“Went Southampton. Went to Francis Records. GOT A NEW JOB!”
First, a little back history about the city of Southampton. Musically it has (somewhat sadly) proved to be something of a cultural wasteland. In 1975 the biggest musician to have emerged from within its boundaries was…. erm… Benny Hill. And that’s ‘musician’ in the broadest possible sense, and only on the basis of his 1971 number one single “Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)”
(As if to emphasise the point, since 1975 the only notable names Southampton can add to its musical roster are Coldplay’s drummer Will Champion and R&B singer Craig David)
So it’s perhaps no wonder that given this relative (at least to other provincial cities of its size) dearth of inbuilt creativity it was never very well blessed with record stores.
In 1975 the city boasted just three independent shops; Henry’s Records, Who Dat & Francis Records. There was also one chain store in the shape of HMV, plus a handful of department stores – like Edwin Jones, Owen Owens, Boots and Woolworths – all of which had areas dedicated to records, tapes, accessories and sheet music.
Henrys Records was – without question – THE big player in town. It’s reputation was second to none, and in 1975 it had already been a city institution for almost two decades. Henry Sansom, the son of a Welsh miner opened the store for less than £500 in 1956. It was located in the St Mary’s district of the city, an area which was ethnically diverse but which suffered from nearby problems such as prostitution and street crime.
In the early 70’s Sansom’s preference for opera and classical music was supplemented by the addition of John Clare to his staff. John was a die-hard ‘music man’ with an apparent encyclopaedic knowledge about pop music, and these attributes took the store to new heights. I think it’s fair to say Clare was – and remains – a legend in any Southampton record collector’s memory, certainly mine. (Both he and Henry himself stayed behind the counter until 1988 when, sadly, the shop finally gave up the ghost)
Perhaps peculiarly – given its reputation – I never actually purchased a lot of records from Henry’s. To be frank, the store – and the area it was located – always intimidated me a bit. Somewhat perversely I probably bought more LPs and singles there after I’d started working in the music business than I did before, mainly because once my ‘habit’ was on a roll they were able to get imports (Jamaican reggae mainly) I was unable to source even at my own places of employment!
Who Dat was the newest indie in town. I believe it opened in the early seventies. It traded above (as I remember) a trendy clothes store in Above Bar, almost opposite Southampton’s Watts Park. It was, for want of a better phrase, a ‘hippy shop’, hanging on to post-Woodstock, post-Vietnam ideals.
Alongside its record and tape offerings, it also sold stuff like beads, badges, silk scarves, perfumes and incense sticks, as well as magazines from the UK’s ‘underground press’ – such as The International Times, Ink and Gandalph’s Garden. I think Who Dat was the first place I ever saw bootleg records. I never bought any of them – mainly because the majority were live recordings (and, as regular EFA70sTRO will know, I have never been a fan of live albums) – but a proportion of my record purchases were made at Who Dat. Unless I am very much mistaken it was the store where I bought that ‘erotic’ Saturnalia picture disc album back in March 1973? It was certainly their kind of thing.
Which brings us neatly to Francis Records, my new employer in 1975 and my start in what was to become a lengthy career in the music industry.
I’ll be honest and say that back then I was initially unaware of Francis Records as any kind of a ‘record buying destination’. It was tucked away in Southampton’s Pound Tree Road (6a to be precise), off the main drag and not immediately identifiable from the street as a record shop.
My awareness of it stemmed from the fact that a college chum, Niles, got a part-time job there in November 1974. Needless to say I and many other friends then started popping in there to see him, browse the racks and make a few purchases. It was something of a ‘peculiar’ record shop… but more on that a little later.
Around Christmas time, Niles told me that the owner was looking for another Saturday person and suggested I should apply for the job. Which I did. Niles had also told another college friend, Derek, about the job and he applied too. Derek and I both had interviews on the same day.
In what transpired as a cruel twist, the owner offered both me AND Derek a job – which we both snapped up – before firing Niles! I’m not sure she realised we all knew one another or not, but it certainly created a certain level of awkwardness when we all convened at Barton Peveril the next day.
Francis Records started business in 1965 and was well-placed to take full advantage of the ‘Beatles era’ with everything else that came with it. It was a joint venture between a Mr & Mrs Francis and their middle-aged son, John. Mr Francis (Sr) died (I believe) sometime in the late 60’s. I should point out that Mrs Francis – who interviewed me for the job, and who ran the ‘pop’ side of the business, was well over 60 years old, maybe over 70? – so her enterprise was something she started quite late in her life!
The store itself was crammed in between a Ladbrokes bookmakers and (I think it was) a tiny ‘greasy joe’ cafe and was often hidden from the other side of the street by the sheer numbers of municipal buses stopping outside on the their way to various suburbs of the city. As I said, it did NOT look like a record store at all. A narrow shopfront revealed one small window and a glazed front door which, when you opened it led to two more doors – one to head upstairs and one which took you off to the left.
John Francis, the son, ran the classical department downstairs. Yes, the least fashionable music was in the prime location. I will probably talk about John in a later post because he showed great trust in me as 1975 panned out.
The pop department was up the narrow stairs where you had to cross a small hallway before you discovered the racks, staff and counter. The walls were a long-unpainted shade of cream, dotted with a handful of promotional posters. There was one long-abandoned listening booth (all the rage in the 60’s) surrounded by wooden handbuilt racks containing record sleeves – just the sleeves – lined up in various categories and (if memory serves me correctly) one or two poster racks whose ‘pages’ dominated the sunlight that streamed in through the vintage sash windows.
In those days many record shops – uncertain how to safely stock and sell (the newer-fangled) cassettes – stored them in flapping ‘page’ racks, each page featuring maybe a couple of dozen tapes and locked up to prevent any theft. I always remember that most cassettes bought from such a system back then almost always featured heavy scratch marks top & bottom, back & front where the framework had rubbed against it.
The counter took up the entirety of one of the longer walls and offered quite an inviting space to loiter and talk to the staff (one of which I was about to become!). The actual stock itself was stored in cardboard (what were known as ) “masterbags” in square wooden racks/cubicles behind the staff area whilst there was a set of smaller racks that housed extra cassettes and accessories.
Mrs Francis had her own office at the interior end of the counter, fully glazed so she could always be sure to see what was going on in the whole store. This was where she did all the company paperwork or where John would occasionally come upstairs and go into to smoke a cigarette. (No risk of lawsuits from ‘second-hand smoking’ back in 1975)
I know I’ll talk more about Francis Records in future posts. It’s difficult to describe just HOW excited I was by this opportunity back in 1975. What I think I can say is that I suddenly felt like the proverbial ‘kid in the candy store’.