16 Dec 2012

A beggar’s banquet on the British high street

The high street has been hit hard by the digital age but writer and commentator John Anderson argues there’s still something to be said for browsing through CDs.

A beggar's banquet on the British high street

Five years ago I moved into an area of north London with a high proliferation of charity shops nestled among the bookies, nail bars and pound stores which now pockmark almost every high street in the country. It did not initially seem likely to be the trigger for a life-enhancing voyage of discovery, but that is what it has become.

As an avid record-buying fiftysomething, who prefers the tangible experience of a opening a square plastic case and devouring the accompanying sleeve notes to the cold click of a download, I would embark on a weekly rummage through the CD racks of Cancer Research, the British Heart Foundation, Oxfam and others with the forensic zeal of an amateur archaeologist.

The painstaking and finger-numbing flicks through the barren topsoil of Kylie, Busted, Stereophonics and Travis would occasionally offer up the enormously pleasing discovery of a much sought-after nugget from the past or the opportunity to road-test an artist about which I had either heard positive reports or previously been in two minds. With cover prices ranging from 49p for a single up to an eye-watering £2.99 at the top end of the scale, you could get around an hour of music for less than the price of a pint; and it’s all in a good cause.

These weekly excursions amid the musty overcoats of the recently deceased have reignited in me the serendipitous joy of buying records.

But much more than the simple thrill of giving the less trumpeted releases of Neil Young and David Bowie the chance to impress or discovering artists such as Rilo Kiley, Blonde Redhead or the Hold Steady, these weekly excursions amid the musty overcoats of the recently deceased have reignited in me the serendipitous joy of buying records.

As a teenager during the punk and post-punk eras, I spent unhealthy amounts of time and money in independent record shops, their walls covered with the picture sleeves of the recent single releases, their staff enthusiastic and knowledgeable people who would share their expertise with an evangelical fervour. Every trip through the door was a new venture into unchartered realms. Out of these smoky, cluttered interiors sprang my lifelong devotion to bands like Wire, Television and the Soft Boys, as well as the discovery of their forefathers the Velvet Underground, Syd Barrett and The Stooges.

Digital threat

As much as I embrace this age of iTunes, Spotify and Amazon, I also mourn for the death of record shopping as an organic and evolutionary experience. The indies are gradually dying out, and a glance around the shelves of today’s generic high street stores carries all the esoteric tension of the processed cheese section at Tesco’s.

Charity shops may have their walls festooned with portraits of sad clowns and tills staffed by retired ladies in cardigans who probably think Captain Beefheart is a variety of tomato, but they offer that indefinable quality which the corporates have all but destroyed. The joy is in simply not having a clue what you will find inside. The racks are non-alphabetical, nor are their contents determined by genre, artist or vintage.

This is a place where the haphazard stacking of unwanted discs by noble volunteers ensures that Mrs Mills and Nine Inch Nails can exist side by side without a hint of discomfort. And while it is true that for every Archie Bronson Outfit or Stereolab album there will be a hundred by Keane or Bryan Adams to speedily bypass, the sheer levels of patience and persistence required to unearth that gem make its liberation all the more satisfying.

A random find

The randomness extends to the shops themselves. I have often experienced a run of success at a certain outlet which has yielded countless bargains, only to find that I spend the next 10 visits staring at endless Delta Goodrem CDs. By contrast, the tatty store that only ever seems to stock Val Doonican Christmas albums will suddenly get a donation from a bloke whose wife has decided that “either the entire Pere Ubu collection goes or I go.”

My obsession now spreads to visiting charity shops in any town I ever find myself in, or even checking out other London suburbs which I wouldn’t otherwise dream of visiting. I recently found myself on a freelance mission in Wimbledon where there were half a dozen such outlets between the station and where I was working. I wasted a good half hour scouring the first five, which yielded not a single worthwhile or even vaguely interesting item, and a glance at the watch told me I was in danger of arriving late if I carried on. Faced with the welcoming portals of the Trinity Hospice I decide to risk it but quickly reached the point where the next picture of Sharleen Spiteri or James Blunt would have me punching a hole in the wall.

And then, as if to underscore my faith in the munificence of chance, it suddenly appeared before me: “Human Amusements At Hourly Rates: The Best Of Guided By Voices”. You won’t find that in HMV.