When I was born in July 1960 my Godmother, Kristine Howarth, gave me a copy of “Rocking Goose” by Johnny and The Hurricanes. I didn’t see much of her after that – she and my parents went their separate ways – but to all intents and purposes her work was done. Charged with overseeing my spiritual wellbeing, she could surely not have picked a better place to start. “Rocking Goose” is a fantastic record, and I still have it and play it and cherish it.
By the time I was eighteen months old my parents were showing off to their friends my ability to operate their gramophone. My earliest memories are all connected with records and record players: watching the records go round, making sure the needle didn’t overshoot the playout groove and scratch the label. This last was called “going onto the side” and was the worst thing that could possibly happen when playing records and had to be guarded against at all times. It was especially critical when it came to 78s, as it could all happen so fast. When I was two, another friend of my parents, Derek Hunt, gave me my very own old wind up mechanical gramophone and a bunch of 78s to go with it. Changing the steel needles, keeping the crank handle up to pressure, memorizing every detail of the record labels (and making sure they never went onto the side) all became part of my everyday pre-school routine.
My father worked at the BBC and was friendly with a fellow named Neville Workman who worked on “Top Of The Pops” when it first started in 1964. Having told Neville about his four-year-old son’s obsession with records, Neville invited my father into his office and motioned him towards a filing cabinet that was full of demo 45s.
“Help yourself”, he said. “Give ‘em to your son.”
That was when my collection really began. There must have been close on a hundred 45s – all with ‘Demonstration Disc – Not For Sale’ on the labels – and I would pore over them and absorb their every detail as I played them all one after another. (To my great shame and sadness, I stupidly swapped them all for a Beatles LP when I was eleven.)
At this stage I wasn’t all that bothered about the quality of the music but by the time I was six I cared enough to cajole my parents into buying me a copy of “Happy Jack” by The Who. I had seen them perform this on television and, apart from getting hooked on the chorus, I had been most impressed by the talcum powder on Keith Moon’s drums. When I got the record, I was excited by the fact that it was on a label I hadn’t seen before (Reaction) and that the groups name was above and bigger than the name of the songs. A year or so later I begged for “Hole In My Shoe” by Traffic. This cost a princely 7/6 and came in a beautiful pink sleeve with Island printed on it to match the beautiful pink Island label. When I wasn’t playing it I would gaze at it, overflowing with joy and pride of ownership. Another year or so later I remember accompanying my mother on a shopping trip to Church Street market off the Edgware Road where she bought a copy of “Hey Jude” by The Beatles as a present for my father. This was the most exciting record yet: a shiny black sleeve with Apple written on it in little green letters, and the record itself? Breathtaking: on one side a green apple and on the other the same apple cut in half. Everything about this record was extraordinary. The ‘A’ side went on at least twice as long as any other record in our home (of course I was intimately acquainted with all the details of my parents records as well as my own) and some of the details printed on the ‘B’ side were typed in black over black so you couldn’t read them unless you held the label up to the light at a certain angle. I was eight by this time and very impressed.
Then, I am ashamed to say, football took over for a couple of years. I never lost interest in records but they definitely took a back seat to football. But then, when I was ten, records regained their supremacy in my life and again, it was a shopping trip to Church Street market with my mum that did it. There was a little stall there that sold records. We stopped to look. They were selling ‘ex-jukebox’ and returned stock 45s for 30 new pence each (six shillings). My mum bought a couple for herself and my dad and for me she bought “Let It Be” by The Beatles – knowing how much I liked The Beatles and of course the beautiful Apple label (although this one had been spoiled somewhat by having had the centre pushed out). Shortly after that, I went out and bought “Hot Love” by T.Rex. New. With my own money. It had a picture of a fly on the label. It cost me 50p. That was the turning point. After that and to this day, virtually every bit of spare cash I’ve had has gone on records.
That stall in Church Street market was a godsend. Every week I would turn up with my pocket money of 30p and buy a 45. In addition to the 30p singles they had a big stash of albums for £1.25 – mono editions that were unwanted as the world turned stereo – and sometimes I would save up and buy one, each week praying that it wouldn’t have been sold before I had enough money (I have a recurring time machine fantasy to go back there with grown up money and buy the lot.) I got a Rolling Stones album called “Between The Buttons” for £1.00 because the cover was creased. It was a strange record (it still is), it didn’t sound much like the 45 of “Brown Sugar” I had recently purchased, but still I absorbed its every detail. I would wander up and down Church Street market, in and out of all the junk shops, and peruse every stack of records I could find. One time I was sorting through a pile of 78s when the proprietor asked me if I was really interested in old records. When I confirmed that I was VERY interested in old records he gave me a pile of jazz 78s as a present. I was overwhelmed. I could barely carry them home. In that pile was Clara Smith, Louis Armstrong, Muggsy Spanier and a record that changed my life: “Down The Road Apiece” by the Will Bradley Trio. (My father was very jealous.)
As I hit my teens, Pop was my official religion but shortly after that, like many a grammar school smartarse, I got bitten by wanting to appear cool and knowledgeable and I fell into the open arms of Prog Rock. In some ways, this was a regression to childhood as the sleeves and designs of these records were so elaborate they were an entertainment in themselves. Roger Dean’s covers for Yes, Jethro Tull’s fold-outs, the spinning wheel of “Led Zeppelin III”, Martin Sharp’s acid fantasies for Cream, the optical illusion of “In And Out Of Focus” – all these became like totems to me and by the time I was fifteen I had more or less stopped buying singles. Then, I got a Saturday job handing out leaflets in Portobello Road. When I would finish the job, I would look in on a record stall in a clothes shop (in those days, many clothes shops - boutiques, as they were known - would have a stall that sold records). This stall sold bootlegs. These fascinated me (they still do), illicit records, illegal records, things you weren’t supposed to be able to hear. They were expensive but I would sometimes scrape enough money to buy one. The proprietor was a friendly soul who wouldn’t mind playing things for me even when it was obvious I couldn’t afford them. One week in 1976 I went in and he was playing a 45 – an EP to be precise. He was chuckling and when it got the to the end he played it again. It was the first time I had ever seen him playing a 45, and the EP format (two songs a side) was completely out of circulation at the time. But just like an old EP from the 60s (I owned a few) this had a laminated picture sleeve. “Speedball”, it was called, by a group called The Count Bishops. It stopped me in my tracks. The songs were short and very fast and all cover versions. They sounded like the early Rolling Stones but brought up to date. “Speedball” changed everything. I started buying 45s again. Punks began appearing on the streets. The rules changed virtually overnight. “I could do this”, I thought to myself. But that’s another story…
Then, in the 80s, as we all know, the record industry did something snide and underhand to us record buyers: compact disc. It was the greatest marketing coup in the history of the industry: get millions of people to buy something they already have at a higher price in a different format. I never fell for it. I held out against CD’s as long as possible. Who cares if they sound good? Since when did the odd scratch or crackle matter when compared to the joys of labels and sleeves and big pictures and fat shiny grooves which change colour in the loud bits? Particularly offensive to me was what the CD revolution did to the Pop single. Suddenly there were no more ‘B’sides! The ‘B’ side was such an important part of the ritual of the 45. You bought the record because you liked (loved) the ‘A’ side. Some records were SO GREAT you never even played the ‘B’ side. But it was there, waiting for you. It was a completely unknown quantity (unless it was a track off an album you already knew). The ‘B’ side was a place for an artist to put something for fans, something that maybe wasn’t on the album, maybe something special like a live track or a cover version. Sometimes the ‘B’ side was even better than the ‘A’ side! (Cue at least half a dozen Beatles singles) But with CD’s, not only could you not turn them over but more often than not, the ‘B’ side was just a crummy re-mix of the ‘A’ side. This contradicted every instinct I ever had about the Pop single: THE WHOLE POINT ABOUT A POP SINGLE IS THAT IT IS A SONG WHICH IS SO IMPORTANT IT HAS TO HAVE A WHOLE RECORD ALL TO ITSELF! Inferior re-mixes undermined this concept. A scam was being perpetrated on the public. (Nowadays, of course, the public have voted with their wallets and the CD single is dead, and the album format hanging on by its fingernails. The individual track is once again king but a digital download, be it legal or illegal, is not a record. You can’t hold it in your hand, you certainly can’t turn it over or watch it go round to make sure it doesn’t go onto the side. More often than not, it doesn’t even sound that good.)
So I rebelled. When I hit my late 30s I decided to stop being coy about it and just celebrate my collecting of old singles. I don’t care about being an anorak, in fact I am rather proud of it. The hell with it. I like singles. Specifically, I like singles from the mid 50s to the late 70s – the golden age of pop and rock’n’roll (or at least, my take on it). I like to get the original pressings whenever possible because that’s what you would have got if you’d been there at the time. If it’s an American record, I like the American pressing, if British then British (strangely enough, a survivor from my Prog days, my copy of “Focus 3” is Dutch but I swear that was a happy accident.) The 45 is the format in which the music was originally meant to be heard. And of course, the graphics are wonderful, magical, signposts from another age (whatever happened to Fran The Fan? Did The Frantics ever get a record deal? These are very real questions that need addressing) when the world was younger and I was young and everything was possible – even apples on record labels.
So why am I obsessed with records? I haven’t a clue. Not an earthly. These days I have even gone back to the 78s where I started 50 odd years ago. I would like to hear from anyone else similarly afflicted, hear their tales, but for myself it has gone all my life, since before I could read or write. I still cannot pass a record shop without going in – it’s a Pavlovian response. More than once now, I have been pleased to find a record, buy it, get it home, only to find I already have a copy. Obviously the music is most of it, but only most of it. The labels, the sleeves, the smell of records, the feel of them, it’s a complete experience. And I can’t see it ever ending.