BACK STAGE AT PEPPERMINT IGUANA HQ: Gigs, Festivals, Parties, CDs, Books, Protests, travels, photography and Cardiff City FC

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Simon, the unassuming man behind Rocakway Records, restrains himself from buying his own stock

Newport has for many years had fairly vibrant music scene, with many of its bands and even some of its live venues, quite literally, becoming world famous. During a brief period in the 1990s the town was even dubbed ‘The New Seattle’, due to the number of guitar bands making waves in what the scene hungry music press were calling ‘Cool Cymru’. This ‘scene’, as is often the case, was a creation of lazy journalism. Newport was pumping out good music long before the NME discovered there was a toll on the Severn Bridge and long after The 60 Foot Dolls split.

Now, whilst it would be an exaggeration to say Rockaway Records has been responsible for all the good music coming out of The ‘Port for the last 30 years, anyone who knows anything about the history of all this would be hard pushed to deny that without Rockaway, things would have been very different.

Situated in Newport’s provisions market, Nick Hornby could have been talking about it in his novel High Fidelity, when he described Championship Vinyl; “Located in a neighbourhood that attracts a bare minimum of window shoppers, I get by because people make a special effort to shop here, mostly young men”. Over the years it has expanded and contracted, at one point dominating the upper floor, these days modestly occupying one unit downstairs, in amongst the fruit and veg stalls.

Whilst there is a variety of sonic delights on sale, including reggae and dance music, Rockaway’s reputation is undoubtedly based on its punk rock collection, from old skool UK punk to imported west coast American hardcore. The fact that you can pick up gems there that can be found in few other UK shops, if any, has led to people travelling far and wide to check out the stall.

The shop has always been far more important than its stock though. It has always been a meeting place for locals who have an ear for something a little bit different. There is always someone just chatting away with the owner, Simon, or his ‘assistant’, Dean Beddis (formerly front man with the Cowboy Killers and Las Vegas Elvis). Sometimes it is just a music fanatic discussing the latest release by the Meat Puppets; sometimes an aspiring musician discussing last nights gig; sometimes an old head reminiscing about the old days down the Stowaway; or sometimes an anorak waffling on about some obscure white label he has bought off e-bay. Being Newport, they have their fair share of local nutters who will spend twenty minutes complaining about the price of a £6.99 CD before going off to shop lift from HMV.

Rockaway has probably been as important to Newport, if not more important than, TJs. For many years Simon was the brains behind Cheap Sweaty Fun (CSF), an ad-hoc not-for-profit punk promotion outfit. They started out in 1984 to raise money for striking miners and went on to put on hundreds of shows, with profits either going to subsidise the gigs that lost money or going to local charities. They focused on punk and ska gigs, but the only criteria they really stuck to was it had to be a band they wanted to see themselves. They wandered around a bit, using Stowhill Labour Club, Pillgwellny Irish Club and finally settling on TJS. I think it is fair to say that without CSF, TJs Disco would still be as its name suggests; a disco.

In addition to putting on gigs CSF also put out the odd record, usually to celebrate an anniversary like their 100th or 200th gig. Bands they put out include The Misfits, Bouncing Souls, Snuff, The Cowboy Killers and Choketeen.

For a good few years now Simon has been concentrating on record fairs and has now finally decided to give up the shop. He is going to carry on with the record fairs whilst Beddis, who has worked there for over 20 years and pretty much runs the show anyway, will be formally taking over the stall as of Saturday. The record fair business will take the name Rockaway, whilst the stall will be renamed Criminal Records.

You can't skin up on an MP3!

By way of a last hurrah, today Simon is holding a record fair upstairs from the stall and this is my first point of call. Behind his stall is a collage of vinyl, both 7” and 12”, suspended in transparent display covers. The display is varied, to say the least. Chet Atkins and the Oppressed share a space with ‘Highlights of the 1961 FA cup Final' and ‘Roar: Authentic sounds from grand prix races and the Isle of Man TT’. (?!!)

I chat with Simon, as is the tradition, and browse through the non sound effects CDs. An old mate of Simons arrives and starts scooping up CDs as if he had won the lottery. Simon starts telling us about a new ska band he has seen but is quickly trumped by his mate who tells us about Staff Benda Bilili; A group of paraplegic street musicians who live in and around the grounds of the zoo in Kinshasa, Congo. Being a sucker for the obscure, I make a mental note to Google them when I get home*. Matey then disappears to find a cash point to fund his purchase as Simon tots up his bill, muttering to himself, half pleased that he has a big sale, half guilty that even at mates rates his mate is going to be handing over the equivalent of Iceland’s national debt. I sheepishly purchase one CD, The Ruts DC V Zion Train.

Rockaway, the Vinyl solution

After making arrangements to drink beers with Simon sometime soon, I head downstairs for one last visit to Rockaway Records, the stall. Dean is enthusiastic and looking forward to the challenge. This could potentially mean a new lease of life for the stall, Beddis has some plans for changing and expanding, and with Simon not creaming off the best of the stock for the fairs (something he openly admits to) we could see a revival of the stall, or at least as much of a revival as you can have in a recession hit world where people are keen to download their music for nout. A local nutter wanders by and complains about the price of DVDs, before heading off to shop lift as HMV; some things never change.

* I rarely come away from meetings with Simon without having heard about something new, this was a bit unexpected though! Staff Benda Bilili make music of astonishing power and beauty. The band's mesmerising rumba-rooted grooves, overlaid with vibrant vocals, remind you at times of Cuban nonchalance, at other times of the Godfather of Soul himself. You can hear echoes of old-school rhythm and blues, then reggae, then no-holds barred funk. Four senior singer/guitarists sitting on spectacularly customized tricycles, occasionally dancing on the floor of the stage, arms raised in joyful supplication, are the core of the band, backed by a younger, all-acoustic, rhythm section pounding out tight beats. Over the top of this are weird, infectious guitar-like solos performed by young Roger Landu, (an ex-street kid the band took under their wing), who plays a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can.