I was in New York the other week, furtively sneaking into a preview of the doomed new Spider-Man musical, which features music from Bono and The Edge of U2. Just typing the infinitely silly names of those two humour-free and tiresomely bombastic rock stars makes me feel irritated, but not nearly as irritated as the $65-million show itself, with its pretentious and sometimes downright incomprehensible storyline, and a score that contains nothing approaching a decent tune.
Spider-Man is one of the biggest fiascos I have endured in more than 30 years of reviewing theatre, and so po-faced that it doesn’t even achieve ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ status. What a terrible disappointment from the director Julie Taymor, who achieved something genuinely magical with her stage version of Disney’s The Lion King.
I don’t want to turn this into a theatre column, but should you be visiting New York and fancy a great rock musical, rather than something that sounds like the rejected tracks from a particularly dire U2 album — and in my view they haven’t made a decent one since The Joshua Tree in 1987 — then book for American Idiot. It’s based on the recording of that name by the now rather elderly American post-punk band Green Day and captures the highs and lows of adolescence with real panache. The stunning stage design with its banks of TV monitors looks as if it belongs in Tate Modern and the music really rocks.
One of the great pleasures of New York for me used to be browsing round the Virgin Megastore on Times Square where you used to be able to pick up albums far more cheaply than in England. The jazz department was especially good, and most of my large collection of Blue Note albums was purchased there at ridiculously low prices.
But like the Virgin stores in Britain, the New York Megastore is no more. Tower Records predeceased it, and HMV pulled out of the Big Apple a few years ago, too. As far as I can discover, there is now no major recorded music shop in central Manhattan, though bookshops like Borders and Barnes & Noble still have CDs on sale. But for how much longer?
HMV has already announced that it is closing 40 stores in Britain, as it loses out to Amazon and the wealth of music available free online, and I suspect that a few years from now almost all records shops will have gone out of business.
Scanning the racks for curiosities and bargains will be one of those banished, half-forgotten pleasures, like lighting up a post-prandial cigarette in a restaurant with your coffee, rather than going out into the freezing cold for a few desperate gasps on the pavement.
I will miss record shops a great deal when they go, especially as I have so much time to kill in the West End. If the HMV flagship store in Oxford Street goes down, I will feel something close to bereavement, but already its stock seems to be diminishing and its bargain offers appear more desperate. A friendly assistant I spoke to in one of its specialist departments the other day complained that the management were egregious idiots who knew little about music and didn’t value the knowledge and expertise of the staff. And what’s HMV doing selling novelty mugs and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs anyway? When companies lose sight of what they actually do best, they are usually doomed.
These are melancholy thoughts, particularly since I first started frequenting record shops at the tender age of eight, getting on for half a century ago now. I have just been up into the loft and brought down the old singles I bought as a child, so scratched and well worn as to be almost unplayable even if I had a turntable, which I haven’t. Here’s ‘She Loves You’ by the Beatles, which started my collection, and the Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun’, which my Dad loved as much as I did. And now I’m looking at the Stones’ ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’.
The sight of the scratched vinyl vividly brings back the sweaty embarrassment of asking for this thrillingly louche song from the stern middle-aged shop manager, with his bristling military moustache and brown overall, in the dusty music shop I used to frequent in Surbiton. The poor chap looked almost as embarrassed as me.
Nowadays, kids can get far ruder and indeed downright nasty tracks simply by tapping a few keys on their laptop. But they are missing the fun of hanging out in record shops, making unexpected discoveries and seeing just how many songs you could hear in the listening booth before the shop manager insisted that you made a purchase or got the hell out. Happy days, gone for ever, but at least the music still raves on and brings the memories flooding back.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.