GRAHAM JONES Last Shop Standing (Proper Music Publishing)
Subtitled “Whatever Happened To Record Shops?”, and sub-subtitled “A journey through an industry in turmoil”, this book tackles a subject that must surely have been close to all our hearts at one time or another, even if that time might no longer be the present. Having spent decades in music distribution, author Graham Jones would seem ideally placed to document the meteoric rise and tragic fall of this nation’s record shops, claiming in his introduction to have “visited more record shops than anybody else that has ever lived”. That he may well have done, but such an unsubstantiated claim is indicative of one of the book’s key problems: Jones seems incapable of differentiating opinion from fact, to the extent that, if the text were simply cut and pasted into Wikipedia, I suspect that it would be covered in “Please help improve this article” flags within seconds.
Another impediment to enjoyment is Jones’ writing style. Yes, he clearly has a fascinating story to tell, as long as his opinions can clearly be identified as such, but hot damn, does he ever have a tedious way of telling it. Reading “Last Shop Standing” is the literary equivalent of being slowly encased in a giant Werther’s Original : the tone is, how can I put it, grandfatherly. On the front cover Johnny Walker heralds the book as “A great read full of wonderful stories and loads of laughs” and on the back Pet Shop Boy Chris Lowe suggests that “everyone’s reading will be interrupted at various points by the need to wipe tears of laughter from their eyes!” This might well be the case if your ribs are tickled by revelations that some record shop customers have personal hygiene problems, or an anecdote that, um, climaxes with Billy J Kramer soiling himself on stage. It’s not exactly Chris Morris. Even more infuriating for pernickety me is that “Last Shop Standing”, even in this revised third edition, badly, badly needs a proofread, possibly a result of the author delegating editing responsibilities to his schoolboy son. When an author spells Eurythmics two different ways in the same paragraph, the reader can surely be forgiven for pondering the accuracy of the rest of the text.
On the other hand, parts of “Last Shop Standing” are fascinating, especially the professional biographies of people I’ve been buying records from for decades. It has a contender for the best chapter title in the history of literature in “Van Morrison Continues To Upset Record-shop Staff”. And, most importantly, it functions as an Ozymandian lesson in how music industry greed effectively set up independent record shops to be cruelly knocked down. Jones’ revelation of chart hyping practices has effectively recast my 15 years of slavish devotion to Guinness’ hit singles and albums books a long term study in fiction. As industry and technology have engaged in Pyrrhic battle against each other to obliterate the real world importance of the charts, the retailers who traded boxes of promo copies with industry reps for unsupervised access to their Gallup computers and chart return ledgers have been dropped like the proverbial overheated tuberous crop in favour of servicing the supermarkets, where product can be shifted cheaply and in bulk, to the extent that some shops find it makes more economic sense to buy their stock of popular releases from the local Tesco than the labels themselves. That, surely, is a tragedy.
Is there hope for the future? The recurring message of Jones’ final journey around Britain’s remaining independent record shops is that those that continue to survive, and maybe even prosper, do so because they’ve either specialised, becoming the best in their particular niche, or diversified, as if the product of some Darwinian retail evolution. The few that remain are the best of their breed, the peak of record shop development.
Back in 1996 I was playing my copy of the first Black Grape album when a baffled friend asked me where I’d got it from. “Um…a record shop,” I replied. Last weekend I went into my local independent record shop in search of “Physical Graffiti” on CD for a friend’s birthday. I bought it for 3p more than Amazon are asking and had a long chat with the manager about concerts and festivals into the bargain. Really, if there’s still a record shop in your community, now would be the time to show it some love whilst you still can, because we need to keep them alive long enough for somebody to write a more fitting eulogy than this one.