Thursday, March 22, 2018

'Going For A Song' by Garth Cartwright

Going For A Song was once the name of a TV show dedicated to antiques. Now it's the title of a fascinating book chronicling the rise and fall of a venerable institution which is itself largely a thing of days gone by - the record shop. Numbers of record shops have more than halved since the turn of the century. Those that are hanging on are grateful for the upsurge of interest in vinyl records in recent years, but challenged by the internet, the decline of the CD and the likes of Spotify and ITunes.
Garth Cartwright's book, however, focuses on the people and retail outlets of the golden era, from the earliest wax cylinder productions of the 1890s, the opening of the first HMV store in London in 1921, the characters who made their mark in the sixties and beyond, through to the decline of big names such as Our Price, Woolworth's and Tower. Along the way he tells the stories not only of the store chains, but of some of the people who not only ran record stores, but played important roles in the development of record production in the UK. For although the big four of EMI, Decca, Pye and Philips dominated record sales in the sixties, small independents also made their mark, developing significant record labels from their specialist record shops.
There was Emil Shalit, an Austrian Jew whose Melodisc label issued the stuff that the big record companies were not interested in, including early blues, folk and Hungarian gypsy music and who launched the Kalypso and Blue Beat labels, which brought Trinidadian and Jamaican music to the many West Indian immigrants. Or Rita and Benny King, who ran a tiny shop in Stamford Hill and who set up the ironically named R and B label, featuring blues and ska records, and a string of other labels including Giant, King, Ska Beat and Caltone. And the Levy's of Whitechapel, whose Oriole label once had the rights to issuing Tamla Motown records in the UK. Later there were more mainstream entrepreneurs such as Brian Epstein, with his NEMS record store, stars such as Shirley Bassey and Kenny Lynch, who had their own record shops for a while, and specialists in the soul field such as Dave Godin (Soul City) and John Abbey (Contempo).
Garth's journey through the record shops of the UK takes in jazz specialist such as Dobells and Mole Jazz, rock chains such as Virgin and Beggars Banquet, punk specialists such as Rough Trade and Good Vibrations, and brings back bitter sweet memories of many record shops that have disappeared over the years, including all of those in Hanway Street in London, the chaotic Cheapo Cheapo in Soho, many of those in Berwick Street, Beano's in Croydon and most of the branches of Reckless and Music and Video Exchange - all places where I have parted with cash in recent years. He includes quotes from dozens of people who have been involved in the record store business over the decades.
Garth, whose earlier book about an American music road trip More Miles Than Money is well worth a read, has a style that grabs you, even if record shops aren't your thing, and I am very much enjoying it. It's published today by Flood Gallery Publishing and costs around a tenner. Money well spent I would say. Photo shows Garth at the book launch in the Kings Head, Marylebone, earlier this week.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Latest music deaths

It's been a couple of weeks in which several famous people have died, including theoretical physicist and guest on shows such as The Simpsons, Stephen Hawking, Bullseye presenter Jim Bowen and the last of the music hall greats, Sir Ken Dodd. Doddy of course was not only a comedian but a very successful singer with no fewer than 18 top 40 records. His hits, such as Love Is Like A Violin in 1960, his only number one Tears (the third best selling UK hit of the sixties), The River and Happiness, were certainly not to me taste, but they sold in large quantities, as any visit to a car boot sale will attest. I prefer to remember him for his one liners.
More significantly, musically speaking, were the deaths of a number of musicians. Nokie Edwards,
who has died aged 82, was bass guitarist with the Ventures before taking over as lead guitar in 1961. The group's instrumental sound sold millions of singles in the early sixties, beginning with Walk Don't Run and following up with Perfidia, Ram Bunk Shush, Lullaby Of The Leaves and Hawaii Five-0 among others. Their regular stream of albums ensured that they remained popular for many more years, particularly in Japan, with variations on a theme, including titles such as The Colourful Ventures, Twist With The Ventures, Going To A Ventures Dance Party, Surfing, The Ventures In Space, Ventures A-Go-Go,, Guitar Freakout and Super Psychedelics. Nokie left and rejoined the Ventures a couple of times and found success as a solo artist in the early 2000s with two Grammy nominations. The Ventures were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. Nokie often appeared with  Deke Dickerson in recent years, including at the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans in 2005 (see photo) and on Deke's regular Guitar Geek events.
Dickie Bishop is something of a forgotten name in the early history of British pop music, having
replaced Lonnie Donegan as banjo player in Chris Barber's band, before forming his own skiffle outfit the Sidekicks. His real claim to fame is that he recorded and co-wrote what was probably the best British record of the era (1957), No Other Baby, a song, that was later recorded by Paul McCartney among others. No Other Baby was officially the B side of Dickie's version of Cumberland Gap, but still stands up today. Later records were unsuccessful and Dickie's moment of magic had passed. He later moved to Germany.
Another near forgotten name from the early sixties is Maggie Stredder, who was a member of the Vernons Girls and, later, the Ladybirds. She was instantly recognisable at the time as 'the one with the glasses' and the trio worked on the Benny Hill Show for many years. Their mostly forgettable singles included Lady Bird, The White Cliffs of Dover and Memories.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Farewell to the NME

Sad to hear that New Musical Express will no longer exist in print form. It's a sign of the times, as print journalism can't compete with online any more. But for someone whose passion for music began in the sixties it's a sad day. The NME reached a peak circulation of over 300,000 in 1964 with its coverage of the Beatles and the Stones. And music writers such as Tony Parsons, Julie Burchill and Charles Shaar Murray ensured that its place as a champion of progressive music and punk in the seventies, as well as its left wing stance, gave it a pre-eminent place as a thought leader of the era. It was the place where 'gonzo' journalism thrived.
Yet, for me, the NME was only of real significance for a few years in the early sixties when its top 30 chart was what I looked for when it dropped through my letter box every week. It had some good writers, but as soul and R and B developed I lost interest. I moved to the New Record Mirror, as it was called for a couple of years, because it covered black music, while the NME was stuck in the British beat scene. Record Mirror, the name it reclaimed in 1963, also had some excellent writers, including Norman Jopling and Peter Jones, but what swung it for me, as well as the coverage of soul, was the inclusion of the top 50 charts, for both the UK and and US, plus other music lists. I always was a fan of lists! Other music magazines of the era, such as Melody Maker (rather too jazz orientated for me) and the chart focused Disc, were occasional reads, rather than regulars, and NME became of less interest as the decade wore on.
I no longer have my original NMEs, or my Record Mirrors for that matter, But I came across the NME annual for 1961, which offers a glimpse of just how boring NME, and British pop music, was in those days. Writers such as Derek Johnson, Mike Gowers (who I later worked with at Barclays), and Keith Goodwin, wrote glowing, non controversial articles about stars of the day such as Elvis, Cliff, Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele, Adam Faith, Bobby Darin, Connie Francis and Eddie Cochran, and also artists who by no means could be described as teen idols. These included  Bing Crosby, Max Bygraves, Frankie Vaughan, Russ Conway and Sammy Davis Jr. There were inaccurate predictions of future stardom ( whatever happened to Dick Jordan or Johnny Shanly?), a look back to the first UK hit parade in 1952 (produced by the NME and topped by Al Martino), a run down of chart success in 1960 (the top five were Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, the Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley and Anthony Newley) and, in this pre-Beatles age, the rather thin successes of UK artists overseas. It was all rather lame, but at the time it was all we had. Or rather it was what the NME believed we wanted. Very little about rock and roll, nothing about R and B and precious little about US music.
NME will, no doubt, be missed by lovers of seventies music. It was ground breaking at the time. But for me, it lost its appeal a decade or so earlier and never really regained it.