The day the music died…

Nipper is now a stray dog...

Nipper is now a stray dog…

The news that HMV – the UK’s only chain of so-called “record” shops – has gone bankrupt and closed its doors hasn’t caused much wailing in the streets. Nobody liked the shops any more. Expensive CDs and DVDs, no atmosphere, supermarket-style checkouts and no personal touch. In short, a dull and empty consumer experience. But hey – it wasn’t always like that.

Way back in 1974, an 18 year-old long-haired youth gingerly entered a branch of HMV in Bradford, Yorkshire, and asked for a job. So began a six-year period of my life which not only formed my musical taste but seeped into the very fibre of my being. On my headstone should be written “Martin Fletcher, HMV Bradford, RIP”. Everything about the shop and the people who worked there appealed to me. My previous job had been fitting tractor wheels in a factory, and suddenly I was in heaven. Now I could go to work in my high-waisted flared trousers, platform shoes, cheesecloth shirt and a smirk on my face.

The happy staff I left behind. HMV Bradford, 1981.

The happy staff I left behind. HMV Bradford, 1981.

But it wasn’t all sugar and spice. We had to be respectful in those days. We had to call the manager ‘Mr Walker’. Then, lo and behold, at my first Christmas party, my naughty colleagues plied me with so much whisky that I got fuzzy and headstrong, letting my working-class roots show through. So what did I do? I only went and called the manager, Mr Walker, a ‘bastard’. That didn’t go down very well, I can tell you. I literally got down on my knees and begged to keep my job.

Turkey No 1 - Slade in Flame...

Turkey No 1 – Slade in Flame…

Turkey No 2 - Elton John, Rock of the Westies...

Turkey No 2 – Elton John, Rock of the Westies…

But I digress. You see, this is the story of six LPs. Six records that I encountered in my early days at HMV. Let’s call them the ‘Turkeys’, the ‘Naughties’ and the ‘Gems’. I discovered the Turkeys on my first day, when I went upstairs to look for the toilets. On the way I passed two huge piles of records gathering dust in the corner. These were embarrassing examples of bad buying by the management. Expecting huge demand, they had ordered hundreds. But these two – Slade in Flame and Elton John’s Rock of the Westies – hadn’t sold well at all. In fact, they had both gone down like a bag of spannersSoon I learned that one of my jobs was to send a few of them back to the record company as “faulty” every so often – and hope they didn’t notice.

Art or pornography? Roxy Music's odd choice of cover for 'Country Life'

Art or pornography? Roxy Music: ‘Country Life’

Never mind the WHAT? Censored, please!

Never mind the WHAT? Censored, please!

The Naughties were LPs that had such obscene or outrageous covers that we had to put stickers over them to avoid upsetting the public. It seems laughable now in the highly sexualised, four-letter 21st century. But HMV was part of EMI, part of the establishment, and we had to be seen to be decent and upright. The offending albums were Roxy Music’s very strange (pornographic?) choice of cover for Country Life, and the more obvious Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks. Another of my duties was to stand like a guard over the LP racks to make sure nobody tried to remove the stickers and peep inside. You had to be married to see nipples in those days (usually after closing time on a Friday night).

What a voice! Honey for the ears...Gino Vannelli

What a voice! Honey for the ears…Gino Vannelli

There is NO OTHER album quite like this gem from Gene Clark

There is NO OTHER album quite like this gem from Gene Clark

And now we come to my favourite category, the Gems. The manager had a habit of playing records in-store that he wanted to promote. Often it was because he had taken a gamble and ordered five copies and nobody had bought them. So, as I strolled around the shop, flirting with the girls at the counter and nodding to the customers, I was treated to the exotic and irresistible sounds of Gino Vannelli’s Powerful People and Gene Clark’s No Other. These two LPs have turned out to be a couple of my very favourite records of all time. I’m quite sure that if I hadn’t been there at that moment in time, in HMV Bradford, I would never have heard such cracking music. Thank you, Mr Walker, wherever you are.

I left HMV in 1980, just at the right time. I don’t think I missed much in the 1980s. Of course, some of you will be thinking I’m an embarrassing dad-rock dinosaur, hopelessly stuck in the 70s. But I was warmed by a recent interview with an artist who made his name during the 1990s – Ian McNabb (remember If Love was Like Guitars?). He was asked who he thought the new pioneers of rock were; which artists were the most innovative today. He said: “I don’t know – it was all over by 1980, wasn’t it?”

All together now: "Spent the last year Rocky Mountain way, da daa da da..."

All together now: “Spent the last year Rocky Mountain way, da daa da da…”

Certainly for me, the music died a long time ago. And so, in a way, did the people. I met a lot of great characters during my six years with the firm. Now they have all vanished into the ether. So, if anybody is mourning the demise of HMV, I would like to put in a word for all those eccentric, witty, music-obsessed weirdos I had the pleasure of meeting all those years ago. Luckily, the records remain to remind me of those happy times. Records, not CDs. Please – no CDs. LPs. Albums. Gatefold sleeves. And I still have the very first LP I ever bought at HMV in 1974: Joe Walsh, The Smoker You Drink The Player You Get. And if you think you understand the title, it means you weren’t there in the Seventies.

Categories: Global Crisis, Music, Vinyl | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “The day the music died…

  1. Did people usually get married on a Friday night in the 70s? I guess they didn’t have the Channel 4 comedy strand…

  2. Ah, Marc Jordan came later, young man. By that time Mr Walker and the counter girls had moved on and I was in charge of what got played in-store. But that’s a different story. And if you’re very, very good and eat all your greens, I just might tell you all about it one day…

  3. Hi Martin, what a blast from the past, strangely I came across a photo of us at the Lido a few days ago and seeing the photo of Rob, Steve, Bernie, Fran, Jed , Danny and kids brings back memories of what seems long ago. Thanks to Rob for sending me the link. Cheers – Sarah McBurnie

  4. David

    What amuses me about the 70s record-buying exprience was that whilst we could visit dedicated record stores, I bought a number of my LPs in the most amazing shops. For example Led Zeppelin IV came from a hardware store in Stanmore and Exile on Main Street from an electronics store in Bushey Heath, both in N.London The latter offered (seemingly forever as demand was strangely absent) a couple of LPs by Van de Graaff Generator….. they make your Mr. Walker’s slip ups seem very mundane!
    Music is like your mother’s cooking – you like what you’re used to. Records which by chance I had access to back then are still my favourites (The London Cast of Hair – my sister had the LP, I never saw the show but can sing it word for word… and frequently do!).
    Lamp lighters, bus conductors and record shops are all relegated to the past.

    • David – interesting to hear about some of your record-buying experiences back in the 1960s…or was it the 1950s? I know you’re getting on a bit. Re “your mother’s cooking”, what about finding someone who’s a better cook than your mother? Someone who can prepare exotic, spicy, mouth-watering dishes and then give you a rub down afterwards? Trouble is, of course, you can’t understand a word she says…

      Actually, there still are a few record shops in existence, but needless to say they are all second-hand with the odd (high-priced) new release. I believe I was put on this earth to visit all of them at least once, to greet the owner with a smile, buy a few of his or her wares and then depart again on my messianic journey.

  5. Graham Vaughan Fletcher

    Ay up ar kid. Funny you should mention that. Last night I had this song running through my head and I couldn’t quite place it. Then, as I walked back over Richmond Bridge after a few sherbets at The Angel & Crown, I remembered. “Look into the sun” by Jethro Tull off Stand Up. Couldn’t wait to get back ‘ome to play the LP. Brought tears to my eyes. 1969. I was all of 16. Long curly hair and wearing some grandmas old overcoat. Very trendoid..oid! See you tomorow ol love.

    • Eh up, our kid!
      I had an old RAF trenchcoat and a back-combed bird’s-nest hairdo, but it didn’t do me no good when I tried to get into Bradford Uni in 1972. The bloke on the door said: “You look like a pocket-sized Wurzel Gummidge, mate, now clear off!”.
      Look into the sun, we used to know, nothing is easy…
      But remember, life is a long song – not very long, mind you. In our case the bridge has gone and we are half way through the last chorus already…let’s hope there’s a blinding guitar solo to fade out…

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