(Post by John Allan, from Bridgetown, Western Australia – February 2021)
Previously, I regaled you with tales and musical memories of the characters that accompanied me at J.D. Cuthbertson & Sons Ltd. musical instrument department from the winters of 1975 to 1978. Winters were always coming in Cowcaddens. But there are more bit players and stories to tell.
Across from instruments was ‘electrical’. Radios, TVs, hi-fi and the like, led by the very dapper SNP Man and his trusty man servant Hopalong George (he had a false leg – PC was the polis back then !)
The Scottish National Party were very fringe in the mid 70s and not always taken that seriously, but SNP Man was on a crusade.
Resplendent in his dark pin stripe suit, he always seemed to be campaigning for something – local government perhaps – and be shaking hands with customers engaging in small talk and kissing babies (which Mums must have found a bit disconcerting when you’ve only come in to look at the range of blenders).
Above the cacophony of our department, the strains of “Flower of Scotland” by the Corries could always be heard and SNiPpy and George could be seen staring soulfully at the Hacker radios bottom lips a quiver.
Around the dog leg were ‘records and cassettes’ and ‘bookings’. Margaret the Mole lived in a glass box and sold theatre tickets to tacky variety shows from her booth. That stunted troglodyte was the prototype to many of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ characters I’m sure.
‘Records and cassettes’ divided generationally between the young Bohemians and the menopausal. Old Mrs Cassette especially seemed to constantly have the troubles of the world thrusted down open her shoulders requiring numerous Askit powders within the working day. Who knew cassettes sales could be so stressful ?
The younger crowd were good fun and an after work drinky poo often ended up in a late night rage (could you rage in the 70s ? ) at some flat in the West End. Van Morrison’s “Warm Love” for you girls, know what I’m saying ?
Up one floor and you were in ‘piano and organs’ and ‘sheet music’ (I realise, dear reader, if you are reading this to your grandchildren – or even children – you have probably spent the last half hour trying to explain to them what a cassette is and now I hit you with sheet music. I feel your pain)
This was the lair of Clipboard Ken and Sleazy Organ Guy. ‘Slog’, as we’ll call him, is a fellow gigger although he trolled the working man’s social clubs of central Scotland.
He had a totally unique sense of rhythm were he could stop mid verse to adjust various stops on his organ reassured in the knowledge that the rhythm machine would plough through regardless.
“Tie a yellow rib – chicka boom chicka boom – bon round the ole oak – chicka boom – tree. It’s been three lo – chicka boom – ng years, do you sti – chicka boom chicka boom – ll want me ?”
Fortunately he worked solo. There he would be,four nights a week, working the room of old dearies dribbling their advocaat and Babycham, stinking of Lilly of the Valley and stale urine, raking in the spondilux !
Clipboard Ken (Assistant Manager – or so we thought) would bounce about between departments, clipboard clutched to his breast always looking preoccupied. If at any time you tried to engage in conversation with him he would give you that ‘sorry, but it’s out of my hands’ grimace, point to the clipboard and bounce off like a startled fawn. It wasn’t until he suddenly and unexpectedly passed away and we were discussing the tragic loss of such a dedicated and loyal assistant manager that the manager piped up.
“He wasn’t an assistant manager, he was a sheet music salesman !”
Then there was Old Jim the blind piano tuner. I spent my lunch hours with him making sure he took all his plates off his tray before casting it aside. Many a time Old Jim’s increasing tunnel vision let him down and bowls of scotch broth or eve’s pudding and custard would fly through the air of the Littlewoods staff canteen.
In his younger days, Jim had been a top notch trumpeter and arranger in Glasgow’s big band scene of the 40s. Legend would have it that at one gig, the brass section had a 32 bar break. Jim put his trumpet down, picked up pen and paper and jotted down a whole new brass arrangement for another song while the band played on. Then picked up the trumpet again exactly on cue. (I hope more than the musical among you can really appreciate the total respect I had for this wonderful man)
I saw him shuffling past the hi-fi ‘lounge’ one day and he stopped, changed direction and went into the demo area for the top end gear. I was going to go over because I thought he had become disorientated but then I saw his head nodding, imperceptible at first, but rhythmically moving. This 70 plus year old man was getting into the groove of George Benson’s “ This Masquerade .” Legend.
Finally the Manager. The Littlewoods plant. (Littlewoods had bought out Cuthbertsons in the early 1970s with the intention of running it down which it did but never admitted to).
We had little to do with the man other than keep an eye open for him on the few occasions he came down to the shop floor.
Out of boredom, one of us had rolled up some end of sellotape and cast it aside. Someone else came along and added more tape to it. After a few days we had something the size of a football and many of it’s qualities (the stationery budget must have been huge that month)
In quieter moments games of ‘keepy uppy’ ensued until one day someone (probably me) lost control and the ball rolled over to the foot of the stairs leading up to the offices. Before it could be retrieved, Manager came bounding down the stairs and stopped, staring at the offending object littering the thoroughfare. We all thought ‘that’s it, that’ll be our cards for sure’ but manager looked up, gave a half smile and blootered the ‘ball’ skimming our heads and crashing into the expensive Gibson guitars hanging on the wall.
He then came over, chatted casually about football and Liverpool, where he was from. He was just a regular guy sent to do a job away from his family.
The store closed soon after.
And what about the punters ? Where do I start.
“ Do you have a flute for an 8 year old girl ? ”
“ We have a flute for a 7 year old boy ”
“ OK, thanks anyway “
Customer walks away.
“ Got any mulk ?” Cuthbertsons Dairies are in Ibrox. Stares at numpty for 30 seconds. Does a slow 360 degree turn taking in views of various guitars, amplifiers, drum kits etc. etc. Fixes stare on annoying urchin.
We had our fair share of stars and celebrities. Billy Connolly signed many a cheque for me. Midge Ure was a regular. Turned up with the rest of Slik one day in baseball strips straight from a photo shoot.
Frank Ifield wandered in when the shop was near deserted and all the staff quietly hummed or whistled “I Remember You”.
Q. Did Devo purchase a Firebird copy guitar and proceed to saw bits off it ?
A. Yes. I got the saw from the workshop for them.
Charlie Burchill from Simple Minds, Brian Robertson from Thin Lizzy, Quo’s Alan Lancaster – lovely fellows all. No egos, no divas – except….
There was a certain Scottish entertainer – let’s just call her Lena Martell – who would come in silk scarf around her head and sunglasses askew and stop at the top of the stairs, hands out stretched, as if waiting for her “da daah” moment. Leaning heavily on the banister she would descend. Obviously she had been at the cooking sherry all morning. One step at a time sweet Lena. She would stride purposely to the cassette department. Looking for an Askit no doubt.
You couldn’t make this stuff up……………………………………………and I haven’t !
Would I have liked to have been one of the first Bachelor of Arts graduates of the jazz course of the Leeds College of Music ? (assuming I passed the audition and stayed the course).
Would I give up the life experiences and friendships gained as a teenager in the late 1970s on the shop floor of one Glasgow’s iconic music shops ?