For any collector of recorded music, on whatever format, being given the keys to your own record shop sounds like a dream come true. But what’s it actually like when that dream drops in your lap, and how do you set about making a record shop work without compromising every principle that made the dream what it was? I recently had the pleasure of quizzing two good friends and vastly experienced record collectors for whom that dream has come true. Martin Heaphy and Neil Scott are the new owners of Sounds That Swing, in Camden’s Parkway, just a few hundred yards from Camden Town tube station but nicely separated from the tourist trap outlets that cram the High Street. The shop’s well-established, having spent some seven years in its current location, and thirteen in nearby Inverness Street, where it shared premises with a butcher’s shop and resident rat population. It’s now central London’s only dedicated rock’n’roll, rockabilly and rhythm’n’blues outlet, and a worthy successor to nearby Rock On where a generation of fans of authentic original rock’n’roll cut their teeth and emptied their wallets hoovering up the kind of music that was never released commercially in the UK in the 1950s but which typifies the raw sound that electrified post war music culture. Both Martin and Neil have worked in the shop for some time, in Neil’s case on and off since the early days, but to both it came as a surprise when the founder and owner rang them to offer them first refusal on a purchase.
Six months later, and after a crash course in the minutiae of finance, accounting, property leasing and employment law (which in itself has got to make you wonder if the dream wasn’t fuelled by too much cheese), the guys have done all the complicated stuff and their names are over the door (figuratively, of course – it’s still Sounds That Swing, obviously!). So what do you get when you buy a record shop? Well, all the stock, obviously, and we’ll come back to that in a minute, and what’s left of the lease, but the most important thing is the value of the name and the goodwill that goes with it. Fortunately, although it’s the bit that costs, in the case of Sounds That Swing, it’s a name that has a great reputation for doing just what Martin and Neil intend to keep doing, adding their own flair and expertise.
Needless to say, it was the stock that intrigued me most (after all, that’s what I go in there for). The shop’s offerings fall into four main categories: new CDs, repro vinyl, second hand material, and the collectors’ corner. The new CDs are the relatively easy bit – some companies make it easy; indeed the guys are almost inundated with news of new releases, and the difficult bit is deciding just what to buy in. It must be tempting to line the shelves with some of the beautifully produced and very complex box sets available, but that takes a big investment in stock, so the guys have to think carefully about which gems to carry and which to get in to order. But the counterpoint is that you’ll often find some of the less well advertised new releases, including stuff the guys have had to track down themselves when they discovered it was coming out. They’re also stocking some of the new releases coming out on vinyl as an alternative, or accompaniment, to CD issues, which are gaining popularity as buyers rediscover the pleasure of not only physically owning their music, but also doing so in a format that gives it a tangible quality, and which shows off the effort that’s gone into the cover art.
Repro singles are a world of their own. It’s hard to pin down just what makes them attractive: they’re not original (though some are very nice copies, complete with the original label art), they’re no better quality than a CD (indeed, many are taken from CD recordings of material that has itself passed the copyright time limit), and they demand more effort to play. And maybe that’s it – the chance to play tracks the way they were when they first appeared, along with the greater attention that spinning an individual single attracts; after all, unlike a CD or even LP, you can’t just put it on and wander off to do something else. Each one has to be chosen, put on the turntable, and then lined up, which gives the listener far more intimacy with what’s going on than picking out individual tracks from the thirty-odd on one disc of a compilation set. By far the widest selection of repro 45s is in the R’n’B genre; the racks at Sounds That Swing offer a wide variety of choice material, from tracks popular in the clubs of the 1980s when the rock’n’roll scene started to broaden to encompass the early 50s, right up to numbers being dug out of the vaults and popularised today.
Sadly, the supply of repro rock’n’roll and rockabilly is thinner on the ground. We recalled the days when the routine seemed to start with one of the regulars on the scene finding some obscure but danceable record buried away on one of the Bison or Buffalo Bop compilation LPs, getting it played at one of the London clubs until it became a regular feature in the playlist, whereupon it would be picked up by one of the repro manufacturers, either as a single or on an EP, and made widely available as its popularity spread steadily across the country fuelled by those who’d either visited London or through one of the weekenders. With the scene now much depleted, and London clubs no longer dominant, nothing seems to be driving the market as it did. Fortunately, there are exceptions, and I spotted a number of very nicely produced EPs with high quality cover art. As with CDs, there are also new releases on 45, and the boxes on display also contain a wide selection of singles by new rockabilly bands, along with neo rockabilly and other variations on a theme. Reflecting the broadening of tastes and blurring of boundaries between tribes, you’ll also find a good range of Garage Punk from the early 60s (though, as one of our record collector friends found recently, that very term can spark reams of impassioned – not to say abusive – debate as to what it means and whether it truly exists as a genre). Basically, if you want to buy repro 45s anywhere near the middle of London, go to Sounds That Swing.
And so to the second hand market. There are some straightforward second hand records in the shop, though Martin and Neil have to fend off a steady stream of callers offering them large collections of ‘your sort of music’, using consisting of boxfuls of middle-of-the-road 50s and 60s pop compilations, jazz LPs (and not original albums either), and Hollywood soundtracks. Despite endless explanations that they’re not a second hand record shop, and that rock’n’roll doesn’t automatically include every record made in or influenced by the 1950s, they keep on coming, often leaving in bewilderment at exposure to a genre of music, and an intensity of concentration, that they’ve never encountered before. There are second hand records to be found in the shop, though – including many of the early compilation records which those of us around in the 1980s waited avidly for, and drooled over as we debated which to spend our meagre wages on. It’s odd that nowadays one can pick up a budget boxed set compilation with enough material on it to represent several years of dedicated hunting thirty years ago, but with a fraction of the satisfaction, and those albums where we knew every track on each side, and usually the order they came in, too. If, like me, you enjoy filling in the gaps left by the ones you just couldn’t afford or get hold of at the time, then this is for you, but if you want a 1990s ‘Greatest Hits of the 50s’ album, you’re probably in the wrong place.
And so to the real collectors’ material, stashed safely away in the boxes behind the counter. This is where the vinyl junkies head for, and where the decades of record collecting that Martin and Neil have amassed between them really come into their own. For one thing, the supply of original rock’n’roll and rockabilly 45s has run pretty dry these days. The days of the 1970s and 80s pioneers like Breathless Dan Coffey are long gone, and the dream that a flight to the States will see an avid collector falling over stacks of originals at junk shop prices just isn’t going to come true. Most of what’s out there is in circulation amongst traders and collectors, and the dominance of EBay means that it only takes a few clicks for anyone to take a punt at what a record might be worth. For guys like Martin and Neil, who know that a good slice of their reputation hangs on having interesting stuff in those boxes at the back of the shop, nipping across the pond to hoover up supplies isn’t going to happen, so they need to be masters both of the genre and of their customer base. The years of collecting have given them a sixth sense for that unknown record that might just turn out to be a belter. It’s not easy – the collectors’ record world abounds with hyperbole and a language of its own (and that’s an idea for another article), so taking a punt on a record purely on a description as a ‘great bopper’, or ‘greasy floor filler’, is likely to leave them sitting on seven inches of solid crud. Rather it’s an intuition based on an intimate knowledge of artists, backing musicians, locations, labels, and dates that sets their antennae waving and makes it worth them adding a particular item to the box. Frankly – and you’ll have guessed this already – I’m in awe of that kind of record collecting, but I’m desperately glad that we’re lucky enough to have a pretty expert gang of collectors on the scene who, over the years, have unearthed the gems for lazy folk like me to listen and dance to, and that’s where the record labels themselves come in.
The Sounds That Swing deal came with its own record label, along with its back catalogue. No Hit Records was originally formed to release new recordings by Ronnie Dawson, one of the original 50s rockabilly artists, and now boasts a string of releases by the Kaisers, Big Sandy, and the Dave’n’Deke Combo amongst others. Another well known pressing is the Flame label, home of the Desperate Rock’n’Roll series (and they deserve an article of their own). Having been heavily involved in many of the No Hit family releases, in recent years Neil’s struck out on his own with a couple of albums of rare country rockabilly from his own collection on the Corn Fed label. He was determined to do everything he could himself – and succeeded – having had to outsource only the actual pressing of the albums and printing of the sleeves. Everything else, including putting records and sleeves together, was Neil’s work alone. With their experience, and a couple of extremely well-received recent releases like that under their belts, we should have a lot to look forward to.
Building on a strong brand, with lots of fresh ideas and a genuine passion, there’s no doubt that Sounds That Swing is set to go from strength to strength under Martin and Neil’s care. What won’t change is the atmosphere – a real record shop, with what can only be described as integrity about what they stock, and a welcome that combines a wealth of knowledge about everything on their shelves with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour and a slight sense of disbelief that two (allegedly) grown-up blokes can actually find themselves doing a job they love. It’s no wonder, they admit as an afterthought, they have a steady stream of celebrity customers, ranging from music scene characters like Robert Plant, Richard Hawley, Jamie Cullum, Paul Weller and Bobby Gillespie, through to household and even worldwide names like Stuart Lee, Jude Law and, on one occasion (and, yes, he did buy something) Daniel Craig. They’re not celeb hunters, though, nor will the novice get a patronising reception while they dwell on the record collector cognoscenti. Martin and Neil are in this business to sell great music to people who want to hear it – and I can’t think of a better qualification for anyone to own a record shop.
For the latest information on releases, check out the Sounds That Swing Facebook Page.
This article first appeared in Now Dig This Magazine – the UK’s longest-running magazine dedicated to the rock’n’roll scene.