overground scene

A brief history of growing up with vinyl in the 1990s

Back in the mid-1990s two cultural/economic trends were dying away: the vinyl and the death metal genre. This concurrence brought happiness to a small group of friends from Nikaia, a suburb of Piraeus in Greece, who were just starting to discover extreme metal.

By that time, death metal had undergone a period of explosion, saturation and relative stalemate, and was considered a thing of the past in mainstream metal circles (the same goes for traditional metal and thrash). Melodic and highly canonised black metal, on the other hand, was spreading its wings. At the same time, the CD had been widely accepted as the orthodoxy in music dissemination. The vinyl was deemed an inefficient format for music storage; it takes up too much space, it is vulnerable, it cannot carry more than 50 minutes of music among its delicate grooves without compromising the sound quality and, finally, its sound is inferior to the polished digital sound of the CD, which is also small and more easily storable, can hold up to 80 minutes of music and, or so it was claimed, it could live forever. Nevertheless, these two trends – the cultural and economic depreciation of vinyl and (death) metal – resulted in another brilliant trend that made us oh-so-merry: the mid-1990s was a heaven of ridiculously cheap second-hand vinyl records of metal bands.

At the time, me and my friends were in secondary school. Before metal, our cultural consumption was limited to sports shoes (I am not kidding), fast food and, in the case of some people, video games. Then metal came and became an all-encompassing leisurely activity. For some of us there was nothing beyond metal music, although some still placed loyalty in football or video games, albeit to a lesser extent. Back then, every single album obtained, in any type of format (cassette tape, CD or vinyl), was a treasured artifact. Every single album was laboriously listened and appreciated. Listening to music, sometimes an individualistic and other times a social experience, was done with passion.

My weekly allowance at the time was 1000 drachmas (approximately two British pounds) and 1500 drachmas a bit later on. From time to time, my grandparents would also give me an one-thousand drachmas note on top of that standard allowance. Today it may sound crazy, but at that time this weekly allowance was enough to buy one cheese pasty and a soda per day from the school canteen. That’s how my parents intended me to spend my money.  When I started listening to metal I started saving this allowance to buy cassette tapes in order to copy my friends’ albums, as well as CDs and vinyl. The first metal album I made a cassette copy of was Iron Maiden‘s Number of the beast, owned by a friend living in the same building as I did. The first CD I ever bought was Iron Maiden’s Live after death. The first metal vinyl was (surprise, surprise) Iron Maiden’s Fear of the dark.

As I have explained in an earlier post, there were several factors that eventually made vinyl our format of choice. One factor was a specific “record collectors” discourse – which is currently stronger than ever – according to which vinyl is both an investment and a subcultural artifact which gives its possessor prestige and legitimacy (among one’s peers).  Another factor was financial; vinyl used to be slightly cheaper than CDs (the opposite of what happens today). Nevertheless, the aforementioned first few metal albums were bought from local record stores (D.J. records and 5000 V) and were quite expensive (3000-3500 drachmas each). The decision to buy vinyl was not fully determined until we discovered second-hand record stores, where we would find a much bigger volume of albums in much lower prices.

Not before long, me and my friends discovered the numerous second-hand record stores at the centre of Athens. The record stores in Monastiraki, Athens, were the ones I early on bought records on ridiculously low prices. Morbid Angel‘s Altars of madness for 1500 drachmas from Tsampas, Xentrix‘s Shattered existence from 7 plus 7 for 1750 drachmas, Massacre‘s From beyond for 1500 drachmas from Shiva records, are some of the great bargains I can remember. Of course the other music retailers (that were selling both new and second-had albums) in Athens were also great. Who can forget the awesome Happening that also had great offers, the two Rock City stores, and Jim’s Metal Era. For at least two years these stores were our temples of metal appreciation.

Then a great revelation happened in early June 1997. It was after the summer physics exam when me and my friend Dimitris decided to go to Athens on a record hunt. When we got off the bus at Koumoundourou square we saw another friend, Nikos, who was just returning from his record hunt and he told us about this awesome record store he had found, that had the best prices ever. Its name was Art Nouveau, at Solomou street, Exarcheia. However, we did not visit it on that day. Instead, I bought the newly released Dismember Misanthropic e.p. from Metal Era and returned home ecstatic.

Art Nouveau proved to be one of the best record stores ever. It was founded by Nikos, an avid fan of rock music, in 1983. (The store apparently operated also as the “headquarters” of Nikos’ independent music productions company which released the Αδιέξοδο (Dead End) – Γενιά του Χάους (Chaos Generation) split tape in 1983.) The metal section consisted of three stalls on the right hand side of the entrance to the back room. Each stall contained 50-70 records. All the records had been removed and stored, so the customers browsed through the record jackets. On the top right corner of each album there was a tiny hand-written price-tag. The price was also written in pencil on the inner sleeve. As I write this post I am listening to Morgoth‘s Cursed, which I bought from there for 1800 drachmas (3,5 pounds). Other notable records I bought from there include Paradise Lost‘s Gothic for 2000 drachmas, Pungent Stench‘s first album for 1800 drachmas, and Cannibal Corpse‘s Butchered at birth and Cadaver‘s Hallucinating anxiety for equally ridiculous prices. Art Nouveau can nowadays be found at 42 Arachovis street, Exarcheia, still preaching the old rock gospel and stubbornly resisting music fads and the pressures of big music retailers, music digitisation and the internet.

Old habits die hard, and even at a time when some of the most obscure music can easily be obtained by anyone with internet access, all the people who came together in that group two decades ago still buy vinyl records. For most of us it is no longer a matter of prestige. It is simply that we know no better way to enjoy music. Because, all those who have been part of the social organisation of vinyl-purchasing (the excitement of patiently browsing through thousands of albums for hours on end and eventually finding an album you were looking for, finding a hidden phrase engraved on the vinyl close to where the label is, looking at the pictures of the musicians, reading the “Thanx lists” trying to understand who is friends with whom and to discover new bands, finding out who composed what, reading the lyrics, carefully examining the artwork, and smelling the cardboard odour off the record jacket), know that it constitutes an experience that enhances the experience of music-listening itself.

Me and my friend Nikos, 19 years after our first record-hunt.

Me and my friend Nikos, 19 years after our first record-hunt.



A day in Brighton’s record fair

Today (Sunday, February the 16th) was the third time I attended a record fair in Brighton. The event took place at the Brighton Center, a huge building at Brighton seafront that accommodates all kinds of cultural/commercial events. The event started at 8:30. The early entry fee was a bit higher than the late entry fee (£5 before 9:30 and £2 after). I arrived around 13:00 so I missed the slaughter among those record collectors who derive their identity from their record collection. Luckily those types are less likely to be interested in the kind of music I like so I was not too worried about missing out on amazing finds.

The entry fee was not unreasonable but, nevertheless, has some weird implications. By charging people to attend an event as this one, the meaning of the event is effectively constructed as a service provided to record-buyers who are given the opportunity to buy records, rather than an opportunity provided to a bunch of record-merchants to sell their stuff. In other words, the fee signifies that as a record buyer you should feel lucky.  Anyway, I guess both things are valid and as I said the fee was not unreasonable. The music coming from the speakers on my arrival was African. There were not too many people so it did not usually require waiting for one to check out their preferred section. On my arrival and after paying the £2 fee I decided to start my quest by genre. This means that I decided to go from merchant to merchant focusing initially on the genres in which I am more interested. Thus, the record-hunt started with heavy metal and punk.  Few merchants were specialised in a specific genre, one was specialised in rap-hip hop, another in punk and hardcore, and a couple were specialised in funk. Most merchants offered records in a variety of genres. As expected, metal records were thin on the ground. Wherever there was a heavy metal category it contained mainly lame hard rock and glam metal records from the eighties. This is not surprising given that metal was a phenomenon of the 80s, a period where dreadful bands sold lots of albums to masses which were doomed to get rid of these records once they grew a bit older and the fad was over. Now all these rejected records by bands like Motley Crue, Poison, Krokus, Def Leppard, and so on, are doomed to haunt the “on sale” sections of record stores around the world.

The punk sections were a bit more interesting, albeit sad reminders of the fact that US and European punk never reached England. An exception to the trend was the guy who specialised in punk and had goodies from around the world who also used to run a cool local record shop at Kensington Gardens, in the North Laine. 51PfthVgR-LEarly on I was lucky to find Electric Frankenstein‘s Don’t touch me I’m electric (Twenty Stone Blatt records, blue vinyl) there for only £5. This was my only purchase during that initial phase.

The music coming from the speakers eventually changed from African to psychedelic rock. After I finished my search based on genre, I went back to the start and begun the tedious process of looking through the “on sale” sections. Through this process which caused ankylosis on my right hand I got Killing Joke‘s Revelations album for £4. Killing_Joke_-_Revelations-coverA bit disappointed from the lack of good records I decided to buy a record from the NWOBHM band Tygers of Pan Tang. I never listened properly to this band, and those songs that I had listened off their first couple of albums I thought were cool but nothing special. However, I had never listened to an entire album by them. I found their fourth album The cage for half a pound so I bought it. A guy next to me bought a bunch of records (more than 10) from the half pound section.

As time went by, record sellers started reducing the prices of the records. Around 15:00 and when the event was about to finish I happened to be going though a bunch of heavy metal records which I thought were a bit pricey. At that point the guy who was selling them announced that all records go at half price. I bought two albums I always thought were brilliant but I never owned in any form, Judas Priest‘s Sin after sin for £4 and Helloween‘s Pink bubbles go ape for another £4. Sin after sin has always had a magical influence on me, as I have always been enchanted by its cover and songs like “Dissident aggressor”, “Here come the tears” and “Raw deal” always gave me an uneasy feeling of melancholy. Pink bubles has some of my all time favorite Helloween songs, like “The chance” , “Someone’s crying” (establishing Grapow as a worthy replacement of Hansen) and “Number one“.

As I am writing this post I am listening to Revelations, an album I have never heard before, and I have to say that it sounds pretty awesome. Electric Frankenstein is a band I love and Don’t touch me I’m electric was amazing, as expected. I also listened to Sin after sin twice and got chills down my spine. The quality of early Judas Priest records is unprecedented. I only heard side A of the Tygers of Pan Tang record and I’d rather have my little toe repeatedly hit against sharp corners than listen to the other side.

the charity shop experience

I am often asked the question “are you a record collector?” and I always get offended and answer “no, I’m not!”. It may indeed be difficult for people who are not very interested in music to understand the difference between loving music and loving objects. Of course I like records, the physical thing that is, but they merely represent the means. Would you call someone who loves to cook and therefore has a lot of cooking books, a cooking book collector? If you did you’d be missing the point.

Having said that, I must say that I have always preferred records and cassettes over cds or mp3s, to the point where today I most certainly love them. The reason why that happened is partly rational thinking, partly peer pressure and partly conformity to a specific vinyl collector discourse. When I first started listening to music that I choose in the early 90s, instead of just listening to what my parents listened to,  my first purchases where the “Dangerous” album by Michael Jackson and “Both sides” by Phil Collins. The reason I got these two albums on vinyl (actually the Phil Collins album was a gift from my brother, but I had asked for the record) was that they were cheaper than the cd version! The fact that the artwork was bigger and therefore more detailed and impressive also helped (especially with the awesome Michael Jackson layout). After starting listening to heavy metal, I got the “fear of the dark” album by Iron Maiden. Again the reason I choose vinyl was the lower price and the more capturing artwork. The whole technological progress discourse was not sufficiently persuasive in that sense. Then a couple of my friends, Nick and Kostas in specific, made fun of the fact that I got vinyl instead of cd. So after that and for a few months I would buy only cds. The reason why I started buying lps again was my friend Nick again, who had apparently heard from an older friend that cds are not cool and that what has real value are collectable lps that have gone out of print. Soon after that revelation I got the first Helloween album from a friend who had inherited some records from his aunt, and then I bought Xentrix’s “Shattered existence” for around 4 quid.

In any case, for more than 15 years record stores have been my favorite places on earth. I am sure that I have spent about 10% of my life inside record stores. Looking through endless piles of records is a pleasure in itself. The occasional amazing found at an incredibly low price is a worthy reward. Then I moved to Brighton. The first thing I needed was to make sure that there were enough record stores in Brighton and, most importantly, sufficiently specialised and up-to-date record stores. Unfortunately, the first record stores I found (The Resident and Rounder) were mainstream and totally uninformed on the two genres I mostly care for, punk and metal. In relation to similar independent alternative record stores in greece, these two stores were a disgrace… Enter the charity shops!

Charity shops have effectively substituted record stores in Brighton. Near my old neighborhood (Norfolk Square), there were two charity shops and a flee-market where I would go when I was getting bored of studying. Instead of a walk I would go to the charity shops. And new used-records would arrive almost every week! Way better than proper record stores. The fact that I live in a fairly bohemian/alternative part of England also helps. The reason being that people who live in Brighton are more likely to be listening, or better to use to listen, to punk or more “alternative” music.  When these people decide that records are obsolete or when they grow up and decide that they don’t like that type of music any longer, they give them away to charity shops.

Amazing records I have bought from charity shops include Septic Death’s “Now that I have the attention…” (1 pound), Amebix’s “Monolith” (1 pound), Celtic Frost’s “Morbid Tales” and “Emperor’s return” (3 pounds), Nomeansno’s “The worldhood..” (3 pounds), a couple of Siouxsie albums (1 pound) and many more. If I include flee-markets then the list grows exponentially and includes records like the first two Adicts albums (3 pounds each), Sepultura’s “Morbid Visions” (the cogumelo version, 1 pound) and many more! So if you ever find yourself in Brighton and wanna look for cheap records check out places like Oxfam, Shelter and Snooper’s Paradise.