IT IS 5.34 AM, and I am getting into the car. Except when I am going to the airport, I am never getting into the car at this time of the morning. Rarely am I going anywhere at all. Very occasionally, I might be going to bed at this hour, because many years ago, I made the decision to exchange regular gainful employment for the luxury of being able, if I chose, to stay up all night. It’s a luxury infrequently exercised, but it’s pleasant to know it’s there and, post-2008, the world of gainful employment doesn’t look like such a smart choice anyhow. Imagine! If I had decided to become a merchant banker or a high-powered lawyer (default fantasy occupations for all self-deluded writers, who like to fancy that it was merely a combination of choice and principle that stopped them bestowing their talents elsewhere and becoming millionaires in the process), I’d be getting up at this time every morning. If I still had a job, obviously.
Sometimes, it’s true, I’m getting up to write something for money, but in that case, I’m usually a) still in nightwear and b) possessed of a clear idea of when I might return to bed, which is generally around 11 AM. Today, there will be no going back to bed at 11am, because by that point, I might only just have reached the head of the queue. I am up at 5:34 AM and getting into the car in order to stand in a queue.
It is Record Store Day, and although I have little interest in music in any way that verges on the acquisitive or connoisseurial, I have a close interest in someone who does. I also like spectacle, and weirdoes. Once a year, therefore, I consent to be untimely ripped from sleep on a Saturday morning and stand pressed far too closely against people who smell more of avid desire and faint desperation than they do of soap. And it’s not just moral support: for a stocky girl and staunch non-exerciser, I’m surprisingly flexible, and a great asset when it comes to getting down to floor-level to hunt for vinyl treasures.
This is what RSD is all about: the celebration of independent record shops in an era when online purchasing has rendered them as quaint as olde-style English tea-shoppes and typewriter ribbon. It’s also about the creation of instant rarities – limited editions produced for this day only – in the pursuit of which the assembled crowds will voluntarily suffer all manner of discomfort as if they were children waiting for the beginning of an Easter Egg hunt. This morning, for example, I have been primed to explode into action at the merest glimpse of a Captain Beefheart double 45, a picture disc of “Anarchy in the UK” and a triple 10” box-set of Lee Perry’s Blackboard Jungle Dub classic. There is no chance, I’m informed, that I will even be in the same postal district as the liquid-sleeved “Sixteen Saltines” 12” by Jack White. (This turns out to be correct: what handful there were never left America, and less than 24 hours later, were being traded on the internet for thousands of dollars.)
Which brings us to the thorny issue of a word that causes the crowd outside Sister Ray in Soho to shudder with distaste. The word is “dealer”. The crowd is varied in some ways, less so in others. There are not, for example, all that many women, although those who are there are formidably well organized, tending to appear towards the head of the queue, comfortably seated in foldaway camping chairs, swathed in Black Tartan travel rugs and soothed with multiple cups of tea from 1950s-style thermos flasks. The age range, however, is wide: clearly, the young will get up for something, or perhaps they haven’t been to bed in the first place. But we are all, save one person, either enthusiastic amateurs or their helpful sidekicks.
One fellow alone sticks out. The rest of us are scrappily dressed, intent on keeping warm and preventing chafing. We are cheery, but bleary: conversation takes place at a low hum, punctuated by longish silences. There isn’t, after all, a great deal to say. But three or four spots ahead of us is a dapper man, dressed in unfeasibly thin clothes for the time of year and the time of day; one can only guess that he is kept warm by his perpetual movement, by the darting runs that he makes around the corner, where our portion of the queue has snaked, to the shop front. His place is kept by a younger woman who looks more like the rest of us: more indie, more tired-looking, occasionally dropping down to crouch at pavement level, sporadically rolling cigarettes. When he is not mounting a foray, our friend keeps up a constant chatter, which often causes the crouching woman to pull a sheaf of papers out of a plastic bag and make adjustments to one of numerous hand-written lists. In between giving his assistant dictation, he makes and takes calls on his mobile phone, sotto voce, swapping co-ordinates with associates who are, we assume, carefully positioned at other record stores.
The man just in front of us turns round and, out of the corner of his mouth, says: “Dealer?”
My companion nods. It is not a happy nod. I sense that if the dealer is a specialist in picture discs of Anarchy in the UK, things will not go well for us today. It transpires that the dealer has also brought with him bags and bags of empty cardboard mailers, in order to transport his purchases in pristine condition, which feels, somehow, like cheating.
By around 7:45, a quarter of an hour before the shop is due to open, a weak sun has started to warm the streets, and tongues have begun to loosen. A little. For the past two hours, the young man immediately behind us has been determinedly plugged into his headphones, staring grimly ahead. Now, he begins to chat, anxiously. I’m horrified to learn that he has come all the way from an outlying district of London for one record, which he will not name – superstitiously, I hope, because I believe that we have, even briefly, built up a camaraderie that should place us above suspicion of record-snaffling. Already, I can hardly bear the idea that he might go home empty-handed. “One record? You’ve got to learn to spread the risk, guy,” advises my companion, possibly thirty years his senior.
To dispel the worry, and the ennui of queuing, I wander off for a few moments, up and down the dingy side-streets that are, bewilderingly, only a hundred yards or so from the shiny brashness of Oxford Street. In this old-fashioned warren of lanes are several record shops, and I take in the size of the huddles at Phonica and at Soul Jazz, both opening an hour later. I’m open to the possibility of diversions, so I’m pleased when I come to rest outside a darkened window that appears to contain some jewelry, cheap-looking, sparkly stuff. I peer more closely and realize that I’m inspecting a collection of butt plugs and anal stretchers.
Sister Ray opens. Its owner comes down the line, handing out raffle tickets, one to denote your participation in the draw for a Simple Minds 12”, the other to gift you a cup of coffee from a tiny cafe that is just now throwing up its shutters. He also gives us a list of featured stock, on which we must indicate what we want; when we finally reach the counter, we’ll hand it over and the staff will give us whatever they still have. “It’s one copy per person, right?” asks the dealer. The crowd glowers. “One copy,” says the owner, firmly.
The journey around the corner, into the shop, through the corridors of bins and racks stuffed with albums and singles and EPs, through Brazilian Funk, left at Spiritual Jazz and down two steps past Industrial Post-Punk, takes around another hour. It is warmer inside, and there are T-shirts to look at, Dead Kennedys and Pressure Sounds and Kraftwerk. “Can I have one?” I ask, like a child. “Another day,” comes the reply.
The assessment of odds is keener now, moving from generalities – there are fewer record shops left in existence, people are saying, so surely each one must have more stock? – to specifics. Already, we are hearing rumors: no more Clash, no more special-issue “Starman”, no more Supremes performing “Baby Love” on blood-red, heart-shaped vinyl. Each time another wave of bad news comes our way, I look to our nervous friend. Is he, even now, hearing the words that will render his journey absolutely useless, his weekend ruined? If he is, he’s not saying.
In sight of the counter, we spot a music critic, doing his bit for the industry. A pop star was supposed to be doing similar, but hasn’t materialized. Later, Billy Bragg – not only a musician now, but also a leading advocate of electoral reform – will come and perform live. Much as we like Billy Bragg, we dismiss the day’s entertainment strands from our minds. This is all about the joints.
We’re there. We have our piece of paper. We hand to it to someone whose eyes we can barely meet for tension. There is an unbearably long wait – it may even be two minutes – before he returns from the stacks teetering on the floor, bearing an armful of sleeves. He begins to saunter through our list, tossing out the names of our triumphs: pink vinyl MC5, check. Exclusive J Dilla 7, check. Patti Smith double-header – “Hey Joe” and “Piss Factory” – check. “Sorry,” he remarks airily, almost as an afterthought, “the Lee Perry’s gone.”
My companion turns to me. “I’m going to vomit,” he says.
I look at the guy behind the counter. “He’s going to vomit,” I say, beseechingly.
He doesn’t vomit, but inside, he assures me, he’s weeping.
But what of our friend? On the way out, I grab him. “Did you get it?” He didn’t. He is now going elsewhere, mobilizing the rest of a battalion of like-minded friends on the way. But what was it? It turns out that it was a single by Garbage. Suddenly, despite the fact that I have never knowingly listened to a record by Garbage, nor have any musical opinion of them, despite the fact that I myself am caught in the midst of a drama of disappointment, I am furious. What I want to do – what I actually, at 9 AM on a Saturday, plan to do – is to track Garbage down and give them a really big telling-off.