Sunday, 12 January 2014

Oxford Street HMV closes today after 27 years of satisfying my Jekyll and Hyde musical tastes

All the music that genuinely interested me in HMV's West End megastore was to be found in the basement. Down the escalator, turn left at the bottom, walk until you couldn't go any further and you'd find yourself in the rock 'n' roll/rockabilly section – the musical equivalent of a lap-dancing club. If, instead of turning left, you walked straight ahead past world music, folk, easy listening and country, after a mile or two you'd eventually reach the classical music department, which was like entering a church.

As I used to spend roughly he same amount of time in both departments, I can report that the middle-aged blokes who haunted each looked remarkably similar - it was just that the rockabilly enthusiastics looked vaguely guilty, as if they were worried about a police raid.

The furtive, pornographic atmosphere in the rockabilly section was largely created by the Buffalo Bop record label, whose sleazy CD covers tended to feature images of leather-clad young hoodlums, impossibly pointy-breasted girls and grizzled, leering middle-aged farmers - all very Hank Janson. The track listings on the back also hinted at illicit thrills. As this was pre-Spotify and before one could find practically every song ever recorded on YouTube, you'd have to spend ages trying to decide from the titles and the name of the performers whether compilations with names like Monster Hop, Juvenile Jungle and Wa-Ch-Ka-Nocka would justify their £17.99 price-tag. Bison Bop, Ace and Bear Family Records provided liner notes (the CDs in Bear Family’s brilliant That'll Flat Git It series were accompanied by fat, fact-crammed booklets the size of the average PhD thesis, but better-written). But it made no difference – you couldn’t read them until you’d shelled out for the merchandise. (When you got a Buffalo Bop CD home, you were none the wiser – it told you nothing.)

There’s a scene from an early Woody Allen film where he tries to buy a porn mag in a crowded shop without embarrassing himself, so he selects a stack of respectable titles and hides the dirty one in among them. When he reaches the counter, the proprietor squints at the porn mag and shouts to someone in the back of the shop, “Hey, Jack – how much is Orgasm?” I often imagined this happening to me with rock 'n' roll compilation albums with titles like Dirty Feeling and Problem Child.

The classical music section – protected by a sound-deadening wall of glass from the vulgar horrors beyond – was a different matter altogether: High Culture worshippers could consult various CD Guides before deciding which of the 18 versions of Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony on offer would meet their aesthetic needs. And one could approach the counter without fear of anyone catching sight of your purchase and sneering at you for being culturally inadequate. I wouldn’t have minded in the least if a shop assistant had called out, “I say, Tarquin – this enormously cultured gentleman wishes to buy the John Eliot Gardiner version of Bach's St Matthew Passion on Archiv – how much is it?” Never happened, of course. And now it never will.

HMV is closing because I haven’t visited it for at least four years. I don’t mean just me – but tens of thousands like me who simply find it more convenient and cheaper to download what we want from the web or to order it from Amazon. That’s a shame, because I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of blissful hours in record shops over the years. HMV was too big to arouse affection – but I’m certainly grateful to it for introducing me to so much wonderful music.

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