“You hold in your hand a miracle. A book about a passion, and the hipsters, oddballs and old heads who share it, written by one of their number, albeit a ludicrously erudite one.” [Danny Kelly]
This book will appeal to anyone whose record collection is more than a resource for enjoying music. Those people who realise that although it isn’t as accurate a description of your biological make up as DNA it is a window into your soul. Perhaps Graham Sharpe could be described as an eccentric but this isn’t a book for nerds. Sharpe is just a lot more enthusiastic and acquisitive than most of us. So Vinyl Countdown is a treasure trove of memory and music, as well as a diary of obsessional collecting. Sharpe tells his story with a great deal of charm, his writing is entertaining and light and never gets bogged down in ‘train spotting’ detail. It’s a memoir of record buying, a particular disc recalls a particular event or person. Readers of a certain age will find themselves picking up on the crossing points between their own musical inspiration and Sharpe’s, a trip down memory lane. Perhaps for younger readers this is a slice of social history.
So what is it about a record that is so special? Mark Twain’s quip comes to mind:
“The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Who’d have thought it only ten years ago? Vinyl is back. Sharpe would take issue with that, for him it never went away, a lot of readers will concur. Sharpe, we learn, has always been a voracious buyer of vinyl. Weren’t we all? I used to get ex-jukebox records for pennies from the local corner shop, otherwise it was new records for birthdays and Christmas until I began to working and buying my own. Sharpe is a record hunter though, it’s an expensive business, the days of the bargain buckets of records in charity shops are numbered.
It all starts with a love of music. Danny Kelly makes the point in his introduction to this book that vinyl was an identifier, a ‘cultural name tag’, the type of records you bought were pretty tribal. For me it was punk versus rock, everybody thought they were serious about music and the pop crowd were tossers. Sharpe began a decade or so earlier:
“Despite being a rock and psych lover from very early on, I also learn to love reggae and disco as a form of self-preservation, if only, initially, to avoid getting my head kicked in.” Skinheads took exception to one of his 1969 reviews.
Sharpe quotes Caitlin Moran from the Times in April this year saying:
“She explained how records encapsulated ‘everything you were before’ and should therefore be revisited and revered, otherwise ‘you’re selling out the only person who has believed in you… :you.’”
Sharpe was eleven when he bought his first single, Duane Eddy’s (Dance with the) Guitar Man, in 1962 and his first LP (long player), The Beatles’ Please, Please Me a year later. He got his first Rolling Stones LP in 1964 (nerdy bit: in mint condition either would be worth £150/200 now). He was hooked for the next fifty years and counting, he became an avid buyer and, eventually, a eclectic collector of records:
“It was some while before I began to lose count of how many I had, but during the late 60s that happened…”
Why does he collect records? Simple: he wants to and he can! 3,259 LPs, 647 singles, 2386 CDs and rising. Record collectors are not of one type, there are also individuals who collect various versions of the same record, mint condition collectors, and those looking to make a profit.
To this day, Sharpe refuses to download music but he does buy CDs, although he has reservations. He quotes Supergrass’ Gaz Coombes:
‘My CDs are in a box in the basement and they’ve all got scratches on them and cracked cases, and it’s almost like we’ve never cared about CDs. But vinyl has this inbuilt need to look after it, and even with the odd scratch it will still play. And records are full of memories.’
And John Peel:
‘Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, “listen mate life has surface noise.”’
Sharpe worked for William Hill for decades, records filled a hole when he was made redundant. The book was actually spawned by a two-page piece originally published in ‘Record Collector’. Sharpe has searched for records in Liverpool, San Francisco, Harrow (Music Archaeology), Vinyl Deptford, Petrone in New Zealand, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney. Sharpe talks about Chuck Berry, Elvis, Fats Domino and the British ‘wannabe Yank teen-idols’, Cliff and Marty Wilde. But for him British music took off with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Things changed with pirate radio, the portable transistor, the 7” single, Woolworths and Saturday jobs putting money in teenage pockets.
Among the many topics Sharpe muses on are compilation albums, the bizarre concept of bands with no original members, collecting as addiction, morality and pop stars, grammar and Jimi Hendrix, Muhammad Ali’s record player, Ed Vuillamy destroyed collection and auctions, fakes and bootlegs.
Sharpe introduces readers to the people in the record trade, he has made many friends and contacts developed over the years. Sharpe was also a friend of David ‘Screaming Lord’ Sutch, when Sutch killed himself in 1999 Sharpe found a cassette tape of unreleased material that he is still trying to get released.
Vinyl Countdown has a lot of humour, good vibrations and a complete lack of self-importance and show off, Sharpe has a chatty easy style. Life goes on, collecting goes on, 57 years and counting.
Paul Burke 4*
Vinyl Countdown by Graham Sharpe
Oldcastle Books 9780857303141 pbk Nov 2019