Record Shopping, London UK Style (2019)

Ok, first thing first.  Clearly London’s vinyl scene is right up there with anyones – it’s probably one of the Top 3 Vinyl Shopping Cities In The World©®™∞, so it would be quite easy for me to act like a nouveau riche (♠) guy (♣) at a bachelor party, make it rain, and fill my entire DJ bag full of vinyl during our four days here.  But we’re headed to Reykjavik later not his trip for our 10th Iceland Airwaves, and after missing the festival in 2018 for the first time in a decade I have some unfinished business in the city’s record stores, so I need to save some room.  That being said, we made it a point of at least hitting up a bunch of London’s record stores, and I wanted to share a bit of that with you in case you find yourself here.

Stores are listed in the order in which we visited them, at least to the best of my memory, so no ranking is implied.

Music and Video Exchange
38 Notting Hill Gate, Kensignton

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Our first stop, so it would have taken something pretty epic to get me to buy anything.  Plus it was raining a bit.  That being said, I was quite tempted.  The inventory leaned heavily towards used and there were some very interesting titles in the punk/new wave/industrial sections.  I was tempted to roll the vinyl dice on a couple of unknowns, but showed some restrain.  The prices looked quite reasonable.  Had they just opened with that inventory in Seattle, I would have probably walked out of there having spent $300 or more.  If I still have space on our last day, I’ll be heading back out here for sure.

Rough Trade West
130 Talbot Road, Notting Hill

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Rough Trade is, of course, well, Rough Trade.  It’s an institution.  The Rough Trade East store (see below) seems to get most of the attention due to its size and live space, but make no mistake – if you’re looking for used vinyl, get your ass over to Rough Trade West. We barely spent any time at all on the main floor, which is given over to new releases, and instead went straight to the basement used vinyl nirvana.  Is there a ton in the basement?  No.  is it sleeved and labeled and awesome?  Yes.

This is where I got my first true taste of the UK experience, because even their row or two of reggae was lightyears better than anything I’ve ever seen at home, and there were a few early 1980s dub records that I mentally marked for possible purchase.  At least, that is, until I got to the industrial section and ran across what appeared to be about half the Chris & Cosey catalog, all first pressings and all in great shape.  I told Holly before we left that Chris & Cosey and 4AD stuff was top of my list, so the reggae records had to stay and I brought copies of Trance (1982) and Songs of Love & Lust (1984) (both originally released on Rough Trade…) to the counter, which elicited a raised eyebrow from the guy working there who had just been dealing with an American who had just bought a turntable and who was complaining about the cost of early Ramones albums (to which the Rough Trade guy rightly observed, “Look, if you really just want the music buy a re-release”).  So I paid with my credit card and got my first interesting UK experience – they absolutely want to match your signature to the back of your card.  And instead of a signature, the back of mine says “See ID” because I want people to make sure my card isn’t stolen.  So he asked if I had ID and I was pulling out my passport he said, “No, I don’t need to really see your ID.  There aren’t a lot of American blokes who have been holding onto their stolen credit cards so they can buy Chris & Cosey records.”  Which frankly is more astute than any VISA fraud algorithm yet designed.

Honest Jon’s Records
278 Portobello Road

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If you want reggae or dub, drop what you’re doing right now, head to the airport, and take a cab straight to Honest Jon’s.  The selection was deep, with strong helpings of Northern Soul, soundtracks, and various kinds of electronica.  It was simply my pure ignorance regarding these genres that kept me from walking out of the store with anything and I’m still kicking myself for, at the very least, not picking up a bunch of dub CDs since I don’t have any dub on my iPod.

Like Rough Trade, Honest Jon’s is also a label, and I probably actually first heard of them because they put out Ghostigital’s “Not Clean” 7″, which is ridiculous because they’ve been doing it for almost 20 years.  Definitely a worthwhile stop.

Blue Groove Soundz
8 Portobello Green Designers, 281 Portobello Road

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We ran across this joint by accident, part of one of those weird little shopping “malls” that have a wide range of stores.  The small space felt extremely DJ-centric, a blend of electronica, funk, soundtracks, library music and the like.  You’re not going to find Revolver or Never Mind the Bollocks here, but you’ll probably find some stuff you’ve never heard of and maybe an Ice-T record or two in the hip hop section, so if you’re in the area you should check them out.

Vintage Vinyl
Vintage Market, 85 Brick Lane

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Our first stop on Day 2 of our London adventure (excluding coffee and pastry, of course) was the Brick Lane Vintage Market, which would be well worth the stop even if Vintage Vinyl didn’t have a booth in the basement.  But fortunately it does.  Vintage Vinyl has a good assortment of genres given the limited space, and prices seemed pretty good.  The whole market was packed and the stall was nearly full of punters, some of who were searching for treasures while others made the obligatory comments like, “oh look, vinyl records”, “I used to have a record player”, and, of course, “I can’t believe this record is twenty quid”.  I didn’t buy anything during our visit, but I could have easily walked out with a dozen or so titles and felt good about doing so.

Rough Trade East
Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane

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A short walk from Vintage Vinyl is one of London’s most famous record stores, Rough Trade East.  In addition to coffee the location hosts live performances and even appears to have a small recording area.  If there’s a down side, it’s that this location only traffics in new (sealed) releases – so if you’re a used junkie you’ll want to hit up the Rough Trade West location instead.  Regardless, we did quite well here, as the shop carries a wide range of genres and is surprisingly deep in some areas.  We continued with the Chris & Cosey theme we’d established on Day 1, picking up a vinyl re-release of their 1987 album Exotika, as well as two of Chris Carter’s solo efforts, re-releases of Mondo Beat (1985) and Small Moon (1999).  And just to prove I’m not a (total) vinyl snob, we also snagged a handful of CDs, most notably Japanese import versions of the first two This Mortal Coil albums, the new one from Test Dept, and yes, more Chris Carter in the form of CCCL Volume One.  While I’d have loved for them to carry used stuff, there was plenty here to keep me busy in just about every musical format plus a large selection of books.

Love Vinyl
5 Pearson Street

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This store is aptly named, because I loved our brief visit.  A small but well curated shop specializing in DJ vinyl, it offered up four listening stations and an inventory that was about half new and half used with emphasis on various electronic genres, hip hop, and reggae.  As often I the case when I go into electronica-focused stores I felt totally lost because my knowledge of the various genres, sub-genres, and sub-sub-genres is so anemic. That didn’t stop me, though, from picking up the new one from Paranoid London, PL, and as an added bonus it’s the clear version.  If you’re into electronic music, add Love Vinyl to your short list of shops to visit.

Sister Ray
75 Berwick Street

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Day 3 in London started at one of the city’s most famous shops, Sister Ray.  And it lived up to the hype.  The vinyl is housed down in the basement, and while not massive in surface area there was plenty of room to move around and lots of great records.  For whatever reason our Chris & Cosey direction took a hard left into the world of On-U, and we walked out of there with three titles that I’m excited about.  We kind of bookended Adrian Sherwood and On-U with Singles & Players’ Revenge of the Underdog (1982) and Sherwood & Pinch’s more recent Late Night Endless (2015), but the pièce de résistance was Sensational’s debut LP Loaded with Power (1997).  I love the Brooklyn rapper, and we’ve had way more success finding his stuff in Europe than we have in the US.

Reckless Records
30 Berwick Street

 

Because I’d just picked up a bunch of stuff at Sister Ray, I didn’t spend too much time in nearby Reckless Records.  Don’t take that as a snub, though – I only have so much space to bring stuff home.  Reckless had a decent selection of used CDs, but also a healthy stock of used vinyl across a range of genres – they even had a section devoted specifically to black metal, if that says anything.  Certainly some good potential here, and it’s basically across the street from Sister Ray, offering a good two-for if your digging time is limited.

Phonica Records
51 Poland Street

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We almost didn’t go to Phonica, since we’d already done pretty well on the trip and had just wrapped up at Sister Ray.  But Phonica wasn’t too far away and Holly is a big fan of dance music, so off we went.  And I’m glad we did, because this still KILLS.  Once again I was left felling like I was tossed into the deep end wearing concrete boots, but we rallied hard and turned our focus to the relatively small but very intriguing selection of CDs, including yet another Chris & Cosey title (technically Carter Tutti Void…) Triumvirate and also a label comp (Phonica is also a label) from 2014 called Ten Years of Phonica.  We picked a few more for good measure and came away very satisfied.  The team there was very cool, and there are multiple listening stations set up for DJs.

 

London is awash in record stores.  In addition to those above, we tried to stop by two others but they were closed despite being scheduled to be open.  We also walked by at least a half a dozen more that I didn’t wander into, both due to space constraints and, frankly, because this trip isn’t all about record shopping.  I’ll be brining nine records and about a dozen CDs to Iceland with me tomorrow for the start of Iceland Airwaves 2019, and I expect both my DJ back and suitcase will be bursting at the seams on the flight home to Seattle.  And then begins the long process of cleaning and mentally preparing myself to go back to work.  Fifty two weeks until Iceland Airwaves 2020…

(♠)  Of course, as the character of Jim Williams says in Midnight of the Garden of Good and Evil, “It’s the riche that counts”…

(♣)  Or the ass clown who was tearing up and down the residential streets up where we’re staying in his yellow Lamborghini, never managing to get it out of second great, running it up and down the same street, and backfiring on the shift like a toolshed (♥).  You know.  “That guy”.  

(♥)  This guy was more like a SnapOn Tool Truck than a toolshed.

 

London Underground – “Current Affairs Session” (1983)

londonundergroundcurrentLondon Underground were on the very first release by the On-U label, a split 7″ with the New Age Steppers in 1980, though by 1983 they had reached the end of the line.  They released a pair of albums that year, the eight-song At Home With The London Underground (March) and the six-song mini-album Current Affairs Session (October).

Current Affairs Session truly captures the dub sound that On-U became known for, aided in no small part by London Underground’s underlying style which included heavy reggae undertones.  The songs have a quasi-relegiousness about them, the lyrics being sung by true believers trying to preach their message to the world.  The studio effects are certainly heavily applied, but it all fits together in an organic way; the dub treatment simply fits the music.

Mark Stewart + Maffia – “Learning To Cope With Cowardice” (1983)

markstewartmaffiaI bought this album solely because it was on On-U Sound.

I was not disappointed.

Mark Stewart is the Mark Stewart of The Pop Group fame, and Learning To Cope With Cowardice is his first post-The Pop Group solo LP.  All the On-U trademarks are here on this album that can best be described as dub post-punk – dark, echoey, and sampling from other On-U artists like Gary Clail, Learning To Cope With Confidence is an experimental ride, some songs like the title track danceable, while others such as “Liberty City” are avant-garde weirdness.  Most of it, in fact veers off to the strange side, which isn’t a value judgement so much a statement of fact. And if it’s possible, the B side is even more dubby than the A!

I need to spend some time digging a little further into the On-U catalog so I know what artists to be on the lookout for, because every time I buy on of the label’s albums I come away happy.

African Head Charge – “Off the Beaten Track” (1986 / 2016)

I was intrigued to see a small section devoted to On-U re-releses the other day when over at Easy Street Records.  I’ve become a big fan of the On-U family since I bought my first vinyl out of the DJ Masa Collection a few years back, and that turned me on to Gary Clail and Tackhead, not to mention the producer who held the magic keys to the label’s unique sound – Adrian Sherwood.  Since then we’ve picked up various On-U releases where we find them, whether they’re on vinyl or CD, doesn’t matter.  The music is so good.

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One of the bands featured in that tiny section was African Head Charge, with re-issues of their 1981 debut My Life in a Hole in the Ground and their fourth record, 1985s Off the Beaten Track.  I went with the latter as the first seemed a bit over-the-top experimental.  Last night we spun it for the first time and… meh, it was OK.  But then I played it again today.  It was incredible.

If I had to give one word to describe the band’s music influence, it would be “equatorial”.  As in along the Equator, that imaginary line that while useful for navigational purposes is also just one more line to divide the world, breaking it down into smaller and smaller parts, bringing the world closer together while at the same time splitting it apart even more.  But I digress.  Off the Beaten Track is held together by percussion, at times North African and at others strictly Caribbean.  There are flavors from the Middle East, the Moroccan bazaars, across the ocean to the Virgin Islands and then across again, stopping for a bit in the South Pacific to absorb the beach sounds and the Maori war chants.  All topped of with some Jamaican dub reggae.  All along the Equator, where it’s always warm and close to the sun.

Are the songs on Off the Beaten Track protest songs, or martial ones?  And in fact is there really a difference between the two as protest movements certain seek to “marshall their forces” in a way that can be viewed was quite martial.  And what is the martial mindset than being a protest of its own – a protest against a society that wants to change and evolve over time.  Such is the disperate dualism of Off the Beaten Track.  I for one don’t think it’s an accident.

Fats Comet & The Big Sound – “Bop Bop” 12″ (1984)

I don’t know where all these On-U 12″s are coming from that seem to keep randomly showing up at my local shop Vortex.  Someone out there had some pretty great taste back in the day.  This is the third time I’ve found a Fats Comet 12″ there, and I’m almost positive it’s not because they were all there the whole time and I was just missing them.

fatscometbopbop

Bop Bop has that style of On-U dub production that I love so much, though musically it’s a bit of a different direction.  The title track has that funky bass line that I expect from Fats Comet, but then blends in samples from 1950s doo-wop songs and funk jams.  The sonic disconnect of the component parts does create a bit of a trippy sense, making you wonder if you’re hearing a whole song or just parts of different pieces crammed together.  Sometimes the flow is there and it grooves, but that doo-wap kind of sets me on edge a little.  The B side, “Zoop Zoop,” is a gem of a basic dance track, one that leans slightly towards IDM with the aggressiveness of its beats, but that still funks out at times.

There are still a few more Fats Comet 12″s that I need to track down, so let’s hope I keep finding ’em on the shelves at Vortex!