Tag Archives: Southampton

July 17th 1975

“Didn’t go to college – returned LPs to Virgin & got 6.89 credit” / “Disco – Got off with Lorna. Dedicated make me smile to Lorna + got virginia plain dedicated to me”

Virgin Records was the new major dealer in Southampton to satisfy my vinyl needs.

I wrote briefly before about how Richard Branson’s retail chain got its leg up to the High Streets of Britain (and later, the world), but its founding deserves further reportage.

Virgin Records & Tapes’ first opened in London’s Notting Hill Gate, run by Branson and his first business partner Nik Powell. Their first official store however was at the Tottenham Court Road end of London’s busy Oxford Street, initially above (I believe) a shoe shop. A while later they took over the ground floor. Here, and unlike most other record stores in 1971, the vibe was decidedly ‘laid back’, customers often crashing on the floor listening to albums and smoking substances both legal and illegal.

The first Virgin Records store in Notting Hill Gate

Branson decided to grow the chain after Post Office strikes threatened to take away his (primary) livelihood gained via the mail order business. He opened other stores in and handful towns and cities across the country. Few of them were in prime locations, Branson preferring to drive traffic to the stores rather than enjoy natural public footfall.

The response from the record buying public was pretty instant, the stores offering a breath of fresh air to people who had grown tired of the more staid HMV shops, places like Woolworths and the lack of choice in many independents. Virgin also specialised in imports, both cut-price (known as ‘cut-outs’) from America and titles which were not officially available in the UK.

Branson was also quick to take advantage of the removal of government-controlled ‘retail price maintenance’ which had kept the price of records and tapes artificially high since the sixties, discounting popular titles to create turnover whilst making most of his money from the stores’ depth of catalogue titles. It would be a record business model which many others – chains and independents alike – would emulate in succesive decades.

The Southampton Virgin store opened in what was a very much “off the beaten track” location at 16 Bargate Street, at one end of the town’s pedestrian precinct and hidden round an almost blind corner from that precinct. To make matters ‘worse’, it was situated across two floors linked by a very inhospitable and closed-in staircase.  The ground floor was given over exclusively to albums, whilst the much smaller upstairs was the singles/tapes/posters/accessories department. It was very narrow, the space between the racks little more than 7 or 8 feet. Indeed, the two floors combined probably totalled no more than maybe 1000 sq feet, a far cry from Branson’s later retail ventures.

I fell in love with its choice of albums almost immediately, attracted too by the fact that my old friend/adversary Neville (remember him?) had nabbed a part-time cashier’s job there and was able to pass on his generous staff discount of 20%. It was like red rag to a bull and I quickly went on a vinyl buying frenzy.

This store would eventually form an integral part of my post-college career – more on that later – and once again Neville would be involved in a way that was positive for me but unfortunate for him.

Today in 1975 it seems as if I had returned some unwanted – maybe faulty? – albums and received a credit note. (Virgin was once notorious for not wanting to give cash refunds to anyone, Branson’s policy was that once the money was in the business, it should somehow stay there)

I thought I would have a good picture or two of how the Southampton Virgin store looked in 1975, but research of my photo albums drew a blank… well, other than one of me stood outside it a few years later which I’d prefer to save for a future post.

Thanks to the ever-reliable Google “street view” application I can present a current-day pic of where the Virgin store was located. It looks very salbrious these days, despite being mere yards from two of Southampton’s main tourist attractions – the old walls and the West Quay shopping centre. The presence of all those steel shutters – the shop windows hidden behind them – certainly make the locale seem less than appealing.

In other news, it seems I got “lucky” at tonight’s disco, getting off with Lorna, with whom I subsequently enjoyed a short term fling. We were sorely mismatched and split up after just a few weeks. Her parents owned a fish & chip shop but I swear that wasn’t the main attraction.

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July 12th 1975

“Started at Dixons. Only sold a pair of headphones all day”

Dixons’ Southampton store was located at the (relatively) unfashionable end of the town’s High Street. But, despite being in competition with the likes of Comet or Rumbelows (not to mention the plethora of independent electronics retailers), it handled a lot of foot traffic and was very busy indeed.

The hi-fi department was at the rear of the store on a raised platform. I was put under the training and supervision of Dave H., an experienced Dixons’ employee and somewhat archetypal old school salesman who ‘hustled’ customers wherever he could.

I think that’s probably why I only sold a pair of headphones all day. Dave would either beat me to any customer who expressed even the vaguest interest in things or would happily steer my customers in his own direction whenever I didn’t have a clue (which was often) and had to ask him a question.

Also, unlike him, I was perhaps a little to ‘honest’ with my answers to customer enquiries. If they asked me if a particular amplifier or tuner was any good I would refer to my memory bank of ‘magazine reviews’ and tell them what I had read. Not always with a positive spin. That would often send potential buyers away to think again.

For all his public persona, Dave was actually an OK guy. Very friendly and very approachable when he was off the shop floor. We shared lots of long chats about the hi-fi industry whilst we had our tea breaks or lunches together, and he confided in me that he was hoping to get out of Dixons “very soon”.

He and a pal of his had started up a loudspeaker company and they had just started manufacturing top quality speakers which they planned to sell via ads in the specialist hi-fi magazines. I showed immediate interest in his plans and he promised that he would loan me a pair of the bookshelf models they built for my appraisal, a promise he kept just a week or so later.

So, anyway, my ‘career’ in the hi-fi industry had commenced. I’ll be honest and say whilst Dave was a decent enough supervisor and the pay was OK, the job was horrible. Apart from the short breaks I was on my feet all day long, and I felt very out of my depth in dealing ‘cold’ with customers and trying to talk knowledgeably about things I (admit I) had scant knowledge about. Plus I was forced (rather than out of personal choice) to wear a ‘shirt & tie’ outfit which made me feel uncomfortable, not least because the heat in that low-ceiled claustrophobic hi-fi department was often unbearable.

How long will Dixons hold my attention? You will have to wait and see where fate takes me next… to be honest it was something of an unexpected twist.

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June 28th 1975

“went round Southampton looking for a job – no luck”

1975 saw UK inflation running at a staggering 24.2%, the cost of petrol had risen an astonishing 70% since the start of the year, and interest rates were at a mind-boggling 11.25%

Unemployment was also at its highest levels since the 1930’s, topping the one million mark.

No wonder there were no part-time, even mere Saturday, jobs to be had!?!

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May 10th 1975

“Work. Bit Tired. Tom & Margaret came round in evening”

Obviously the excesses of the night before – whatever they were? – did not stop me from servicing the needs of Southampton’s record buying public.

It’s one of the things I hate about getting older. That inability to enjoy an entertaining late night out without suffering excessively the next morning. What causes that? Does the body’s metabolism just start rejecting everything? Feh!

My Mum & Dad were both 46 in 1975. They obviously didn’t have a problem with late nights… no doubt playing cards, drinking and carousing into the early hours.. am I jealous?

Yep.

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March 22nd 1975

“work”

…And lo, it came to pass that the record buying public of Southampton could once again breathe easier as the prodigal son returned to man the counter at Francis Records.

To guide them on the path of both righteousness and that groovy album by Tonto’s Expanding Headband.

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January 6th 1975

“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 friend Neville (above) later found fame, thankfully not as a male model, but as Al ("Year of the Cat") Stewart's official biographer. He would thank me for telling you that you can buy a copy on Amazon.

My awareness of it stemmed from the fact that my college chum, Neville, 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, Neville told me that the owner was looking for another Saturday person and suggested I should apply for the job. Which I did. Neville 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 Neville! 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 design of poster racks - with those big flappy 'pages' really hasn't changed much in 35 years!

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’.  

There are NO online references to "Francis Records" anywhere (at least before this one), nor do I have - or does there seems to exist - any photos of it either. But thanks to Google's streetview I can show you what the property looks like now. Yes, ugly as sin. Looking completely different, that "First" shop - hidden behind what seems to be a hideous onstreet public toilet? - was the premises for Francis Records

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December 31st 1973

“Went to Southampton with Nig – bought a pair of Trousers”

Flares? Baggies? Cargo pants? Jodhpurs? Loon pants? Bellbottoms? Jeans? Culottes? Turn-ups? Patch-pocket?

What did I buy?

Why must my memory be such a breech?

(See what I did – badly – there?)

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