Thursday, 19 February 2015

Memories of a Long-Defunct Record Shop

Most people of a certain age have fond memories of a record shop from their youth. The fondness of these memories is not always in proportion to the reality of the retail experience, but nostalgia has a way of smoothing off the rough edges and presenting the past in flattering soft focus: that old 'the war-years-were-the-happiest-days-of-my-life' syndrome. In common with all teenagers I believed my home town to be the dullest place on the planet and, as commuter-belt towns went in the 1980s, Berkhamsted must have been a serious contender for that title. Woolworths and W.H. Smith both had record departments, but they were staffed by people who wore uniforms and looked like my parents. One day these people would be selling LPs, the next they might be on the pick 'n' mix - music was just another commodity to them. Thank God then for J & J Records.

The site of J & J Records today

If I close my eyes I can still taste the carcinogenic, metallic tang given off by all those sweating PVC sleeves in that tiny space. And it was a tiny space. The shop-front itself gave the illusion of a normal-sized store, but some architectural brain-fart had resulted in a premises that was not much more than a corridor; a tapering, almost triangular one at that. When you opened the door to the shop you could pretty much start rifling through the record racks on the opposite wall without crossing the threshold. The widest point housed the counter where two surly staff members took it in turns to be unwelcoming in the small space by the till. Tetchy, condescending and unhelpful: yes, they satisfied all of the traditional record shop personnel character traits! I remember returning a copy of Rose Tattoo's Rock 'N' Roll Outlaws twice because of a pressing fault and being accused of only returning it because I didn't like the music. I did eventually prise a third and playable copy from them which I still have some 35 years later. How I persuaded the patronising git behind the counter to exchange the LP again, I don't know. Perhaps I threatened to get my dad onto him.

To the left of the counter, along the back wall stood a rack of largely ancient 7" singles, mixed in with a handful of new releases. I remember a Canned Heat single that seemed to be a permanent resident. Periodically, I would pick it up, study it and wonder what strange sounds it contained. It never occurred to me to buy it and find out, but then those were the days when my pocket money limited me to just a couple of vinyl purchases per month: I couldn't afford to make mistakes. The staff could sometimes be persuaded, albeit reluctantly, to dig out a notepad and a sheet of carbon paper if you wanted to order something they didn't have in stock. This is how I got hold of my cherished copy of Blitzkrieg's Buried Alive 7"; a record that left me reeling when I heard it on Tommy Vance's Friday Rock Show. Sadly, I missed a trick, as it was Lars Ulrich not me who, inspired by the flip-side, Blitzkrieg, formed Metallica using that track as a sonic blueprint. Above the singles hung a black velvet-covered pin board filled with badges, many of them miniature, lapel-sized versions of those mirrors you could buy in the Seventies and Eighties with a band's photo and logo printed on the glass. I'm pretty sure I bought one of these with the ELO spaceship printed on it in red and black.

For a small shop, J &J certainly managed to cram a lot in. There were racks of LPs against the window between the counter and the door, beyond the 7" singles along the back wall, and inhabiting the shop's narrowest point at the end opposite the counter. I don't recall the stock being split up according to genre, but it must have been alphabetical at least. The staff didn't seem to differentiate between new and used records as they were all racked together. It was only years later that I was studying my copy of Kate Bush's Never Forever which I had bought thinking it was a brand new UK release, only to discover that it is, in fact, a Greek pressing.

No doubt there were albums in the racks that, if I had a time machine, I would snap up in a heartbeat given the opportunity. Surreptitiously, I always had my eye on a copy of Electric Ladyland which to this day I remember had a £4.99 price tag on it, but I was never brave enough to pick it up, let alone take it to the counter as I couldn't face the inevitable humiliation that would come from being accused of only wanting it for the sleeve which, being a UK pressing, happened to be plastered with a gatefold's-worth of naked women. My thirteen year-old self often thought that this album, with all those worldly-wise, confident, intimidating women staring out from the cover, not Hendrix's debut, should have been the one called Are You Experienced?. I sometimes lie awake at night wondering if I was shamed out of buying an original Track label pressing.

Despite the ritual humiliation, I loved that shop. Neither the misanthropic staff nor my pubescent awkwardness could diminish the joy of being surrounded by the vinyl treasures that I was starting to discover. Every record sleeve had a story to tell, some nugget of information waiting to be unearthed. Names, faces, studios, instruments, producers: I absorbed them all, and the more I learnt, the more I wanted to know. I spent many a school lunch hour at J&J, topping up my education. I was in heaven.

By the time I was sixteen, the VCR was king, and J&J wanted in on some of that video rental action. Somehow they managed to squeeze what seemed like a huge selection of titles into that tiny corridor. No doubt much of the vinyl was edged out to make way for Back To The Future, Weird Science, Porky's and Risky Business, but I can't say that I noticed as, by that time, a gang of us were making regular trips to Virgin, HMV and the Record & Tape Exchange stores in Camden Town, Notting Hill Gate and the Goldhawk Road, our horizons having expanded beyond our mundane little town. J&J was still an important part of our lives though. Where else were a bunch of sixteen year-olds going to get their hands on the soft porn and splatter movies that made up the bulk of our viewing when our parents were out of town? Of course, the writing was on the wall for J&J Records once it ditched the vinyl, lured by the easy money promised by the video rental boom. Funnily enough, even as a video outlet J&J managed to further my musical education. During an evening of teenaged drunkenness accompanied by a screening of yet another Electric Blue movie, I found myself transfixed, not by the soft focus, soft porn on screen, but by the pulsing musical accompaniment to a ridiculous fantasy sequence involving a naked woman, a bike and a long drop from a cliff. What's this music? Does anyone know who this is? Anyone? My friends all drew blanks. Realising that I couldn't hire the tape every time I wanted to hear it, I had to find out who was responsible for this amazing music. Fortunately, a few clues in the lyrics eventually led me to Steve Miller's Gangster Of Love: one minute and twenty-four seconds of stoned, throbbing, funky, head-nodding, west coast weirdness.

I have vague recollections of another J&J Records bricks and mortar shop on the edge of Hemel Hempstead market. I'm pretty sure that's where my copy of Prism's See Forever Eyes came from - a steal at 99p. From the little I remember, the Hemel store was little more than a broom cupboard, but sometimes there was a stall on the market selling vinyl which may have been a spill-over from the shop. J&J Records was best known locally though for its stall on Watford's Charter Place market. It was manned by the two Js (Janet and John Lang) who gave this modest business empire its name. As market stalls go, it was huge; certainly much larger than the two shops combined. I began my music collection in earnest here, picking up second hand cassette tapes for small change: Thin Lizzy's Live & Dangerous and Deep Purple's In Rock. Clearly first loves make a deep impression as I still rate those as two of my all-time favourite albums. Once I came to realise that tapes are a bit crap, I graduated to vinyl, digging through the market stall's many records for gems such as my original UK pressing of UFO's Obsession (complete with poster).

There was something almost other-worldly about buying records from a stall in a covered market, the air thick and funky with the smells of ripe fruit, dog biscuits, fish food and bacon butties, but despite that and the surly service in the Berkhamsted shop, my fondest memories are of that cramped, inhospitable space.

Click here for a local newspaper report on the demise of J&J Records and here for a website that archives information on Britain's record shops.