To mark Record Store Day on Saturday 20 April, I descended into Cambridge city centre, via the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway, and emerged victorious with the day’s most sought-after item: the 10th anniversary limited edition of the White Stripes’ double LP Elephant, with black-and-red vinyl on one disc, and white vinyl on the other. In the following post, I reflect on the events that led up to this remarkable purchase (though don’t ask me how much I paid!).
As one who enjoys, or used to enjoy, the atmosphere and camaraderie of a decent independent record shop, I make a point of celebrating Record Store Day each third saturday in April, though I would, like many other Britons including Stuart Maconie, prefer to call it Record Shop Day. I am one of those people who remembers with fondness, for instance, the legendary Replay Records in Bristol when it was tucked away in its dingy and slightly scary location underneath the bus station at the bottom of a pee-stinking stairwell, helping to ensure, therefore, its all-important air of exclusivity and insider knowledge by attracting, as with Championship Vinyl in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, ‘the bare minimum of window shoppers’. I also recall spending many a saturday afternoon browsing the numerous ‘indies’ along Park Street, Bristol, now replaced, you may be sure, by a Cath Kidston outlet and a range of poncey designer retailers. I particularly remember going into one of these places and seeing a hand-written review taped to the rack containing the Gram Parsons GP/Grievous Angel album that simply stated ‘Beyond essential’; not just ‘Essential’, you understand, but ‘Beyond essential’. That says it all for me about quality independents, a dying breed of shops which, by law, tend to be badly lit, tatty, BO-stinking and rather grubby places, where you feel intimidated by the muso dudes behind the counter, with your personal space threatened by some lumbering professional collector flipping impassively through the Blues section.
It felt right that I should show my appreciation for the unique character of independent record shops by going along to one of the 215 outlets taking part in Record Store Day, these being, as organisers state, ‘real, live, physical, indie record stores, not online retailers or corporate behemoths’. The official ambassador of this year’s event was Jack White, a long-time champion of vinyl, with 450 special limited edition plastic releases hitting the shelves on the day. I had my eye on a number of items, including David Bowie’s new single, ‘The Stars (Are Out Tonight)’ on collectible 7”, Pulp’s new (but old) track ‘After You’, Nick Cave’s ‘Animal-X’, Kate Bush’s limited-edition 10″ picture disc of the 2012 remix of ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)’, Grizzly Bear’s reissue of their 2004 debut album Horn of Plenty, John Coltrane’s previously unissued 1961 performance at the Newport jazz festival on 12″, and, yes, the White Stripes’ Elephant. All very tasty stuff.
Going on previous experience, I didn’t get my hopes up too high about actually getting my hands on any of these records. Last year, I headed to an old haunt, Rise Music in Bristol, even though I had moved to Birmingham, but didn’t arrive there till early afternoon, when most of the good stuff had of course been sold and the place was absolutely rammed with people milling around hoping to see some live performances (though I did emerge, completely randomly, with the 7″ of Beach House’s lovely ‘Lazuli’ and Sugar’s rerelease of ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’). The year before that I felt forced to infiltrate the pits of the earth that is Kings Heath, Birmingham, in order to visit Polar Bear record shop, where, late again, I had trouble locating any of the day’s remaining exclusive releases because they were being stored haphazardly in boxes on the floor behind the counter (though I did emerge from this escapade with the 12″ versions of Fleet Foxes glorious ‘Helplessness Blues’ and Midlake’s cover of Black Sabbath’s ‘Am I Going Insane’). I have consequently come to appreciate that in order to get the best buys on the day, which are always sold on a first-come, first-served basis, you are required to queue up overnight in the cold with a load of middle-aged nerds, while being aware that much of the stock is snatched up immediately by unscrupulous ‘music fans’ who subsequently flog it on eBay for five times the original price. And yet, I always retain the hope of acquiring some interesting vinyl on the day, while accepting the fact that it is indeed a rather odd pursuit to go out and collect records that are, in effect, pressed purely to be collectable.
This year, for the sixth UK Record Store Day, I found myself in the Cambridge area, where I was attending my partner’s parents’ wedding anniversary (it was their 40th, you know). I had found out that the city’s Head record shop had closed down in February (another one bites the dust), so I did some research on the internet and decided to head down to some place called Heffers Sound (yes, you heard right), an offshoot of the locally famous Heffers bookshop, which specialises in, of all things, classical music. It wasn’t really what I was used to, but at least they were stocking some proper music for the day, in recognition of the event – the only place in the whole of Cambridge to do so!
Even with the sedate and stuffy atmosphere you would come to expect from a classical-music shop, I was expecting Heffers to be teaming with eager Record Store Day enthusiasts with piles of vinyl under their arms on 20 April, so I made a concerted effort to arrive early. Yet, surprisingly, on my arrival soon after 09:30 on a gloriously sunny morning, I found the place to be completely empty, with just a few staff chatting at the counter, as some violin-based music – Mozart or something – poured forth from the audio system. I sensed that the proprietors had got a youngish fellow in to oversee the day’s rock and pop releases and I greeted him jubilantly before focusing my eyes on releases by Orange Juice, Ultravox, Bob Dylan, Bat For Lashes, and, er, Jethro Tull. I took a particular interest in the Sub Pop 1000 ten-track compilation and even contemplated buying it, until, that is, I realised that there were more records behind the counter – obviously too valuable for front-of-house exposure. It was then that I spotted the crucial item, amongst the Bowie and Suede releases. Yes, there it was, the White Stripe’s Elephant. Pure. Immaculate. And I bought it.
The shop assistant, unsure of what to say to me after I had made the essential purchase, simply stated, ‘That’ll keep you going then’, and I wandered off into the market to get a coffee, reflecting that, without any doubt, this was the most money I had ever spent on a record. But on my return home the next day, what a beautiful thing it is to behold! See for yourself… Here is Side A:
And I am particularly pleased with how Side C looks on the turntable, thus:
Aside from the look of it, the quality of the sound is absolutely immaculate, providing a brilliant excuse to have a relisten to what is arguably the White Stripes’ masterpiece, and a garage rock/blues classic to boot, which takes pride of place among the late Detroit band’s practically flawless body of work. Listening to an album that I previously knew on CD as an LP of four sides also brings a whole new appreciation of the work, and I feel absolutely blown away by the perfection of Side C alone, with its trio of songs, ‘Ball and a Biscuit’, ‘The Hardest Button to Button’, and ‘Little Acorns’.
I put my success in bringing home a copy of the 10th anniversary limited edition of Elephant down to the fact that not many rock fans knew that Heffers would be stocking the Record Store Day releases, for the shop certainly made very little fanfare about it. But, whatever the reason for it (let’s not analyse it too hard!), I like to think that in the process, I played some small part in keeping alive the spirit of buying records from independent record shops, even if it won’t bring back Replay Records to its rightful home underneath the Bristol Bus Station. Essentially, I’m just relieved that, to mark the day, I didn’t have to settle for the Jethro Tull release, replete, as I know it would be, with flute solos.