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The Big Beat In The Heart Of The Vinyl Jungle

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Debbie Harry

Totally changing course, you told that story on the Divine Rites list about walking on the beach in Adelaide with Debbie Harry when Radio Birdman played there, and I don’t want to make you tell it again, but do you mind if I just replicate that in this article? I thought that was a cool story.

No, yeah, so did I. It was incredible when it happened. A few hours later I was like “what?”

(Here then is the story, which is only slightly edited from the archives of the Divine Rites e-mail group on Yahoo Groups…)

I was doing the dishes in the kitchen there that day when Patrick wandered in with Debbie (then THEE most beautiful woman in the entire world … right?) and Chris Stein, Clem, Frank the Freak ‘n’ all. I remember wiping the suds off my arms to shake hands with them, and when I went into the lounge room a few minutes later, everyone was being a bit too nonchalant and just slothing around as if being amongst ‘royalty’ was an everyday thing. Admittedly it’d been a pretty huge gig the night before … I think it was the Marryatville show. I was embarrassed at the apparent lack of interest and lack of activity (now this house was RIGHT on the beach … the sand dunes came right up to the picket fence out the back) so I asked if anyone wanted to go for a walk on the beach. Debbie and Chris and Johnny Kannis were the only takers, so off we four set.

And as can happen when there’s an even number, we just paired off and Johnny happened to walk with Chris and I got to walk with Debbie … for about a mile up the beach and back. If someone had suggested the day before that I’d be spending an hour wandering along a beautiful beach in deep conversation with DEBBIE HARRY (quite rightly the object of every youth’s dreams), I’d A) would nay ha’ believed it, and B) would have been a bloody quivering wreck at the mere prospect. But somehow it was as natural and easy as could be, and when, as we were walking back and about 50 meters behind the other two, she rested her head on my shoulder (for about 10 seconds … count ’em!) when I suggested that the restaurant fare in Adelaide must pale in comparison to New York (cut-off T-shirt thus bare shoulder, guys) that also seemed just a natural response AT THE TIME. But of course it exploded out of all reality and back into complete fantasy as soon as I sat down after they’d left for an interview about twenty minutes later, and re-ran what had just happened. The truth is, it was just a couple of people wandering along a beach having a chat over a very brief period of time … but it was a tale I’d have forever. Yowsa!! … beyond cloud nine I tell you. You become less affected by this sorta stuff as time goes on, but this was HUUUUGE to me at the time. It’s stored right up there in ‘Unfadeable Memories’ for me. OK, there’s a smattering of ego above, but a ton more pure youthful disbelief and excitedness.

Did I mention about going to the party afterwards, a couple days later? In Sydney? Well, the postscript to that is that – of course everyone has those girls that they looked up to, and in those days Debbie was the most beautiful girl in the world. So I’d done this walking on the beach thing, and that was great, and then three or four days later we’re all back in Sydney and they’re playing a gig here and there’s a party for them. Someone’s organized a party, and somehow we get invited. So we go to the gig and we go to this party. And I’m in the kitchen with my girlfriend and we’ve got three or four people I knew – not band guys, but just customers and people I knew – friends. And into the party walks Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, and they walk through the kitchen, because the lounge room is past the kitchen. And she goes “Jules! Hi! How are you?”

Imagine what that’s like? I mean, Debbie Harry, THE most beautiful girl in the fucking world, walks in and acknowledges you in front of your girlfriend, in front of your friends. I’d obviously already told my girlfriend about what happened, but I hadn’t told other people. It was like – “You know her? She knows … you?” It was just the biggest ego boost that I’ve ever had in my entire life. I was in seventh heaven. Because she didn’t come and say hi and just keep going. She came in and stood there with Chris a bit and we just sort of chatted. And I introduced her to my girlfriend and blah blah. We had a great time. And then the party mingled on, but I just remember that. That was fucking amazing, as you can imagine. Because she was everyone’s pin-up.

(continues overleaf)

Going back to when Radio Birdman split up – did you start the Phantom shop when you came back to Australia?

No. I came back about six months later. I travelled around Europe and did all that sort of stuff. I crewed on a yacht in the Mediterranean for about 3 months. And I ended up in Los Angeles for a job (in a record one-stop) that I’d set up when I was in Australia with a guy that I used to buy stock from. And the day I arrived there, with 20 dollars in my pocket and no return airfare – I had 20 bucks! – but I had a place to stay with this guy Duncan, and I got there and he went “the boss asked if you’ve got a green card. You have got one, haven’t you, mate?” And I went “No, no, I thought it was all OK”. And he said, “Oh, no, you have to have a green card. You can’t get a job without a green card.” And I said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought it was all OK”. So I couldn’t work.

So I arrive there Friday afternoon, and he comes home from work and goes “Job’s off”. So I went “Holy fuck. No money, 20 dollars and no return airfare.” Nothing in Australia, no money anywhere.

But the next day Dare rings up! Out of the blue, he’d tracked me down at Duncan’s place, and he says “I’ve started that record shop I was telling you about. Remember when we were on the Birdman tour I was telling you I was going to maybe start a record shop? Well I did it. I’ve bought all the stock, I’ve started a shop, and we need someone to buy 60s punk records and singles for us. Can you do it? If I send you money, will you go around buying 60s punk records and psychedelic records and send them back to me?”

And I was like “Will I what?”. So that was my job. I lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco for seven months while every two weeks I’d go down to the bank and pick up eight or nine hundred dollars – that was always what he sent – and stick it in my bloody pocket and wander around and buy second hand records. Box ‘em up and send ‘em back to Australia for this new shop Phantom that Dare Jennings had started.

So he kept ringing me trying to get me to come back, and the offer kept getting better and better, and he actually ended up giving me a third of the shop to convince me to come back. I didn’t buy into it or anything. I was having a good time and I didn’t want to come back. How good is it being paid fo r…

… being a professional record shopper …

Yeah, a professional record buyer buying your favourite music? It was ridiculous. It was the best job anyone could have. I mean, I could go anywhere that records were ever made. I could go to South America, or all over America. I’d have spent years doing this. It seemed like the absolute perfect job. I’d buy stuff and put a percentage on it, and keep the balance.

So with that offer he talked me into coming back eventually, so I came back in July of 1979, and straight into managing the shop, because he just wasn’t happy with staff. He wanted someone who had managing experience to take the shop to the next level. And so I fulfilled that role, and it worked.

I was good at managing a record shop, because I was good at selling records that I loved. One thing I was good at was being completely honest about what it sounds like. If you like blah blah blah you’ll love that, and that sort of thing. And being spot on. I suppose it’s just a talent that I have – one of the few talents that I have – but it was a good one to base a shop around.

So instead of having disco records and all that stuff that we had in the other shop, it was just like punk, soul, surf, psychedelic, 60s garage, and nothing else. That was it. That’s what we sold.

And you could imagine that people would just gravitate to a shop like that. And I had a really good off-sider, Steve Stavrakis, who eventually started Waterfront. He came in a few months later – the others all left. Steve was brilliant. We just got on like a house on fire. We had so much fucking fun in that place. It was just me and him basically. Dare would come in a couple times a week to see how things were going and have a laugh and a couple beers with us. It was great.

And the shop just took off. I just used to stay out the back a lot, and I used to write to all these magazines. The Bob magazine, and Bucketful Of Brains – any magazine that wrote down the address of the singles they reviewed. I used to write to them. I wrote to Hibtone to get the first R.E.M. single when it first came out. Because some guy wrote a review … it might have been Fred Mills. So I got one copy of it and I thought, wow this is great, so I got 50 more. You might pick up one in Sydney second-hand these days, because there were some around.

Being that I sell rare records these days, I benefit so much from the stock that I brought in back then. Those records – a lot of them have become really collectible. So I get to buy it back. It’s a pretty good thing. I love that.

I used to write to bands all the time. I’d get things that no one ever heard of. Like the Milkshakes, remember the Milkshakes? I got one copy of their very first single and I went fucking hell, this is incredible, it’s REALLY like the Kinks or the Yardbirds – the Kinks more so. I couldn’t believe how good it was, so melodic and tough as all hell. So I wrote to the address on the back and struck up this relationship with Billy Childish. And I sold 150 copies of that single in my shop alone! They only made a thousand, so 150 came to one shop in Australia! And all I did was, I wrote this huge big review of it, like the same size as the record cover, stuck it on a bit of cardboard above the record cover, put it on the box on the counter with like 40 or 50 of them in this box, and highlighted the words like Kinks, Yardbirds, Stones – if you like those, and ranted about it a bit, and they just fucking walked out the door. I didn’t even have to sell them. A few people I had to sell them to, but basically people would just pick it up and say “Is it that good?”, and I’d go yep. And they’d go “I’ll take it”. So I sold 150 of that goddamn record.

And when their album came out, the very first album, which is quite rare, I sold 150 of that as well. They only made a thousand of that, too. So I was really proud of that. I did lots of that sort of stuff. That’s just an example, though it’s a big example. The quantity was huge. A Lot of times I’d only sell 20 or 30 of something, but still, I put a lot of effort into doing that. And I loved it, because the greatest thing for me having a record shop was turning people on to new music that they just loved, and they’d come back and tell me “Fuck mate, Sussex – Treat Me Kind – what an incredible song. Thanks for making me buy that. I only came in to buy the latest Blue Oyster Cult album and you made me buy this, and fuck, I can’t believe how good it is.” I’d get things like that. That sort of stuff happened.

I sold tons of power pop and garage. And I started going back to America on buying trips. This was before too many people were doing that really. They certainly weren’t doing it from Australia. I think people from overseas might have traipsed around America a bit in the seventies. But in 1979 and 1980 I went back to America about three times with a load of money and just bought tons. I found this massive sixties punk collection – a guy had this huge 60s collection in Texas that filled four houses. He was an old guy, about 77 years old. He had four, no five houses. He lived in one of them and the other four were full of records. One was all country and western, one was all lps – it took me about two days to go through that, because there was a lot of country and western stuff in there. And it took me NINE days to go through these two houses of singles. They were completely and utterly alphabetical, and there was no country or anything in there, not even Englebert Humperdink records – that ‘pop’ sort of thing. It was just like ‘band’ sort of records mostly. Two houses of them!

Well, part of one house did have a male vocalist and female vocalist section, and a soul section. But the rest of it was just all bands. One and a half houses full! I’m talking about three bedroom houses with every room including the kitchen having records all around it. Neatly! Really neatly! It was all really tidy, neat shelves, and every record was 100% alphabetical. So the A section would be an entire wall. It was outrageous. And there was a record player there, so I would go through there and I’d pull out all the ones I knew, and I’d pull out all the ones where I sort of thought “Hmmm, the Headstones, never heard of them, sounds good” you know? I’d pull out “Bad Day Blues” and put it on and go “fucking hell!” I’d play the first three millimeters of the record, sort of 8 revolutions, and go “yep, this garage”, and then move the needle two thirds of the way through the song where the guitar solo should be for it to be really perfect, if it’s the ideal song, and it would be some roaring fuzz solo, and you’d go “fuck, all right! That goes in the pile I’ll take.”

So I’d go back and look at Headstones. He’s got 12 more copies! And they’re all mint! Everything was mint, because he bought deletion stock and he’d been doing it since 1945 – an outrageous number of years. Way back. So I bought this amazing collection.

There was one price guide called Osborne and Hamilton that was out at the time. They stopped doing price guides a while ago. We had the current one at the time – 1979 or something. But anything that was in there, the old guy, John L. Taylor was his name, he’d charge me half of what the listed mint price was. The only thing that was expensive in those guides were Presley rarities and stuff like that. Any sort of obscure thing just wasn’t in there. Or you might find 13th Floor Elevators in there. But anything more obscure than that, anything that WASN’T in the guide at all, like things on one-off labels, was a dollar! Everything! So I’d buy 12 copies of the Headstones single for a dollar each. Or 27 copies of 13th Floor Elevators “Reverberation”, which was in there, but it said three dollars mint, so it was a dollar 50. Half the listed mint price. It was incredible! The stuff I brought back to Australia was just phenomenal.

(continues overleaf)

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One Response to The Big Beat In The Heart Of The Vinyl Jungle

  1. julian_k July 18, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    Jules Normington. Legend. Gentleman. Living icon of Australian independent music. This deserved to be redistributed!

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