Saturday, April 18, 2015

When There Were Record Stores

It started with Give Us A Wink, by Sweet, probably in 1976 or 1977, in the record department at Korvettes. For those too lazy to Wikipedia I’ll elaborate on Sweet and Korvettes. Sweet (formerly The Sweet) was a British band who started out doing catchy bubble gum hits. They morphed into glam rockers with garishly shiny clothes, platform shoes and awful haircuts somewhere between shag and mullet. This is how it was done in the early Seventies.

By the time of Give Us A Wink, Sweet were probably a (blow-dried) hair past their peak. That came an album earlier with Desolation Boulevard, featuring the megahit, "Fox on the Run." Perhaps you know them from "The Ballroom Blitz," which came earlier. Perhaps you don’t give a rat turd. No matter, since they flamed out in fairly typical rock star fashion a few years after Give Us A Wink. Two versions of the group are apparently touring to this day, each fronted by one of the two surviving members of the original group. Sad. But I digress.

Korvettes was also about to flame out at the time. Korvettes, saith Wikipedia, was “an American chain of discount department stores, founded in 1948 in New York City.” They were well-known for their record departments. I thought maybe it was just me who thought so, but this segment of their business was significant enough by 1964 to merit a profile in a Billboard special issue on record retailing. According to Billboard’s numbers from that issue, record stores were already dwindling, from 12,500 in 1957 to 7,500 in 1963. Which might have raised more alarms if the volume of sales hadn’t tripled during the same period.

As for the nebulous connection between Sweet’s Give Us A Wink and Korvettes, there’s not one, unless you’re me. It was the first album I bought and that’s where I bought it. Korvettes had a deep inventory (at least as I recall it, 117 years later), the prices weren’t bad, and their doorbuster specials were even cheaper. Best of all, for us under-sixteens, you could roam the bins while Mom was off stocking up on doilies, toilet brushes and whatnot.

I bought as many records at Korvettes as my limited budget would allow. A few stand out. Rush’s first live album – All the World’s a Stage – a double album I bought for the criminally low price of $4.38. With the platform shoes, serious bell bottoms, silk shirts and hair that beat Sweet by a long shot, it was a fashion manual for the wasted youth of my era. It included a song called "By-Tor and the Snow Dog." You'll never be that cool, Kanye West.

There was the second Ramones album - Ramones Leave Home. An album that name drops Charles Manson, waxes rhapsodic about the handicapped ("Pinhead") and had to be reissued for implying that huffing cleaning products is better than sniffing glue ("Carbona Not Glue"). There was Young, Loud and Snotty, by (“the damned and demonic”) Dead Boys. Long before singer Stiv Bators formed the more refined Lords of the New Church and eventually died in a not so punk rock manner (bicycle accident), the Dead Boys were arguably at the pinnacle of punk rock with bad attitude. There was also the first of many Lou Reed albums, though I bought it on cassette, a format I never embraced.

Then Korvettes was gone. They went under in 1980 and I’m sure I was suitably despondent. Soon after I sought gainful employment in music retailing. My first stop, a small local chain, soon bought out by a larger regional chain. Big chain took over small chain's location and I made the cut.

It was a relatively large store for its day - in a mall - and the primary offering was records. There were LPs, of course, and there was a very large selection of seven-inch 45s, much to our consternation. We still had plenty of casual 45 buyers who simply wanted a catchy song for cheap. But our substantial stock and deep inventory also meant that we attracted collectors. It wouldn’t be fair to generalize about all of them, but they were often male, disheveled, in possession of long intricate lists or meticulously kept notebooks, and were extremely detail-oriented. Think Rain Man - but less charming and no math skills.

A new era was dawning. I was at a friend’s house one night when he flipped the TV to a strange channel that showed short films of bands cavorting to their music in a manner that would soon seem foolish. In these early days of MTV it was still fascinating.

For some groups this was a ticket to the big time. Devo had already released a few albums by this time. They probably sold well enough to pay for their flowerpot hats and not much more. But when Freedom of Choice came out and the dippy trippy video for "Whip It" made it into hot (continuous? overbearing? played to death?) rotation on MTV it became a huge hit. Maybe I’m misremembering it and MTV didn’t have as much to do with it as I thought. Either way, we sold albums and singles as fast as we could get them and turned away hordes of would-be Devotees when we couldn’t.

There were the Dead Kennedys. Who never sold enough albums to buy flowerpot hats. Yes, I’m exaggerating just a bit. Our store was hardly a mecca for punk rock or anything else that diverged from the main stream but occasionally something weird trickled in. Like a copy of the first Dead Kennedys album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. I’d never heard of them I wasn’t averse to punk and the name Dead Kennedys clinched it.

I soon jumped ship, landing at another small local chain with a handful of stores. It sold plenty of mainstream but also cast its net a little wider. Including heavy metal imports from England (Saxon, anyone?) that made the headbangers magically appear as we unloaded each shipment, hovering over the boxes as we checked each item off the packing list.

But rather than elaborate further I’ll direct you to High Fidelity, the movie version of Nick Hornsby’s book. It never ceases to astound me how frequently and widely TV and film miss the mark when it comes to depicting rock and roll. So I was equally astounded at how perfectly High Fidelity (the movie – never read the book) recreated the experience of working in an indie record store. Yes, we heaped scorn on you for buying mainstream. And we were kind of assholeish. And if you lingered when we were trying to close we’d break out Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Throbbing Gristle, or something equally sonorous and send you packing.

Then came the death knell for records (unless you’re peeking ahead to the end of the story) - the compact disc. The historical record (okay, Wikipedia) indicates that Billy Joel’s 52nd Street was the first CD released commercially, in the technologically forward-thinking land of Japan, in 1982.

I don’t recall when we got our first CD at the store or what it was. I do recall that it was an object of immense curiosity. The few CDs we stocked early on were kept in a place of honor on a shelf behind the counter. We pulled them out for favored customers and curiosity seekers and we all hovered over them, gawking at our distorted reflections. Once in a while some numskull would advance the ridiculous notion that they might replace records some day. Ha!

The rest was history. By the time I left, a few years later, at the end of the Eighties, the CD had a good foothold. By the time I started my final record store stint, in the mid-Nineties, vinyl was starting to seem more like a curiosity.

Grunge was still in fashion at the time and I was mostly unimpressed. Nirvana was okay if you’d missed the heyday of the Ramones or the Buzzcocks. Soundgarden was fine if you hadn't grown up with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Non-grunge act Marilyn Manson was probably impressive to those who hadn’t thrilled to the exploits of Alice Cooper.

But I was getting old. That last stretch in record retailing ended soon and while I missed some aspects it didn’t take long for it to fade into the background of everyday life. Once there was a day when I couldn’t imagine not knowing every detail about every new band, no matter how obscure. Eventually I began hearing band names I didn't recognize. And I didn’t much care.

As for records, we still have a shelf that’s taller than me and about three times as wide. It's full. I don’t listen to them much. One day I’ll get a pre-amp so I can hook up the turntable – or maybe I never will. I’ve never been tied to any one format. LP, 45, cassette, CD, MP3 and whatever else - it didn’t matter as long as it was music. Although I will note that the 8-track was perhaps the most dip-shitted format ever.

I hear tell that the young whippersnappers are getting back into vinyl now. That’s nice and good in a quaint and faintly annoying hipsterish way but I have to admit that I don’t much care anymore. Unlike those customers back in the day who had top of the line stereos but who had to ask us what music to buy, I’m format agnostic and don’t too wigged out about fidelity. Just the music, please.

As I write these final lines, this year’s version of Record Store Day is nearly here. Once again, I don’t much care. Have fun with that, you crazy young freaks with your dopey beards and artisanal butter and stay the hell away from my rosebushes. I've had my share of record store days.

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