From Woolworths to Probe – how one boy’s record buying came of age
May 18, 2011
For an Eighties-obsessed, grumpy forty-something old fart like me, it’s hard to flick through a teenager’s iPod today and find such a random cornucopia of tracks and part albums (many woefully misnamed and some not even by the stated artist). But then, music doesn’t quite seem to be held in the same regard it was when I was a teenager.
Back in those days (I cut my teeth on New Wave, SKA and synthpop) music was a religion for lads like me, records were the holy relics and record shops were – to extend a metaphor I’ll stretch to breaking point before this piece is through - places of holy worship. To my shame I initially worshipped at my local Woolworth’s in the tiny North Welsh town of Shotton (rhymes nicely with Best Forgotten,) before graduating to independent record shops, which is a bit like starting life as an Anglican and converting to Catholicism once you realise what you’re missing in terms of solemnity (I did say I’d stretch the metaphor).
Anyway, back in the early Eighties Woolies was, out of necessity, where I bought most of my records. It was where I bought Japan’s seminal Tin Drum on the day of its release in 1982 (a tradition I still adhere to with artists I respect). In truth, of course, Japan and Woolies were no more a brand fit than Woolies was with me. Indeed, with surly assistants, snotty-nosed kids fingering the pick ‘n’ mix and the constant risk of returning home to discover the record inside your Cure album sleeve was, in fact, Glen Campbell’s Greatest Hits (the staff were famous for their fuck-ups) it was no hangout for a self-respecting muso, not even a provincial 16-year-old one. Frankly, the fact that I had to buy my precious music from a place that also sold odour-eaters really hurt.
Salvation, however, came when I discovered Liverpool’s Probe Records. I’d heard rumours about the legendary indie record store on the school grapevine as ‘the one owned by Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns’ (it wasn’t - he’d merely worked there, along with other Scouse luminaries like Julian Cope and Paul Rutherford of Frankie) but I’d also read about it in the music press. Established back in 1971, it eventually became the heart of Liverpool’s punk and New Wave scene and was as famous for its pissy staff as it was for its carefully-chosen stock. A friend once told me Burns cheerfully berated a larger-swilling female customer with the words “I wouldn’t be drinking that with those hips love!”
I’d been to Liverpool before, of course, usually on furtive shopping trips to a second-hand clothes shop called 69a to buy the oft-musty‘granddad coats’ that were popular at the time. But it was still 21 miles and a dangerous train ride away – dangerous if your fringe is sprayed white and you’re wearing a diagonally-buttoning turquoise man-blouse. But anyway, one day back in 1983 I got myself on a train and headed for the legendary Probe.
Situated, literally, on the corner of Button Street – a stone’s throw from musical Meccas like The Cavern and the legendary Eric’s nightclub, entering it for the first time was strangely reminiscent of the first time I entered a pub and necked my first underage drink.
The outside walls were obscured by a wonderfully tatty mosaic of fly posters but what I remember most are the steps – the hallowed steps - that you had to ascend to enter the shop. There could only have been a few of them but to me they could have been the steps of St Pauls. The inside itself was cavernous, pokey, grubby and cluttered with a very faint whiff of damp and body odour. There were racks of records, seven inches, twelve inches, ten inches. Oldies, newies, rarities. Stuff I’d never heard of but knew must be good. It was beautiful.
So in awe of the experience was I (I must have looked for all the world like a shoplifter) that after about 15 minutes I actually left, empty handed, so I could return a few hours later and explore the racks again. It was on that second visit that day I made my first probe purchase, handing over my money and getting the Cocteau Twins Head over Heels album (still a favourite record of mine 28 years later) in return.
The fact I bought it from Probe – the Probe – gave it extra cachet somehow. The fact that that it was even stocked at Probe meant it was a cool record to have for the shop tended to stock the music you should listen to as much as music you wanted to listen to. It’s what independent record shops were, and still are, good at doing. Okay, so the girl that served me barely batted an eyelid let alone sneered or verbally abused me but you can’t have everything.
After that first pilgrimage I re-visited Probe as often as my money allowed (I often pocketed my lunch money to buy records) and after a while I became a cocky regular until I left the North West a few years later to go to university, swollen record collection in tow.
Like me, Probe moved on in the late eighties, initially moving near to Cream and eventually settling at the Bluecoat, at the heart of Liverpool’s art scene. I meanwhile, moved to London to become a journalist. Someone recently told me the building it used to occupy became a Ted Baker store but this is so horrific a thought that I flatly refuse to believe it.
Still, times change right? Music has changed. How we consume music has changed. Record shops’ place in the world has changed. It saddens me but I’m no Luddite. I buy stuff online, I download albums, I willingly stream. But old habits die hard. I still love record shops. And it’s the independents that still do it for me, not HMV with its mums looking for Susan Boyle records. These days, I can be found loitering in Soho’s Sister Ray – one of the last great independent record shops left in the capital.
The fact that I shuffle amongst the racks wearing sensible brogues, smart jackets and with a buzz cut (the hair acrimoniously parted company with my scalp back in ’97) does seem faintly wrong. But I suspect my middle-aged patronage is still welcomed. I’ve seen bands play ludicrously intimate gigs there, attended signings and picked up neat little rarities there. I’m not entirely stuck in the 80s (I do buy ‘contemporary’ music) but in an act that defies logic I still flick through the David Sylvian section thinking I’ll discover an album I never knew had even been recorded.
Oh sure, Sister Ray’s once legendary Gary Numan collection ain’t quite what it used to be but then, neither is Gary Numan. Sometimes I buy something, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m in there just to soak up the atmosphere or to shelter from the rain but every time I go there I am immediately transported back to my Probe pilgrimages. And I can’t help but wonder whether buying music is still the quasi-religious act it once was.
Can you have the same relationship with iTunes as you can a grubby, attitudinal little record store with staff as interesting as the stock? Will kids still remember exactly what they were wearing, doing or feeling the day they downloaded Adele’s 21 or file swapped The Vaccine’s debut album like I did when I bought The Cocteau’s Head Over Heels? Or are they, as I occasionally suspect in my worst grumpy old-man moments, nothing but infidels when it comes to independent music shops? If so, maybe its time they re-discovered my kind of church. That noise you hear, by the way, is the metaphor finally snapping.