Monday, December 03, 2012

1980s/'90s MELBOURNE RECORD SHOP RUNDOWN, PART 2...

For myself, and probably for many others, there was no greater record store in the land circa the late '80s/early '90s than Au-Go-Go. I first discovered the store in 1987, soon after it opened in its first location at the end of a dingy-looking arcade (actually, more of a hallway, as there was nothing else down there) in Little Collins Street in the city. It was like a hidden treasure chest. There was no store frontage, and was tucked away to a point where you had to know it was there. You wouldn't just stumble upon it. Again, it was a daunting experience: the shop was pretty small (although I'm told that the back area was quite large, housing stock for distribution/export), was cluttered with vinyl both on the racks and on the floor, workers were in and out all the time and everyone seemed so busy and, uh, important. Wow, there's Leapin' Larry L, 3RRR "comic celebrity", behind the counter! At the time, Dave "Dog Meat" Laing and Max Crawdaddy (another well-known 3RRR dude) were working there - and I knew who they were - although I didn't know what they looked like. It was a hive of activity, enough to do a shy and retiring 15-year-old music nerd's head in, truth be told, but luckily the first employee I encountered and engaged with was Bevan Roberts, a New Zealand emigre and serious collector who'd landed a job there after a brief career as a civil engineer. Bevan is still a good friend, a complete music maniac and renaissance man who went on to co-run the Death Valley and Afterburn labels with Scotti (more on him later), manage Polyester Records and Sister Ray in Fitzroy, then had a number of years back at Greville before starting up Dragonfly Discs in the city with Matty Whittle (ex-GOD and former Au-Go-Go employee), a budget-oriented outlet which closed a couple of years back. But I'm getting ahead of myself here...

Au-go-go, as you may know, started off life as a record label in the post-punk era, notably releasing records by the Scientists and the Moodists, among many others. Bruce Milne and Philip Morland were the originators, although Morland left in the early '80s and (perhaps wisely) exited the music biz. Coincidentally, Philip had his own office for his filing business next to mine in 2004 when I was renting a small storage space as a place of work, and we became friends the moment music was brought up and he told me his history. Philip: one day, when we meet again, I will give you back your Essendon Airport LP and fanzines you leant me. Au-go-go branched out into distribution, mailorder and export, and by 1987 the time was right for Au-go-go the store.

In 1988, the shop moved to bigger premises, a two-story building not far away on Little Bourke Street which became a goddamn mecca for music junkies. I'm told the building used to house a gun shop. Upstairs was secondhand and collectibles, and downstairs was new stock, t-shirts, fanzines, etc. By then, the label had had a major indie hit w/ GOD's "My Pal", licensed happenin' titles by Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers and Big Black and would soon go onto sell a bucketload of Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr. LPs (and later on it would do very well w/ the Meanies, Magic Dirt, Spiderbait, Jon Spencer, et al). "Grunge" and its associated brethren (the SST/Touch & Go crowd) was a strong focus of the store, as well as the hot domestic music of the day (Hard-Ons, Bored!, feedtime, King Snake Roost, the kinda stuff covered in B-Side, etc.)... or maybe they were just my focus. Like their "sister" store in Sydney, Waterfront Records, Au-go-go had its finger firmly on the pulse of the best underground rock & roll of the era, but Au-go-go was also eclectic and likely covered a lot of good music I was completely oblivious to at the time.

Without pissing in anyone's pocket, for me, what set the store apart was the quality of the staff: lifers such as Bevan (a guy who'd always note what I was buying and make recommendations of other discs I'd dig); Irish transplant Dom Molumby (Australia's biggest VU devotee, bar none, and so much more besides); resident comedian, ex-Missing Linker and future Greville employee Steve "Pig" Morgan, who was also managing Ollie Olsen's No at the time and was known for photographing every second gig in town; Glenn Terry, who went on to found the hardcore-collector-oriented Vicious Sloth outlet 20-odd years ago; Scotti Campbell (commonly known at the time as "Scotti from Au-go-go" or "Scotti from Resistant Harmony", as no one ever knew his surname: the guy is a goddamn saint, always encouraging me in my pursuits, collaborating on projects and basically being the kind of selfless, committed mofo the world needs more of); and later, people such as ex-Perth vet, Pat Monaghan (ex-Dada dude who's been at Basement Discs the past decade); Synaesthesia avant-monkey/demi-god, Mark Harwood, who flew the flag in the upstairs secondhand dept. for a while; Richie Ramone (future Tote co-owner, along w/ Bruce Milne, and now proud owner of Homeless Records); Matty Whittle, who ran the mailorder division for years; Tom Larnach-Jones (Trifekta Records label), an old Shock workmate of mine who worked there in the late '90s... but again, I'm going outside of my allotted time frame of 1985-'93.

Purchases? I had but many. I recall acquiring mind-benders such as Double Nickels On The Dime, the Meat Puppets' first 3 LPs, Milo Goes To College, Thug, Badgwearer, Half Japanese, Swans, Wipers, Die Kreuzen, Twin Infinitives, My Dad Is Dead, Pere Ubu, Naked City, Chrome and many others from Au-go-go. Forced Exposure? My first exposure was via Au-go-go. There's one piece of the puzzle I haven't mentioned yet: there was actually an Au-go-go store in Geelong in the early '80s (a seaside regional city 50 km from Melbourne, if your grasp of Victorian geography is lacking), I'm told, though I never visited them, and from (and I'm jogging my memory here) roughly 1990-'92 there was a second Au-go-go outlet, situated in Malvern. Malvern is an unbelievably dull, very wealthy suburb in the inner eastern suburbs, a place of lush trees, large mansions and wide streets where absolutely nothing ever happens. I'm still not sure why Bruce and co. (he was running the biz w/ his partner, Greta Moon, at the time) decided that opening such a store in a squaresville burg like Malvern was a bright idea, but it obviously wasn't. Hey, I didn't mind it being there - it was relatively easy for me to pass through on the way home from uni or work, and if I was mooching a ride off someone, it was much cheaper and easier than trying to find a park in the city - but the good people of Malvern just didn't understand. I recall talking to an employee at the time, and they said their biggest problem was the inordinate number of people walking through the door looking for John Farnham CDs. Au-go-go just wasn't the store for them. I still recall - like I said last time: I have an amazing memory for the things in life which don't really matter - buying Die Kreuzen's Century Days there in mid 1990 and Chrome's Half Machine Lip Moves/Alien Soundtracks CD a couple of months later - so even if the store could be considered a failure from a financial/cultural point of view, it did provide some crucially important services to yours truly.

Now that I'm almost grown up, have a real job, a mortgage and a family, I rarely frequent record stores. I simply don't have the time, and I learnt very early on that there's nothing kids find more boring than accompanying a parent whilst they shop for something they're totally not interested in. It drives them nuts, and when they're driven nuts, it's contagious. But certainly back in the pre-'net world (and likely still now: I don't mean to imply that this relationship doesn't still exist today for many) visiting fave record stores was a goddamn primary focus of one's life. I visited Au-go-go weekly for many years. During the summer of 1991 I worked a temp job in the accounts department of a life insurance company for extra cash over the break. The money was great, the work sucked. Visiting Au-go-go every day at lunchtime, as it was just a block from the office, gave me a sense of liberation from the zombified atmosphere of my dunderhead work colleagues, and coincidentally, I blew a small fortune in the store that season. Why didn't I just ask someone there about a job? Because I was a schmuck.

One thing which has changed in the past 20 years of independent record stores is their ability, if the release in question is right up their alley, to sell vast quantities of key releases. It's not out of the question that an indie music outlet can still sell decent quantities of certain titles, but when the bricks & mortar store was the only outlet one could procure much-desired releases from, a shop could sell hundreds of copies of the hits of the day. Mudhoney, The Hard-Ons, Bored!: these kinds of bands trucked out the door in the hundreds. Suicidal Tendencies' Join The Army, not so much so. When it was released in 1987 there was much anticipation upon its release - hell, I loved the first album and I wanted to hear it - so Bruce specially ordered 200 copies from Virgin at a good price, expecting to race through them in no time. Thing is, the consensus on the album was that it sucked (and did it ever), and Au-go-go was stuck with a mountain of the thing, stinking up its bargain bin like a pair of dirty socks for a long time thereafter. You win some, you lose some. In mid 1992, the store suddenly had a few racks full of imports going cheap, and it was a bounty. I was informed that a store in Canada had gone under and Bruce had bought the stock. Yo La Tengo, My Dad Is Dead, The Scene Is Now, Mofungo, even the original pressing of Simply Saucer's Cyborgs Revisited: all brand new and all going out the door at dirt-cheap prices. Out came the vultures...

There were also the live instore performances to consider. I'd like to consider them, except, to be honest, I can't recall that many memorable ones. The problem with instores, I've found as both a consumer and someone who's been behind the counter, is that, whilst it may happen to bring in many people to the store (or at least hopefully it will) - people who may or may not purchase something whilst they're there - it can also halt trade whilst the instore performance is taking place. Case in point being when the Geelong Fugazi-worshippers, Food, played there in, what, 1993 or so? They had a disc on the Au-go-go label, so there's certainly no reason why they shouldn't have played there, but I didn't wanna see them. I just wanted to buy some records and, err, probably the latest issue of Maximum Rock & Roll. But I couldn't because the employees had placed sheets over all the racks to prevent theft. I wound up leaving, going down the road and buying something at Missing Link instead. The point of this story? There is none, none at all.

The store and label haven't existed for nearly a decade. Bruce Milne sold his half of the business in the late '90s and it was subsequently owned solely by Greta Moon: soon thereafter, things started sliding. It's not up to me to say who did what wrong, but I can only assume that, at least financially, it wasn't getting the love it needed. During the late '90s, Missing Link, which was just down the road, was booming by having rode the wave of the "punk revival" and being the sole focus of the hardcore scene, but Au-go-go was stumbling badly, not having the available funds to get new releases on time or at all, and a vicious cycle like that is a hard one to recover from. In its last few years it moved down the laneway to the second floor of a building, and its loss of street-level space only made matters worse. Its last few years were a pretty depressing experience for all involved, and I visited it infrequently, knowing that, the occasional secondhand acquisition aside, I wasn't likely to find it much different from the past half-dozen times I'd passed through its door. When Scotti left in 2002 to work at Missing Link, I knew it was all over. He'd been there since 1988, and wouldn't leave if he hadn't seen the writing clearly on the wall.

As early as 2003, downloading and other factors started to affect music retailers, and compounded with their other financial problems, the store couldn't go any further and called it a day. At the risk of sounding callous, or even mean, I'm not being dishonest when I say that few people mourned the passing of the store when it finally shut. Or maybe it was just me who didn't mourn its passing. It'd been running on empty for a few years and it was almost like a dying horse whom you were glad to see put out of its misery. Not the best way to go, but the music business is one of the cruelest businesses of them all. Greta is, I'm told by several people, actually training to be a neuropsychiatrist these days, and is still involved in the wine business - one of the most unexpected and successful mid-life career changes I've ever heard of - Bruce still has his fingers in several pies and deals in rare and secondhand records and other ex-staffers seem to be doing OK. Somebody forgot to ever take down their web site (it hasn't been updated since it shut!), and you can relive the memories right here.

7 comments:

Xmorula said...

Small correction Greta is training to become a neuropsychiatrist, no scalpels required, in Qld. She also co-owns Moon Wines.

Dave said...

Corrected. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

what a fantastic story. I too used to go in every week and hunt through the collectibles and imported vinyl. it was a mecca for me too. when I got my first job, which was on hardware lane, I used to lash out and buy a record a week from au go go , or gas light records up bourke st.

Richard Mohr said...

Amazing stuff Dave. You should think about a book for this series.

David said...

Thanks for the reminders, Dave. I'd like to give a shout out to Rodney, who worked there on weekends, back when I could only come in on Saturdays (I think around 1992), who played through a stack of $1 7" singles for me, which neither of us knew anything about. Pre-internet, this was the only way to get to hear unknown bands, and aside from some fun groups and turkeys, I discovered the Urinals that day, one of my favourite groups ever.

I'm looking forward to your histories of the other places ...

Marshall Stacks said...

was the first Au-Go-Go shopfront near Somerset Place corner of Little BOURKE Street? (not Lt Collins).

Great history.

Kerrie said...

Marshall, The first City store was Little Collins St, near the corner of Queen St, down a green-tiled hallway that looked like an aquarium. The building was demolished and is now a featureless apartment hotel.

3PBS radio presenter Kim Walvisch was another 'famous' staffmember.

In regard to Au-Go-Go's Malvern branch, it actually bought out the Gaslight store that had been in that location for some time. Just up the road was Pet Sounds records, another well-esteemed and longrunning store (later became Quality Records) and there were VERY decent op-shops and at least one other record store in the area, making the area a worthwhile destination. Also it was a short-ish ride down the tramtracks from Glenferrie which also had some music shops (Exposure a bit further up). A fair number of the customers were cashed-up private schoolkids from the many local schools- a mixed blessing as some were genuinely interested in music and had the financial means to pursue it, others were excruciatingly rude and 'entitled'.
The mail-order and distribution arm used to be run out of the Malvern store, and the then nascent Shock Records distribution absorbed a section of it (and staff) to bolster their burgeoning empire which was to skyrocket in the next few years.

If anyone wants to track down the former Au-Go-Go site, it is now Malvern Fish Supply (itself relocated from across the road and at one time purveyors of the finest fried seafood in Melbourne IMHO). Look for the kangaroo gargoyle, and imagine a massive record painted on the circular 1st floor pediment.