OH, YOU PRETTY THING...A 1960s stereogram. Ours was even more gorgeous than this one
My parents finally began to expand their music library with the occasional LP. And I mean occasional; purchases were so rare, you’d have thought rationing was still in force. After a while, we had albums by Shirley Bassey, Harry Secombe, skiffle king Lonnie Donegan and – some decades before the inappropriateness of blackfacing was fully appreciated – two “Best of…’ compilations by the Black & White Minstrels. The Minstrels were Dad’s favourite, and he loved to sing along at maximum volume. After hundreds of plays, he knew the lyrics by heart and his timing was perfect. As for the notes, they were all there, but not necessarily in the right order.
Every record collection has a dud. The one that never gets played. The one you wish you’d never bought. Ours was the soundtrack to the film Flower Drum Song, which Mum had snapped up on the strength of a recommendation by my cousin. I’m sure there were people who adored Flower Drum Song and played it until the grooves wore out, but our copy spent years in the LP rack, pristine and unloved.
Only one of my parents’ picks lit my fire, and that was Honey Hit Parade, a collection of pop tunes with a spoken introduction by ITV’s wrestling commentator Kent Walton, who had a side gig as a DJ at Radio Luxembourg. It featured 13 songs, including Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen’s Midnight in Moscow, Clarence ‘Frogman’ Henry’s But I Do, and Transistor Radio by comedian Benny Hill.
When I was around 14, my mum suggested that my two sisters and I should each chip in sixpence (2.5p) a week from our pocket money, to create a record-buying fund. She would put in sixpence too, and we three kids would take turns to choose a single. The arrangement worked for a few months, even though I had to grit my teeth at some of my sisters’ sugary pop selections. But it ended in acrimony when the girls refused to allow their precious pennies to go towards my choice - Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. That was it. Time to go it alone.
The first single I bought with my own money was Aretha Franklin’s I Say a Little Prayer, which still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. I can’t recall where I bought it, but it would have been either Cann’s, Bradley’s record store, on Fargate, or Wilson Peck, which occupied Beethoven House, a magnificent Victorian building on the corner of Leopold Street and Barker’s Pool.
Wilson Peck’s main business was selling musical instruments, with pianos their speciality. One Saturday afternoon, when we were 15 or so, my friend Martin and I were in the shop when a group of a dozen or so skinheads stormed in. This could only mean trouble, and the staff and customers were immediately nervous. The gang made a beeline for a beautiful piano, which was the centrepiece of the store’s window display. One of them pulled up the piano stool and began to play. He was terrific, and his short performance drew raucous cheers from his mates and an enthusiastic round of applause from the shoppers.
Sheffield was well served for independent record shops. As well as my three favourites, there was Some Kinda Mushroom, situated in a musty basement on St James’ Parade, near the city’s cathedral. Some Kinda Mushroom – the name comes from a line in Jefferson Airplane’s song White Rabbit - was what rock historian and former Old Grey Whistle Test host David Hepworth would call a ‘hippy record shack’. There were rumours that dope was smoked here, although to my nostrils, the shop just smelled of damp, with maybe a hint of patchouli oil. Anyway, it was far too hip and dangerous for me, so I stuck to the safety of the high street.
Perhaps the most renowned record shop in the city was Violet May’s, on Matilda Street. It was run by Violet May Barkworth, a tiny but formidable woman, who was prepared to track down records – obscure American blues, for example - that would never trouble the charts but would influence generations of music lovers in Sheffield and beyond. One of the city’s best-known musical sons, Richard Hawley, described her as ‘a pivotal figure in the development of the music scene in Sheffield. Without her, I’m sure that I wouldn’t be making music today’.
As a sixth former, I spent many happy hours browsing the racks of alphabetically-organised rock albums – known universally, back then, as LPs. My only income at the time came from a three-hours-a-week job, so buying an album for the standard price of £2.15 - nearly £30 in today’s money - was a rare event, particularly as that same £2.15 would have bought me nineteen and a half pints of bitter (a pint weighing in at the bargain price of 11p). Decisions, decisions.
But just touring the record shops, handling the covers, savouring the artwork and soaking up every detail of the sleeve notes was a pleasure in itself. Uriah Heep’s debut album, Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble’, with an almost-life-size image of a man’s cobweb-covered face on the cover, was a particular favourite. I always picked it up, but never bought it. In a way, this was homework – building your musical knowledge so you could show off to your mates at school the next week.
And if the record shops were where we did our homework, our set texts were the three leading music papers of the day: the New Musical Express, Melody Maker and - my favourite - Sounds. One of my highlights as a young reporter on Sheffield’s evening newspaper, The Star, was when Sounds commissioned me to write a review of a Wishbone Ash gig at the City Hall. Getting paid to listen to your favourite band was a taste of caviar, compared to the bread-and-butter of covering the city’s magistrates court.
Every few weeks, after scraping together enough cash, I’d take the plunge and actually buy an album. This was hugely exciting, but also an enormous gamble. The make-or-break moment came when you turned up at school with your new musical baby under your arm. This was a statement of your identity. If your schoolmates were impressed, it felt like you owned the album, the band, and a whole lot of kudos. But if they thought you’d chosen a turkey, your street cred could be shredded, as one of my pals discovered one Christmas.
He'd been asked by his aunt – a Irish nun - what he wanted for a present. Without hesitation, he said he’d like an LP, and reeled off a list of hard rock albums for her to choose from. For the next few weeks, he was beside himself. Would it be Atomic Rooster’s Death Walks Behind You, The Groundhogs’ Thank Christ for the Bomb, or maybe Deep Purple In Rock?
On Christmas Day, he ripped off the wrapping paper to reveal the latest collection by popular Ulster songstress Clodagh Rodgers. Sensing his disappointment, Auntie said: ‘I thought you’d be pleased – she’s top of the pops, you know.’ His biggest mistake, though, was to tell this sorry tale to his school friends, who never let him forget it.
One Friday night, a group of us were invited round to our mate Mike’s house to listen to his copy of Pink Floyd’s new album Atom Heart Mother. AHM, as we Floyd buffs refer to it, isn’t what you’d call easy listening. Side One is a 24-minute, six-part instrumental suite, which features various sound effects, including a high-speed train entering a tunnel.
Side Two closes with Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast, a recording of Floyd roadie Alan Styles cooking his breakfast and muttering the timeless lyrics: ‘Oh, um my flakes, uh then, I don’t know scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, toast, coffee. Marmalade, I like marmalade.’ It doesn’t have ‘instant hit’ written all over it. But as the last strains of Alan’s fry-up faded out and the stylus lifted from the vinyl, there was a moment’s silence, then we all exchanged appreciative nods. Mike’s purchase had passed the test.
One of my less-successful buys was Floyd’s Obscured by Clouds, the soundtrack to the film La Vallée, and not one of the band’s most celebrated works. When I got it home and played it, the stylus on our stereogram kept jumping out of the groove. I took it back to Bradley’s, where the guy behind the counter - a few years older than me and a thousand degrees cooler - nodded sagely. ‘Happens a lot with this album. It’s ‘cos of the unusual chord changes.’ I gave him a knowledgeable nod back and pocketed my refund. More than 50 years later, as I type these words, it finally dawns on me that he was talking absolute b****cks.
In the Seventies, many of the music shops had listening booths, where prospective buyers could hear a couple of tracks, which helped to reduce the risk of buying a dud. This was a great way to spend an afternoon, touring the record shops and hearing your choice of music for free, with no intention of buying anything. In a sense, this was the Spotify of its day - the nearest you came to choosing your own playlist. I remember listening to the first Black Sabbath LP in a booth at Wilson Peck, purely on the strength of the band’s name and the Gothic photo on the cover. A slight crackle as the needle came into contact with the vinyl…a church bell tolling…thunder rumbling…rain falling…a brooding, three-note guitar riff. Ten seconds in, and I was hooked.
I gave my new Sabbath LP an airing for my mates one Sunday afternoon. We huddled round our stereogram as my dad – with a few pints of bitter and a roast dinner inside him - snoozed in an armchair. The fact that he slept through 40 minutes of heaviest rock known to Man was the talk of our school the next day.
The early Seventies saw the dawn of in-car entertainment, with two formats – the cassette tape and the eight-track player - vying for supremacy. On Friday nights in summer, a group of us would head out to the Millstone, a landmark pub overlooking the Peak District village of Hathersage. Mick provided the transport – his dad’s bread delivery van, in which he’d installed an eight-track player. One lucky passenger got to sit alongside Mick in the front of the van, while the rest of us bounced around in the back, where the loaves and pastries had been stacked during the day. By the time we arrived at the pub, covered in a light dusting of flour, we resembled a bunch of pasty-faced teenage ghosts.
The choice of music for these Friday excursions didn’t vary. On the outward journey, we would chill out to the velvet voice of Karen Carpenter and on the way back we’d launch into a lager-fuelled sing-along to Uriah Heep’s prog rock wig-out Look at Yourself.
In August 1973, having saved £120 from my summer job as a council binman, I bought my first car – a red Mini, registration 61 UNN. I called him Ernie.
Ernie had three forward gears, dodgy brakes and no radio. Fixing the brakes fixed was the priority, obviously, but I opted instead to focus on finding a solution to the lack of tunes. After some serious consideration, I decided to place our new stereo system’s speakers face-to-face, a few inches apart, with a microphone between them. The mic was plugged into a cassette player with a blank tape inserted. So, when I played the record on the stereo, the sound would come out of the speakers, into the microphone and on to the tape. Then slap the cassette player and a few lovingly-created tapes on Ernie’s passenger seat and voila! – I’d be fully tuned up.
The rest of the family were banned from the living room while the Ernie Tapes were in production, to ensure total silence during the recording process. I spent hours upon hours, painstakingly timing and re-timing each track, to ensure a professional finish. Finally, with three or four tapes-worth of material in the can, I was ready to roll.
I got in the car, slotted a tape into the cassette player and pressed ‘Play’. As I pulled away and the music started, I noticed that the Moody Blues’ album On the Threshold of a Dream had acquired an extra, unexpected dimension - the sound of our budgie, Joey, chirping away happily throughout the entire recording.
Every time I bought a new LP, I would stick a strip of Sellotape over the top, bottom and spine of the cover, to protect it from damage. It was then stored in a red vinyl case, manufactured for this specific purpose.
I stopped buying LPs in the mid-Eighties and switched to compact discs because the recording industry told us they were indestructible, more convenient, had better sound quality and were, well, the future. They forgot to mention that, compared to the LP, they’re cheap, cold and unlovable. An E-type Jaguar replaced by a corporation bus.
Since then, my LP collection has travelled with me through 13 house moves, from Sheffield via Leeds, Coventry, Newcastle and Middlesbrough to North Wales. For the last 20 years, they have remained in their red vinyl coffin, in a little-used understairs cupboard. Out of sight but never far from my mind.
As the end of 2022 approached, I decided it was time to get rid of my CD collection because, in the age of Spotify, I never play them. I never play my LPs either. But that’s not the point.
*There's lots more detail about the old Sheffield record shops on www.sheffieldhistory.co.uk and www.sheffieldmusicarchive.co.uk - both are well worth a look.
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