The Trip: Manchester’s Best Record Shops
Long Live Vinyl continues its cratedigging adventure around the record shops of the UK and Europe as Mark Elliott takes a closer look at the vinyl vendors of Manchester…
It’s hard to write about this marvellous city without the clichés tumbling faster from the keyboard than a finishing-line-fixated whippet (yes, that’s the first one and, no, I didn’t actually come across one of those). I did, however, get wet. It truly does know how to chuck it down in Manchester (two) and my trip was conducted in a blur of hazy rain – of the kind that only somewhere nestling by the Pennines knows how to produce. The fact that it was still technically summer threatened to make the whole experience more than a little irritating, but the hustling from one shop to another was actually a timely masterclass in physical dexterity as I tried to keep bags of discs dry while they were getting soggier by the second.
But then there’s the welcome. They can’t mind the rain in Manchester, because it certainly doesn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. Everyone’s got a sharp one-liner – usually delivered with a winning smile – and, even when I was acting like a lemon (asking for directions when my iPhone had given up the ghost – or got too wet – as I stood outside where I needed to get to), there was a cheery rejoinder. “It’s behind you, mate, and – just in case – your brain should be between your ears. Happy shopping!” It was a heartening moment.
And then there are the rock clichés. Not unreasonably, the city is immensely proud of its musical sons and daughters. From Herman’s Hermits to Mick Hucknall, from The Smiths to Oasis, their imprint lies everywhere. HMV summed it up nicely with a neat display of Mancunian icons. In a year when the city’s indomitable spirit has been tested in the most brutal of ways, it’s a poignant reminder that this legacy is in many ways the glue that binds everyone together.
Not surprisingly, the city’s many record shops are a big contributor to this heritage, with dedicated sections and some evidence that it draws in the casual visitor. Sifters Records (sifters-records-manchester.co.uk) is a little distance out of the city centre, and was immortalised in the Oasis track Shakermaker. Consequently, it’s almost a tourist attraction in its own right.
Manchester is an absolute gem of a city and its record shops are excellent. I travelled up the night before to make an early start, as I knew I was bound to struggle attempting to give each shop the time it truly deserved. Inevitably, this proved to be the case, but I have to confess it’s probably a good job – as the rain and the fact I needed to get everything home again on the train would likely have limited the practicality of buying much else…
1 Newton Street, M1 1HW
0161 236 4445
This is always my first port of call in Manchester. I love this subterranean Aladdin’s Cave of books, magazines, memorabilia, toys and all manner of things you didn’t realise you needed. There’s a decent amount of vinyl here – racks of 7″ singles that throw up the usual suspects and the occasional oddity. The Alan Parson Project’s David Townsend also wrote the Cliff Richard standard Miss You Nights and chanced his arm with a solo project in 1978 on Mercury. Its sole single, When I Kiss You, failed to trouble the charts, but made its way into my collection for £3 (cheaper than its current Discogs pricing).
Like most of these general vintage stores, there’s a reasonable amount of effort required to navigate your way through it all, but there are always gems to be found here. Donny Osmond’s Disco Train collection from 1976 might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I unearth a great copy in the rock section. Gary Byrd – who had a big UK hit in 1983 with Stevie Wonder – released selections from his gospel Radio One radio show on BBC Records and it’s typical of the random items I covet. There are some nice pop magazines to pore over and I find a nice Picture Show And TV Mirror edition from 1960 leading on Adam Faith. Ian Stott, who works at the store, estimates that vinyl makes up 20% of the stock and says it keeps the place ticking over.
Empire Exchange started life in the 1980s and has been in various locations across the city, including Back Turner Street, before finding a great spot adjacent to Piccadilly Gardens. “We get a lot of rare Beatles and Hollies material,” says Ian, “but that’s far from all of it.” He shows me a copy of Blackpool’s The Rockin’ Vickers’ 1966 single Dandy, which featured a pre-Motörhead Ian Kilmister, later to be better known as Lemmy. Now I’m intrigued, but nervous of extending my collecting obsession into the vast (and pricey) realms of 60s beat groups, so pass on this. But then I spot a Bad Boys Inc picture disc. I know, I know…
53 Oldham Street, M1 1JR
Now, if we’re talking Manchester institutions, they don’t come much bigger (in retail terms) than Piccadilly Records, which started life in 1978 and has been at the heart of the city’s independent scene ever since. It’s so respected that it has its own book – a fascinating celebration of the customers, staff and music that make up this classic store.
Starting life the same year as Factory Records, it’s steeped in that mindset and you won’t find a Bad Boys Inc record here. What you will find, if you’re lucky, is the odd celebrity shopper – Tim Burgess and Johnny Marr are regulars – and a staggering range of predominantly indie and dance. I pick up a fabulous 12″ reissue of Gepy & Gepy’s extraordinary 1979 Italo-disco classic Body To Body (with a nipple-tastic sleeve my mother wouldn’t approve of) and the Lion soundtrack on 180-gram blue vinyl, featuring one of the ubiquitous Sia’s best, Never Give Up. The Piccadilly Records Book is a pleasure to flick through and sums up the store’s ethos perfectly. Here’s a quote to sum it up: “The website is my browser homepage, the shop is my community centre and the staff I’d call friends.” Couldn’t put it better myself, Robert C Armin.
18 Oldham Street, M1 1JN
The 29-year-old Vinyl Exchange is a Northern Quarter powerhouse. Proud of its position as one of the North West’s largest entertainment retailers – focused increasingly on its strong website – they’re as keen to buy your records as they are to sell you some. I always find the store strangely reminiscent of London’s Music & Video Exchange chain and there’s no doubt the two brands share the same attention to detail. Pricing’s fair, although the knowledgeable members of staff aren’t likely to let a bargain slip out onto the shelves unawares.
The records are all downstairs and the basement can always be guaranteed to throw up something interesting. The Manchester scene is strongly represented and I find a full set of Morrissey albums for a very reasonable sum. I always crave the unpredictable and the bargain section throws up Black’s 1985 12″ issue of More Than The Sun, The Kinks’ follow-up to Come Dancing – Don’t Forget To Dance and the 1986 Steve Arrington LP, The Jammin’ National Anthem. I do try to mix things up – even the shop assistant looks bemused.
8-10 Oldham Street, M1 1JQ
Almost next door to Vinyl Exchange and Piccadilly Records is a very reliable branch of Oxfam. I rarely write in detail about my charity-shop successes (and space prevents me going into too much detail here), but suffice to say, this branch in particular (not actually a dedicated Books & Music branch) is always interesting (who knew about a Liverpool post-punk pop band called Virgin Dance? The 1983 No Disguise single is great!) and the soul section is particularly strong on this visit. Do pop in, as it’s among the best examples of its kind I’ve come across.
9-11 Paton Street, M1 2BA
A regular stop on my habitual visits to this city – it’s the closest record shop to Piccadilly train station – this great place never disappoints. For a pop collector like me, it creates reverent sections affording a-ha the same careful management as, say, Oasis (albeit sometimes with less depth of stock). Memorabilia is presented cannily alongside the records (leading to me picking up Whitney Houston’s 1991 I’m Your Baby Tonight World Tour programme quite by chance). In the days before I could travel as much, I recall the excitement of finding a set of Japanese Madonna singles here, and that selection was hard to match – even on my trip to Tokyo many years later.
Today’s haul yields a great Manchester memento: a bootleg album of Erasure’s gig at the Manchester Ritz on 15 April, 1987. It’s a fascinating time capsule framed by the fresh faces of two of my musical heroes at the dawn of their extraordinary career. Neil Clarke (no relation to Vince) has owned the store for 10 years, but it’s been here longer than that. Neil says the Manchester bands always sell, but even he can be surprised at what he is asked for. He references the creep of vinyl back into the mainstream with an example of a middle-aged man coming in recently to enquire about a second-hand Barry Manilow album for his wife. It’s a cheering anecdote, as it proves it’s not just me buying the odd Manilow record! Neil’s most interesting item for sale is the super-rare Panic 12″ single from The Smiths, complete with the stickers. It’s a rarity indeed and, along with a sharp Beastie Boys picture disc, reinforces why this is perhaps my most reliable pick in a city where I’m truly spoilt for choice.
92 Arndale Centre, M4 2HU
Here’s a rare shout-out for this too-easily-dismissed chain. Like many of you, I suspect, I rely on HMV for a regular fix of real-life retail therapy (so much more exciting than sitting at a screen to do it). The Manchester branch is situated in the Arndale Centre and is among the biggest still operating in the UK.
I want to make special mention of the Manchester store for two reasons: 1) the vinyl section is great and as good as any I’ve found in other branches of HMV, and 2) they do me a huge service. I’m blaming the rain for making my brain soggy, but, after buying a few CDs (yes, I do buy them, too) and a couple of LPs in their sale, I manage to leave the shop with my debit card lodged carelessly in one of their card readers. It’s almost an hour later that the unwelcome surge of panic overcomes me in Eastern Bloc and I have to race desperately back to retrieve it. Of course, the staff have found it and kept it safe. Now that’s what I call service, and it strikes me that the branch deserve a salute for this simple gesture alone. But, in any case, HMV deserves all our thanks for sticking with the challenge of providing us 21st-century shoppers with a good selection of vinyl. Our under-pressure high streets would be even less appealing without them. “How did we do today?” asks their in-store questionnaire. Exceptionally, I’d say.
5a Stevenson Square, M1 1DN
All this shopping is taking its toll on my stamina, so the logical place to take a break is the café/record shop that is Eastern Bloc, situated on the edges of the Northern Quarter. If drum ‘n’ bass, jungle, techno, house, electronica and even reggae light your fire, then this place is something of a must-visit. I’d be lying if I said much of that floats my boat, but I can confirm they serve an exceedingly fine coffee.
The record racks and obligatory turntables are upstairs and, on my visit, the place is heaving. I strike lucky and find a corner seat. The café opens at 7.30am, which strikes far too early for much of the music I hear on my early afternoon pitstop, so I speculate whether they have mood music to orchestrate different stages of their lengthy opening hours. At that moment, I decide I fancy a flapjack. Out comes the wallet to break a note (coins had sufficed for the cappuccino) when I realise that disaster is looming large…
5 Hilton Street, M4 1LP
This 20-year-old store proudly wears its Manchester focus on its sleeve, and rightly so. It has a very strong section featuring the best of the city’s stars. The vinyl jostles with CDs, some memorabilia and T-shirts, but there’s a decent selection, with a handful of racks of bargain material, including a still-sealed copy of Euro balladeers Double’s second international album and some of the monthly Disco Mix Club collections, which throw up some super-rare mixes from largely 1980s chart stars. These semi-official cuts rarely secured a mainstream release, and if you’ve ever wondered what the Andrews Sisters mashed up with M|A|R|R|S’ Pump Up The Volume sounds like, head to Ben Liebrand and the May 1988 edition. The Cure megamix on November 1990’s version is, in truth, a little less startling…
SOUNDWAVES HERE WE COME
VINYL RESTING PLACE
Back in the day, you just didn’t venture into Afflecks unless your hair was 15 metres high and you slapped half of the Boots make-up counter on before facing the world. Now the former goths’ kingdom is home to as many Japanese tourists and middle-agers like me as anything more colourful. The former department store was reborn as an independent market in 1981 and used to be known as Affleck’s Palace. Now billed just as Afflecks and claiming to be an emporium of eclecticism, the 73 small businesses certainly live up to the ethos.
You’ll find vinyl on many of the stalls here, but the two dedicated record retailers obviously stand out. Soundwaves Here We Come has some great stuff; Scarlet Fantastic’s 24hrs LP (appropriate, I thought, to pick these pop goths, given the venue) is £10, but in excellent condition. Vinyl Resting Place is also very good, and you’ll find Alistair’s stall up on the third floor for now… He stocks a really good range of records (some new, but mainly second-hand) and he kickstarted the return of dedicated music stalls to the site, after a few years when the previous traders had shut up shop. The breaking news is that he will soon be moving to a new site in the building that’s three times the size of his current unit, so I’ll definitely be calling back.
519 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton, M21 OUF
With so much to visit in the city centre, the sprawling suburbs of Manchester can seem an unlikely draw, but there are true treasures to be found if you are prepared to venture further afield. Chorlton takes about 10 minutes and about £12 in a cab, and is really worth a look. Established in 1987, Kingbee Records has a justified reputation as a great Northern Soul and reggae source.
I think the soundtracks are especially strong and the sometimes dusty piles of many genres will keep you occupied for hours. The Def Jam issue of the Less Than Zero soundtrack is something I’ve been after for ages and at £5, is a real bargain. It may not be his finest hour, but Paul McCartney’s Press To Play for £3 in mint condition is a better price than I’ve ever seen in a record shop. Even Ellie Goulding’s recent Delirium in excellent condition is just £8. It’s interesting to see relatively new releases increasingly hitting the second-hand racks these days. But my find of the day is Miss Minogue’s 1988 The Kylie Collection. This Australia-and-New-Zealand-only two-set compilation paired her first album with a bonus disc of PWL mixes and a poster – and even this is intact. At just £5, I am thrilled to bits, and it rounds off the day nicely before my train back home. But is there a break in the clouds as I wait for the cab back to the station? I should be so lucky…