In our town, punk was available from a specialist store - small, dank, dingy and staffed by Nigel, a man of legendary rudeness, even by the exacting standards of unpleasantness set by record shop assistants. We hung around there after school or in the lunch break, in the hope of becoming hip by osmosis. Occasionally, casual shoppers or hapless aunts clutching nephews' birthday lists would drift in on the misguided assumption that this was a downmarket version of WH Smith. And Nigel would shrug and sniff and give them all grief.
'Do you have anything by George Benson?'
'We don't stock that soul crap.'
'Could you tell me where I might find Lionel Richie?'
'Probably at home in LA in bed.'
We would go and watch Nigel (albeit nervously and at a sensible distance from the counter) in the manner in which you might go and watch a band or gather round a fire-eating juggler. He remains to this day the only person I have ever seen pogoing while on the phone.
Most record shops have a policy of playing chart hits during peak shopping hours, to create a consumer-friendly environment for the broadest possible audience. The policy at Nigel's appeared to be that Nigel played whatever he wanted to hear, whenever he wanted to hear it. Thus the most instrumentally abrasive and lyrically pornographic material would be pumped at dizzying volume through an overhead speaker system of which many rock clubs would have been proud. And if you weren't ready to enjoy 'Puke on Me' by the Snot Gobblers, then what were you doing in the shop in the first place?
It would have been a school lunch- hour. We would have been standing around wearing conspicuous purple blazers, flipping through the record sleeves in their faintly greasy plastic covers, lingering in the vain hope that someone from out of town would come in and ask Nigel to speculate on the release date for the next Diana Ross album. And then Nigel put another record on.
It started with a crisp drum roll. Then in came the bass guitar, pumping along like a panicked heart-beat. Eventually the track crashed into the guitarist, who appeared to be busy mashing several unrelated chords together. The voice followed that - odd, throaty, pulling all the words apart, twisting the vowels in the excitement of getting them over. Which didn't take long: the song lasted less than three minutes. The track which followed barely crept above two - weirder and more wiry still, sung by a second voice, more alarmingly mad and incoherent with adrenalin than the first. (There was, of course, barely time to catch your breath between these numbers. Gaps between tracks? In 1978 those were for cissies.)
And then came a third song, with more discordant guitars, a rhythm which seemed to pull up hard and slip back on itself and a chorus which answered all your questions:
'What do you call that noise
That you put on?
This is POP] Yeah, yeah]
This is POP] Yeah, yeah]'
This is POP] Yeah, yeah]
Before the song ended (two minutes 38 seconds), I had bought the album.
The record was called White Music. It was the first album by a band called XTC. They came from Swindon. They were led by a Beatle-freak called Andy Partridge. They had a drummer called Terry Chambers who once got into trouble for breaking into one of Swindon's Chinese takeaways and urinating in a vat of uncooked chips. And they were un-hip and provincial too, which meant we loved them more and started styling ourselves in a vaguely related manner - the cropped spiky haircuts, the baggy, brightly patterned jumpers in kinetic mohair. (Actually, mohair was too expensive: but anything badly made and ragged at the edges had much the same effect.)
After XTC we started to favour the pared down over the ornate, the brittle over the lush, the speedy over the self- indulgent, pop over rock. In short, we stopped listening to Supertramp.
Eventually I learned that XTC weren't really a punk band at all. They were just pretending. Flustered record companies were signing anything with an attitude. Lean back against a wall in a leather jacket with your arms folded and give the camera a surly stare. Bingo. It worked for the Police and the Stranglers and the Clash and the Jam - the punk bands that weren't. Here was a turning point for the business, though it may not have realised it at the time - a giant, fresh intake of British songwriting talent. Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, Hugh Cornwell, Sting and Andy Partridge: they're all still at it. And they all go back to a dank provincial record shop, staffed by a rude man called Nigel.