Mark Elliott takes a trip to Liverpool and looks beyond the Fab Four for vinyl delights…
When John Lennon was murdered in December 1980, it accelerated my obsession with music. True, I’d already been seduced by the soundtrack to Grease and had started buying the odd 7″ single, but the avalanche of Beatles books and magazines launched off the back of the tragedy offered something different. This was a band – the band – with a backstory and a back catalogue like no other. I had their discography memorised in weeks. When it came to a birthday-gift choice between K-Tel’s Chart Explosion or a re-press of Sgt. Pepper’s…, pop’s greatest LP was the one I picked (despite the temptation of Madness and Kelly Marie).
So Liverpool, for me – as for so many – is somewhere truly special. One of the world’s most-famous musical cities, I have been a handful of times over the years. Ferried across the Mersey? You bet; grabbed a pint at a reimagined The Cavern? Certainly; but cratedigging hadn’t been an option until this trip.
I didn’t know what to expect. Some locals will tell you they feel somewhat overshadowed by their bigger neighbour, but Manchester’s buzzy vinyl scene isn’t truly spectacular when measured against destinations such as Amsterdam, so surely a city this steeped in music could hold its own against its nearby rival.
I wondered whether the interest from more casual visitors in the Fab Four would push up Merseybeat prices and, in truth, where I could find it, that proved to be the case.
Almost every shop (like most record stores worldwide, actually) has a section devoted to The Beatles and their associated or solo releases. But they weren’t rammed full of first-pressing copies of Revolver, as you might imagine. There’s actually rather less of that stuff here than you’d expect (although a lot of new reissues; no doubt stocked to satisfy the more casual tourist after a memento).
What there’s no shortage of, however, is Beatles. The influence of that magical era is everywhere and I’d challenge anyone not to get swept along in the nostalgia. I joined a National Trust tour of the childhood homes of Lennon and McCartney, which was simply fantastic. It’s absolutely my top recommendation of ‘other stuff’, if you can bag one of the limited slots.
So, should you play the tourist, or is the shopping just too compelling? The city centre has a good concentration of decent stores (including one that doubles as a destination for those following in the footsteps of the Fab Four). A handful lie further out and will prove tough to tick off if you don’t have long here (or a car). There’s a lot of soul (northern, of course, but other strands, too) and indie, but – classics notwithstanding – marginally less rock than I have seen elsewhere. Pop prices were standard andI sourced some good items. So, roll up for a magical mystery tour of this former European Capital Of Culture…
81 Renshaw Street, L1 2SJ
Opening hours: Noon to 11pm Wednesday to Sunday
Staying out of the shadow of The Beatles is thrillingly impossible in this city – no better illustrated than by the first shop I visit. Situated on the edges of the town centre, 81 Renshaw is a fascinating business hybrid – a successful café, events venue and record shop housed in a building once home to Liverpool’s legendary Mersey Beat newspaper – early champion of all things Fab. Today, a café and event space is on the ground floor, while you’ll find the vinyl mostly downstairs (there are a few racks in the café). Once I navigate the descent down a level, I find a unit rammed with still-sealed pop and soul LPs from the late 1980s for £3 apiece. That keeps me busy for a good 20 minutes before I venture into the main shop, staffed by owner Neil Tilly. He tells me the venue offers a unique spin on Record Store Day, as he can set up shop in the large auditorium upstairs, creating something akin to an indoor market. “It’s definitely become more of a social thing,” he says, and a good job, too, based on the crowd he drew this year. Neil’s pedigree is impressive: editing the classic Liverpool 1980s fanzine Breakout, running a label and an agency. Neil’s stock is split evenly between new and second-hand, with a lot of good soul. He took over the site in 2016 and says the building yielded some unexpected treasure. “I found some boxes of old records still sealed in the old NEMS [the store managed by Brian Epstein] bags,” he tells me. “The basement was like a scene from a horror movie when I started clearing it out, but that was a fantastic find.”
75 Renshaw Street, L1 2SJ
Opening hours: 10.30am to 6pm Monday to Saturday; noon to 6pm Sunday
A few doors down, this large and intriguing vintage shop promises a decent vinyl section and the cabinet tempting you in with the predictable 60s draws helps, but there are only a few racks here and prices are a touch on the steep end of the spectrum. No doubt, the casual buyer might find something inside, and there is some interesting stuff here. Given I’ve just started, I pass for a change and head down to the nearby Oxfam on Bold Street, where I’ve heard vinyl pickings are good. There are a few racks, but nothing of interest to me, with classical and MOR predominating.
I do pick up a Bros annual but, for many of you, that will only accentuate the point.
110 Bold Street, L1 4HY
Opening hours: 10.30am to 6pm Friday and Saturday; noon to 5pm Sunday
This is a very nice store with everything filed neatly and easy to flick through. There are a lot of 7″ singles and a superb northern-soul section. It’s the sort of shop you can really lose yourself in and prices are fair. There are a lot of imports and I’m told the owner makes frequent trips abroad to source the stock, while picking up the vintage clothing that takes up the ground-floor retail area. I love all the vintage radio sets and memorabilia and, once again, I’m reminded how much nicer the visiting experience is when a shop feels as if it’s been blessed with a little TLC. One word of warning: the subterranean record section only opens Friday through Sunday, although the clothing store upstairs maintains regular trading hours. It’s definitely worth planning your trip to the city around this.
80 Bold Street, L1 4HR
Opening hours: 10.30am to 5.30pm Monday to Saturday; 11am to 5pm Sunday
What is it with record shops in basements in this city? Virtually my third in a row is buried below ground, but this is another nicely presented store that shares its space with a café. You can sell as well as buy, and I catch a conversation between the long-suffering staff and a lady caller no doubt determined to retire on the proceeds of her small haul of vinyl. Again, every genre is covered. There’s a lot of psych and krautrock, plus a huge amount of soul and dance. Second-hand dominates and I love the weird and wonderful peppered throughout the racks. I’m in a very Soft Cell vibe at the moment, given their glorious one-off at London’s O2, and surprise myself by checking my hand-held database and realising I don’t own a copy of Memorabilia – their first 12″. That’s rectified here, and I fill in one of my
Take That gaps with the 7″ of Once You’ve Tasted Love.
1 The Bluecoat, School Lane, L1 3BX
Opening hours: 9.30am to 6pm Monday to Saturday; 12.30pm to 5pm Sunday
Now, this place is a Liverpool legend, famously once staffed by future stars such as Julian Cope, Pete Wylie (of Wah!), Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Paul Rutherford and, of course, Dead Or Alive’s Pete Burns. Pete’s withering put-downs and leftfield approach to customer service made the shop an institution back then. Its influence has soared over the city since its opening day in 1971, but the shop has moved a couple of times and now sits regally in the city centre with art hanging on its wall. A sort of gentrified gesture, perhaps. New vinyl predominates and it’s curated carefully (no Belinda Carlisle reissues to be sourced here, more’s the pity), but you can so easily soak up the atmosphere and reminisce about a time when stores such as this were the gatekeepers between the industry, emerging scenes and the product-hungry customer. While I’m browsing, I notice a handful of Japanese women taking photos outside the shop. I’m hoping they’re Dead Or Alive fans (the act were massive in Asia) and, although the old Button Street site is a restaurant today, I’m hoping Pete is looking down with a flicker of that knowing smile hovering on his lips.
Liverpool Antique Centre, 151 Great Howard Street, L3 7DL
Opening hours: 10am to 6pm Monday to Saturday; 10am to 3pm Sunday
This store has not long moved from its former home in Grand Central Hall on Renshaw Street to a large warehouse further out of the city centre, billed the Liverpool Antique Centre. It’s a good 15-minute walk from Albert Dock, although a taxi costs me a little over a fiver from the main shopping area. There’s a lot here, but it doesn’t have that slick, curatorial finesse that I witness elsewhere. I would estimate a couple of hours would give you time to go through everything, and I have a decent stab, picking up a VG+ copy of Dionne Warwick’s Valley Of The Dolls. There’s a good amount of parking outside, which will be helpful if you want to see the other, more suburban stores (and there is a palpable shortage of buses and taxis around here, when I eventually emerge). The centre has some other stalls with a bit of vinyl and neat vintage memorabilia. Ever heard of a band called The Beatles? Thought so.
5 Slater Street, L1 4BW
Opening hours: 11am to 5pm Tuesday to Thursday; 11am to 6pm Friday and Saturday
This dance specialist is the place to go to source nu-disco, house and techno, but don’t be fooled, there is a healthy ‘Guilty Pleasures’ section rammed with Ace Of Base, Pet Shop Boys and the like (all on 12″). I’m very happy to be the only customer they will likely ever have who is pleased to pick up an Extended version of a Peter Cetera flop from 1988. I also take a chance on an 80s curiosity that I’ve never heard of – Cry Cry Cry from Two Minds Crack. It proves to be a decent slab of thumping dancy synth-pop. I’m now on the lookout for their lone album. I have to be honest, though: I don’t think they’ll be getting a spin on the decks here anytime soon.
The Jacaranda, 21-23 Slater Street, L1 4BW
Opening hours: 10am to 2am Monday to Wednesday; 10am to 6am Thursday to Sunday (pub hours; record shop usually opens around noon)
Another institution steeped in the history of the Fab Four, this pub/café hosted gigs by The Silver Beetles from May 1960 and the embryonic act rehearsed in the basement (still used by up-and-coming acts for the same purpose in 2018). A trip downstairs (another basement!) is like stepping back in time, and well worth a detour. This time, the records are upstairs (alongside a vintage recording booth that is still in operation and a tourist attraction in its own right). There’s a good mix of Liverpool acts and other second-hand discs, but timing is everything, as the place is packed when I pop by. Spilt beer and record sleeves don’t mix…
JACARANDA RECORDS + PHASE ONE
40 Seel Street, L1 4BE
Opening hours: Noon to midnight Monday to Thursday; Noon to 2am Friday and Saturday; Noon to 10pm Sunday
This sister venue of the pub is balanced between a big live venue out back and dozens of racks of new vinyl out front, where prices are definitely better than you’ll likely find on the high street. They steal a trick from there, though, with a loyalty-card programme rewarding regulars with a 20% discount once you’ve bought enough. The branding is neat (the tote bags are fabulous) and I pick up a couple of records I missed first time round, including the limited-edition peach-scented, peach-coloured soundtrack of Call Me By Your Name (this is a family magazine, so see the film if you don’t understand the marketing connection). Rather more wholesome (but only just) is a cheap copy of Miley Cyrus’s Younger Now. I’m really not doing well with this mission to buy The Beatles, am I?
457 West Derby Road, L6 4BL
Opening hours: 9am to 5pm Monday to Saturday
Once you’ve dusted off these more central locations, there are a handful of other shops worth travelling out for if you have time: I’m disappointed I just don’t have time for Aintree Vinyl out at Warbreck Moor, Defend Vinyl on Smithdown Road or Skeleton Records across the water. Because this is a day-long expedition (and some open quite late in the morning), I decide to head for one of Merseyside’s oldest record emporiums: Musical Box. Based in Tuebrook, in the north of the city, it’s been a family-owned operation since the 1950s and, although there used to be a second branch, the West Derby Road seems immune to the challenges of 21st-century retail. There is a good mix of new and second-hand, and manager Tony Quinn, who was born in a room above the shop, thinks the future remains bright, even though he’s unsure if his own kids will want to take it on in due course. “People are still bringing stuff in,” he tells me. “A vicar dropped off 20 Frank Zappa LPs and wouldn’t take a penny for them! They just flew out within the week.” I spend a lot of time in the used boxes and am told that I’m not buying the usual sort of stuff, which pleases me no end. Someone needs to rehome a mint copy of En Vogue’s debut, after all. Tony’s mother also still does shifts in the cash-only shop and there’s a homely, curatorial air about the place. The cupboards are packed with boxes of singles and I ask to see one labelled ‘The Seekers’. Inside, I find mint copies of all their hits in the pristine, original Columbia sleeves. It’s almost magical to find records of that age in this condition and I’m told the discs have likely been there since release. Funds and time prevent me exploring further, but I sense there is some real treasure for 7″ collectors here.