Saturday, 17 November 2012

Sound It Out (BBC 4 record shop documentary)

I commend unto you Sound It Out, a documentary about an independent record shop in Teesside. It was broadcast on BBC 4 yesterday, and will be repeated on Monday, and available on BBC iplayer here for the next six days. Nothing earth-shattering about it, really, just a warm and sympathetic look at the owner, the assistants, and a handful of the customers, but that's a plenty for me - and, it seems, many others.

It was a film made up of great moments, so kudos to editor Barbara Zosel as well as film maker Jeanie Finlay. The bit that really hit home with me, for reasons which I needn't go into here, was the slight hint of tension between the owner and one of the assistants, formerly employed by the defunct Zavvi. He was creating order outfront and you could tell the owner wasn't entirely sure this was an unmixed blessing, much as he might have needed the help.

There were also appearances by a couple in their sixties, of a type familiar to me from two years of working weekends in an off license in the Parkhead area of Glasgow, who gave a pleasing and tender performance - by which I mean they were enjoying the camera's attention, and why not?  A sample exchange:
She: Is it forty six year?
He: Thereabouts.
She: I could've done a life sentence and been free.
But he treated her to three Meat Loaf albums anyway. If that isn't love ... And there was also a hint of black humour as he talked of buying a burial plot and preparing for his Endless Sleep, which balanced his flirtatious banter with the off-camera Ms Finlay.

Otherwise it was males in their twenties or thirties, I would guess, all finding escape - as was spelt out at the end - both through the experience of being in the record shop, browsing and being guided by the advice of the trustworthy and knowledgeable owner, and in going home and listening to the goodies they had bought.

At one point the owner was referred to as a guide, and then as a pusher - but you were left in no doubt that this sort of obsessive, addictive occupation was at least less harmful than some other routes to oblivion. One younger interviewee said that everyone around the poverty-ridden area - charity shops and pound shops abound - drank, and it was easy to get into trouble. At one time, the owner told us, it used to be boasted that the area had the widest high street in Europe "but they don't play on that anymore."

 When we saw selected punters at home, singing along to their music, it would have been easy to present those moments with a dash of mockery, but by that time you had been taken into their lives deeply enough to understand: the heavy metal fan for whom music really was a lifeline; the Quo fan with various medical conditions quietly singing along to Caroline - and, in both cases, the unconscious air guitar, not held aloft but played, it seemed, for themselves, the externalisation of their pleasure in listening and reliving memories.

There were some vaguely arty shots which justified their presence: an image of wires emanating from a telegraph pole gave way to a shot of the grooves on a LP as it rotated, which was enough to make the point that music reaches out and touches, and indirectly connects, individuals.

The focus was as much on the punters as the owner, but there is no doubt that the latter was, quietly, the star: again and again the customers praised his knowledge and the atmosphere of the shop. There was something paternal in his attitude to the customers: when the oldster left the shop after some new witticism or another bout of flirtation with the film maker - "Love ya, Baby," he said at one point, blowing a kiss then shutting the door with immense care, rather undoing the playboy image - there may have been a hint of amusement, but it seemed fond.

And when, on Record Store Day, they had bands in the tiny space and one lead singer, in lieu of a cherrypicker, stomped up and down on the counter, the owner's reaction remained good-humoured: whatever he felt about the quality of the music assailing his ears at that moment, he must have known he was observing a right and fitting way for an aspiring rock star to behave.

I just hope the owner manages to keep that assistant with the zeal for tidiness in check: when the latter's efforts spread behind the counter, it throws the owner's self-confessedly idiosyncratic ordering system into confusion. But as far as I'm concerned he has his priorities right: for me the key detail in the film was the owner's saying that he had listened to everything in his shop at least once,in order to provide the customers with the service they so clearly valued: the Quo fan said he "would literally, physically cry" if the shop were to go the way of so many other record shops, a point reinforced when another punter (below) talked wistfully of the days when there were five places you could buy records in the area. Now only this documentary's subject remains. And remark towards the end of the documentary suggests the owner is fully aware of the significance of maintaining this oasis:
I think the shop's an escape for a lot of people. It's somewhere for them to go and escape their lives for an hour. And that's important. You put on your record and you're totally taken away for however long the record lasts. And I think there's always going to be a market for that.

But maybe the last word should go to two of the customers - the heavy metal fans. One of them describes the shop as "a safe home for everyone really," the other elaborating: "It's just everyone kind of swallows their differences once they get inside. The last bastion of sensibleness."

"In the world?" his friend asks.

"No - in Stockton, certainly."

Related posts and links:

 A series of posts about the closing of Soho's Cheapo Cheapo Records here

A review of Graham Jones' book Last Shop Standing here
More about the documentary, including a link for buying the full version on DVD, here.

Interview with film maker Jeannie Finlay here

If you're not based in Teesside the shop has its own website here.  

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