The stayer

There aren’t many retail stores that can lay claim to a small but distinguished place in a state’s political history. Such is the stature of Rocking Horse Records, which won instant infamy on 14 February, 1989: the morning when a phalanx of police descended on the store, in the heart of Brisbane’s CBD, and raided it for stocking allegedly obscene material.

It’s hard to explain, more than a quarter of a century later, in what universe such a thing could happen. Back then, though, Queensland was a universe unto itself: a state where the police force was officially unable to find any of Brisbane’s many illegal brothels and casinos, yet threw the book at a record shop for displaying a popular Guns n’ Roses album.

This was, remember, during the dying days of the National Party’s 32-year rule of Queensland. Incredibly, lyrics in rock records became an electoral issue: later that year Russell Cooper – in his brief tenure as premier, after Tony Fitzgerald handed down his epochal report into political and police corruption – flagged that “pornographic” music would be subject to the state’s censorship laws.

But the raid, and Cooper’s pledge, was a misreading of a fundamental shift in the state’s mainstream middle class, with the National Party suffering a humiliating defeat at the state election the following December. As for Guns n’ Roses, their parent label, Warner, was so delighted to see the band’s album bumped back into the charts by the controversy that it helped fund Rocking Horse’s legal expenses.

The store’s proprietor, Warwick Vere, can laugh about it all now. Rocking Horse is celebrating its 40th anniversary: a success story that’s spanned enormous social, physical and political changes in Brisbane and Queensland. In that time, the store has managed to see off the rise of downloading, the January 2011 floods and near-bankruptcy, not to mention the court case ensuing from the 1989 raid – which it won.

“We had to prove that community standards had changed,” he says. “The police thought they had a lay-down misère – they’d successfully prosecuted Rodney Rude for obscenity not long before that – but basically we had to prove that the word f*** was no longer a shocker.” (The defence submitted that the word had been used 17 times in the Academy Award-winning picture of that year, Rain Man.)

Rocking Horse first opened its doors in November 1975. The shop, then in Rowes Arcade on Adelaide Street, was so cramped that the cash register had to fit under a stairwell. Yet it quickly became a hub for the city’s music fans, surfing the crest of the punk wave to become an oasis of alternative culture in the heart of Australia’s most conservative capital city bulwark.

This was back when Brisbane effectively closed on the weekends. “The caretaker there would try to pull the shutters down at 11.30 on Saturday morning, when our tiny shop was full of people – so much so that people had to wait outside, in the arcade, for someone to leave so they could come in,” Vere remembers. “I had to come to an arrangement that we’d lock the doors, no later than 12 noon.

“After that, you could put a shotgun down Queen Street and the only person you might hit would be Rock & Roll George. You could see him tootling down [in his vintage 1952 FX Holden] and it would be one of the very few cars that would be doing the block on a Saturday afternoon. Brisbane basically emptied out, and [people] went to the north coast or the south coast – and why wouldn’t they.”

From there, as Brisbane stayed open later and expanded, so too did the shop: to slightly roomier premises on 158 Adelaide Street (the location of the 1989 raid), and eventually to its current location on 258 Albert Street, where it’s been since 2004. At its peak, the store boasted 24 staff, 18 of them full-time, many of them long-serving: grizzled veteran Tom Beaumont has been there 20 years.

It’s also been a reliable source of employment for several generations of Brisbane’s musical talent. In the early days, Jim Dickson and Bruce Anthon – who both played in late-70s power trio the Survivors – ran the shop’s day to day business; today, you can wander in and find Sean Caskey behind the counter (Caskey plays with rising indie-rock band the Last Dinosaurs).

For a certain kind of person, it’s the ultimate dead-end job. “It’s alternately frustrating and great,” says Beaumont, whose default state seems set to a kind of seen-it-all deadpan. “I think the best thing about it is the idea that it’s not just a dead-end job in the corner; it’s a dead-end job with a lot of other dead-beats, and interacting with them is…” – he pauses for effect – “…rewarding.”

“It’s very hard to say to somebody who’s starting work in a record shop that this is a career,” Vere says. “It’s not. It’s for the people who you couldn’t keep out of the store with a stick anyway. Luckily, most of them love the job. They’re all gluttons for punishment. But as far as careers go, there’s not a great ladder to climb – unless they knock the old bloke off.”

Vere’s loyalty to his staff was tested in 2011, when the shop nearly closed after being hit by a succession of blows: long-term construction works for a busway; the January flood; the inexorable decline of CD sales. Even the sacking of public servants by former premier Campbell Newman had an impact: “Our shop was full of grey-haired people with lanyards at lunchtime, and they just vanished overnight.”

Inevitably, many of the store’s staff had to follow. “We were conscious of the fact that people had been there for an awfully long time, [and] that made it very hard to downsize,” Vere says. “We were bloated with staff, we didn’t take stock of the situation quickly enough, and we probably put it in the too-hard basket for a little bit too long.”

The store’s salvation lay in the format for which it first came into being: vinyl, which has seen a resurgence, thanks to new music fans who want something more to have and hold than a digital stream. “If we could have waved a magic wand and turned the CDs into vinyl we would have recovered a lot quicker,” Vere says. “It was definitely where the interest was, but it was like turning the bloody Queen Mary around.”

Beaumont says that initiatives like Record Store Day, which began in 2008, is only part of the reason behind vinyl’s resurgence. “It’s only one day [of the year]. My take on it is, there was a generation that didn’t buy anything; the new generation is buying something. They don’t buy CDs, because they’re dead – and you can’t impress someone with the amount of files you have.”

Since the dark days of 2011, several staff have been re-employed, though mostly on a part-time basis. On the day of my visit (truthfully, there aren’t many days that I don’t) the music is intermittently drowned out by the whine of saws and drills: the shop is preparing to consolidate its operations to the basement downstairs, which previously catered to dance and hip-hop fans – “Boogie Wonderland”, as it was once dubbed.

Vere will also be joining forces with former employee, Ric Trevaskes, who runs second-hand retailer Egg Records in West End. A lifelong music tragic, Trevaskes started at Rocking Horse as a 14-year-old, after being spotted dressed in a Devo outfit complete with the famous red “energy dome” on his head. “Once it’s in your blood, and you know it’s the best job you’re ever going to get, it’s hard to resist,” he says.

Now Trevaskes, who confesses he was “very nostalgic” for Rocking Horse, is bringing his vast collection of second-hand stock back under its roof. Vere says his former pupil “brings a whole new dimension to things. He runs record fairs; he has a little black book that you could kill for, and he has unending enthusiasm.” With Trevaskes back in the fold and the stolid Beaumont, the store is in good hands.

Not that Vere, who is well into his 60s, has any thoughts of handing over. “I wouldn’t mind an extra day of golf,” he admits. “But I still enjoy coming in here, and I’ve discovered that most of my friends who are retired are bored shitless, and looking for something to do. Besides, [federal MP for Longman] Wyatt Roy wants us all to work until we’re 70. So I’m a little way off that milestone yet.”

First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), 31 October 2015

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