Authors: Tom Cox
The problem with the Rock Circus is that even when it's open it looks sort of shut. You can enter the Trocadero shopping centre, pass by the picture of Lenny Kravitz, traipse up the broken escalator, and still get the sense that you're somewhere you shouldn't be: the set, perhaps, of an Eighties horror film where dolls come to life and sing Cher's âThe Shoop Shoop Song' until you die of tedium. The result of this is that when it's
closed â closed for ever,
even â the diehard patron is left in a kind of denial, pushing past the No-Entry cones and the âSorry â The Rock Circus Has Closed Down' sign, through the darkened foyer, and peering through the window, convinced that somewhere in the gloom, good ol' Bruce is still singing about blue-collar America and bopping in the way that Bernie from
Weekend At Bernie's
might if you put him under the grill for a few minutes.
âNo. I think it's definitely locked,' said Peter, as I shook the door handle for the fourteenth time.
âBut it can't be,' I said.
âI think it is.'
âI'm really sorry about this. I should have phoned beforehand and checked it was open.'
I'd been prepared for let-downs: on the ladder of reliability, musicians, as a breed, slotted somewhere between pet cats and plumbers. But I'd imagined I could bank on the Rock Circus and its host of stars to be there for me. Somehow the closure didn't seem momentous enough. Why hadn't anyone told me about it before? Shouldn't I have heard something on the national news? More to the point, how would hundreds of Spanish tourists fill their vacations now? Had anyone considered that?
It wasn't the ideal start, but, for his part, Peter seemed to take the setback manfully. So far, I had to admit I was impressed: while not exactly forthcoming, he was nowhere near as moody or miserable as I'd imagined. And as we tramped back towards Soho, I discovered it was me, not him, who was in a despairing sulk, coming to terms with the immutable
fact that there really is no truly fulfilling replacement for an afternoon spent comparing hand sizes with the guitarists from Kiss.
âI really don't mind, you know,' said Peter.
âAre you sure?' I asked.
âSo what do you want to do now?'
âWhat about we go second-hand record shopping?'
âOh, no, actually, I've just remembered â there's a pool of killer sharks just around this corner, swimming with a random selection of 1980s children's TV presenters. It costs Â£2.17 to join in. How about we do that instead?'
Okay, so I made the last part of that conversation up. Nevertheless, I was beginning to realise that it didn't matter what I suggested â there was an odds-on chance Peter would say âalright' or âdon't mind'. Whether this was because he was being polite or because he was the most reserved adolescent in Britain, I couldn't yet tell. I imagined, though, that he would enjoy second-hand record shopping. He was, after all, male, mad on music, and â surely, merely by being a teenager â keen to impress his peers with his knowledge of cool and obscure bands. Besides, everyone enjoys second-hand record shopping, don't they?
I'm loath to count the number of hours I've spent in second-hand record shops in the last decade, but I think I can be pretty certain that I've used up more time fondling classic vinyl than I have listening to it.
For years and years, while other, more sensible rock writers sold their unwanted promotional CDs to pay for things like alcohol and council tax, I traded mine in for older, smellier records. No mountain of dusty country rock, funk or psychedelia was high enough. No musty backstreet junk shop was cunningly hidden enough: I would find it, just on the off-chance that someone had sold that elusive second Rare Earth album or Jimmy Webb promo there recently. Writing the whole pursuit off as âwork-related revision' merely allowed it to get more out of hand, until finally I found myself in a desperate state, making pathetic attempts to befriend carpenters who might be kind enough to build a contraption monolithic and elaborate enough to house my record collection.
Then, one day not too long ago, the madness stopped â not exactly abruptly, but nevertheless surprisingly quickly. The trigger could have been my mother-in-law-to-be arriving at my flat for the first time, surveying my record collection and announcing, âYou're going to
before you've listened to all these!' Or it could simply have been that the portion of my brain devoted to memorising esoteric early Seventies power-pop finally became overloaded and shut down in protest. Whatever the case, it dawned on me that I no longer wanted to spend every bit of spare cash I had on early Rain Parade albums that I would never listen to, nor every bit of spare time being casually insulted by men in Mogwai t-shirts. I'd always known that second-hand record shops were rancid places staffed by surly snobs. The difference was, now, for the first time, it bothered me. It seemed nicer to shop in
hygienic places, with products that didn't have globules of treacle stuck to them in memory of a previous owner.
I continued to cherish vinyl, but on a more selective and casual basis, without being averse to selling the odd mound of it in order to fund a new dishwasher or pitching wedge. I still visited second-hand record shops, but more out of habit than anything. That said, the idea of going to a few of them with Peter lifted me out of my mid-afternoon slump. Here, a mischievous part of my subconscious realised, was the chance to start all over again, to rediscover the buzz of the nascent collector, albeit vicariously. Sure,
had an original copy of the second Matthews Southern Comfort album, but I could be pretty certain that Peter didn't, and I was excited for him because of it. Obviously, there was always the chance that he wouldn't want one â from the brief time I'd spent with him, he didn't seem like a whimsy and sideburns kind of kid â and would rather spend his money on a Marilyn Manson import, but surely, as his designated tutor and tastemaker, I was holding the cards here.
In fact, what I
holding wasn't like card at all; it was more like Monopoly money. The flimsy notes that I rustled together in my hand represented the special currency you received from the chain of Music And Video Exchange shops when you sold records to them and didn't want to feel like you'd got a really rotten deal. The fact that I was in possession of them was perhaps testament to the fact that I wasn't a fully recovered vinyl junkie: it meant that at some point in the last few weeks I'd sold some CDs to the Music And
Video Exchange and, upon being asked, âCash or exchange?', I'd opted for âexchange', under no illusions that that âexchange' could mean anything other than âmore records'. The problem was, âexchange' always amounted to around twice as much as âcash', and it was all too easy to give in to temptation.
The Music And Video Exchange shops in London are like most second-hand shops, only more so in every way. That is to say, they are packed with more records, more tetchy sales assistants, more failed musicians and more of an ambience of pseudo Ã©litism per square yard. Unfortunately, they are also packed with potential bargains, and are quite possibly the only record shops in London which you can guarantee will take all of your unwanted CDs. While I realised the psychological risks involved in introducing a wide-eyed minor to this kind of atmosphere, I also knew that it was important to show Peter the bizarre subculture of the Music And Video Exchange, which, in its own way, formed a necessary chunk of the underbelly of the music business.
âOnce we step through these doors, the etiquette of the outside world becomes irrelevant,' I explained, as we arrived outside the Soho branch of the franchise. âNow, just act cool, and if the men inside are rude to you, don't let them see that you're bothered.'
âAlright,' said Peter.
Beyond the threshold, a typical scene emerged: knowingly uninterested sales assistants listlessly checked the condition of vinyl and made arch comments about the noise coming from the speakers â from what I could gather, a man wailing about the time
another man stole his girlfriend, with some kitchen utensils falling out of a window taking the place of what traditionally would be called âa rhythm section' â while a selection of Japanese girls with rucksacks and inventively shaved men with National Health specs rooted through the racks in the middle of the floor. I watched as Peter took it in. He seemed to be coping. Gradually we dispersed, me towards the section marked âProg/Psychedelia' and Peter towards a CD sleeve featuring what appeared to be â and there really was no way of getting around this, no matter which angle you chose to look at it â a ghost swallowing a human kidney.
Twenty minutes later, we reconvened, Peter clutching five or six CDs â none of which, to my relief, seemed to feature a sleeve depicting an organ-munching spectre.
âWhat have you found?' I asked him.
âFirst Marilyn Manson album. New Linkin Park. Couple of other things,' said Peter.
âHave you ever heard of these guys?' I passed him the copy of Blue Oyster Cult's classic 1976 album
Agents Of Fortune
that I'd found a few moments earlier in the Hard Rock section.
âThey sound a bit like the stuff you listen to. This is their best album. You should check it out.'
I was aware that I'd told a white lie: Seventies albums by Blue Oyster Cult, though squarely established in the metal genre, didn't really sound a bit like the stuff Peter listened to; they sounded like The Byrds
being kneed where it hurts by a large gang of Hell's Angels. But my heart was in the right place. Peter was about to face the most difficult test of the day â the most difficult test, possibly, of his whole musical apprenticeship â and, though ultimately he would have to face it alone, I felt it was the least I could do to make sure he was adequately prepared. If my planning had been better, if the Rock Circus hadn't closed down, I'm sure I would have saved this test for later in our adventure, when Peter was more cynical, more inured to the ways of men who've seen their musical dreams slowly disintegrate before their eyes. But there seemed to be no avoiding it. Only one thing was certain: when it was over, he wouldn't be quite the same person that he'd been before. Stronger, yes, but weaker too, and never quite able to feel so optimistic about the destiny of humanity. Following in the footsteps of heroes, Japanese rock chicks and overgrown students, Peter was about to face one of the toughest tests known to man: he was about to pay for some goods at the Music And Video Exchange.
As I'd learned to my cost over the years, conducting cash transactions at the MVE could not be approached in the same flippant, absent-minded manner as conducting cash transactions in ordinary high street establishments. There were rules, and then, hidden between the lines of those, a myriad codes and sub-clauses. If, for example, you happened to be selling records, what you didn't do was approach the cash register brightly and say, âGood day to you! I've got some goods I'd like to sell! I think you'll find they're all in wonderful condition, particularly the copy of the
first Climie Fisher single. By the way, could you tell me the way to the nearest Virgin Megastore?' What you
do was look the sales assistant in the eye, grunt, shove your records across the counter in his general direction, accidentally-on-purpose knocking his coffee over in the process, then look insouciantly in the opposite direction while picking something imaginary out of your ear. But even that wouldn't necessarily see you through unscathed. This wasn't just about grunting and looking uninterested, this was about being
belligerent throughout the grunt, being
committed to your uninterest as the sales assistant â a whippety man usually, giving the impression of swarthiness without being able to grow anything remotely approaching a full beard â sorted through your pile of albums and rolled his eyes at your taste as if it represented your personality in its entirety.
Buying is easier, but not much, as my friend John once found to his cost when he asked if an MVE employee would like âthe correct change', only to have a toy plastic skull placed silently in front of him in response. John never found out what this gesture meant â was it MVE code for âNo, it's okay, we've got plenty of change â look, we've even used it to buy this toy plastic skull â but thanks for asking anyway'? â but has never made the mistake of adopting a cheery, polite demeanour inside the shop since. In the Music And Video Exchange, the phrase âSmile and the world smiles with you' is turned inside out, becoming âGrunt in a pissed-off fashion and the world gives you grudging respect'. Besides smiling, other inadvisable things to do in an MVE include:
Asking for the new Chris Rea album.
Moshing joyously when you hear a song you get pleasure from on the shop stereo.
Reading a slogan on a sales assistant's t-shirt â e.g. âVirgin Slug Weasel' â and taking it literally, then offering to help.
Using your real address when signing for the goods you have sold, if you live in a house called Tweedle Cottage.
Complaining about the volume of the music on the shop stereo and loudly observing that it sounds like some kitchen utensils falling out of a window.
Besides grunting, other advisable things to do in an MVE include:
Making up bands with ridiculous names â e.g. Hairshit, Top Radish, Smell Assignment â and asking the sales assistants if they've heard their new album.
Nodding thoughtfully when you hear a song you enjoy on the shop stereo, conveying the impression that you are not simply enjoying the music but disassembling its existential meaning.
Saying âsafe' a lot, repeating the word âyeah' several times as a form of approval, and walking as if you live in downtown Compton and have recently been shot twice, as opposed to as if you live in Ladbroke Grove and have just had a takeaway patty that has upset your stomach slightly.
Making up a cool address â e.g. Flat 3, Snot Slum, Wandsworth â when signing for the goods you have sold.