A belated apology to Richard Branson

In November 1974 I was the first boy in school to buy the new Roxy Music album, Country Life. It was an all-boys’ school in the middle of Plymouth and the fourteen-year-olds in my year identified ourselves competitively through our music choices. That is, those of us who weren’t strong and physically powerful enough to achieve success on the playing field; the big tough boys in the year would strut around school with their long greasy hair curled around the collars of their shirts, boasting of sexual exploits us more timid souls read about on the lyrics printed on the back of the albums we bought.

            My primary source of money in those days was the income from a paper round I did in the mornings before school. In November, it was dark as I walked my patch in the early morning with a big canvas satchel, soaked in black newsprint, bulging with folded up Daily Telegraphs. I loved the silence of Plymouth in the early morning, the sour smell of the newspapers as I tugged each one out of the crammed bag to squeeze it through a Brasso’d letterbox. When I was younger I’d collect conkers in the autumn on my route, but by the time I was fourteen I’d moved on to thinking obsessively about what Phil Manzanera, the Roxy Music guitarist, might be considering having for his breakfast, or whether it was true that Chris May had really slept with that girl from Plymouth High last Saturday night.

            Loving your band was a significant and meaningful act then. Lloyd Martin had his own look at school in 1974 with his Diamond Dogs Bowie tribute: loose flared trousers, high-collar shirts and that spiked up hair which seemed so rebellious, particularly in a boy whose Dad was a crew-cut disciplinarian who taught at our school and whose nickname amongst us kids was Muscles. Then there were the prog rockers, still clinging fiercely to their turtle neck sweaters and their Barclay James Harvest albums, contemptuous of what they considered the pop choices us arty boys favoured.

            I was mesmerised by Roxy Music. They were so impossibly, outlandishly cool. Their previous album, Stranded, had a depressing, piano-led dirge – A Song For Europe – about the European cultural tradition which Bryan Ferry sang in several different European languages, and I would sing this quietly in my quavering little high-pitched voice as I tramped around the early morning streets with my delivery bag, imagining that I would run away from all my unhappiness at home to Paris, where I would smoke Gitanes and discuss Simone de Beauvoir with a beautiful dark-eyed French girl.

            In those days, the NME was the main source of information about what each band was up to so I knew in advance that the fourth album, Country Life, was due to be released and I had ascertained from the slightly intimidating and hairy staff at the tiny Virgin Records store down by Plymouth market which day they expected delivery. And so on that day, in the lunchbreak, I walked into town and spent my paper delivery money on one of the first copies of the album to appear in Plymouth.

            The cover itself was enough to cause a sensation back at school when I took it out of the plastic carrier bag. That extraordinary photograph by Eric Boman (which I didn’t know at the time featured the sister of Can’s Michael Karoli and his girlfriend Eveline) temporarily elevated me to a position of respect: it was sophisticated, it was art, but it was also incredibly horny. I sat on the wall outside the assembly hall, proudly reading the detailed information about recording locations on the back cover, pretending not to notice that the other side boasted the most erotic image that any boy in Plymouth College had ever imagined: two powerful, beautiful European women in their knickers standing against what looked like a jungle, dazzled by a parapazzi’s intrusive camera glare.

            My triumph was short-lived. As I casually flicked the album over, the black vinyl disc inside slowly rolled out of its sleeve and fell to the ground, smashing immediately into countless jagged pieces. There was mocking hilarity from those who, seconds before, had been impressed by my latest cultural statement, who had had briefly to reconfigure my position in the pecking order now that I had imported such an exotic triumph. All this lay in shattered ruins on the ground and I was immediately relegated back to being the skinny, irritating little ginger kid. It was a total humiliation.

            But here’s the strange thing. I bent down and picked up all the pieces and stuffed them back into the inner sleeve, squeezed the sleeve back into the now-ignored cover and put the whole lot back into the plastic carrier bag. Once afternoon school was over, I walked back down to the market in town and re-entered Virgin Records.

            The picture at the top of this piece is the very same shop, taken in 1975 if Pinterest is correct – I can’t find out who took the photo. Virgin Records in Plymouth in 1974 was an illicit sanctuary for those seeking enlightenment. It was tiny, dark and flavoured with joss sticks, run by young men and women with afros who looked like they had sex constantly. They had headphones hanging off the wall where you could listen to tracks from albums which John Peel had played the night before on Radio One. They also sold secondhand albums and once I sold all my elder sister’s albums there when she was away working at a hotel in Cornwall for the summer (I have apologised to her many times about this in later years).

            At about 4.30pm, I marched back into the shop, still wearing my Plymouth College grey trousers and hideous striped green, red and black blazer, and handed the album over the counter.

            ‘I bought this at lunchtime and look at the state of it,’ I said.

            He opened up the bag, took the album out and, pulling out the inner sleeve, let the remnants of the pinnacle of British art school rock scatter all over the counter.

            ‘Hey man, I’m really sorry,’ he said, genuinely concerned that I’d been sold such a travesty. ‘We like to give discounts on music man, but this is something else.’ He turned round and scanned the new albums all lined up on the wall behind him, then pulled out a brand new copy of Country Life and handed it over. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Sorry about selling you a dud. Enjoy it.’

            I thanked him, turned and left for home, where I put the perfect, prinstine album on the record player and listened to the opening guitar riff from The Thrill Of It All and stared with shocked wonder at the bodies of Constanze Karoli and Eveline Grunwald.

            Now, forty five years later, I look back on this incident with a sense of melancholy for the unhappy little fourteen-year-old boy who yet appeared to be filled with such bravura and self-confidence that he could hoodwink Richard Branson’s new employees with such careless insouciance. I know now, with the self-knowledge which age has gifted, that it was a a trick learned in the bewildering school of my late parents’ unhappy marriage, where I was tasked with playing out the role of unwilling emotional consort to my poor depressed mother, dazzling her with my brilliance in an unconscious Oedipal roleplay sanctioned by my defeated father. I carried on using this trick throughout my adult life, entirely unaware, which is how I ended up doing what seem in retrospect to be such strange things, like buying the Queen’s dressmaker, Hardy Amies, and going to Buckingham Palace for chats with the Queen on what dresses she wanted. Or organising rock concerts in Hyde Park or being sued for libel by Sharon Osbourne. Thankfully, I’ve been able to turn the switch off at last and in many ways have reclaimed the carefree little ginger boy who used to find life so sweet before he discovered how unhappy his parents were.

            So, better late than never: I’m sorry, Mr Branson. I owe you a tenner.

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