North Kensington has always had musical connections. From the Welsh and the Irish to the West Indians and the Hippies. All kinds of music found a home here. So it is no surprise there were a lot of record shops. Especially in Portobello Road where some premises were record shops for over 20 years.
Let’s start at 202 Kensington Park Road.
This was the original Rough Trade shop, founded in 1976 by Geoff Travis who conceived it as a record shop equivalent of San Francisco’s City Lights bookshop. The shop was supposed to be in Willesden, but it became apparent that it would be a bit off the beaten track with not a lot of footfall. So his father helped him find this shop, which previously had been a Hippie ‘head’ and print shop. Rough Trade was synonymous with the DIY Punk ethic and everything that went with it like Xeroxed fanzines. Record shops are often one person’s idea, the result of someone having a vision for a shop and thinking – no-one else is selling the music I like or I can do better or I love/know the music. I have the connections to get the records or just have a surplus of records. Rough Trade belongs to this classic template for record shops. It was very influential as it inspired a whole new generation of shops and ones carrying the range of music Rough Trade pioneered.
Though best known for Punk, in fact Rough Trade had a wide ranging, comprehensive, eclectic and cutting edge selection of music, including the latest Jamaican records. The African selection came from a bloke called Jumbo who lived down Oxford Gardens. He had his own label Earthworks and distributed current African music straight from Paris. The music from the African Francophone countries had been virtually unobtainable in this country because the African music here was music was from our colonies – Nigeria and Ghana. Looking to get the latest from West Africa? You had to go to either grocery shops in South London or Sterns at the rear of a radio repair shop in Tottenham Court Road.
Rough Trade was also a great social centre, one of those collisions of people coming together. You bumped into all kind of people there. Upstairs is where some of the staff lived. I got a feral kitten called Smiler from there.
That block of Kensington Park Road was totally different in the 1970s. There was a wall of corrugated iron sheets opposite where houses had been demolished.
Moving left round the corner into Blenheim Crescent, about where the Travel Bookshop was, there was a record shop selling Reggae and Soul. I bought a classic of English Lovers rock – Louisa Marks’ Caught You In A Lie there. I cannot remember the shop’s name, there is no real information about it so it must have been pretty transitory.
2 Blenheim Crescent
This is one of our landmark shops. It had been The Family Dog Shop, the first Hippie head shop in England. It closed in 1984 and two Bills – Bill Forsythe and Bill Anderson, a pair of record dealers who previously had operated by Mail Order opened up a shop there called Plastic Passion. They sold all kind of rarities, Bootlegs to 60’s Psychedelic rock, obscure US garage bands to Blues and R&B and collectors items.
However, in 1990 the two Bills fell out and split the shop down the middle. Bill F to the left, Bill A to the right, and renamed it Minus Zero and Stand Out. They were still selling the music you were hard pushed to find anywhere else. In 2010 they finally closed the shop. Bill Forsythe still sells records on a Saturday in Portobello at the Red Lion Arcade.
The building also had historical significance – upstairs was the offices for various parts of the alternative press including Frendz and the Whole Earth Catalogue. Also it was the haunt of local poet/playwright and the Frestonia character Heathcote Williams. Frestonia was the hippie breakaway state based round Freston Road inspired by the film Passport To Pimlico.
130 Talbot Road
Lets go over Portobello to the current Rough Trade Shop at 130 Talbot Road. Vinyl is big business again, the successful record shops these days are the ones actually selling records. Vinyl, things you can hold and smell, the pungent odour of the solvent evaporating from the printing or the sharp tang of fresh pressed vinyl. And you can read the sleeve notes without using a magnifying glass. The shops selling old records have a distinctive smell of old dust as well.
In 1982 there was a split in Rough Trade between the label, distribution wings and the shop. The shop workers went independent and bought the shop out. Now there are three Rough Trade shops – Talbot Road, Brick Lane and one in Brooklyn. They have managed to keep the open minded ethos of Rough Trade in their shops. Pete Donne, one of the original trio who bought the shop, now runs the Brick Lane shop, and went to Brooklyn to set that up shop to run the right way. I still buy from Rough Trade. You want that pre Pol Pot Cambodian Psychedelic rock? It’s there.
We head west past by All Saints Church and left into Powis Gardens. All Saints Church Hall (now demolished) was the venue for early psychedelia – the Pink Floyd played there. Over into All Saints Road, to what used to be called the Frontline. Which was a centre for the black community based around the Mangrove Restaurant but also was the most policed street in Europe at one time.
11 All Saints Road
This is People’s Sounds record shop and has been here since the 1980’s run by very old hipster Daddy Vego, one of the Windrush generation. North Ken as a West Indian area always featured quite a few record shops, but now People’s Sounds is the only Reggae shop left.
The other main Reggae shop was Dub Vendor, at first a hole in the wall under the railway bridge on Ladbroke Grove, and then a shop on the corner of Cambridge Gardens. But they closed down in 2008, with a change to digital in the Jamaican music and the Congestion Charge was the nail in the coffin for them.
If you look above the door to People’s Sounds they have a heavy duty waterproof electrical socket to power their Sound System at Carnival. They are surviving, they sell records online and in the summer have tourists in the know coming to buy. They have a really comprehensive selection of music of interest to Jamaicans (and others).
Vinyl was crucial in the Reggae world and is still revered and held in high regards by the purists. 7 inch pre’s or pre releases were the standard musical form in Jamaica – LP’s were a luxury. The 7 inch was also the currency for the Sound Systems wanting the latest tune to rock the crowd. The fresh 7’s were airfreighted into England weekly. By Thursday they were in the shops. Friday the serious buyers came out, pockets full of wages. You stood there in a tight crush, when someone completed their shopping and moved out, everybody shuffled forward. You attracted the attention of the person behind the counter with a sign that you wanted that record. It could be a nod or finger pointed or a eyebrow twitched and that record joined your pile on the counter.
Walking down St Luke’s Mews and into Basing Street, past the Basing Street Studios where so much great music was recorded and left into Lancaster Road and then left into Portobello.
236 Portobello Road
In the early 80’s this was a record shop called Sounds, a popular black music shop selling soul/funk/jazz. Stocking whatever the local passing trade wanted. But it went the way of many local record shops and succumbed to the prevailing wind of internet retailers, bootlegging and downloads. In the 70’s it had been an adjunct of the Family Dog shop.
Historically it was an interesting shop. In the 60’s it was called Etcetera. An early vintage clothing shop that could possibly have predated ‘I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’. Etcetera was run by Anne Valery. Anne was an ex Rank Starlet, she was in Kind Hearts and Coronets and got swept over the weir with the first of the Alec Guinness characters. But she is best known for her TV screenwriting Angels and Tenko. She told me she used to go to France to get WW1 German Leather Coats.
230 Portobello Rd
Musicland was an important chain of shops. In the 70’s, it was renowned for the imports stocked. Local musician and freak Mick Farren talked about a bloke who worked there called Simon who hipped him to the first MC5 album. Musicland was where you could find the latest US releases like Frank Zappa, Velvet Underground and the West Coast psychedelic releases (Simon Stable later had his own record store at 297 Portobello).
Musicland was a big player in the independent record shop world. They had a number of shops through out London, including their West End shop in Berwick St where a chap called Reg Dwight later to be Elton John worked.
Musicland was owned by Windrush generation immigrants the Ali Family and Lee Gophal. Lee had started with a stall on Portobello selling the latest Jamaican records. In 1968 he sold out his stake in Musicland to create Trojan Records along with Chris Blackwell. Lee was also Blackwells landlord in Neasden Lane where Lee had a label called B&C. Later 230 became a shop called Music Scene an amalgam of Musicland and Scene and Heard.
Over the road to 231 Portobello Road
This had been an Indian textile shop called Hindukush till 1988 when Vinyl Solution took over. Vinyl Solution started as a record shop in Hereford Road W2, buying and selling secondhand records, but moved into the new electro music. They had a record label based at the shop. In 1995 it became Intoxica, which was decorated in Hawaiian Tiki Style, in quite deliberately bad taste.
It sold secondhand and collector records, it had an easy listening rack, original, pristine Bert Kampherts, not exactly cheap but a bargain compared to the £600 rare records on the wall. It sold every kind of obscure music, from soundtracks to surf music.
245 Portobello Road has an illustrious history. In 1974 it was bought by the Ali family to be turned into a Musicland shop. According to Jim Ali (S.W Ali’s son) it actually became Jolly Jester run by him and his brother in law Ken Weston. Then became the Klik Reggae label and shop run by an ex Trojan staffer Joe Sinclair. You could find dj/artists like Tappa Zukki and Dillinger hanging out outside when they were signed to the label. It then became Bargain Records run by Jim and Tom Skinner. It changed its name to All Ears run by Larry Sevitt, if you were an overseas visitor you could ring up All Ears with an order and they would deliver to your hotel. It returned to Bargain records, then Knockout Records both run by Ken Weston and Tom Skinner and then Westside Records run by Jim Ali and the aptly named John The Record. It returned to Bargain Records before becoming Bargain Music and finally closing in 1992.
On the corner of Lancaster Road in the 70’s, local Boom Baby author Brian Nevill had a stall in the basement selling Bootlegs and stuff. During the 80’s and 90’s it was Culture Shack, run by Danny and Derek. It had stalls selling records, and a barbershop.
297 Portobello Road
Further up past the Westway is 297 Portobello another important address with a long lineage of record shops. In the 60’s it was Melody Records selling Jamaican music, then it was part of Lee Ghopals’ Musik City chain. Also here was Simons Stable, Shakedown, Young Blood and Johnny Dickens Oldies Shop. It ended it’s musical life as the Jamaica Sounds label and shop.
This one block between Oxford and Cambridge Gardens has major historical significance. There were seminal clothes shops like I was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and Forbidden Fruit. Designer Barney Bubbles (Hawkwind) and the Back Ah Yard Caribbean restaurant plus the Black People’s Information Centre. Also it was a hotbed of the alternative press like International Times and Frendz.
Honest Jon’s is an institution and has been at 278 Portobello for 32 years. It started originally by Jon Clare in an arcade at 93 Golborne Rd selling 50’s jump jive, Blues and Jazz. Then in 1974 moved over the road to 76 Golborne Rd. He briefly moved to Camden before returning to the area in 1982. They sell a vast range of music. You want the latest Ethiopian re-release or Jazz, Reggae or Soul? They have it. They also stock the latest dj must have 12”s.
In the 80/90s Honest Jon’s had a record label called Bopicity which put out contemporary music from London jazz bands like drummer Tommy Chase. Now they have a new label Honest Jon’s Records which has access to the vast EMI catalogue and has delved into Calypso with the London Is The Place For Me series, along side vintage West African. But they also put out left field, oddball releases and anything that takes their fancy. Honest Jon was a dapper Jazz and Be-bop fan who was also a therapist and psychotherapist, which some of us would suggest are good skills to have in dealing with record shop customers. Jon retired to paint and write in Wales. Long term staffers Mark and Alan bought it out and now run Honest Jon’s.
The genie is most certainly out of the bottle for record shops and we can never go back to the old days and the way record shops were. But there are some vinyl oasis’s in the desert of downloads. And they are continuing to serve up what people need and want. Just look at the queues outside Rough Trade on record shop day.
Dave Hucker, 2015