Despite the city suffering an apparent crisis of cultural confidence, Mark Elliott’s visit to Birmingham in search of vinyl treasure reveals a happy hunting ground…
Now, if Oprah Winfrey was writing this piece, she would give this city a good talking to. It isn’t just the one occasion; it seems to happen almost everywhere: “We’ve never been good at producing credible bands”; “the shopping isn’t as good as it used to be”; “you won’t find it like that here”; even “why are you here?”. It seems Birmingham is suffering from something of a confidence crisis, and I’d like to suggest that it needs to pull itself together.
A sense of discretion prevents me from identifying who said what, but it surprises me. True, some much-loved record shops such as Reddingtons have bitten the dust (but some great ones survive); true, Duran Duran aren’t The Doors (although they tried to be on 1995’s Thank You); true, the traffic’s a challenge (but parking’s a doddle); and, true, for a city this size, vinyl shopping is a little sparser than you’d imagine. But – and it’s a significant but – this is the only place where I’m offered a cup of tea while cratedigging; where I find mint New Musik albums in the bargain bins and where I’m offered loads of vintage music magazines – including pristine copies of The Face – for less than the price of a latte apiece!
The great and the good – Steve Winwood and Traffic, Ozzy Osbourne and Black Sabbath, Ali Campbell and UB40, Joan Armatrading, even Toyah, representing just a modest selection, broke out from Birmingham. It’s comfortably Britain’s second biggest city in terms of its population size (if not its cultural kudos and its own self-confidence), and in the 1960s, there was a live scene as big here as in Liverpool – although only The Move came anywhere close to The Beatles’ level of success. In the 1970s, ELO were chasing Wolverhampton neighbours Slade for chart positions; while in the 1980s and 1990s, Duran Duran conquered the world and Ocean Colour Scene briefly captured the Britpop zeitgeist.
More recently, The Streets made some impact, and the ‘B-Town’ indie scene excites music journalists (but few others). So there is plenty to be proud of here and, actually, this proves to be one of the best trips I have done – some great finds, a decent range of different stores and, unusually, hassle-free navigation around a wide area. Without the car, I’d have struggled, but this is true of the majority of these trips, I find, and there’s more than enough here to fill the day – particularly if you want to try some of the stores further afield (such as Oldies in Wolverhampton). So, park your prejudices at the door – I’m tasking Birmingham with some self-belief. The place even has a Walk Of Stars celebrating Je Lynne, Roy Wood and Noddy Holder. Point proven, I’d say!
66 Dalton Street, B4 7LX
Opening Hours: 10am to 5:30pm Monday to Saturday
For the first decade of its life, Swordfish was known as Rockers, but the 1989 name change also saw the first move to new premises (a tradition the much-loved indie has maintained, with a handful of different locations over the years). “They keep knocking down our buildings, so we have to move,” says Gaz, who launched the shop with Mike as a place to shift punk, post-punk and, later, New Romantic material. Hurst Street became Needless Alley, before a long run at Temple Street led to its current home in Dalton Street (around the corner from the law courts and opposite a nicely placed – but eye-wateringly expensive – car park). “This place was a dance shop back in the 90s and it’s working out for us okay,” Gaz tells me. “We’re central, and people make a point of popping in if they’re coming into town. A lot of record shops closed because they failed to adapt. We went from being a chart-return shop – those reps used to run cars that were like mobile off-licences, with the amount of ‘gifts’ they used to pass on – back to the more sort-of niche retailer we are again today. We lost so many local indies along the way – Plastic Factory, Revolver – but we’re holding our own. In a way, it’s a shame things like Record Store Day weren’t around in the 90s, as that sort of initiative might have helped some of them survive.” Vinyl has always been on sale here, but Gaz insists it remains just part of the wider retail mix. “When we moved here, we expanded the new section, as we just weren’t sure we’d get enough decent secondhand stock but, actually, that hasn’t been the case. There’s still a load of good stuff about. But I still see a place for CDs, too.” Classic indie, rock and reggae makes up the majority of the material here but, as in all the best shops, there’s a little of everything (including some great soul). Swordfish is a Birmingham institution – with connections to Duran Duran, The Lilac Time and many others – and, with its buoyant label and now being signed up to Record Store Day, it continues to evolve. If it does ever move again, can I request a cheaper car park?
2. IGNITE RECORDS
Level 2 Oasis Market, 110-114 Corporation Street, B4 6SX
Opening Hours: 10am to 5:30pm Monday to Friday; 10am to 6pm Saturday
Specialising in indie, metal, punk and hardcore, this business is tucked away in an indoor market. Rick Perry has run the place for eight years after previously working at much-missed retailer Tempest, which closed its doors in 2010 after 40 years in the city. Rick also uses the place as a daytime base for his Speedowax Records that has released vinyl for Senseless Things and Jesus Jones, among others. Ignite supports Record Store Day in a big way and shifts discs from a decent range of acts, as illustrated by the wide range on its racks. “We do tend to follow the steer set by something like [BBC] Radio 6, but I try to keep things as broad as I can,” says Rick, “although it’s not so much students that come in, but more your 30-to-40-somethings.” I finally pick up the Little Mix album from last year’s Record Store Day on glorious neon-pink vinyl, and Lady Gaga’s Joanne. It’s new vinyl you’ll find here and prices are very competitive. Don’t be put off if metal isn’t your bag – I find Ignite has the best selection of new vinyl in the city centre, giving even the Bullring’s HMV a run for its money on price and range.
3. THE DISKERY
99-102 Bromsgrove Street, B5 6QB
Opening Hours: 9:30am to 6pm Monday to Saturday
Many years from now, when these features are adapted into a spectacular production at the National Theatre, it’s likely The Diskery will feature largely as the inspiration for my Olivier Award-winning script. It’s a shop steeped in atmosphere and charm. Lee The Boss, Liam The Oracle, Danny The Reggae and Paul The Synth make up the team that keeps this Brum institution winning and its punters refreshed with welcome cups of tea. Starting life as a jazz specialist in 1952, The Diskery has been in this location since 1972 and features in Graham Jones’ 2009 book on the challenges faced by record retailing, Last Shop Standing. The Diskery’s founder sadly died in 2012, but much of Morris Hunting’s legacy continues to thrive (with many of the staff having worked here for decades). With a décor determined to preserve past glories – faded posters and little-remembered sleeves – it’s the perfect place for the sort of cratedigging I adore. The quirky, the celebrated and the never likely to shift are piled high (although there is a decent order to what, at first, looks like a challenge for the archivist in me). “Saturday is always a special day for us,” says Liam (The Oracle). “Our Saturdays take me back to the days of old, when people got paid and went out to buy an album. We get kids coming in now and they’re getting hooked on all sorts of stuff – one young lad loves his 60s singles. It’s great!” Across three old houses, there are literally tens of thousands of records here – with far more out back than are displayed in the front. “The shop was always jazz-based, so we have, say, about 12,000 78s; but we carry a bit of everything, to be honest. We get people trying to sell stuff all the time. One lady came in and every LP had been stickered with notes from Discogs. It was quite a negotiation!” Some sellers aren’t so clued up. While I’m there, Lee takes a call from a hopeful trader. “What are the records?” asks Lee, naturally enough. “Like CDs, only bigger and blacker”, he’s told. Predictably, I buy a very random mix: including Foreigner’s Agent Provocateur opus, moody synth material from early Icehouse, some Erasure promos and The Real Thing’s fantastic debut.
4. EMORTAL RECORDS
1 Bournville Lane, B30 2JY
Opening Hours: 10am to 6pm Monday to Saturday
With a recent decision to stock more metal and rock, this largely dance specialist apparently does a brisk business, particularly at weekends. Weekday opening times can be a bit patchy, but try calling the phone number listed on the door to see if entry can be secured. No luck for me on this occasion, though. When I call back briefly a second time, I’m still unable to visit. But I’m told the place is often packed, and the stock – lots of white labels and promo sets – looks fresh through the window. It’s here I get talking to one of the locals, who again describes the city as somewhere lacking in much credibility. I’d beg to differ – Emortal looks like it has been transplanted from somewhere like Hoxton or Brighton!
5. THE POLAR BEAR
10 York Road, Kings Heath, B14 7RZ
Opening Hours: 11am to 6pm Monday to Saturday
A bit of a drive out of the centre (but no more than 15 minutes) and you find Kings Heath. The Polar Bear has been here since 1991 and was once part of a chain that included sites in Leeds, Manchester and Oxford. Steve Bull has carefully kept this shop going with a good mix of material. “There are only two types of music, the stuff you like and the stuff you don’t,” he tells me. I like this philosophy, but it’s unusual in someone who loves vinyl. “I love music, but I don’t really collect it,” says Steve. “As I get older, my tastes – like most people’s, I guess – narrow a little, but I enjoy the fact that some of the old barriers are breaking down.” There’s a bit of second-hand vinyl on the racks (and I relieve him of a couple of Ultravox albums), but it’s new records that predominate. We discuss the city’s record-shop closures and Steve admits trading has been tough over the years. “I actually find mainstream pop and indie is struggling a bit now,” he tells me. “And the soundtracks used to do better than they do now, but business is still okay, although I know some people are finding the prices a bit steep for vinyl generally.” The Polar Bear takes part in Record Store Day, with bands playing, but Steve has resisted the idea of widening his stock the rest of the year to include lots more second-hand discs or any singles at all. “There have to be some limits and I still find people dropping off old collections, so I need to keep room for that.” With free parking limited to a single hour (but just outside the shop), I’m off… but The Polar Bear has been a great pit stop!
6. ENTERTAINMENT WORLD
5 The Radleys, Sheldon, B33 0QY
Opening Hours: 11am to 7pm Monday to Saturday; 11am to 4pm Sunday
A bit further out of the city, Sheldon is one of those places you can’t imagine there are rich record pickings to be had. The parade of shops it’s situated in doesn’t bode well – all Post Offices, cafés and hair salons – but actually, there’s a lot of vinyl out the back of this store, that ranges from the genuinely collectable (The KLF’s fantastic The White Room, VG+, very reasonable price) to the curious (an Opportunity Knocks compilation from 1974). It won’t surprise you for a second that both end up in my bag of spoils. With much of the first half of the store devoted to toys, games and assorted memorabilia, the second-hand vinyl has become a big part of the turnover in the past five years. “It’s surprising what people are still bringing in,” says owner Rob Hadley. “I’ve had a punk collection, where the guy selling it had never owner a record player, so all the discs were mint.” It’s here that I pick up a huge haul of pristine 1980s music and style magazines – for a fraction of the price I’d pay almost anywhere else. The records are great, too, and being second-hand, there’s a wealth of archive material still attached to them (who remembers local store WJ Taylor Ltd, that was selling Blue Zoo 12″s for £1.99 back in 1982?). I love these old price stickers (although can do without the biro scribbles – usually names or dedications – that plague sleeves for collectors like you and me). There’s a rare copy of folk/rock act Blackthorn’s II Electric Folk – not what you’d expect to find in a shop like this! More predictably, I pick up a decent set of Sting 12″s from the 90s that are generally hard to source, the rare numbered 12″ picture disc for Tears For Fears’ Woman In Chains, some Numan and a stack of great soul. There’s even a bit of Italo disco, no doubt picked up on some foreign holiday back in the day. Entertainment World proves that a bit of effort to travel further afield can pay off, big time. This is one of those hidden gems that makes record collecting all the more thrilling.