Wednesday, 16 December 2015

A Trip to The Thing: About Secondhand Record Hunting.

I'm sitting in reception at BBC's New Broadcasting House. I'm reasonably familiar with it as I have a few friends here, but this is the first time in ages that I'm doing a job. In a few minutes I'm going to go through the revolving door and into a recording studio where I'm going to read an article I've written.

Regular readers may be wondering what the big gaps have been between posts. I know, it's not a great way to run a blog but hey, it's the only way I know how right now. I've been in the States again. This time not for work but for pleasure, accompanying my dad on a trip to celebrate the 100th birthday of a friend of his. Here's a picture of me and dad 'having it large' in New York.

I think both of us need a little work on selfie technique

The 100th birthday party turned out to be a, well, a gig - held at a venue called the Town Hall. The birthday boy, Eric Bentley is the man responsible for bringing  the English speaking world's attention to the works of Bertolt Brecht. He didn't make the show but watched his party on a video stream. He's well known (to those of us who had to study Brecht at school and then went and did German at University) as being the translator and editor of a lot of Brecht's work including the songs Brecht wrote with Kurt Weil. Bowie fans may remember this, although the translation here is by John Willett. Bentley also recorded a lot of Brecht's stuff himself which makes him possibly the only scholar and critic who has his own page on Discogs.

Anyway, that's why we were there. But while dad went off to see Eric the day after the show, I did what I most like to do. I think you can probably guess what that is and it also pertains to why I am now sitting in the BBC lobby...

Just a handful of years ago, Manhattan used to be quite the place to buy records: there was a massive Tower on Broadway, Virgin Megastore on Times Square, Bleaker Bobs in the Village and loads of  smaller stores. Now all that's left seems to be Other Music. No, in order to complete my quest, I had to go to Brooklyn. Greenpoint, to be precise. I'd read about a legendary shop called The Thing which has endless crates of albums all of which are priced at $2. As ever, I'm looking for a facsimile of that charity shop experience of serendipity and bargain. I found it; here's what the inside of The Thing looks like:

Believe it or not, this is one aisle out of many - and this is just the basement!

Some of you may have seen a tweet I posted suggesting that this might be what is behind the pearly gates. It's hard to imagine anything better with the possible exception of a dinner with Harold Pinter, Jean Seberg and Kenneth Williams.

I dived in and began the trawl. At first I thought I was going to be the boy in the candy store but it soon became apparent that this was hard work. Not only were the records tightly packed into the shelves, each section requiring some manoevering before rack-flicking could commence, but also the condition of many of them was poor - dust and cardboard shards flew everywhere and soon I was covered in a thin layer of powder. It wasn't until about half an hour in, after looking at hundreds of unwantable dance 12"s that I began to find some good stuff: an early Grace Jones album complete with the original Island press pack including a glossy pic of the great lady; the debut Graham Central Station album Release Yourself still in its shrinkwrap, a sealed copy of the Bravery's album (yes, I know they're not hip anymore but it's a good album - and quite pricey on vinyl, pop pickers!)

With these and other gems, I made my way up Manhattan Avenue towards my next vinyl stop, Co Op 87. But before that I chanced upon a store which specialised in fishing tackle but had recently branched out into vinyl. There, I discovered more Grace Jones, an original of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing and the Bee Gee's Idea with its amazing Klaus Voorman cover:

Each part of the composite face is either Barry, Maurice or Robin. There's a handy guide on the back cover.

By now, I suspect you're thinking that I have a bit of a vinyl problem. And you would in part be right. The issue I have is akin to the one Henry Rollins describes in the LA Times:

You can read the whole article here

Rollins "self medicates" on vinyl, he says. And this is what I do too. The problem for me is not so much that I am desparate to hear the music but that I love the artwork: it's the presentation of the music that has always seduced me. I found myself buying a Buzzcocks T-shirt at their recent show in Stroud partly because I love those songs and they were the first group I ever saw, but mainly because Malcolm Garrett's logo is a beautiful piece of art. It's criminal that Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures (designed by fellow Mancunion Peter Saville) should beat Buzzcocks in 6 Music's T-shirt Day last month.

So given how much I love the presentation of music, imagine how excited I was to chance upon this when my dad and I were in MOMA:

Oooh! Look at the lovely Barney Bubbleses

Our trip then continued to Canada. Even writing that sentence makes me wince with the expense. I simply don't earn enough to be doing this trip, but boy, am I glad I did it. I know this blog is about music but allow me to step outside the brief for a moment and say that real, quality time spent with your parents as they get older is just the most rewarding thing. I just hope my own children see it that way too.

Anyway back to the records... In Toronto, where we were visiting my uncle, it transpired that no one had shared the news that record shops were over; the place was brimming with them. The biggest - and possibly best, although I sadly didn't have time to visit them all, is Sonic Boom. A whole floor of secondhand vinyl in the basement which is organised and curated by proper music fans and reasonably priced. Dare I say that it was better than The Thing? Mind you, there was still No Parler for Paul Young in the bargain bins:

Sonic Boom reminded me of Amoeba in L.A. with slightly lower ceilings.

Amongst other things, I snaffled a sealed copy of Fingerprinz' debut The Very Dab, Julian Cope's debut World Shut Your Mouth and Stevie Winwood's cowritten with Viv Stanshall album Arc Of A Diver. I also treated myself to a brand new 10th anniversary double vinyl version of Spoon's Gimme Fiction. If you've not heard of Spoon they really deserve a blog all of their own because they're brilliant. Listen to Sister Jack from that album. Great artwork too.

The following day I also found time to visit one of Toronto's oldest secondhand record shops, Vortex. It was situated on Eglington and Yonge Street in a squat row of red brick buildings of the sort that presumably used to be quite common in Toronto but which are now clearly fighting a losing battle with glass and steel high-rise structures. If Pixar were making a movie of it, this small row of shops would be cowering and whimpering while the rangy skyscrapers kicked sand in their faces.

Somewhat inevitably, Vortex was having a closing down sale.

Sentimentality over, I'd managed to time it perfectly. Combined with this and the fact that sterling is currently much stronger than the Canadian dollar, I emerged from the Vortex half an hour later holding a brace of albums I'd been looking for for ages but had never found at a reasonable price - Stephen Duffy's wonderful debut Lilac Time album, Squeeze's US release on red vinyl, Marianne Faithfull's Broken English, Julian Cope's St Julian... Let me pause for breath...'

Frankly, I don't know how I managed to get them all home. But you'll be happy to hear there were no breakages during the return flight. It occurred to me during the journey home that you simply don't get this vinyl hunting experience in the UK. There are not many used record shops which have such massive stock as Sonic Boom or even others I visited but haven't had time to mention like Rotate This or Gimme Gimme in L.A. And the ones in the UK, I won't mention their names in case they get cross, but they're a bit unexciting and almost always overpriced.

The experience of finding records you never knew you wanted and not paying much for them - that's the thing. Or indeed, The Thing.

The Thing, last week before I bought all their stock.
And that article I presented for BBC Radio? Well, the recording went OK, I think. I'll put a link up to it when it goes live. I won't say what exactly it's about now but it does go some way towards answering the question of where to find record shops where you can have the experience above.

Right now, I'm floating in vinyl heaven.