Fan sites and online stores still provide the thrill of a voyage of discovery that the high street lost long ago
Celebrity dogs, real or otherwise, had a terrible week. First, the dashing dachshund Alan TBH Plumptre, the in-house pet at Tatler, was caught in a revolving door in Mayfair, and, despite the attendance of two fire engines and 10 firefighters, died. But there was worse to come (sorry, Alan): HMV, the music giant whose logo for more than a century has been the cute fox terrier Nipper listening to his master’s voice on an early phonograph, called in the administrators.
The disappearance of the last large chain of what used to be called record shops has set off a tsunami of warm memories of such places. There have been tales of the joy of earnestly flicking though the seemingly endless racks of LPs by Led Zeppelin, Snafu and Tonto’s Expanding Head Band and of afternoons spent eagerly tramping the aisles housing those shoulder-to-knee cascades of CDs. In some towns, apparently and definitely unbeknown to me, the HMV shop was even the centre of the local romance scene, of what the Human League called Love Action.
Such nostalgia is understandable and not misplaced. For generations of casual record buyers and obsessive music heads alike, HMV (and its myriad imitators and competitors – Harlequin, Virgin, Our Price, Tower, Andy’s, Music And Video Club, now all gone) was the place to go and get your mainstream sounds. For many, it was the starting point of a wonderful lifelong love affair with music – and, in truth, the rather less welcome consequence, the battle between an ever-lighter wallet and the need to move to a bigger house in order to accommodate your burgeoning collection. As the operations hub of many people’s musical odyssey, the record stores of the 60s, 70s and 80s continue to inspire dewy-eyed recollection.
It’s a fondness I share. The first LP I ever bought with my own money (earned from a Saturday job filling the bacon and cheese fridges at Sainsbury’s) came from a branch of Harlequin; the album was Curtis Mayfield’s Roots, in case you’re interested. I remember vividly getting the Clash’s first album, the record that changed my life, at HMV near Marble Arch in London. Once I breathlessly purchased Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ Tears Of A Clown LP at a branch of Our Price in Dublin. Only on getting it home to London did I realise that there had been a terrible error; the sleeve housed a copy of Don Fardon’s Indian Reservation. Not the same thing at all.
Not very long ago, HMV’s flagship store in Oxford Street, London, was still at the centre of a ritual that I recall with hazy affection. For years, after one of our award-winning but strangely sackable shows, my radio sidekick Danny Baker and I would make our way down there, stopping on the way to medicate our valuable vocal cords with a few cold drinks.
Once in the shop, being gents of a certain vintage and disposition, we would buy each other video documentaries about the second world war. We bought lots of them. So much so, in fact, that even the mighty HMV ran out of ones in the English language. Which is how, after one particularly lengthy post-show inquest (in the Crown and Sceptre) we weaved home with armfuls of documentaries whose commentaries were entirely in German, a language of which neither of us has even the most rudimentary grasp.
But here’s the up-to-the-minute dope. The HMV of then is not the HMV of now. For reasons too boring to explain, once a month I find myself stranded in the West End on a Saturday morning. Occasionally I will while away the time in the high gothic quiet of the beautiful All Saints church in Margaret Street; but usually I make a dutiful trudge round that self-same pink and grey cavern near Oxford Circus. For a couple of years now HMV has been an absolutely dismal place. Its music stock, determinedly unadventurous, varied between those CDs featured in an eternal 2-for-1 sale and other offerings of such enormous expense – compared to their internet competitors – that the box sets were secured to the wall by something that looked suspiciously like an electrified fence.
Worse still, parts of the emporium indicated that HMV was suffering some kind of retail nervous breakdown. Whole chunks of valuable floor-space were devoted to an unvisited zone where you could buy Towie T-shirts and Angry Birds mugs. Or, if you preferred, Angry Birds memory sticks and Towie nail-clippers. No one, apparently, preferred; in two years, I, a compulsive and incorrigible purchaser, bought precisely nothing.
HMV was brought to its knees, obviously, because it couldn’t compete with the no-longer-new digital universe where you can download a piece by Mahler for 80-odd pence or buy the new Tame Impala CD with a single leisurely twitch of your index finger.
But, hey, no regrets. The world of digitised music, and online buying, was supposed (if you listened to the traditional retailers) to be a sterile, soulless, corporate desert, devoid of the sense of adventure, revelation and shared experience in which the record shops of yesteryear specialised. It has turned out to be no such thing. It has turned out to be the opposite.
Getting into music has always involved a journey. Through the works of one artist, then on to another, hopping off into whole new genres and hopeful tributaries, coming back to old favourites to find new things in them. It is literally a voyage of discovery. It is, as musicians down the ages have told us, a trip. And something about the way that digital media works has made that trip more enjoyable than has ever previously been the case.
The benefits of the new world ping at you from all angles. The reviews by consumers on places such as Amazon (even the bonkers ones!) offer passion and balance from a whole range of viewpoints. The computer-generated recommendations have sent me on previously unimagined tangents and explorations. Myriad fan sites and discussion forums share secrets, gently indicate hidden paths, challenge your cherished views and comfort your dodgy ones. The fact that you can sample the music free, and buy it cheaply and in byte-sized chunks, only adds to the feeling of boundless possibility.
Of course I pine for being told, very directly, to go and buy Television’s Marquee Moon by a genius writer like Nick Kent in the NME, and yes, I’ve been pointed in the direction of, and obtained, some unforgivable twaddle. But overall, the transference of music from the old-school high street to the info highway has meant that I have heard, and grown to love, more great music than ever before. And I can tell that (from the torrents of words flowing around cyberspace on the subject) this experience is common to millions.
Incidentally, and ironically, the demise of the shopping mall dreadnoughts has been accompanied by something experts of 20 years ago would have dismissed as romantic drivel. Despite the initial hit felt by the indie sector, we have seen the survival of the best specialist independent record shops offering exactly the super-hip musical choice, friendly and knowledgeable staff and tactile, intangible groovy vibe of which the big boys could only ever dream. Indeed, within yards of the still warm carcass of HMV Oxford Circus little treasures like Phonica, Sister Ray and Sounds Of The Universe – even their names hint at something desirably exotic – continue happily to thrive.
I’ll miss the little dog – you’d have to be made of flint not to – but don’t mourn the tumbling down of his massive kennel. Technologies change, as do social mores and shopping habits, but music continues to find unpredicted and life-affirming ways into our hearts and minds.