Friday, 20 January 2012

The music stops

The day has suddenly become unutterably gloomy. I've just heard that Cob Records/Recordiau Cob in Bangor is closing down. This one place is where I became an adult, where I developed my tastes, where I felt accepted and welcome (and frequently laughed at).

In the heady days of Britpop, I arrived at university in 1993 with two cassette tapes (a Best of Vaughan Williams and R.E.M.'s Automatic for the People) played on a crappy white double-tape player from Argos - soon replaced by a rubbish 1970s record player from my parents' attic. Determined to become a hip young gunslinger, I put on the black leather biker's jacket a friend had abandoned in my room at school, bought some Doc Martens and headed down to Cob Records. I must have cut a pathetic figure.

Record shops those days weren't comfortable. Customer service was anathema. You crossed the threshold knowing that handing your choices over the counter was volunteering to be judged. It was terrifying and exciting. Cob was staffed by looming, burly men who thought nothing of teaming male pattern baldness with tie-dye t-shirts or Datblygu merchandise. They revelled in being the local arbiters of taste. They would take my purchases and make judgmental remarks about them to their colleagues - in Welsh for added alienation. I struck lucky with my very first choices: a Tindersticks 10" EP and a 10" Gorky's Zygotic Mynci album, Patio. The Tindersticks scored for being sophisticated, while the Gorky's album was local, in Welsh and unhinged - exactly what Cob's staff loved. The weird format also helped my credibility too. I still have them, lovingly looked after.

My first purchase: Tindersticks' cover of Townes Van Zandt's 'Sweet Kathleen' b/w E-Type Joe

The whole process was terrifying. Cob stocked CDs at the front for the yuppies, and a massive selection of vinyl records: wading through the dust floating in the limited daylight which pierced the murk to get to the vinyl earned you a few credibility points. Handwritten placards divided the soul from the indie from the Welsh-language from the metal from the rave. Learning which sections to avoid was a rite of passage, as was acquiring the manual handling skills which enabled you to nonchalantly flick through a rack of albums while avoiding cuts from the plastic sleeves. As I gradually became inducted into the cult, I'd learn to spot side-projects from bands I liked, or labels whose output I'd buy whether or not I'd heard of the individual band (Ankst, Too Pure, Bella Union, Fierce Panda, Sain, Secretly Canadian, Les Disques du Crepuscule, Sarah/Shinkansen, PIAS, Elefant, Chemikal Underground, Ché, Creeping Bent, Domino, Damaged Goods, Wiija and so many more). The secret references in band names and album titles became a hermeneutic code to which I'd been granted access. Slowly, mind you: I was a slave to the opinions of the NME, much to the scorn of Cob's staff.

But eventually, I became an object of kindly contempt rather than a sucker. They started to talk to me rather than wave my purchases around for the amusement of the cool kids. As my addiction grew, they'd show me the pre-release list every Thursday so I could order next week's new sounds. On Monday, I'd call in hopefully. On Tuesday, I'd get my hands on the loot, stuffed into Cob's distinctive yellow plastic bags, of which I still have a few lying around. Each 7", 10", picture disc or LP bore a little sticker with my name and the price - I reckon I spent £20,000 or more there over 7 years, but never a discount did I get, despite effectively putting their kids through college! Before long, the number of bags increased, and Alan, Owen and the others got bold: they decided that I needed educating, and started adding records they thought I should have - mostly comprising stuff they couldn't sell, or records by their own bands: Ectogram, Y Seirff / The Serpents and a whole range of krautrock/psych/hippy/drone experimentalist Welsh-language material. Through them, I discovered the limitations of Britpop and my tastes expanded to cover the past and the hidden corners of music: minor labels, the Celtic fringe, the underground. I started going to see their bands - one memorable gig at a horrible pub called The Barrels featured David Wrench (still a favourite) backed by various members of Gorky's, Super Furry Animals, Melys and Ectogram. The paying audience was: me. They still played - superbly - and David bought me a pint. For a 19 year-old geek, that was my equivalent of doing coke with Led Zeppelin in 1973, or sharing a burger with Elvis.

Cob Records is a scruffy place. The decor was old posters and peeling paint. There were no easy chairs, no coffee outlets, no pseudo-friendly recommendations. Going in there was a test, and I often failed. Just because you gave them money didn't buy you obsequiousness: they'd sell you this stuff but they made damn sure you understood what a load of shit it was - until you earned their respect, and then a whole new world opened up to you.

I moved to Wolverhampton to do a PhD. There was a big record shop - Mike Lloyd's - for at least the first six weeks. Then it became (and remains) the biggest KFC in the Midlands, as far as I know. Birmingham has Swordfish and Tempus, and used to have the wonderful Plastic Factory, but I only feel like a customer there - at Cob, I was a neophyte member of a small, spiky, odd cult, and I miss it. Whenever I go back to Bangor, I call in at Cob, and regress to that speechless rake-thin (I wish) teenage nerd. The guys behind the counter (it was a very geek-male place) grin and produce some unsold tat and I buy it without question. It feels like home. Friends joked that I kept that place going: they might have been right.

Without Cob and places like it, music becomes nothing more than a commodity, lacking range, depth and emotion, something to be consumed like fast food. From Cob I gained friends, an identity, taste, enthusiasm for the unknown and the alternative. They showed me new worlds in a way Amazon never can. More specifically, record shops generate and sustain local cultures, from which new bands and movements spring. Without Cob, the Welsh language scene which produced so many great bands would have struggled: Amazon doesn't care what's happening in North Wales, or King's Lynn or Macclesfield.

I'll miss their scorn, the dust, the smell, the time never wasted while searching for that new/old sound, the fading flyers for long-vanished bands, the mix of enthusiasm and weariness, the sense that selling music was about sharing a way of life rather than shifting units, the idea that music promised a set of emotions and experiences rather than a means to riches. Cob Records wasn't a shop. It was a culture.

Bye Cob. I'm sorry I left you.


Grumpy Bob said...

Well, always sad to see these kinds of shop close down.

When I began my undergraduate life, I used to frequent Phoenix Records on the Mile in Edinburgh. I never detected an attitude like that in Cob, but I swear all the LPs were arranged by record label rather than artist. But maybe that's a lifestyle-induced memory failure...

Adam said...

Magnificent post, I felt I was back in Bangor with you, I can still feel every jagged steel tooth of that biker jacket.

Ellesar said...

I noticed on Monday that there is still (or possibly again - I do not often go past) an independent record shop where I grew up in N London - the same shop that I went in regularly as a teenager 30 years ago.
I was struck by how they have surivived (not the same people, just the nature of the business), but then it is in a suburb where people have money and like to support local businesses.

Graham Quirk said...

Sad news. Thankfully, the one in Porthmadog lives on. I'm as guilty as anyone for not supporting record shops enough though. I really must visit it sometime soon.

Edinburgh Flats said...

Excellent blog entry