Revolver revisited: music shop where Bristol found its groove
In 1933, novelist and playwright J. B. Priestley arrived in Bristol, chiefly aware that it was "somewhere in size between Leeds and Bradford", and expecting "the usual vast dingy dormitory". In English Journey, he rhapsodises about the very different urban expanse he found: "a genuine city, an ancient metropolis. And as you walk about in it, you can wonder and admire. The place has an air." He was impressed by a modern prosperity built on tobacco, chocolate, "and soap and clothes and a hundred other things"; and assets that were less tangible: "the place has dignity … It has kept its civic pride. It rejoices in its independence."
Thanks to the Luftwaffe, much of the built environment he beheld was soon altered beyond recognition. A dozen or so years later, immigration from the Commonwealth began to radically change the city's population and newly enrich its culture. But even now, you can spend time in southern England's second largest city and sample the same essential qualities Priestley divined all those years ago.
Such Bristolian phenomena are explored in Richard King's memoir - most notably the Pop Group, the recently revived punk-era enterprise who spurned the moronic ramalama common to the time and instead embraced their home city's fondness for reggae and the influence of funk and experimental jazz; and Massive Attack, the inventive outfit who arguably represent England's most inspired development of the essential aesthetic of hip hop. In the output of both, you can hear what King calls "the city's love of compounding and mixing different styles of music to create an inclusive, freeform genre synonymous with Bristol".
Moreover, the uneasy qualities they have in common reflect something King sensed during his time in the city: the fact that the past inhabited Bristol's atmosphere "in a manner that was rarely popular or agreed upon, as a satisfactory settlement that recognised and confronted its slave-trading heritage had yet to be proposed".
The stories of an array of the city's musicians are tangled up with the rise and fall of Revolver, the independent record shop in the Clifton neighbourhood to which Original Rockers is an eloquent panegyric. King - author of the authoritative history of UK independent record labels How Soon is Now? - worked there for three years, and evidently enjoyed some of the most vivid experiences of his life. To buy a record from Revolver, King writes, "was to become involved in a limitless series of negotiations, diatribes, monologues and disputes … These exchanges were held between a staff and customers who regarded the depth of their love of music as immeasurable and sacrosanct, to such an extent that the atmosphere in Revolver regularly felt hysterical."
The commerce at work was not the go-getting kind so lionised by Priestley, but instead based on hippie philanthropy: the shop's owner, Roger Doughty, says King (who only names him as "Roger"), would persuade customers to buy records he thought superior to their initial choice, even if his recommendations retailed for less.
Bristol regularly comes into the foreground, proving that bohemia always thrives where ageing, higgledy-piggledy cityscapes give it the nooks and crannies in which to grow. But it also repeatedly recedes, as the text digresses into explorations of artists, genres and locations.
A good record shop, after all, works as a kind of portal into realities accessible via the wares in its racks (so that for the nascent Massive Attack, as King puts it, "Bristol and New York were their twin points of orientation").
A lot of Original Rockers, then, is very personal. In its intoxicating sense of place, and King's tying together of disparate pop-cultural strands, it sometimes seems to be a modest cousin of Greil Marcus' Invisible Republic or Lipstick Traces, or an example of the idiosyncratic cultural-historical writing lately done by Super Furry Animals' Gruff Rhys in his travelogue, American Interior. Such an idiom is replete with trap-doors, and from time to time the emphasis on evoking subjective experience means that King inevitably falls in: the use of such words as "eldritch" and "liminal" is usually a sign of over-writing, and so - very occasionally - it proves here.
That said, among his strongest talents is to evoke the magic that music and people's surroundings can combine to create - as when he recalls drifting through the north of Bristol listening to Massive Attack's first album, Blue Lines. "My walking half-reverie had led me to the top of Picton Street," he writes. " Five Man Army began as drums reverberated in a soft echo and minimal, purposeful bass notes created an atmosphere of faint trepidation. I associated the sound with this environment. At this instant, I thought, if I remove my headphones a similar low-end frequency would be audible from the stereos of these houses I am passing."
Original Rockers by Richard King (Faber & Faber)