Sunday, July 22, 2007

Urban Decay and the Vinyl Frontier

I’m still navigating the choppy waters of my personal life. I’m surrounded on all sides by ravenous sharks, and there is definitely blood in the water. Nevertheless, if I don’t do some writing, I’m going to go bug-fuck crazy. So here I am. Deal with it. Warning: This is going to be a bit rambling and shapeless. My thoughts tend to be skittish and unfocussed at the moment. And I’m rusty as hell with the ol’ word-slinging, so bear with me.

In the last few weeks, I’ve had a handful of reasons to be in the centre of London with time on my hands, so I’ve spent quite a bit of that time aimlessly wandering the streets, trying to hit some of my favourite areas. And I’m discovering that my favourite areas are gradually facing extinction.

About a year ago I wrote about the demise of Comic Showcase, but what I didn’t know at the time was that it was only the first salvo in the slow disintegration of parts of “my” London. London is many things to many people. No two people see this city in the same way. And that’s the way it should be. But it seems that progress or evolution or whatever- you-want-to-call-it has decided to call time on My London.

I suppose I first had an inkling a couple of weeks back. I went to a party thrown by a company I worked for many years ago – the company I was working at when this blog was born. You can check the archives to get a flavour of my hate-hate relationship with that place.

It was more of a wake than a party. After eight years in business, and having never turned a profit whilst ploughing millions into a misguided vanity project, they had decided to stop throwing cash onto the pyre. It was the end of the road. One of the deciding factors was the fact that the building where they were based was going to be demolished, and they couldn’t face another costly and ultimately fruitless office move. I was one of the key personnel involved in the previous office move. The reason then? That building was going to be demolished.

And I thought about my not-particularly happy working career. The jobs, the companies, the colleagues. Lots of places, lots of people. And it dawned on me that, with the exception of one company, they have all gone. They’ve either crashed and burned in failure, or they’ve cashed out in a smug burst of orgiastic glee, jerking off into rolled up £50 notes with a big “fuck you” grin on their faces.

Not only have the companies disappeared, their employees have scattered on the winds of opportunity, rolling up wherever the need for a paycheck takes them. And more often than not, even the buildings that housed those companies have been razed to the ground, to make way for plazas or mini-malls or who-the-fuck-knows.

Coincidentally, I also discovered the other day that my current company is on the verge of selling up. It appears that the directors have been casting around for buyers, and it looks like they might have found some. It’s only a matter of time. I discovered this through unofficial channels, so I’m not supposed to know this. I always seem to know things that I shouldn’t…

I went off on a bit of a tangent there. What I really wanted to write about was Berwick Street. The Fopp chain of record stores folded over a month ago, simultaneously doing away with my source of inexpensive music. It was always an excellent source of low-priced niche music. If supermarkets are increasingly catering to the Top 40 crowd, it fell to Fopp to cater to the rest of us, and they did it well. Their implosion had little to do with their day-to-day business, and more to do with a cash-flow problem brought on by acquisition and rapid expansion. They committed commercial suicide.

So, on Thursday afternoon, with time to kill and nothing to adequately slaughter it with, I decided to hit Berwick Street, Soho’s Mecca for the music shopper. Well, it used to be. Not anymore. It has changed. The stack-‘em-high, sell-‘em-cheap Mister CD had gone. Both branches of Reckless Records had gone. Selectadisc is long gone. The only remaining record store on Berwick Street is Sister Ray, and I wasn’t impressed. The prices aren’t that good. Neither is the stock range. I managed to snag a Latin jazz CD for £2.99, primarily for the Joe Bataan cover of the Theme From Shaft.

I remember the days when I could walk up and down Berwick Street all day (stopping occasionally for a burger or a beer), digging in dusty stacks of vinyl and finding piles of stuff that I wanted. I always had to put things back, because the stuff that I wanted exceeded what I could afford. Last week, it was a struggle to spend 3 quid. My friends and I would be tempting permanent spinal injury by hauling around bags weighed down with stacks of black discs engraved with the funkiest basslines and the baddest horn breaks. We were avid crate diggers, looking for elusive and unusual funk and jazz albums. And we never left empty-handed.

I know that shopping online is cheaper, but it’s purposeful. You want something, you find it at the best price and you get the fuck out. But you can’t browse in the same way. There’s nothing like holding something in your hands that you never knew existed. The death of the specialist shop is the death of pop culture archaeology, chipping away in the dust and the dim light to reveal a surprise.

Now, when I get on the train home from London, I don’t take any extra treats home with me. Not even memories.


Matt said...

I think you and I need to meet in London SOON to reacquaint you with the fact that, no matter how shitty, there's always new, magical bits of the city to discover, and comfort to be had in friends. But not sexual comfort.

AKA said...

I know there is always magic hidden in the corners, but I don't seem to know the right incantations to see their delights at the moment.

Yes. Meet. Us. Soon.

b ammingwithedward said...

Thank you for introducing me to Fopp, even though I only ever went in there that one time. It struck me as something too good to be true - too good not to be cocked up, from the sounds of things.

Matt said...

Check it out, dear boy. Not sure I get most/any of it, but some bits shine out and give you a glimpse of the subject:,,25345-2204921,00.html

AKA said...

Very nice. A little too purple in patches, but nice.