Pick of the pops in The Tonypandy Record Shop
Continuing our autumn series by John Geraint, author of ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, and one of Wales’s most experienced documentary-makers. ‘John On The Rhondda’ is based on John Geraint’s popular Rhondda Radio talks and podcasts.
Can you picture it, the first LP you ever bought? You were probably in your early teens, still keen on Top Of The Pops, tuning in to ‘wonderful’ Radio 1 on 247, or if you’d been clued in by friends at school about stuff that was cool and trendy, listening to a pirate station like Radio Caroline in your bedroom at night.
I expect you already had a collection of singles, of 45rpm discs, acquired when you first began to get pocket-money – chart hits that you played on the family’s record player. Maybe your parents – if they were a lot more ‘hip’ and sophisticated than my Mam and Dad – had invested in a stereo system.
And now… you were ready to graduate to your first proper grown-up choice: an album, a 12-inch long playing record pressed onto black vinyl, all packaged up in a gate-fold cover, a sleeve, adorned with the band’s name and some snazzy artwork, and just waiting to delight and surprise you – once you’d switched speeds to 33 revolutions per minute – with two whole sides of tracks: 8, 10, 12 of them!
So what was it, that first LP of yours? Something you’d be ashamed to admit to these days? Or a classic that still defines your taste all these years later? I can remember the first LP I ever bought, and precisely where. And I’ll tell you – now just…
I’m moving house for the first time in 25 years, so I’ve had to decide what to do with my record collection. The scratchy vibe of vinyl has become trendy again, hasn’t it? Authentic analogue audio, as opposed to the antiseptic perfection of digital downloads.
My collection amounts to a couple of hundred discs altogether, most of them recorded half-a-century ago; but we’re ‘downsizing’ – I think that’s the term – so I’ve been ‘encouraged’ to jettison anything that’s simply taking up space.
Gritting my teeth, I managed to sift out as many as forty or fifty records, ones that – if I’m being totally honest – scarcely get played any more, from one year to the next.
I took them to that stall upstairs in Cardiff Market, and I’m proud to say there wasn’t a single one that they weren’t eager to buy from me. Taste, you see – if you’ve got it, you’ve got it! And by the time, I was buying LPs, I had it. But I’ve got to admit I was pretty late to whole pop and rock scene.
When I was a boy, we lived with my grandparents – our house in Tylacelyn Road, Penygraig had been bought, brand new by my great-grandfather Robert John, for the princely sum of £300, back in 1903. Hardly anything in the house seemed to have changed since back then.
It was gloomy with varnished sideboards, coal scuttles and bible-black Bibles. The place suited a generation in the last decades of their lives, not the first.
Pop music didn’t feature. There was no record player. No transistors. Our huge wireless set was tuned to the BBC Welsh Home Service. The only music I heard all week long came on a Sunday afternoon: Caniadaeth y Cysegr, Welsh congregational hymn singing.
No wonder I was teased – mercilessly – when I went out to play in the back lane, or up the gwli towards Hughes Street, by all the other kids who couldn’t believe that the only pop group I’d heard of was The Beatles. And that was only because they were so thoroughly disapproved of in our house.
My education in music came late. But it couldn’t have happened in a better place: Tonypandy Square.
Cavern of delights
The Record Shop, opposite the Picturedrome, was a cavern of delights in the 1970s. Laid out in alphabetical order on rack after rack just waiting for us to flip through them were the sounds of the Seventies – the whole world of rock, soul, blues, jazz, even some classical music.
Walking up Dunraven Street to Pandy Square from Penygraig I had to pass Woolworth’s – and it was always tempting to pop in, especially when two teenage friends of mine, Julie Hughes and Julie Thomas, started Saturday jobs on the tills there.
But I would never have dreamt of buying a record in Woolies, even though it sold knock-off cover versions of all the hits for next to nothing. That would have been a betrayal of Mal Rees, the proud owner of The Record Shop.
Mal was a genial, if shrewd, presence behind the counter, a local JP and a big figure in the Tonypandy Chamber of Trade. Mal’s wife Jean also appeared in the shop on occasions. She was the sister of two genuine Rhondda legends, actors Donald and Glyn Houston.
Years later, I made a film with Glyn – he had a small part, but such presence on the screen that he dominated the whole show. And as we swapped stories on set about our Rhondda upbringings, Glyn told me how fond he was of his sister.
I always thought that something of her brothers’ stardust rubbed off on Jean, but Mal – he wasn’t exactly glamorous. He made no attempt to get ‘down with the kids’, probably just as well, dressing more like a solicitor or… a schoolteacher. Yes, a teacher, and like the best teachers, he became more of a mentor and a guide than an instructor.
We all became his pupils, us spotty adolescents, learning to be ourselves, flicking through album after album in those stacked racks, hesitating and changing our minds – and then hesitating all over again, before finally coughing up out of our precious savings two pounds and thirty pence (was it that much?) for a spanking new addition to our collection.
And that first record I bought? It wasn’t heavy rock, or prog rock, or Bowie or Dylan or the Stones or anything particularly right-on: just fairly middle-of-the-road folk-influenced pop from the North of England. But I’m not ashamed of it. And it certainly made the cut when it came to deciding which of my records would move with us to our new house. It was Lindisfarne’s Fog On The Tyne.
Us Record Shop regulars browsed much more than we bought. Most of us could only afford one purchase a month, but we spent hours there every Saturday morning all the same, discussing the current charts and the classic albums of years gone by, arguing about the latest releases, talking about other things too, gossip and news and the way of the world.
Mal magicked an atmosphere that never made us feel pressurised. He never seemed to mind however long we took, never failed to smile and give us a cheery ‘see you next week’ even if we eventually made our way back out onto Pandy Square without buying a single thing – not even a single.
As a businessman, I’m sure The Record Shop gave him a decent living – but I sensed even then that that wasn’t why he was doing it. He loved the music, and he certainly was knowledgeable about his stock, keeping it up-to-minute and relevant, week after week, year after year, through all the fads and trends, false-starts and naff-nesses of 1970s pop and rock.
But the real value of The Record Shop was in something we couldn’t have bought, no matter how long we teenagers saved up: it was a shared space, and a safe one, where – however smart or slow we were, however cocky or insecure – we got an education.
An education in something that really mattered. Music. It mattered not because it could help us pass an exam, or get a job, but because it could be enjoyed for itself, appreciated for itself, because – though we would hardly have said it like this – because it was a thing of beauty.
I’ve been reading a book that was published recently, The Sound Of Being Human, by the brilliant music journalist Jude Rogers. She’s twenty years younger than me, but as I read about her Welsh upbringing and the wonderful range of artists she’s loved in various stages of her life, her path seems to keep crossing my own musical journey.
She writes about records and tapes and radio DJs and dancing, and focuses her memories on 12 particular tracks; but her book about much more than that. It’s about how we rely on music for comfort, for insight, for connection with other people, how we grow with songs and how songs grow inside us.
Music, says Jude Rogers, defines us as human beings. And do you know what? I’m sure Mal Rees would agree.
‘John On The Rhondda’ is broadcast at about 3.15pm as part of David Arthur’s Wednesday Afternoon Show on Rhondda Radio
All episodes of the ‘John On The Rhondda’ podcast are available here
John Geraint’s debut in fiction, ‘The Great Welsh Auntie Novel’, is available from all good bookshops, or directly from Cambria Books
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