Sister Ray

Sister Ray

Words Martin Copland-Gray

Photography Manu Zafra

“I do think people quite like vinyl as a product because it is timeless, it is a fabulous piece of kit, it feels great, it sounds great. You have to engage with it, you have to actually put the damn thing on the record player and half-way through you have to turn it over!”

Those of us old enough to remember our first meeting with vinyl can claim to have experienced an almost religious moment. The dazzling cover art of something like Led Zeppelin IV, the paper sleeve gently holding the beautifully crafted disc of black gold in place, carefully sliding it out to hold at its edges, slowly placing the vinyl down on the turntable and then finally taking the playing arm from its resting place and ever so gently placing it in the groove at the start of the record.  All this before the music has even started!

For Phil Barton of Sister Ray Records on Berwick Street, vinyl has been his life. His introduction to record shops was in Whitstable, where he grew up. “I used to go and buy my Sham 69 7” in a store there, and from then on I thought record shops were really cool. Then I went to college in Nottingham and I used to walk past this shop called Selectadisc, I ended up buying it eventually – one of the stupidest things I ever did!  Anyway I walked in and said ‘can I have a job?’ And they’re like, ‘We haven’t got any!’ So I kept going in and going in until they gave me a job! I was working nights in a pork pie factory and then I was working in the record shop. It was the most fantastic thing I’d ever done.”

Later, whilst enjoying a successful career working for EMI, as a salesman for Parlophone he met Neil Brown who had a record store in Soho.  As he says, “I was one of the first reps to pop in and say do you wanna buy some of our gear? They opened an EMI account and I sold them stock. Not a problem. Back then you could sell anything to anyone.”

For followers of Soho music culture, Number 34 Berwick Street is forever enshrined in popular culture as it features on the front cover of Oasis’ classic album (What’s the story) Morning Glory?. Of course that was when the store was named Selectadisc and was owned by Brian Selby who also owned the store in Nottingham that gave Phil his first stab in the music business, “I’ve known Brian all my life who sadly died a few years ago and he said to me – look I’ve had enough of being in London, do you want to buy the shop? So Neil and I got some money together, the days when you could borrow money, and we bought it. It was a stupid thing to do in 2003 because in 2007 it was on its knees and we went into administration and I bought it back with some help for a ludicrously small amount. We started it up again without any costs and I paid everybody back eventually. We’re still here in 2015, over the road in a new unit and it’s actually making money. For the first time we don’t have to look over our shoulders and think ‘who are we not going to pay this month?’ We’re in a good position and that’s because people are buying vinyl records and the reason I think is that people like shopping, they like the physical piece of product.”

So how have things changed since our love of vinyl has returned even though we seem to be heavily entrenched in the age of downloads and MP3s? Phil seems to think that people have wised up to how music is now being made and marketed – “It’s because downloads don’t sound very good.  Most people don’t back their stuff up really. So, if your computer gets corrupted or whatever, then you’ve lost it all. I do think people quite like vinyl as a product because it is timeless, it is a fabulous piece of kit, it feels great, it sounds great. You have to engage with it, you have to actually put the damn thing on the record player and halfway through you HAVE to turn it over!”

As a fan of The Who and The Clash, with a pretty impressive record collection himself what does he think of the current music scene? “I’m not gonna knock it because it’s a sound in itself. There’s probably going to be a genre that we’ll look back at in 10 years’ time and it’ll be MP3 Pop or something because there’s no physical record of a lot of it. A lot of stuff kids are exchanging will never exist on anything other than MP3. A lad who used to work here has gone to work for a dance label and they don’t release anything physically.”

There’s been a Sister Ray, named after the Velvet Underground song, in Soho since the shop first opened at 94 Berwick Street, down at the Market end, 1988, which is due to be redeveloped in the next 6 months.  At one time there were 20 record shops in Soho, a specialist shop for every single genre you could imagine, but now there are only six left.  After being on the street nearly 27 years, Phil can be proud of what he and his colleagues have achieved over that time. “I don’t look over my shoulder and think they were the good old days. You have to look forward, you have to realise that things are different. What I do love is that I do love vinyl records and I do realise that there is a niche for someone doing it really well and if your shop looks good and you have a good amount of stock, interesting stock, and every time you walk in there’s something different there then people keep coming back and I like that.  I like to think that what we do here people appreciate because we work really hard at it. We clean the records, we grade the records, we look after the stock. We take a bit of pride in what we do and we really want to put on a show so when people walk in they’re like ‘Oh wow!’”

With vinyl back on the up once more and the likes of Paul Weller, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page walking through the doors to purchase albums from Mod to Blues, World Music and beyond, as well as another Record Store Day looming in April, life is pretty good for this Soho institution. But for Phil his most favourite moment of the last quarter of a century was when an exhibition on The Clash was held in Berwick Street. The Sister Ray store was used as a chill out area and, as Phil remembers, “To have Mick Jones stand downstairs in your shop, rolling a spliff on your photocopier, going ‘I love your shop mate it’s great’ and them being my favourite band of all time, ever… it’s rather nice!

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