Tribute to the old London record shops
Here goes a tribute to the London record shops from back in the day. Back when one’s Saturday mornings (and afternoons) were misspent in a record shop or the other, seeking out the latest jams, US imports, promos or any bargains to be had. A time when you would walk into the shop and the guy behind the counter had what you wanted or that ‘perfect alternative’. The record shop was the focal point for self-styled music aficionados, an integral part of the social fabric, on par with the barbershop for congregation.
This is a tribute to the specialist shops in the 80s and 90s that specialised in Soul, Funk, R&B, Rare Groove, Hip-Hop, Two-Step, Reggae, etc. – y’know all that stuff we play 24/7 on Woofer Radio 😉 – and i’m also talking about the good ole vinyl era here. These were the shops where, as soon tunes were released stateside, they had them in stock, at times on the very same day! Each part of London had its own specialist record shop(s) where you would frequent as your local. However the west end shops were the big boys, the quickest with the new releases at a time when hype was all about speed. Your local could get you that platter next Wednesday but you needed it today, you just couldn’t wait those 4 days, it could ruin your rep.
Sadly, as the world turned and technology decimated the music industry, the record shops were the first to go. CDs started the change but by the time MP3s came along, the game was pretty much over. Many limped into the new millennium but by the end of the 00s decade, almost all were gone. Ah but the memories linger….
The number of times I bought records out of obligation just because I couldn’t say no to counter guy. You walked into the shop and he went to retrieve the batch he’d saved especially for you. Some you’d ordered, others you were grateful for but the rest shouldn’t have been there. My vinyl vault houses a lot of those ‘obligation’ records. ‘Keep on Movin’ by Soul II Soul was actually such a purchase. I bought it on white label and wasn’t really feeling it on first listen. I just couldn’t bring myself to hurting counter guy’s feelings. I remember thinking this was ‘no Fairplay’, damn right it wasn’t.
I also remember approaching Bluebird Records on Edgware Road, one late Saturday morning and bumping into a friend (R.I.P Muyi) walking out of the shop. I told him I came down to pick up the album from a new group called Guy album, i’d heard a few tracks that were banging. He said meh, the tracks all sound alike, nothing really, they’re just combined The Gap Band with Hip-Hop beats. Talk about understatement. It was the birth of the New Jack Swing sound that would go on to dominate for the next decade. The record shop was a place to espouse your unsolicited knowledge and opinions.
There was also the time at Red Records in Brixton, I engaged in an open forum discussion about Curtis Hairston’s incredible adlibs on BB&Q Band’s ‘Dreamer’. Random guy in the store then blurted out that Curtis Hairston was English and lived in Kew Gardens. I said he didn’t sound English and that I was pretty sure he was American (this was pre-Google, arguments went on forever). Long story short, random guy had a full beard, wore an anorak and glasses, at a time in my life when I hadn’t even started shaving. Basically he looked knowledgeable, so the audience subsequently awarded him the match and my reputation in the store was shot. Punters even bigged him up as he later left the shop, head swollen like he was the love child of Socrates and Isaac Newton.
Fast forward a few weeks by which time i’d established that Hairston was unquestionably American. I returned to the shop, dismayed to find it empty on that rainy London Saturday afternoon. Where was the crowd that was gathered at my hour of humiliation? There would be no witnesses to my moment of vindication. Anyhow, I told the counter guy about the irrefutable news to which he simply said “Oh, ok, I did wonder, because I always thought he was American too” as he continued polishing the counter. “Is that it?” I thought. I didn’t buy any records that day!
Anyhow, enough reminiscing, back to the purpose of this piece, which is to shout out all the London specialist record shops from yesteryear. I genuinely did patronise each and every shop listed here, although I had my favourites, like everyone else. These were the establishments that ate up my student grants (at least you had grants to sacrifice, I hear the younger readers cursing). One or two of the shops are impressively still standing, but sadly, the majority are gone. No doubt this list will not be exhaustive but see if you can spot your local or your regular west end haunt in there.
Bluebird Records on Edgware Road. This was my personal Mecca. The vibe in there was always great. There was another branch in Soho which I think specialised in Reggae?
Groove Records on Greek Street, W1, another legendary store I always viewed as being on par with Bluebird. I went in there often because they really were quick with the stateside imports.
Catch-A-Groove Records on Dean Street, London W1 – The basement was the place, fantastic vibe in there.
City Sounds in Holborn – Owner Dave was a great guy, great conversation. He also had his Dave’s Dozen charts as a quick guide to what to grab.
Crazy Beat Records – Out of town in Romford but another great one run by Gary, I think his name was, another nice guy. This has apparently weathered the storm and is still standing, which is nice to hear.
Deal Real on Marlborough Court, London W1 – I remember a guy named Olu used to sort me some good deals here. They also ran open nights and I saw Mos Def perform there when he was Almos Def.
Wyld Pytch on Lexington Street, London W1 – one of my favourite shops.
Black Market on D’Arblay Street, London, W1 – another one of my favourites. The guys there knew their music. Unfortunately closed down but I see they’ve got an online presence. I might cop me some merch.
Record Village in Hoe Street, Walthamstow E17 – Nice store, friendly, down to earth guys behind the counter. You could spend the whole day in there and no one asked if you were homeless.
Red Records opposite Brixton Station – one of the legendary shops, nice atmosphere.
Supertone Records in Acre Lane, Brixton – I went here to pick up reggae. A no frills, authentic shop and I believe they’re impressively still standing too.
Uptown Records in Darbalay St, London W1 – another one of my favourite shops.
Unity Records Beak Street, London W1 – Only visited a few times, so not much memories of this. I recall you had to go past some sliding doors to the back of the shop, which was where the action was.
Wyld Pytch on Lexington St, London W1 – another one of my favourite haunts. Yes, I did have many.
Body Music on High Road Tottenham- As a Gooner, I didn’t care to visit too much. They also had branches in New Cross, Deptford.
Pure Groove on Holloway Road, London N7
Record Corner on Bedford Hill, Balham, South West London.
Solar Records – inside Brixton Tube Station.
Soul Brother Records in Putney, South West London – They had a great selection and had a purists vibe because they did a lot of Jazz as well. Guys were friendly and deep in their musical knowledge. Another one that’s weathered the storm.
Liberty Grooves in Tooting, South London – I never actually bought any records here but attended some music performances there. It was a big time hip-hop den back then.
Station Records, opposite Finsbury Park Station. This was my local, it was small, in fact, it was tiny but they had everything. Some pretty cool cats in there too.
Soul II Soul Records in Camden High Street – I always saw this as the space in which they played music for the clothing store and decided to sell some records. They had a great hip-hop selection.
Mr Bongo on Poland Street, London W1 – I remember they stocked a wide selection of rare groove in here.
Reckless Records on Upper Street in Islington. They always had bargains. I understand they’re still standing but in Berwick Street, Soho.
Beggars Banquet in Kingston – Went in here once as I was in the area and remember buying the De La Soul ‘3 Feet High and Rising’ album.
Mr Bongo Records in Berwick Street, London W1 – I only visited once or twice, they did a lot of latin music as well as hip-hop.
Now, the above being said, it has to be mentioned that many a Saturday evening was spent in the Notting Hill Music & Video Exchange in Camden Town. They weren’t Black music specialists but you always found some serious bargains, especially on 7″. However you had to be damn good at the skill of thumbing through records because there were tons of them, if you had the time, you would always find a bargain. My heart sank everytime I saw a record i’d bought on import sitting in the box for 50p.
Honorable mentions go to the HMV, Our Price and Woolworths shops scattered all across London which though not specialist stores, represented the places where most people bought their first records.
It’s heartbreaking that almost all of these shops exist only in our memories now. I wish I had some mementos to remind me of these places that represented a certain time in my life. I wish i’d simply kept the bags from these shops. Sadly, the bags all met the same fate, as bin liners for midnight kebabs and beer cans – this was a time when recycling meant going back somewhere on your bike. On a positive note, vinyl is staging a comeback and record shops appear to be returning, so please support your local record shop. In-store arguments will never be the same though, Google has killed that off forever. Everyone’s an expert now.Share: