The Great Record Stores: Amoeba Haight-Ashbury [part 2]

This singularity of music distorts the space-time continuum

This singularity of music distorts the space-time continuum

When entering a store this large, there are decisions to be made as to how the assault will get underway. It is like climbing a particularly challenging mountain. Success is beholden to the level of planning. The vinyl seemed to be around, but I could not tell how “vintage” it seemed to be. I really don’t want anything that’s a new pressing, and these predominate now. I thought I’d hit the CD bins first and would worry about the vinyl later. Books and DVDs were not even on the radar. Comic books? Please!

This is how we judge stores up front

This is how we judge stores up front

Amoeba’s modus operandi has all base line CDs [new and used] stocked together, with their budget stock segregated. Their new CDs sell for fairly typical pricing, and their used CDs are priced modestly – usually $5-10 depending on the title. Their budget stock was crazy cheap! This was where the music spree dollars got stretched very far with $1-$3 CDs that were too numerous to count. The first thing I do when I enter a record store with any level of expectation, after sizing it up, is right up front in the “A” bins. Are there any Associates CDs? What? There’s an Associates section? Most impressive. And the discs had helpful “Out Of Print” stickers on them. Good form. Of course I have multiple copies of this title already in my Record Cell, but seeing it still warms the cockles of my heart. Especially 23 years later! After, all, it was my gateway drug to a lifetime of Billy MacKenzie obsession.

I had my want list on my personal device and that would be the overriding governor on how this would play out. I’m all too cognizant of the lure of music that I would not mind buying [plenty] versus music I really want to buy. Most of the latter, never makes it into stores that I frequent. My tastes are too esoteric for the mainstream. Once upon a time, up through my 20s, I’d say that what I wanted could be found in hip, well stocked record stores. After that, the window of hipness moved forward to the next generation of music shoppers [typically 15-30 demographic] and I was looking at diminishing returns for the rest of my record shopping life.

This store was different. It was in a major population center of the West Coast, closer to the heart of the entertainment industry, and this really made a difference. I was getting a lot of love from these bins. I pulled titles that looked promising without too much hesitation and put them in the basket I eventually grabbed. I’d thin them out when queueing to pay. I tried to hit the letters of the alphabet that had titles I was particularly looking for. At this point in time, I really wanted anything by New York City’s Escort, and the debut album by Wrangler, the new group that paired Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire with Benge from John Foxx + The Maths.

One complexity with the former was how the stock was split into genres. Were Escort R+B or Electronic? They didn’t have a disco section, per se. I’d been hot to buy their CD since Moogfest in April, but it’s a rare bird. Only available as a British import in physical format. Wrangler were cut and dried in comparison. They would obviously live in the Electronic ghetto. Eventually, I learned to just ask a clerk if anything in particular was in stock, and these two were a bust at this store.

Books just take away from floor space better used for records!

Books just take away from floor space better used for records!

One thing I quickly picked up by scanning the clearance bins, was that there could be significant overlap with stock at higher prices elsewhere. I quickly learned to look there first. If getting a title at less than mint- was acceptable [and it was for 98% of what I buy] then I could stretch those dollars further. There were certain artists that I went into this scenario knowing that I could probably stock up my collection with for a song. Robert Palmer, for example. I wouldn’t mind owning all of his albums, but most I probably wouldn’t pay premium for. Below the $5.00 price point, resistance melts. At $1.99, it’s non existent. I easily picked up three late period Palmer albums here for that price. The last one I bought on release, 1990’s “Don’t Explain” was pretty good [at least the second half] and I was looking forward to hearing where Palmer had gone afterward.

the nails - moodswingUSDLXRMCDAOne bounty that I came across was the über scarce debut album by The Nails, the incredible “Mood Swing.” Long had the torch burned for this album, but I’d absolutely never seen the hyper scarce 2007 self-released CD [with bonus tracks!] of this title. I snapped this puppy up gleefully, secure in the knowledge that I’d soon be able to listen to the magnificent “Home Of The Brave” whenever I wanted to. That song was not just a song… it was a novel! It’s like what Warren Zevon was shooting for his whole life!

joe king carrasco + ElmolinoUSCDAAnother highlight was the debut album by Joe “King” Carrasco and El Molino. Sure, sure. I had managed to find the LP version [with an intact gold crown inside the sleeve!] back at Wax ‘N’ Facts back in 2011 during the OMD Weekender®, but now I didn’t have to remaster the LP myself! While I had “Daft!” by The Art Of Noise, how could I pass up “Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise?” even with the weaker, US reissue cover from the 90s?

I managed to grab a small army of Ryuichi Sakamoto releases [he’s so prolific] and from there it was but a hop, skip, and a jump to load up on some David Sylvian titles I’d long since needed: The Nine Horses album, The Sylvian/Sakamoto “Heartbeat” CD5, and [finally!] “Rain Tree Crow!” My company of friends had all spilt up on their own threads and occasionally we’d bump heads and point put releases that the other might need badly that we just saw in the “S” clearance section. Tom had found the Blow Monkeys section and snagged a copy of “Staring At The Sea” while I had found the initial, insanely difficult to buy [at >$100 for many years] CD of Bill Nelson’s “Getting The Holy Ghost Across.” Both were singular in the bins, so we each felt a touch of anguish, but there was too much stock to dote on near misses. Back to the bins! I immediately found an Edwyn Collins album I needed to soothe my fevered brow.

I found the UK pressing of the Bow Wow Wow debut album, and while it had substitutions of 12″ mixes for three album cuts, and therefore was less canonical that I would have preferred, the US CD of that title was even more scarce. I had grown tired of not having this amazing album in my Record Cell following the Great Vinyl Purge of 1985, so I bought it after a spilt second of thought. If I ever run into the US version [on One-Way Records] or even the 2010 Cherry Red DLX RM, I’ll try to spring for them, but that could take years.

tom tom club - geniusofliveFR2xCDAI was happy to find a repackaging of the live CD that Tom Tom Club released around the two times I saw them in 2001-2 on tour. This was not the 2xCD edition the band themselves put out but a reissue on an obscure label, with all but five tracks put on a single disc, with the second disc full of remixes of “Genius Of Love.” Hmm. Not optimal, but that tour was fantastic, and when will I ever see the original pressing? So I bit.

One major league full price title I didn’t hesitate a second on was Heaven 17’s live CD/DVD combo “Live At Metropolis,” which I thought I had blogged about but it looks like I was only thinking of doing that. In early 2012, the band played an intimate gig [complete with a handful of £195 tickets available] that was “filmed” and recorded for a live release that hit the stores in late 2013. I hadn’t pre-ordered it at the time due to the plethora of live shows with full travel that was being crammed into the end of that year, but here it was, and I snapped up that $22.98 title like it was $20 cheaper. I was looking forward to this!

But wait… I also finally finished my collection of Ryko Undertones DLX RM CDs! Having hit the end of the alphabet, it was time to give a quick sweep to the vinyl. My friends were queueing up to pay. Right before the trip I had discovered that I didn’t have the 12″ of the mandatory “My Spine Is The Bassline” by Shriekback. When I did a last minute sweep of the used vinyl bins, this was the only title that called out to me. So there were a lot of CDs in my shopping basket and just one 12″ so the time finally came to get in line and to thin out the basket, down to reasonable levels. After all, there were two more Amoeba stores to visit! Here’s the list:

Amoeba Haight

  1. The Art Of Noise: Who’s Afraid Of The Art Of Noise? – ZTT/Universal – US – CD
  2. The Boomtown Rats: Mondo Bongo DLX RM – Mercury – 982 677-6 – UK – CD
  3. Bow Wow Wow: See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah! City All Over Go Ape Crazy! DLX RM – Great Expectations – PIPCD 013 – UK – CD
  4. Joe “King” Carrasco + El Molino – Tornado Records – ttx114 – US – CD
  5. Client: Price Of Love – Toast Hawaii – cdth001 – UK – CD5
  6. Edwyn Collins: Losing Sleep – Heavenly – HVNLP81CD – UK – CD
  7. Eurythmics: I Saved The World Today #1 – BMG – 74321 695632 – UK – CD5
  8. Heaven 17: Live From Metropolis Studios – Edsel – EDMTDV003 – UK – CD + DVD + BOOK
  9. Hoodoo Gurus: Stoneage Romeos – A+M – CD 5012 – US – CD
  10. The Lilac Time: Lilac6 – Cooking Vinyl – cook cd 220 – UK – CD
  11. The Nails: Mood Swing DLX RM – City Beat Records – CBCD-5520 – US – CD
  12. Bill Nelson: Getting The Holy Ghost Across (On A Blue Wing) DLX RM – Sonoluxe – CD 006 – UK – CD
  13. Nine Horses: Snow Borne Sorrow – Samadhisound – ss006 – UK – CD
  14. Robert Palmer: Ridin’ High – EMI – 0777 7 98923 2 7 – US – CD
  15. Robert Palmer: Honey – EMI – 7243 8 30301 2 5 – US – CD
  16. Robert Palmer: Drive – Compendia – 0-15095-4886-2 – US – CD
  17. Pee Shy: Who Let All The Monkeys Out? – Mercury – 314 532 122-2 – US – CD
  18. The Primitives: Buzz Buzz Buzz – The Complete Lazy Recordings – Castle Music – CAS 35253 – UK 2xCD
  19. Rain Tree Crow: Rain Tree Crow – Virgin Records -CDV 2659 – UK – CD
  20. Stan Ridgeway: Anatomy – New West – NW6010 – US – CD
  21. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Chaos – KA’+B – KAB 0000-2 – US – CD
  22. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Love Is The Devil OST – KAB – Asph 0897 – US – CD
  23. Ryuichi Sakamoto: You Do Me – Virgin – VJCP-14904 – JPN – CD5
  24. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Discord – Sony Classical – SK 60121 – US – CD
  25. Ryuichi Sakamoto: Heartbeat – Virgin – VJCP 30093 – JON – CD
  26. Shriekback: My Spine Is The Bass Line – Y Records – Y 1227 – UK – 12″
  27. Sylvian/Sakamoto: Heartbeat – Virgin Records – VUSCD 57 – UK – CD5
  28. Tom Tom Club: Genius Of Live – Nacional Records – BEC 5772748 – FR – 2xCD
  29. The Undertones: The Undertones – Rykodisc – RCD 10293 – US – CD
  30. The Undertones: Positive Touch – Rykodisc – RCD 10295 – US – CD

I spent about $250 that day. I didn’t have full records of exactly what I bought on which days/locations, so this list has been reconstructed from memory. Caveat emptor. It was a good run and the store certainly had some excellent stock as well as a few items I would have paid a lot more for, if it had come to that. Was it the Alpha + Omega of record stores? Perhaps in this fallen world. I have memories of visiting better emporiums. For the record, it reminded me of visiting a Tower Records outlet, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Furthermore, Amoeba had it over Tower in that they were strong on used/budget titles, and the vinyl didn’t hurt either. But in terms of the breadth of stock available, yeah. It was reminding me of Tower. A chain I really miss, by the way.

Next: …Berkeley Location

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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18 Responses to The Great Record Stores: Amoeba Haight-Ashbury [part 2]

  1. Echorich says:

    What a list! Some great Sakamoto items, must haves in the form Edwyn Collins – Losing Sleep and Nine Horses – Snow Borne Sorrow and the Primitives Collection! Just wonderful!!!!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Yeah, I had the 80s “The Lazy Years” CD by The Primitives, and “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz” was all that and more. I didn’t mind trading up, though what I would have given for their new material instead! The only time I ever saw any of that was in Athens Wuxtry back in ’13 during the Television trip… vinyl only!

      My friend JT had given me a mix CD with a track from “Snow Borne Sorrow” when he visited last year, and was that an ear opener after the “difficult listening” that “Blemish” presented! The Nine Horses disc was certainly more of what I enjoyed from Mr. Sylvian. Namely songs!

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  2. Tim says:

    The Sakamoto “Discord” is the real score in my book. Great cd and it has a graphic section for each of the tracks. I haven’t popped mine in a PC for years so I don’t know if it works with newer versions of windows.
    Glad to see that you snagged Rain Tree Crow, I think that I have been a member of the Greek chorus encouraging you to delve into that one. I am interested in your reaction to that disc.

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    • Echorich says:

      Have to agree Tim. Discord is amazing. As for RTC – it’s a great example of album as enigma. Improvisation, jam sessions, getting back together with former cohorts and bringing what you’ve learned and experienced to the proceedings. Then having Sylvian and Nye run off to another studio and remix and in some cases remake what was laid down with little to know input from the others in the final arrangement and making it basically a Sylvian solo album…stuff of artistic infamy, but an amazing collection of music all the same.

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      • postpunkmonk says:

        Echorich/Tim – I have to say that RTC is a great album, in spite of its pedigree fraught with discord and deceit. That I dawdled in a most legendary fashion on buying could be down to laziness/cheapness. I immediately bought both [!] of the “Blackwater” CD singles, and just never saw the dang album to buy more than once during my first trip to Canada in ’92, but I held off, thinking I could easily buy that in The States. Meanwhile, 22 years later, I found a copy! Sure, I didn’t buy it mail order. Ostracize me! I can take it.

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  3. It’s been about a decade since I’ve been to that Amoeba in SF–what an amazing record store! Your haul is amazing! Congrats!

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  4. ianbalentine says:

    You really capture the excitement of a record store dive, well done! I love it when I’m flipping through the bins, following my little alphabetized list of “wish list” items, and come across something I’v e been looking for for decades. My heart actually skips, seriously! Happened to me recently when I found a copy of an ultra rare Jazz Butcher CD. A priceless feeling, and experience. Thanks for representing it so well, I eagerly await the next post.

    PS: As a Northern Californian, a mere hour or so away from the Berkely location, I am ashamed to say I have yet to make the pilgrimage.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      ianbalentine – You’ve never visited the Berkeley location? You’re missing out! The intimate scale means that you can scour it in reasonable time and it’s still sucking up the collections of college students; making the stock well worth the visit, as we’ll see next post.

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      • Simon H says:

        Agree with Ian about ‘that feeling’!
        Love this series of articles, sadly I can’t think of any stores in the UK that would beat Amoeba now…know what you mean re Tower, they used to have a great selection for a mainstream chain.
        My approach to purchasing is pretty similar to yours, there’s never a shortage of stuff that I want and price can open doors to things I would like to try. Recently this has been a cause of concern for me from a storage perspective – I’m not in a position to take over the flat so have to be sensible….tough! This has lead me to look into making space by using ‘Jazzloft’ sleeves (plastic gate folds that take up 1/3 of the space) and disposing of extraneous jewel cases…it’s either that or stop buying and that ain’t happening!
        The contents of your basket looks great, nice to see Stan in there.

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        • Simon H says:

          Forgot to add – how much more fun is it buying in a store compared to online!

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Simon H – Yes, I hold Stan Ridgeway in pretty high esteem. He’s a very novelistic songwriter. I bought his three solo albums on Geffen, but had never encountered a single of his Post-Geffen albums, until this day!

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          • Simon H says:

            I’ve kept buying and there’s good stuff post IRS, although nothing quite matches the three IRS albums. If I put Mosquitos on I’ll always end up listening to the whole thing, very special. He’s only played the UK once in the last 26 years sadly!
            Funny, we’ve just been talking about him and how he signed a DVD for me some years back and made a pun out of my surname…the most inventive autograph I’ve ever had!

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            • postpunkmonk says:

              Simon H – Well, You’ve done better than I have. He’s never played anywhere near where I lived, with the exception of Wall Of Voodoo playing a college bar [The Point After, I think] back in the early 80s when I found out about it after the fact. Solo, it just doesn’t happen where I live. “The Big Heat” was the album for me. Incredible songwriting.

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              • Simon H says:

                I have a bootleg somewhere of WOV playing one or two Big Heat tracks…looked tantilising when I got it, but turned out to be in atrocious quality sound!
                Only saw WOV post Stan live, but they were still great.

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  5. Simon H says:

    Yes, often no alternative for me, our local independent music store (at least we have one!) squashes CDs in amongst books, clothes and too much vinyl…no way they’d have or even order half of what I want, decent John Foxx section though!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – Gird your loins for the imminent CD-free future, my friend. It’s surely coming like a storm on the horizon that we can do nothing about before it hits. We will wither and die in a completely controlled digital future where we can only rent music at the whims of faceless multinational corporations. Unless we want to buy cripplingly expensive, but elaborately packaged wax cylinders for the greatest amount of “authenticity” possible in a convoluted and complex system of listening that none but the wealthy elite can afford.

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      • Simon H says:

        All too true, as a cd fan it’s hard to be more out of step, not retro hip OR cutting edge!
        Japan may hold on – still a cd loving culture, 80% of music purchases on cd I read somewhere. Downloads would be an answer to storage problems but not for me.

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