Good record shops have their own particular magic. No two are ever quite the same.
Some are staffed by the sort of folk who will offer you a brew as soon as look at you, others by those who’ll offer you a running commentary of your purchases and make suggestions for what to buy instead. They are cultural totems and soul-enriching gateways to another world.
With the global celebration of their kind that is Record Store Day now a memory once more, it’s worth remembering that these mysterious, unique places offer so much more than coloured vinyl reissues and the chance to keep some scrotty eBay sellers afloat.
Richard King’s Original Rockers is the perfect conduit for such thinking, offering a demure pedestal for one such retail haven. Part memoir, part historical overview and part riveting music writing, the book uses the author’s time working in Bristol’s now-defunct Revolver Records in the 90s as a framework to traverse musical styles and generations, interspersing such remarkably effective enthusing with tales of life behind the counter.
Anti-hero owner, Roger, a man who wouldn’t be out of place in the Championship Vinyl of Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’, is hilariously blunt, wilfully obtuse and yet clearly in it for the unsurpassable highs that music can bring.
King’s writing provides ample opportunity to luxuriate in the sheer majesty of music. The book will have you reaching for Spotify and searching Discogs more often than your food budget might like, but reading it is akin to the experience you can receive propping up the counter at exactly the sort of indie store being eulogised in its pages. Knowledgeable but accessible, with a synesthetic approach to description, King makes no presumptions and his reflections work just as well as either introductions or emphatic endorsements of what you already know.
A particular highlight is the near-psychogeography of a section about Bristol’s Wild Bunch soundsystem, which focuses in on a walk around the city listening to a pre-release tape of Massive Attack’s ‘Blue Lines’, linking its lustre to its lineage. Little details tie the tale to its time, most notably when describing ‘Be Thankful For What You’ve Got’:
“A section in the song where the organ part is suddenly scratched, as if on a turntable, had temporarily thrown me and I listened to this passage again in order to check my Walkman had not malfunctioned.”
King tells of how the band had “bootlegged themselves” and distributed copies of their debut album to the people and the city that had been there along the way. It highlights perfectly the connection between a location and its artists, and record shops play a huge part in that.
Revolver may have closed in the early months of 2000, but visit its former location of The Triangle at the top of Park Street in Bristol today and nearby you’ll find Rise - a rather more grand, 21st century take on the independent record shop, but no less a magnet for local talent.
Recent and current employees include James Hankins, an innovative filmmaker, director and musician; Adrian Dutt of noise-rockers Spectres, whose excellent debut was released in February; and Oliver Wilde, who has already released two albums of ethereal folktronica that have been rightly lauded across the city and far beyond. Both creators and sharers of wonderful music, they highlight the on-going power of record shops and their importance within any community.
Despite this enduring power, there is a certain sadness running through the book, parallel with the author’s recollections of gradually realising that Revolver was sinking to its knees. While experiences with John Peel and the Thames Valley drugs squad more than deliver the mirth that might be expected from such an environment, stagnant, sale-free afternoons in the shop become the norm as a melancholy descends.
This downward feeling dovetails into a touching tribute to King’s friend and artist Joshua Compston - who died in 1996, aged only 25, and whose link to the author’s day job leaves a lump in the throat.
Independent record shops are as secure as they’ve been in a while, even if that isn’t an especially rigid platform itself, and as they have diversified to stay alive, Original Rockers offers something of a tribute to the old, gloomy, occasionally snooty but never less than obsessive world of their 20th century incarnation.
Following a very personal route, it is, ultimately, a piece of wonderfully evocative music writing that incorporates its own select soundtrack as it progresses.
Words: Gareth James