All this..........and Pete Burns too

Record shop launches record company, rises… then falls. Movies have been made of less. But Liverpool label Probe Plus has endured since 1982 – in a city which had long since lost its place in the spotlight. Tim Peacock calculates how it adds up…
 
Thanks to The Beatles and the subsequent Merseybeat explosion, Liverpool was at the very epicentre of the rock’n’roll world during the early to mid-60s. 
After Beatlemania finally subsided on the cusp of the 70s, however, the city faced a starker future. Liverpool wasn’t yet on its uppers (the combined effects of
Thatcherism, mass unemployment and a militant council would see to that during the 80s), but cracks were already beginning to show in the local economy. Many factories and businesses had started to close; Liverpool’s world famous docks were in decline and significant numbers of families ended up relocating outside the city limits to recently-developed new towns such as Skelmersdale and Warrington. 
 
Bearing all this in mind, the financial climate was hardly conducive to the establishment of Liverpool’s first truly independent record store, yet in January 1971 Probe Records – one of the UK’s most legendary regional disc retailers opened its doors for the first time. 
The shop’s founder was Geoff Davies, a lifelong Liverpudlian music fan with ultra-catholic tastes and an encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema, who frequented The Cavern long before those four mop-haired lads shook the world. 
 
"The first time I saw The Beatles, I didn't get them at all," he admits. They were one of only two none-jazz bands playing the night I first encountered them. Kenny Ball was headlining and The Beatles came on at around 2am. The noise they made! They used amplifiers and none of the jazz bands did back then. A few seconds was enough for me and my mate. Went down to the pier head where there was an all night tea and pies stall and we hung out there until thought it would be safe to go back!
 
“A bit later, though, I saw The Beatles properly at one of The Cavern's lunchtime sessions,” he continues. “Despite my previous prejudices, I was completely sold on them. Not just the music, but their attitude, because they were just so irreverent. They were still playing covers a the time, but the energy was astonishing and I must seen them about 50 times after that.” 
 
Seeing The Beatles up close and personal was one of the many remarkable experiences Geoff Davies absorbed during the 60's. During this formative decade, his respectable day jobs at Hepworth's Tailors and the Liverpool Stock Exchange contrasted wildly with his bohemian recreational activities which included the ingestion of LSD and hair-raising hitch-hiking expeditions through the more remote regions of North Africa and the Middle East.
 
Despite having tasted some of life's more exotic flavours, Geoff was back in Liverpool and working nine to five for a fitter carpet company which he struck upon the idea of opening his own record shop in 1970.
 
“I was getting fed up with the job and wanted my own adventure,” he remembers “Around this time, Liverpool's only second-hand record shop was a place called Edwards in Kensington, and I'd had a bad experience in there when I went in wanting to buy The Doors' Waiting For Sun LP. The guy behind the counter had a really bad attitude. He wouldn't let me hear tracks from record and wouldn't even remove the sleeve from the window to let me look at it. He put me off spending my money and I left thinking I 
could do a much better Job. 
 
“Also, I'd seen a bloke selling imported LPs for less than the suggested retail price on a stall on Kensington Market in London and I'd been really impressed he could that. This was before Richard Branson started doing the same thing via mail order. I was inspired and began to think I could open up my own shop in Liverpool, where I could sell both new and second-hand titles. I envisaged it as a place id want to shop myself and somewhere you could get non-mainstream stuff.” 
 
Money was an immediate problem, however, especially when Geoff discovered buying the amount of stock he'd calculated he needed to begin trading would see them back a cool £5,000 if he bought it from EMI.
Polydor/Track, however, came to the rescue, offering to sell Geoff just £1,000 worth of merchandise. With a lot of help from his parents and loads from various mates, Geoff clubbed this amount together and the initial Probe Records shop eventually opened in Clarence Street, close to Liverpool University on 16 January 1971.
 
"I'd done up a load of flyers, and through word of mouth, there was a queue down the street on the first day," Geoff recalls with pride. " the first shop was really tiny, even after the landlord agreed o double the size of it, and it was crammed with stuff. Not just records but underground magazines such Oz; booked my Timothy Leary; joss sticks... and we were the first shop to sell Gay News if I remember rightly. It was very casual and across the board. Not just rock. we had imports from the US, releases by bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, which couldn't so easily at the time, but also blues, jazz, folk and even some classical - though that never sold. i took the classical LPs home for myself!"
 
Davies' singular approach, however, quickly found favour on the Merseyside. Now a successful online retailer himself, Birkenhead native and Probe customer Andy Jones (who later ran Liverpool's Pink Moon store during the 80s and early 90s) fondly remembers Geoff's unorthodox methodology. "I learnt a lot of good things from Geoff," he says. "One early reminiscence is that I noticed how in the Clarenece Street shop a buyer would bring an LP to the counter and instead of just serving them with it, Geoff would say, "Ah yeah, now if you're into this I suggest..." and go on to list a player other music of a similar genre. And 99 times out of 100, the buyer would end up going away with not just the original LP they'd wanted but two or three more. The nice thing was that Geoff was never pushy about it, no hard sell. He didn't need it as he persona shone through.
 
Instantly successful on it's own terms, Probe continued to go its own way, attracting the city's hipper, more bohemian music fans until 1976, when it decamped to a much larger city centre premises; reopening in a building at the corner f Rainford Gardens and Button Street. This new Probe was situated little more than a stone's throw from the now long defunct Cavern Club and also handily adjacent to Liverpool's' premier punk club Eric's, which opened its door on Mathew Street around the same time.
 
Probe was starting to attract influential figures, such as legendary Northern sould DJ and future Eric's promoter: "He was still Living in Manchester at the time, but travelled and continually and quickly became a fiend and a good customer becasue he had voracious musical appetite...just like me really. Like alot of people, Roger followed the shop when it moved into the city centre.
"By 1976, Probe had to move because we were so busy and we needed bigger premises. Dave Keats had worked in the original Clarence Street shop. He was the Archetypal hippie and really enjoyed the experience becasue it was laid back and a cool place to hang out. He was initially going to carry on working in the new shop, but when we moved in Ictober 1976, he couldn't take the pace and he quit a week later!
 
 
Read this complete article by Tim Peacock @ www.recordcollectormag.com
 
 
Geoff Davies interviewed by Jim Keoghan of The Quietus 

 

 

 

Dodging bailiffs, living hand-to-mouth, the ever-present threat of bankruptcy - it’s all part of the glamour of life in the music industry. Or at least it has been for Geoff Davies, the man behind Liverpool’s Probe Plus.

As an indie label it might not be up there with Stiff, Factory or Creation, but for the last 30 years Probe Plus has championed a succession of innovative and unusual bands, including the Dead Poppies, Marlowe and Half Man Half Biscuit (HMHB), and walked along that seldom travelled path that puts greater emphasis on what’s good rather than what just sells.

Anyone who has ever spent time in Liverpool will probably associate the name Probe with the iconic record shop; a den of obscure vinyl, intimidatingly knowledgeable staff and a miasma of weird and wonderful smells.

“I’d opened the shop ten years before the label started as the kind of shop that I’d want to go in,” says Geoff. “Loads of music from the margins, people that worked there who knew their stuff and a more relaxed attitude, like letting people come and listen to music before they bought it.”

 From its location in the middle of town Probe became the centre of gravity in the city for anyone with even a passing interest in the musically alternative and weird, with its more regular visitors affectionately labelled ‘probies’. In the early 1980s, along with nearby Eric’s, the legendary Liverpool club, it was at the heart of a burgeoning scene that saw acts like Echo & the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and Pete Wylie’s various incarnations of Wah! eventually launch themselves on an unsuspecting world.

 “The label kind of grew from the shop,” continues Geoff. “Probe was such an integral part of the local scene that I was constantly coming into contact with bands, even employing people like Pete Wylie and Pete Burns in the shop for a time. It seemed natural for me to dip my toe into putting out music rather than just selling it. And so from a little room above the shop Probe Plus was born.”

Its first release in May of 1981 was a self-titled debut EP by local electronic outfit Ex Post Facto. This was followed in 1982 by two releases that illustrated the label’s capacity to comfortably stride disparate genres, a characteristic that would later come to define it. ‘Piggy in the Middle Eight’ by Kirkby band Cook Da’ Books, was a piece of light, white reggae, and ‘Toxteth’ by Public Disgrace, a high octane slab of hardcore punk.

These early years of the label were relatively low key, with releases being limited to a handful of singles and EPs.

 “All that changed around 1984/85,” says Geoff. “A lot of my time had been taken up acting as a wholesaler with Rough Trade as part of the Cartel (an indie co-operative record distribution network). But I’d got into a bit of a financial mess with it all. Basically, I was distributing to other record shops in the North-West and people weren’t paying me what they owed. In the end I did a deal with Rough Trade that cleared the debt I’d accrued in exchange for my customer list. Suddenly, not only did I have the weight of the debt lifted off my shoulders but I had loads more time on my hands too, time that I invested in the label.”

 It ended up being a good decision. The next few years marked something of a purple path for Probe Plus, with album releases by well regarded bands such as The Mel-o-Tones and Gone To Earth as well as the cementing of a long and fruitful relationship with John Peel, who would go on to request sessions from thirteen of the label’s bands.

But Probe’s crowning glory during these years came in 1985 when two young lads called Nigel Blackwell and Neil Crossley dropped a demo tape into the shop.

“I remember listening to the band’s opening song, ‘God Gave Us Life’, in the car and hearing the line ‘God gave us life so that we could take sweets off strange men in big cars and get driven to the woods to stroke non-existent puppies’, and I thought that I had to sign Half Man Half Biscuit,” laughs Geoff.

 And the rest, as they say, is history. The resultant debut album Back In The DHSS’ was the biggest selling indie album of 1986, spending weeks at the top of the indie charts. It marked the beginning of a relationship between the band and the label that lasts to this day. Its success also meant that Geoff was able to significantly increase the label’s output, with bands like the Walkingseeds, The Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus and Jegsy Dodd & the Sons of Harry Cross joining the Probe stable.

 It was during this time that he also got more involved in the production side of things. “I really wanted the bands on the label to sound the same in the studio as they did live,” enthuses Geoff. “Before I got involved that wasn’t always happening. The problem in the mid-80s was the tendency to over-produce. It would turn great live bands into slick nothings. So I got together with a local lad called Sam Davis, who used to be in the seminal Liverpool band Deaf School. 

 He had a bit of experience in studios and so together we began trying to capture the essence of what these bands were like live.”

A lot of Probe’s releases from around this period and beyond certainly embrace a kind of low-fi rawness, one that adheres closely to the live experience. It’s something that a lot of indie music produced over the last few decades has gradually tried to shed. 

 As a sound it’s probably best exemplified by HMHB, a band that seem to revel in under-production, sounding in the studio almost as identically ramshackle as they do live.

 Although the money from Back in the DHSS gave the opportunity to increase the label’s output, what it didn’t provide was guaranteed success.

“I’ve got albums and singles released back then that are only now just starting to break even” laments Geoff. “A lot of the bands on the label, like Calvin Party and St. Vitus Dance, got some critical acclaim but that never translated into massive sales. Aside from the Half Man stuff, I don’t think there’s much I’ve put out that’s actually made a profit.”

This might not have been so bad had HMHB singer Nigel Blackwell not decided to take a lengthy sabbatical from the music industry after the release of ‘Dickie Davis Eyes’ in 1986.

 

“I was ok for a bit but by the beginning of the nineties things eventually became pretty desperate. At one point I was dodging the bailiffs,” laughs Geoff.

By then he no longer owned the shop, having given it to his wife Annie after the couple had separated.

“I took the upstairs, which was the label and she took downstairs, which was the shop. It was all very amicable. The only problem for me was that the label never really made much money,” he continues. “I only ever put out what I liked, not what I thought would easily sell. There were times I could have released what I call ‘convenience records’ but I just didn’t want to do it. It might not have made much commercial sense but I’d got into this to work with music I loved and not just to make money.”

 

Despite advice from those around him to wind the label up, and the great temptation to do as they advised, he chose instead to carry on in the hope that things would turn around. That they did was attributable to one album, HMHB’s 1997 release, ‘Voyage to the Bottom of the Road’. Although the band had returned a few years earlier with ‘MacIntyre, Treadmore and Davitt’, Voyageseemed to reconnect them with an audience beyond their small band of die-hard fans.

“Their coming back had helped but once Voyage was released it made all the difference. The album got loads more airplay. Songs were featuring on Radio One shows other than Peel,” says Geoff excitedly. “Suddenly the band was a big deal again, and since that point I haven’t had to dodge the bailiffs once.”

The resurgent popularity of HMHB has also meant that the label’s been able to increase its output again. This year alone five albums are being released, including one from the kind of band he swore he’d never go near again.

“In the past I’d lost money on young rock bands, bands that I thought were great but who just didn’t seem to make it. I’d hated disappointing them and didn’t really want to go through that again and yet here I am putting out an album by Lovecraft, another young rock band, with an average age of around twenty-five. I’m not entirely sure how that happened,” muses Geoff.

You would think that thirty years of failures, near misses and bouts of financial catastrophe would have dimmed his enthusiasm and yet the opposite seems to be true.

 “I still love doing this. I had the choice years ago whether to get into music or carry on in my job at a local carpet showroom and maybe work my way up the company. I never regret the decision I made. There have been plenty of really bad times since, but it’s all been worth it to do what I’ve done. I think the key has been learning to live on very little, something I picked up during my travelling years in the sixties. I think that’s really important if you’re going to run a label as frustratingly erratic as mine.”

 

Jim Keoghan. The Quiteus

Friday, July 28, 2017