“When I play a record, I can tell you where I was, who I was going out with…it’s all about memories.” So says Tom Butchart, owner of Sound It Out Records in Stockton-on-Tees. Tom has a theory that blokes like to collect things as a way of holding on to their youth. That way they never grow up. He admits that 99% of his customers are men. For Tom and the rest of us vinyl junkies, records are endlessly fascinating because they hold memories and emotions. We are forever trying to recapture the past. Through the music we hear on old vinyl records, we are transported back to a time of big hair, flared jeans and necking in the back row of the pictures.
Now as you may or not know, I was once myself a record shop man – the manager of HMV in Bradford, no less. I worked there from 1974 until 1980, certainly some of the best years for music, I’m sure you’ll agree. I was 18 when I joined and 24 when I left, so they were formative years, years when one’s musical tastes are cemented. But whereas everybody else who worked in the shop in those days has now forgotten about their experiences and moved on to other things, I haven’t. For some unfathomable reason I am obsessed by those 6 years of my life. So much so, that I have spent all the intervening years trying to find all the records that were in the shop at the time. And I mean ALL of them! Yes, folks, it’s a kind of madness.
When I started working in the shop, some of the big sellers were records like Sheer Heart Attack by Queen and Supertramp’s Crime of the Century. But I quickly became entranced by more exotic records, LPs with intriguing, enigmatic covers, recorded in Scandinavia and pressed in Germany; unpronounceable names I had never heard of playing racks of polyphonic synthesizers or odd instruments like bass clarinet. Terje Rypdal, Bennie Maupin, Eberhard Weber, Annette Peacock – who were these people? Suddenly music wasn’t just for dancing or shaking your shoulder-length hair; it was something deeper, magical and transcendent. LP covers were wonderfully artistic, and often the music inside matched the aesthetic promise of the outside.
If my obsession is a kind of religion, then I worship at a temple in the middle of my sitting room, between two great big speakers. The records I play serve as little prayers and sermons, but without the dogma. In fact, music is a release from moral responsibilities, a suspension of worry and care, a flight of fancy, a time to sing like an idiot on the sofa. Old LPs transport me as efficiently as any time-machine. Now you can see why I, and Tom Butchart, and many other blokes, have never quite grown up.
Nowadays, we are constantly told to “live in the present”, whatever that means. Don’t think about tomorrow, don’t dwell in the past. Well, I’m sorry, but to quote an old Jethro Tull song, I am very definitely Living in The Past. Does that make me a saddo? Maybe. But for me, music is a kind of emotional touchstone. With the aid of my LPs, I am able to reach down into a well of feelings within myself. Of course, music also gives you a great sense of history – not just the history of music, but of cultural and social change. Reading is wonderful, too, but it tends to stimulate the intellect; music is a kind of spark that instinctively sets our bodies and souls in motion.
There is a film about Tom Butchart and Sound It Out Records. One of the blokes featured in the film is a regular customer called Shane, whose obsession is focused on one band only: Status Quo (all together now, “Here we go-oh, rockin’ all over the world”). This guy appears to have a humongous collection of memorabilia and is on a permanent mission to buy anything associated with his rocker heroes. There is a very revealing moment in the film where Shane looks at the camera and says: “I just like my Quo! I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I haven’t got a woman. What more could you want?” I have no idea what he means…