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.
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.
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 spanners. Soon 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.
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).
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?”
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.