Shopping drama: retail divas RIP

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A tribute to Pete Burns, and many others

Late ‘70s Leeds was monochrome, hacked apart by urban motorways, choked with disused factories and fringed with bleak system-built housing. It was a metropolis of lost purpose – at least in my recollection.

Nevertheless, every Saturday, my bus ground into the centre, past shops with names like “We Buy ‘Owt”. It transporting a couple of friends and I to a secret, alien outpost – X-Clothes.  Fluorescent spandex, zips, bondage straps, bum flaps and Tom-of-Finland inspired iconography marked it out as Yorkshire’s premier punk outfitters. It was a place of adoration and worship for those of us with spiked hair and safety-pin pierced septums.

On an early visit, I pushed past the mohair jumpers and brothel creepers to the counter intending to buy two pairs of neon socks. I planned on wearing contrasting hues on left and right feet. Before requesting the hosiery, however, the accessories beneath the glazed counter caught my attention.  Flushed with unexpected self confidence, I enquired: “why are those bangles so small”, indicating a selection of variously-sized plastic loops.

The young man behind the counter narrowed his heavily kholed eyes the better to fix me with a withering look. He flicked a curl of inky hair and pouted slightly. PVC trousers encased his stick legs and his nipples were revealed by a top fashioned from netting. His face appeared to have been dusted with flour.  “Not bangles, dearie, those are cock rings” he shot back at me, nasal high camp buttressed by northern vowels.

He was Marc Almond who two years later would top the charts with Tainted Love.  I was fourteen.

The incident emerged from my mental recesses when I read some of the Tweets lamenting Pete Burns’ death.  Long before Big Brother, cosmetic surgery, pop stardom or his spooky all-black contact lenses, Burns, it transpires, was the legendary Saturday boy at Liverpool’s Probe Records.  Nervous customers would approach him carrying their putative purchases only to be ignored, scolded or excoriated for their poor taste.  Luckier shoppers were dispatched back to the record racks with recommendations of which Burns approved.  So forbidding was his reputation that many customers attest to hanging back rather than asking Burns to ring up their goods.

Almond and Burns were by no means the only shop assistant superstars of that era.  In every city with an independent record shop or clothing outlet, striking, bewildering, provocative-looking staff tempted, taunted and oftentimes terrified those who crossed their thresholds. Many were performers enacting tableau of attitude and fashion innovation against cramped retail backdrops. Doubtless they earned peanuts, but they were scene-defining artists preening at the subcultural apex.

It is a phenomena that almost certainly existed from the late 1960s. Johnny Moke had an early incarnation as a shop assistant at Granny Takes A Trip, on the Kings Road, before becoming an influential shoe designer.  Vivian Westwood seemingly employed half the faces of punk London at the shop she and Malcolm McLaren ran on the same street, Chrissy Hynde, Glen Matlock, Sid Vicious and Jordan among them.

I long ago departed the youthful milieu.  My sense, however, is that the days of such independent shops and their exotic staff are largely gone – save in a handful of outposts.  Little wonder.  Punk and its progeny was long-ago appropriated by the mainstream.  Newspapers once shocked by the Sex Pistols, today gush over trending tropes the moment they surface.  And the internet provides shopping arcades, hangouts and conversation spaces to nurture niche interests whose enthusiasts once relied on physical congregation.

I might shed tears for the bedroom divas and fashion mavericks like Burns and Almond for whom retail once provided a stage.  Since the advent of YouTube, however, anyone an ounce of imagination and strut in their soul is pulling moves for an audience with smartphones. Video channels provide those who swim against the mainstream a scarcely comprehensible range of opportunities to create and share. Pre-teens, and many others beside, feverishly upload vlogs, videos and craft their personal brands in bandwidth-busting volumes.

Am I envious?  Perhaps.  But I would not trade all the ‘likes’ in the clickosphere for the heart-pounding experience of entering a space of unfamiliar smells and sounds, to deal with luminous emissaries from a distant, magical planet to which I dared myself to imagine I might one day travel? Not likely.

Rest in peace, shop idols.