Many Happy Returns

The Hound is please to present some more metaphorical memories from our resident philosopher Wayne Shevlin.

Many Happy Returns

I may not know much, but I know what I like. And – like most people – I only like what I know. But, how do we discover, and thus get to know the music we like?

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Along the many roads of the music industry I have travelled, I spent quite a few years working in what became one of NYC’s largest record and audio equipment stores – let’s call it R&J Music Universe.  When I joined, R&J was a small hi-fi store. The record department was in the basement  with another small basement around the corner serving as the warehouse, which is where I worked.  One day J, the manager, approached me with a “new job opportunity”.   Record returns.  The Returns Authorisation or RA Manager – as I decided to refer to myself – is essentially the garbage man of the record business.  RA was not exactly the most glamorous of music biz jobs and one that endeared you to absolutely no one – particularly the record salesman who avoided you like the vampire you were, since whatever you returned was deducted from his commission.

HMV Oxford Street late 1950's

HMV Oxford Street late 1950’s

My introduction to this glorious career consisted of being escorted to a small room behind the sales counter from which spilled (literally) many thousands of allegedly defective phonograph records. I say allegedly because most were not actually defective.  They had been returned as defective by customers dissatisfied with the music who hoped to exchange them for something else.  Such devious tactics would only lead to disappointment, since R&J policy was “exchange for same only“.  These many thousands of DFs – as we called them in the RA trade – were the legacy of the previous RA man having quit many months earlier without anyone noticing or bothering to replace him.  How they didn’t notice the tide of records sloshing out of that room I’ll never know but it was now my job to clean up the mess.

RA was not a mentally demanding job and, on the face of it, promised to be stupefyingly tedious.  It consisted of sorting, listing, packing and shipping the thousands of DF records.  Sorting was by distributor, then by label and finally by catalogue number.  Once sorted, you counted the records and filled in the quantity for each catalogue number on the appropriate form – assuming there was a form.  The big league companies like WEA, CBS and EMI had forms, but smaller “labels” – particularly jazz and disco – were frequently one-man-bands who showed up in a van, dropped off a box of records and were paid in cash.  They didn’t have forms.  But that didn’t matter since many were never seen again anyway, and thus there was no one to return the DFs to – with or without a form.  If the miserable wretch did appear again – because he had a new record – the technique was for me to ambush him just as he was about to be paid, dump the DFs on him and deduct the value from the cash he received.  You can see why the RA man was feared and loathed.

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But for the big league labels the process was more mundane.  Having sorted and listed the DFs to be returned, you boxed them up, organised a freight pickup, loaded the truck and had them shipped across the country, back to whence they came.  Eventually a credit note would arrive.  Ultimately, I developed a system (a prelude to my current career) to efficiently organise the overall process.

Working in that initial cramped havoc was almost impossible as there was no room to stand let alone sort, or list, or box.  Nonetheless, eventually I did finally clear out that room.  But suddenly, R&J acquired a much larger building – previously an archive – providing vast amounts of space not only for the store, but the warehouse and even the humble RA man.  And it was here that I suddenly found myself in a huge room, all by myself, with rack upon rack of every conceivable record, a job that required practically no mental input and a kick-ass stereo. Well, what would you do with that?

I’ll tell you what I did. I listened. I did my mindless job and I listened to everything. Every conceivable record imaginable: classical, jazz, rock, metal, pop, folk, avant-guard, OPERA…even disco… A veritable cornucopia: the popular, the obscure, the ephemeral, the degenerate, the unpalatable, the weird. It was here that I conquered my Pink Floyd phobia and made friends with Wish You Were Here, floated on the transcendental audio-yoga of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, studied the techniques of the pro pop writers like Carol King and Billy Joel,  was flabbergasted by the Temple City Kazoo Orchestra’s version of Whole Lotta Love (you have to hear it to believe it),  bopped with Coltrane, swang with Sinatra, looked sharp with Joe Jackson, punked, proged, baroque n’ rolled and eventually even discovered that some disco didn’t suck (there, I said it).

It was there, in R&J’s RA room that I disposed of my musical bigotry, preconceptions and attitude and truly understood what Miles Davis meant when he said “it’s either good or bad, the rest is just style” – though I can find no evidence that Miles Davis actually ever said that.  In any event, if he didn’t say it, I think he should have said it, and anyhow, I’m saying it and it was in that RA room that I learned it:  how to appreciate the inherent quality of a piece of music even if I didn’t like the style.  Even disco.

Most people discover music through radio, TV, friends & family or perhaps a chance hearing in a shop or club. These media channels enforce musical myopia since so much of what is offered has been filtered and targeted based on taste or a commercial agenda with a predetermined bias toward a particular listening audience.  How unfair.  How limiting.  What made my RA wall so special was that the only criteria for what was available there was that it was reasonably current and someone had bought it and either liked it enough to require an unblemished copy or really didn’t like it enough to try and exchange it for something else.

If everyone were presented with such a wall of music:  with strange sleeves beckoning you to discover what lies within, with plenty of time to explore, experiment and take chances and listen, free from prejudices and attitudes, without an agenda – how much broader would most people’s taste be? Quite a bit broader, I suspect.  Perhaps the internet will provide a virtual RA wall where people can easily discover more of what they like.  But the key to my RA wall was not just that it had a diverse variety of records, but that my job required me to make contact with each one – since they had to be sorted, listed and counted.   Musical discovery was made almost unavoidable.  And I got paid while doing it.

Decca Studio

Decca Studio

The DFs I listened to were all records people actually bought.  But there were also records that weren’t bought.  These were called overstock, and I was responsible for those too.  Overstock reflects a side of the record business where cynicism, greed, stupidity and failure meet in the place where taste and money collide.  But that story is for another day.

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