A Brief History of Probe Records
"Probe was where you bought all your
indicators from, learned what was cool."
By Richard Lewis 20/5/2010
The Cavern, Eric’s, Cream, The Picket, Probe. Out of these five legendary music establishments in Liverpool, only two of them are still with us. The last one you may have glimpsed on the way to pick up this magazine. Since Independent Record Shop Day was held recently to highlight the importance of independent retailers in the UK, it seems a perfect time to look at the history of Probe, Liverpool’s most famous alternative music shop. As its most recent advert states, ‘Probe Records, 9 Slater St, Independent Music Retailers since 1971.’ Now approaching its fourtieth year and in its third location, Probe continues to thrive, despite the music industry being a vastly different beast compared to the one in the early 1970s
Described by famed Liverpool music writer Paul Du Noyer as "the semi-official control room of Liverpool music", the Probe story begins when in January 1971, when former Cavern regular Geoff Davies established the shop in Clarence Street, halfway up Brownlow Hill. As Du Noyer states, "All he (Davies) wanted was a decent place where he could buy the records he couldn’t find in the shops." Originally a beacon of the underground/hippy movement, stocking radical publications and fanzines as well as music, the shop’s location and its aesthetic may have changed over the years, but it has always reflected the cutting edge of Liverpool’s music concerns.
By 1976, immediately prior to the explosion of punk, Davies took the advice of Eric’s club owner Roger Eagle and moved the premises to a more central location, the corner of Whitechapel and Button Street (the site is currently occupied by Ted Baker).Here fate dealt Davies and Probe an ace, as the shop became central to the burgeoning ‘Eric’s scene’ that gave birth to scores of Liverpool bands. As Eric’s became a mecca for the punk bands of the day, Probe - situated in its immediate vicinity - became the record shop of choice for gig goers and musicians.
Inspired by punk’s clarion call, seemingly dozens of Liverpool bands formed in its wake. Echo and the Bunnymen, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, The Teardrop Explodes, Orchestral Manoevers in the Dark, Wah!, Dead or Alive and Big in Japan, featuring a young Ian Broudie, later of The Lightening Seeds and a host of other bands. All played at Eric’s and shopped at Probe.
Proof of how central the shop was to the scene at the time is that future FGTH dancer and vocalist Paul Rutherford worked as a shop assistant, along with Wah’s! Pete Wylie. Most famous of all however was future Dead or Alive frontman and Celebrity Big Brother contestant Pete Burns. Burns kept the store’s policy of ‘constructive criticism’ of customer’s choices instigated by Davies alive.
According to Julian Cope’s memoirs, Head On, Davies’ reply to a buyer hoping to purchase the new Rush album was "No, you fucking can’t have the new Rush album. Where do you think you are, Virgin Records?" Davies later downplayed this abrasive attitude, stating, clarified this, "…the fact is, I would always take the money. I’d sell ‘em the record, and maybe just insult them. Or at least give them some advice."
Cope’s impression of walking into the shop when he first arrived in Liverpool in 1977, was "The whole place was loaded with incredible atmosphere – really loaded. People knew their shit and that made it even more scary." In addition to being a record shop, the store doubled up as a hangout for musicians who were too skint to afford drinks or couldn’t get into clubs in town.
Julian Cope’s summit meetings with Ian McCulloch, when they were still in The Crucial Three together (along with Wah! luminary linchpin Pete Wylie) took place in the shop. As the bands from Eric’s started to feature in the music press, the shop became almost as big a part of the Liverpool scene as the club where the group’s rehearsed and played. As Cope said by 1978, the "Probe was in a sense the retail arm of the Eric’s world."
By 1981 Davies had expanded the business into being a wholesaler and a distributor, becoming part of the highly influential Cartel network. Cartel was an independent group of shops that stocked releases by more obscure groups, as well as luminaries luminaries such as The Smiths, who were signed to indie label Rough Trade, which in itself had grown out of a record shop. In addition to joining The Cartels, the shop Probe set up a record label, Probe Plus, whose most famous signings were the maverick Birkenhead group Half Man Half Biscuit. Pop culture obsessives and perennial John Peel faves who took 1987-1990 off for fear of becoming "too successful", the group were signed after lead singer Nigel Blackwell handed Davies a tape over the counter, venturing, "Believe you do records".
With Probe Plus since 1985, the group have stayed true to their independent spirit, and that of the shop and record label. The most famous example of this - other than opting out of the music industry entirely in the late ‘80’s - was turning down a slot on famed Channel 4 tea-time music show The Tube, as it clashed with a Tranmere Rovers home game.
By the early 1990s, the business Probe had moved again, this time to its present location in Slater Streeet. As with the shop's initial studenty location at the time of the hippy counter-culture and its time in Whitechapel during the punk/New Wave boom, again the shop found itself in the right place at the right time. With the massive popularity of dance music post-acid house in the city, Probe found itself at the centre of this, being a stone’s throw from the scene's epicentre, Cream, on Wolstenhome Square. Along with the newly minted 3 Beat Records, located in the and the (now defunct) Liverpool Palace, Probe’s status was boosted by the boom in 12” singles sales.
In 2006 Probe, celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with an exhibition of cover art at the Egg café. In 2006 Probe celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with an exhibition of album and single covers art at the Egg Cafe, staged by Liverpool-based artist collective Red Dot Exhibitions.
Faced with a loss of revenue following the advent of downloading, the music industry began to shut down large record shops. Liverpool was no exception as the flagship Virgin Megastore was bought out by Zavvi, only to shut its doors some months later. Smaller, independent shops also began to feel the strain, as purchasers switched to online retailers. Like most major cities with a student population and fertile music scene however, Probe has survived, along with Picadilly in Manchester and Rough Trade in West London.
With a renaissance in vinyl sales over the past few years, with many bands’ back catalogues being reissued on LP, Probe has found a new lease of life (the shop is especially good on underground US hardcore such as Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys I found). As many new groups announce their arrival with limited edition 7” inch singles or EPs, Probe has continued to be a major stockist of new bands.
Independent Record Store Day last month was marked with the release of 7” singles by The Rolling Stones and Blur, and a belated recognition in the national press of how vital these businesses are. Writing in The Guardian, music journalist Jon Savage described how the "…the ideal record shop should be a world unto itself…it should offer that misused but still important word-an alternative." Summing up the appeal of Probe and all independent record shops he continued: "They bring people together rather than leave them atomised on the computer…they are the lifeblood of popular culture."
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