We’re getting excited for the Vinyl Adventures record fair at Northwich Plaza next week, part of the mega CwNine Charlatans take over of the town which is starting from today. Sarah went digging about in her writing archives and pulled out this interview with Charlatans’ frontman Tim Burgess about his book Vinyl Adventures (which is great – you should read it), his love of records, running a record label (O Genesis – one of our faves) and his favourite spots for crate digging.
It’s only ever been published in print before – in issue 5 of Louder Than War magazine, available here. She spoke to Cabbage, The Julie Ruin and wrote about The Avalanches in the same issue plus it has Dinosaur Jr cover so it’s definitely worth a back order buy through that link.
Tim Burgess, front man of The Charlatans, solo artist, record label boss and writer, brought his first record in Northwich Woolworths. He was, he tells me, aged seven and that initial vinyl purchase was Long Haired Lover from Liverpool by ‘Little’ Jimmy Osmond.
It would begin a lifelong love of collecting records. Or, as he describes it in his new book ‘Vinyl Adventures From Istanbul to San Francisco’, the creation of his own musical DNA and a life defined not only by the records “he’s been involved in recording but every one I’ve ever loved, brought, fallen out of love with or that has soundtracked a particular chapter in my life.”
Knowing this makes the quest he set himself for his second book – to track down records recommended to him by people he admired or owned the music of – seem an obvious one. But after glowing reviews for his candid memoir of his life as a Charlatan, Telling Stories, and questions on Twitter about whether he’d be writing a follow up he announced that Tim Book Two would come, but with little real idea at the time what it would be about.
“I was asked by Penguin to write Telling Stories – that was pretty much everything that ever happened to me, up until the book came out. Kind of like a first album, all those years of stuff happening – then the second book / album is about a everything that’s happened since. That’s why some bands write songs about how difficult it is to get room service after 1am – when their first album was about unrequited love, the vanity of youth or whatever.
“A couple of people at Faber & Faber had read Telling Stories and they got in touch to say they’d be interested in working with me on another book but I didn’t want it to just be about my life from 2012 to 2015. There had to be an idea – maybe the band equivalent is a concept album – but this wasn’t going to be a ramble about a future where man is enslaved by giant insects and the struggles therein. Nope, this had to be something that I thought people might like to read – they say write about what you know so the list started with records and record shops and pretty much stopped there.
“I’ve always been a writer but songs are a lot more esoteric than a book – the discipline of telling a story is different in each. Missing details of a story in a song make it quite poetic but if you do that with a book it just makes it confusing.
“It’s easy to write words one after the other but I think the difficult part is making something that people would want to read. I hope I’ve managed that.”
He sent out texts, made phone calls, penned emails and posted handwritten notes to a list of people he looked up to, owned records by or had struck up friendship with in the course of his life in music. It started with Johnny Marr, Noel Fielding, and Paul Weller. The recommendations he received included those by Guided by Voices, Roxy Music and Husker Du alongside some more surprising choices, “Chris Carter’s Abba recommendation – I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that from one of Throbbing Gristle.”
A final recommendation came at the last minute, just as Tim thought he’d completed his quest by tracking down an album that had been on his list from the beginning – Fad Gadget’s ‘Fireside Favourites’ recommended by Daniel Miller.
“It was on my list from the start till the very end. I eventually tracked one down to South Record Shop in Southend – rather than getting shops to post them, it was about visiting them and spending time there.
“We’d just played a Charlatans gig in Liverpool so we set off at 5am, headed to Southend before playing at Brixton Academy that night.
“I thought Fad Gadget was the last record on the list but when we arrived at Brixton for the gig, there was a note from Mick Jones stuck to the mirror in the dressing room, he was checking he wasn’t too late with his recommendation, which was also included on the note.”
Mick’s recommendation was Willie Nelson’s ‘Stardust’ and it completed the 52 record quest that Burgess had set for himself. Upon finding a copy in Sounds of the Universe in Soho he reflected in the final chapter of his book that the album was, “a hybrid of standards written in the 1920s and ‘30s, recorded by a country legend and produced by a soul master – all recommended by a punk. Maybe that sums up the joy of collecting records more than anything else.”
The quest was as much about the journey, the stories of each record and the story of why they were being recommended, as much as the discovery of each copy.
“I have the box with all the records in and they all have their stories shining from them like an aura. But that’s the same with all records that come from a recommendation – it’s one of the elements of collecting records. You don’t really get that with an MP3.
“Each record was a bit of a road trip and meant finding shops I’d never been to before. Bob Stanley told me about a shop called The Record Detective Agency in Palmer’s Green and it made me think of a vinyl version of a Raymond Chandler novel.
“It was a beautiful day in London and I took my son with me. It had all the best elements of record shopping. The shop was from another age with everything piled high and a steady stream of folks looking for long forgotten about records.
“I discovered lots of new shops from writing the book. I’d not been record shopping in Istanbul before and some of the shops in the UK, I’d not even been to before. Some were newly opened which is a good sign but sadly a few have closed too. I love shops like Piccadilly Records and Rough Trade East but I found some real gems in Stockholm, Chicago and Cardiff too.”
This ‘state of the nation’ approach to record shops in a time of downloads was a key element to the road trip as Burgess wanted to spend time hearing the stories of those that own them. Vinyl sales may be reported to be at a 28 year high but trading as a record shop is as hard as ever, and Burgess wanted not only to show some love to the physical outlets for the physical format but see how they were finding ways to survive.
“There definitely had to be more to the book than just the ‘I got this record from a shop in Blackpool’. Bill Bryson does it really well when he’s describing a seaside town but manages to capture an element of social commentary and an understanding of the people who inhabit that world.
“I wanted to find out what it’s like to have a record shop in a time of downloads – many shops have had to incorporate a cafe or coffee shop in amongst the vinyl which not only means they survive but many of them are thriving.
“When I was first buying records, most towns had a shop that sold nothing but records but where I lived you could also buy records at Boots the Chemist and even Rumbelows, the TV hire shop.
“Every house had a turntable. Nowadays it’s a bit more of a specialist pastime but it’s heartening to see how many kids are buying vinyl.”
Vinyl might be Burgess’ format of choice but he’s not a purist or adverse to the benefits of technology and the new ways of making, sharing and consuming music that it brings.
“There’s room for all formats and I love how technology can work for us – I sent Lauren Laverne an MP3 of a song I’d finished recording, she texted back and asked if was OK if she played it on her show that started an hour later. I love the speed at which stuff like that can happen.
“I have lots of music on my computer but I love spending time in a shop and buying a record. I’m not so much of a purist that I’d criticise how others listen to music but I listen to music from CD to vinyl to a download or streaming – I even have some cassettes but they tend to not get played that often these days.”
From the format, to getting a glimpse of what makes people tick from the recommendations they give you, to the shops that sell them it seems obvious that the last stop on the tour should be the labels that produce the records he loves.
“For as long as I’ve been buying vinyl, I’ve always had a thing about labels.
“I didn’t really understand what they did but I knew The Ramones were on Sire, The Clash were on CBS and Crass had their own independent thing. I’d look at all the names in the independent chart and just got a real fascination with what they were and who was behind them.
“Then, along came Factory and I fell in love with what they did.
“The idea of a running a record label was in my mind from bring about 10-years-old. It was thirty years in the planning.”
But given the internet makes it so easy for artists to release and represent themselves – as well as texts to Lauren Laverne in the book cites the example of tweeting James Cordon leading to The Charlatans being booked for The Late Late Show – Burgess reflects on the place a label has in the current climate.
“I suppose it’s a bit like standing in the street and shouting to everyone how good you are – it’s sometimes less crazy if someone else was saying it for you.
“Bands are often distracted with gigs and generally being in a band – labels cover the stuff they might not be too keen on. Releasing something yourself compared to your record coming out on say Heavenly, is a world of difference.
“And it’s about connecting people to the outside world – John Kennedy at Radio X is a good ally of O Genesis so he usually plays the bands we record.
“And having my own label means I can release the soundtrack to Tim Book Two without relying on another label getting involved.”
The label now has an impressive catalogue with releases from classic bands including Membranes and Minny Pops to new artists such as Slowgun, Hatcham Social and Beds in Parks. Where does Tim find the bands and records he wants to release through the imprint?
“O Genesis has been involved in some mind-blowing records – maybe not everyone knows that yet.
“I get recommendations from friends and people I work with as well as artists I know. In the case of Ian Rankin and Professor Tim O’Brien, they are people who didn’t have much intention of putting out a record until we talked to them about the idea.
“Lots of bands send links too and I always have a listen although it’s impossible to send an answer to everyone.”
Alongside his own label he lists Factory as still being his favourite label but singling out a record from his collection is a little more difficult, “It changes each day but I love everything about ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ by New Order. From the sleeve design to every song.”
With a taste for writing long form and sharing his deep love of music will there be a third book from Burgess? Just like with Tim Book Two he has a title before he has a firm answer, “If there is it’ll be called One, Two, Another.”
Vinyl Adventures Record Fair is held on 18 and 19 May at the Plaza in Northwich as part of CwNine, a Charlatans curated festival across the town, across 10 days. Pop in and see us, and make sure you stop by and see Riding The Low play The Salty Dog, Northwich on Saturday 19 May 2018 too.
Want this interview in the original, beautiful, print? Issue 5 of Louder Than War Magazine is available here.
CwNine – the Charlatans multi-venue 10 day take over of the town – starts today. Check their website for latest happenings.