Thirty years ago this month a naive 17 year old boy from a rural village in Sussex started his first full-time job among the bright lights big city of Guildford! I’d been working Saturdays and school holidays in Comet on the top floor of Debenhams. The bloke behind the nearby Virgin Records counter got fed up of me constantly asking him if there were any jobs going there and told me to try HMV. Some of my peers sneered as they boasted of A levels they’d actually passed and prepared for their new lives at university. But as far as I was concerned I’d landed myself a dream job surrounded by music every day, what could be better than that? I worked there for 4 happy years, during which my musical tastes and knowledge broadened exponentially. I gradually started to “listen without prejudice” and stopped being such an indie music snob.
Here is a Spotify playlist with a selection of songs that remind me of those days.
“Moondance” by Van Morrison
In my interview I was asked some questions to test my knowledge of where records should be filed alphabetically.
“Where would you find a Van Halen album?” Under V obviously.
Followed by “Where would you find a Van Morrison album?” Trick question. Fortunately the band I’d formed with my schoolmates did a cover of “Moondance” so whilst I didn’t know anything else about him, I knew enough to know that he was a solo artist, not a band, and therefore is filed under M for his surname.
“Doctorin’ The Tardis” by The Timelords
Another interview question: “what’s currently number 1 in the singles chart?” Nailed it.
“The Only Way Is Up” by Yazz and the Plastic Population
I thought this was number 1 on the day I started the job but I just Googled it and discovered it was either “I Owe You Nothing” by Bros or “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love For You” by Glenn Medeiros and His Epic Mullet. But those 2 records are both dreadful so let’s say bollocks to historical accuracy and put Yazz on the playlist instead.
“The Battle of All Saints Road” by Big Audio Dynamite
I hero-worshipped The Clash back then. Still do if I’m honest. BAD’s album “Tighten Up Volume 88” was released on the day I started and this song had been a highlight when I’d seen them play at my first ever festival a couple of weeks previously. It was the Amnesty International Festival of Youth at the Milton Keynes Bowl and I’ve talked on our podcast previously about how the whole weekend was a badly organised shambles and also how much I’d bloody loved it.
“Wap Bam Boogie” by Matt Bianco
Saturday morning phone-in wankers Matt Bianco also released a new album that day. It wasn’t very good but this song was a bit of an instore favourite. An influence on future number 1 “Renegade Master” by Wildchild? Probably not.
“My Philosophy” by Boogie Down Productions
Starting at HMV that same day was a lad from Woking called Graham who remains one of my very best friends to this day. He was (and still is in fact) a couple of years younger than me but he looked and acted older. The established staff members quizzed us on our musical tastes and feeling they’d got the measure of us they dubbed us “Indie Chris” and “Hippy Hoppy Graham”
All credit to “Hippy Hoppy Graham” for getting me into Scott La Rock and KRS-One.
“Mistletoe and Wine” by Cliff Richard
In December the shop was open on Sundays and stayed open late every night. I didn’t really have any other commitments so I did all the long shifts that were offered to me. The downside was that we had to listen to Christmas music all the time. And I do mean all the time. The only music permitted to be played instore was the compilation “Now That’s What I Call Christmas” and Cliff’s latest mawkish festive discharge “Mistletoe and Wine” which was firmly entrenched at number 1 for the whole of December 1988. Repeated listening to those Christmas songs scarred me for life and the opening notes of some of them still make me bristle and go into full “bah humbug” mode.
Top 5 Christmas songs I hate:
- “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney
- “Last Christmas” by Wham!
- “A Spaceman Came Travelling” by Chris De fucking Bergh
- “Merry Christmas War Is Over” by John Lennon
- “Little Saint fucking Nick” by The Beach Boys
Occasional respite from all this was offered in the form of the Phil Spector Christmas album which I never get tired of hearing so I’ll put a track from that on the playlist instead.
“Solitaire” by The Carpenters
I’d been given a record player for Christmas when I was about 6 and started off with albums by The Wombles, Smurfs and Pinky and Perky before I’d starting buying singles from the charts soon after. I’d also listened to most of my mum and dad’s records. I liked The Beatles and Motown LPs by Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder. My other favourites were Buddy Holly, Elvis and the double album soundtrack to “That’ll Be The Day” which had a load of great 50s rock’n’roll on it.
Apart from that it was mostly music from the 1970s that I tried to like but just couldn’t get into. Wings, Simon and Garfunkel, Bread, ELO, Elton John, Don McLean etc.
Then there were 2 albums by The Carpenters. I already knew a couple of the songs because they’d been covered by Pinky and Perky! Some of it, the faster songs mainly, was really REALLY naff. But I was a big Smiths fan whose favourite song was “I Know It’s Over” so I really liked the slow songs with their gloomy lyrics and dramatic chord changes.
My parents took the mickey when they saw what I’d been listening to. A bit rich seeing as they were the ones who’d originally bought the albums but clearly times had changed and The Carpenters were now the uncoolest of the uncool. So from then on I kept my liking for The Carpenters a secret.
In 1990 Sonic Youth released “Tunic (Song for Karen)” and a new Carpenters “best of” called “Yesterday Once More” came out and sold very well. Quite a few of the older, cooler, more knowledgeable people in the shop liked it. So I went home and told my parents that they were wrong and I was right because The Carpenters were now really cool, so there.
* From here on, rather than typing “older, cooler, more knowledgeable people” I will abbreviate it to “o.c.m.k.”
“Buffalo” by Stump
I’d seen Stump on The Tube a while before and been confused, yet intrigued. Noticing a new single arriving on the racks I remember plucking up the courage to ask Mark (o.c.m.k.) to put it on. After that one play, it was decided that the good folk of Guildford weren’t ready to hear a weird man shouting about big bottoms and fish early on a Monday morning. But that one listen was enough for me to decide I was going to buy that single and both the bands albums too. Perhaps my tastes had already been prepared for such weirdness by my love of The Sugarcubes where Bjork’s unearthly beautiful voice was counterpointed by an insane bloke playing trumpet very badly and shouting about lobsters and custard.
“Anything For You” by Gloria Estefan
This album had loads of hit singles and stayed in the charts for ages. Exactly the kind of music an NME / Melody Maker reading indie kid like me was supposed to hate. Secretly I bloody loved the big soppy ballads “Can’t Stay Away From You” and especially this one. I think it’s the chord change on the 4th line of the verse that gets me. How strange the change from major to minor as Cole Porter put it.
“I Thank U” by Adeva
Didn’t think soulful house tracks were my cup of tea either but I loved this one.
“You Set The Scene” by Love
Not long after I started HMV released a set of 16 albums called “The Classic Collection” which were only available in HMV shops. These were limited edition LPs packaged in a box with a booklet, kind of like a Deluxe Edition before such things existed. Included in each box was a letter from Brian McLaughlin, the big kahuna at HMV. You can see the list of 16 albums at the bottom of the letter.
I already owned and loved the albums by Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix and both Elvises. Like everyone’s dad at that time, my dad owned Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” but I didn’t and still don’t like it. As already mentioned, he had quite a few Motown albums so I was already a big fan of Marvin and especially Stevie. My elder brother had a Who greatest hits double album which I also loved and the songs from “Who’s Next” were my favourites.
But being a good company man, I thought I’d better listen to all the ones I’d never heard. The Led Zeppelin and Neil Young ones were pretty good but I think both of them have made much better albums. Like every Doors album, “L.A. Woman” has some great songs and some shit songs. I have no recollection whatsoever of listening to the Jean Michel Jarre one. I didn’t like The Eagles.
I would’ve sworn that “Forever Changes” was one of the Classic Collection but I just checked and it wasn’t. However it was an album that the o.c.m.k. staff raved about and played instore quite a bit. I was a bit wary of it at first, the cover looked very hippy and my Ramones-loving little punk rock heart beat in strict 4/4 time. Hadn’t I been warned to never trust a hippy. They’re the enemy, aren’t they? But I knew the first song “Alone Again Or” from The Damned’s very faithful cover. If The Damned like it then surely it’s ok to give it a try? The strings, brass and psychedelic lyrics soon got their many hooks into me and I bought my own copy on tape, then later on CD, then later on CD again when the double CD version came out. In 2003 I was lucky enough to see Arthur Lee play the album in full.
“Vertigo” by Bernard Herrmann
This was the first film soundtrack I can remember buying.
We used to receive our pay every week in cash which is a very good way of ensuring the staff then give a large proportion of their wages back to the company buying up tapes, vinyl etc that had caught their ear during the week. I’m sure I would’ve spent the whole lot instore every week were it not for the “Loans” system. This was a brilliant perk of the job that meant that each evening when leaving work you were allowed to sign out 3 items of stock to be returned the next day (having taped them overnight of course). The shop had a large collection of films on VHS and my mates and me began having regular Saturday evening “film nights.” Manager Andy (o.c.m.k.) really knew his stuff about film and gave us some great recommendations. During these years we watched the entire back catalogue of favourite directors like David Cronenberg, Brian De Palma, Terry Gilliam, Woody Allen, John Waters, Coen Brothers, Sergio Leone, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock as well as countless daft exploitative horror films like “Attack of the Crab Monsters” and “Maniac Cop”
“2 Hype” by Kid n Play
Never actually heard any music by Kid n Play in my life. But I remember that Andy G (o.c.m.k.) and Rob (o.c.m.k.) would often stroll over to the K section, hold this album cover up in the air. Then we’d all giggle at the silly haircuts and the facial expression of the bloke on the left (Kid presumably)
“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor
The problem with very successful hit songs is that you hear them so much you get fed up of them. But I never ever tire of hearing this and I’m sure I never will. My favourite number 1 single of the 1990s.
“Doolittle” by Pixies
“Surfer Rosa” was the only record that every single one of my friends liked. We thought this new album wasn’t going to be as good. We were wrong about that. My favourite album released during my time at HMV.
A few weeks later they were the first band I saw at my first Glastonbury. I think so anyway. They might have been the second, can’t remember if they were before or after Throwing Muses that day.
“Abandon” “Hey Venus” “Sensitize” by That Petrol Emotion
This was a very popular album with the staff and we played it loads. Everyone seemed convinced that this was the album to finally make TPE into the big selling band they deserved to be. But despite a succession of great singles, some excellent remixes and a big promotional push by their label Virgin it just didn’t happen.
“I Am The Resurrection” by The Stone Roses
The Stone Roses album is now heralded as one of the classics of the era but it wasn’t that much of a big deal when it first came out. My colleague Billy (o.c.m.k.) had seen them live somewhere and returned wide-eyed and proclaiming them as the future. I’d heard the “Made of Stone” single. I liked it, maybe because I loved The Cult’s “Love” album and the guitars reminded me a bit of that. We put the album on in the shop as soon as it arrived that Monday morning and I remember enjoying it, particularly the guitar solos. But to me it didn’t sound particularly different from lots of other indie guitar bands of the day and I didn’t really understand why people seemed so excited about this one band. But then at the end of the album it got far more interesting and I can clearly remember clearly hearing the instrumental section at the end of “I Am The Resurrection” for the first time. This was something different. Still indie but it’s also psychedelic, it’s also funky! The Stone Roses made even better records when they took themselves further into funky town with “Fool’s Gold” and it’s equally brilliant b-side “What The World Is Waiting For” and even some tracks on the unfairly derided “Second Coming” album.
“My Name Is Not Susan” by Whitney Houston
Whitney’s beau calls out another woman’s name in his sleep.
Like Lisa Stansfield’s “I may not be a lady but I’m all woman” the lyrics are terrible but I still have a soft spot for it.
“Fisherman’s Blues” by The Waterboys
I have good friends who still haven’t got over the musical left-turn the Waterboys took with this album. They left behind the “Big music” of the brilliant “This Is The Sea” album for a new sound that that the music press, always keen to categorise and pigeonhole, dubbed “raggle taggle”
This album sent me off down various musical avenues. The cover of “Sweet Thing” prompted me into buying “Astral Weeks” and subsequently a load of other albums by the aforementioned Van Morrison. The song “Has Anybody Here Seen Hank?” and their cover of “Lost Highway” on the b-side of the “Fisherman’s Blues” single made me loan out a compilation “Hank Williams 40 Greatest Hits” which in turn led me to a whole load of discoveries in the previously uncharted waters of country music.
“She Makes My Day” by Robert Palmer
I really didn’t like Robert Palmer. I thought he was a ludicrous old man obsessed with singing about how sexy he was and that his horrendous watered down blues-rock records only sold because he put lots of attractive women in his videos. But annoyingly I really, really like this one song of his.
“The Short Answer” by Billy Bragg
Apart from Joe Strummer, my biggest idol in those days was Billy Bragg. I went to see his gigs whenever I could so when his album “Worker’s Playtime” came out, I’d already heard quite a few of the songs live. On the Monday morning it came out, I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard this song (in the corner by the tapes) with BB’s best opening line “between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary, there was Mary.” I’m pretty sure I laughed out loud at the rhyming of “spouses” with “trousers” too.
At a Bragg gig sometime around this period, I bought myself a t-shirt with the slogan “Capitalism is killing music” proudly emblazoned on it. Several of my colleagues pointed out to me how ridiculous it was to wear that while working in a high street record shop. They were quite right of course but I wasn’t about to let that stop me from continuing to wear it.
“I Wish U Heaven” by Prince
I already had Prince’s recent album “Lovesexy” on tape when I started at HMV and I still think it’s one of his best albums. The 10 minute remixed version of “I Wish U Heaven” was released as a single called “I Wish U Heaven (Part 1 2 3)” and it is just about my favourite Prince track of all time. Not available on Spotify unfortunately!
A while after that the video “Lovesexy Live” was released and upon entering our shop customers were treated to the sight of a lifesize naked cardboard cutout of Prince. Guess who took that home a few weeks later?
“Happiness” by The Beloved
The musical tastes of the staff at HMV were fairly diverse. There were goths, ravers, punks, folkies, soul boys, indie kids and various crossovers of those. Even so there seemed to be certain albums that everyone liked and The Beloved’s was definitely one of them.
Other albums I remember (perhaps inaccurately?) as being universally liked:
- “Goodbye Jumbo” by World Party
- “Seal” by Seal
- “Club Classics Volume 1” by Soul to Soul
- “Sunshine on Leith” by The Proclaimers
- “Into the Great Wide Open” by Tom Petty
- “Raw Like Sushi” by Neneh Cherry
- “Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars” by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians
- “Listen Without Prejudice” by George Michael
- “Don’t Get Weird On Me Babe” by Lloyd Cole
- “Foxbase Alpha” by Saint Etienne
- “Bandwagonesque” by Teenage Fanclub
- “Love and Life” by Definition of Sound
- “Woodface” by Crowded House
- “Def Dumb and Blonde” by Deborah Harry
- “Electronic” by Electronic
- “Ingenue” by k.d. lang
“A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy Parts 17-24” by Momus
“Doing It For The Kids” was a sampler album released by the Creation label. I bought it because it had a song by Razorcuts on it and I’d really liked their song “Sorry to Embarrass You” which I had on a Melody Maker “Indie Top 20” compilation. Also I bought it because at £1.99 it was very cheap. But even at that price I remember being fairly underwhelmed by most of it. There were tracks by soon-to-be big names Primal Scream and The House of Love but neither of them made much of an impression. One song completely blew me away though, a drum machine and synth based track with sardonic lyrics. Imagine the Pet Shop Boys if they made an album with a budget of a fiver. Seeking out the album it came from “Tender Pervert” I discovered even better, even weirder songs like “Love On Ice” and “The Homosexual”
I first discovered dozens of other great bands via other independent label compilations of the time from Blast First, Food, El, Fire, Zippo, Setanta and 4AD.
“Organ Grinder’s Swing” by Jimmy Smith
Another £1.99 label sampler that took me off down musical paths I might never have otherwise braved. “A Sample of Blue Notes” opened my ears to jazz or at least some of it. I still think that most jazz is self-indulgent pretentious twiddly-diddly showoff bollocks. But a small percentage of it is really good! The stuff you can dance to. Following on from this sampler, I bought a whole load of jazz stuff, particularly Jimmy Smith who I caught live a couple of times at the Jazz Café in Camden. I started going to acid jazz nights at the Africa Centre and Electric Ballroom as well as the indie discos I’d been going to for a while. It wasn’t always well received though. I remember once putting an Art Blakey tape on in my car once and one of my mates asked “why are you listening to the music from Snoopy?”
Check out Jimmy Smith’s “Root Down and Get It” as well, sampled for one of the Beastie Boys greatest ever songs.
“Kennedy” by The Wedding Present
For some reason, record sales only counted towards the charts in certain shops and ours was one of them. So we used to get a lot of sales reps from various record companies and distributors coming in to hype up their new releases. Sometimes they’d give us free tickets for gigs but a lot of the time they were for gigs at the nearby Civic Hall which didn’t really get anyone decent. I’d first heard The Wedding Present on the “Indie Top 20” cassette mentioned above and I’d taped their album “George Best” from my mate Ralphy. When their first album for a major label “Bizarro” was released, an RCA rep came in with free tickets for their gig that night at Kilburn National Ballroom. There was a pecking order for these freebies and I was very pleased that none of the more senior staff wanted to go. I rang up Ralphy and off we went to our first ever free gig! Living the dream.
“Trouble Me” by 10,000 Maniacs
When I’d started the vinyl shelves were in the centre of the shop and they were the first racks you saw on entering. Tapes were on a long wall nearby and CDs were tucked away around a corner.
Then one day word came from on high that we were to swap around the CDs and the vinyl. I think the general feeling among the staff was that this was a waste of time. These new-fangled CDs were never going to take off, they’re far too expensive. At the time a new release CD would be priced at £10.99 and the vinyl and tape versions would be around £5.99. The record companies had been saying for a long time that the prices would eventually be the same. I naively thought that meant that they’d start bringing down the prices of the CDs. But what they did instead was put up the prices of the tapes and albums. It wasn’t a very gradual increase either, all of a sudden they started charging the shops the same price for tapes and vinyl (around 8 quid) as they did for CDs. What was that again about capitalism killing music?
Around the same time, CD singles were beginning to be sold at the same price as the 7” version but usually with more tracks included.
I resisted buying a CD player for quite a while. I bought quite a lot of vinyl but I mainly bought tapes because they were the most portable format and could be listened to anywhere. I’d started to notice that some of my favourite bands were releasing songs on CD singles that you couldn’t get anywhere else. The 3” CD single version of “Trouble Me” by 10,000 Maniacs had a track called “Party of God” on it that wasn’t on either the 7” or 12” version. Not only that but the song was a collaboration with Billy Bragg. Plus it was packaged in a fancy case that was shaped like an elephant! This was the final straw so I bought the CD single. The flimsy elephant case fell apart soon after but the little CD is still going strong.
I also bought 6 CDs of my favourite albums that I already owned on other formats. Those were “London Calling” “Sign ‘o’ The Times” “Geno” “London 0 Hull 4” “Surfer Rosa / Come On Pilgrim” and “Substance.” The last 3 of those all came with loads of extra songs that weren’t on the versions I had on tape or record.
It took me a few months to save up to buy something to play it on so I had all these CDs for quite a while before I bought myself a fancy new Aiwa midi system. My dad helped me wallmount the speakers and whenever people came round I’d dazzle them with the crystal clear sound and the fancy stereo effects at the start of “Bizarre Love Triangle”
They’d probably have been more impressed if they hadn’t been distracted by the lifesize naked Prince lurking nearby.
“Disintegration” by The Cure
With big new releases like this, we’d get people queuing outside the door before the shop opened on a Monday morning. The problem with this was that the couriers who delivered the new releases quite often didn’t arrive until halfway through the morning. Sometimes they delivered to the Our Price shop down the road first so people would unfortunately go and spend their money there instead.
“Human Touch” / “Lucky Town” by Bruce Springsteen
To overcome the courier problem, if there was a really big release coming out one of the staff would go and pick it up in person. I remember someone getting up very early on a Monday morning to go and collect a load of Michael Jackson “Black or White” singles so we had them out on the racks when we opened up at 9 o’clock.
A few weeks later, Bruce Springsteen was releasing 2 albums on the same day. Being a big Bruce fan, I volunteered to go and collect the stock from the Sony warehouse. That was somewhere in Basingstoke, a place I had never been to before or had any reason to return to since. No satnav in them days kids so I’ve no idea how I found the place but somehow I did. Getting back in my car I excitedly put a cassette of the album into the stereo. How lucky was I, getting to hear this album before anybody else!
Oh hang on, it’s not very good is it.
The wider world agreed and quite a lot of that initial stock was still unshifted when I left!
“Abstain!” by Five Thirty
For the first half of my time at HMV I worked on the albums counter. Then I spent a couple of years at the singles counter which is where the shop’s stereo system was. So whoever was on the singles counter got to choose what was played instore! I used this power to play “Abstain!” several times a day.
The other thing about working in singles was that you got to meet the sales reps from the record companies. They would play you new singles before they came out and try and persuade you to pre-order lots of copies. I was notoriously awful at this and seemed to possess an almost supernatural inability to spot a hit.
I remember a rep coming in from a small independent distributor with this 12” promo of a song he assured me was “really big in the clubs.” He convinced me to put it on in the shop and about 30 seconds later I took it off, pretty much laughed in his face and told him “listen mate, nobody is EVER going to buy that crap but I’ll do you a favour and take 1 copy.”
“I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred went on to become a Gold single and was in the top 10 for nearly half a year!
Other notable hits I failed to see coming:
- Number 1 for 16 weeks “Everything I Do I Do It For You” by Bryan Adams: “He hasn’t had a hit single in years, we’ll take 5 copies.”
- “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana: “We’ve had 3 copies of that Tad 12 inch on the rack for weeks, those Sub Pop bands just don’t sell in Guildford.”
- “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” by Bombalurina. “A cover of a children’s novelty song from the 1960s over a house beat you say? Sung by Timmy Mallett? [sarcastically] Oh yeah, I’m sure that’ll sell loads. Get out of our shop right now.“
“The Last Beat Of My Heart” by Siouxsie and The Banshees
I didn’t like the single “Peek-a-Boo” very much and that had been a hit. But I really loved “Peepshow” the album that it came from and I was convinced that the follow-up single was going to be a huge hit. I pre-ordered loads of copies and put it on display prominently at the front of the racks. It didn’t even make the top 40.
Here are a load more songs I thought were going to be massive hits but weren’t. Even despite frequent airplay in our shop!
- “Sons of the Stage” by World of Twist
- “She’s So Young” by The Pursuit of Happiness
- “La Raza” by Kid Frost
- “Heaven Sent An Angel” by Revolver
- “Egg Rush / Doris Is A Little Bit Partial” by Flowered Up
- “You’re History” by Shakespeare’s Sister
- “Ship Ahoy” by Marxman
- “Second Hand Clothes” by Moonshake
- “Chlorine Dream” by Spirea X
- “Read My Lips (Lights Out)” by The Katydids
- “Never No More” by Blab Happy
- “My Affair” by Kirsty MacColl
- “Days in the Trees” by No Man
- “You’re a Rose” by Fatima Mansions
- “Spiritual High (State of Independence)” by Moodswings featuring Chrissie Hynde
- “Francisca” and “Conquistador” by Espiritu
- “Drive That Fast” by Kitchens of Distinction
Some photos of those from my 12″ single collection:
“Especially For You” by Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue
We played this every day as the very last song before we closed. I think initially the idea was let’s play something really rubbish to get people out of the shop. But like Pavlov’s dog hearing the bell, repeatedly associating this with the end of the working day and freedom to go home or to the pub made us all really like it. Still makes me smile now.
- This blog post dedicated to Graham, Andy A, Andy G, Sue, Ali, Mark, Billy, Rob, John, Kate, Jamie, Jason, Colin, Tim, Jenny, Nick, Duncan, Paul, Charlotte and anybody else I worked with who I forgot to mention in that list.