Sunday, December 09, 2012

1980s/'90s MELBOURNE RECORD SHOP RUNDOWN, PART 3...

For moi, there was the Holy Trinity of record stores in Melbourne during my formative years; I've already covered the first two, and that leaves Missing Link (ML). ML has a curious history, and I have an equally curious history w/ the store: I worked there on and off throughout 1999-2001 - interrupted by overseas travel and an 8-month stint of gainful & painful employment at Borders - but I shall discuss that later. For now, let's talk of the history of the shop itself.

Missing Link began life in 1971 as Archie & Jughead's, founded by Dave Pepperell and Keith Glass, as one of the first, perhaps thee first, independent music shop in Melbourne dedicated to hard-to-find imports. A bit of history is required here, and two things to consider: at the time, the Australian music biz suffered from culturally-crippling parallel importing laws. That is, if a distributor or label had the local copyright on a release, or an exclusive distribution right to it, then it was an illegal act to import it of your own accord within a certain time frame after its release. I'm a firm believer in copyright and exclusivity laws, but I'm also a believer in getting records in time (even though, working in "the biz", I know that's not often what happens). So, let's say that label "X"'s parent company in the US has just released the latest Frank Zappa record in 1971 and you wish to procure copies for your store in Melbourne (or anywhere else in the land). You have to wait for the local branch of that company to either license it locally or distribute imported copies before you can sell it. Sounds simple. What's the problem? Don't these local labels/distributors wanna make a buck and get it here pronto? You'd think so, but Australia's music scene was dominated and controlled by the kind of archaic fuddy-duddies whose taste in music likely took a screeching halt at Mantovani. Combine that with incompetence and the kind of foot-dragging mentality major record companies have personified for most of their existence, and you have consumers waiting months to hear a local edition of something even as bleedingly obvious as Exile On Main Street.

For more exotic delights of the era - whether it was the Grateful Dead, Miles Davis or the Kinks - the wait could be even longer. Major-label oddities like Moby Grape and Love, you'd probably wait a dog's age for the local company to get their shit together. As for the even more exotic items of the day, such as free jazz, krautrock and "avant-garde" music of many stripes, the release might never get any distribution, and if so, it would be through a back-shed indie whose fill rate and ordering consistency may be questionable. Regarding Europeans curios, particulary of the avant-prog variety, there was also the legendary "Daniel", an Austrian emigre with highly questionable social/political views (I won't go into here in fear of a libel suit), who ran a stall in a downstairs market on Swanson street at the time and sold such items for the "heads", but more on him later.

I did say there were two things to consider, so I'll quickly mention the second: in an interview I heard on the radio last year w/ Pepperell, he was saying that the standard procedure for record stores back in the day was to register the store, open an account w/ all the local record companies and they would decide what to stock in the store. You had "X" amount of money to spend, and they would nominate the releases they would sell to you. If that business practice strikes you as fairly absurd and fascistic, you may be correct. And thus there came to be Archie & Jughead's...

Both Glass and Pepperell deserve their own entries: there is simply too much to say in a brief spiel as this (and one which isn't even supposed to be about them). Keith Glass has his own Wikipedia entry, and you can browse it here. Suffice to say, as an actor (in Hair!), singer, producer, DJ, label and retail owner, his CV spreads far and wide. I've never actually met him (he's lived in the US for a number of years), although I'm friends with his daughter, Daisy, but Pepperell is a different story. He's a larger than life motormouth who, similarly, has done a lot since he sold the store 30-odd years ago, as a journalist and music retail manager, and I'll certainly never forget his visit to Missing Link on the shop's 30th anniversary in 2001. For an hour, he regalled us w/ stories of the first few years of the store. In short, from the first day it opened, they knew they were onto a good thing: there were hundreds, maybe thousands of music-starved freaks who needed an outlet like Archie & Jugheads in their lives. The music trucked out the door. How did they evade prosecution? That's something you best ask them. I'm not sure as to whether they did at some stage, but the store kept on going regardless.

In 1977, with punk the new thing in town, the store changed its name to Missing Link, and accordingly changed its focus to the emerging local punk boom and the glut (a good glut, mind you) of overseas punk and indie records being released. In 1978, the Missing Link the label was started and would release significant discs by the Go-Betweens, Birthday Party and Laughing Clowns, as well as license popular titles by the Flying Lizards (who went top 20 with "Money"), Dead Kennedys (who also hit the charts w/ several releases) and the Residents. In the early '80s, the shop was sold to Nigel Rennard (who also owned Greville Records at the time and toured the Dead Kennedys in 1983) and I guess that's where I should really begin...

I first went to the store in 1985. At that stage it was located in Port Phillip arcade just off Flinders Lane in the city. Once again, I went there to buy a Sex Pistols record. I'm not sure how I knew of the store's existence - I don't recall them advertising in print or radio - but somehow I stumbled upon it and, along w/ Exposure Records, it appeared to me as a mecca of strangeness. There were racks upon racks of records by bands I'd never heard of, and two scary-looking people behind the counter. The two in question were Debbie "Dinosaur" Nettlelingham (who had a popular show on 3RRR) and Steve "Pig" Morgan (he later being at Au-go-go and Greville: you'll notice his name popping up a bit). I walked up to the counter in my school uniform w/ a copy of "God Save The Queen" (it was all I could afford), exchanged goods and money and was, at the end of the transaction, delivered the line from Debbie, "There ya go, tough guy". I heard Steve laugh in the background. Certain memories from your youth stand out, and that slightly humiliating experience is one of them. Frank at Exposure was always a perfect gentleman; ML introduced me to the world of snotty indie-store retail workers. You're gonna miss them when they're gone.

I went there a few more times to pick up similar items over the next 6 months, though some time around late 1985 or early '86 it moved up the road (a mere 30 metres or so on Flinders Lane), and for the life of me, I couldn't find it. It wasn't until late 1986 that I rediscovered it and bought items such as Damaged and the Dead Kennedys' Bedtime For Democracy (the week of release: a big deal for a 14-year-old putz). By 1987, my musical interests had outgrown strictly hardcore, and ML was a good outlet for the cool and obnoxious scuzz-rock being released: Sonic Youth's Sister and the Butthole Surfers' Locust Abortion Technician, both licensed locally by Au-go-go, but two records I purchased from ML, for whatever reason. Steve Morgan's musical obsessions at the time were in the Swans/Buttholes/Sonic Youth camp, as well as an On-U Sound/dub fixation, and the store reflected it. When I bought Sister I got the response, "Album of the year, mate, album of the year". It's that type of thrilling dialogue at an impressionable age which sticks in your craw.

From now on, things get a little murky. I was saying this to my friend Edgar Lee just the other day, a gentleman who worked (mostly part-time: he has a long and illustrious career in the public service) in the store from 1984 until it shut a couple of years ago: I don't recall visiting the shop a whole lot between the years 1988-1990. Steve moved to Au-go-go in 1988, a store which became much more of a reflection of my musical interests, and for me ML seemed, well, a bit bloody passe. I was likely wrong in my assessment of it, but its HC/punk focus, or at least that's how I saw it, seemed out of step w/ the good things which were happening in the here and now, which was primarily focussed on labels like SST, Homestead, Sub Pop, Touch & Go and Dischord. ML probably stocked all that stuff, too, but for me Au-go-go was the shop w/ an impeccable range of goodies and its competition was laid to waste.

One important relationship which ML had for a number of years throughout the late '80s/'early '90s was w/ its employee, Karen Leng. Karen had already been on TV as a "reporter" on the youth-oriented Saturday-morning music/culture show, The Factory, on ABC (which actually wasn't that bad: you can see GOD performing live on The Factory here), but she also had a 3RRR radio show on Friday mornings called Station To Station, which specialised in American independent music. Most of the new releases were borrowed from ML, and she advertised it as such. I would often have art class on a Friday morning, and if possible I would take control of the stereo in the classroom and listen to as much of the program as I could. It seems strange, in hindsight, that I was ever allowed to do such a thing, or that my teacher and classmates tolerated the racket emmitting from the speakers, but I recall doing such a thing quite a few times w/out being hounded from the class like a heretic. Sometimes, I'd even get my mum to tape the show for me, bless her. Station To Station was a revelation: every week I'd hear new platters by Fugazi, Wipers, Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., Swans, Slint, Laughing Hyenas, Bongwater, Killdozer, et-fucking-cetera. Where can you buy these records? Missing Link. And where did I go? Well, half the time, probably Au-go-go, but I certainly appreciated the education.

Martin Lewis started managing the store around 1990, and by 1991 the shop had started to change again. The previous year, Edgar had managed it and put a strong focus on hip-hop. Seems like a strange choice, but I guess one must hark back to the days when hip-hop (it'll always be "rap music" to me) was considered an incredibly exciting musical prospect by white music nerds. I recently had to tell him that that was possibly why I hardly walked through its doors that year. Ha! Sorry, Eddie. Scott Harper, local nice guy/crust-grind king who played in bands, ran a label, booked shows, etc. was also working there by '91, and the shop started to partly focus on the emerging (or fully emerged) grind scene centred on the Earache/Napalm Death family tree. I liked some of that stuff at the time, but not enough to purchase any of it outside of a couple of Godflesh discs. At the least, you could sense the store had a focus: with Edgar working there and co-running the Dr. Jim's label (home of hot bands of the day such as Peril, Dumb & the Ugly, Slub, etc., as well as the ever-popular Christbait and Blood Duster), there was a knowledge that if it was really noisy, fast and weird, ML would probably have it. Also, the store was hep to a lot of Shimmy Disc and K Records items (both of which I dug a whole lot ca. 1991-1992), stocked the likes of Maximum Rock & Roll and Flipside like clockwork, and I was still in there more often than most psychiatrists would deem healthy. In a very real sense, it had a perfect symbiotic relationship w/ Au-go-go, w/ neither of them crossing over too much.

For a few years, it also had Extreme Aggression almost directly across the road, a store owned by the notorious "Daniel" I mentioned earlier in the piece, which was dedicated to grind/death metal. He had previously operated Pipe Imports as a record store in a small arcade about 30 metres from ML for, so far as I know, 15 years or more. In the '70s it was all kraut/punk/industrial music, but as the '80s progressed he went from HC to thrash/speed/death metal and then onto grind and eventually black metal. Pipe was tiny - roughly the size of a small kitchen - but it had an interesting mix. Whilst as a teen I had no interest in the Kreator picture discs he'd hang on the wall, the SPK and Throbbing Gristle albums he'd stock intrigued me. Daniel also owned and operated the distribution service known as Modern Invasion, who were distributing Earache and other such labels at the time. Considering how big that scene was here at the dawn of the '90s, one would assume he'd make a killing, but the store shut down (jogging my memory) within a couple of years and he went back to full-time wholesale.

That brings us to 1993, the supposed cut-off point for this series. Not here... Early that year, I dropped off copies of the first issue of Year Zero to ML. To be honest, I wrote a lot of it when I was drunk and I didn't expect anyone to buy it, let alone read it, but was surprised when I went back a week later to see that the half-a-dozen copies I'd left the previous week had apparently all sold. I enquired at the counter about sales, and Martin raised his eyebrows and said, So you're the guy who does Year Zero? He knew me as a regular customer, but not by name. I was kind of taken back by his response, fearing that maybe he wanted to punch me out for something I'd written (I suspected that, if people actually read it, it might upset some people from the local music scene), but then he just smiled and said that it had caused some interesting discussions in the shop and that he really liked it and wanted more to sell. Huh. That perked me up until the shit hit the fan a few weeks later and I started having my name dragged through the mud by some street-press columnists and fanzines (notably Mailman: a zine which seems to've been solely published to tell me to eat shit). Really, this is all old news and probably not interesting to anyone but my own self-obsessed self, but it happened, by golly, it happened. When I came back a month or so later to check on sales, Martin chatted to me at the counter, telling me that all the people calling me a jackass were useless and that I stuck my neck out for something which needed to be said. When I felt like I was being abused from all sides, I needed to hear that. From that point on, perhaps in a juvenile way, I considered ML as an ally of sorts, and a good place to hang out. Is this all getting too weird? Thought so.

The '90s trotted on as years do... and suddenly it was 1999. In January of that year, I was hanging out w/ Edgar and Martin at a pub, seeing some band, and Martin told me that there was a vacancy for part-time work on the weekends at Missing Link. He then asked if I was interested. I was working full-time as it was, but was keen on giving it a shot, if only to put it down as workplace experience I could put in my CV, and I figured it'd be fun and the extra cash wouldn't hurt. We were all pretty drunk that night, but I recall Martin pulling me aside and giving me "the speech". It went a little like this: Dave, Missing Link is an iconic store. To work in such a shop is a privileged position. Every second kid who walks in the shop wants to work there, but you got it. You can now be a gatekeeper, a tastemaker, you can change lives, maaan!! Now that's only a paraphrase and perhaps an exaggeration for effect, but the basic point was made: working at Missing Link wasn't to be taken lightly. Laugh now, but before the internet started wiping out indie record stores like the plague, it did mean something special. And I never abused that privilege: I was one polite motherfucker, courteous to the pleasant and moronic alike.

 I worked there alternate weekends for about 3 months, then went to the US for about a similar period and then came back to no job. I asked Martin about work. He told me a co-worker had gone overseas for a couple of months and I could fill in the hours. All went well, working usually 4 days a week, until the co-worker came back from overseas and I was cut back to approximately a day or two a week. I needed full-time work, Borders offered it, and there I was for 8 long, long months. After 8 months working there, I'd been brought to the brink of insanity, and I happened to be in Missing Link on a day off work, slightly intoxicated after having seen a midday session of The Filth & The Fury at the Kino cinema (yes, as in literally intoxicated. This period is the genesis of what some friends cruelly refer to as my "Charlie Sheen years"). Dianne Rennard, the store's co-owner (Nigel's sister), asked me how things were at Borders. I told her the truth: it was awful. She told me Martin had just resigned to work in the IT field and that if I wanted to work back there full-time, a job was available. I took it, resigned from Borders the next day and started back at ML in a fortnight's time.

Working in the store just over a decade ago was certainly a different time for music retail. I saw the daily figures and Missing Link was doing very well indeed. The biggest weekly hurdle was the phenomenal rent (even for that shoebox), but not only were times good, they were consistently good. Retail these days is up and down like a yo-yo - you can have a disastrous Saturday for seemingly no good reason, and then make a killing on a traditionally dud day like a Tuesday - but back then, each day could be predicted like it was a science: Monday was busy because everyone was back at work or uni/school and felt like beating the blues with a purchase; Tuesday was the quietest, a day which meant nothing to most, as if they were holding off until mid week; Wednesday was busy as people came into the store to pick up the street press and often bought something whilst they were in there; on Thursday, people were getting ready for the weekend and felt like procuring goodies to treat themselves; Friday, people would buy stuff to play on the weekend; Saturday was always full of cashed-up school kids and people from out of town (especially a Geelong HC posse who'd buy up big every week) and you were usually run off your feet; and on Sunday, the store was only open from 12-5, and people would make enough of the abbreviated time to make it worth your while being open. That was the pattern week in, week out, and it rarely deviated. And as a sidenote, please remember that ca. 1999-2001, the Australian dollar was bordering on becoming a Third World currency: it hovered around the 50-cent (US) mark for that entire time, making some of the store's wares very expensive. At one particularly dire stage, when the dollar was at around 46 cents, there were a lot of $35-40 CDs in the shop, with even a number of single-CD imports going for $45 and above. And ya know what? They sold.

I had a fun time there, met lots of nice folks, many of which I'm still friends with today, and even felt a sense of pride in curating a shit-hot range of avant-jazz titles the shop stocked (and sold!), but by September 2001 I was bored and felt some sort of imminent, premature midlife crisis on the horizon: I can't be turning 30 next January whilst working in a punk rock music store. In hindsight that sense of panic seems completely ridiculous; after all, why not spend your whole damn life working in a punk rock music store?, but I wanted out and did exactly that.

In 2003 or '4, ML was moved to a big basement premises on Bourke Street, as it had been making a killing from the "punk boom" of the tough-guy HC/Epitaph/pop-punk/emo vein (none of which thrilled many of the employees, but when we were riding its coat tails and it was keeping the store nicely afloat, we weren't ones to judge) and needed a bigger space. I always loved the cramped, dark atmosphere of the old Flinders Lane address, and never really cosied to the Bourke Street store. Too big, too bright; for me, it lacked a certain warmth. Things were pretty hot there at ML for a few years onwards as they had the right staff who could focus strong sales on certain titles the store would get behind and push, and there was still a nice gap they could fill, musically speaking, for genres and styles of music which weren't being covered well elsewhere (stoner/doom, grind, noise, contemporary HC, etc.). Scotti from Au-go-go had moved there in 2002 and kickstarted its mailorder business into a serious proposition, and it felt like there was a strong scene surrounding the store which drew customers into its web. Everyone who worked there - and boy, for a year or two there were a lot of them: too many, in my opinion - was involved in bands, labels or zines in some way. There was a sense of reciprocation w/ its customers: you help us out and we'll support what you're doing. There were also some righteous instore performances during this period, such as US punkers Rambo and Eddy Current Suppression Ring. ML the label was even reignited, releasing some good and not-so-good punk/noise/grind discs. Later on, it got to the point of self-indulgence: the counter would be full of CDs, records, tapes and fanzines on display, nearly all of them promoting something a staff member was involved in. At the risk of rubbing a few old friends the wrong way, I don't think that sends the right message to customers, bordering on a cliqueish mentality.

And there begat the strength of the internet and everything went tits up. It was fun while it lasted. Again, I could point fingers and hypothesise about what went wrong, but I won't do it in this public forum. In the late '00s, Collector's Corner came to share retail space with ML - literally - as an attempt by both stores to combine their talents and halve the crippling rent. In a fairly short time, ML started really struggling for various reasons, and Nigel basically closed up shop for his side of the business late last year. Collector's Corner still retains the ML moniker and remains an impressive shop dealing mainly in vinyl for all strains of sound (although they've lost a lot of their local garage/punk market to others, I'd hazard a guess) - it's semi-officially [who knows?!] known as Collector's Corner-Missing Link - but in reality, Missing Link doesn't really exist anymore. You still reading this? Good. The end.

13 comments:

Marshall Stacks said...

Great post.

The May-1981 Missing Link was actually charged by Victoria Police with 'having an obscene item on display' - the Dead Kennedys' Too Druck To Funk, and fined $750 1981 dollars.

Apology for my previous comment on Au-Go-Go location. Little Bourke St was their second store.

bruce said...

Seems like I was in a store on flinders my last visit (3 years ago) could it have been the same space? Can't think of the name right now, micksters shop

bruce said...

Off the hip

Anonymous said...

You may have finished this triptych of iconic record stores, but this is still crying out for the poignant postscript: "How I BECAME the Steve Morgan of the new millenium".

Anonymous said...

Dave great rant good on you!! But I must admit to feeling perversely special bcs you didn't mention one scene, one band and one shop - all genetically linked. The Little Bands, The Primitive Calculators and Climax Records. cheers. ab

Anonymous said...

Nice one tough guy ;)Debbie xxxxx

Anonymous said...

As a Missing Link alumni from around the same time you were there Dave (we may even have done a couple of shifts together) one of my favourite sights was seeing Diane's partner, Rupert [?] (can't remember his name, but he looked like a Rupert), riding into the darkened scuzzy place that was ML in his Royal Tennis outfit. He always looked resplendent and totally incongruous with his grey sculpted goatee and tennis whites among all the punk and doom.

Dave said...

Alas, Alan, I was too young to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Climax, though I know it was a special place for a select cadre at the time.
Anonymous, you have me curious as to who you are... but I remember Phillip well. My god, he was a posh fellow, a professional wine taster by trade. I remember him donning his cravat when he'd come into the store, too. A fish out of water, but also a very cool, easy-going guy, despite his initial impression.

SSEX EXSS said...

Missing Link was great during the Dave Lang years, but there was always far too much facial hair behind the counter.

Manu said...

Phillip! That was it Dave. He was definitely a man of certain 'refined' tastes, unlike some of us scumbags behind the counter, whose tastes went to a different order of refinement.

I worked there in the Flinders street days, with Diane, Bek and Edgar and yourself on weekends, when I went back to Uni. I also worked at Shock Export when you were there. Oh, those were the days...

bippy zootflute said...

i've still got a copy of year zero!

Jason Maitland said...

Hi mate, used to visit extreme aggression 90-92, and was wondering what ever happened to Daniel??, cheers, Jason

Anonymous said...

Daniel still owns & operates Modern Invasion based in Cheltenham. Extreme Aggression closed in '98 if my memory serves me correctly.