for £2.99.  Both the UK and US arms of Jet Records unsuccessfully tried to halt the sale of the cheap American copies.  Discovery and Out Of The Blue frequently sold as a twin purchase. 

In December 1978 Ian Dury & The Blockheads reached number one with Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. The following August, the single Reasons To Be Cheerful, Part 3 climbed to number three.  Neither single was included on the band’s new LP, Do It Yourself.   The LP reached number two in the charts and spent 19 weeks in the top 100; but did not become a catalogue seller.  The LP contained no singles – none of the songs on the LP were top twenty material.  Do It Yourself was nonetheless an excellent record; artistically it didn’t need the inclusion of the recent singles.  On the other hand, had Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and/or Reasons To Be Cheerful been included on Do It Yourself, the record might have outsold his debut album, New Boots & Panties.  Despite releasing a string of superb albums and singles, Ian Dury & The Blockheads would not trouble the charts again. 

Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps was issued in July 1979; it was the follow-up to his acclaimed album Comes A Time.  The single from the album - Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black) – did not chart.  Rust Never Sleeps sold exceptionally well for an LP that was not being played on the radio, contained no hit single and was not supported by a UK tour.  The record became an instant back-catalogue best-seller.  

Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow had a surprise hit in September 1979 with an atypically commercial reading of Since You’ve Been Gone, a song written and first recorded by Russ Ballard.  In 1978, the song had been covered by the South African group, Clout.  Rainbow’s recording reached number six; the LP Down To Earth crossed over and sold to mainstream buyers.  It became their biggest album and kicked off a string of hit LPs and singles that lasted until the reform of Deep Purple in 1984. 

Ry Cooder’s eighth album, Bop ‘til You Drop, was his first to reach the UK album charts.  This likeable mix of rare and traditional R’n’B songs was perhaps his best album to date.  The record received considerable media attention, not least from being the first digitally recorded popular music album to be released on a major label. 

Supertramp’s 1979 LP Breakfast In America dispensed with the progressive approach of their five previous albums.  The band had relocated to California the year before, unsurprisingly the new LP featured an FM-friendly American west-coast sound.  The album contained two UK top ten singles plus two more turntable hits.  The LP was amongst the top selling albums of the year; their later releases would not repeat its success.

[1] Not many listeners seem aware of the influence of country music on Lionel Ritchie’s song writing.  Listen again to the Commodores’ Easy, Sail On, plus Deep River Woman from Lionel’s Dancing On The Ceiling album


New Wave and Heavy Metal


Despite the upheaval caused by punk rock two years earlier, music in the charts remained safe and mainstream.  The UK’s three best-selling singles in 1979 were by Art Garfunkel (Bright Eyes), Cliff Richard (We Don’t Talk Anymore) and Dr Hook (When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman).  The only real punk singles to reach the year-end top 100 were Hersham Boys by Sham 69 and C’Mon Everybody & Something Else by the Sex Pistols. 
 
Stiff Little Fingers’ debut album, Inflammable Material had reached no. 14 in March and spent 19 weeks on the charts.  In October, U.K. Subs’ Another Kind Of Blues LP reached 21 and had a 6-week chart run.  The Buzzcocks failed to crack the top 20 singles in 1979.  Their third album, A Different Kind Of Tension, spent just one week in the top 40.  The Ramones long-awaited collaboration with Phil Spector, End Of The Century, was a huge disappointment and signalled the end of the band’s glory years.  The Damned’s third (and arguably, best) LP Machine Gun Etiquette stalled at 31 and spent only 5 weeks on the chart, despite containing three hit singles.  And although records by Squeeze, The Jam, Clash, Boomtown Rats, Police Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Blondie and Gary Numan sold in large quantities, these and other similar acts had by now moved beyond punk and New Wave.
 
Punk was not quite dead.  An underground of hard-core anarcho-subversive bands was alive, led partly by The Dead Kennedys in the US and Crass (q.v.) in the UK.  Although punk rock would continue to endure in small venues and on independent labels, it would seldom trouble the charts. 
 
In the early 80s, a knuckle-dragging bone-headed skinhead variant of Punk emerged.  Oi! OI![1] was short on brain cells and long on violence and aggression.  In some quarters (although this was often denied) it was intrinsically linked with working-class right-wing quasi-political factions such as The National Front and The British Movement. One of its chief protagonists was the journalist Garry Bushell of Sounds magazine.  OI! Oi! is a chapter in British music history that is, perhaps, best forgotten. 
 
By the end of 1979 the New Wave browser in our store was removed, replaced by a section devoted to Heavy Metal. 
 
In late 1979, we received requests for several independently released hard rock singles.  The Def Leppard E.P., The Soundhouse Tapes by Iron Maiden, Death & Destiny by Mythra and Shoot Out The Lights by Diamond Head were being played incessantly by Tommy Vance on his Friday Radio 1 rock show.  None of the records were easy to locate, all being privately pressed and distributed.
 
In August 1977, Motörhead’s second album (the first remaining unreleased until late 1979) was released on the Chiswick label, an imprint that was home to many Punk and New Wave acts.  The record was perhaps the first album to be acclaimed by punks and rockers alike.  In March 1979, the band’s Overkill album reached the top 30.  In October 1979, Judas Priest achieved their fourth top 40 album within the space of three years.  Records by Scorpions, Kiss and UFO were shifting in large quantities.  The market for hard rock – now known as Heavy Metal – was becoming enormous. 
 
At first it was necessary to pack out our HM browser with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Rush, Black Sabbath, Meatloaf and even Status Quo, due to the lack of available contemporary Heavy Metal albums.  This situation would soon change, somewhat irrevocably.  Almost 40 years later – love it or hate it - Heavy Metal refuses to budge.  It remains amongst the most popular musical genres.

[1] Oi! Oi! was originally a rallying call by Ian Dury to his fans, affectionately known (as were his band) as Blockheads. As the term was highjacked by the new skinhead movement, Ian Dury quietly dropped the Oi! Oi! call-and-response from his live shows.


Disco


The disco boom of the mid-to-late 70s was still alive and well.  29 of the top 100 UK singles in 1979 were squarely intended for the dancefloor (see below).  All were issued in the 12” disco format. On the strength of the popularity of disco music, many mainstream artists could not resist attempting a dancefloor crossover. 
 
In April, Wings’ Goodnight Tonight reached no. 5 in the UK charts.  In August, Johnny Mathis’ Gone, Gone, Gone peaked at no. 15.  In November, Janis Ian’s Fly Too High went to no. 44.  All of which were unashamedly 4-to-the-floor disco tracks.  All were made available as extended non-album 12” disco mixes. 
 
The 12” single format had been introduced in the USA in the mid-1970s.  The records had the ability to play louder and longer and with more bass than conventional singles.  The new format was initially a promotional tool aimed at DJs, but by 1976 12” singles were on sale to the public on both sides of the Atlantic – albeit in limited quantities.
 
In the UK, record companies typically pressed 10,000 copies of a 12” single.  Once these had sold out, punters wanting the longer dancefloor versions of hit songs could either pay extra for an American copy or buy the corresponding LP.  However, many 12” singles were quite different to the LP versions – the LP mixes of McFadden & Whitehead’s Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, Rolling Stones’ Miss You, Funkadelic’s One Nation Under A Groove, Dan Hartman’s Instant Replay and War’s Galaxy all sounded watered down when compared to their 12” versions. 
 
An elitist fury emerged amongst DJs and disco fans, all desperate to own the increasingly scarce 12” versions of the latest dancefloor must-haves.  Kool & The Gang’s Ladies Night, Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough (q.v.) and The Gibson Brothers’ Cuba all sold out within a few days of release.  The extended 12” copies became DJ status singles.  
 
By the end of 1979, record companies recognised that the 12” format was a necessary sales device.  Unlimited stocks became the norm. The first 12"singles available to our shop in unrestricted quantities were The Crusaders’ Street Life (no. 5) and Al Hudson & The Soul Partners You Can Do It (no. 15) – both on the MCA label. 
 
Meanwhile, releasing a disco album or single was no guarantee of success.  In late 1978, Dolly Parton’s thumping (pink vinyl!) Baby I’m Burning failed to chart.  Max Bygraves’ Discolongamax album from late 1979 remains the preserve of audio masochists.

The following 29 singles were amongst the 100 best-selling singles of 1979.  The popularity of these records confirms the huge influence of disco and dancefloor music on popular music at the end of the 1970s

  • Dr Hook - When You're In Love With A Beautiful Woman
  • Gloria Gaynor -I Will Survive
  • Blondie - Heart Of Glass
  • The Village People -YMCA
  • The Bee Gees - Tragedy
  • Anita Ward -Ring My Bell
  • Earth Wind & Fire With The Emotions - Boogie Wonderland
  • Donna Summer & Barbra Streisand - No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)
  • Michael Jackson - Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough
  • The Village People - In The Navy
  • Earth Wind & Fire - September
  • Chic - I Want Your Love
  • The Real Thing - Can You Feel The Force?
  • The Jacksons - Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)
  • Edwin Starr - Contact
  • The Crusaders - Street Life
  • The Gibson Brothers - Que Sera Mi Vida
  • Leif Garrett - I Was Made For Dancin'
  • Amii Stewart - Knock On Wood
  • McFadden & Whitehead - Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now
  • Amii Stewart - Light My Fire / 137 Disco Heaven
  • Chic - Good Times
  • Patrick Hernandez - Born To Be Alive
  • The Sugarhill Gang - Rapper's Delight
  • Wings - Goodnight Tonight
  • Sister Sledge - He's The Greatest Dancer
  • Eruption - One Way Ticket
  • Gene Chandler - Get Down
  • The Gibson Brothers - Ooh What A Life
12" pink vinyl Dolly remix.  Get dancin'. 
Pain can be fun. 

Uncle Sam & The Sugarhill Gang

Our shop was near to four major American military installations.  UK residents were permitted access to the Mildenhall, Lakenheath, Bentwaters and Woodbridge airbase night clubs provided they were accompanied by American servicemen.  On the bases, drinks and cigarettes were cheap, the clubs stayed open late.  More than a few lost weekends were spent by Suffolk local girls once on base.  The DJs played records not yet available in UK.  We were frequently asked for brand new American soul albums and 12” singles that had been heard in the American clubs, but nowhere else.


In August 1979, we began receiving requests for a 12” single by The Sugarhill Gang.  Rapper’s Delight was issued on the Sugar Hill label (not to be confused with the country & bluegrass label of the same name) and contained 15-minutes (plus an edited 6-minutes) of rhyming hep-talk delivered over the backing track from Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust.  After weeks of heavy import sales, the record was issued in the UK in November 1979; it reached number 3 and spent 11 weeks on the charts.  Rapper’s Delight became a worldwide success, charting in Mexico, Spain, France, Sweden, Canada, Germany as well as in the UK and US.  We sold as many copies as we could get, before and after the UK release.   Rapper’s Delight, perhaps, helped kill off the disco boom.  Dance music took a different course. 

Although not the first rap/Hip-Hop record made (that honour probably goes to King Tim III [Personality Jock] by The Fatback Band), Rapper’s Delight began a revolution in popular music.  Whatever one’s opinion of rap/Hip Hop, The Sugarhill Gang helped create a genre whose rhyme, rhythm and attitude became an inextricable component in much of contemporary music.


Coming Up

Pink Floyd’s January 1977 album Animals contained three extended works, book-ended by two short acoustic songs.  The record was a virulent attack on middle-class ethos and manners, enough for the Melody Maker to suggest that the band might change their name to Punk Floyd. Two of the characters contained in the song Pigs were clearly aimed at Roger Waters’ bête noire, the self-appointed guardian of the nation’s morals, Mary Whitehouse.  The third main piece, Sheep, was a metaphor for a violent and bloody overthrow of the establishment.  Nonetheless, the seditious and radical tone of the record went largely unnoticed or unheeded by the record-buying public.  Animals was welcomed as The New Pink Floyd album, one that could sit comfortably alongside Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here. 

Many fans were unprepared for somewhat stark nature of the band’s new LP.  The Wall was released on Monday, 3rd December 1979.  Several first-day buyers of the album returned the record on the Tuesday, one complaining that the record, “Had nothing to do with The Floyd!”  Only one song, Comfortably Numb, contained the gentle harmonies and chord patterns that represented the Pink Floyd sound.  This now-familiar and much-loved song featured at the end of the 3rd side, by which time, listeners had endured Roger Waters shouting and croaking about some of his many schoolboy/teenage hang-ups.   The Wall was difficult listening for anyone expecting a re-tread of Dark Side or Wish You Were Here.  Meanwhile, one week before the album’s release, the single Another Brick In The Wall (part 2) was issued.  The record received much airplay and caught the public’s ear.  The disco beat, the anti-school/anarchic lyric and the children’s mockney choir made the record a surprise party favourite for years to come.  The record became UK Christmas #1 - quite an achievement for a group that had not issued a single in the UK for eleven years.   All reservations were forgotten; on the back of the hit single the LP took off.  One wonders if anyone that returned the LP initially ever bought another copy. 

Led Zeppelin had last released an album in 1976.  They had not played the UK since May 1975.  Their 1977 North American tour was cut short by the death of Robert Plant’s son; Karac.  There was no European tour scheduled that year.  In 1979, the band played two dates in Copenhagen in July followed by two at Knebworth House, Hertfordshire on the first and second Sundays in August.  Their new album, In Through The Out Door was issued on Monday September 3rd, 1979[1].  The packaging was lavish – six different variations on the cover art were available, each one hidden behind a shrink-wrapped brown paper bag.  The inner sleeve was printed in magic ink; that which is found in some children’s storybooks i.e. when painted with water the ink changed from black to colour.  The record went straight to no. 1 but was not altogether well-received.  Jimmy Page had taken much of a back-seat on the record, meanwhile John Paul Jones had diluted the production with the liberal use of keyboard synthesisers.  Once again, there was no single issued from the album in the UK. 

Bob Dylan had recently converted to Christianity.  His last two LPs – Street Legal and Live At Budokan – had received mixed reviews. Nonetheless, both albums were highly-anticipated prior to release, in particular Live At Budokan, previously a Japanese-only release. Both records sold exceptionally well, partly due to the publicity generated by a well-attended and reportedly memorable concert given at Blackbushe Aerodrome, Surrey in July 1978.  The same month, CBS issued a collectable 12” single version of Baby Stop Crying from the Street Legal album.  The record achieved Bob’s best chart placing since Lay Lady Lay in 1969.   Slow Train Coming was released in late August 1979.  It featured a softer, more polished sound than on any previous Dylan album, but it lacked the fresh and appealing sound of Desire or Blood On The Tracks.  Expectations were high, demand was strong, reviews were positive.  But his religious awakening, realised for the first time on Slow Train Coming, ushered in a decade of weak and forgettable Bob Dylan albums.

Roxanne – the first single from The Police’s debut album, Outlandos d’Amour, had flopped when first released in April 1978.  The second single, Can’t Stand Losing You, reached no. 42 the following August.  The third, So Lonely, failed to chart.  In 1979, Roxanne and Can’t Stand Losing You  were reissued and reached the top 20. The LP Outlandos d’Amour was released in November 1978, it did not chart until April 1979.  By September of that year, The Police had broken through.  The new single, Message In A Bottle, reached no. 1; demand for the new album Regatta de Blanc was high.  The LP was released in October, spent 4 weeks at no. 1 and spent 74 consecutive weeks on the top 100. 

Blondie’s Parallel Lines LP had cemented the band’s success worldwide - the LP delivered four hit singles in the UK, two of which (Heart of Glass and Sunday Girl) went to no. 1. The follow up LP, Eat To The Beat, was issued in October 1979.  The LP reached no. 1; three singles charted including one number one.  Blondie were the textbook pop group. The band produced catchy and memorable singles and were just a tiny bit risqué and dangerous.  Debbie Harry’s movie-star looks did not hurt the band’s success.

London Calling, the third album by The Clash, was every bit as polished as the previous LP Give ‘Em Enough Rope but unlike its predecessor, received excellent reviews.  Furthermore, the band had negotiated with their record company that the LP – a double – would retail for £5.  Some considered that the band had entered into a rivalry with Anarcho-Punk outfit Crass, who had recently issued the double LP Stations of The Crass for £2. In December 1980, The Clash responded by issuing their fourth LP, Sandinista (a triple!) for only £5.99.  Meanwhile, The Damned issued their double LP The Black Album in October 1980 at £4.99.

Other albums that were keenly awaited in the run-up to Christmas 1979 included: -

  • Setting Sons - The Jam.  The band’s fourth album followed top 20 placings for three of the band’s finest singles (Strange Town, When You’re Young and Eton Rifles).  Setting Sons was possibly the band’s best album and confirmed The Jam as one of the UK’s favourite bands.
  • The Fine Art of Surfacing - The Boomtown Rats.  Bob Geldof and crew had recently enjoyed their second number one single with I Don’t Like Mondays.  The second single from the album, Diamond Smiles was probably the better song, but did not fare as well.
  • The Pleasure Principle -  Gary Numan.  Gary had shaken off the punky Tubeway Army tag.  He had recently enjoyed a number one with the single Cars.  Numan Mania was all around. 
  • Joe’s Garage Act 1 - Frank Zappa.  Zappa fans appeared largely uncritical of the man’s records – they’d buy anything with his name on.  They were somehow often aware of his upcoming LP releases long before we were.  
  • Unleashed In The East - Judas Priest.  The band's first live album was packaged with an exclusive 3-track 7” single. The addition of such freebies seldom failed to improve sales for a new album.  Once the limited edition ran out, it often became difficult to sell further copies of the LP in question.  An exception to this rule was Michael Jackson’s first solo album for the Epic label.  Off The Wall snuck out in August 1979 with the enticement of a free picture disc single, the tracks of which had been lifted from the soundtrack to the ill-fated movie The Wiz.   We received three copies of the LP as a new release.  It didn’t sell.  Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough was issued four weeks later as a single, it reached no. 3 in the charts.  Off the Wall went to no. 3 in the LP charts.  Four more singles were lifted from the LP.  Michael Jackson became a superstar.
  • The Pretenders 1st.  Brass in Pocket, the band’s third single, was a recent number one.  Thanks in part to the melodious nature of their singles (including Kid and Stop Your Sobbing) the LP enjoyed a wide appeal.  Some copies were returned due to Chrissie Hynde’s sweary outburst at the end of the opening track.
  • The Specials (1st), The Selecter’s Too Much Pressure, The Beat’s I Just Can’t Stop It and Madness’ One Step Beyond were all eagerly awaited albums, thanks to the post-punk frenzy that was Two-Tone.
  • Little Feat – Down On The Farm.  Band leader Lowell George died in late June, before the group’s latest LP had been completed.  Despite having split up, the rest of the band finished the album LP; it was eventually issued in the UK on November 26th.  Reviews and sales were cautious.

[1] Many internet sites list the release date of the album as August 15th or 20th.  The release date stated here – as with all other release dates in this article – relates to the day that the LP arrived in record stores.


Music In Deep

The success of any back-street store largely depended on customer service, price and selection.  We had to be cheaper than the high street chains, we had to know our stock in considerable detail.  When a customer enquired after a piece of music where no other store could help, we did our utmost to find what they were after.  Pre-internet, we relied on personal knowledge, shelves of catalogues and an industry encyclopaedia known as The Music Master.

We took delight in locating titles that were not available from the regular channels i.e. the UK major record companies, and the primary independent distributors, such as Pinnacle, Spartan and Rough Trade.  We sold plenty of imported records, which fell into one of three categories: -

  • Titles not yet released in the UK – usually American country, soul, disco & rock albums.  Many DJs, fans and collectors were prepared to pay more to get their albums first by purchasing imported copies.  Besides, many collectors preferred to own American or Japanese records over UK pressings. 
  • Records no longer available in the UK.  Albums could be deleted because of poor sales or for contractual reasons.  We dealt with many resourceful importers who specialised in locating such titles, mainly from Europe, Australia, Japan and The United States.  Albums such as Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, The Who’s My Generation, Anthony Phillips’ The Geese & The Ghost & George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music were all regular sellers.
  • Records not intended for release in the UK – such as, AC/DC’s TNT, Black Market Clash, The Who's Magic Bus, Weather Report’s Live in Tokyo and The Rolling Stones’ Flowers. In 1982, a 6-track mini-LP by Smile entitled Gettin’ Smile was issued in Japan only.  Despite its high price (c. £18) the record sold incredibly well.  It contained just six tracks recorded in 1969 by Roger Taylor, Tim Staffell and Brian May before forming of the band, Queen.  As of 2018, the record has never been issued outside of Japan. 

It was particularly satisfying to be able to offer, and sell, music from an in-depth selection, the range of which could sometimes match and occasionally surpass what the giant Oxford Street megastores had in stock.   It was the best part of working in music retail. 


In The Dumper

In late 1979, three long-anticipated albums were released, each one a follow up to three of the biggest selling albums of the 1970s.

Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours was issued in February 1977.  It entered the album chart and remained there.  Surprisingly, the record did not produce a top-twenty UK hit for the band - the best-selling single from the album (Dreams) only reached number 24.  Nonetheless, at the time of writing the record has spent almost 700 weeks on the UK charts. The follow-up album, Tusk, was released in October 1979.  Wikipedia notes that it was the most expensive album made by anybody to date, costing over £1m. Much of the music on the record contrasted sharply with the style of Rumours and its eponymous predecessor from 1975.  The title track reached the UK top ten singles, the album reached number one but ultimately sold comparatively poorly and disappeared from the charts after 27 weeks. Tusk spent a long time in the bargain bins.  Although the album has been positively re-evaluated in later years by sections of the media, Tusk remains a record that contains too much filler – much of it probably more suited to the bonus tracks of a deluxe CD reissue.

Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants was released over three years after its predecessor, Songs In The Key Of Life.  The album was delayed on several occasions – following completion, Stevie reportedly re-recorded the entire double album to the new digital format.  Meanwhile, the floral fragrance infused into the cover apparently attacked the vinyl of the records, requiring early pressings to be scrapped.  Three singles were released from the album, none of which made the top 40.  The LP soon entered the bargain bins, forever to remain.  Musically, The Secret Life Of Plants could have been slimmed down to a single album – much of the record consists of meandering new-age instrumental doodles.  Once again, the album has been positively re-evaluated; nonetheless the experimentation and faux-grandeur of the project assured that nothing on the record could compare with anything contained within Songs In The Key Of Life.  Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants effectively drew to an end Stevie Wonder’s extraordinary artistic phase, that which had begun seven years earlier with the LP Music Of My Mind. 

Hotel California by the Eagles was issued in December 1976.  The first three songs on the LP (Hotel California, New Kid In Town and Life In The Fast Lane) became hit singles.  The LP went on to sell more than 16m copies; stylistically it defined west coast American rock music of the mid-to-late 70s.   Tight, melodic harmonies, a hint of country-rock, crack playing with memorable lyrics and melodies made Hotel California an impressive package.  The follow up LP, The Long Run was released in September 1979.  The three best songs (I Can’t Tell You Why, Heartache Tonight and The Sad Café) were released on 45.  None reached the top 40; the rest of the LP was less than memorable.  The record sold in millions in the USA, but in the UK sales stagnated following a brief run in the top ten. Furthermore, the production – notably the sound of Don Henley’s drums – was in parts quite muffled.   

The poor sales of these three long-awaited albums perhaps signified a distinct change in the marketplace.  A three-year wait for a new album risked a detour into the cut-out bins. 

Two more albums by successful bands registered feeble sales in late 1979.  Between December 1976 and April 1979, the German disco band Boney M had achieved nine top ten singles (including two no. 1s) and three top 40 albums.  The last of which, Nightflight To Venus, had reached number one and spent 65 weeks on the charts.  The group enjoyed worldwide success, selling over 150 million records.  In September 1979, the band released their fourth album, Oceans of Fantasy.  The first single lifted from the LP (Gotta Go Home) spent a miserable four weeks in the top 20; the second (I’m Born Again) tanked at number 35.  A third (My Friend Jack[1]) only reached number 53.  Despite reaching number one, the LP Oceans of Fantasy practically ended the band’s career.  We sold barely any copies.   It was awarded a platinum disc; an achievement undermined by the fact that silver, gold and platinum discs are awarded based on units delivered to the trade and not on actual sales to consumers.  Oceans of Fantasy shipped in to record stores in huge quantities – we received something in the region of 150 units.  In our shop, a new-release shipment of a chart-bound LP would rarely exceed 30 copies.  Meanwhile, the greatest hits album The Magic of Boney M reached number one the following year and spent 26 weeks on the chart.

John Lydon had emerged from the break-up of the Sex Pistols with a new band, Public Image Ltd.  Their self-titled debut single had reached the top ten in November 1978; their first LP reached no. 22 in December of that year.  Reviews were guardedly optimistic.  The follow-up single, Death Disco, was issued to bemused fans and media in June 1979.  The record was extremely discordant and far removed from what Lydon/Rotten had issued before.  Even Radio 1 DJ John Peel (q.v.) suggested on air that the record might be a joke.   

No joke was intended.  Death Disco established the musical(?) foundations of the band’s next album, Metal Box. By the time of the record’s release, the hip & cool media had built up the band’s reputation to the point where they were regarded as the new saviours of the music scene. 

The group’s third single, Memories, was released in October – it did not make the top 40. Following many delays, the group’s new album, Metal Box, was issued as a limited edition on December 3rd, 1979.  It was packaged as three 45rpm 12” singles, contained within a round silvered tin can.  Musically, the record was – to be polite – challenging in the extreme.  Some considered the set to be an hour or so of unlistenable fifth-form poetry that was shrieked and yelled over rudimentary percussion and beginner-level bass playing.   The record received ecstatic reviews – but the hordes of expectant customers failed to arrive. 

Nearly all the copies that we sold were returned as faulty. As the disc cutting engineer had turned the bass up to eleven, music centres and stereogram turntables all waved the white flag as their tone-arms skipped across sides one to six.  Replacement copies were returned, replacements to those came back.  And so on.  There was no chance that any of the records in Metal Box would ever play on a cheap turntable.  

We sold around ten copies of the original Metal Box set.  After three attempts at finding a copy that would play, customers either accepted refunds or put up with owning an unplayable album.  This left us with about 35 unsold copies.  The record was reduced from £12 to £5.  Metal Box took up a lot of space in our store; the remaining copies took a long time to sell.   There was no tape cassette alternative to offer disappointed punters. 

In February 1980; Virgin condensed the 3 x 12” singles onto one double album and retitled the record as Second Edition.  Nobody wanted the new version. 






















Metal Box is now lauded as one of the most influential post-punk albums.  It has been included in a book, 1001 Albums To Hear Before You Die[2].  Others might consider it to be an album to die, before you hear.  Whatever anyone might tell you, Metal Box was not a hit.  We practically couldn’t give it away. 

Three years later, in October 1982, Michael Jackson’s LP Thriller was issued.  The first single lifted from the LP was the lacklustre duet with Paul McCartney, The Girl Is Mine.  We had received 50 copies of the LP.  It did not sell – the record sat on the shelves all through the Christmas period.  Meanwhile, in January, in the United States two singles from the LP were issued almost simultaneously.  Videos for Beat It and Billie Jean were also receiving heavy rotation on the fledgling MTV.  Thriller went on to sell 35m copies.  But for a short while, the LP was an absolute stiff.

[1] A cover version of a 1967 single by psychedelic band, Smoke
[2] ISBN 1-84403-392-9

Censorship

In November 1979, Island Records met with controversy following the release of Broken English, the new LP by Marianne Faithfull.  Two of the tracks – Working Class Hero and Why D'Ya Do It – were peppered with effing and jeffing. 

Island’s distributor, EMI, refused to handle the record, meanwhile high street chains such as W.H. Smith, Boots and Woolworth declined to stock the album.  The record was independently distributed, meanwhile the initial furore and notoriety surrounding the release was enough to send the LP to #57 in the charts. Broken English was the first record issued during my years in record stores where sales were largely generated via controversy.  Thankfully, the record was musically and lyrically excellent; nearly 40 years later it remains a solid and consistent album that has not aged.

For years, the BBC declined to play certain records – starting in 1935 with Umpa, Umpa, Stick It Up Your Jumper[1] by The Two Leslies.  Many still believe that The BBC somehow have the right to ban records.  Thankfully, they do not.  Instead, the Beeb and other radio/television stations simply refuse to play whatever they consider to be unsuitable for public consumption.  The creation of such a ban regularly creates a spike in demand for the latest in forbidden fruit.  Independent record stores would often sell large quantities of titles that the BBC would not play, and major high street retailers refused to stock – notably, God Save The Queen by the Sex Pistols, Derek & Clive Live by Peter Cook & Dudley Moore and Je t'aime... Moi Non-plus by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. 

In our store, we were less fussy than most about what we kept in stock.  Some records, however, did not make it as far as the display racks…

One band that was hated more than any other by our staff was the anarcho-punk collective, Crass.  The band’s infantile destroy society but don’t touch my welfare payments stance could invoke extreme nausea amongst anybody who worked and/or payed tax.  Such as, record shop staff - who also had to put up with serving the countless unwashed glue-sniffing spikey-haired perpetual-jobseekers who bought their records by way of their state handouts. 

The band had the audacity to print a don’t pay more than price on their LP sleeves.  Not such a problem, until the label raised the wholesale prices without altering the suggested retail price on the sleeve.  Eventually, we sold out of all of their awful albums and refused to re-stock them. 

2 Live Crew’s appalling third album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was an undisguised paedophilia and rape fantasy; there was no justification for the record to be made, let alone sold.  We wouldn’t even sell the LP as a special customer order. 

The lyrics to the debut album by Cannibal Corpse could shame The Marquis de Sade.  It wasn’t worth the bother of us stocking the record.  Neither would we sell LPs by Carcass – the cover to their debut album featured pictures of dead and mutilated children.  The LP contained a track called Vomited Anal Tract. 

As the boundaries of acceptability shrank ever further back, it became more difficult to monitor the content of what was on sale.  Records with risqué or obscene content often seemed to appeal to rebellious and impressionable students, teenagers and children.  In 1979, there was no parental advisory sticker on LP sleeves to warn purchasers of potentially offensive content.  We were tired of apologising to furious parents whose children had bought records that contained one or two naughty words.  We simply refused to sell certain records to youngsters if we thought the content was unsuitable.   But there was no clear and defined line in the shop with regards to what was tolerable – we had to best make our own decisions regarding what we could sell, and to whom. 

[1] Music hall slang for Stick It Up Your Arse


Characters

All retail staff (music or otherwise) will know of regular customers that stand out from everyday punters.  One of our oddballs we nicknamed Mr Dirty.  He bought Broken English by Marianne Faithfull (q.v.) and anything else that he could find that, in his own words, he couldn’t play to his children.  And  he wore a dirty overcoat.



A few of our customers suffered with barely concealed drink problems.  One such character had a serious case of delirium tremens – he also carried a wallet stuffed with fivers.  He bought everything that he could find by British sixties acts such as Ten Years After, (Peter Green’s) Fleetwood Mac, Keef Hartley, Savoy Brown and John Mayall.  Once he’d paid for his pile of LPs, he would invariably always ask if we knew of anywhere that he could get a drink – at the time, pubs shut in the afternoon.  Eventually he just stopped calling in.  We feared the worst.  And never saw him again.

Another DTs case (nicknamed, unsurprisingly, Shaky) took delight in ordering the most obscure records, usually from the soundtracks, big band and easy-listening genres.  He possessed a Mitsubishi vertical linear-tracking turntable, which was clearly incapable of playing records without introducing some otherwise undetectable distortion or surface noise.  He returned practically every one of his purchases as faulty.  Shaky typified the kind of customer that took a strange delight in returning albums, as if their equipment was so superior, it could reach the parts that ours couldn’t!  It never occurred to such punters (even the Linn Sondek owners, a breed unto themselves) that the problem lay with their audio gear and not with the records. 

Walter, the local park groundskeeper, would buy large numbers of country albums.  Over time, he developed a taste for drink – he began selling his records back to us, as his habit took hold.  Eventually he had nothing left to sell – he lost his job and ended up living on the streets, eternally drunk.   His descent into oblivion was swift; meanwhile, we felt helpless each time he brought another pile of albums in to trade for cash. 

Wild-Eyed Barry was a lorry driver from one of the more remote parts of Suffolk.  He bought huge quantities of country albums – his preference was for budget-priced and cut-out[1] records from the United States.  We considered that he bought more records than he had time available to play them[2] - even though many of the LPs that he purchased had playing times of around ten minutes per side.  He liked to reserve LPs by the tonne, many of which he would never get around to buying.  These we would eventually return to the display racks – Barry would then have a tantrum upon discovering that his secret stash of vinyl was back on sale.  Nonetheless, he would return every Saturday and buy 30-50 LPs on each occasion.  

Our local Shakin’ Stevens wannabe was, naturally, a member of the fan club.  Convinced that his information was superior to ours, he couldn’t wait to quiz (and correct) us regarding the release dates of his idol’s newest single or album.  Like many such super-fans, he would buy anything that bore the name of his hero. Badges, posters, stickers and T-shirts.  He dressed and moved like Shaky.  He danced in the shop.  He was not our favourite customer. 

Clifford was a gentle giant, in his forties.  Simple of mind[3], he spoke slowly and deliberately.  He smiled constantly, he was usually immaculately dressed in a 3-piece suit.  And he knew everyone’s names – not just in our shop, but seemingly everyone in town.   His two favourite records were Billy Preston’s That’s The Way God Planned It and Edison Lighthouse’s Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes.  When Clifford bought a record, he’d extract his wallet, peel off a pound note from an enormous roll of cash, reserve the record and come back the next day to collect it. 

Everyone in town had a Clifford story.

Smellvis was a cost-conscious Elvis fan.  Following The King’s demise in August 1979, RCA had reissued every practically Elvis Presley album in their catalogue.  Many of these were soundtracks to his numerous beach-party movies.  They sold for £2.99.  The standard of the songs on the LPs was in keeping with the quality of the movies.  In addition, RCA’s budget label Camden had assembled several compilation LPs of lesser-known (read: dreadful) Elvis tracks, many of which were drawn from the post-Army, pre-’68 comeback phase of Presley’s career.  These LPs (typically, Separate Ways, Easy Come, Easy Go) sold for £1.25. 

Smellvis avoided buying anything from the full-price range.  He stuck to the budget-priced soundtracks and hideous compilations.  He even bought a copy of The Elvis Presley Séance album.  Which – surprise – did not actually feature the voice of his idol[4].  He was afforded his nickname because he was desperately lacking in personal hygiene.  His remarkable aroma was compounded by his dressing in heavy-duty waterproof clothing, in all weathers.  Phew. 

A one-time regular customer had returned from a holiday in Miami, complete with Hawaiian shirt and a newly-acquired mid-Atlantic accent.  He regaled us of a band he had heard in The States and how the band’s albums were only available in The States and did we know of this band that he’d heard in The States.  He assured us that we’d never be able to get their albums because they were only available to special order from Rounder Records in The States and maybe not even then. 

He was blabbing on about the rather fine R’n’B outfit, George Thorogood & The Destroyers.  Quelle surprise, we had both of their LPs in stock.  As would any other half-decent British record store.  But not, it would seem, record stores in The States

[1] i.e. remaindered
[2] Such over-buying is common practice amongst us record collectors.  Furthermore, searching for a certain song or record for years, only to discover that the desired recording already forms part of one’s collection, is hardly unusual for vinyl freaks.  I once was desperate to find a copy of Nat Cole’s I Keep Going Back To Joe’s, whilst all the time it could have been found on my copy of the LP Where Did Everyone Go?
[3] I prefer the term simple instead of special needs or handicapped.  Clifford was simple, and pleasantly so.  He was innocent, kind and harmless
[4] Recording of a seance with Elvis Presley conducted on 24th July 1979 at a Spiritualist Church in North London. The seance was led by Carmen Rogers (a renowned medium), narrated by Stuart Colman, produced by Barry Murray, recorded by Michael Stevens & assistant and also attended by Theresa Currie (representative of the management of the official Elvis Presley fan club), two (unnamed) senior reporters from the Sunday People (a UK national newspaper), Stan Janus (Sunday People photographer) , Harry Simmonds (Director of Shadow Records), Martin Breese (Shadow Records photographer), John Brunning and Paul Hart (musicians), Janet Colman (Stuart Colman's wife) and David Rogers (husband of Carmen) - https://www.discogs.com/Various-The-Elvis-Presley-Seance/release/8062819 accessed 29th December 2017


Fashion

As musical trends changed, we witnessed many dedicated followers of fashion changing votes, along with their overcoats.  As we traded in second-hand records, entire record collections were dumped on us by punters wishing to eliminate all traces of a devoted but fleeting adherence to the previous fad.  We knew them as turncoats

One such individual embraced punk, then heavy metal, new romanticism, rap and then house music – all in the space of a few years.  He changed his style of clothing accordingly.  He bore a striking resemblance to Rob Halford, the lead singer of Judas Priest – one of his (ephemeral) favourite bands. 
 
Another fashion-conscious regular made the transition from punk, to mod, then ska/Two-Tone, to skinhead (Oi! Oi!) in the space of a few months.  We would take bets on whichever tribe he would be joining next. 
 
It did not occur to any of our turncoats that fashions may come and go, but good music stays.
 
It was no secret that post 1977, the UK's trendy media actively despised mainstream rock music[1].  Furthermore, there were no (official) album-based radio stations in the UK.  Radio 1 reduced its coverage of rock to a 2-hour Friday night show - a programme that mostly featured heavy metal. 
 
Gee, thanks. You're spoiling us!
 
Back in 1979 the weekly music papers – i.e. NME, Sounds & Melody Maker - seemed more concerned with fashion and student politics than music.  Quality monthly music magazines did not arrive in the UK until the launch of Q magazine in 1986. 
 
Thanks to our vacillating British Music press, and the cretinous Radio 1, rock music in the UK suffered something of a Stalinist purge from 1977 onwards.  The Stooges, MC5, The New York Dolls, The Clash and Sex Pistols became the darlings of the weekly music press.  Radio One eventually caught on by playlisting third-rate New Wave acts such as The Jags, Altered Images, Bow Wow Wow, Toyah Wilcox and The Vapors.
 
Rock music, progressive or otherwise, was side-lined.  Rock bands either: -
 
  1. Cut their hair, adorned skinny ties, drainpipe jeans & narrow lapels and recorded shorter songs, or
  2. Continued wearing patchouli oil and afghan coats and performing 25-minute techno-flash work-outs.  Before disappearing from  view. 
 
The highly-regarded Radio 1 DJ John Peel lived about 20 miles away from our shop.  He called in to our store but once - in search of plastic LP sleeves.   His music policy was once varied and entertaining – artists as diverse as Nick Drake, AC/DC, Gallagher & Lyle, Terry Reid and Joshua Rifkin had been invited in to record Peel Sessions.  But from 1978 onwards, the music policy on his programme underwent an absolute volte-face.  By the end of the 70s, little or no pre-New Wave rock music was heard on the Peel show.  He ridiculed artists that he once championed – once referring to “the appalling” Yes on one of the rare occasions that he read out the top 20 singles run-down.  Of course, there was no obligation or necessity for John Peel to continue playing old favourites such as Stairway To Heaven or Wish You Were Here.  But when acts such as Pink Floyd, David Bowie or Led Zeppelin – or even his old mates Marc Bolan and Rod Stewart - released new albums, he simply avoided playing them.   
 
By the late 70s and throughout the 80s, the trendy UK media assumed the authority of a kangaroo court, enforcing their stamp of approval on popular music.  Many kids waited for permission from this phoney judiciary before buying, or even admitting to liking, any particular band or record. 
 
In 1977, the first Clash album received widespread approval from the media; it sold in bucket loads.  The NME gave away a free single in support of the album.  18 months later, the follow-up (Give ‘Em Enough Rope) hit with a critical backlash because – gosh – the band had, perhaps, learned how to play.   The LP managed a miserable four weeks in the top 20, despite containing two hit singles and perhaps the group’s best song (Stay Free) as well as their most powerful (Safe European Home).  It became the band’s second worst selling album[2]
 
In 1979, the debut album Cut by The Slits sold keenly – John Peel & The NME loved the record.  The (untitled) follow up released a year later received zero praise from the literati; it went straight into the cheap dumper.  We couldn’t give it away.  Both records were indistinguishable for the simple reason that they were (and remain, in one's humble opinion) absolutely unlistenable. 
 
Again in 1979, the debut album by The Pop Group (Y) sold well on the back of rave reviews from the weekly music press and some in-depth interviews with the band.  The follow-up album from 1980, We Are Time, was ignored.  Both records contained around 40 minutes of tuneless rubbish.  However, the first title had received the media’s stamp of approval, the second had not.  The kids did as they were told.
 
Orwellian revisionism continued over on the Peel show.   In late 1979: -
 
“And at this stage I would have played a 12" 45 by another Dublin band, U2, and I was given two copies of this earlier in the week, but if anybody from U2 is listening, both copies were far too warped for me to ever possibly play on the radio. So I'd like another copy of it certainly, because what little bit of it I could hear sounded rather good. Some good bands over there actually, because I saw Zebra and U2 and a few other bands last year sometime I think, and I'm surprised it's taken them this long to get onto record”
 
But in May 1990…
 
"I've never been terrifically keen on the work of U2, although somebody wrote and told me the other day that when they first started out I used to play their records all the time. I'm sure I didn't; I mean, I never liked them[3]
 
All the while, punters scoured their record collections for potentially offending (and credibility-damaging) old-wave albums.  In our shop, piles of records were traded in against the latest efforts by whatever hair-gelled no-hopers were featured on the front covers of that week’s inky[4] papers. 
 
One might wager that a clear majority of LPs chopped in during the late 70s purge are today, of more musical and fiscal worth than the would-be hip/cool records that they were substituted for.  One might stake further that many of the former have, by now, been purchased a second or third time (as expensive originals, deluxe CDs or premium 180g vinyl) by the same people that once offloaded them.  And those stacks of voguish albums fleetingly approved by the NME, Melody Maker, Sounds and John Peel?  Umm, no thanks. 
 
In other words; King Crimson & ELP – 5, Wire & Gang of Four – Nil.
 
In later years, John Peel’s influence on record sales dipped considerably.  Except for The Fall and The Wedding Present, it is perhaps difficult to pinpoint any act that benefitted to any degree from being featured on his show.  The more dependable Radio 1 evening slot (typically between 8 and 10) presented indie and “new” rock music in a far more accessible and less blinkered fashion; it was worth the time of any singles buyer – or music fan in search of something fresh and new - to tune in.  However, if any singles rep or telesales bod were to suggest (usually in desperation) that, “…John Peel loves it…” we knew right away that whatever they were trying to sell us was a worthless piece of junk[5].  It was not even worth our while accepting free copies.
 
In all fairness to John Peel, his musical selection mellowed in his later years – in 1997 he listed albums by Captain Beefheart, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Richard and Linda Thompson and the Rolling Stones amongst his favourites[6].  Nonetheless, John Peel regularly abandoned artists that he had previously supported, once they emerged from the counter-culture.  For example, The Stranglers, Gary Numan, Joe Jackson, Scritti Politti, The Jam, Adam & The Ants…
 
A stance that some might consider questionable, to say the least.   

[1] For Rock Music, read: anything old wave.  This concept may be difficult to understand for those that did not live through The Punk Rock Wars.  But in simple terms…
James Taylor, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple = old wave
Roy Harper, Peter Hammill, Pink Fairies = old wave, but good
Lou Reed, Iggy Pop = God-like status.  Above reproach. 
Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Patti Smith = new wave. 
[2] After the abominable Cut The Crap album, which the band subsequently disowned, and nobody bought
[3] http://peel.wikia.com/wiki/U2; accessed 28th December 2017
[4] The tabloid-sized music press (New Musical Express, Sounds, Melody Maker and Disc) would all leave substantial ink deposits on one’s fingertips
[5] The first play of Joy Division’s debut LP Unknown Pleasures was on The John Peel Show.  Renowned record engineer George ‘Porky’ Peckham had prepared for Peel a promotional copy of the LP that played at 45RPM.   John played the LP at 331/3, and didn’t notice the difference.  Right place, right time, wrong speed…
[6] https://www.theguardian.com/music/2005/oct/12/johnpeel.popandrock; accessed 16th January 2018


Still Around (and Around)

In 1979, many highly-collectable titles were still freely available.  Record collectors in 2018 might consider that such hindsight is opportunistic.  Even so…

In early 1981, Polygram records distributed a mailshot informing that their catalogue of LPs by Kraftwerk (Kraftwerk, Ralf & Florian, Autobahn and the compilation Exceller 8) were to be deleted, never to be reissued[1].  This edict was on the instructions of the band, who were perhaps less than happy about the content of their early records and preferred that they were no longer available.  Except for Autobahn, the LPs certainly did not sit comfortably with the style and content of the band’s Capitol albums such as Radioactivity and The Man Machine.
 
It is worth noting that in the late 70s and early 80s, Kraftwerk did not possess the cachet or mystique that they later earned from their robotic imagery and sound as well as their increasingly infrequent performances and album releases.  Few retailers believed that the Vertigo records would be permanently withdrawn.  Instead of stocking up quantities of these soon-to-be collectors’ items, dealers waited for a mid-price campaign reissue of the four albums.  Which never occurred. 
 
In 1985, the album Autobahn was reissued on Capitol records, with the original European sleeve.   Kraftwerk, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf & Florian reappeared as bootleg CDs in 1994, the audio ripped from original vinyl copies on the Philips label.  But as of January 2018, there are no official reissues of the first three Kraftwerk albums.  Band leader Ralf Hutter has suggested in that the records might be reissued[2], but at the rate that Kraftwerk operate, one might be in for a very long wait. 
 
As of September 1979, EMI retained all of The Beatles’ albums in their catalogue, in all formats.  Thus, the original mono LP releases were still available, as were the 3 ½ IPS reel-to-reel tapes.  In store, these were not stock items, however we occasionally received customer orders for the mono vinyl (but alas, not the tapes!)

In 1982, the mono albums were re-promoted by EMI, as collectors and completists became more aware of the differences between the stereo and mono LPs.  They remained on catalogue until 1987. 
 
Despite the commercial failure of the 4-channel system, EMI maintained existing stocks of their SQ Quadraphonic LPs.  Again, these were not regular stock items, but the quad versions of albums such as Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, Wish You Were Here, Atom Heart Mother, Barclay James Harvest’s Once Again, John Lennon’s Imagine and Deep Purple’s Machine Head were freely available to order[3].  As EMI sold out of the albums, they were deleted from the catalogues.  One of the first to disappear was Lennon’s Imagine quad vinyl; this sold out in the weeks following his death in December 1980.
 
Records by folk singer Nic Jones were rather popular.  His albums From The Devil To A Stranger and The Noah’s Ark Trap were perhaps the best-selling titles in our folk section.  In 2018, nearly all his original albums are out-of-print and sell for inflated sums.  Due to contractual wrangles, this situation is unlikely to change.  
 
Many other records thought to be long unavailable were kept as stock items.  
 
  • Pete Townsend - Who Came First.  In 79, Pete’s first solo album still came in a gatefold sleeve, with an art print included. 
  • Humble Pie - Performance: Rockin’ The Fillmore.  This landmark 1971 double-live set should have been a staple item in any self-respecting independent record shop.  Few of our competitors seemed aware that it was still in print. 
  • Roger Waters & Ron Geesin - Music From The Body.  A difficult listen for many, but for Pink Floyd completists this LP was/is considered near-essential. It contains an early version of Breathe, a song heavily re-worked for Dark Side Of The Moon
  • Midnight Cowboy – Original Soundtrack.  We heard tell of customers being turned away by the Oxford Street megastores, having been told that this popular (but seemingly elusive!) soundtrack album was out-of-print.  We sold at least one copy per week, brand new from EMI UK’s distribution centre.  Take that, HMV!
  • Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman et al - Jamming With Edward!  In 1979, the Rolling Stones catalogue was still being distributed by WEA.  This budget-priced throwaway album from 1972 was still available, as was 1971’s Brian Jones Plays With The Pipes Of Pan At Joujouka.  In 1980 EMI acquired the rights to the Rolling Stones label.  Jamming... and Brian Jones Plays... plus the compilation Time Waits For No-One, were deleted.  The Brian Jones album was subsequently reissued in Japan.
  • The Plastic Ono Band - Live Peace In Toronto 1969.  This fine live album stayed on catalogue, even though the free calendar given away with original copies had long since been discontinued.  Yoko’s screaming throughout side 2 was useful  for clearing the shop of customers at the end of the working day. 
  • Bo Hansson - Lord Of The Rings.  A renowned progressive keyboard outing, mistakenly assumed by many to be deleted, rare and collectable.  Not so. 
  • Tonto’s Expanding Headband - Zero Time.  An early Moog workout by Robert Margouleff And Malcolm Cecil, the electronic wizards employed by Stevie Wonder on his early 1970s LPs.  The LP Zero Time was beloved of hippies and prog fans, as well as my drama teacher at school.
  • Slade - Play It Loud.  The band’s second (but long-forgotten) album had remained in the Polydor catalogue since its release in 1970.  It was a steady catalogue seller in our store alongside the magnificent Slade Alive! LP. 
  • John Entwistle - Smash Your Head Against A Wall & Whistle Rhymes.  The Ox’s first two solo albums were still available in 1979, although albums 3 & 4, Rigor Mortis Sets In and Mad Dog, were not. 
  • Gong – Camembert Electrique.  This 1971 freak-out was originally issued only in France.  Richard Branson’s Virgin label released the LP at a budget price (50p!) in 1974.  Despite being reissued by Charly records in 1976, the original Virgin issue remained in the catalogue. 
 
It is worth noting that the above titles were not offered as imports or deletions; rather they were examples of records that had remained on catalogue in the UK partly due to the resolve and resourcefulness of back-street record stores. 

[1] In the UK, Ralf & Florian was combined with Kraftwerk 2 and issued as a double album
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Catalogue; accessed 16th January 2018
[3] Many of these highly desirable titles found their way into the record collections of our employees


Why Pay More?

Between the years 1975 and 1979, LPs and cassettes had shot up in price, from typically £3, to £5 - and over.
In 1979, record companies had not yet considered discounting and re-promoting their back catalogues.  Older albums by artists such as The Moody Blues, The Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull, Neil Young et al were currently retailing at full price, i.e. circa £5 each, or £8 - £9 for a double album.  Thus, for a back catalogue (but not exactly best-selling) album such as Veedon Fleece by Van Morrison, Another Side Of Bob Dylan or Time Honoured Ghosts by Barclay James Harvest, one would have to pay full price.  Consequently, many such older albums remained on the shelves without selling.  Some labels were merciless in deleting slow moving titles from their catalogues. 

Many record shops took the difficult decision of pruning their selections rather than hanging on to hundreds of slow-selling records.  Our chain had built a reputation on carrying an extensive catalogue, we kept as many albums as we could - no matter how seldom they sold.  The sight of so many otherwise unavailable records on sale brought people back into our stores.
 
In retailing, it is widely accepted that 80% of sales will come from (the best-selling) 20% of one’s stock.  Stores that took the decision to jettison their slow-selling 80% often met with closure[1]

Our customers loved to browse through the other 80%.  To a record buyer, it’s reassuring to know that those old and obscure titles are still there – even if one has no intention of buying them any time soon.   Consider that a supermarket might carry 20 different brands of tomato ketchup - but only two or three will sell in any numbers. 
 
In the February 1981, CBS launched its Nice Price campaign.  EMI and Polygram followed in 1982.  Subsequently, WEA, BMG Island, Charisma, A&M and Virgin all raided their catalogues for LPs and tapes to reduce to £2.99.  Within a few years, a distinct minority of catalogue albums remained at full price.   Hundreds of long-deleted albums were reissued as part of the mid-price campaigns. 

It was a great time to be building a vinyl record collection. 

[1] i.e. Woolworth

I Can Get It For You Wholesale

Unlike other countries, the UK record industry had a fragmented distribution network.  For example, all major record companies – EMI, CBS, WEA, Polygram, Pye and RCA distributed their records independently of each other.  In other territories, major labels funnelled their stocks into one-stop (regional) distribution companies such as (in the US) URP and ADA. 

The UK’s fragmented supply chain not only kept prices high but made locating certain records difficult and, in some cases, impossible.  UK sales of music on independent labels in was growing, many wholesalers such as Lugdons, Selecta, Rough Trade, Pinnacle and Spartan distributed hundreds of different labels.  Some records were pressed in small quantities, many labels (i.e. Beggar’s Banquet) were available from more than one wholesaler.  Labels sprung up and disappeared overnight.  Many independent records didn’t have a distributor, rather that they were sold directly to shops by a man-with-a-van.  Or pushbike. 

Pre-internet, it required an encyclopaedic knowledge, a photographic memory and a detective’s instinct to track down some records.  The satisfaction of locating an illusive album or single was only matched by the frustration of not being able to fulfil a customer order, no matter how many catalogues and lists were consulted, nor how many phone calls were made. 

Imported records (q.v.) were sourced through several firms.  Stage 1, Greyhound, WRD and Pacific all scoured the Japanese, American and European markets to locate titles that were not available in the UK.  Many titles, such as the US 10” compilation Black Market Clash, were available from some or all our importers.  In addition, EMI and Polygram imported many titles released on their own labels in Europe and The United States.


The Outro

With the introduction of home video, compact discs  and computer games, plus the continued success of cassette tapes, many UK record shops evolved into entertainment stores.  By the end of the 1980s, we were witnessing the slow decline of the LP record.

Nowadays, many surviving stores give more retail footage to DVD, Blu-Ray and gaming than music – although in the UK, HMV are now giving more room to vinyl, and moving the LP browsers towards the front of their stores.  Hooray! 
 
I spent eleven years behind the counter.  Today, I long for the friendship of the staff, the sharing of knowledge and the insatiable hunger for music.  I miss the collectors, the regular punters, the mums and dads, the schoolkids.  The punks, bikers and mods.  Even the stuffy and awkward customers for whom nothing was good enough.  The thrill of discovering new music.  Finding those rare, out-of-print and imported titles and selling them to an eager public. 

I miss the smell of vinyl in the morning[1]
 
Like most independent record stores in the UK, the shop is long gone.  But given a functioning time machine, I would go back in a heartbeat.  It was only then that I truly looked forward to getting out of bed and going to work.


*****************************
 
In 2018, in a small seaside town, just a few miles from my village, there is an appealing little charity shop that specialises in second-hand records, CDs, DVDs, music books, musical instruments, hi-fi equipment and cameras.  The manager is clued-up; everything is reasonably priced and there’s always something interesting playing on the turntable.  He does a great job; the shop is always busy, he has time to help and to talk with his customers
 
I’ve had a peek in their store room - it is crammed full of donated items that are not yet on sale.  Some of the CDs and LPs stacked on shelves, waiting to be priced, are truly mouth-watering.
 
I should jump off my crazy train of a career, downsize my expectations and ask if he needs a hand.   
 
I want to go back.

[1] This phrase – corrupted from Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore’s famous line in Apocalypse Now – was a common saying amongst record store employees.  Meanwhile, I realise that vinyl doesn’t really smell of much, however Garrod & Lofthouse printing ink, and plastic LP covers, certainly do. 

One More Thing


The above article is dedicated to my dear friend and ex-colleague, Tom Smith.  Around 2001, long after we’d both finished working in record stores, we talked about writing something together about our experiences in the music business.  Eventually, many chapters were written but for one reason or another, enthusiasm for the project waned and the writing tailed off.  Everything that had been written had been saved onto 3.5” floppy discs - over time these were mislaid or destroyed. 

Nevertheless, I like to think that much of the above is close enough to the original text.  

Tom Smith (pictured right) - in The Greyhound, Ipswich - his second home. 
Tom fell victim to cancer in March 2010.  He was the most likeable, approachable, entertaining, informed and amusing guy that I have ever known.  I only wish that he could have read the finished work and contributed more of his recollections and anecdotes. 

I will just have to imagine his delight upon reading the finished piece, and his resulting mile-wide grin.

Mike Hamilton
March2018