Road Visions: Record Stores of London – Notting Hill
Late last year I was able to spend a couple of weeks in London. As I’ve stated in the past, shopping for vinyl in Europe is a dream, an expensive dream albeit, but a dream none-the-less. Every shop you enter is stacked with non-American releases (everything’s an import) and the selection’s vastly different than what you’re used to in the States.
With some modest research my friend Kevin and I made our way to Rough Trade West, which is located in Notting Hill, and let the streets lead us around a non-lazy afternoon that found the wax to be plentiful, the pints proper, and conversation delightful.
Portobello Road Market
As we got off the Tube and started walking towards Rough Trade we were greeted – totally by luck – with the Saturday Portobello Road Market, a closed off street filled with throngs of tourists, hustlers, and locals. There were bazaar’s, pubs, and shops lining the streets with open air vendor’s selling everything from food, clothes, antiques, and yes….records.
The prices varied here, but I was able to pick up and barter for a killer copy of I-Roy’s 1973 UK press of Hell And Sorrow as well as an original 1977 Italian first press of Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols – records and pressings you just don’t run across in the States. A main goal heading into London was to get as much reggae as I could. Outside of Jamaica, and maybe even more so – there’s no better place to get reggae on vinyl than the UK. Punk, Indie, and Garage were also on my list – so before we even hit Rough Trade I was off to a great start. I’ll say records were priced a little high on the street until you got further down the road and past the food vendors – where the true locals were selling. Some of the vendors were pretty crass, and to be frank, total assholes (particularly one dude I tried to buy a Hawkwind record from, first & only time I’ve been called a “wanker”) – but other vendor’s were friendly & willing to come down from their tourist high prices if they sniffed out you were a true collector.
Rough Trade West
After traipsing down Portobello we finally got to Rough Trade West, and I have to say, I was disappointed upon entering. The smallish room was jammed with new records and when traveling internationally I’m strictly on the used record tip. Thankfully I noticed there was an equally sized downstairs filled exclusively with used records. Crisis averted.
I dove right into the reggae section which was bigger than most back in the States, but not necessarily huge. The Indie, Rock, and Garage sections had the more impressive selections. The prices weren’t cheap, but the vibe in the basement was good. The lady behind the counter recognized I was wearing a Bleecker Street Records T-Shirt and we immediately started talking record nerd with each other. Upon hearing I was from Cambridge, MA she informed me that her Husband incessantly wears a T-Shirt they got some 20 years ago when visiting the States from In Your Ear Records, one of my home turf stores. This was my favorite part of Rough Trade, swapping stories of past digs with this lady behind the counter. It’s akin to fisherman telling big fish stories, and as we wrapped up she pushed us on our way further down Portobello to Honest Jon’s, after we (of course) stopped for a proper pint.
Honest Jon’s is a quaint shop located towards the end of the Portobello Market that features music of different genres from across the globe. I discovered that Honest Jon’s is also a Record Label of the same name which happens to be co-run by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) – not bad pedigree for a record shop/label. This is where I began to quench my thirst for reggae, as I picked up a Delroy Wilson LP as well as a Studio One Sales Sampler from 1979. Prices were reasonable and I was very thankful to pick up a “London Is The Place For Me” record directly from the source. These excellent complications are put out by Honest Jon’s and feature music composed by Caribbean immigrants in a variety of styles – Calypso, Jazz, Mento, and Highlife – all composed and often centered around London life – absolutely killer comps. After leaving Honest Jon’s we had another pint and meandered off the Portobello path in & got further lost in the Notting Hill afternoon.
As we explored the streets we tripped into, by either destiny or luck, Sarm West Studios – a world renown studio which was created by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. Sarm has recorded the likes of Led Zeppelin, Queen, & Rolling Stones – all British Rock Royalty. We went inside and chatted with the friendly fellah behind the desk and he informed us that Bob Marley not only recorded there, but lived in the Studio for about a year – which is no coincidence as we were entering what appeared to be the Jamaican section of Notting Hill. Still thirsting for reggae I asked if he knew of any good shops – he smiled slyly, and directed us to People’s Sound – which was only two blocks away – safe to say – I was about to get all I could drink.
I walked into People’s Sound to find no one behind the counter and a copious amount of incense floating in the air – however, as I 360’d around the small shop I realized I was 100% surrounded by Reggae, Dub, and Dancehall records – my prayers had been answered. A red eyed Rasta eventually came out to see my shaggy haired stupid grinned face and we were off from there.
I handed him my reggae 45 wantlist – which he was impressed with, but the only one he found in the bowels of the shop was Max Romeo – It Sipple Out Deh, which I was 100% fine with, because I was about to be exposed to a hell of a lot more. We then sat at the counter chatting as he played me 45 after 45 of incredible roots reggae as I plucked what I especially liked while learning a helluva lot from this lifted sage. A week later, when my Wife met me in London this is the only shop I went back to, and is one I’ll go to any and every time I’m in the City. Most shop’s in the US have reggae section’s with maybe 20 records or so, but this was an ENTIRE shop – talk about drinking from a blunted fire hose. Beautiful, beautiful shop. Positive vibrations, yeah.
Music / Soul & Dance Exchange
After leaving the high of People’s Sound we backtracked towards the Tube and hit a Pub we earmarked on our way to Portobello. My bags of wax were starting to weigh heavy so after a few pints we decided to be proper tourists and just explore the other side of the neighborhood, but of course, before we got too far we ran into Music / Soul & Dance Exchange, and the dig (thankfully) continued.
This was actually two record stores in one, The Music & Video Exchange on the first floor and The Soul & Dance Exchange on the second floor. I was on the hunt for Althea and Donna’s Uptown Top Ranking all day, and of course, it was found in this last shop upstairs, I was overjoyed and scared the employees as a blurted out a too exuberant yelp. Both floors had an incredible mix of new and hard to find used records – and this shop, while facing the stiffest of competition, ended up being my favorite of the trip for three reasons:
- Pure Volume – On both floors there were a lot of records, 45 and LP, the most of any store we stopped in.
- Divergence of Selection – Downstairs had all the rock, pop, garage, indie, psych, you could want – and upstairs had an equally impressive selection of Hip Hop, Dance, Soul, Funk, African, and Electronic. If you’re a collector you’d be guaranteed to find something you’ve been searching for here.
- Price – On top of the quality and quantity the prices were by far the most reasonable of the day – and with the British Pound lapping the US Dollar this was a more than welcome sight.
We spent another good hour here, left with bags straining to stay in tact, and went across the street to (wait for it…..) another Pub. It was a beyond successful dig – such a cool, unique, and interesting neighborhood – one most recommended if in London and looking to get your fingers dirty and mind clean.