Record stores in the British isles have a long and storied history – one which Going For A Song author, Garth Cartwright believes should be a source of national pride. He should know; Cartwright has just spent the last couple of years in and out of hundreds of record stores across the UK, talking to store owners, and poring over the history of one of Britain’s greatest institutions.
It was a history Cartwright feared was sorely under-celebrated, fairly undocumented and under threat of being lost forever. When he started writing the book in 20o9, he thought of it as an obituary to record stores that were quickly vanishing from the high street. However, since then, there’s been a resurrection of sorts. As Cartwright points out, similar to the rising number of record stores post-WWII, the current influx of indie record stores are being opened by genre fanatics; people with a real passion for the music they want to sell. They’re not trying to compete with Amazon and supermarkets that put many of their predecessors out of business by selling mainstream records. Instead they’re specializing in music they love, creating a haven for kindred spirits and other passionate music fans.
Record stores, their role in music accessibility, and the culture has changed a lot over the years, especially in a society increasingly steered by technology. With Going For A Song, Cartwright goes back to the beginning, with their introduction to the high street and music scene, the shifting popularity of music formats, and the part record stores played in the careers of some of our favorite musicians and iconic players in the music industry. Going For A Song is a must-read for any record seller, crate digger, or music fan!
Learn more about the most comprehensive story of UK Record Stores you’re likely to encounter from the expert himself:
What inspired you to write Going For A Song?
In 2009 London’s West End appeared to have been hit by a virus that only wiped out record shops – they were shutting up shop at a furious rate: from the huge megastores of Virgin and Tower and HMV to long established independent shops like Selectadisc on Berwick Street to all the basement dance music shops. I thought “end of an era and no one has documented it” – having spent far too much time and money in record shops across my life it seemed determined that I must undertake this foolhardy endeavour.
How many stores did you visit while preparing and writing Going For A Song?
Countless. I visited every record shop I could reasonably get to in the UK. Which isn’t to say I tried to get to every record shop still operating – that would have taken forever (or there about) – but I did get to the oldest, the oddest, the most influential, the specialists and, inevitably, those that stand out as the best. I’m guessing here but I’d say I visited at least two to three hundred record shops and stalls while researching Going For A Song.
What are the hallmarks of a really great record store for you?
A really great record shop most importantly has exceptional stock – that’s what us music lovers enter these odd oracles for, we want to find great records that are not in supermarkets or HMV. We want to be surprised. On top of that it helps if the staff are knowledgeable and friendly – I’ve no time for the Jack Black-style rude record store dude – and if the shop looks interesting, in the way it decorates the walls and displays records and books and such, then you’ve got me hooked. Oh, it helps if they are playing music that – even if it’s not my type of music – isn’t aimed at alienating customers. I’ve been in shops with good stock – typically used record shops – where the clerks think they’ll show off how hardcore they are by playing nose-bleed techno or thrash metal. Bye bye.
Do you have a favorite record store?
I think that’s a bit like asking a parent which of their children are their favourite – they all deserve love! That said, I live in South East London so I regularly drop into the following – Supertone Records in Brixton (35 years young – a great veteran reggae shop); Rat Records in Camberwell (a superb used record store with fresh stock and reasonable prices); Lorenzo’s Record Shack in Peckham (owned by an Italian who has very eclectic tastes and sells new and used – he turns me on to soundtracks and jazz LPs I’m often ignorant of) and Casbah Records in Greenwich (a mod-psych shop that has very high quality new and used records and often surprises me with what’s in stock).
Where’s your favourite place in the UK to dig?
Anywhere where I can find interesting music! I recently went to Skegness for the first time to go to a ‘60s Weekender at Butlins (I know, sad…) and so I went for a wander around Skegness and found the Tamla Cafe – a little record shop run by a veteran Northern soul DJ. Found some gems there. Which is to say, I can never walk past a record shop without dropping in. Brighton is probably the most fun city in the UK for crate digging cos it has lots of great little independent record shops, all very distinctive, and all within walking distance. And whenever there I get to hang out in The Record Album – the UK’s only soundtrack specialist, run by George Ginn, 88 years young and still passionate about music and vinyl (and shellac).
What’s one of the most interesting things you learnt in the process of writing this book?
I learnt so many things but perhaps the most interesting was the huge role immigration played in shaping UK record shops. Many of the pioneering record shops were run by Jewish families who often had fled to the UK from pogroms in Russia and East Europe. Then the Irish came and they set up shops selling their music and country music. Then the West Indians arrived and lead the way with calypso then ska then reggae and dub so playing a major role in developing a black British aesthetic. Indian and Pakistani record shops were also exemplary – as with restaurants, ethnic record shops helped add new flavours to UK music.
You’ve written several books, one about your native NZ. Can we expect a book about the record stores of NZ any time soon?
Sadly not. NZ has some fine record shops – then and now – but there’s not enough to fill a book with. I have written a feature on the Kiwi shops that shaped my youth for a local magazine called Phantom Billstickers Cafe Reader. If anyone really wants to read that piece contact me via my website and I’ll email it to you! Interestingly, Roger Shepherd, who founded the Flying Nun label, worked in a Christchurch record shop and Simon Grigg, who was the main mover and shaker for Kiwi punk and gave the world OMC (’How Bizarre’) worked in an Auckland shop I used to frequent as a kid, Taste Records. Just as in the UK – and elsewhere – people who lead the way running the best Kiwi record labels often have served an apprenticeship in record shops.
Were there any record stores that you wanted to be included in the book but just missed out?
Well, Going For A Song is very much a chronicle of the UK record shop’s rise, fall and partial resurrection so, while I try and cover the most important shops, I’m sure some readers will feel that I’ve left historic shops out. I’m a Londoner and the music industry is based in London so I suppose Going For A Song is a bit Londoncentric – maybe this will inspire someone to write a book on the Scottish record shops (I admit I’m weak on Scottish shop history).
Aside from the change of formats and different ways of accessing music, do you think the core tenants of the record store have survived unchanged?
That’s an interesting question. I suppose they have survived unchanged in the sense of you enter a record shop and select music and make a retail transaction but, obviously, for decades the record shop was the only way to access new recorded music and they held the knowledge on release dates, other labels etc. Now all that info is available to everyone so the shop is perhaps more of a democratic space in the sense the customers might well be more aware of certain releases or catalogues. This is pushing the shops to branch out and put on gigs and DJ events and such – so they’re becoming more fluid, more about celebrating music in its many formats.
Did you meet any especially interesting characters in your travels and preparation?
Oh yes indeed. Record shops are often run by people who don’t really fit into more conventional jobs so they’re often interesting. I heard great stories, learnt about all kinds of things – including how East End villains used to run record shops in the Swinging Sixties! – and broadened my horizons when it came to getting a greater understanding of these damp islands.
What do you think the future looks like for independent record stores?
Right now the future is bright. Exciting. It’s akin to post-WW2 when pioneering UK shops like Dobell’s and James Asman’s started specialising in selling jazz and folk and blues and this created a social and sonic earthquake as British and Irish youth got to hear music that wasn’t on the radio. Today obviously the shop doesn’t have such a central role in making music available but as we’ve seen in the digital era, a good record shop has an integrity and engagement not found in having thousands of songs on your phone or streaming. I hope the youth who have recently embraced record shops stay true and keep supporting them.
What does your own record collection look like? What was the impact of spending so much time in record stores?
Oh, its huge. Too big for my small apartment. I still have all my CDs – a lot of them cover music from non-Anglo regions so I play them regularly as you simply don’t find much music from the Balkans or Haiti or Mexico on vinyl over here. As for all my 45s and LPs, I’m always knocking them over as they pile up… I feel a bit like one of those guys that goes to Alcoholics Anonymous: I’m Garth and I have a record problem…I guess that last line describes the impact of spending so much time in the record shops. But I have made good friends in them too. And, most importantly, enriched my musical life.