Old New Posts – Bob’s Records circa 2009

It was whilst working on my latest OU assignment that I was overcome with a warm gooey feeling of nostalgia. I always listen to music whilst I work and the media player on my PC ‘shuffled’ Til I Die’ by the Beach Boys followed by Creature of Doom by The Only Ones, both albums (Surf’s Up/The Only Ones) I have carried through my various musical tastes and styles for nearly 30 years and both were recommendations from Bob of Bob’s Records.

Bob’s Records was/is (might still be there?) a stall in Milton Keynes Market. Milton Keynes a ‘concept’ new town mid way between London and Birmingham (ironically also home of the OU!) whose steel and mirrored shopping centre was the largest in Europe at the time (early 1980’s). However for some strange reason this symbol of ‘modernity’ had a ‘traditional’  British shopping experience of having a Market situated smack in the open atrium. British Markets are in my experience are a place where illegal activities become legitimized, where you can find incredible bargains that have accidently fallen of the back of lorries and the change (notes) you may get back in exchange require a closer inspection under ultra-violet light!

Now don’t get me wrong Bob’s Records was not so scrupulous, it was just a second-hand record shop situated on crates and trellis tables under a canvas canopy, a million miles from the trendy Chicago back street store portrayed in the film of the book High Fidelity. Like the book/film Bob use to champion ‘alternative’ music beyond the realms of the New Musical Express and enthuse about records of strange bands with strange covers from the past that were long deleted and only available second-hand. Bob looked like and probably was a hippie, not a million miles from the stereotype of Neil from the TV comedy of the time ‘The Young Ones’ and he had that acquired skill of making a roll-up of the Devil’s lettuce, whilst having a conversation and sifting through the packed boxes of records all at the same time. However despite appearances Bob loved all kinds of music and enthusiastically championed the weird and wonderful from all  genres in particular and despite appearances Bob was a huge Punk fan.

Like the aforementioned book/movie Bob would hold court over the customers (myself included) that drift through, however unlike High Fidelity; compiling  top five lists for every conceivable occasion, Bob would write a mini review/comment on a yellow label about the size of two side-by-side postage stamps the same labels he used to price the albums (always to the nearest 50p). The comments would range from ‘buy me’ to ‘interesting’ and so forth and they would entice you to part with your money knowing full well that if you did not like it you could bring it back no questions asked.

Bob’s best marketing ploy was some form of entrapment, because although he tried his best to categorize the thousands of albums, the reality was that you had to relentlessly go through every box, fruit crate, tea-chest and any other form of storage facility crammed under and above the warped trellis tables, squeezing past like-minded individuals who secretly cast an eye on your selection that you propped up at  a 45 degree angle like a diamond in the rough.

Bob was an encyclopedia of music and he knew the real market value of some of his albums.He was well known around the Record Fairs of the era usually held in various Town Halls or Leisure Centres around the country. I always remember picking up a pretty knackered copy of Younger than Yesterday by the Byrds and being amazed at its extortionate £6 price tag, “Rarer than rocking horse shit” Bob would say “…released the same day as Sgt.Pepper and totally bombed, shame about that 1000 times better too” ; already I was hooked and tempted to pass with my hard-earned cash. Elvis and the Costello’s  Armed Forces with the free E.P. which had a fantastic live version of Watching the Detectives was another purchase and so the lists go on…

Bob would stuff your parted cash into the pockets of his battered old German Army surplus overcoat and then he would carefully place the records in a Brown Paper Bag the exact size of an album with a small tear mark in the upper corner where he had ripped it from the ‘farmers friend’ orange twine twisted round one of the trellis table legs. The Brown Paper Bag had  its own unique wet cardboard type of smell, and despite its non-appearance actually added kudos and intrigue when you bustled pass the mainstream shoppers in the mirrored glass shopping centre.

So which records have survived as recommended by Bob onto my digital library, too many to blog about if the truth be told. I have already mentioned Surf’s Up by the Beach Boys, Bob’s yellow sticker would have said something like their best from the best. When I listen to the latest batch of Pitchfork recommended new music I hear the influence of Brian Wilson and whilst the popular consensus is that Pet Sounds and Smile are their best albums, and are both truly outstanding,  Surf’s Up with its fragmented approach and it’s attempt to shed their old image with some political awareness; although not perfect is an album I could never live without. Bob may have also commented on its iconic cover,  Bob liked good covers and would often comment on the cover art too, I will never forget his yellow stickers for Frank Zappa’s A Ship Saving a Drowning Witch “Fantastic cover not a great album”.

Another library favourite with an incredible ‘Western’ style cover is Happy Trials by The Quicksilver Messenger Service. Now this is a strange record as it is a part live recording, surprisingly the quality for 1968 is very good, and it contains a cover of  Bo Diddley’s  Who Do You Love spread out over 25 minutes! This is a difficult album to describe, subsequently I have listened to their other releases which are far more mainstream but somehow nowhere near as good as this, although probably more accessable, an eccentric release from the acid trip period, not quite sure if that is an accolade or not. However if there is one album to best sum up this period it has to be Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die by Country Joe and the Fish released in 1967, the year I was born. The little yellow sticker would have said “Mad but Brilliant” or something else along those lines for this album has everything, great pop-like tunes, psychedelic indulgence, alt.country and political commentary that put the group at the fore front of the anti-war movement. I am always amazed that it never appears in any of those best album ever polls that proliferate the older I get.

Moving on from the 60’s another album that despite its stellar line up of musicians including Ry Cooder and Nils Lofgren and its association with Neil Young who contributes as a songwriter, Crazy Horse by Crazy Horse seems to go unnoticed although Bob could not recommend this enough. It’s a true tour-de-force from this period with powerful songs that somehow seem more advanced than its 1971 release, it is a testimony that some of the songs from the album have been covered by well-known artists including Young himself over the years. It must be said that many of Bob’s recommendations are equally loved by critics, Astral Weeks, Forever Changes, Marquee Moon and of course Low to name but a few. These albums were often displayed in plastic covers pinned to the side canvas so you were never in doubt what the stall’s intention was as well as give some kind of structure and division to the Faux Leather Jacket stall next door.

As commented earlier despite Bob’s appearance he did not just recommend albums from a bygone hippie era, he was a great promoter of Punk and what’s now referred to as New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) although it was just plain old Heavy Metal in those days. He would enthuse greatly about Iron Maiden (not sure what happened to them!) and Diamond Head, a band whose history reads like a cross between  the movies Spinal Tap and Anvil, The Story of Anvil.  Bob would refer to Lightning to the Nations, “…as rare as a pair of Hens teeth” which would explain why I had a promo copy in a plain white sleeve without any reference on the record label bar one of Bob’s yellow stickers, for years I did not know which was the A side or the B side! Other great NWOBHM albums were Angel Witch by Angel Witch and Welcome to Hell by Venom, both these albums seemed a 1000 miles away from the Rainbow’s and Saxon’s,  with their intense speed, manic drumming and the ‘shed’ like recording quality ( now trendingly referred to as lo-fi) which only added to the appeal. Who would have thought it then that all three albums became the influence to the whole speed/thrash and black/death metal genres.

As for the punk era recommendations, there are plenty which still grace my digital library. There is the obvious Crossing the Red Sea by The Adverts, The Clash by The Clash , Magazine’s Real Life and Inflammable Material by Stiff Little Fingers etc… however the one album which has really stood the test of time is The Only Ones by The Only Ones. To some this is not strictly a punk album, lets face it the front cover looks like it was taken in one of their Mum’s front room and it opens with a saxophone solo! Released a full year after the punk explosion The Only Ones still had a pub rock sound which flirted with punk, however the songs refuse to date and this has to be one of my most played albums. The album had litle commercial success and until its re-release on the budget ‘Nice-Price’ I was convinced that Bob had all the original copies.

I will never forget listening to it for the first time and thinking what the hell!, it’s just not what you would expect and let’s be honest it took a few listens before like Bob I was well and truly hooked. However cannot leave the British Punk era without championing one of the most creative bands ever. Still going strong today Wire have never released a bad album and although Bob heralded Pink Flag as the greatest punk record ever, the subsequent Chairs Missing and 154 are equally if not better records as Wire matured away from the simple 2 minute structures of Pink Flag. Still Wire’s Pink Flag remains a groundbreaking a record as you will ever come across from a band very much at the heart of the punk movement.

Bob was a big fan of the American Punk scene too! If it were not for the likes of Bob I would not have been introduced to the hardcore sound of Black Flag, Husker Du and The Minutemen whose careers were as short as their songs despite leaving a legacy that bands with long careers can only dream about. However one band whose career and legacy from the States is as prevalent now as it was in the early 80’s is the Dead Kennedy’s. The covers of their albums and 12″ E.P’s were as hard hiting as their lyrics and Bob made every effort to make their hard to come by material available like some unclassified adult magazine.

And what of Bob of Bob’s Records I hear you ask, truth is I don’t know, but would love to find out and thank him for all the music I love and continue to listen to as recommended by Bob.

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The Bedford HA Van Tapes an Introduction

Thirty years ago I embarked on my very first job, and subsequent unintentional career in the Water Industry. Not realizing it at the time, it was the best job in the world!

The 12 month contract consisted of two parts, the first part was to sample every (600 plus) private Drinking Water boreholes in East Anglia, the second part was to sample all Bathing Waters along the East Anglia Coastline. For my one day Induction I was provided with a van, sampling equipment no one knew how to operate, a full set of Ordnance Survey Maps and 6 different bosses depending on which county I was working in. In other words left to my own devices.

The van was a Bedford HA, first registered in 1976 (P Reg) . With a manual 4 speed gearbox (5 if you include reverse), a staggering top speed of 55 mph either with a tail wind or the drag of an Articulated lorry on the A1. Other quirks were a fuel filter I had to Hoover every week to stop the shards of the rusting tank blocking it and a starter motor I had to whack with a rubber camping mallet to nudge into operation. The latter events always nearly happened at somewhere embarrassing, for example the one way Huntingdon High Street, or a traffic light inter-change in the middle of Ipswich during rush-hour. However, second to my very first car a 1972 Ford Escort Pop, I loved this van for all its eccentricities.

The sampling equipment I was given was unique, so unique in fact that I was the only one who knew, through trial and error, how to operate it. I was given a depth charger!, a Casella (ironically manufactured in Bedford) and an array of ropes, poles and tin cans. For my on-site laboratory equipment I was given a suction pump with filter set, a Nessleriser 2150 with stand, about 200 meters of different diameter hoses, a large tub of jubilee clips, a Beaufort meter and a set of waders with a coloured scale on the toe-cap! The hoses and jubilee clips were the most important equipment of all, as they were used to carry-out a number of repairs including repairing the split fuel line of the HA which left me stranded somewhere between Market Deeping and the North Sea one foggy November.

30 years ago H&S and PPE was a low-key affair, just as well really as there are enough stories to tell on operating a depth charger to fill a chapter in a life of RIDDOR’s. The depth charger was a steel tube approx 1 meter along that contained a steel ‘hooked’ bolt (so that it wouldn’t fire straight out of the housing) which in turn was connected to an electronic firing mechanism. Its use was to sample well’s and boreholes that were over 30 meters deep, it had a range of 100 meters (the length of the power line). In basic terms the power cable was hooked up to a caravan battery (which was a chore to carry across muddy fields) and when lowered into the water you would fire the bolt which in turn filled up the vacated space with the sample water, a measly 250ml at best (I required about 5000ml!).

The problem was it was extremely temperamental; when connecting to the battery source if would often fire without the trigger, on one occasion I left it upright with the bolt loaded and on connection it put a hole in the concrete paving and jumped 30 ft in the air! Often it would fire on the slightest, jerk or knock, however you did not find out until you lifted it (it weighed a few kilos on its own so you never noticed the difference if it contained sample water or not). However the Casella was just as unreliable, a co-linked pulley mechanism ( 2 ropes) freed an air valve when submerged sucking the water through the inlet valve, however the knack of releasing the toggles on the valves when submerged was more luck than science. At least you could hitch up a litre of sample water when it did work.

As I was expected to plan and execute the sampling programme, so long as I achieved the fag packet targets (this was a state job, after all) I was pretty much left to my own arrangements. The second part of the job was a monthly programme of bathing water sampling. Raybans were optional as I had to plan the 30 odd locations based on high tides and good weather. Believe it or not the on site tests included counting the bathers in a sq km, measure the wind speed and to wade out and collect samples. The waders had a light to dark scale on the toe caps to measure the visibility/turbidity. As this was the North Sea the chances of counting bathers and having clear sea water were low, just as well considering how far the tide goes out on the East Coast! However on the rare nice days I may have made the most of a long lunch break.

There was a lot of travelling and the local radio stations were ‘real life’ Alan Partridge, so it became necessary to wire the old HA for sound. Using a couple of old Amstrad speakers I connected a Walkman that was an unwanted Christmas present I bought of a friend. I then recorded a collection of records either bought second-hand from Bob’s Records or borrowed from friends and two of my new bosses Messrs Brimley and Reeves who recommended the likes of Costello, Dylan, Springsteen and Young amongst many to an impressionable 18-year-old brought up on a teenage musical diet of new wave and heavy metal.

The Walkman was state of the art for the time, it even played both sides thus negating an awkward eject and spin whilst driving. This also meant I could master the art of ‘splicing’ (not a term you hear often these days) so that there was a neat seg-way between albums. It’s with a warm glow of nostalgia that I reminisce these tapes or cassettes to give them their proper name, TDK D90 the most popular choice, recollecting great memories of a young free and single life! The music I still own today, gosh knows how many copies of Forever Changes I have owned over the years, although I am ashamed to admit that none of the tapes (which was illegal at the time, according to the inner sleeve liners) have survived, then again I don’t have a device to play them on anyway.

During the course of the next few days, weeks probably months I will share these tapes as best my memory will allow, if only for the excuse to play such great albums in full again, as intended, like the old days when the term shuffle referred to a pack of cards.