A La Recherche Du Leeds Record Shops Perdu

Proust had the taste of his madeleines to conjure up the past. For me, the moment that evoked years gone by came when I handled the thick cardboard cover of an early 1970s American LP, a tiny rectangle missing from the top – one of the cheap-price cut out albums that were once available.

And that took me back to the record shops that once meant so much to me.

Back in the days when I was discovering music, a passion that began when I was 13, Leeds was very much a backwater. These days so many artists were born here, or made the city their home. Back then bands coming here was an event. Gigs at the Town Hall or the University Union, one or two at the Poly (now Leeds Beckett). Some big names – John Mayall, the Who, of course, the Stones, even Pink Floyd showing off their Azimuth Coordinator.

A couple of clubs came and went – the New Marquee, with acts like Taste and the Nice, and a place near the Merrion Centre, which played host to Hawkwind, just finding fame as “Silver Machine” went up the charts. Band and a beefburger for eight shillings and sixpence.

What it meant was that we absorbed music from the radio and from record shops. Radio meant John Peel, for the most part, and that’s a tale told by so many people already. Record shops, though, were rare beats in Leeds back then. Downstairs at Vallances in Headrow House (facing on to what is today Dortmund Square), downstairs at Woolworth’s on Briggate.

And then there was Project. It wasn’t in the city centre, it was in Harehills on the parade of shops just by Harehills Lane. It didn’t sell new records, but used ones – a novel concept at the time. The stock wasn’t huge, but the prices were right, both on singles and LPs, although it required much inspection of the vinyl before buying.

Music, at least outside the realm of pop, didn’t seem as disposable back then. There was a sense of art, of seriousness and worthiness about what was being called ‘progressive music.’ This wasn’t the same as what would become prog rock. It was a much broader church, with plenty of guitars, more rock than progression, although most of the bands in it seemed to be on the Island label or Deram, with a few more, mostly American on CBS, and one or two to come later on EMI’s Harvest.

I don’t remember what records I bought at Project. Quite a few. A record was a big investment then, a serious chunk of the change from washing cars at the weekend. I read Melody Maker every week. I listened to Peel. I knew what was what, who was good and who was not. Every decision was very carefully weighed.

Things eased up a little in the early 1970s. The first Virgin Records in Leeds opened, two storeys next to Boodle-am (the place to buy loon pants) on Queen Victoria Street. Two floors, places to sit and just listen to what was being played. Staff who knew and liked the music. And upstairs the cheap-price American cut-out LPs. Thick cardboard sleeves, and the ones on RCA often had thin, wibbly-wobbly vinyl. But I had a bit more money in the [pocket of my Afghan coat, so I was willing to spent a pound or so on artists who were obscure. I discovered Michael Nesmith’s solo work after the Monkees and the album of Emmitt Rhodes, both of which I still love.

Then there was Jumbo Records, upstairs at the Queens Arcade then in the Merrion Centre. Scene and Heard (Vicar Lane? New Market Street?). We had a cornucopia of record shops all of a sudden. And, as ever, there was Project out on its own in Harehills, where it would remain long after I’d left Leeds.

I moved back here two years ago. We seem to have come curiously full circle. Buy chart CDs at supermarkets, a range of styles at HMV. But beyond that, it’s down to Jumbo and Crash. Yes, there are places selling used albums – Relics on New Briggate, along with every charity shop you pass. But no Project. It didn’t surive.

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