Iwas in a record shop the other day, in my usual ceaseless search for wrongly marked-down new CDs and other accidental bargains, when a track from the new Coldplay album came on. Like many people, I possess the first Coldplay album. Like several, I'm not sure it's quite as good as everyone said it was. Like a few, I'm worried that this young and impressionable group have been touted as the natural heirs of U2, a group so phenomenally dull they believe that putting on sunglasses makes them 'ironic'. And yet this track they were playing sounded fantastic. Dramatic, epic even, with gloriously tortured vocals and a really powerful good tune at the heart of it. Everything you want rock music to be, in other words. I could feel a purchase coming on. I went up to the counter.
'Excuse me. Just to check — this is the new Coldplay album?'
A lanky, chin-free specimen in his early twenties turned, very slowly. Gradually he focused, and stared at me with contempt. I believe I had dared to talk to him.
'Yes — hello!' I waved. 'Is this the new Coldplay album — that you're playing, and that I'm listening to?' You like to be sure. It might have been any of several new groups who believe that sounding a bit like Coldplay is the easiest route to fame and fortune.
But the specimen didn't regard this question as worth answering. Either it was obviously Coldplay or it was obviously not Coldplay. He knew. I didn't. He seemed to like this state of affairs, but be wasn't going to let it show. With an impassivity that implied massive zen-like concentration, or possibly prolonged drug use, he stood there as though I hadn't spoken; then turned and walked slowly away. Outrageous, really, but this was a record shop, where normal stan dards of behaviour do not apply. You might get reasonable service if you were Chris Martin from Coldplay himself, or if you had a gun. Otherwise you're lucky if they'll let you buy something.
Disaffected youths buy records. Disaffected youths want to be rock stars. Really badly disaffected youths who want to buy more records than they can afford and know they will never become rock stars work in record shops. It has always been thus, and has long inspired many people to avoid record shops altogether. The citycentre megastores aren't so bad, as they tend to he staffed by weary students who haven't the time or the energy to be rude to you. Specialist and second-hand shops are traditionally the worst, especially if you do something they don't approve of, like buy a Moody Blues album or ask for a receipt. But if you buy a Neil Young album (or something they do approve of), they will look kindly upon you and discuss the artist's works at possibly mind-numbing length.
It's the high-street chains which really set the standards for staff rudeness, although nowadays that may be because they haven't much else to offer. Their shelves groan with DVDs and Playstation games, but their CD stock has been stripped back to the current chart, greatest hits collections and a small back catalogue of acknowledged classics. The other day I went looking for the Turin Brakes's wonderful debut album as a present for someone, but it has been out 18 months and didn't go triple platinum. In your local Virgin you'd have more chance of buying a wildebeest. To make up for their pitiful stock, most highstreet chains now have year-round sales, offering two CDs for £22, or five for £30. But they are always the same dull old titles you either already have or would never want.
The truth is that record shops are dying. Friends of mine, who are too fat to move, buy all their CDs off the Internet. Others have noticed that some supermarkets are now offering chart albums at £9.99. Recommended retail prices continue to rise — £16.99 for a CD is not unknown, especially in megastores, where you have to shop very carefully indeed. (Often, I suspect, they add a pound or two to the RRP just to see if you're paying attention.) The music industry complains that the supermarkets are cherry-picking the best titles and selling them off too cheaply — but what's wrong with that? No one outside the music industry believes CDs are good value. Accordingly, CDs sales continue to fall, and the high-street chains are suffering. After all these years, their staff finally have something to be miserable about.
Still, if it means that the little bleeder who failed to serve me is soon out of a job, I don't think I'd be too distressed. And the new Coldplay album? I bought it elsewhere, as it happens, and it's very good indeed.