The first time I met him, it was in Tower Records, in 1994, and said brother was attempting to shoplift a copy of Caught by the Fuzz by Supergrass.
A couple of years ago I was clearing out some of the more cobwebbed bits of my bookshelves and decided that it would be a good idea to throw out what was probably a complete run of Top magazine from at least three or four years in the mid-1990s, a decision that I came to regret almost immediately. What’s that? What the hell is Top magazine? Why, it was the in-store magazine of Tower Records, of course. What d’you mean, you don’t remember it? The fact that it existed is part of something that no longer exists, something I’ve been thinking about since the news broke that one-time music industry cornerstone HMV was going into administration for a second time.
Between the Top incident and the HMV news, at some point, I was trying to remember how many record shops there had been in the 1990s in Kingston, the London suburb in which I grew up.
There was Our Price in Eden Walk, next to the card shop. It was where you went if you wanted chart tapes. Speaking of charts, there were Boots, Woolworths and WH Smith, all in or around the market place, which also had enormous CD, record and tape sections. I’m pretty sure my first ever vinyl record of my own — a compilation of comedy (and so-called comedy) songs called You’ve Got to Laugh — was something I picked up for £1.99 in Woolworths in Kilburn while visiting my godfather who lived across the road. Boots was also the place — the first floor, between the electronic typewriters and the weird rotating thing of cheap sunglasses — where a decade earlier I would pester my parents to buy computer games, on cassette, for what again in my memory is £1.99 apiece.
Boots and Smiths are still there but neither of them sells music, much less a Commodore Vic 20 copy of Greg Duddle’s Treasure Island on tape.
Our Price may have been the first to go — maybe even in the 90s, I’m not sure. Woolworths has obviously vanished and is now a branch of something called Clas Ohlson, which is like a sort of Swedish Reject Shop. Boots and Smiths are still there but neither of them sells music, much less a Commodore Vic 20 copy of Greg Duddle's Treasure Island on tape.
But back to ‘proper’ record shops (and it was always record shops, even if they later on didn’t sell any records, even if you were buying a tape — never music shops, and definitely never music stores). There was a place called The Record Shop, on Fife Road, which was never cool enough to be the sort of record shop you’d be scared to go into, but was also not square enough to be Our Price.
For some reason that’s where we used to go, as sixth formers, to buy our new release Britpop 7in singles. I have a complete run of 7in singles from both the first Cast album and the first Garbage album, all of which (from both bands) came in weird and wacky marketing gimmick covers. It’s where I bought both of Oasis’s good albums, on vinyl, on their release days in 1994 and 1995 respectively.
it seemed like the sort of place that was far too cool for me to enter
There was Beggars Banquet, which had a shop in Kingston and one in Putney, and was at one time part of the mighty Beggars Banquet record label empire. That, for a few years at least, really was somewhere I was afraid to go. At the time when I was mainly listening to chart music and old ‘classic’ rock, it seemed like the sort of place that was far too cool for me to enter.
And then by the time I got around to rap, and drum and bass, and Britpop, and British Asian music, and the rest, I’d just sort of got into the habit of avoiding it. But then by the late ’90s I was in there as much as I was in any of the other record shops, having developed through osmosis a kind of equilibrium between the two levels of coolness (mine, and its). I don’t remember the first time I went in, but it was probably a school lunch-time, in a group, to buy something Britpop.
You’d go from being too shy and too scared to take a look in case someone told you off, to sneaking a tentative glance
I definitely bought The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land there on the day it was released in June 1997, but I must have been in before that. They used to have a big double rack of vinyl in the middle of the shop, under which were loads of rolls and tubes of posters of the day. You’d go from being too shy and too scared to take a look in case someone told you off, to sneaking a tentative glance at what turned out invariably to be a poster for S*M*A*S*H or Menswear, to rummaging through for the latest thing to blu-tack to the bedroom wall.
Beggars is still there, though it was bought out some years ago by local force of nature and now Lib Dem member of Kingston Council, Jon Tolley, who I used to know as ‘the bloke in Beggars’ when I was buying records off him, and who is now almost single-handedly keeping live music alive in Kingston with the shop, now called Banquet Records, and his New Slang gig/club nights.
Also too cool for school were three or four vinyl-only ‘DJ’ shops that sold mainly terrible house records, although some had some good drum and bass. There was one on Castle Street, and one in the Apple Market, and I’m sure there was at least one other. My friend Paul once went into one and asked whether they sold CDs. In my recollection, the guy behind the counter said nothing, just glared at Paul until he left the shop in shame. They are, of course, long gone.
Another place that’s still there, and is possibly the Kingston record shop in which I’ve spent the most time, is Collector’s Records (or The Collector’s Record Centre, to give it its full name).
The first record I bought in Collector’s was the Hotel California LP by The Eagles. I listened to that a lot. I think it was £6.99. But having bought that I then discovered the £1 racks at the front of the shop. In the window bay, facing onto Old London Road, were three large boxes of LPs, all keenly priced at £1. There was a lot of rubbish in there, definitely, but some really good stuff too. I don’t have an accurate idea, but I’d be surprised if fewer than 200 records in my collection came from those three boxes. Paul and I used to head out from school, just over the road, at lunchtime, get a £2 pizza from Senator’s Pizza next door, wipe our hands and then spend half an hour digging through those racks.
There were a few hardy perennials: always a couple of copies of Rumours (famously one of the biggest-selling albums of all time; I wonder how many of those albums later sold for a pound or less). Always a couple of Wet Wet Wet LPs. Always what I assume was the same Brown Mark record. Always a couple of Def Leppard records. But some fantastic records too. I picked up a couple of Stones records in there, definitely. Probably some Who, certainly some Kinks. Loads of Pink Floyd and Roger Waters (this being long before Waters’s political idiocy made his music unpalatable).
One of our favourite games was to get to the good records first and snaffle them before the other one of us could. Sometimes even picking up duplicates just to keep them from your adversary’s prying hands — after all, each one was only a pound, and even in the nineties a pound wasn’t worth more than the taste of victory.
There were a lot more racks than just the bargain bins, of course. There were dozens of 7in singles pinned to the walls, and racks upon racks of 12ins, whether DJ 45s or LPs. A whole bin of comedy LPs — I picked up a complete set of the brilliant Not The Nine O’Clock News records, Peter Sellers EPs, Bob Newhart albums, Woody Allen (see note above about later revelations making him unpalatable), Python — a strong comedy education, at a bargain price. Some books — I’m sure I must have picked up my copy of Nik Cohn’s incredible Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom in there — do track down a copy if you haven’t read it — a few racks of CDs and even some tapes, both audio and video. What a place.
The grass is green, the skies are blue/The River Thames goes rolling through
We think that you might be surprised/The town centre’s pedestrianised
A finer town you’ll never see/A finer team we’ll never be
We are the pride of South London/The mighty old Kingstonian
Kingston changed in the early 90s, when Clarence Street was pedestrianised (a mythical time memorialised in the terrace song of the local football team, Kingstonian), and the dreaded one-way system was put in (it’s quite simple really). And the massive Bentalls department store was cleft in two and replaced with the even more massive Bentall Centre and a brand-new shiny Bentalls shop on one side of Wood Street, and a big new John Lewis on the other side. John Lewis was so big that part of it actually sits atop the roadway and if you don’t get out of the right lifts and you want to get to menswear (as opposed to Menswear) you’re in Big Trouble.
The new Bentalls had (and still has) those escalators that hover in mid-air over the central column of the shop, but the Bentall Centre next door had (and still has) an escalator that took you straight from the ground floor right up to the second floor. Can you imagine such a thing? We couldn’t, not in 1992, anyway. Such were the delights of the Bentall Centre that boring Smiths-alikes Gene even shot a music video there.
But were you to take this escalator you would have made a big mistake because pretty much all that was on the second floor was a sorry-looking expensive ‘food court’ and Dillons, later Waterstones, and now I’ve no idea what. You see, you’ve missed out the enormous HMV that squatted, a huge black and pink cave, at the front of the shopping centre facing out onto Clarence Street and the balloon animals and terrible buskers below.
Despite all the independent record shops around, HMV was always the place to be, in part because employees got a 30 per cent discount, and by the time we hit 16 at least four friends had jobs there. My friend Kam and I were putting in Saturday shifts at Vision Express on the other side of the first floor, for what my memory suggests was £2.42 an hour, but who wanted discounts on glasses? Craig worked at WH Smith, and his 10 per cent was good, especially when applied to the range of CDs in the basement, but the 30 per cent at HMV was where it was at. In my memory, the biggest moment of that time was when somebody — I can’t recall who — used one of our friends’ cards to take £45 off the exorbitant price of what must have been a 17-tape Patridge-esque boxed set of James Bond VHSs, contained in some sort of absurd metal gun-case contraption.
At some point in the 90s, Virgin put a Megastore into what I think is now Uniqlo at the end of Eden Street. While HMV was big, this place really was Mega. It wasn’t as big as the one at the junction of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, which was just immense, but it was big. It took up three floors, maybe more, and stocked t-shirts, games, books, Magic: The Gathering cards and of course records.
My school, with its absurd and absurdly recognisable blazers, got banned entirely from there one term because one of our year decided it would be a good idea to get caught stealing Magic cards (couldn’t it at least have been something cool?). Paul, he of the ‘CD’ question above, took it upon himself to plead our case with the manager and actually went as far as securing an audience with the big man, upon which, in my memory, he promptly relented. I suspect it was a realisation that these two idiots actually spent a lot of money in his shop that did it, rather than some gift of oratory.
This then brings us back to Tower Records. What was Tower doing in Kingston, of all places? There was the big Tower at 1 Piccadilly Circus, at the bottom of Regent Street, beneath John Nash’s row of elegant-looking but jerry-built Regency tops. It had its own entrance into Piccadilly Circus tube station, so important was it to the micro-economy of that postcode. Between 1 Piccadilly, the aforementioned Virgin Megastore and the huge HMV at 150 Oxford Street (not the original HMV a hundred-odd doors down, towards Bond Street, this was the big and brash teenage rival to the stuffy old granddad up the road) I’ve spent more time and more money than I am willing to try to remember.
you risked looking a fool in front of the whole shop, and having to run out, crying, never to return
But then Tower Records arrived in Kingston. It never belonged. It spent a few short years perched at the top of Fife Road outside the back door of the Bentall Centre, and has now, ignominously, been turned into a Sports Direct branch, having spent purgatory time in-between as a PC World. But back then it was incredible. It was the first place in which I remember having a listening section. Of course, in most of the shops above you could take a record to the counter and have them put it on, but then you risked looking a fool in front of the whole shop, and having to run out, crying, never to return.
At Tower they had a desk to the right-hand side, half way towards the back, where you could take a CD and they’d unwrap it (all these places had shrink-wrap machines in the back where they could do it back up again and nobody would be any the wiser, chief) and they’d put it into one of s a stack of Marantz CD players, and tell you which numbered pair of headphones to pick up. What a thing.
The first time I met the brother of one of my friends, it was in Tower Records, in October or November 1994, and said brother was attempting to shoplift a copy of Caught by the Fuzz, by Supergrass. I have to commend him for the stupendous dramatic irony in his choice of target. It’s where Paul and I cobbled together some pocket money in 1993 and bought our friend Max a tape of Frank Sinatra’s latest (terrible, it turned out) album Duets, for Max’s birthday.
Later I’d end up in Bristol, another place rich in record shops — there was Imperial, on Park Street, where I received my education in hip-hop and jazz, and Replay, across the road, where I gained a similar schooling in post-rock, dub and ambient music. There was Revolution, a tiny place above a bar on the Clifton Triangle, and the enormous emporium 10:15 Music Exchange, which first occupied a big shopfront behind Broadmead and later moved up to an even bigger place, three floors of it, on Gloucester Road, where we used to run into members of Portishead and Massive Attack digging through the crates at the weekend. But none of those places had the same magic as the record shops in which I’d grown up.
So what’s left in Kingston?
The Record Shop must have left us some time in the late 1990s, at the same time as most of the too-cool-for-school dance places. Our Price before that. The closures of Virgin and Tower are, to my surprise, not recorded in the archives of Music Week, but will have been at the turn of the century.
The big HMV lasted until October 2016, when it closed and the group opened a much smaller branch on one of the lower floors of the shopping centre. Collector’s soldiers on, though its other branches — four, at the height of things — have all closed. Which leaves the wonderful Banquet Records as the only remnant of the roaring nineties. Drop in next time you’re in town.