The Trip: Soho’s Best Record Stores
After Mark Elliott’s trip around Brighton in Issue 1 of LLV, he continues his journeys to major vinyl goldmines with the most famous of all: Soho in London…
Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be… Well, quite. Lionel Bart and Frank Norman’s musical celebration of Cockney culture may date from 1960, but as anyone who’s visited the area recently will recognise, it could just as easily reference the state of Soho in 2017.
The developers have moved in over recent years and London’s booming property market has given the capital’s most colourful quarter a whitewash that’s rendered it largely unrecognisable from the square mile that’s fed my vinyl habit for as long as I can remember.
Some shops have survived almost unscathed, but unfortunately for us, many have closed – and the ferocious pace of change here makes one almost surprised when you turn up to find trading still buzzing. Still, in part down to its stunning heritage of music shopping, Soho’s defiant dealers are upbeat about the future. The annual Record Store Day does spectacular business here and that, in part, keeps a vibrant – but shrinking – band of retailers focused on capitalising on the vinyl boom, despite the soaring rents.
“In part down to its stunning heritage of music shopping, Soho’s dealers are upbeat”
All the stores are within a comfortable walk of each other, nestled just south of London’s busiest shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street. The capital’s largest record shop – HMV, back in its original home by Bond Street Tube Station – is also nearby, with lots of vinyl. Head east for a cluster of exciting independents, and check markets for some interesting finds. For branches of my favourite London institution – Music & Goods Exchange, established in 1967 – head west on the Central Line to Notting Hill (15 minutes from Oxford Circus or Bond Street) or east to Greenwich; which is my local crate-digging spot, so leave those A-ha records alone!
1. Harold Moores Records – https://www.hmrecords.co.uk
My first port of call is a London institution. Harold Moores Records is considered to be one of the world’s best classical-music stores, featuring opera, baroque, nostalgia and jazz on vinyl and CD. If proof were needed that Soho is undergoing violent, dramatic change – and rarely for the better – then here it is.
A simple sign in the window marks its sudden closure and the stock already looks largely removed from the racks inside. I’d walked past just a few days earlier and it appeared as busy as ever. This is another big blow to the area and doesn’t launch my trip well. It joins the much-missed Berwick Street Music & Video Exchange (which the website for this chain of London legends, now updated and rebranded to Music & Goods Exchange, still claims will return this year) in the graveyard of central London record dealers. Surely, that sad plot is full enough by now? Thankfully, there’s still life elsewhere and my day went much better after that shaky start.
2. Phonica – https://www.phonicarecords.com
My clubbing phase peaked around the time of Cappella and C+C Music Factory, so it’s ridiculous to expect that Phonica’s impressive range of (largely) new dance discs is going to speak to me much, but first impressions can be misleading. The selection is broader than you might expect. I pick up a copy of the recent 7″ single from The xx – On Hold – which samples the Hall & Oates 1981 classic I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do) to marvellous effect, in my opinion.
As a taster for their I See You album, the single served them well and I’d abandoned all hope of picking up one of the 3,000-copy run. I’m pleased to be proved wrong. Like the other Soho venues, Phonica takes Record Store Day very seriously and, despite the friendly banter with the chaps behind the counter, I am unable to secure any exclusives for this report. Likely they are in the dark as much as the rest of us at time of writing, but this crew really knows its stuff and there’s an easy confidence about the whole operation. Unsurprisingly, this is about as ‘lifestyle’ as crate-digging ever gets; except, of course, there’s nothing remotely as functional as a plastic crate in this store. Think steel beams and lacquered wood, but with vinyl prices that won’t break the bank.
3. Sister Ray – https://www.sisterray.co.uk
This Soho institution, famously immortalised on the cover of What’s The Story (Morning Glory) by Oasis, is the obvious next stop. Appearances can be deceptive, however, and you may not at first spot that its current home is actually almost opposite where it used to be situated. The store crossed the street nearly three years ago, after a tough patch when the original business went into administration in 2008.
I still miss the cavernous old branch with its double-fronted windows packed with new releases, but this two-storey reincarnation maintains a fantastic reputation for fast-changing stock and some incredible finds. The used sales racks, in particular, have done me proud over the decades.
Today is no exception, with a nice Music For Pleasure compilation of The Most Collection. This package of Mickie Most-produced pop came in two volumes and it’s lost to history why I have a cherished copy of the second set, but not the first. Rod Stewart’s 1969 cover of Jailhouse Rock opens this 12-track volume, also featuring Jeff Beck and The Animals, and, at £2.99, it’s a snip!
Something I didn’t know existed was a 1986 special edition of Samantha Fox’s debut album, Touch Me, including two new-at-the-time tracks and the inevitable remixes of the more familiar hits.
Packaged in a lavish gatefold sleeve (naturally, given the photogenic appeal of the act) it leaps out at me and I’m gobsmacked! I truly thought I had everything by Sam, so that’ll teach me to do my research more thoroughly. In a bid to gain credibility with our goddaughter, I also take a copy of The Weeknd’s translucent-red vinyl LP Starboy. It does the trick.
“You may not at first spot that its current home is actually almost opposite where it used to be”
Over an ice-cream at Fortnum & Mason later that day, I’m thrilled to report she spontaneously posts a picture of my purchase on Instagram. It’s a rare commendation of credibility from anyone, let alone someone actually young! Sister Ray can always be guaranteed to stock a decent range of the new releases and a copy of David Bowie’s latest 7″ picture disc, Sound And Vision, also finds its way into my shopping basket. Capitalising on the boom in east London record shopping, the business – which was named after a 1968 track by The Velvet Underground – has a second branch at The Ace Hotel in Shoreditch High Street that is worth a look, too, if you’re over that way.
Today, things really are looking up for this much-loved retailer. This Soho branch offers good prices for stuff you want to offload and there’s a chap at the counter discussing a deal for some interesting-sounding Motown as I head on.
Thinking about my Samantha Fox find, I wish more people appreciated stuff like this. Not for the first time…
Top 5 tips
1. Do your research
These dealers will have been offered many hundreds of copies of Paul Young’s No Parlez in their time and likely won’t want them this time, either. Take the dealer’s first offer on what they do want as a decent one and only be prepared to bargain if you are certain of your facts. The Soho dealers have seen it all before, so the first offer is likely to be your last.
2. The pickings are rich
The Soho traders are used to having the local media outlets offload their press samples and much prefer to trawl through a collection of promos, so you may find you’ll get a better price outside of town for a lot of your spare items. But if you’ve got something rare or an interesting collection, this is the area you’ll shift it quickly in.
3. Time your approach
Saturdays are heaving with tourists in London, so the best time to go is midweek. Avoid lunchtimes, too. The shops are packed with workers desperate to escape the grind of the
day-to-day for a few brief minutes.
4. Genres trade best
The fabulous melting pot of London throws up every type of collector under the sun, so this is the place to come if you have something unusual. Likely, they’ll have seen it all before, but they will also know where and how to sell it.
5. sell in bulk
Many dealers prefer to take a set of records at once. They enjoy the search for something unexpected as much as you do!
4. Reckless Records – httpss://reckless.co.uk
Billed as the place you’ll get the highest prices for your unwanted discs, Reckless Records is a buzzy, narrow shop with a range that moves as fast as lightning. Many a time I have spotted something I want, left it a day while I considered the investment and returned only to find it already sold. Today, I get rid of the handful of my spare records in a brisk, business-like fashion – it’s always so easy here and the team know their stuff – and then predictably start buying more to replace them. The soul racks here are particularly strong and, inspired by my visit to Sister Ray, I decide I should invest more in Motown.
Predictably, I pass on the pricier Supremes gems and settle on a nice copy of Smokey Robinson’s 1982 12″ of Old Fashioned Love. It’s housed in a neat Motown sleeve and I reason I have to start this expansion of my existing catalogue from the label somewhere. Also capturing my eye is the debut single from Mari Wilson. Loveman appeared on the GTO imprint and I have never seen a picture-sleeve copy before. At £5, this one is an investment I don’t have to think overnight about. They always stock good picture discs at Reckless and I pick up a couple of Slade 7″ picture-discs for Okey Cokey and the later Myzsterious Mizster Jones. The former is a 1982 reissue billed with a (to me)ridiculous idea – ‘No synthesisers used’. I have a soft spot for Slade and, in any case, it failed to chart on its original release in 1979 or in 1982, so that was probably enough punishment for them for such an absurd idea.
Then I spy today’s piece de resistance: a shaped 7″ picture-disc from Cliff Richard. Heart User doesn’t trouble many chart historians (it peaked at No. 46 in 1985) but I have always liked it and this release – shaped like a heart for Valentine’s Day, no doubt – was one of many tricks that kept an army of imaginative product managers employed in the boom record-label years of the 1980s.
As a collector focused on this time, I yet again question the sense of picking a decade when multiple editions buoyed chart positions and soaked up every spare penny of fans’ pocket money. It’s an easy era to source, but the variants appear limitless. As if proving the point, I pick up yet another copy of The Blow Monkeys’ Out With Her. This time, the 12″ comes in a poster sleeve and will join the three editions of this No. 30 hit I already own. The better half – as ever, dutifully following me around to take these pictures before we head on to something/anything (in his eyes) more interesting – is already shaking his head at the sheer futility of my ambition to snap up everything from the 10-year stretch and so I reason it’s probably best to cut my losses while we still have a marriage (and therefore a house to store all this stuff in).
5.Sounds of the Universe – httpss://soundsoftheuniverse.com
Now this is one of these stores that has a touch of everything. Long partnered with Soul Jazz Records, this handsome two-storey shop sells a comprehensive range of (mainly new) vinyl and CDs on the ground floor and, to my mind at least, and has an even more exciting basement with a wider range of second-hand genres; it’s also one of the best places in the capital to pick up new and used music books.
The ground floor has a fascinating mix of stock and is, again, one of the stores to make sure you visit on or soon after Record Store Day. If soul, funk, disco or world music is your thing, here is a bigger range than you’ll find anywhere central. It’s also got that heart-in-your mouth visual appeal, with the walls stacked with racks of product all beautifully labelled. Seriously, who could honestly resist something tagged with the descriptive line ‘Beaty Balearic Joy’? To my mind, this always looks like a place you’ll find treasure.
There are some decks for punters and a gaggle of French student types have clearly unearthed some gold and are putting the decks to good use. I’m intrigued and, in truth, can’t count the number of times I’ve been turned on to something by a fellow shopper’s enthusiasm (it’s raised an eyebrow on more than one occasion, but I first discovered Taylor Dayne this way and, buoyed by this success, have stuck with the strategy ever since). This time, my O Level French is failing me and I’m straining to translate their 100-miles-an-hour conversation. Frustrated, I leave them to it and head downstairs. My stories about record-shop conversations are a whole different feature for another time…
So here, I pick up the 12″ US-issued picture-sleeve copy of Company B’s Full Circle – a US Top 10 dance hit from 1987 that’s long been on my wish list. This American freestyle act (think Exposé, but less famous) are best known for Fascinated, long-since credited for the inspiration behind Bananarama’s better-remembered I Can’t Help It. This is a really nice copy and it’s labelled ‘Electro Paradise Garage Style’. I’m thrilled to find it and, anyway, how can I resist after such an enthusiastic billing? Soho’s nightlife heritage means this is one of those cities where obscure dance records often turn up, in my experience. I’m still searching for a copy of Lisa Lougheed’s synth-pop Hi-NRG classic Run With Us, but almost everything else has been spotted sometime over the years I have been shopping here (albeit sometimes at a pricetag I have had to gasp at). There’s perhaps less rock and pop than you’ll find elsewhere, but this store must be on your trip (especially for new stock; I think it has one of the best selections in London).
6. Intoxica – 20th Century Vinyl – https://intoxica.co.uk
Billed as the place you’ll discover ‘all the records you’re unlikely to find in London’, this treasure trove of a shop is a true hidden gem, tucked as it is down a side street packed with antiquarian booksellers and slightly distant from the central Soho circuit. Managed by Nick Brown, a guitarist for post-punk outfit The Membranes – who scored some big indie hits back in the 80s and have been reunited for a successful gigging programme since 2009 – the store moved here nearly three years ago, after more than a decade on Portobello Road. Depending on when you pop by, you might find Nick or Claire Kalvis, who also works as a DJ on the international soul circuit, manning the shop. “Back in the day, if I or the other staff couldn’t tell you how brilliant a record was, we felt we probably shouldn’t stock it,” Nick says. “These days, my musical tastes don’t dictate what we sell, as people are much less partisan.” Still, you get a sense that everything here has been quality-vetted and the soundtracks selection, in particular, is first-rate. I source an excellent copy of the rare soundtrack to the 1970s TV science-fiction spectacular Space 1999.
I also pick up a copy of Adam Faith’s final Top 40 hit, 1965’s Someone’s Taken Maria Away. It was recorded with The Roulettes and it’s truly criminal this proved to be curtains for his chart career. My adoration dates back to the early 80s when, dragged along to yet another dreary jumble sale, I briefly mistook his LP debut, Adam, for a new release from Martin Fry’s ABC that I’d somehow missed. I was sold on jumble sales ever after. This is a near-mint copy of a single I don’t have and it’s mine for £4. Although it comes in a plain sleeve, one of the repro Parlophone singles that I source at my local record fair will soon make it look like it’s fresh off the shelf.
Nick sources his stock worldwide, buys collections from people who pop by and still enjoys hunting for new stuff. When we spoke, he’d not long returned from a holiday in Portugal where he picked up a stack of prog-rock records from a junk shop. He says punters are far more knowledgeable than they used to be. “People want to get the precise catalogue number – it’s become a bit more like antique collecting – but there’s as much fun to be had with it as there ever was. Some of my most exciting records only cost £5!”
“Claire tells me you’ll often find actors popping in before a show. Almost on cue, in walks Mark Gatiss”
Intoxica is situated right in the heart of theatreland and Claire tells me you’ll often find actors popping in before a show. Almost on cue, in walks Sherlock and Doctor Who’s Mark Gatiss, who was appearing in The Boys In The Band just around the corner. Just before I exit stage-left, I sight a box of sale items. This yields a German 12″ of M.C. Sar & The Real McCoy’s It’s On You. At £2.50, it’s comfortably within my budget.
Before I make it to the street, I have to pass back through Pleasures Of Past Times, the adjacent collectors’ emporium that offers a fantastic array of pop-and-rock memorabilia. The 23rd issue of The Face from March 1982, featuring Kim Wilde on the cover, just couldn’t be abandoned to an uncertain fate and is rescued for £12.50. It takes a more resilient soul than I to get through this store without succumbing to temptation and, although it doesn’t really stock much vinyl, it’s well worth a visit in its own right.