The beleaguered record and its shops have been the subject of much anxiety and many elegiac musings in the past decade. As more independent record shops close down and large music chains tread the uncertain path of receivership, the fetishization of music, especially vinyl, has kicked into feverish proportions. Directed and produced by Jeanie Finlay, Sound It Out: The Very Last Record Shop in Teesside, UK, is one of the more beautiful, understated tributes to independent record shops and their fans. Finlay has created an empathetic portrait of the struggle of the last independent record retailer in northeast England, and its standing as a cipher for community and escape. Between static shots of the grotesque bulges of chemical works, the more than apt metaphor of Teessaurus Park, and the seemingly ubiquitous closing out signs in shop windows, she captures the daily activity of the Stockton record shop, its workers, and its customers. Although so much of the film primes you to pity the inhabitants of the area and to abhor the sheer, paint-peeling malaise, you ultimately feel drawn into the world they make for themselves in a tiny, cramped shop on a nondescript side street. Despite the fact that I find it unfortunate that this documentary claims nearly all record collectors are male (I can’t dispute their statistics, but I can dispute their broad gender assumptions), it does present the little, joyous details that make music fans the curators of their own glorious worlds.
Finlay doesn’t profile the typical “hipster” music fans one might associate with independent record shop culture. The majority of her interviewees are fans of the indie-kid-sneerworthy: metal, makina, Meat Loaf, and Status Quo. While my own musical tastes (and music organizational habits) most align with Chris, the quiet insurance auditor sporting a Boards of Canada t-shirt, I could understand B&Q worker Shane’s excitement over seeing his favourite band, the Quo, a ridiculous number of times and living off the high for a fortnight, and I could identify with Gareth, the metal fan who needs music in his ears nearly all the time to escape his mundane environment. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Finlay shows the various music fans singing, playing air guitar, DJing, and reading the liner notes to their favourite songs; the implication, of course, is how all of these fans are equally absorbed in something beyond their circumstances. Finlay, originally from Stockton herself, never patronizes the shop’s patrons. As the film progresses, you find yourself focalizing through Tom, the shop owner. Though he admits to disliking some of the music being purchased in his shop and though he often wears a facial expression halfway between nonplussed and resigned, he still wants to talk to every customer and sees them as equally passionate as he is. You may begin the film by laughing and cringing at the idiosyncratic habits of the fans Finlay chooses to follow, but by the end, you realize that you probably have more in common with them than you do with your non-music-fan friends. You also realize that this documentary is about far more than the sad reality of record sales and record shops.
It seems that almost any discussion involving UK culture turns into one about social class. Whether a band is too public-school-educated to be authentic, or too working class to be taken seriously, economic class and its calcification find their way into the popular music discourse. With its scenes of people attempting to sell stolen goods to Tom and the discussion with many interviewees ending in talk of unemployment, Finlay’s documentary becomes about much larger, complex issues of dying industry, social decay, and the ways in which they are forgotten and ignored. Growing up in a house in which money was a constant concern and in which the security of said house was in doubt for well over a decade, I felt class quite pertinently, much more than race or gender. While I would consider myself to be in a more privileged position than many of the people featured in Sound It Out, I feel quite strongly working class. It’s not just class that makes me feel more affinity for the documentary than many might. In one of the key thematic moments of the film, Tom says that records hold memories. In my case, this visual document of aural collection forced me into some serious recollection of my own.
My first two trips to England were to Teesside. For better or worse, my first impression and understanding of England came from spending a total of five and a half months—over the course of two years—living in a private housing estate called Ingleby Barwick on the outskirts of Stockton-on-Tees. The first trip happened just after high school graduation, the second immediately after my first year of university. Needless to say, I was relatively ignorant when it came to the sociopolitical and cultural climates of the UK. As a citizen of a former British colony, which didn’t revolt but slowly slipped away through a series of British North America Acts, Britishness was still very much a part of my subconscious and my enculturation as a Canadian; however, I had no personal ties to Britain, nor did I have Internet access until I was nineteen, and was thus separated from the quintessential context of life in other countries that weren’t Canada or the United States. Most of my knowledge of England, and for that matter, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, came from cultural exports. High school English classes were dominated by the usual male suspects of the British canon—Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, Hardy, Blake, and Shaw—and my childhood was filled with surreal, pastoral notions of England like those found in Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, Narnia, and the stories of King Arthur. As a child, for all I knew, all English people were characters in Mary Poppins or Robin Hood, and as laughable as it may seem now, I remember being distinctly disturbed and confused when confronted with Billy Elliot and its depiction of a history never taught in school. And by the time I was seventeen, I had the skewed idea that Britain was dominated by synthpoppers in extravagant outfits, boy/girl/girl-boy pop groups with stilted dance routines, and a smattering of Britpop bands about which I had very vague conceptions of champagne supernovas, common people, and paranoid love in the 90s. Until I visited it, to me, England and its less than United Kingdom were a homogenous mass with vastly more history than my home country. And more castles. And perhaps more chimney sweeps.
You ask, why spend two summers in one of the most depressed regions of the UK? At the time, I had a friend whose father was a pilot working for a company that spent half the year flying to vacation destinations out of Canada and the other half of the year flying to vacation destinations out of the UK. My flight, accommodation, and food were either essentially free or at a low cost, and I was always more than willing to see more of the world. I had only been to parts of mainland Europe the year before as part of a school trip, and while I wasn’t quite an anglophile yet, I did quite desperately want to experience England. My friend ended up living numerous springs and summers in the UK, and I joined her on three more of them, one in the East Midlands, and another two in Cardiff.
That first summer in Ingleby Barwick nearly twelve years ago was most definitely full of rain and oppressive grey skies, but viewed through the golden, naïve lens of the youth telescope, it was a genuinely fun time. We were living in a house which was an average size by Canadian standards, and we were generally shuttled about by my friend’s father, who drove us to tourist spots like Whitby, York, Edinburgh, and even all the way to London for a few days. I knew that our two closest cities were Stockton and Middlesbrough, but the rest of my sense of geography was a bit fuzzy. Though Ingleby Barwick seemed to be a predominately residential area with its own pubs, convenience stores, schools, and Safeway, I didn’t grasp the significance of this hived-off community. In my Canadian mindset, it felt like many artificial suburbs do at home. I didn’t think much of it, and I suppose I didn’t spend enough time in Stockton and Middlesbrough to observe contrasts. I was still too fascinated by the more superficial differences like high street chains, heavy accents, Citrus Sharp Polos, and of course, castles.
We spent a few evenings hanging out with some local kids by the convenience store car park. They seemed just as bored and disenchanted as any adolescent would be living in a suburb without reliable transportation to bigger cities. Andy, Stuart, Mary Ann, Sarah, and David taught us the difference between pants and trousers, who PJ and Duncan were, and what L plates meant, but unsurprisingly, larger issues of culture didn’t come up. It was only on an excursion to Middlesbrough with our new tour guide Andy that I began to gain an inkling about the context of our vacation spot. While both my friend and I were university-bound, Andy was hoping to get into Teesside Tertiary College, but didn’t sound terribly confident about a future career. In one of the shops we went into, we struck up a conversation with the thirty-something owner. When we mentioned the cities we had visited and were planning to visit, he told us he had never been outside the Teesside area. He looked tired. I felt uncomfortable.
When I returned to Teesside for four months in 2001, I decided to work in order to earn some extra money for the following year’s tuition. I worked part-time at a pub in Yarm despite knowing almost next to nothing about beer, and got to know regulars who were very much like Sound It Out’s older, cheeky gentleman, who tells us you can find anything in Tom’s shop except for loose women from Taiwan. I also worked at an uncannily archaic movie theatre in the Teesside Leisure Complex. If the Grace Brothers owned a movie theatre, this would be it. My friend ended up working at the bowling alley in the same leisure park, and it was she who ended up bearing the brunt of our social ignorance. The fact that she was an outsider taking a job away from local people probably already made it a rather bitter situation. But when she unthinkingly mentioned where she was living, that her father was an airline pilot, and that she intended to be a medical doctor, the ostracism ensued. As much as the first summer had been about giddy exploration, the second summer was about slow dawns of reality. I started to see the north-south divide. I started to see the council housing a short bus ride away from Ingleby Barwick. I started to see the boredom borne from poverty and unemployment rather than from suburban isolation. I didn’t really receive the same negative treatment as my friend did. In fact, I was quite friendly with those I worked with. Michael, my co-worker at the theatre, even wanted to give me a mix CD, but he became part of the theatre’s high turnover and quit before he could. I often wonder if my co-workers’ attitudes towards me were different because I was more than just a tourist in a foreign country; by living with my friend and her family, I was also a tourist in a different social class. Perhaps that same difference in treatment and my liminal position of less affluence and less entitlement were what soured our friendship seven years later. Eventually, my halcyon holiday in another person’s privilege turned a bit Brideshead Revisited/The Line of Beauty, and the long stints in the UK ceased. And I haven’t been back to Teesside since 2001.
It’s easy to be cynical about schemes like Record Store Day. At the same time, Sound It Out shows just how important such a ploy is for independents. I may hold a more favourable perspective on the Internet and its role in mail order records, including the easy distribution it affords tiny record labels, than the subjects of Finlay’s film; however, I do still empathize with the need for some sort of physical sanctuary, where you can flip through dusty racks and experience serendipitous finds, and where you can talk to shop staff who want to share their favourite music with you. Even the last true record shop in my hometown doesn’t seem as friendly and as lovingly stocked as Sound It Out, or a myriad other British record shops I’ve been to. It’s a large part of why I’ll keep coming back over the Atlantic to buy my music.
Unfortunately, in all of my time in Teesside I never visited Sound It Out. At seventeen and eighteen I was still finding my musical tastes, and I wouldn’t have known what a haven a place like Sound It Out is. No matter. My musical education really started whilst in the UK, and I will always appreciate that. My time in Teesside works in strange tension with my musical memory. Incidental repetitions can embed deeper memories than they should or than you would like. If I were ever to hear Ronan Keating’s “Life is a Rollercoaster” again, I’d likely feel a bizarre bittersweetness. And sometimes I still wish I had that mix CD from Michael.
For more information, visit the Sound It Out site.