August 29, 2015
Rough Trade, Honest Jon’s, Virgin Records and Rock On are just a handful of institutions that started off in Notting Hill. Amar Ediriwira explores how record shops shaped west London’s most vibrant community and vice versa.
I. Rock On Golborne Road
Follow Portobello Road past the Union Jack flags and gawking movie tourists, and you’ll eventually find its shy sister. Running parallel to the thundering Westway, Golborne Road is an endangered remnant of a bohemian and multicultural landscape. A slum for many decades, Notting Hill’s countercultural fabric was woven from its decaying streets when newly settled Caribbean immigrants fought for their rights. Artists squatted in crumbling terraces, punks played pubs, and music lovers nurtured collectivist record shops.
And yet Notting Hill has become a byword for gentrification, a stomping ground for bankers and foreign wealth. For now Golborne Road retains its vibrant diversity and a breeze of bohemia but there are concerns about its future. The market bustles a little less than it used to. A large property development looms like the grim reaper. Records are noticeably absent.
Rewind to 1971 when the picture was different. That August, a stall called ‘Rock On Records’ opened its doors for business in a Golborne arcade. Its proprietor, Ted Carroll, had plastered the walls with Elvis Presley photos and filled the racks with US imports and factory fresh London Records 45s.
Within weeks of opening, the shop attracted a cultish following. Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, and streams of collectors made the special, sometimes dangerous, pilgrimage to Rock On. Standing in the shadows of the new and brutal Trellick Tower, Golborne was a murky backwater but at least now it was on the map.
“I get my records from the Rock On stall
Sweet rock and roll
Teddy Boy, he’s got them all”
Thin Lizzy immortalized the shop in ‘The Rocker’, and Carroll began to expand. A second branch opened in Soho’s Chinatown and then an iconic third in Camden Town. Hauls of rare rockabilly, rhythm and blues, and soul continued to draw customers.
It was only a matter of time before Carroll dipped his toes in the recording business. Flushed by the success of a Count Bishops record on his new Chiswick Records, he scoured the pub rock scene, encountering Notting Hill native Joe Strummer and his 101ers, before diving headfirst with the punk revolution. Soon after, he launched Ace Records to reissue early American records. The shops began to take a backseat, eventually eclipsed altogether, but Ted Carroll never forgot his humble Golborne beginnings.
The street remained surprisingly fertile. In 1974, John Clare, a sociology lecturer at London University, received a phone call informing him of a shop at 76 Golborne Road with cheap rent. Clare was researching gang membership in Paddington at the time, but he leapt at the opportunity to start trading records.
To begin with he continued to teach in the week, opening the shop on Fridays and Saturdays. Six months in, he decided to give up academic papers altogether. “It was nearer to criminology than criminology research because it was the real thing. You met a lot of people who were outside the law, a lot of interesting people,” Clare says.
“Golborne Road in those days was a cornucopia of junk, detritus, alcohol, Scotch pies and scintillating gems of antiquity if you were prepared to sift through the crap.” Clare added to the pile, sticking his collection of 300 rare jazz records in the shop. He then put up a big sign in the window saying “We Pay Cash For Records”. People from all walks of life entered the shop, plastic bags slung over backs. The first record collection he bought was from Tommy Chase, a northern drummer with exquisite taste in hard bop. Clare played music on a huge old radiogram, “the size of a sofa” that stretched across an entire window.
Although its previous occupant, Geoff Francis, had also used the shop to sell records, it had been a meat emporium for many years before that. “It never completely lost its identity as a butchers shop,” Clare says. Meat hooks adorned the back room, walls were ensanguined and Clare traded records over a giant solid marble slab. “For two years a young customer who drove a meat lorry called in twice a week and paid for his entire record collection with raw meat; mainly beef.”
One day a man came in to write the shop sign. “‘What shall I call it?’ he asked me. I said just call it ‘Records,’” recalls Clare. “He said ‘No, no, no… What’s your name? John? Then call it Honest Jon’s’.” And so Honest Jon’s was born.
“Dare I say it myself, we tried to be as honest as possible.”
With Ted Carroll’s Rock On across the road and a new law centre opening next door to advise kids in trouble with the police, Golborne started to evolve. “English, Irish and West Indian residents began to stand up to police racism, slum landlords and rich developers. It was the poorest ward in London. A combination of residents, immigrants, students and punks began to reclaim the area creating nurseries, playgrounds and gardens”.
The customers coming through the door were mostly poor. For many it was an escape from squalid streets. Clare’s collection of jazz was snapped up by older Caribbean and African customers, while the youth, who came in asking for reggae and ska, introduced him to a world he knew little about. The novelty of having a wad of notes in his back pocket soon wore off. “It was cash only then,” he says.
Now Rock On is long gone, and Honest Jon’s has, for some time, had a home on Portobello Road. One musical institution does have a footprint here though. Rough Trade operates its label from 66 Golborne Road. “It’s funny you say Honest Jon’s started here. Ted Carroll was here. And now we’re here. Why is that?” founder Geoff Travis ponders to me. “It’s because it’s such an unusual street”.
II. Rough Trading Punk
While Clare was establishing himself as an Honest Jon on Golborne Road, a then afro’d Geoff Travis was hitchhiking across North America, collecting records.
By the time he had arrived in San Francisco to experience City Lights – a former Beat haunt with a unique communal spirit – a fantasy was enveloping his mind. “I wanted to open a place where you could hang out, listening to music really loud all day long without anyone harassing you.” Upon returning to London in the autumn of ‘75, that’s what he set out to do.
After deciding against Kensal Rise, then off the beaten track, Travis stumbled across an old hippy head shop on Kensington Park Road, parallel to the ‘Bello. Drawn to its countercultural history and cheap rent, Travis opened up the first Rough Trade shop with a £4,000 loan from his father.
Photo courtesy of Rough Trade
Glancing around the neighbourhood then, it might have seemed like Britain was curdling into waste. Windows smashed, trash strewn everywhere, ramshackle vehicles, every other house vacant and boarded up with nails, and the ones in between piled high with dilapidated bedsits and squatters. Stopgap corrugated iron sectioned off entire areas, weed filled the air, and children dodged between the drunks.
“It wasn’t a glamorous place at all in those days. That’s why I could afford the rent.” Travis tilts his head, trying to map out the street in his mind. “There was a garage at the end of the road, a synagogue, a lot of corrugated iron. An old lady called Doris ran a sweet shop next door – she seemed a bit dotty. As with most musical enterprises when they start, you start where you can afford to be.“
One of his first customers through the door was Steve Montgomery. “Steve would be the first in a long line of key people who, hanging around for a sufficiently long period, would eventually be offered a job at Rough Trade”, writes Neil Taylor in his account of Rough Trade, Document and Eye Witness.
Montgomery spent his days wandering shops and markets, and his nights squatting in crumbling period houses. He wasn’t alone. “What a lot of people did, including myself, was break into an empty building, connect up the electricity and live there,” says Travis. The law back then gave squatters legitimate rights to occupy vacant buildings. Squatting in London became highly organized, at one point even with its own dedicated estate agent. And Ladbroke Grove was one of the highest density zones, epitomised by Frestonia – when, facing eviction, a motley crew of artists and drug addict squatters on Freston Road attempted to secede from the UK, creating a 1.8 acre micro-state. Actor David Rappaport served as Foreign Minister, playwright Heathcote Williams as Ambassador to Britain and a two-year child took free reign over Education. Even Tory MP Geoffrey Howe was impressed, writing: “I can hardly fail to be moved by your aspirations.”
Travis believes that without squats Notting Hill’s history of artistry and rich musical heritage might have never been. “It was an important part of those times. It allowed people to do creative things without having to worry about how to pay the rent.” In Travis’s case, that involved opening a record shop, installing a reggae sound system, and giving his bohemian employees equal pay and equal say.
Collectivist, pro-feminism, egalitarian, anti-establishment were broadly the founding principles of Rough Trade. So when punk broke out six months later, the two naturally coalesced.
At the tail of ’76, the punk explosion manifested in flurries of 7”s that spread across the Rough Trade wall like wildfire. They were the first shop in London to stock Punk magazine, brought in directly from its New York publisher. They also tapped into the local Caribbean community, buying reggae pre-releases from the One Stop warehouse in Harlesden. Members of The Raincoats and Swell Maps worked behind the counter.
“For pushing culture forward with the punky reggae party, Rough Trade was irreplaceable,” says Vivien Goldman who owned a house in the area, at one point shared with Travis and often used as a base for bands visiting London. “Because it became a focus for a movement in pre-internet times; the noticeboard for fanzines, gigs for musicians were pinned was like today’s online message board – except that people had to actually be there, so unexpected conversations and collaborations often ensued.”
Almost overnight Rough Trade was at the epicentre of DIY and punk culture in London. Travis could barely keep up. “The shop got so crazy you couldn’t even get in the door,” he recalls.
After distributing Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch, a mail order company was born and soon Rough Trade was fielding calls from other shops, hoping to pick up excess stock. By the end of ’78 Rough Trade encompassed not just a shop, but also a record label and an embryonic distribution company. 202 had filled up in a way that would have seemed improbable just a few years earlier.
III. Carnival Dub Vendors
As Rough Trade swirled into punk explosion, another movement was building steam. Ladbroke Grove, despite its urban decay, was fast becoming an engine room for multi culture with the annual Carnival its prime mover.
Carnival’s roots formed in the late ‘50s. Following the abolition of rent controls in 1957, notorious landlord Peter Rachman began to build his slum empire. Caribbean immigrants, unprotected by the law, had no alternative but to accept crowded conditions, extortionate rents and intimidation.
Instead of victims, many white working class locals perceived the West Indians settlers as the problem. “Into our decaying streets they came, useful scapegoats for the overcrowding, the appalling conditions, the poverty, the absence of hope and aspiration,” writes Alan Johnson in his memoirs This Boy. Inflamed by Oswald Mosley and a wave of “Keep Britain White” propaganda, Teddy Boys waged war on the new community. Mobs of disaffected youths smashed properties and attacked black residents, culminating in battle zone riots and the murder of Kelso Cochrane.
This dire state of race relations gave rise to the first annual Caribbean Carnival, held in St Pancras Town Hall in 1959, while a concurrent hippy festival for community unity was established in Notting Hill several years later. From these two strands, the Notting Hill Carnival was born.
“Notting Hill was always a racy area, appropriate as it used to be a racetrack,” says Vivien Goldman. “Its counter-cultural cred rose in what some say were its depths – when the genteel terraces had deteriorated into slums, newly arrived Caribbean immigrants fought for their right to stay.”
By 1976 Carnival had settled into its distinctly Caribbean character, and Britain was still venting its racial steam. That year when police arrested a black pickpocket, Carnival ended in riots. Black youths as well as white youths, including Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon, clashed with the police. Filmmaker and DJ Don Letts was involved too, wandering around with his Super-8 camera “torn between getting the shot and throwing a brick.” The iconic photo of him walking towards a line of police officers on the cover of Black Market Clash is from this time. For Letts and many others though this riot was “about working class people being harassed by the police,” not race per se. The youth were struggling for social cohesion.
“Black man gotta lotta problems
But they don’t mind throwing a brick”.
Singing about the episode in “White Riot”, The Clash encouraged young whites to take action against an oppressive society, just as some blacks were.
The Carnival hit headlines for the first time that year, prompting the 1976 Race Relations Act. “Over the years it’s become a massive party, but it was created with this cultural political ideology at its core,” says Letts. “It was about healing a fractured community”.
In the ‘80s Notting Hill began its trajectory away from slum and on to swanky enclave with the first signs of gentrification creeping through the cracks. Geoff Travis remembers wealthier residents boarding up their homes when Carnival kicked off. “A lot of people setup like some sort of siege was happening. We did the opposite. We put our reggae sound system outside the shop and had people dancing in the street”.
It was only a matter of time before a specialist reggae shop opened up in the area to cater directly to the Caribbean community. South Londoner John MacGillivray used to drive through Notting Hill en-route to his girlfriend’s place in Kilburn. Noting the gaping market hole, he decided to expand his Dub Vendor business, then rooted in Clapham, into West London. “Rough Trade was there, the Carnival was happening. Ladbroke Grove was on the map but there wasn’t a dub vendor,” says MacGillivray. In 1980, he bought a hole in the wall under the railway bridge and constructed a shack from scratch. It was tiny but on the plus side, overheads were low.
Importing in seven-inch pre-releases, a staple of the Jamaican recording industry, the shop “roots, ska, rocksteady, one drop, dancehall, oldies, all kinds of reggae and black music.” Local collectors and DJs would want to play “little bad boys” on big sound systems, with vocal reggae 7”s always flying off the racks.
With only space for six, crowds would stand in a huddle, spilling out onto the steps. When someone finished and moved out, the queue would shuffle forward. Customers grabbed the attention of a record shop clerk with a sign – a nod, a point, a wink, maybe an eyebrow twitch or a shout to snag that record. At weekends the serious collectors dropped in, pockets bulging with notes, and the place had the atmosphere of a dance. Due to its tiny size the shack couldn’t open during “the crush of Carnival.”
Dub Vendor eventually upsized. In 1991 MacGillivray found a shop at 150 Ladbroke Grove, on the corner of Cambridge Gardens, that would better serve the growing influx of reggae heads. “Red the doughty guy behind the desk (wha’appen, Red!) was exuberant when they got to move over the road taking over the bigger space from a hardware store,” says Viven Goldman. With more space, the shop could open on Carnival, holding back bags for customers to collect at the end of the night.
BBC Radio 1 Xtra’s Seani B recalls shopping at Dub Vendor as a 14 year old. That is, until manager Red (or Redman) chased him out of the shop and sent him back to school. Red was a familiar local face. Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, he had operated the Original Peoples Sound’ Sound System alongside its founder Daddy Vgo, who arrived in the Wind Rush. The system played out most nights of the week, often on All Saints Road or the “Front Line”, as it was commonly called. “It was a no go area for police and an iconic road for the black community,” says John MacGillivray.
In the late ‘80s Daddy Vgo opened his own shop on All Saints Road. “You know I don’t even know what the fucking place is called and I’ve been going there for years,” laughs Don Letts. “All Saint’s Road is where people used to buy their weed and rice and peas on a Friday night from the Mangrove. That’s all gone now.”
But Vgo’s People’s Sound record shop is still there. Have a look above its door and you’ll see a heavy-duty waterproof electrical socket, which continues to power their sound system through Carnival weekend.
IV. He’s An Honest Jon
Back to 1975, back on Golborne Road. John Clare had invited old school friend and fellow sociologist Dave Ryner to join him at Honest Jon’s. “This was my first and biggest mistake,” he tells me. “Never go into partnership with a friend, no matter how close you think you are.”
The pair rolled out shops in Camden Town, Oxford Street, Monmouth Street, Kings Road and lastly the “doomed” Moroons Tunes on Greek Street, which included a rehearsal studio. Meanwhile they sold the shop on Golborne Road and bought Acme Surplus at 278 Portobello Rd, where Honest Jon’s discreetly stands today.
“The more shops we opened the less money we made”. Part of the problem was the communal approach to business. Everyone, bosses included, was paid the same wage. But that didn’t bother Clare; instead he was disillusioned with the new empire and how it shifted his vision like an out of focus lens. “It wasn’t about music. It was about talking to bank managers, solicitors, and dealing with unhappy staff. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Photo courtesy of John Clare
In ’82 Clare and Dave parted ways, never looking back. Ryner kept the shop in Camden, which became Rhythm Records. Clare returned to Portobello (it felt the most “authentic”), taking the jazz records from all the failed shops with him. He launched Boplicity, a sub label of Carrols’ Ace Records and started reissuing the jazz greats. “From now on I would sell only the music I liked and only employ the people I intuitively liked.”
Leroy Anderson was one of those people. A regular in the first incarnation of Honest Jon’s, Leroy was frequently in trouble with the law. “He stole his first car when he was eight – his feet hardly touched the pedals.” One day Leroy came in to Clare to tell him he had been arrested again. Clare attended court to represent him and gave him a job to keep him out of prison. “He knew a lot about reggae and he was as good as gold, except once a year he would get caught nicking a car,” smiles Clare. Leroy became DJ Lepke who, alongside Nick Coleman, ran Britain’s first pirate radio station, Dread Broadcasting Corporation, from the roof of Honest Jon’s on Portobello.
Clare looks back on Honest Jon’s as a sort of informal university for music lovers, “a stepping stone to get to their own thing”. Roger Beaujolais worked at the shop before his career as a jazz vibes player. Neil Barnes of Leftfield did a spell there, as did Anthony Wood, founder of music mag The Wire. Even Gilles Peterson jumped off the Honest Jon’s springboard. But Clare remembers one alumnus especially fondly.
A young James Lavelle, living in Oxford at the time, applied to Honest Jon’s when he was just 15. Clare gave him work experience but after a few weeks, realising his talent, offered him a job. “Within months there was queue outside the shop. Just to talk to James Lavelle.”
Lavelle wasn’t the only thing filling the shop. In the ‘80s the brutal fist of Margaret Thatcher hit Britain. Institutionalised care for the mentally disabled was phased out and replaced with Community Care, which shifted the responsibility of care on to family members and treatment in the home. According to Clare, when this happened, the shop began to absorb the role of an asylum.
Amongst the regular patients, Clare recalls two unhinged men who always wore cowboy hats. One Saturday morning, they came into the shop, gave the clerk a record and said ‘Play this cunt’. As Clare recalls: “The clerk had to say, ‘Say please.’”
Saturday was also when the ‘Mad Moroccan’ came in for a browse. “He used to bang his head against the wall, so he always had an open cut on his forehead. He’d come into the shop and smile at everyone in the most frightening way. He would stay for hours and never bought anything. Until one day he came in with a gun stuffed down his trousers. Everyone dived to floor, climbed into the back room and waited for him to leave.”
That wasn’t the only encounter with guns. At one point, a handful of local lads were coming into the shop and stealing records. They were big record collectors but they carried guns and had a dangerous reputation. When Clare confronted them, they threatened him. It was his hairiest moment in the shop.
With his sociology background, Clare viewed Honest Jon’s as something bigger than a business turning profit. More than ever, he saw the shop as a community healer. A firm believer in the power of talking therapy, Clare noticed that increasingly he was listening to people’s problems. Someone even joked that he should be wearing a white coat.
Every Saturday, the son of Tubby Hayes, the great jazz musician, would sit at the counter and tell Clare about his depression. He found it helpful to talk but Clare increasingly became concerned for his health. One Saturday he didn’t appear. Clare later discovered that he had committed suicide. Feeling that he could have and should have done more, Clare decided to work full time as a psychotherapist.
In 1992, he passed the shop on to employees Mark Ainley and Alan Scholefield. The pair expanded the selection to encompass music from around the world and in 2002 they started the Honest Jon’s label in creative partnership with Notting Hill local Damon Albarn.
Now aged 67 Clare is an artist, painting canvases with ideas of the self, memory, and loss. Honest Jon’s can’t escape his subconscious; often it filters back in to his works. “Not a week goes by where I don’t dream about the shop,” he says, eyes twinkling.
V. Vinyl Solution, Plastic Passion
Rough Trade underwent a comparable reshuffle in the ‘80s. With a distribution network and a rapidly expanding record label to balance, Geoff Travis was increasingly diverted away from Rough Trade the record shop. When the business went through a financial rough patch in 1982, he was forced to sell the shop. Nigel House, Jude Crighton and Pete Donne, a trio of dedicated workers, bandied together to take over.
“We were young, without kids or a mortgage so we said ‘Right, let’s do it!’ says House, who still manages the shop alongside Donne. They paid £7,000 for stock and relocated to 130 Talbot Road.
Their youthful optimism was instantly shattered. The first weekend following their move, the shop was broken into. Sound system burgled. They quickly became accustomed to rash acts of crime and violence that surged randomly into the streets like severed cables. “We used to have a security guy on Saturday,” remembers House. “The Ladbroke Grove skinheads would walk around causing trouble. And generally there were a lot of sketchy people.” Despite early hiccups though, the new location marked a stable settlement for the shop.
Importing records by Hüsker Dü, Black Flag, Circle Jerks, D.R.I. from Rough Trade Inc, the new shop ushered in hardcore punk, much in the same way as Travis had incubated a scene around the its first wave. “By word of mouth, people would hear about a new shipment and the shop would explode with energy,” says House. Rough Trade soon became a home for skater culture, with copies of Thrasher magazine everywhere and the back wall lined with skateboards.
Half a mile away on Hereford Road, hardcore was taking over another shop. Vinyl Solution was knee deep in unknown Australian and Scandinavian punk records, many of which were tip-offs from employee Starkie Phillips, bass player for The Barracudas.
As the ‘80s wore on, the shop earned a reputation as an Aladdin’s Cave for all things collectible, unrivalled in terms of obscurity and visually a psychedelic wonderland. One of the real treats was the constant supply of picture discs, which most UK collectors hadn’t come across yet. The shop was also behind the hugely influential Chocolate Soup For Diabetics bootleg comps, the first of their kind to collect ultra rare UK psych singles.
Founder Yves Guillemot decided to expand. He asked fellow Frenchman Alain de la Mata to come on board to start a Vinyl Solution label. Exporting large quantities of Sonic Youth and Big Black as well as Derrick May and Mr Fingers to record shops across the UK, Alain was tapped into the underground. “I was supplying John Peel with all the latest dance and rock releases on a weekly basis” he says.
When an early release by hardcore band Stupids charted, it was a flavour of what was to come. A string of records on the label topped the charts in Europe. Vinyl Solution started to make a lot of money from its garage rock and punk records, as well as a growing new strand in breakbeat and trip-hop with acts like Eon, Bizarre Inc and Depth Charge. Soon the flourishing label needed more space, so the business relocated to 231 Portobello Road.
Despite success, in 1994, Yves Guillemot threw in the towel. The shop was handed over to Membranes musician Nick Brown, who renamed it Intoxica and applied a Tiki-inspired makeover. In Mata’s mind, the new incarnation remained faithful to its forerunner. “The shop has always been a reflection of the collector market,” he says.
Another prime hangout for collectors was an outlet run by ‘Bill and Bill’. Prior to their joint venture, Bill Allerton had been trading rare ‘60s record under the flyover at weekends, while pushing a day job in accounts at Virgin Records – which incidentally started life as a record shop on Notting Hill Gate. His friend Bill Forsyth was a Bob Dylan obsessive and also a ‘60s record dealer. In 1984, the Bills decided to open a record shop together.
“Plastic Passion was very much about what we both loved – making a living selling great music,” says Bill Forsyth. Covering ‘60s and ‘70s psych, beat, garage, alt-rock and folk, the collection was relatively narrow but incredibly deep. Rarities and pricey records bedecked the walls but Bill recalls the pleasure he had in selling cheap reissues to music fans. “We both had a definite ‘missionary zeal’ in turning people on to stuff they didn’t know and, luckily, there was no short supply of it – old and new.”
Despite their shared name and tastes, the Bills eventually fell out. “It was always a bit of a rocky relationship,” says Nigel. “One day, one of the Bills came into Rough Trade with shades on. It was winter so I asked him why he was wearing them. He lifted them up – big black eye. The other Bill had thrown a box of records at him.” That was the final straw for the Bills; partnership dissolved.
But in a remarkable move, instead of closing the shop, the pair split the space down the middle and opened two, quite narrow, shops. Bill Allerton’s Stand Out on the right, Bill Forsyth’s Minus Zero on the left. “Customers had to choose a side,” continues Nigel. “It was hilarious because they often had similar records.” Where they stocked the same record, they would on cooperate on price, never undermining the other. The Bills were harmonious in this totally unique new setup, and continued trading records side-by-side for many years.
VI. Gentrification And Other Beasts
Over at Dub Vendor, there was pressure from the outside. Their new landowner had a penchant to moan. He was especially unhappy with “graffiti and mess” created on the shop’s white sidewall. John McGillivray needed to take action. He commissioned a street artist to produce a giant mural, capturing black sound system culture and even incorporating bits of road furniture into the artwork. Along with the Dub Vendor lion, it became a defining monument for the shop, loved by the community. However the landlord was relentless. “He started asking me for money, saying I was using the wall as an advert”. That sort of capitalizing spirit would be the downfall of many shops in the area.
But in the end, it was falling sales that took out Dub Vendor. “I saw how the market was going, so I started concentrating on the online world”. McGillivray also points to a demographic change associated with gentrification that started to spell trouble for the shop. The Caribbean community was slowly moving out of the area, as house prices soared. In that sense, perhaps landlords did play a hand. A new Congestion Charge discouraging customers from driving into the area was the final nail in the coffin. In 2008 when the shop reached the end of its lease, McGillivray opted to not renew the contract. “Things came to a natural end,” he says.
The Dub Vendor mural stayed, only to become a bone of contention. The council wanted to remove it but local residents launched a petition for it to remain intact. The residents eventually won. That is, until a newly tenanted pound shop unsentimentally whitewashed the lot. Today the same problem of graffiti and trash plagues that corner.
It wasn’t long before Portobello lost its conjoined record shops, Minus Zero and Stand Out Records. ”The internet is predominantly the enemy. I guess I’m not money-hungry. I put a description of why I like a record on the website, but I think people read it and go elsewhere to buy it,” Bill Forsyth prophetically told the Guardian in 2006. By 2010, other factors had come into play. “It was getting harder to get good stuff and a lot of our trading with overseas dealers disappeared,” Forsyth says. The Bills decided to call it a day.
Meanwhile, difficulties with the landowner undid Intoxica. Alain de la Mata remembers the painfully bizarre situation they faced trying to negotiate a rent increase. “They proposed one, we said yes. They proposed a second one, we said yes again.” When they came back with a third proposal, though, it involved an unlimited service charge. Baffled by the situation, they decided to read between the lines – “clearly they didn’t want us to renew the lease.” At least Mata can laugh about it now. “We could have been forced to rebuild the entire building every year!” So in 2012, Intoxica closed doors.
Facing a full frontal assault from the Internet, supply chains and landowners, record shops and stalls began to drop like dominoes. And not just in Notting Hill. A tide of closures hit Britain with over 90% of indies disappearing from the streets.
Despite the shifting landscape, four record shops in Notting Hill – Rough Trade, Honest Jon’s, People’s Sound and Music & Video Exchange – have bucked the trend, defying gentrification, rising rents and other beasts. With a scattering of vinyl stalls along Portobello Market, Notting Hill remains an important hub for record collectors and music lovers in London.
Like so many enterprises in the area, Music & Video Exchange began life as a Portobello stall in the late ‘60s before moving to its Notting Hill Gate home. Known as an emporium for bargain vinyl, Nigel House recalls an old, notably pre-Discogs shop system of marking down the price on records based on how long they’d been in the racks. “Some people would move a punk record into a classical section so if the clerk didn’t know what they were doing, they’d just mark it down. Then you’d go back and buy it for 50p.”
That system’s gone now but Music & Video is still popular. The business operates two further stores on Greenwich and Soho (the latter is temporarily closed), as well as retro clothing and book outlets in Notting Hill. Diversification has helped to balance risks.
A similar strategy has worked for Rough Trade West. Despite its indie rock reputation, Nigel House points to dance 12”s as an enduring source of success. “We were the first people in the country on Aphex Twin Digeridoo and then Selected Ambient Works 1 on R&S. It was outside our normal reach at that time, but those were the records got us into electronic and dance music.” Ever since, their customers have been from right across the board. Selling CDs has also served as a big revenue stream for the shop, especially when vinyl was dipping, but with the ‘revival’ pushing vinyl sales up, times are optimistic.
It also helps to be tied hugely successful indie label and a flourishing network of shops in East London, New York and now Nottingham. Having a world famous brand regularly draws in customers and often celebrities, which is always a bonus.
Nigel recalls Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban dropping in to the shop last year. At the time, Cyril, a toothless, Zimmer frame-assisted regular was in the shop too. “Nicole was listening to something on the headphones. Cyril came over, not knowing who she was, and said ‘Come on darling! Hurry up! I’ve got something to listen to.’” Kidman, tweeting about it afterwards, clearly enjoyed the episode, probably, as Nigel speculates, because she was treated like another human being and not a demigod. Authentic encounters are what make the shop special, he argues. But, he concedes, nothing is certain when you’re a bricks and mortar. “So much depends on your landlord. We’ve got a rent review coming up. Touch wood, it’ll be fine. Sometimes a bird in the hand, you know?” The shop has been on Talbot Road for thirty-five years so in that sense it can promise stability that another candle shop or a holistic dog spa perhaps can’t.
At Honest Jon’s, the venerable John Clare remains landlord, shielding the business from cutthroat rents. The shop has been able to focus on quietly serving the community. “We still never seem to make any money, but we certainly sell a lot of vinyl and we pay our bills,” Scholefield recently told Resident Advisor.
As one of the last standing reggae specialist shops in London (and indeed the UK), People’s Sound continues to draw in collectors far and wide. Again, a favourable relationship with his landowner has helped Daddy Vgo stay put. But he’s an anomaly on All Saints Road. “It’s almost comical how he stands out from what’s going on all around him.” Don Letts, scratching his natty dreadlocks, paints a picture of a street lined with bridal boutiques and high-end bathroom shops, a far cry from the Front Line. “People in this area must have some fucking nice bathrooms.”
All photos by Jamie Whitby, unless otherwise stated