Sunday, 30 March 2008

We Got It For Cheap

I finally bought the second Clipse album last week. It wasn't something I'd been planning on, after all it came just over a year ago and despite excellent reviews, disappeared without a trace. But after a meeting in the West End I found myself wandering into Fopp and there was a pile of Hath Hath No Fury piled high by the entrance.

Before I go on, I must just confess to something: the truth is that I am incapable of being in the vicinity of a record shop, without going in and checking what's in stock. I just can't walk past. And more often than not, I'm not going in there to find out if they have Foals or Vampire Weekend. No, I'm looking at a map of my past, a whole host of album sleeves (now in miniature, of course) that I am already very familiar with. In my Pink Flag book, there's a story about a man (he happens to be schizophrenic, but don't let that distract from the point) who takes solace from this. He points out that no other highstreet shops operate in this way - i.e where the products they sell are always housed in the same packaging from the day they first appear. Not even books, he says, insist on the same artwork from day one. I wonder whether anyone else takes comfort from the familiar in this way - ah, look, there's the four men walking over the zebra crossing, there's the baby swimming underwater, and there's the prism... If albums had to be repackaged and redesigned every six months they surely wouldn't hold the mystique that they hold for music fans like him. And me. Of course, some do undergo such reworkings, but crucially even if Unknown Pleasures or This Year's Model or, I don't know ... What's Going On do suddenly become double CDs with unreleased live recordings, full colour booklets and vinyl slipcases, they still keep the images that have always resonated; the 'classic' images...

I'm sure that so much of pop music's obsession with what is 'classic' is wrapped up in this museum-like status of the record shop. Every month there are at least three magazines devoted to the chronicling of 'classic' artists with seminal albums that stand the test of time. It sounds like I'm complaining but really I'm not - I love to read about albums I own, love to pour over alternative track-listings, outtakes, demos, stories about the songs that nearly-were or almost weren't. But the point is that the more of this stuff there is, the more it makes you feel that pop's best days are over. When even the NME starts branding 'classic' artist compilations, when Q Magazine do issues entirely devoted to 'classic' music from the decades, when bands themselves opt to do shows made of their 'classic' albums played in the authentic running order, it kind of feels like pop music is entering the arena of the archive. And the shops, always at the sharp end of any change in the market, are where it's most evident.

OK, dudes, I know I risk, like, appearing like, really really ancient? But record shops used to have an exciting Anything Might Happen atmosphere about them - you never knew what would be in stock, they would always be able to surprise you. There's a Nick Hornby anecdote (although I might be incorrectly attributing it to him) about always checking the Clash section whenever he was in a shop, long after they'd split up, just in case they'd thought to release something new, which he hadn't got. But when I walk into a branch of Zavvi, all I can smell is the dust, the piles of exhibits that no one is interested in, mounting up in corners, the indifferent curators and the unstoppable looming tsnami of cheap DVDs.

Fopp has been resurrected by HMV, bless them, and still retains a little bit of its former glory. I always used to bump into like-minded obsessives in the massive, now closed, branch of Fopp on Tottenham Court Road, whether it was my friend William (who alphabetises his CDs in separate genres - oh yes!) or Pete (a writer, who gets sent more CDs than he knows what to do with, yet still can't resist the lure of the record shop) and we would exchange sympathetic glances over teetering piles of jewel-cases as we sidled up to the check-out. But even Fopp is now really just HMV in slightly more fashionable trousers - the Top 50 albums, some catalogue, a smattering of hipsterish books...

So there I am in Fopp, getting the 'Oh God, why am I here?" sinking feeling in my stomach that I now get in all record shops (it's too late, the habit formed when I was a teenager so there's no shaking it now! ) when I see the aforementioned pile of Clipse. And do you know how much my copy was? One pound! It could have been on sale in my local Walthamstow 99P Shop. I wonder whether Malice and Pusher T anticipated this retail development when they penned opening track We Got It For Cheap. It didn't make me want it or value it any less - the album is great, by the way, particularly final track Nightmares which is like 21st century Curtis Mayfield. But ultimately, it makes the shrine, the church of pop music that so many of us have put our faith in - with its icons from Arrival to Hot Rats - feel slightly less important, slightly less essential and leaves me wondering if pop was always just a bit of fun to pass the time.

1 comment:

  1. hell.o ben,
    does this mean you also got the superb lalo schifrin album, towering toccata, that fopp had stacked up for a £1 as well ?