Thursday, 23 February 2012

Wall of Sound


Obviously, this really is a football blog of mine, and nearly as obviously, it's quite dormant at the moment due to a more hectic life. As with most people, things outside of football often stun, inspire and incense me at least as much as on/off-pitch shenanigans do, but for more personal reasons this matter catches my attention.

Last night I dreamt that I was in the area, so went to check out Wall of Sound again. I came to find it had shut down. I looked through the window to all the records I wouldn't see again and burst into tears (please let me continue here). As this was a dream, there were other inconsistencies such as Wall of Sound still being in the Piece Hall and the fact it had Edward Monkton cards on the window display, but those points are less relevant. When I woke up this morning, I trailed back to the first dream I had that night and realised what I dreamt. I loathe that Derren Brown nonsense, but this was the first time I wanted to double-check. I googled "wall of sound" and up it came:
After 25 years of trading, Wall of Sound has now closed.
A massive thank you to all who have supported me and shared my love of music.
Please continue to support those that care.
Like in the dream, I'll openly admit that this made me weep. If that sounds sad, imagine what I think of those who solely find their music through free downloads, HMV, supermarkets and sprawling Amazon warehouses. Now I'm forced to look at it in retrospect, Wall of Sound was one of the strongest elements of continuity in my growing up. My father took me a number of times when I was in primary school, and in year six I started going on my tod or with friends. As many may know, at the time Wall of Sound comprised two units in Halifax's Piece Hall, selling 40,000+ LPs, singles and cassettes on one side, with CDs and LPs on the other. The two units were increasingly packed with music in growing stacks of what was mainly cardboard boxes. Not long before leaving for Huddersfield, there were turrets of cassettes and 12" records and as a rite of passage I did accidentally knock one lot over.

How my love of music looked in 2008.

It was a wonderful place as it always was in year six. Back then, among the things I looked at were Korn CDs, but mostly the less common Nirvana records and bootlegs. The Outcesticide CDs, the In Bloom 12" picture disc, etc. As I entered secondary school my search became focused on punk of all stripes: from the most commonly-known '77 punk through to US hardcore, grunge and oi!, all the way up to the bland modern outfits. Through year nine my tastes expanded much more, often beyond the limits of most record shops, but my personal definition of what was relevant in the WoS vaults grew like nothing. Through secondary school it expanded still and towards end end of year eleven anything in there could garner my interests—apart from of course the ever-extensive classic rock/hair metal sections.

In summer '06 it turned out one of the assistants, Nick, a black-clad gent with hair halfway down his body who must have weighed in at about 6st., left. That day I spent three hours hanging out there. His choices were excellent and his stories were hilarious, from watching Boredoms support Shonen Knife, to throwing his friend's Gong records like frisbees. I saw him several months later as a guitar teacher for little kids, fingers covered in calluses and blisters, in high spirits as he'd always been.

That summer I had my first job, a suffocating second-life as a kitchen porter in the Millbank gastropub, a posh noshery which went bump the other year. Thirteen or fourteen hours a week there on top of GCSEs got me enough money to buy four or five records a week. I hadn't much spare time and a life of being belittled by teachers and staff was a drag. But I had music. It also granted me enough disposable to get to Manchester and spend a lot of time at Piccadilly Records. In contrast, Piccadilly was a spick'n'span affair filled with the latest releases and re-issues, more likely to sell you a £30 180-gram expanded edition of a 13th Floor Elevators vinyl or a £12 CD from another avant-garde luminary.

A year or so on they announced plans to leave for Huddersfield, to one whole unit with more space. Pre-recession, I'd lived a charmed life to find this news upsetting. No more failing to get there straight after a Halifax Town match; no more having a superlative record shop local to me for after schools or weekend pottering. The news unsettled me but it wasn't that hard to adapt; each time Town had an away game I would join my father and brother playing pitch and putt in Kirklees, with the reward of visiting Wall of Sound on the way back.

The vaults had gone with the stone walls and decorative graffiti, and with a large sign above the shopfront, Wall of Sound had established itself down the road from Huddersfield Train Station. CDs were on sale in a room on the ground floor, with an expansive basement below with enough space for vinyl to finally breathe. I left with a Negativland LP and a couple of others. Many more new releases seemed to be coming in and many of the deadwood albums that I'd flicked through since prepubescence were shifting. The members of staff who joined were just as welcoming. It was a rebirth.

Transferring from the North Halifax Grammar School to Greenhead College in Huddersfield for sixth form made things better. Wall of Sound was now less than a mile down the road. I could now drop in during free periods and before guitar lessons I took on the outskirts of the town. What stopped me going there every week was not having the money I'd had a couple of years back, but as always I would buy something every time I went in. The range of choice was immense as I could buy a Soul Jazz compilation with a heavy wallet, or a cheap old 12" with a handful of change. I loved my time at sixth form, and Wall of Sound remained part of it. Although I technically stopped growing age 14, I grew up with WoS and it benevolently dictated my formative years.

I'm now a second year in physics at the University of Leeds, but still taking guitar lessons in Huddersfield means I've still been an on-off visitor to WoS, buying records as I go. For half of my first year at university, the choice remained excellent. One time however, I found the shop had split in two. Below, all the records had been replaced by the Vinyl Warehouse, a place as crammed with records as the Piece Hall units were, but with nearly none of the character. Wall of Sound had contracted to the ground floor, with a fraction of their records moved up there and many of the singles on discount. Soon after many of the older CDs and records there went on discount. All of these changes were very disconcerting. I only went into Vinyl Warehouse once because the place depressed me like hell. I prefer not to flick through 150 copies of the same flopped Zutons single to find something unique. Literally the most interesting and individual thing I found there was the Human League's Dare! LP. And unlike the WoS environment, no-one acknowledged I'd come down those stairs. If the endless recession were to do anything to my favourite of all the vulnerable independents though, I'd take this over anything unspeakable. The last things I bought there were several Ride EPs in installments.

One of the last times I went there were a bunch of lower sixth-formers there flicking through every browser. One of them was raving about old blues records and it warmed my heart to see that I may not be a throwback from another decade. It felt like all the music fans to come were in safe keeping.

I haven't been back to Huddersfield for a few months, so I was nearly two months late to discover this morning that WoS was no more (symptomatic of why I'm no journalist). To me, it went today and I'm quite devastated. The old shop has been absorbed by Vinyl Tap. Saying that's OK is beside the point. Wall of Sound had everything that makes a great place. Good music begets belonging and friendship. It accesses you and doesn't talk down to you. Wall of Sound had that to it in its people and stock, and even if there's an already-running shop in its place, it'll slowly consume Wall of Sound's identity and there will be two more empty units gathering mold in the mausoleum that the Piece Hall now is. Vinyl Tap was already established in Huddersfield, so Huddersfield now has one independent left. Halifax has Revo. When I begun my collection it had Revo but it also had Bradley's Records, Andy's Records, and the great Wall of Sound. Some shops concentrate on speciality, like Piccadilly Records. Some are huge discount bins, like Vinyl Warehouse. The majority occupy the wide middle ground. Wall of Sound had all of it. The closest I've seen to it was a vast, sprawling, specialised and unique place in Seattle, but even that doesn't come close.

Elliot Smaje ran Wall of Sound and working on losses in a beastly climate even affected his health towards the end. WoS's closure had to be felt the most by him. For a short, sociology-type project on music consumption I did in between the sciences at Greenhead, I interviewed an assistant, Mark. This was in May '09 and despite it being challenging, he described how record shops as bedrocks of local music helped them through the modern age. Local acts could find rely on them and they could even put on gigs. Guest musicians could come in to host evenings there for fans. He added that a delight of buying music in person is how you can walk in with little in mind, and come out with an empty wallet and a bag being torn by the weight of your purchases. It's a social opportunity to discover, listen and be tempted; you can even branch out a bit. Live as is human by putting the stylus on the shellac you've been told is worth a listen, rather than hopping through audio on YouTube on your tod.

Going back to a record shop from an online environment makes you wonder why you left it. Good, often expensive, but hardly addictive, fun. Remaining indies, I'm sure, have never been of such high quality, with their will to appeal more than ever. How WoS still did this but couldn't avoid shutting down makes me crestfallen, and I wish other consumers would move back to this. Though I haven't in a long while, I've bought many things online that I'd probably never find elsewhere, and I've even bought a few .mp3s from Bandcamp. That versus the surprise of finding a gem in the middle of a stack though? No comparison. If the financial woes of the common man ever end, I hope record shops come back en masse. The online cultural shift is near completion in this country. Once the proverbial dust settles I wish shoppers could take to the streets again. When indies survive in distinctive small towns like Whitby and Hebden Bridge, they should in sprawling boroughs.

There concludes my eulogy for Wall of Sound. I wish I could do more.


Anonymous said...

I am touched. You understood what I was about and by writing what you have, it means I succeeded. It doesn't matter if the whole world doesn't understand; I am more than content to have made a difference to a few. I'm as hungry as ever for music but cannot see a way I can use it as a vehicle at the moment. I fear my bubble has burst and I must enter the real world at last. I loved every minute of it.

Elliot Smaje

Pliny Harris said...

Thanks Elliot, I contacted you via the email Still saddened that your place didn't last forever as it was a haven. At least it existed in the first place and hopefully a golden age of record collecting is still to come. Please get in touch when you find new work or if you somehow need our help.

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