Interview: Garth Cartwright | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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New Zealand born; London based journalist, author, DJ and music promoter, Garth Cartwright will be paying the Claypath Delicatessen a visit on Saturday 12th October, as part of the Durham Book Festival. He will be talking about his latest book, Going For A Song, which is an in-depth history of the rise, fall and rise of the independent record shop in the UK and documents how popular music and youth fashions took shape around record shops. We caught up with him to chat all things record shops, his record collection and how he knows Stewart Lee.

What inspired/made you decide to write the book, Going For A Song: A Chronicle Of The UK Record Shop?
In 2009 it seemed like a virus had hit record shops across the UK as they were closing at an extremely fast rate. I’ve always been both a huge music fan and a fan of record shops – I can’t sing or play a note so my musical communion tends to be with other music lovers in record shops – and I was aware that the remarkable history of the UK record shop had never been told. Whether it was East End Yiddisher shops selling 78s or Brian Epstein discovering The Beatles via NEMS or Branson building his empire via flogging bootlegs in the original Virgin shops or the great punk and reggae shops, it just seemed like a tale waiting to be told. And as it looked like the record shop was following the video shop into extinction I needed to tell it before they all disappeared off the high street.

What is it about the record shop experience that keeps people coming back?
Well, for most of the 20th Century you had to go to a record shop to buy music – the supermarkets only got into selling chart CDs in the ’90s. Obviously, today there is no need to go into a record shop – you can stream or download or order online – but the reason for doing so is these places are temples of sound, magic spaces. The best record shops are where you make friends and discover music you would never have come across otherwise. They’re exciting and enchanting and I love them.

Which were your favourite stories when researching and interviewing for the book?
Oh, so many! I loved learning about Levy’s and the old Jewish East End and the scams some of the shops used to run – there’s a story in there of villains stealing a lorry load of Simon & Garfunkel LPs and these being sold for a few shillings each to certain shops! Also how different communities shaped their shops as they did their restaurants – Jamaican and Indian record shops have added lots of flavour to the UK music scene! I also found it fascinating how many record labels grew out of record shops – Virgin, Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet and many more. Amazing how selling records can lead to building great British record labels and pioneering musical trends: dubstep was created in a Croydon dance music shop! Finally, Duncan Noble, a friend of mine from Newcastle, told me about Windows and some of the other local shops he grew up with when I first began researching. Duncan passed away recently so I treasure the memory of his stories.

Stewart Lee wrote the foreword to the book. How did that come about?
Stewart and I both used to contribute music reviews to The Sunday Times Culture magazine – so we met via that. And we bump into one another at esoterica folk and jazz gigs. He’s like me, an obsessive. So I asked and he very kindly said ‘yes’. That was a coup!

Why do you think it is that the vinyl record survived the digital music onslaught when all other mediums fell by the wayside?
I think the resurrection of vinyl is akin to the slow food movement – some people are tired of instant meals and fast food so they look for meals that take a long time to prepare and savour. Same for music – playing a 45 you have to get up and change it every three minutes. But it is an act of engagement and makes you listen harder, think harder. Thus you appreciate the music you own more. Streaming means you can listen to pretty much everything but it’s like being at one of those All You Can Eat cheap buffets – after a while you feel bloated and forgot what you ate. Purchasing records and treasuring them is something special. There’s a real relationship between you and your 45s or LPs. 

What are the prized possessions in your record collection?
Oh, so many! I have everything from Jelly Roll Morton 78s to New Orleans R&B 45s to obscure albums by Texan country singers like Lefty Frizzell. If I had to choose one album I guess it would be my original pressing of Dr John’s Gris Gris album – I found it as a teenager and it continues to enchant me.

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