Flashbacks of Dunedin’s Record Stores

When I hear that record, I can remember exactly where I was. That’s the cliché, and for my generation, radio was most often the conduit. But for my generation also, it was record shops: once as common as parking meters, more recently, dying by the vine.

Dunedin had heaps when I first started timidly entering them. I was always the youngest punter in the shop, light years away from long trousers, more so for me having a mother who read the influential New Zealand government report on Juvenile Delinquency and decreed no child of hers would ever wear jeans. Or wear a Phantom ring.

Somehow, well, a bedside radio, I got into listening to rock’n’roll terribly young. There was no older brother or sister with records to discover on the family radiogram. I would arrive back at primary school after the summer holidays listening to boys speaking in awe of their first kiss, and all I wanted to know was what they thought of ‘Peggy Sue’ by Buddy Holly.

So I was in the record shops very early. No money, but with dreams of acquiring records as big and as geekily immature as Bruce Springsteen’s desire to make them.

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Walter Sinton, musician and manager of Begg's Dunedin branch, beside the sheet music and record bins c.1970. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, PA1-q-110-09 - Alexander Turnbull Library

Begg’s was the big one in Dunedin, and the first I entered. I think 45s were six shillings and fourpence then. And I also remember country and western records were cheaper. People told me that was because the music was worse, and lovers of it, poorer. I never questioned anything at that age. Begg’s sold sheet music by the ton, and also music instruments. When they shrunk and moved into a much smaller building in the 1980s, they donated a basement full of unsold sheet music to the Regent Theatre for a giant 24-hour book sale that still continues today, the biggest, in fact, in Australasia. The sheet music didn’t sell much so a local entrepreneur gave them a couple of thousand dollars for the lot, paid some students to catalogue the titles, and eventually sold it overseas, to the Smithsonian especially, for a sum of money I have been sworn to never repeat. Though the entrepreneur was driving a Rolls Royce around Dunedin for some time after that.

Our lives are all blood-splattered by What-Ifs, and I think my biggest one involved Begg’s

Our lives are all blood-splattered by What-Ifs, and I think my biggest one involved Begg’s. The Rolling Stones were in town, the tour where Keith Richards mixed up Dunedin and Invercargill in his book, and my music-loving friends at Otago Boys’ High decided to take the afternoon off school. Unaccountably, for I loved a good wag, I didn’t accompany them. They inevitably went to Begg’s during their inner-city slouching, and there they found Bill Wyman, probably looking at guitars. They got to talking and he said the rest of the band were out at the beach. My friends shot out there with their car wheels not touching the ground. And proceeded to spend an afternoon with The Rolling Stones.

Bastards. They even shared cigarettes.

I have consequently tried to obliterate the names of my friends from the memory ever since. Though they do come back in the darkness of night. Stephen Guest became Emeritus Professor of Legal Philosophy at University College in London, and Ian Fraser once recorded a version of ‘Time Is On My Side’ – alcohol was involved – with local band The Third Chapter. The tape has been promised to me for years but has never surfaced. Ian went on to head TVNZ, who would definitely air this tape on the evening news were it ever to turn up.

So, short-panted in the decade before, I bought my first record, at Begg’s: ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, by Jerry Lee Lewis. To afford this, I would have had to have stolen things from my dad, probably his Carter Brown paperbacks. But whatever, I had my first record. I played it probably 130,000 times before I turned it over. ‘It’ll Be Me’. That was great too. I have never spent six shillings and fourpence more wisely.

In the 1960s, my favourite record store was Disk Den ... It was beneath Dunedin’s most successful and evil night-spot, The Sunset Strip

Back to the 1960s, my favourite record store became Disk Den in Rattray Street, then a stunningly interesting street just off the once centre of town, The Exchange. It was beneath the city’s most successful and evil night-spot, The Sunset Strip, where US Deep Freeze sailors would leave large tips on the table as they were used to doing back home. We would try and get to the tips before the working staff. Underneath the club, the sailors sold American pressings of singles they were tired of to Russell Oaten at the Disk Den. Sold or traded.

So we would regularly go through the Disk Den’s singles bin, either for records that hadn’t arrived in New Zealand yet – we were way behind then – or never would. In this way I acquired ‘Linda Sue Dixon’ by The Detroit Wheels, which I had only heard once, on Sydney radio, probably 2UW. It’s a record up there with ‘I Get Around’/‘Don’t Worry Baby’ or ‘Ticket To Ride’/‘Yes It Is’ as the best two-sided - but not Double-A sided – single ever made. Well, there are quite a few of these, but that’s another story for another time.

So yes, ‘Linda Sue Dixon’, an unashamed LSD love song as the initials suggest. The chorus went “been on LSD with you” and included subtle lines like “you make me see things other people can’t see.” The flip side, ‘Tally Ho’ – forerunning The Clean by 13 years – was simply the dirtiest song ever recorded and would have been banned by the NZBC in a heartbeat had it ever made it here.

The NZBC used to run a soft, black pencil around a banned record so it couldn’t be played. For this one – a description of a girl walking down the street – think ‘Gloria’ and ‘Cyprus Avenue’ and add Rude, and possibly Drunk, though in truth I always thought ‘Cyprus Avenue’ and ‘Gloria’ were pretty rude – the NZBC would have painted the entire surface of the record black. With undercoat.

Another obscure but wonderful single I gleefully tore out of that bin, never to be seen here, was The Gants’ version of ‘Roadrunner’, the sort of song that would have lit up any of those great Pebbles compilations.

Incredibly, the Disk Den remains today: a widened two-shop colossus which still has shelves of cassettes and has that word in big lettering outside to lure people in. They also have all manner of other stuff, even copy perfume. It has been written up in The Lonely Planet.

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A Philips advert in Groove magazine in April 1969, showing the company's offerings at Dunedin's Disk Den and other stores 

Columbus Radio on the Bath Street corner was small and was mainly electrical appliances. But that was where I first heard ‘Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window’ by Bob Dylan: a glorious clattering clutter of images, guitars – and a hook chorus!

My best friend at school – who would later spend time in an Indian prison after being caught at the airport with enough hash oil taped to his belt to mummify all of Sydney, and after that would be best man at our wedding – hated Dylan. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, he said, was the most boring piece of music ever made. We listened to the ‘Window’ single together; it has the same chords in the chorus. “This will be the first and last Bob Dylan single I will ever buy,” he said. And bought it. (Back in America, Bob Dylan had taken Phil Ochs for a ride in a limo to play it to him. Ochs hated it. Dylan opened the door and kicked him out.)

Paterson & Barr was a premier record shop, a few doors from Begg’s on the main street. They had headphone listening posts, which I think was rare for the time. But they always had records booming out in the store. I first heard ‘Pretty Flamingo’ by Manfred Mann there, one of the great, strutting pop songs, right from the first chord. I shuffled cautiously into the store, as was my after-school wont, just as Paul Jones began his magnificent vocal strut. We knew instantly this pretty flamingo was beautiful, but he sang in a way that we also knew she belonged exclusively to Paul. What a great song. I can only compare it to an English TV pop-show version of ‘Get Off My Cloud’, which I have never been able to find since. Mick Jagger walks up to the mic during the opening chords and makes the vocal equivalent of a strut out of the side of his neck, a sort of Huh! noise, which, translated, would read “I am Mick Jagger and here is our new single, it’s really fucking good, so bow down before me, you poor talentless punters, for right now, I am at the top of my game, and this is as good as it gets.” Absolute strut.

Paterson & Barr would later move to a smaller shop in the upper Octagon. Dunedin Sound leader Graeme Downes worked there on Friday nights in a suit when he was at school. Boyd Craig ran Paterson & Barr forever and was feared by the record travellers for his complaints and commands. I had a number of unsuccessful selling trips in there trying to sell him New Zealand records to try and help friends. Sam Hunt & Mammal. I may have sold him one, and it sat there for years. Now worth about a billion dollars. And of course the early Flying Nun records, which only the EMI shop ever really stocked in that vintage early period.

The DIC department store had a unique singles sale bin in their record department where they regularly put legendary R&B and soul records

The DIC department store had a unique singles sale bin in their record department, where they regularly put unpopular-but-legendary R&B and soul records by James Brown, The Temptations, the Aretha Franklin-Wilson Pickett cabal and Al Green.

Dunedin didn’t buy this sort of music, but the DIC would buy one of each, and it just became a case of monitoring the bin for the day when they whanged this stuff in there for 10 cents. I got ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ by Otis Redding there. “Why would you buy this when The Stones do it so well?” asked the sales boy as he slipped it into a bag. Atlantic. Green label. One of the best singles I ever bought at any price.

The DIC department store became The Dunedin Art Galley right in the centre of town. Caused a bit of controversy that one.

All the department stores had records in the 1960s. Arthur Barnetts’ record department definitely ran at a loss. I think they all did, but the thinking was, a department store is a one-stop everything-is-here store, so they had to carry everything to make everyone happy. Universities used to be like that, set up to educate everyone, which meant carrying the odd subject that didn’t bring in any cash. Now they look at the numbers and slash staff and subjects with the flick of an eyelid. There are no department stores in Dunedin now carrying records.

Terry’s – a book and toy shop that eventually vacuumed up Begg’s – played a special part for me in the latter ’60s when they offered to supply the university newspaper Critic with review albums. I was in there fasterthanthat, finally a way to get records without stealing from my dad. The guy running the department was as mad as a shoe, but generous to a woeful fault. Meanwhile I had, to paraphrase Jon Landau, seen the future of rock’n’roll and its name was You Can Get Free Albums If You Say They Are For Review.

Terry’s had a similar dis-understanding of American soul and R&B records. They had a penchant for buying Impressions singles and selling them for 10 cents the week after. So I got ‘People Get Ready’, one of the really good ones. Why didn’t people want records like this?

Out in Mosgiel, there was always one good record store, though Google can’t remind me of its name. I can see it vividly though, mainly MOR. Then Joe Brown, the effective Mayor of Mosgiel, started his own store, filling it with his own label product and a stunningly fine collection of country records, courtesy of manager Chick Stevenson, who knew more about American country music than Croesus. Chick also has every Buddy Holly record ever made. I did a feature on him once. He had a music room where he sat on an armchair facing a wall of speakers and sound equipment, the carpet battered bare in two spots where his shoes sat while he listened and watched. He had weightlifting equipment there too, a man who liked to keep fit and in shape. Though there were 10-pack cartons of cigarettes there too.

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Records Records - Roy Colbert's legendary record store, with Roy outside.

Inevitably I started my own record store in 1971. No name to start with, no phone, it was an intense time for recreational drugs and retail rules had to fight through a dense path to reach my Awareness Central. It was eventually called Records Records and lasted 35 years while other record stores around us and all over the city closed down. I had three bins called Disco/Soul/Funk. Gems such as Parliament lay there forever, cobwebbed, until someone from the north would come in and buy a bucketful. Dunedin’s record stores have nearly disappeared, but the music taste of the city has never really changed.


Written for AudioCulture, October 2016