02 September 2009

Slipped Discs

By early 1978 I had heard so much about Auckland that I decided to check it out. The date was 9 March: a friend’s birthday, and also the day Bob Dylan performed in New Zealand for the first time. I was too young to travel up from Wellington in a van with friends from the Hutt Valley, who themselves were lucky to find a rental company prepared to hire them a vehicle. Luckily I still looked young enough to get a half-fare on NAC. That was $20 each way, and the gig was $8.50; at the time a full-price LP record was $7.50.

The Western Springs concert was magnificent, better than most Dylan shows I’ve seen, although his “Budokan” band of the time has been unfairly maligned as his Vegas period. That’s just rock-crit posturing; the full arrangements were fascinating and his adenoidal voice still had melodic flexibility.

I especially remember the feeling of wandering around the big smoke before my mates arrived and the day after they left. Of course I did a record-store trawl; the ads in Rip It Up were like a treasure map. I only had about $15 spending money and when that was gone, I was stuck. The banks closed at 4.00pm and there were no money machines; only businessmen had credit cards and students didn’t have cheque books. The only person I knew was a jazz-loving aunt in the depths of suburbia, an hour away by bus. The city seemed very seedy and lonely around the Fort Street/Customs Street/Britomart bus terminal area, and I couldn’t imagine Queen Street would later become my neighbourhood.

So far from the warm hearth did I feel that one of the most evocative memories is wandering out of Marbeck’s record store just as they played ‘Sway’ off the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. I stood in Queen’s Arcade, listening to the song on their outside speaker, wallowing in it like a letter from home. Besides the great Record Exchange on K’Road, I also stumbled upon the hippest record store in the inner city: Taste Records on High Street. Six months later, keen to get another dose of Auckland and especially its record stores, I returned.

Loitering in Taste, listening but not buying, I observed a confident, knowledgeable fellow behind the record counter: he was alert and busy, but not too cool to help the customers. He was about my age, with an intelligent forehead. I didn’t know that a year earlier he had brought the first punk bands to Wellington. In August 1977 I had snuck into Victoria University to see the Scavengers and Suburban Reptiles; like musical napalm they laid waste to anything that whiffed of long-hair and long guitar solos. The Reptiles’ gig was especially apocalyptic. They were on second in a double-bill with hippie rock gods Living Force, who were instantly rendered irrelevant. In my shoulder bag I had my latest record purchase, Jacques Louissier playing Bach. (Catholic tastes or merely omnivorous? Because of the piano, jazz was an interest but never prog rock: and certainly not after that gig.)

Meanwhile back in Taste, the record salesman and proto-punk impresario was planning his next moves. Having recorded the Reptiles in the first New Zealand punk release, within three years he would revolutionise the local recording industry with the independent label Propeller. Later, he would do it again with dance clubs, a jazz club, and masterminding the campaign that made ‘How Bizarre’ a worldwide hit.

Simon Grigg has always had omnivorous tastes, with the courage to back his uncanny foresight. Rarely for such a tastemaker, he also has a sense of history. In a recent article on his Opinionated Diner blog he shares his love of music collecting, retailing, the record industry and Auckland itself in a fascinating history of the city’s lost record stores. It was as satisfying as a musty rummage at Rock & Roll Records on Fort Street (then going to the counter to receive an approving, or querulous, eyebrow from Kerry Buchanan).

Among the many characters he mentions who have helped shape the musical tastes of Aucklanders is one who became a mutual friend, Dave Perkins: the much-missed owner of Taste, rock T-shirt pioneer, left-wing businessman and wicked raconteur. Simon mentions that Dave got his start in record retailing in an upstairs store on Vulcan Lane, and reading that I thought Bingo. A missing link.

In the mid-1950s, with the arrival of the LP record, there was a boom in ‘smart record bars’ in New Zealand’s cities. Prior to that the industry was dominated by record sections in department stores, instrument and electrical stores, as well as the HMV chain and their arch-rival the Columbus Radio Centres. In 1956 came the opening of a ‘swell new discery’ in Auckland that was especially influential to musicians.

Situated upstairs on Vulcan Lane, it was called The Loft, and run by the jazz pianist Jim Foley. During the war he performed several times with the visiting 290th Army Band (a hot swing act with a drunk pianist), and after it he broadcast Youth Must Have Its Swing on 1ZB. He spent the early 1950s flitting back and forth to the States, often performing over there. He was devoted to inspiring others about jazz. Leading musicians such as Musician’s Union president Bert Peterson, the jazz trumpeter Jim Warren and the leading rock’n’roll guitarist Bob Paris were among many who found Foley’s enthusiasm and knowledge meant The Loft became a hangout and an education. In 1956 it was described as

A really super new spot where you can listen to and purchase “The Most” in LP records amid the most pleasant surroundings. Proprietor of the swell new discery is well-known jazz enthusiast, Jim Foley. Shirley Howard, cute little record assistant formerly of Chas. Begg and Co, is “charge d’affairs” at the record counter. Feature of this spot is the modern but tasteful d├ęcor.

When that was written, the song ‘Hot Diggety’ was the top performer in a survey of sheet music and record sales, plus radio airplay. But The Loft was especially known for its enthusiasm for jazz. US singer Carmen Macrae was astonished when she was told that Foley loved an album of hers so much he took every other disc down from his racks, so that only Macrae’s was on display.

Simon Grigg’s history of record retailing in Auckland makes me want something similar about Wellington. My experiences only go back to the mid-1970s, visiting James Smith’s, DIC, and eventually the hip discounter Chelsea and the master, Colin Morris. (Though I spent most money at Silvio’s second-hand record emporium.)

During the war, HMV would close its Cuba Street store for dinner on Friday nights. When it reopened half-an-hour later, there would be crowds waiting to rush in and fight over the two small boxes of new 78s that HMV had managed to import that week.

But by 1957, for example, someone wanting a scarce copy of My Fair Lady in downtown Wellington could visit The Record Shop, Discville at Fears, Dixon Maddevers, the Record Grotto and Coffee Bar at Gurney’s Electric Company, James Smith’s, the Record Bar in the DIC, and two branches of the Lamphouse.

Now, between Parson’s for classical at the beginning of Lambton Quay, and Slow Boat and Real Groovy at the top end of Cuba, walking through Wellington is a long, dismal trek for anyone wanting a hip discery. But there are a lot of singing ghosts.