“You don’t become a ‘specialist’ music fan overnight. Almost always, you begin on the high street.”
I like specialist and second-hand record shops, but these weren’t the sorts of shops I went to as a kid. I spent vast amounts of my time rifling through record browsers in Debenhams, Boots and WHSmiths, and going to high-street shops that sold a broad selection of records for a wide variety of tastes — including, of course, whatever was in the charts. These are the shops I feel most nostalgic about, a nostalgia heightened by the fact that there are hardly any left now.
These days, if I want to reconnect with that feeling, I’ll head to HMV and its sister store FOPP. Neither are exactly your standard local record shop, but in terms of what’s available, they’re the nearest I’ll get to that excitement I felt when I’d walk into Woolworths and see the entire chart spread across the wall in front of me, on 75 dedicated seven-inch shelves. And, as it happens, once in a while, I’ll find something in those shops that a more niche vinyl outlet wouldn’t dream of selling. This Christmas, HMV was the only record shop in London that stocked Ariana Grande’s Sweetener on vinyl. When Pharrell’s 2014 album GIRL came out (the one with Happy on it), I finally tracked it down in the Covent Garden branch of FOPP.
And yet both these shops were stronger than you’d expect on specialist titles too. One evening a couple of years ago, I had to drive into town to drop off my daughter at the cinema. She was only going to be there for a couple of hours, so rather than go home, I decided to spend that time browsing through the vinyl racks upstairs at the Oxford Street branch of HMV. I came away with albums by Melt Yourself Down (Last Evenings On Earth), Orchestre Baobab (Pirate’s Choice) and Amadou & Mariam (Welcome To Mali).
On subsequent visits, I picked up vinyl releases as disparate as Disco Inferno’s reissued 1994 masterpiece D.I. Go Pop and Golden Smog’s ramshackle 1998 country-rock classic Weird Tales. When I became smitten with Sam Cooke’s Nothing Can Change This Love, I finally managed to track a copy of Mr Soul — the album which paid host to it — in FOPP.
The reason I mention all this because some of the commentaries that have appeared since the news that HMV has gone into administration would have you believe that HMV was no place for the music connoisseur. In The Guardian yesterday, Penny Anderson wrote “[HMV] was never for open-minded obsessives or specialists, not for rarities or vintage; never really a hit where bands were formed and labels were launched; where you called to check out what was new.” Well, it wasn’t all of these things, but it was some of them. I’ve frequently called in “to check out what was new”, en route to the Soho Radio show I host on Tuesday lunchtimes. And more often than not I would excitably rip apart the shrink-wrap covering those records and place them straight onto the decks in the studio.
In 2018, HMV and FOPP weren’t all the things that Penny Anderson mentions, but surely that’s fine. I can go to Sounds of the Universe for lovingly curated small-batch reissues of reggae obscurities or soul imports; I can go to Reckless for “rarities and vintage” and I can go to Rough Trade for indie store exclusives, Ghost Box releases, American outsider folk imports and (as I did a fortnight ago) the superlative new album by Daniel Knox. But the thrill of walking into the Covent Garden FOPP and looking up at the wall of new releases covering all genres was one I could never quite replicate in another shop in 2018.
And, besides, the fact of the matter is that, living in London, I’m lucky enough to have a choice. Many branches of HMV operate in towns and cities that don’t have another record shop. If those branches close down, jobs will be lost and Amazon’s monopoly will intensify just a little more overnight. Not just because of the non-availability of vinyl albums, but also DVDs. If you’re on your way home from work and you want to pick up a Blu-Ray box set to binge on that evening, then you’ll be screwed. Not everything is available on Netflix, Amazon Prime or YouTube. And even if it were, many of us would like to reserve the right not to fund a tax-avoiding organisation with working conditions as desultory as those of Amazon.
You don’t become a “specialist” music fan overnight. Almost always, you begin on the high street. Then you get the bug and follow your excitement into exciting, rarefied new spaces. Often, you specialise your tastes by taking a punt on a discounted item in a HMV sale. For me, back in the 1980s that happened with records by The Pastels, King Tubby, Felt and B.B. King — the beginnings of infatuations which, in time, had me scurrying off to record shops with more niche selections than HMV itself. The first album I ever owned — a K-Tel compilation called Hot Tracks — was bought in HMV. It was thanks to HMV, a couple of years later, that I had my first encounter with an actual pop star. A month shy of my twelfth birthday, Brit-soul duo Linx turned up to Birmingham’s flagship New Street branch to sign copies of their second album Go Ahead. And it was also in an HMV — Oxford Street, 1993 — that I saw Paul Weller and his band play a bunch of songs from their new album Wild Wood and connected with his music in a way that I hadn’t quite done since the early days of The Style Council. Streaming isn’t going to go away, obviously, but record shops are still uniquely placed to provide experiences for which clicking “purchase” on your laptop will never be an acceptable substitute.
With a continual rolling schedule of Q&As and in-store gigs, Rough Trade East continues to bear out that fact. I suspect that, in the long-term, it might not be viable for HMV to hold onto that cripplingly expensive bit of Oxford Street real estate. But further afield, in towns and cities where hundreds of thousands of houses don’t even have one record and DVD shop to frequent, a small well-stocked HMV — staffed by experts, with a well-curated schedule of events and a café in which you pore over your new acquisitions — would be a godsend. Not every town is fortunate enough to have a David’s of Letchworth or a Loafers of Halifax.
And if, we really are too far down the line even for that; if it really is time to cede another bit of market domination to Amazon, let’s not give any time of day to this perception of HMV as a place for dabblers and fashion-followers. “I have many fond memories of record shops,” writes Anderson in her Guardian piece, “but not one misty-eyed recollection involves buying the music that changed my life from HMV.” That might be the case for her, but if I were to start listing the instances where an HMV purchase changed my life in some way, I’d be here all day.