Thursday, 5 November 2009

Sister Ray: The Shop That Won't Stop

Independent Record shops are a dying breed and the few that are left fight a constant battle to survive. Joe Nockles takes us to Sister Ray to see what it is that keeps this iconic store afloat.

In 1968, The Velvet Underground closed their White Light/White Heat album with the 17 minute epic, Sister Ray. It was recorded live with each of the players agreeing beforehand that whatever the outcome, it would be done in one take. As a result, the album’s finale is a psychedelic mash of improvisation, instrumental conversation and chaos. The sound engineer reportedly left saying, “I don’t have to listen to this. I’ll put it in record and then I’m leaving. When you’re done, come get me.”

Undeterred by this, the avant-garde rockers went on to unleash a fresh version of this unstructured “heavy metal” saga as a finale for most gigs. These performances would often outrun the recorded version with one live album featuring a 38 minute rendition of the piece. These live performances are now the thing of legend and Sister Ray has become iconic to music fanatics the world over.

Equally iconic, is the music-lover’s Mecca that took its name from The Velvet Underground’s mammoth song. Sister Ray Records has occupied 34-35 Berwick Street in Soho for just over 25 years. In that time it has whittled its way into musical history in its own right by appearing on the cover of Oasis’ What’s the Story, Morning Glory?, the third best selling album of all time. They were also the first shop to stock the Arctic Monkey’s debut EP, Five Minutes With… which these days has a starting price on Ebay of £150.

"The records appear to have been organised with common sense rather than the autistic Dewey Decimal style precision"

It is to collectors what TK Maxx is to bargain hunting shoppers. It claims to be the only independent record store in London to stock every genre of music. The records appear to have been organised with common sense rather than the autistic Dewey Decimal style precision demonstrated by most outlets. Jonny Greenwood’s film scores sits alongside Radiohead’s back catalogue rather than on the other side of the shop under ‘G’ or hidden amongst the soundtracks.

As a result, it is the perfect place to discover music. It’s thrilling to find the Magnetic Fields section isn’t merely the drab choice of the most famous (69 Love Songs) or most recent (Distortion) album, instead it plays host to the complete works of Stephin Merrit, including his self-penned tribute-album-cum-ego-project, The Sixths (which, by the way, is magnificent). The store is littered with oddities from all sides of the musical pantheon. The avant-garde section probably competes with John Cale’s personal collection and the krautrock stretches far beyond Kraftwerk and Neu!

"It has been fighting tooth and nail to keep afloat"

As with all independent outlets, it has faced difficulties in recent years. Obviously, the impact of Internet downloading, the bargain bin prices of major retailers and a worldwide recession don’t bode well for a humble business. In August last year, there was widespread concern when the store announced it had been forced to go into administration. Since then, it has been fighting tooth and nail to keep afloat.

The future of this legendary shop is still unclear, but like a live performance of the song from which it takes its name, it just keeps on going.

Sister Ray, 34-35 Berwick Street, London W1F


  1. Excellent. You're blog's looking gorgeous watching our web offspring get fat with content. The Sister Ray article turned out wonderfully.

    I've been a busy boy since getting home from Eastbourne... pass a gander acorss the altar.

    I love you. All of it.xoo

  2. Well said, growing up I used Sister Ray's superb mail order to get the stuff I couldnt get back in N. Ireland where I grew up. Now when I can I spend my music money there or Rough trade. Keep the indies alive, boycot HMV capitalist runts, I used to work for them its all about the money and the music is secondary. Sister ray is an institution!