“I’ll Go To T’Foot Of Our Discount Rack”: Record Store Memories of Yorkshire
Our own Andy Close looks back on some great memories of record stores from his “youth”.
Ah, the humble independent record shop. An institution in which I spent many hours of my wasted youth. And when it came to writing up some memories of the record shops in God’s Own County (that’s Yorkshire for those unaware) for National Record Shop Day, one of the saddest things that occurred to me is how many of them have since bitten the dust, driven out of business by the rise of Amazon and the MP3 market.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as guilty of using online retailers and Itunes as much as anyone in this era – in the non stop rush that is having a nine-to-five job (sorry to disillusion you kids but even us rock ‘n’ roll barbarians at PR have to eat as well) they can come in useful but as someone who used to spend most of his Saturdays as a teenager and early twentysomething wandering around the various towns near where I lived scouring the local record shops for new albums, print fanzines and unexpected bargains, it feels like a bit of a soulless experience.
So think of this as a nostalgic look back to a time when the Internet was still in its infancy. When there was no such thing as online music and if you wanted to read music journalism that wasn’t available in WH Smiths then you’d need to pick up a print fanzine from a gig or your local indie record store or even send a cheque through the post and wait a couple of weeks for the ‘zine to drop through your letterbox. When finding a record that wasn’t in your local HMV because it had been deleted a year or two before could take weeks, even months, even years of hard searching through dusty racks in countless record exchanges. A time when the record shop was king and there were legions of ’em throughout this land.
Of the places mentioned here, a few of ’em are still there, most of ’em aren’t. But all of them meant a great deal to a lot of Yorkshire kids (both actual and overgrown) of the late ’90s and I think they’re worth commemorating. While there are several towns around Yorkshire that had stores that were well worth a visit, there’s really only one place I could start and that’s…
Back in the late ’90s, I can remember off the top of my head there being a good ten record shops dotted around Leeds city centre (eight independents plus the obligatory branches of HMV and Virgin). Nowadays, there’s less than half that number. Because of this, if there was a specific album you were looking for, record shopping in Leeds was something you had to practice down to a fine art and could require anything up to a whole day to do properly.
The plan would usually go something like this – Step One, meet up with friends around Saturday lunchtime. Step two, work out a route around the city centre taking in the shops and making a mental note of everything everyone wanted to look for. Step three, check things out shop by shop before returning to the place that had the CD you wanted at the cheapest price. And because there was usually very little to choose between the shops in terms of prices, there was always the chance that everyone would find the CD they were after in a different shop leading to your group having to do the whole circuit twice. By which time, most of the shops were starting to shut and you’d find yourselves getting shepherded out of the door by counter staff keen to close up and go for a Saturday night pint…
The usual starting off point would be either CD Warehouse which used to be situated right at the bottom of the Merrion Centre or the huge Jumbo Records just opposite in the St John’s Centre which is still going strong today. Mainly because they were the two indies who actually had a listening stations within. The one in CD Warehouse was actually a single CD deck with some headphones but hey, it’s the thought that counts. Jumbo had actual proper listening booths at the back which were always full of flyers for upcoming gigs at the Cockpit, the Duchess or Joseph’s Well. This meant that you could listen to something if you’d read good things about it and check if it was worth buying. Of course, if the record you wanted turned out to be rubbish, it kind of rendered the whole expedition null and void (I remember one of my mates deciding one afternoon that he fancied listening to the second Babylon Zoo album in this way. Yup, you’ve guessed it, expedition null and void).
Jumbo really deserves a mention all of its own here as it was (and indeed still is) pretty much considered by most to be the best of the Leeds indies, probably the main reason it’s still going today when so many of its contemporaries have faded into history. As well as being the biggest store, it also sold concert tickets for all the Leeds venues and had a huge fanzine rack which stocked everything from home-written publications on indie, metal, jazz even folk music through to even a few football fanzines for various Yorkshire clubs should you be curious about finding out about the latest goings on at Rotherham United or Bradford City. It remains very much a Leeds institution and is well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area. And hey, it’s where I bought my first Dogs D’Amour CD (a 2-for-1 of “Errol Flynn” and “Straight?!”which was released on CD for about five minutes at the turn of the millennium) a mere ten years after getting a tape copy of the latter which I think is a cause worth celebrating in itself.
Heading down towards Merrion Street from the shopping centres, you’d pass Trax Records on your right which could occasionally throw up a surprise gem (I’ve got fond memories of finding Therapy?’s excellent “Suicide Pact – You First” album here for five quid just a couple of weeks after it was released and getting my copy of “Appetite For Destruction” from there for a very reasonable four quid many years ago as a youngster). My other main memory of the place is that all their bags would have dates for the upcoming monthly record fairs at nearby Leeds University. Just around the corner was Relics, mainly a vinyl shop but they had a decent CD collection as well. I always remember the staff in there being very helpful when it came to advising you on which places might have CD’s that they didn’t have in stock. Like Jumbo, Relics is still very much in business today and fair play to ’em – proof that nice guys don’t always finish last in this world.
Across the road down the Merrion Arcade was Polar Bear which also had a branch just outside the city centre in the student area of Headingley and, weirdly enough, another one in Oxford (as immortalised by early ’90s shoegazers Ride on their “Nowhere” album). My two main memories of the place are finding an ultra-rare copy of the Wildhearts’ “Fishing For More Luckies” (an album which was actually only available on the larger continent due to Ginger and co’s ongoing squabbles with their then-label EastWest at the time) for just five quid which made me a very happy person indeed and it having the unlucky distinction of being the first record shop I remember buying a CD from and actually bringing it back to part-exchange again the next week because it was so rubbish (the record in question being House of Pain’s “Same As It Ever Was”…lord, what was I thinking? It wasn’t even the one with “Jump Around” on it!)
Turn right out of the bottom of the arcade and you’d shortly arrive at the Headrow where, along with a rather neat second hand guitar shop (where I bought the Stagg Flying V guitar which would be my constant companion through most of my bands in my twenties for a more than reasonable £120), you would find Crash Records which, like Jumbo and Relics, still survives today. One of those record shops which I’m sure has been turned down for the World Cat Swinging Championships due to lack of size, Crash was always good for concert tickets, like its fellow survivor Jumbo, and the occasional bargain in the clearance racks. Plus it was just around the corner from one of my favourite Leeds venues as a youth, the Duchess. Which, criminally, is now a branch of Hugo Boss. I don’t think that’s something my inner kid has ever recovered from to be completely honest with you.
From here, you could head back up the Headrow to the city centre where the branches of HMV and Virgin would await or you could carry on down to the the giant domed Victorian building that was the Corn Exchange just next to the big covered City Market. There’s not really much to say about HMV – let’s be honest, if you’d seen one branch then you’ve seen them all. However, there’s an interesting footnote about Virgin – obviously after it became Zavvi and went bust a few years ago, their Leeds store was due to go as well. However, the store staff pulled of something of a coup by taking over the lease for its remaining year and turning the store into a sort of CD clearance outlet. Thus effectively turning it into the biggest indie record store in Leeds (and getting it an honourable mention here) and a good place to pick up some unexpected bargains as they seemed to specialise in records that had clearly been primed at selling big but it hadn’t quite happened (let’s just say there were a lot of copies of the Darkness’ “One Way Ticket To Hell And Back” lurking around in there). One of my more amusing memories of the place is wandering in one day on my work lunch break and seeing a huge pile of copies of the Towers of London’s abysmal sophomore album “Fizzy Pop” with a big luminous star shaped cardboard badge blu-tacked to the side bearing the legend “Only 75p – Please Buy Me!” Says it all about that album really…
Back to the indies then – about ten years ago, a walk down to the Corn Exchange in Leeds would take you to a veritable cornucopia of boho cafes, comic book and poster stores, kooky fashion boutiques, oh yes and a few good record stores as well. Just nearby on Call Lane (Leeds’ answer to Denmark Street with its countless guitar shops) was the fantastically named Vinyl Tap which, unfortunately, was a bit unremarkable aside from its name. Round the back though was the fantastic Out Of Step Records, punk and metal specialists and a shop that I for one feel that Leeds is a poorer place without. Back in my younger days, me and my friends would spend hours in there looking at the latest re-releases of classic punk albums on labels like Captain Oi! or import American Punk-O-Rama compilations. Unfortunately, the fate of the place is similar to a lot of Corn Exchange shops back then – the landlords put the rent up forcing all the good shops out and leaving the place half-empty save for a few pointless over-priced clothes shops for those with more money than sense. OOS relocated to the north side of the city and the Merrion Centre only to suffer the same fate with ever-increasing rents and eventually went bust. A sad day for music in Leeds, that was.
Finally, I can’t finish any article on Leeds music shops without mentioning a small nameless outfit that used to be in the basement of the Corn Exchange (just near to the short-lived Platform music venue which was notable for having the stage and the bar on the same level and a sunken dancefloor in the middle meaning if you were at the bar getting a pint and turned around to see a band getting a good reaction, it looked oddly like there were a load of drowning people in front of the stage!) which used to stock ex-chart CD’s for ludicrously cheap prices (£2 for albums and 50p for singles) and, pretty much for that reason alone, used to be a favourite of me and my friends in our teenage years when we were subsisting on Saturday job wages of about £2.10 an hour. In the Britpop/Britrock era, it used to be a great place to pick up CD’s by new-ish bands who hadn’t quite hit the upper reaches of the charts yet but were on their way there and, for the prices alone, it’ll always have a fond place in my memory.
I grew up in a town called Otley right on the border of West and North Yorkshire (back then, a town built around the two huge livestock markets and the paper mills by the River Wharfe, nowadays more of a dormitory town for people working in Leeds). The good thing about it was that you were within fairly easy striking distance of both Leeds and Bradford (half an hour away on the bus) or, if you could persuade one of your parents to give you a lift five miles down the valley to Weeton (there was a bus but even back then it was a bit of an irregular service to say the least), 45 minutes from York on the train (back in the days when a return would only cost you £2.50 if you were under 18). So I was quite lucky in that I had a number of places I could go to in order to satisfy my CD fix as well as Leeds…
The obvious place to start is BRADFORD which was always a bit of an odd one. While, in this writer’s humble opinion, Bradford has always trounced Leeds when it comes to a live rock scene (Leeds was always generally more associated with indie and, later, emo bands during my time living there though the rise of the Eureka Machines, the Idol Dead and the Kingcrows in recent years at least suggests that things may be changing for the better on that front) and has had two great venues down the years in the legendary Rio’s and, for a while, the Gasworks (until the two moved on to the same patch and the quality of bands playing there inevitably began to suffer a bit), there’s only two record shops that really spring to mind – Rocks Off and Discovery, both of which were situated a few hundred yards apart right at the top end of the town centre.
Rocks Off was situated on the first floor of an old Victorian building (above a shop selling motorcycle gear if memory serves me correctly). I always remember it as being the more professional looking of the two outlets and they used to have a HUGE discount shelf full of £3 CD’s. Back in the day, I remember seeing a then-practically-unknown American pop-punk band called Bowling For Soup play a storming set at the Leeds festival completely by accident and then finding their current-at-the-time album “Let’s Do It For Johnny!” at Rocks Off for £3 a week later. They also used to have a huge poster rack and I remember being dead chuffed to find a Terrorvision “How To Make Friends And Influence People” poster there back in the day (then again, if I was gonna find it anywhere…) which is still up on the wall in my old room at my mum’s house. I’m not quite sure why it bit the dust (it closed around 2005 or so meaning I don’t think this one can quite be pinned on the MP3/Amazon boom) but the world’s a poorer place for its passing in my opinion.
Discovery, on the other hand, still survives today and is straight out of the “High Fidelity” mould of record shops – three floors of a rickety old building, racks of CD’s gathering dust, it’s enough to bring a nostalgic tear to your eye. They have a very good, and cheap, selection of punk and metal CD’s in which is worth a look if you should ever be in the area and I certainly had many afternoons carting a bunch of old CD’s in to exchange there during my twenties.
Sometimes good record shops can spring up in the most unlikely places and a prime example was Mix Music out in HARROGATE. For those who don’t know it, Harrogate (where I worked for two years in my early twenties) is very much Yorkshire’s answer to somewhere like Tunbridge Wells – posh, genteel and with a large surfeit of tea rooms. Yet somehow, in the middle of it used to be Mix, a cracking little indie store which also had a branch up in the mountains in Skipton, very much the last bastion of Yorkshire civilisation before you cross over into the zone of cultural desolation and wilderness that is Lancashire (sorry to any offended Lancastrians reading, old rivalries die hard). Like Crash in Leeds, it was a small shop but would often surprise you by turning up a few hidden gems – I’ve got fond memories of finding three of Ginger Wildheart’s rare Singles Club releases for a quid each in there one lunch break many years ago. Like many other smaller Yorkshire record shops though, it was sunk by the Amazon/MP3 boom and Harrogate returned to the realm of tea dances (although I’ve heard good things about the Blues Cafe live venue in the town which has hosted quite a few good local bands in the last few years).
Finally, heading way out east to YORK, I don’t think any article about the independent music shops of my youth would be complete without a mention of Track Records, based out on the east side of the Minster city, just near the Viking Museum. A York institution, the place was up there with Jumbo in terms of the best record shops in Yorkshire and it says a lot about what a good source of music it was that me and my friends could happily eschew an afternoon in one of the towns nearer to my home in favour of paying the £3 return train fare to trek out there and take a look around the place. From old classics in the £5 rack to new CD’s a good couple of quid cheaper than in the mainstream stores, it was everything a good independent record shop could be. Unfortunately, it closed about five years ago (I think due to the owners retiring – they’d been running the place since the late ’60s) and it definitely left a big hole in the York music scene.
Well anyway, there you go, random memories of a teenage independent music shop regular growing up in Yorkshire. The saddest thing about writing this article is that of the 15 shops I’ve covered in this article, only five of them still survive today. And one of those is HMV which doesn’t really count in my book. I guess if there’s one lesson to be learnt here it’s that a good independent record shop is something worth treasuring – a lot of them live a knife-edge existence and only when they’re gone do you realise a part of your past has gone with it. Since moving to London three years ago, I’ve found other great stores such as Sister Ray and Reckless Records, both within a few hundred yards of each other in Soho (the south’s answer to Rocks Off and Discovery in Bradford, maybe?) and I know I’ll continue to visit them over the ‘high street’ stores and the temptation to buy or download stuff online where possible.
So enjoy Record Store Day you lot and try and get down to your local event if you can. ‘Cos that’s the joy of these institutions, you never quite know what you’ll find there, be it a rarity from one of your favourite bands or maybe, just maybe, a CD from a band you’ve never heard before who might just turn out to be your new favourite group…