Tag Archives: Cuthbertsons

are you being served? (part 2)

(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.

“Nup”

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).

Certainly.

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 ?

NEVER !

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are you being served? (part 1)

(Post by John Allan, from Bridgetown, Western Australia – February 2021)

There was a plan. The neatly dressed careers officer lady at the Clydebank Job Centre and I (apparently), had mapped my future in one 20-minute meeting. I was to work for a year until I was 18 then audition for the newly created Bachelor of Arts jazz course at the Leeds College of Music. Careers lady set up 2 interviews. One at Listen Records the other at J.D. Cuthbertson’s Ltd. Incidentally in Cambridge Street, Glasgow.

It was decided that I would leave school in spring 1975 at the end of 5th year. Another plan by teacherdaddy and me (apparently) as I had failed my 4 highers and ‘only’ obtained an A pass in ‘O’ grade music. I would have liked to have taken music earlier in my schooling but that wasn’t part of the plan. English, French, Maths, Arithmetic, a couple of sciences, and the choice of history or geography (gee, thanks Dad). Music and techie drawing, which I actually enjoyed, were not on the agenda. Stick to the plan.

My first interview was at Listen. I had feverishly swotted up on obscure artistes and albums by thumbing through as many NMEs and Melody Makers I could find.

I went for the smart but hip look.

The first part of the interview about music industry knowledge was OK, but they stumped me with some arithmetic type questions like “If an LP travels at 33 and a third rpm and costs £3 and fifty pence, and a customer gives you a fiver, would there be Blood on the Tracks, how much change would they get and who pays the Zimmerman? ” – or something like that.

The second interview was for Cuthbertsons.

I went for the smart but smart look.

“Can you be nice to customers and sell stuff ? You’ve got the job.”

And so it was that I started my first proper job away from my Bearsden cocoon. Clocking in on my first day was quite a thrill which quickly waned as the offices and tearoom were on the 3rd floor and the lifts were a bit dodgy.

My work mates in the musical instrument department were boss man Freddy, Malky, Jim and Tommy – a motley crew from all corners of greater Glasgow.

On the surface, Freddy appeared like a quiet, unassuming bloke – hid his plectrum under a bushel – but he was a bit of a guitar legend and had the respect of many a prominent local musician.

“Your pal Jack seems like a nice bloke, Freddy. What does he do? ”

“Not sure these days but he used to play bass with a band called Cream ”

Mr. Bruce had just left the building and I barely acknowledged him!

Freddy had a wicked sense of humour. A customer got all tongue tied and couldn’t say the word ‘guitar’.

“Can I have some gistar strings……sorry gistar. I’d likesome gistar……….no gistar strings”

“You say it and I’ll give you them” said Freddy with a deadpan face.

Freddy ordered a pedal steel guitar for the shop and proceeded to teach himself it with the help of the Lloyd Green Pedal Steel Book. Within a couple of months he was creating some lovely sounds and playing it regularly with his band Foxy.

Listening to Steely Dan’s “Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)” always reminds me of Fred.

Most of us played in bands of some kind and there was an occasion where Freddy’s band and my band Souled Out were double billing at the US Navy base at Faslane.

When Souled Out played our version of blue-eyed soul and funk, all these black dudes with garish suits and hats would strut their stuff on the floor and when Foxy played their soft, country rock, all the white home-boys with crew cuts, checked shirts and cowboy boots would be boot scooting across the floor. Great gig.

On the long drive home on empty early morning roads, Freddy’s band’s van would come out of nowhere and scream pass ours then we would overtake them. Just when we thought we had lost them, their van thunders past again windows open with a pimply bare arse sticking out ! That was Freddy.

I caught up with him a few years ago. He tells me he’s traded all his guitars and equipment for golf clubs. Doesn’t own a single plectrum.

Malky was the only one of us who did not play in a band although he played a bit of guitar. He would often sit in the corner and pick one the better acoustics (Martin, Gibson, Guild) and tinkle away. The Beatles “Blackbird” was his party piece.

Malky always wore this suede bomber jacket and had his hands in his pockets.

Being next to City Bakeries there was always a bit of a mice problem hence various mouse traps were set under the window display.

Someone (probably Fred) decided to put a dead mouse in Malky’s pocket. He had a day off and on his return we thought there would be hell to pay, but no, Malky was as cool and laid back as ever. Eventually, someone asked him what he kept in his pocket.

“Just my keys on this lucky rabbit foot key ring” (which he constantly fondled when walking about). He had found the rodent !

Revenge was sweet. Freddy was strapping on his Les Paul at a gig a few days later and was about to strike a power chord when he saw a wee dead mouse head sticking out from between the strings !

Malky loved a flutter and being central Glasgow there was always a bookies nearby. He would nip out 3 or 4 times to place a bet. One day I noticed a slight smirk on his face.

“Any luck” 

“I’ve just won £800 ” 

This was mid 1970s. It was a fortune ! He had 4 more bets that day – £200 each bet. He lost the lot. A few months later he had another big win, put in his notice, joined up with some overseas government volunteers and headed off to the middle of Pacific – Ellis Island – now known as Tuvalu. He married a local girl and has 2 stunningly attractive and successful children. His wife is a friend on social media. Good bet Malky.

Jim was a lad. Think The Offices David Brent. He played guitar in a wedding band and probably earned more than the rest of us put together. 3 or 4 nights, regularly, he would pump out “ Uno Paloma Blanca ” or would wait for the response and arm salute ‘hay, ho silver lining’ to his ‘and it’s’ but deep down I think he was a bit jealous of us in pub bands but he had a wife and kid to support.

He thought himself a bit of ladies’ man. On bringing out the plectrum box to a young female customer,

“Would you like plastic or do you want felt? “

I think he invented the ‘bare arse /smarmy bastard’ game. As a customer approached the counter, your colleague would whisper ‘BA’ or ‘SB’. BA or bare arse was when you had to be as rude and disinterested in your customer as possible. Plenty of tutting, eye rolling, heavy sighing and head shaking. SB or smarmy bastard was polar opposite were you had to be the most snivelling, servile and obsequious to the point of dry retching as possible. Silly I know but it passed the time.

Jim left to sell televisions. I don’t think he sold too many as he popped into the shop most days. Poor Jim. Even for the late 70s he was a bit of a relic.

When I started at Cuthbertson’s Tommy was nearing the end of his french polishing apprenticeship until the company did the dirty on him and closed down the workshop. I can’t remember how many people were put out of work but for the younger ones, working on the shop floor was the only option.

Tommy lived in a high rise with about a dozen other family members in a place called Hutchesontown which was what you called the Gorbals when you didn’t want people to know you came from the Gorbals. These days it’s probably quite trendy to say you come from the Gorbals as opposed to Hutchesontown I wouldn’t really know. In the 70s though it didn’t appear in many travel guides.

We sales folk were generally none too shabby – shirt, tie and jacket – and the blokes wore something similar. Tommy was different. Tommy was groomed within an inch of his life. Not a hair out of place, a trace of stubble or wayward nose bogie and that was during the working week. Come the weekend he positively glowed. Immaculate tailored suit, a shine on his shoes that could power a small hamlet, he oozed style like a south side Bryan Ferry.

He would lead his posse at the start of the evening to the Rogano – a pretty up market town centre restaurant, visit many a fine dining (and drinking) establishment through out the central metropolis before ascending the steep hill to Glasgow’s Mount Olympus, Maestro’s. Mere mortals like myself would wither at the slightest sneer of the bouncer but Tommy was in. Tommy was “The ‘In’ Crowd” take it away Bry !

Then they would all stagger home, scrape the kebab juice and dried vomit from their suits to be dry cleaned and then repeat the process the following night. I don’t know how he did it.

His pal Aldo decided to buy a second-hand Jaguar, even though he couldn’t drive, so Tommy took over the driving duties. The cruising element added a whole new dimension to these young guns hunt until the enforced sobriety got to Tommy.

The Jag (or what’s left of it) could be seen perched on stacks of bricks parked outside the Hutchie flats 6 months later.

What about me ? I turned 18 and barely noticed. I never went to any audition. I was too busy having fun, revelling in the camaraderie and earning money. My song?

Earth, Wind & Fire “Happy Feeling”

J.D. Cuthbertsons & Sons Ltd. got swallowed up in 1978 by its parent company Littlewoods in 1978. I moved on to McCormacks but that’s another story.

And there are plenty more stories to tell, bit players to introduce if you’re interested and have the time.

“I’m free”