Not long before Ricky got in touch, Suede had appeared on the front cover of Melody Maker with the headline ‘Best New Band In Britain’. Selecting an unknown band for the cover was an audacious move from the editor, Steve Sutherland, but confidence was high they could carry it off. And carry it off they did. They were the love child of David Bowie and The Smiths, and the perfect two fingers from Britain to the US grunge scene swamping the music press and airwaves at the time. Their debut single, ‘The Drowners’ sold out of record stores across the country. Including ours. The birth of Brit Pop was not for another year or so but that cover was its conception.
And now the cover of the Melody Maker beckoned for us too. We were in the foothills, we had a map, Ricky was our trusty Sherpa. And we were headed for Everest. Events were conspiring; the stars were aligning. I was getting to know people who knew people who knew people who could make it happen. But Ricky? I couldn’t work out if he was for real. And why had Suede got rid of him? And why was he working at the student union and still in a band? And how old exactly was he? It was impossible to tell. And that question he asked about how famous we wanted to be spun in my mind. Was it shrewd to find out the extent of our desire or a residual resentment due to the fact Suede were now adorning every front cover?
In any case, being on the cover of NME or Melody Maker was a summit to which we, The Pointy Birds, very much aspired. I had grown up fantasising about it. Although it felt slightly unsettling imagining what might lie beyond such a lofty peak.
Despite my dreams, the reality was that I was still filing other bands’ music in a record shop. So I returned to the gloom of work. Selectadisc was a big black mothership of a shop and felt a bit like entering the Star Trek enterprise with my 3 colleagues at the helm. Tracey the gaffer was a cross between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura, Dave was a bit like Scotty and Big Phil was definitely Spock, but with a horse shoe flat top haircut and a line in thrash metal band t-shirts.
The worst day was Monday – not just because it was the start of another week, but because Monday meant new release day. New stock had to be out in shop racks double speed, otherwise sales would be lost to our main rival Sister Ray – a record shop further down on Berwick Street. So the week started with quiet industry behind the counter as Captain Kirk, Scotty and Spock speedily processed boxes from Warners, EMI, Universal, Sony, Rough Trade and other smaller independent distribution companies. Their job was to open the boxes and check that the stock that had arrived from the distribution company corresponded to the delivery note, and had been charged at the correct dealer price. Then to avoid theft, they would remove the CD from the case, or vinyl from the sleeve and label it with a price & category. These empty sleeves would then be dumped on the counter for me to file away within the correct artist section or genre of music. Alternative, Acid Jazz, Metal, Soul, NU-Groove, Chillin’ etc.
I also had to file away the stock that accumulated behind the counter. The CDs, vinyl and cassettes that had been removed from their respective covers and then put in inner sleeves with date and quantity. This had to be filed away with any spare stock strictly alphabetical regardless of genre. So when a customer brought an empty sleeve to the counter, one of my colleagues could then go to the relevant inner sleeve, pull out the actual record to insert in the empty sleeve. Woe betide if they couldn’t find that inner sleeve. A sale was lost. The customer was not happy. And Horace got a mighty bollocking.
I didn’t want to try and calculate how many records I filed each day but I guessed somewhere north of a thousand. It was never-ending. And the faster I filed the more the records stacked up. Plus, the shop seemed to be getting busier each day and more popular with discerning new music lovers who loved their vinyl. My pace – which was slow – often frustrated my colleagues. But filing records from 9am till 6pm was a marathon not a sprint, and there was bound to be the odd bit of human error. When Dave found the reggae artist Horace Andy misfiled under ‘H’ for Horace rather than ‘A’ for Andy, my new name stuck. Horace. Or Half a Job Horace to give my full title.
The days were not just long, they felt long. There was no lunch break and the four of us spent so much quality time in close proximity I could distinguish each of them by the smell of their farts. It felt like a prison sentence made worse by the golden Select-a-disc rule: no one ever left Select-a-disc. But I would. I would be out soon. We now had a manager in Ricky who could make things happen. And like Nelson Mandela, my oppressors may have had my physical body, but they couldn’t control my mind, and I had hour upon hour to think about the band and plot imminent world domination.
I had to admit there were some fringe benefits to having a mindless job. I had the headspace to make a mental list of improvements and adjustments to songs, new lyrics and rhyming couplets scribbled discreetly on scraps of paper when no one looking, or failing that on the back of my hand. Interview techniques were practised in the toilet, and although I was lugging around a heavy pile of vinyl, each sleeve was a reminder of a dream fulfilled by an artist who had made a record, got it distributed and into the shop racks. What would it feel like to have our record unpacked from a box on a new release Monday? Our music on a CD and vinyl and in the shop racks under P for Pointy. Big enough to justify our own artist section! Some very illustrious neighbours would lean against the Pointy Birds:
The Pointer Sisters
The Pointy Birds
There were other perks to working in the shop. Making tea for everyone meant I regularly got a five minute break while popping out to get my co-workers lunch allowed some fresh air. Initially I had found this a bit humiliating. I was a graduate reduced to gopher, but it was fun entering the hustle and bustle of Soho. It was a vibrant neighbourhood of market traders, media types, tourists and prostitutes all brushing shoulders with each other. Wandering the streets provided a type of inspiration – although we may not have made it yet, we hadn’t failed. And the current situation was clearly temporary. The future was full of secret promises and my body tingled with excitement at the prospect of the commanding fame soon to be ours. Here in an independent record store on Berwick Street, in the centre of Soho, in the centre of London, the music centre of the world, I was literally in the centre of things.
On a good day lunch-orders would be placed at several different cafes and by the time I returned to the shop a good hour would have passed, much to the fury of my colleagues who were not only hungry but had had to deal with the lunch time rush. Tracy liked a jacket potato with chilli and cheese, whereas Phil rarely strayed off piste from a chicken and sweetcorn filling which I would get from Cookies, the Polish cafe on the corner of Noel Street, which the owner, Cookie, would lather in his ‘special creamy white sauce.’ Dave would mix it up with more complicated orders involving vegetarian options from the more up market Portafino run by Raj who added Asian spices to traditional Italian fare. My favourite came from Brunos, a Sicilian cafe on corner of Wardour Street always packed with sharp-suited TV execs and dusty builders. Nothing beat their ham-cheese-tomato-onion toastie. Nothing. Lunch duty put me on friendly terms with the owners in each of these cafes to the point of first name terms and being able to nod ‘the usual’. We represented the real London. And they were serving a rockstar in waiting.
However, the main benefit to working in the shop was that I got to listen to music all day. Even though I wasn’t allowed to choose what got played on the shop stereo, I was getting introduced to lots of seminal bands and albums I would not have chosen to listen to and I could feel my tastes changing and evolving. By the third listen I found myself loving things I had initially hated. New albums from post-grunge bands from the US featured heavily – “Slanted & Enchanted’ by Pavement, “Let Me Come Over” by Buffalo Tom, “Shame About Ray” by The Lemonheads, “Gish” by Smashing Pumpkins, were mixed with classic artists from different eras and genres. Scott Walker, Aphex Twin, Joy Division, Husker Du, Sly & The Family Stone. I grew to love them all.
The only thing lacking, was that apart from bands like Ride and Slowdive, (known as ‘shoe-gaze’ by dint of the fact that they stared at their shoes while they played), there wasn’t a huge amount of new British bands coming through. The ecstasy fueled ravings of Acid House and ‘Madchester’ scene of the late eighties and early nineties had given us bands like The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, but their indie-dance crossover sound was now on the wane. US grunge bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam had taken over the airwaves – but that was about to change.
The shop stereo was very much Big Phil’s domain. CDs were lined up, new releases were a priority and there was not really a music policy other than strictly no chart stuff. We were an independent record store. The only time my heart sank was when Big Phil would pluck a UK thrash hardcore album from the shelves. This was a genre of music he had a particular passion for. And it had to be played LOUD. Filing vinyl was bad enough in a dark room but having hardcore thrash turned to eleven on the stereo was akin to having hot needles pushed into my brain. It was the aural equivalent of Dante’s vision of hell – a gruesome orgy with the devil doing unspeakable things to people – a man’s tongue being stretched and hammered on a lath while being buggered by a goat. Or something like that.
“Doesn’t this challenge the notion that music should be pleasure not pain?” I yelled one day above the maelstrom. It felt like my teeth were bleeding.
“That’s the point Horace,” said Big Phil nodding and whistling happily away as if there were hidden melodies.
Not even on the third listen, did Cradle Of Filth grow in my affection.
Apart from Big Phil’s masochistic tastes, the music policy at Select-a-disc was mainly pleasure. It was certainly an improvement over my stint as a Christmas temp at Our Price in Brent Cross which had coincided with the death of Freddy Mercury. In a shameless attempt to shift as many units as possible the command from central office was to play Queen’s greatest hits all day every day. Not exactly Bohemian Rhapsody. I liked Queen as much as the next person – you couldn’t deny the genius of the bass line of Under Pressure or the exhilaration of Don’t Stop Me Now – but there was only so many times you could hear ‘Radio Ga-Ga’ or ‘I Wanna Break Free’ on repeat without …well wanting to break free.
Shortly after our first meet at ULU, I heard my name while I was filing vinyl behind the counter. I looked up but no one was there.
This time it was followed by the sound of sniggering. I knew that laugh. It was Ricky. His head appeared at the counter and giggled. He had been hiding.
“Only me,” he said in a perfect Harry Enfield impersonation.
I looked around nervously. The others didn’t like me chatting when there was filing to be done.
He did an impression of someone going down an escalator as his body and then head slowly disappeared the other side of the counter. I heard him guffaw and then his head re-appeared with a big grin on his face.
I fixed a grin on mine and forced a laugh. I could feel Big Phil’s eyes. Ricky and I stood in silence briefly. I didn’t know what to say to him. He had a knack for making me lose words. It wasn’t long before he broke the silence.
“Thought I’d pop in and say hello. So this is where the magic happens?”
He smiled and his eyes twinkled as if he were about to reveal a secret. There was another pregnant pause before he spoke.
“Like your cardigan. Did your gran knit it?”
“What? No, I got it at Camden market.”
I looked at my multicoloured cardigan. I had been getting a lot of stick over it from my colleagues. I wasn’t sure if Ricky was joking too.
“It’s a brave choice – quite Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat.”
I didn’t need fashion tips from a man who tucked his shirt into his pants. What was he doing here?
“I’ve decided to make a couple of purchases.”
He put a two record sleeves on the counter. One was a 7’ single called ‘Creep’ by that new band from Oxford called Radiohead. The other was the new CD single by Suede called ‘Metal Mickey’. I wasn’t allowed to serve the customers and so Big Phil took the sleeves. Ricky looked up at him and stated the obvious.
Ricky giggled like a naughty school kid and then continued.
“What’s the weather like up there?”
“What was that?” said Phil.
Ricky winked at me and I winced. Phil gave Ricky and then me a Paddington stare and went to put records in the sleeves.
“He’s a barrel of laughs. Is he your boss?” said Ricky a bit too loudly.
“Don’t worry you’ll be out of here soon.”
I smiled. He seemed to believe in me. The exchange felt illicit – like we were in a library rearranging the books. Phil returned with the records and the transaction was carried out in a frosty silence.
“That’s £3.99. Do you want a bag?”
“No thanks. I’ll wear them.”
Phil handed the bag and receipt to Ricky and slammed the till shut. He went to serve another customer. Ricky lingered.
“Look Ricky I better get on.”
But Ricky was about to change gear.
“I got you some studio time.”
“This weekend. Two days, down in Catford. State of the Art studio – 16 track mixing desk, engineer. All paid for. One day recording, one day mixing.”
“Can you do it?”
“Wow, that would be amazing. But we haven’t got a drummer.”
“Doesn’t matter. They’ve got drum machines and can create any beats and loops you want.”
“Wow. Well, yes, would love to.”
“Cool. I’ll ring you with details.”
Ricky trotted out of the shop swinging his Select-a-disc bag. He was a strange and annoying little fellow but he represented a kind of freedom. A believer who wasn’t wasting time. I felt my heart beat with excitement at the prospect of going into a recording studio. Big Phil reappeared.
“Who was that nob?”
I felt in two minds about telling him but I also wanted to establish that I had a life outside of this hell-hole.
“That’s Ricky, he’s our new manager.”
Big Phil unleashed a loud scoff.
“Good luck with that then.”
“He used to manage Suede actually,” I said a bit too defensively.
“’Used to’ being the operative words, Horace. You do realise no one ever leaves Select-a-disc.”
I pulled a face to indicate that that rule would not apply to me. Phil pulled a face back at me to indicate that it would.
“I suggest you put your dream back in its pipe and continue with the filing, please. Those records aren’t going to file themselves.” He motioned towards my pile of un-filed vinyl that somehow had tripled in size.
Big Phil left me to it and went downstairs to tell the others. I could hear them laughing at my expense. I felt a knot of anger in my stomach. We’ll see who’s laughing when the Pointy Birds are on the cover of NME and have a video on MTV. I wanted it even more now, just to prove to them that I could. And anyway, we now had two days studio time courtesy of Ricky. Maybe he was our sherpa, the Pointy Birds Tenzing Norgay. I couldn’t wait to get back to the flat to tell the others, followed by some quality air guitar and a hairbrush microphone in front of the mirror to celebrate.
I picked up my vinyl and returned to filing – the record on the top of the pile was the debut album ‘Leisure’ from a band called Blur. I laughed to myself. Pretty boy no-hopers with a stupid name. Even though I was stuck filing records all day in a dark smelly hole, things were looking up. The same definitely couldn’t be said for Blur.