WHAT a choice set of comments on my post about Brinsley Schwarz. Author and former Kursaal Flyer Will Birch reminded me that he wrote about the ‘hype of the century’ in his book No Sleep Till Canvey Island, and got in a plug for his impending biography of Nick Lowe, to which I look forward hugely. And it was observed that I failed to mention the Brinsleys being invited by Paul McCartney to support Wings on two UK tours. Also that Ian Gomm went on to have a US top 20 hit single with Hold On.
Thanks to Mr Gomm himself for pointing out those omissions. It’s an honour to have a Kursaal and a Brinsley among the readership.
Last week I mentioned the Electron, my former local record shop in Nelson, Lancashire, and it made me think how much we are missing in this internet age. Today you see a CD on Amazon, click on it and it’s downloaded instantly to your computer or delivered to your door the next day. Music stores are virtually defunct, with one of the last, HMV, going belly-up straight after Christmas.
What a contrast with the late 1960s, when I started buying music and every town had at least one record emporium. The Electron became virtually my second home, visited four or five times a week whenever I had money in my pocket and often when I had nowt. The manager, Les Baxter, would always greet me with a cheery insult and patiently play all the singles and LPs I wished to hear in one of the listening booths.
Every Saturday afternoon my cronies and I would congregate there, sharing a Players No 6 and shooting the breeze. There was a camaraderie about the place – the sort of vibe Nick Hornby describes in his novel High Fidelity. In we would troop, probably with an LP under the arm which we hoped to trade in for something better (in those days we owned only about six albums at any one time and it was a case of one out, one in).
My first port of call would be the second-hand LP racks in the hope of finding some esoteric bargain. In those days it was often the cover art that attracted me but five minutes in the booth would generally be enough to put me off the music. Les would be there to pour ridicule on my choices, while never actually divulging his own musical tastes. When I ordered the album June 1 1974, featuring Kevin Ayers, John Cale, Nico and Brian Eno, he handed it over and I found he had taken the trouble to create a personalised Dymo label for me and stick it to the front cover. It read: ‘W**ker, Class One’. Without the asterisks.
One sad week he was away on holiday and a stand-in, or rather sit-in, was ensconced behind the counter. He was a ginger-haired character from Rochdale and thought he had all the sales patter. I picked up the album Tago Mago, by the German group Can, and asked to listen to it.
‘Great choice,’ he said. ‘Tango Mango have always been one of my favourite bands.’ I bought it nevertheless but it didn’t feel right handing the money to such a wally.
When I started out as an evening newspaper reporter in 1974 I found out which record labels had already been tapped up for review copies by an older colleague in the features department, who made a healthy extra income flogging them off to workmates and to shops. The Virgin label had not been going long and I made contact with its lovely press officer, who was happy to send me freebies not just of new releases but also the back catalogue, including interesting bands such as Hatfield and the North and Henry Cow. The Phonogram outfit didn’t object to sending two copies of every release, one to Mr Greedy and the other to me. Ditto Chrysalis and several others, although I tragically never managed to get on to Island’s mailing list. And I didn’t get many reviews published – the senior guy’s choices always took precedence.
Every record I didn’t like, and that was most of what arrived, went to the Electron where it was exchanged for others – a typical transaction being an Alan Parsons Project, a Bachman Turner Overdrive and a Leo Sayer from me in return for a John Martyn album from Les. These swops formed the foundation of my music collection.
Eventually I moved away from the area and the Electron closed down (because of redevelopment, not the lack of my custom). Les for some time operated in the market hall, calling his stall Electromuzik (cutting edge, eh?) but then disappeared from my life at the same time as my career took me to Fleet Street, where I met my fellow sub-editor and wife-to-be Margaret.
Having returned north after our retirement, I was having a swift half at the Bridge Bier Huis in Burnley with my oldest friend Steve (met at nursery school 60 years ago) and mentioned the good old days when we infested Les’s place. ‘Follow me,’ he said, and took me up a nearby side street. There it was, ‘Electron, est 1946’, painted a revolting shade of green and with an identical logo to the long-gone Nelson shop four miles away.
Inside, the same racks of second-hand vinyl, the same King Crimson posters from 1970. The same listening booths. And in the corner, the same Les Baxter.
‘You haven’t changed a bit,’ he said, and neither had he. The old geezer, who, it emerged, took over the Burnley branch of the Electron empire when the Nelson business closed, is now well into his seventies but still opens full time when not attending record conventions, where he is an evangelist for vinyl. As he admitted: ‘If I wasn’t here I’d just be sitting at home.’
The shop’s status as a living piece of history was recognised four years ago when it was used for a scene in the film Northern Soul, set in 1974. It appears about a quarter of an hour in, although Les’s corner is occupied by an actor.
Readers, if you’re ever by any chance in Burnley, drop in and maybe buy a tune or two, especially if you still have the capability to play 33s and 45s. I think there are some CDs on sale. You could also have your poodle clipped at the dog grooming parlour next door and sample the excellent ales at the Bier Huis.
Mention my name to Les and he’ll no doubt tell you to bugger off.