Book of the Week: A Fabulous Creation

25 Mar|David Hepworth

Music journalist David Hepworth‘s new book celebrates the age of the LP, from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to Thriller. In the extract below, he describes life in London as a long-haired, record-loving “head”. 

It was still possible for heads to live a low-budget life in London in 1970. Although student numbers were rising steeply as the baby boomers left school, higher education was still only available to 8 per cent of the population (today it nudges 50 per cent). This comparatively privileged group had their education financed by a grant from their local authority, money from their parents if they were lucky, and whatever they had managed to save from a holiday job, which usually involved some form of hard physical labour. With a loaf of bread costing 5p (or one shilling – this was the last year of pounds, shillings and pence), a packet of Embassy cigarettes 20p and a Wimpy hamburger 10p, most of their daily requirements could be covered easily. In many respects the world seemed as economically stable as it had done in the fifties. But 1970 was one year before the decision to take America off the gold standard and the subsequent rise in the price of oil ushered in an era when inflation became endemic. In 1960 the rate of inflation had been 1 per cent. By 1975 it was running at 25 per cent.

In 1970, heads sharing a flat in central London would expect to pay around £7 each per week. If they were prepared to settle for cheaper areas like Muswell Hill and Finsbury Park Time Out’s Book of London predicted they could get a three-room flat for £15. Most of their entertainment was cheap. If they had gone to see Five Easy Pieces, which opened in London at the end of September, they might have paid 30p for their cinema seat. Most of the pleasures and diversions London offered to the tourist were too expensive for heads. They didn’t eat out. They never took a taxi. The Time Out Guide to Alternative London advised that if you had difficulty getting back to the suburbs after a night at Middle Earth you could hitch a lift on one of the lorries leaving Fleet Street in the early hours to deliver the morning papers to the distributors. Credit cards were strictly for the adult world. Banks didn’t open at weekends. When they were open they made it clear that they disapproved of anyone taking out any money. Anyone with as much as five pounds on their person was bent on some sort of blow-out.

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In 1970 the business that would eventually cater to the leisure needs of this growing tribe of undergraduate baby boomers was just being born. It was still a sub-culture, albeit for a few entrepreneurs who were particularly fast on their feet it was already proving a cash-generative business. Often it happened by accident. Richard Branson was a former public schoolboy who failed to make his fortune publishing a magazine aimed at students but on the way discovered that the readers would buy LPs on mail order through its pages. Although he and his partner Nik Powell had very little interest in music (Branson didn’t even own a record player) they were excited by the idea of capitalizing on this market. Thus they began Virgin mail order, selling records that were often difficult to find in Britain’s faraway towns and at a discount on the price you would pay in a high-street chain. This did well enough for them to open their first shop, in Notting Hill in 1969. By the following year they had opened another above a shoe shop in Oxford Street.

Steve Lewis, a teenage record fan who was originally brought in to tell the founders things they didn’t know, such as what company the Beatles recorded for, remembers what made that Oxford Street shop such a revolutionary outlet at the time. ‘I’d grown up in Hendon, north London, and I used to go to a record shop where the bloke behind the counter would just glower at me. My ambition was to have a shop that wasn’t like that. The Virgin shop on Oxford Street had a load of floor cushions placed round a pole from which ran different pairs of headphones. People would ask to hear a record at the counter, I’d put it on and then refer them to a particular pair of headphones. Then they would lie on the cushion and listen. At the end of side one they’d ask for it to be turned over and we would. We didn’t really care if they were there all day, so long as they were the right kind of people. I’m not proud when I think about it now but if people came up and asked if they could order a Perry Como record I would say no, just because I didn’t want those kind of people in the shop. I wanted people who wanted the new Bob Weir album.’

There were two reasons visitors to London might seek out this new shop, which they might have read about in the underground press or the recently launched listings magazine Time Out. The first was they knew it was the place they could find records that would be hard to find in their local high street. But the even more powerful pull of the place was its attraction as somewhere to hang out, to overhear conversations between heads who may even have been slightly more in the know than you were (…) to browse, to flick, to sort, to simply be near records. In the days when the majority of retail environments were more utilitarian than seductive the new breed of record shop represented by Virgin aspired to the condition of some sort of church.

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Extract from A Fabulous Creation: How the LP Saved our Lives by David Hepworth (Bantam Press, £20).