Original Rockers - Richard King
This is a special sort of memoir, wonderfully personal yet intrinsically linked to the lives that many thousands of us lead. Funny and touching, the book will delight all those who take pleasure from the characters that inhabit the musical world, be they musicians, fans or in this case a person who was a conduit between the two.
It's a journey through the time time that Richard King spent working in the legendary and wonderfully perverse "Revolver Records" here in Bristol in the 1980's. At the time that Richard was working in Revolver, it was owned by the the mercurial man who was known to many, simply as Roger. A fountain of musical knowledge and a brilliant salesman when he wanted to be, yet one who was magnificently ill suited to the role of actually running a shop.
I should add some personal experience here. Between 1978 and 1984, Revolver was a hugely important part of my life. Initially it was a key part of my weekly Saturday morning trip into town, where I would try to track down records that I had heard on the radio (normally on the John Peel show). Living at my parents home in the suburbs of Bristol meant that that my relatively low wages could still go a long way when it came to satisfying my cultural requirements.
Revolver was always the first port of call in a journey that would also lead to Rayners, Tony's, Rival, HMV and Virgin amongst others. In addition to that, I would pick up books in Pied Piper and visit most, if not all, of the mass of bookshops that George's owned on Park Street as well. Before returning to Fishponds with enough plastic bags to give any self respecting lover of the environment a heart attack.
The initial years of my shopping at Revolver were in the Pre Roger years. Although the shop appeared to work on a slightly more convuential level in those days, it was still daunting, even challenging place. The sort of shop where everyone knew much more than you, that was overflowing with records by artists that and even genres that I had never heard of.
Slowly though it became a world that was I could feel part of and those visits became more akin to a social club. Here my friends and I would meet up, often by chance. Must hear records were discussed, tips on upcoming gigs were passed on, knowledge was shared and valued.
When I started working in central Bristol the visits became more frequent, and staff members had become friends and are still are friends thirty or so years later. Yet I didn't come to know Richard at that time. One of our friends who was working in the shop was treated rather badly by Roger, so we removed our customer and sadly never went back. It was around this time that Richard started working in Revolver, so sadly our paths did not cross (until very recently).
I also have spent a small amount of time working behind the counter of a record shop, after working in Imperial Music on Park Street during the last year of its life there. It was then and will always be, the best job that I have ever had. Although It certainly sounds like Imperial was run on a more professional basis than Revolver, we had our days when very little went on it terms of custom. Your mind could wander and soon you would be heading along some strange paths with a gloriously esoteric soundtrack. Pity the poor potential customer who had wandered in looking for the latest chart hit.
Anyway back to the fabulous book that Richard has produced. he perfectly captures the atmosphere of the rather sleepy nature of Bristol at the time. Bristol worked in a bubble, without focus groups or marketing teams for every company, things wandered along, mistakes were made but wonderful discoveries were made and friendships formed.
Each chapter takes us on a journey prompted by a particular record or time of music. So, although the music is important, how could it not be in a book like this, the real impact comes from the stories behind the situations. That could be the overpowering influence of the German band Can on shop owner Roger or the lisions that came from the ever impressive dub reggae tunes that the shop sold
Reggae plays a very important part of the story of the shop, in fact the deliciously sketchy ways in which the records were made and distributed from Jamaica sound like a mirror image of the "relaxed" way that Revolver was run.
There are also beautiful chapters featuring things as diverse as the pastoral charm of the work of Virginia Astley and the hard left, intensely political work of avant-guard improvised jazz world of AMM. In fact I well remember the confusion that overtook me on encountering the challenging world of improvised jazz. My father had been a fan of the likes of Mingus, Miles, Peterson, Basie, Coltrane and the like, so I had convinced my early twenties self that I knew about that world. Well the massed ranks of unknown names in both Revolver and for a short while the Arnolfini when they sold records, put me firmly in my place.
There is a brilliant chapter on Massive Attack and how they somehow managed to to channel the other worldly approach of Bristol, into something glorious, uplifting and globally successful. Yet crucially they created music, that despite its influences from thousands of miles away, was firmly rooted in the landscape and narrative of our city.
In a very different way, Sarah Records captured an important part of the ferrously independent nature of the music environment in Bristol. Even though Revolver was haphazard and chaotic, its role in helping to bring worlds as disparate as Massive Attack and Sarah Records to the fore is brilliantly chronicled in the book.
The figure of John Peel also features heavily in the book at certain times. I think that future, or maybe even current, generations will struggle to understand how one man could help to form such a huge part of the cultural identity of a nation as Peel did for so many decades. These days we all have access to everything whenever we want it. For example the work of the AMM Jazz musicians can be easily located on the web in seconds these days, yet with endless music available, where does one start? Well for many of us Peel was the one who provide the key to unlock so many doors. It's great to read how down to earth Peel was on the occasions when Richard King was to share some time with him on his trips to Bristol.
All the while, the book captures the atmosphere of sitting (often alone) in a shop that is, increasingly out step with the needs of its (potential) customers. From the debut single from The Sea Urchins to the rambling solo work of David Crosby, King provides us with memorable touchstones that show why music can mean so much to people and their sense of indentity.
The most moving chapter in the book concentrates on Joshua, a close friend of the author, more heavily involved in the contemporary art world but forever linked with Richard King via the now unlikely source of Rod Stewart. It's a chapter that stunningly conveys the joy and the pain of being around someone who is both brilliantly talented but sadly out of sync with the basic skills to survive let alone prosper in the world.
Actually, that's pretty close to what happened to Revolver in the end, so the book is shot through with a melancholy sense of loss for a time when such a place could even exist. That's not to say that the book is moribund or dispiriting, far from it. It's a window to a world where profit and image are not the important things and sense of optimism can be taken from that. Given the nature of the way that Roger approached the whole enterprise, it's also wonderfully funny.
The book has just been released in paperback, and although Revolver was very much a Bristol institution, the themes of the book reach well beyond of city limits. If you have an interest in music or any sort of life outside the mainstream then you will find much to enjoy. It also is a gorgeous slice of social history, capturing the mood of a now lost time perfectly. "Got any Zappa?"