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.

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