Happy Birthday - Fond Memories of Working at HMV
Graham Jones has spent 32 years travelling the UK selling to independent record shops. He has, we believe, visited more record shops than any other human. He is the author of 'Last Shop Standing' which was made into a film featuring Paul Weller, Johnny Marr and lots of record shops, as well as 'Strange Requests and Comic Tales From Record Shops' and 'The Vinyl Revival and the Shops That Made it Happen'.
On the 20th July 2021, the legendary British retailer HMV celebrated its 100th Birthday. To mark the occasion, Graham Jones offers some fond memories of working in the store.
Working at HMV in the 80’s did not feel like a proper job and each morning I could not wait to start. Although the manager worked us very hard I enjoyed every second of it as we made a big effort to lift our store up the HMV league table. I loved working on the counter and soon built-up good relationships with lots of the regular customers.
This was in the days when CDs had just come out. I lost count of the number of customers who brought back CDs because they could not play them on their record player. The music industry had marketed CDs so that many people believed that you could eat your dinner off them and they would still be playable. This was a blatant untruth.
One day, a chap came into the store demanding a refund. He had bought a CD and decided to show his mate that you could do anything to it and it would still play. He had stood on his and skated it around his carpet before attempting to play it. Needless to say the disc did not play. He told me this tale and then expected a full refund but, of course, he left empty-handed.
One lady brought back a CD single by Kenny the Kangaroo, complaining that it jumped. “What did she expect?” we asked. “That’s what Kangaroos do!” The humour was lost on her and she demanded a refund. Often you had to be a bit of a detective. People would come in and ask for “that song off the radio”, and then look surprised that you required more clues. “Well, it’s a woman” they would say and that normally improved my chances of success by 50 per cent. I recall a lady who asked for “The Jogging Song” and, after numerous guesses, I realised it was ‘Running Up The Hill’ by Kate Bush.
Working at HMV you came across many celebrities. I will never forget the day Cilla Black did a personal appearance. The rep for the record company had arranged it with Dave, the assistant manager, who then completely forgot about it. He also forgot to mention it to any other member of staff.
On the morning of the personal appearance the rep phoned up to speak with Dave to finalise Cilla’s appearance. Dave did not let on that we hadn’t promoted it and the rep was left with the impression that an army of fans would greet Cilla. In a mad panic Dave informed us, and we hastily scribbled on a white sheet of paper “Here today, signing copies of her new album at 12pm – Cilla Black”, and put it in the shop window. It was now 11am, so we had an hour to promote her visit.
When Cilla arrived, she was plonked next to me on the counter to sign albums for the army of fans who had gathered. The army of fans turned out to be two old ladies and Mr Adelphi, whose second home was HMV. He was never out of the store. He was in his late 50s and had worked at the famous Adelphi Hotel as a bellboy for years. He was delighted to meet Cilla, and I laughed to myself as he engaged her in conversation about his hero, Cliff Richard. Luckily, Cilla had stories to tell about Cliff, and it temporarily kept her mind off the complete absence of a crowd.
My feeble attempts at humour did not go down well with Cilla as I said, “Surprise, Surprise, I bet you would have thought more people would have turned up.” She looked at me with a face like thunder – she was not turning out to be a lorra lorra laughs.
I could see the rep from the record company was embarrassed for Cilla but luckily, Dave had a cunning plan. Suddenly six young people came to the counter all holding copies of Cilla’s album. I recognised every one of them as HMV staff who worked in the stockroom. Cilla was pleased to sign the albums and have a chat, even though I think a couple of our YTS trainees probably had no idea who she was. Whilst this was going on I noticed Dave sneaking out of the store clutching a batch of albums. Just as Cilla was signing the last of the albums another group of youngsters suddenly turned up. Again, I recognised them. They were the staff from Burger King, which was next to HMV, and two of them hadn’t bothered to change out of their uniform. They were soon followed by yet another bunch of youngsters brandishing Cilla albums and this time it was the staff of TopShop, HMV’s other neighbours.
By the time she had finished I am sure Cilla had a completely distorted view of what her fanbase was, and she was no doubt convinced that she was appealing to a young audience and Burger King employees.
This PA caused endless headaches, as Dave as had given money to everybody to purchase Cilla’s album and then had to get them all to bring the albums back so he could do a refund. The rep had sold us Cilla’s album on sale or return for the PA, so after her appearance we sent them all back. However, the record company refused to credit us, saying they were damaged stock, as there was writing all over them. Sure enough there was, but it was Cilla’s autograph and she had written things like, “To John lorra lorra love Cilla xx”. We put the albums in our sale at 50p as damaged stock.
Another embarrassing incident occurred when a man approached the counter clutching a batch of CDs and I immediately recognised him as somebody I knew but could not quite remember how I knew him. I soon convinced myself that he was somebody I had played football against and this was our conversation.
Me: “Hi mate, how is it going?”
“Are you still playing?”
“Yes, I’m playing tonight.”
“Is it under floodlights?”
“No, at the Royal Court Theatre.”
At that moment I looked at his credit card, which said Declan McManus, and the penny dropped. It was Elvis Costello, and I had not recognised him as he was using contact lenses rather than wearing his trademark glasses. My face was crimson! I couldn’t believe I had asked him if he was still playing.
Even more embarrassing was the day I persuaded Billy Bragg to do a personal appearance. Although I had seen him live a few times, he was still unknown, as he had yet to have anything released. I noticed he was supporting a Liverpool band called the Icicle Works and was also releasing a mini-album titled Life’s A Riot. I felt that as he was going to be in town it would help sales if he came in and signed copies of his LP. I gave Billy a call but he did not think it would be a good idea, so, using my persuasive powers, I convinced him it would be a success. I would put a poster up and play his album constantly to attract interest. Billy came in on a Saturday afternoon. He turned up and stood by me at the counter whilst his album blasted out but, unfortunately, Billy was correct; nobody was interested in his album.
He stood there for half an hour whilst the customers of HMV Liverpool mistook him for a shop assistant, asking him where the Genesis section was, or if we stocked classical? Billy took the embarrassment well and laughed about the situation. Just as he was about to leave, a young lad came bounding up to the counter and said to Billy “Hey mate – what’s this playing?” I breathed a sigh of relief – at last, a fan. Billy replied “It’s the brand new album from Billy Bragg called Life’s A Riot, would you like a copy? “F*** off”, he replied, “it’s the biggest pile of shite I’ve ever heard”, and with that he left the shop, leaving us stunned, though seconds later we both burst out laughing.
The full story of my time working at HMV can be found in the book ‘Last Shop Standing’.
For my current book ‘The Vinyl Revival and the Shops That Made it Happen’ which includes the full story of HMV I was grateful to a former work colleague and respected music journalist, Cliff White who contributed this piece for me. It describes his time working at HMV during the Swinging Sixties. A wonderful man, Cliff, sadly, passed away in January 2018. As you will see his memories of HMV in a bygone era are fascinating.
I am happy to offer a few off-the-cuff memories of my time working at the original HMV record store - 363 Oxford Street, London - from mid-1964 to some brain-swiped day in early 1968. Once employed there I was ever-ready to recommend my music preferences to customers but selling the hottest wax was the name of the game: across the spectrum service with a smile.
Among those I served were Vera Lynn, Del Shannon, The Who (in full Union Jack regalia - them, not me), Jimi Hendrix and Kim Fowley who pranced around the department shouting, “Freak Out!” Jimi came in to buy blues and soul records and I insisted he include Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “The Whammy” amongst his purchases - which may account for his subsequent career.
During my tenure with HMV it was owned by EMI who began experimenting with a self-service department and started acquiring other record shops to convert into suburban and regional HMV outlets. When I was first employed it was still the sole flagship, managed by the rotund figure of Mr Robert (Bob) Boast, who had reputedly joined the store before the Second World War. All staff were issued with uniform jackets or blouses and obliged to address each other as Mr., Miss or Mrs.
Song publishers Ardmore & Beechwood occupied the top floor of the building. This was a bonus as they’d occasionally offload boxes of American 45s they’d been sent for review. It was important to get wind of this bonanza in advance to be first at the trough for the freebies. There were usually obscure soul gems among the discarded discs.
Adjacent to them, was a small recording studio where engineer Jim Foy taped Cliff Richard, the Beatles and others recording messages of gush for their fan clubs. I believe other artists recorded demos in this little-known hidey-hole. History tells that after the Beatles had been rejected by Decca it was Jim Foy who recommended Brian Epstein to Ardmore & Beechwood who then sent him on to George Martin at EMI - so the mop tops’ success was all Jim’s fault, folks.
Cosmopolitan Corner, specialising in what is now termed “world music”, was tucked away on the mezzanine. Ground floor was the classical department. “Pop” music (including folk, jazz, blues, soul, easy listening, etc.) was consigned to the basement.
It was a lively basement, descended upon each lunchtime and end of working day by hordes of young persons asking to be played the latest hits in the open sound booths around the walls. We also had a couple of enclosed listening rooms for the more “serious” customers, who tended to drop in during the afternoon lull. Bribing me with a lunch, The Who’s manager Kit Lambert used one of the listening rooms to promote an acetate of “I Can’t Explain” to likely takers. Apparently, he didn’t have an office at the time.
The stockroom extended under Oxford Street, where in quiet moments one could lift a hatch in the floor to watch thousands of cockroaches scuttling from the sudden light, presumably back down to the Central Line that rumbled below.
Pop sales staff were corralled in a large enclosure in the middle of the basement, surrounded by a ring of browser boxes full of empty record sleeves - the 45s had hand-written cardboard inserts. The discs themselves were filed on our side of the fence, where we also had record playing turntables for all the listening booths. It was then the store’s policy to stock at least one copy of every UK record release still in catalogue. As the record companies didn’t delete their products, particularly LPs, as rapidly as they might cast them aside today, we were the custodians of an impressive library of vinyl, some items dating back to, ooh, when I was a lad.
Circa 1966 HMV opened its first self-service department (where the discs were now in the sleeves in the browser bins) and bought a shop in the Edgware Road to be run on the same principal. Our in-house prototype, by the main entrance on the ground floor, was of immediate benefit to a trader who had a record stall just off Cambridge Circus at the junction of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. He’d come in, select an armful of albums of his choice, and then sprint off with them along Oxford Street. Our security guard, an elderly ex-war sergeant with a gammy leg, was thwarted every time. I believe the arrangements were eventually tightened up.
Being part of the team revamping purchased shops could be interesting. We’d go in and log all the existing stock for removal; builders would follow us to convert the premises into an HMV; we’d go back in to restock the new store. I clearly remember one shop in North London that had been harbouring a stockroom full of unsold LPs and 45s, piled high in dusty boxes. I picked the sellotape off the first box I came to: Jeez, 25 mint copies of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. Unfortunately, I was only a poorly paid salesman otherwise I’d have bought the entire contents of the room. Never did know what happened to all that old stock, although I suspect a couple of copies of Mr Vincent’s single inadvertently fell into my knapsack.
Towards the end of my days at HMV I had been promoted to the dizzy rank of Assistant Manager of the Pop department and was earmarked to manage one of the growing number of branch stores. At the same time, I had been initiated into the mysteries of marijuana by a summer-break temping university student and to LSD by a young temptress in Bayswater. No contest: I tuned in, turned on and dropped out.
Cliff White (1945-2018)
It is a fantastic achievement for any retailer to last 100 years and HMV is the ‘Last Music Chain Standing ‘I feel that HMV should be more loved than it is. The pleasure HMV has given us for 100 years is such that it should be held in the same regard as HP sauce, Heinz baked beans, Marks & Spencer and the Mini Cooper. We should cherish the brand and recognise the joy it has brought to millions of music fans.
Happy birthday HMV and long may you prosper.
Image Credit for the shot of HMV on Oxford Street goes to Alex Liivet and it is used under CC License.