A Pleasant Illness: Thoughts From The Desk Of A Vinyl Nerd

  • I have been in a huge, even-more-time-consuming-than-I’d-thought-it-would-be phase of finetuning my record collection recently. I’d call it a spring clean, if it hadn’t gone on since long before spring and I felt totally confident that it is going to be 100% finished before summer. Part of my motivation comes from two conflicting factors: I don’t intend to stop buying records and my house is only big enough to host so many of them. But I’d be lying if my ever-increasing zest for editing wasn’t behind it too. In a way, it’s another version of the trimming and purifying I do when I’m working on a book. During the spring clean, I try to be really honest with myself about the music I love, and the music I really need in my life. Am I holding onto an LP purely because it’s got a great cover, or because I’ve always felt I should like it more, or because I feel a little sorry for it? Would it not be better to trade these three albums I think are… quite nice for the early pressing that I’ve always wanted of an album that attaches electrodes to my all senses then massages treacle into them? The aim is inevitably a kind of perfectionism, even though I know that, with the music you own, perfection is not possible. After all, a record collection – mine, anyway – is a constantly evolving narrative. How could it not be, when I am, too? However strongly held some of my musical views are, I have learned that they are far from concrete. I’ve bought and sold certain albums three times over the years before their intricate brilliance has finally hit me. I’ve also tried far too hard to like other records. I always hugely enjoy the initial part of the spring clean – pulling everything from the shelves and remembering just how much transcendental magic is in there – but eventually it leads to a kind of brain fog, especially if you’ve also acquired a few new records around the same time. You’ve test-driven so many albums, your judgement has become impaired, and because of this, the simplification and honesty you are aiming for can never be achieved. I tend to think of this as “Notorious Byrd Brothers Time”. It’s time to clear your mind by putting on a record you don’t need to evaluate, a record you have loved just as much ever since you first heard it – one of those records, in my case, being the pristine early pressing of the fifth Byrds album, 1968’s The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which my uncle Chris generously gave me in exchange for my CD reissue of the same record back in the late 90s.
  • That test-driving and the brain fog it will always ultimately lead to is, in a way, another version of what I used to experience when I was the Music Critic for a national newspaper. It is also one of the reasons you should never treat the opinion of any newspaper reviewer as sacrosanct. Every day, a pile of CDs would arrive at my house from record companies. I’d then have to very quickly thin this pile down to a shortlist of what I thought most deserving of space on the review pages. Then – also very quickly – write about why I thought these albums were good or bad or somewhere in between. I’d never mastered a musical instrument, worked in a recording studio, played a proper gig with a band, yet here I was, being entrusted as an arbiter of taste on a weekly basis in a publication purchased by a sizeable chunk of the UK population. It was nonsense. It is nonsense. I think if you stay aware of that, it’s ok. No music journalist is “right” or really can be and I doubt I’d have been any more right, if I had been a musician as well as a writer. Brian Eno was in Roxy Music, made some records of his own that verge on total genius, had a significant hand in helping Talking Heads briefly become the best band in the whole universe, is very well-read, has an incredibly fancy studio and a very intelligent and discerning pet cat, but no doubt would also give you lots of hasty and ill-thought out recommendations, if he was the Music Critic for a national newspaper. After all, he produced U2 and Coldplay, so how can you really trust him? “What do we think of this band?” an editor at another publication I once worked for would frequently ask the rest of the office. The idea – the one that people who worked for the publication believed gave it much of its authority – was that there has to be one perfect ruling taste. Which of course is utter bollocks, but also slightly not bollocks, because there’s a part of every music lover – no matter how cheap or shallow the things they enjoy are – which secretly believes their own taste should be the one perfect ruling taste and likes the idea of meeting people who also just happen to have that one perfect ruling taste. Yet that taste can change, so easily. I got it wrong quite a bit as a music reviewer – especially when given a very small side window of time to evaluate a record – and got it right a bit too. But what really is wrong, and what really is right? Frank Zappa likened writing about music to “dancing about architecture”. I sort of agree with this but also quite frequently find myself wanting to pull some shapes right there on the pavement, in front of strangers, when I see a conversation pit, some particularly fetching ziggurats or a 1960s butterfly roof. Also, I am very much not a fan of Zappa’s music, with the exception of the Hot Rats LP. Although in time that could change, and I reserve the right to let it.
  • I am on a self-imposed ban from the popular website discogs.com at present. The chief reason behind this is potential penury but, ignoring that, my belief is that Discogs is too easy: almost every obscure record you could ever want, right there, to be sent direct to your home address at the push of a button, if – and this is the rub – you have the money. I far prefer the adrenaline rush of the real hunt, out in the wild. I am not one to take Wants Lists to record fairs and shops. I prefer to go in loose, unencumbered, freeform, let myself be surprised, led by my instincts. “Oh, this record I have never previously heard of has flute and banjo on it and a psychedelic photo of the band surrounded by leaves on the cover, was made in 1969, and costs under £15? I will have to purchase it.” Something I have realised recently is just how much it’s ultimately about the hunt itself. I’m not going to get to the point where I have all the records I want, ever, and I’m never going to stop wanting to be surprised. Meanwhile, the historical aspect gets more interesting all the time. Once, I just hunted for a collection of sounds I like. Now, I’m still doing that, but I’m also more aware that I’m hunting for very beautifully made objects, usually over half a century old. I recently bought a handful of records from the late 1960s from a dealer. His prices were good: not disgustingly cheap but far better than Discogs or those you get at the average charity shop nowadays. He told me roughly how much he made from buying and selling vinyl – nowhere near enough for it to be his sole income. He said that for him it was more about preserving pieces of history than making money. To the cynic, that might sound like a line he was selling me but I feel sure it wasn’t, and that his passion was real (I’d already handed over the cash at this point). I increasingly experience a similar motivation to do the same. It’s often said that it would have been surprising to many of those involved in its production that the popular music of the 60s and early 70s has lasted in the way it has, but I’m not sure that’s fully true: so much thought went into cover art, logos, inserts, even cardboard quality at that point in time. Now, when I am looking at a very beautiful record that doesn’t quite sound as good as it promised to and wondering what to do with it, it’s a difficult decision. But I am not quite an archivist and I am certainly not doing this as an investment. I keep the stuff I love. But if it has just one banging song on it and a photo of a psychedelic horse on the cover, you can guarantee it’s staying.
  • At some point in the last fifteen years I have managed, despite my best intentions, to become what appears to be permanently separated from my first pressing of Scott 3 by Scott Walker. This is upsetting because it’s an increasingly rare and expensive artefact and it’s his second best album, but, even more so, because I associate it with a very happy memory. The record was given to me as a gift by the musician and author Julian Cope in the spring of 2000, when I interviewed him at his house in the heart of Megalithic Wiltshire. Cope – who had enthusiastically licked my ear the previous time I met him – greeted me in sunglasses, leaning from an upstairs window of his house, with the words “Hi! I’ve decided to paint my face orange today!” then, after introducing me to his Mini Schnauzer Iggy Pup, went on to be the most electrifying and inspiring person I interviewed during all my time as a music journalist. Never up to that point, during dozens of encounters with dozens of rock stars, writers and film directors, had I more powerfully had the thought: “I would very much like to be you when I grow up.” In the early 80s, before Scott Walker’s solo records experienced their critical re-evaluation, Cope would pick up copies of them whenever he saw them secondhand – usually for no more than a pound or two. A first pressing of Scott 4 in decent condition will generally set you back around £150 right now. There is always something like this happening in the secondhand vinyl world: something very cheap is, without anybody being able to quite predict it, poised to become rare and expensive. A recent one that took a lot of people by surprise is early-to-mid 90s vinyl. It looks and feels cheap and crap but there wasn’t much of it produced so the best of it – and some of the worst of it – now costs a bomb. I exchanged my original pressing of My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless four years ago (sacrilege to many, I know, but when it comes to Gulf War-era drone rock I far prefer Spacemen 3 and Sun Dial, and as far as MBV is concerned, I always preferred their previous album Isn’t Anything) for some early 70s funk and Indian jazz LPs and since then it’s roughly doubled in value. My 1991 pressing of Pearl Jam’s debut album – which I’m not fully convinced I need to own any more, and might soon trade for some more early 70s funk and Indian jazz LPs – is worth even more than Scott 4, which seems utterly ridiculous, because it feels like about ten minutes since it was everywhere for a fiver and because it’s not Scott 4, not even slightly, when it’s on its best behaviour. I know a bit about the value of records but what I do not know is what will be the next relatively cheap album to swiftly become freakishly expensive. You’d probably need a time machine to work that out. I am often thinking about all sorts of things I’d like to do if I could teleport back to 1971 but I know myself, and I know my flaws, and you can guarantee that before I did any of those things I’d be squeezing in a trip to a record shop or three to see if I could scoop up any Skip Bifferty (current average sold price online £298.39) or Leaf Hound albums (sole original on Discogs currently available for £12,000) that happened to be lying around, unloved. 
  • I was recently looking at a record online where the seller had downgraded the sleeve because “Some jerk has written his name on it.” I suspect from this sentence that this seller has a different attitude to record collecting to my own. I am currently using the fact that somebody has written “This record belongs to Brian A Ragden” in very ornate handwriting on my copy of Loveinamist by Marianne Faithfull as an argument that I should perhaps keep it, even though it’s far from Marianne’s finest moment. A name scrawled on John Mayall’s 1967 LP Crusade recently gave me an entire character for my next book. I have no problem at all with the fact that a previous owner has written “What a bad bitch!” over the photo of Janis Joplin on my copy of Big Brother And The Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills. Old records are full of stories. “Wedding Album, 1972, Oktober” it says on my Dutch first pressing of The Soft Parade by The Doors. What kind of wedding was it? Are the couple still together? Why did they choose this and not Waiting For The Sun which – while similarly underrated – is the better mid-period Doors record? The writer and broadcaster Danny Kelly only recently realised, from a signature on the back, that the original owner of his copy of the second Wilson Pickett album was the late TV presenter and nature writer Kenneth Allsop. During the research for my book Ring The Hill, I went to Allsop’s old house in Dorset, where it’s said his ghost still resides, and I like the image of a transparent, grainy Allsop in there to this day, meticulously putting his stamp of ownership on classic soul records. Perhaps if I’d done the same with that copy of Scott 3 with my Dymo Labelmaker I’d have been saved a lot of heartbreak.

  • A month or two ago I bought a copy of Chad & Jeremy’s slightlydelic 1967 LP Of Cabbages And Kings for £3 at a record fair. The top seam was split, and there was a bit of grumbly surface noise until I gave it a little wash in the sink, but it was the kind of bargain you don’t often find nowadays, when the internet has ensured that nearly everyone knows what everything is worth. I was very pleased. It’s a fantastic record, a layered, flawed masterpiece of not quite druggy posh boy dreaming that had a similar mindbending, summery effect on me to the one Odessey And Oracle by the Zombies had when I first heard it in the mid-90s. On the advice of my knowledgeable friend Will, who by scrabbling about on his hands and knees and using his unusually strong sense of smell regularly finds records worth over a million pounds being sold for twelve or thirteen pence in limestone caves all around England and Wales, I then immediately purchased Chad & Jeremy’s subsequent record The Ark, which is even better. Both albums are almost impossible to find in Chad & Jeremy’s native UK, where the duo’s popularity had waned by the point they were released, yet they commonly turn up in the US, where the pair were big enough to appear on the Batman TV series, having their voices stolen and held to ransom by Catwoman, in a scene that I am hoping Matt Reeves will soon refilm for the DC corporation. What did the British record buying public have against the pair? The most commonly put forward theory is that people didn’t like the fact that they were posh, but that doesn’t really hold up when you consider that 1967 was the apex year for English people Singing Over A Light Psychedelic Noise In Terribly Well-Mannered Received Pronunciation, or that, although Jeremy was the great-great-great grandson of the First Duke Of Wellington, Chad was actually from Hartlepool and had a mum who was a nurse and a dad who worked in the lumber industry. The truth is probably simply that there is little justice in music. If you’re lucky and you make a great far-seeing, imaginative record, it instantly becomes Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. But on the whole if you want to see it get its critical dues you have to wait until you’re old, or dead, or sometimes even longer.
  • The worst thing I have ever done to some records is leave them in a sunny room and kill them. I’m not sure what the total damage was. £500? £600? More? I don’t like to think about it, to be honest. The room was almost totally made out of glass and functioned as the extension of the house in Somerset I rented between summer 2018 and summer 2019. Architecturally, it was the most beautiful space I’ve ever lived in but every time I’m looking for something else on my phone and I see a photo of it, all I can think is “THAT WAS THE PLACE WHERE YOU KILLED THAT JAMES BROWN LP AND KIN VASSY SINGLE, YOU TWAT.” The vast majority of my records survived the room totally intact but the small portion that didn’t were too bent out of shape to even be dewarped by a top of the range dewarping machine and I still can’t believe I’d do such a heartless and braindead thing to some records, as someone who has loved records for as long as I have. But people often do far worse things to records, intentionally, such as putting those really vicious stickers on them which – no matter how carefully you peel them or steam them or apply any number of other substances to them – rip off chunks of the cover design. It’s nearly always the bad record shop owners who have the bad stickers.
  • What makes a good record shop owner? I can think of three particularly great ones near me and, besides immense knowledge and patience, one thing they all have in common is that when somebody walks into their shop, they never assume that the person knows nothing about music. This is in sharp contrast to the record dealer in the city in the county I will not name who instantly spoke to my friend and I as if we’d only heard three records made prior to 1980 and who we subsequently and not coincidentally bought zero records from, or the record dealer in the town in the same county who cornered me as soon as I walked into his shop, proceeded to get right up in my face and tell me how much money he made that morning and how he knew more about any form of music than any other man alive and talked over me every time I managed to get half a sentence out and who I subsequently and not coincidentally bought zero records from. What I notice about three of my very favourite record shops, Sound Preservation Society in Teignmouth, Clocktower Music in Bridport and Sound Records in Stroud, is that their proprietors Matt and Roy and Tom never patronise their customers, always look after their regulars, seem genuinely excited about music and never pretend that a record is worth more than it is. I have told innumerable pals to visit both, and I imagine others do the same, constantly. This in itself makes them even better as shops: it means they get offered more collections, buy more, sell more, and each place feels slightly different every time you go in. These are also very dangerous people to get to know, especially if you are trying to save money, because very soon they’ll be able to read your mind and, just as you are leaving the establishment and think you’re in the clear, will produce one last piece of vinyl from some secret alcove behind the counter, wave it casually under your nose, and it will always be something that a) you have never seen before, b) is exactly what you want at this point in your life, and c) just from the promises hidden in its sleeve art, seems to make your entire future as a music listener and a human being that bit more vital and magical.
  • I am more narrow than I once was as a music listener and much broader. It’s quite difficult to explain precisely how it works. I have a stronger idea of what I like and of what I don’t, yet I’m also more tolerant of everything far outside the centre of my taste, more eager to be surprised, less desperately in need of words with my melodies, keener on jazz, much more tolerant of blues than I ever imagined I could be when I was in my 20s, more willingly to be carried off into distant parts of the world and, frequently, into outer space itself (I’ve never loved early Hawkwind more). It’s probably a blindingly obvious realisation but it only hit home quite recently that it’s not exactly an everyday existence, this life I have spent as a music lover, even though it’s no less obsessive or involved than those led by countless others. I have bought records and listened to music on – if you ignore my sporty teen years and a small, less vinyl-dominated spell shortly after I quite my job as a Music Critic in the early 00s – a near constant basis my entire life.  I have been unusually lucky in meeting and speaking to so many other music obsessives and musicians, getting so many recommendations, plus having jobs where I largely choose my own hours and often get to spend time rooting around in piles of old vinyl. After several decades of that, you are inevitably altered. It becomes a pleasant kind of illness. You are not the same as someone who puts a record on once a week. “You know the problem with us, Tom,” a fellow writer said to me a couple of years ago. “We have heard too much music.” That fact might be true. A problem, though? Nah. There are definitely very good records that, because they are fixed in one time of my life and I have heard a thousand times, I don’t feel I need to listen to again and some ok records that I might no longer spend as much time as I once did trying to convince myself are very good records, but I am keener to hear new (often actually quite old) things than ever. The excitement, when it really hits, is much bigger than it once was. Of course, I don’t know for sure that this is true, because I can’t remember precisely how I felt when I was 17 or 25 and discovered a piece of brilliant music that was totally new to me, but I feel it’s true, and that’s the important thing. In my time-travel fantasies, I also sometimes think about going back to the two inexpensive shops in Nottingham where I first began to build my secondhand record collection, with the stock they had then at the prices it was then and with the eyes and ears that I have now, and discover all the gems I overlooked. But that would be cheating. Only a rare record buying genius gets gifted with that kind of foresight. I probably thought I was pretty on it back then, making my way home with a bag of vinyl, gradually discovering all the undiscovered records. I’d probably have it licked in a couple of years, I probably presumed. All done. All the good records heard. But what I didn’t realise is it’s never over. More music just leads to more music, makes you hear new things in other things, then makes you want to know other things associated with those things. You go wider, and wider. You’ve got to do some editing from time to time. You’ve got to aim for some kind of perfection, even though you know it doesn’t exist, even though you know you can contradict yourself, thwart yourself. It’s a temporary order you have to try to impose, not out of being narrow, or snobbish, or elitist, or exclusive, or small-minded. You do it for one simple reason: to stop your brain from entirely exploding.

A PLEASANT ILLNESS: A Spotify Playlist to listen to alongside this piece.

My new book, Villager, is published on April 28th. You can order a hardback from Blackwells (they also do free worldwide delivery!) here. You can order – and listen to a sample from – the soundtrack here.

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19 thoughts on “A Pleasant Illness: Thoughts From The Desk Of A Vinyl Nerd

  1. Yes, yes, yes and yes to all this and more.

    But ESPECIALLY, most very much especially the part about Record shop folks; their ability to warm your heart and wrap you around their finger with patience and understanding. Versus the at best patronising and at worst arrogant view that they hold the key to all knowledge and/or taste. Those ones have lost out on a lot of my money over the last 35 years! Xx

    1. Ha, I was lucky to run a record shop in London for the ’90’s and can attest to that also, I must have sold several hundred albums simply by playing good stuff that I knew would sell, ‘who’s this?’ I would get almost every time (see ‘High Fidelity’, it really does work like that, magic), and also can attest to there being several record stores I wouldn’t bother going into due to arrogant pr*cks being in charge.

      Oh, and there are a ton of stalls at record fairs I don’t even bother with either, it’s actually illegal under the Trades Description Act not to have things priced.

    2. Yes indeed. And if you’re female you must be in the shop looking for your boyfriend because girls only like music made by men they fancy or because they’re trying to impress someone they fancy. Tunbridge Wells had a fantastic second hand record shop run by a slightly terrifying woman called Fiona and that’s where much of my vinyl came from because she was equally terrifying to everyone.

  2. Yes to all of this ❤️ My record collecting started as a lockdown hobby. It threatens to drown me out of my own house (they and their storage take up so much space), and financially ruin me, and I love it.

  3. Totally agree with all the above, and I clearly remember going though the bargain bins, looking at an album I’d never seen or heard before and if it had flute or violin on it I’d buy it. Don’t recall many clunkers using that criteria either.

  4. Lovely article which I see has been picked up by Burning Shed twitter feed here in Norfolk as well.
    Have you ever, like me, bought a bargain disc to discover you already have it with a different cover ?
    Locally think I saw you a couple of times in Circular Sounds in Norwich ?

  5. Crate-digging and collecting is indeed a ‘malady’ and the world’s best-cure-all.
    I once cooked some vinyl in a porch and I still cringe at my wanton destruction of some proper gems. Will give the Spotify list a whirl later – that looks intriguing. Thanks for another great read – fascinating insight into the machinations of a vinyl nerd.

  6. I really appreciate the playlist that goes with this piece. I’m even further removed from the 60’s and 70’s at the ripe age of 23 so I’m always looking to expand beyond The Beatles and the Grateful Dead to satisfy the appetite I have for that era of music. I need to start making a list of the albums you mention in your writing so I can expand even more. Thanks, Tom.

    1. Great article – thanks. If it’s not a rude question, which were your preferred Nottingham record shops, as I was living in the city in the mid 90’s, and remember several. I still tend to get sucked into Rob’s Record Mart when I’m in the city, which I’m sure is some kind of forgotten corner of space time.

  7. Thanks Tom
    A friend pointed me at this piece a few days ago, and I have thoroughly enjoyed how you have captured many of the joys, and a few of the sorrows, of record collecting.
    I’m typing this on Record Store Day. This year I won’t be heading to a shop – partly because I’ve moved to a place in the countryside that’s a bit of a way from the nearest ‘proper’ record shop, and partly because I simply can’t afford to pay £28 for a David Bowie record with five songs on it. But, as it happens, there’s a record fair in my nearest town today, and I’m confident that if I spend £30 there I’ll come home with a small bag of interesting things. Perhaps a couple will turn out to be a bit underwhelming, perhaps one will be my new favourite record ever – for a few days, and at least one of them will probably be completely ridiculous – perhaps like the 1965, Johnny Morris voiced celebration and evocation of Torbay that I played yesterday and bought for £2 at the last record fair.
    Wishing you, as I’ve heard elsewhere in crate digging circles, dusty fingers.

  8. Hello Tom
    Not sure where to leave this message as I don’t have social media accounts, so I hope you don’t mind it being tagged on here.
    I have just finished reading ‘Villager’ and loved it: the subtle connections between characters and places; the time shifts, its humanity and humour. It is one of those books that when I got to the end, I just wanted to read it all over again to find the things I had missed. It is like a glorious puzzle. There are so many compelling voices in the story; it is hard for me to pick a favourite.
    I am looking forward to your next book, and I hope it is another novel. That is from someone who enjoys your non fiction writing and who wasn’t sure about your shift towards fiction. I needn’t have been concerned – don’t believe anyone who says that this is not your best work by a country moorland mile.

  9. For those albums you’re only keeping for the cover, ship out your phone and photograph it. Then turn the photos into a computer screen saver. I like a variety of screensavers so I’ve done that with t-shirts ( some of them no longer for for some reason), souvenir drink cups and coffee mugs, my cats, books I’ve read (separate files for each year), same for movies, oddball mistakes on signs (today’s was “No parking next to feces”) and various other subjects.

    You still have the memory and you can save space as well.

  10. Love the article and can attest that there is no end to the hunt. l spent many years listening to music with your LOUD DAD. l like to think we, along with others, enhanced our ears and lives delving into wonders eg. the first time you hear Astral Weeks or Armstrongs hot 5s/7s and Miles. Finding Scott Walker singing ‘I threw it all away’ on a film soundtrack by Nick Cave recently reduced me to a heap. Great writing, looking forward to reading your latest book which just arrived. A last burning question. Did you inherit the parental vinyl? just off to sort my crates for my next market stall where l hope l can welcome everyone in to my world. Just got the 1st Horslips album and am in a quandary! Is the cover much better than the music? ENDLESS!

    1. Thanks Cliff. I am sure my taste has a lot to do with my parents’ friends’ records I heard as a kid, as well as the ones I heard at home! My mum and dad sold most of their vinyl late 80s but I got a few nice bits they couldn’t quite part with: Charlie Haden, Peter Bellamy, ‘Kind Of Blue’. Got some great car boot sale stuff recently in the south west. I’m going to put that Horslips album on now. I bought it a few years back but ‘The Tain’ is always the one I seem to go back to.

  11. Re: ” I also sometimes think about going back to the two inexpensive shops in Nottingham where I first began to build my secondhand record collection, with the stock they had then at the prices it was then and with the eyes and ears that I have now, and discover all the gems I overlooked.”

    I’m afraid those shops ( Selectadisc?) long gone but Rob’s Records still in same place although a victim of Rob’s hoarding habit which means the stock virtually inaccessible now. There thousands of lps now lost under the piles of stuff. But it is still there…in Hurts Yard.

    There two other second hand vinyl shops one run by the first type of owner and the other by the second. I trecommend the on with Apple in name the other I do not.

  12. Hey Tom.

    This is a fantastic bit of writing which I completely relate to but I have just forwarded it to a friend who, like yourself, is a total record collecting nerd. I call him the ‘Vinyl Junkie’ and wrote a song about his addiction. He did me the honour of filming a video for the song in our favourite record shop, Vinyl Vault in Cheltenham. Do you know it? I think you will relate to the lines:

    “I got a long way to go but I know that I’ll never reach the end,
    And my collection’s not complete and I’m becoming obsolete,
    Can I amend my ways?”

    https://youtu.be/6vuiuuwcneg

    Cheers!

    Blake

    1. Thanks Blake. Great lyrics! I don’t know the Vinyl Vault. I must visit. Perhaps when I am next up at Sound Records in Stroud.

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