Contributor Michael Mand takes a wistful look at Jeanie Finlay’s music shop doc Sound It Out.
During my recent review of Michael Dowse’s hockey comedy Goon, I reflected on my youth in North East England and suggested that the local ice rink provided the city’s youth-cultural centrepiece. I was of course referring to those healthy beings who value such vulgar activities as ‘fun’ & the company of others; for the rest of us, there was Volume Records.
For the benefit of younger readers: in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, music was largely available in three formats – vinyl, cassette and the new technology of compact disc – but could be bought from a range of outlets. There were the obvious chain stores (Durham had not one, but two branches of Our Price), non-specialist shops such as Woolworth’s and, in my case, the local newsagent (which sold ex-jukebox singles at 50p a pop); meanwhile, for those who dared enter, there were independent record shops.
Volume was one of these shops; a small, dark and musty space, secreted down a narrow street and staffed by the largest array of cultural snobs north of the Royal Opera House. To enter was to brave the judgement of older, cooler men and confront a bewildering array of records, posters and flyers, a cacophony of unfamiliar noise and the stench of both ageing cardboard and bizarrely attired individuals. Friends of mine who worked there attest to the absurdly competitive and superior owner – think Comic Book Guy with a Wearside accent.*
“Barry, Dick and I have decided you can’t be a serious person if you own less than 500 records…”
Anyone who has read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity or watched Stephen Frears’ excellent film adaptation will be familiar with the type personified by Rob, who represents all of us downtrodden by the male compulsion to own, to collect, to hoard. There’s an anthropological study to be made of this phenomenon but, for now, Hornby must do, such is his bull’s-eye depiction of these once-hipsters trapped by their obsessions (Rob), geeky music-librarians struggling to socialise outside of their artificial, vinyl environment (Dick) and aggressive record-snobs who can only assess themselves (or others) via a personally approved musical pantheon (Barry).
This is a world in which everything and anything can be safely compartmentalised in All-Time Top Five lists, in-jokes and an obsession with obscure fact and arbitrary opinion. Jack Black’s ostensibly OTT performance will seem entirely natural to anyone who has encountered that type in a shadowy record shop or stained-carpet ROCK pub. The stereotype calcified in Hornby’s book – and its predecessor, the football crazy’s crazy football bible, Fever Pitch – along with the likes of Loaded magazine, reduced us chaps to the status of one-track minded monoliths in the 1990s. Despite this, I believe that there is an emotional richness to the male collector; a wish to surround himself with something meaningful, beautiful and to possess something he might one day leave behind.
“They’re as close to being mad as makes no difference…”
All of which makes it all the stranger that the melancholy yet uplifting documentary Sound It Out (recently released on DVD) should be so sympathetically directed by a lady, specifically Jeanie Finlay. Her film heads twenty miles south of Durham City, to run-down Stockton-upon-Tees, and focuses upon the only remaining independent record store in the town, the eponymous Sound It Out. The shop is run by a real-life ‘Rob’, Tom Butchart, who’s making vinyl’s last stand in an obscure part of the north. This is not a trendy London outlet, not a Rough Trade, or any Portobello Road boutique; the shop is a refuge and supplier to a range of troubled local souls, who look to Tom as a kind of guru.
Finlay is an unobtrusive presence, documenting the irregular comings and goings of the local refugees. There’s a formerly suicidal fan of anything subtitled ‘metal’ who credits the music he finds in Rob’s shop as his salvation; a pair of local hip hop wannabes, hoping that music might lift them out of the dead end of recession-hit Britain; a now successful London-based female singer-songwriter, back to her hometown for a shop-based show. There’s even room for the random characters from the pub opposite the shop, who occasionally appear to slur questions about songs they have cocked an ear at on the boozer juke. Each one is treated with complete, interested and non-patronising respect, and sometimes followed home by Finlay to their (usually) celibate flats, in order to further discuss this music thing.
Shane is my favourite; a balding, middle-aged, denim-jacketed yet eloquent oddball who encapsulates the power of the music that we addicts rely on like seatbelts. Shane has seen Status Quo live between 450 and 500 times, yet claims he is “not fanatical” (“there’s nothing like doing 6 solid nights of Quo, one after the other”); he lives alone and has never washed his patch-ridden Quo jacket. Growing up with a physical disability, Shane discovered what those of us with a social disability also identified at some point in our teens: music enables a form of internal, yet real conversation that can’t possibly be matched in the local park or ice rink. Finlay deftly reveals that, in his record collection, Shane has found the comfort he might otherwise have sought in the enriching career or relationship he’s been wrongly denied. As with the depressed metal fan, these are Morrissey’s literal “songs that saved your life”.
“I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films – these things matter…”
The near-anachronistic milieu evinced by Sound It Out got me thinking about how we consume music today. In my youth, the modern capacity to access music would have seemed a crazy sci-fi dream. Reduced to scouting for music in Volume-type stores or record fairs (my original vinyl copy of The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder cost me £4.50 from a church charity sale in Crewe), or to taping the Top Forty from a crackling Radio One, the idea that virtually every record ever made could be available at one’s fingertips would have appeared magical. However, even as I take advantage of technology in consuming music, I can’t help but feel that this ease of access in some ways devalues the music itself. MP3 players have traduced the role of the album – a cohesive whole which rewarded time spent with it – in favour of single tracks, shuffles and the downloading/deleting of unloved digital files. Gone also is the artwork, the craving for liner notes – for information. I own a much loved picture book which details in glorious colour every sleeve of every record released on the Factory label; such tactile pleasures don’t exist with the iPod.
Of course, the ability to download music, or find thousands of tracks on Spotify or YouTube, has wonderful benefits, opening up a whole world of sound from across the decades. However, this sea change in the way we consume music is sounding a death knell for the record collector’s Mecca: shops like Sound it Out.
“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music…?”
Tom seems more balanced and far happier than High Fidelity’s Rob, but is still a fanatic at heart . It’s easy to sense the desolation that will be felt if and when his one man crawl against the tide comes to an end; at one point, Tom explains that for him, records are “all about emotions & memories”. In many ways, Sound It Out also holds just these things for so many of his dwindling disciples.
As a piece of documentary film, Sound It Out has much in common with the music it celebrates. It is engrossing and heart warming, but it is also deeply sad and reveals many truths about the present in which we live which far transcend the obscure world of the independent record shop it enthusiastically profiles. Tom’s assistant, previously made redundant by a mainstream record outlet, expresses his fear that he may soon be out of a job again, and suddenly a film about a subset of people takes on a wider resonance, reflecting the changing times and providing an account of the decay of towns like Stockton, as businesses collapse and shops stand empty or are changed into bargain outlets.
On a recent return visit to Durham, I passed the narrow side street where Volume Records used to be. There, in its place, now hides a discount electrical goods store. In the ancient market place, even the likes of Our Price and Woolworths are now a Haagen Dazs ice cream outlet and a Tesco supermarket, standing incongruously amid the cobblestones. Around the statue teenagers, as ever, gather in groups, MP3 players in their pockets, headphones covering their ears.
Sound It Out is out now on DVD, released by Dogwoof. Extras include: filmmaker and cast interviews, Jeanie Finlay’s first short documentary film Love Takes and another music themed short docu by Tim Mattia – The Chapman Family is not a Cult. Also included are additional music videos and trailers.
*Though, to be fair, Volume’s Führer would be kind enough to gift certain of us outdated window displays, leading to the decoration of our sixth form common room with an entire wall of Teenage Fanclub album covers, a life size cardboard cut-out of the members of James and large posters hyping records by Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Therapy? and Cypress Hill.