On the record – An Irishman’s Diary on smuggling vinyl
In the case of records, I seem to recall, the import duty was something like 40 per cent.
I did a bit of smuggling back in the day. My kids’ eyes, though, would glaze over if I tried to tell them about it. For a start, the goods involved, 12-inch singles and vinyl LPs, mean next to nothing to them. Then there’s the matter of having to explain that a lot of stuff you tried to bring back to Ireland from Britain in the 1980s was subject to a thing called import duty.
In the case of records, I seem to recall, it was something like 40 per cent.
That didn’t matter much if you were into the sort of music that made up bulk of the mainstream chart, but I had a thing for the stuff that was largely put out by small, independent labels, and most of those had nobody here to distribute them.
There were a handful of places that brought the stuff in.
I worked in one briefly, the branch of Golden Discs on Liffey Street, run by a guy called Gerry Kenny (these days, of Tower), and spent a fair bit of my time back then in some of the others.
At the time, Golden Discs supplied the independent chart used in Hot Press and I briefly marvelled at its volatility until it dawned on me that Love Will Tear Us Apart’s knack for disappearing and then coming back straight in at number one in the singles list had to be down to some strange supply issue.
I subsequently learned that such was the amount of hassle involved in getting shipments of stock that orders were kept to a minimum and shortages of the better-selling records were routine.
Because it was part of a bigger chain, everything was by the book in Liffey Street but the talk, informed or otherwise, was that some rivals took a more informal approach to the import process, and rumour had it that when one employee was stopped coming off a car ferry with a boot full of the black stuff, rather than pay the duty and fine, the owner simply waited for one of the occasional auctions that the customs people used to run in order to dispose of seized product. There not being much competition for a bulk order of the latest Crass album, he bought the lot back for a song.
We were unlikely-looking Provos but any tangle with British law enforcement had the potential to go fairly badly wrong for young Irishmen back then
Choice remained limited, in any case, and so a friend and I decided we needed to get proactive. We took to taking the ferry to Liverpool on a Friday night, killing a few hours until the record shops opened, then hitting the circuit.
There were good Virgin and HMV stores, where the staff were great, always enthralled by the fact you had made the journey and ready to recommend stuff you had never heard of. Virgin founder Richard Branson recalled much later that the chain’s Liverpool outlet, the first to open after London, turned over £20,000 in its first week but that the figure steadily dropped until it reached £500 and so he went to investigate.
“It had become a club,” he said. “There was no way anybody could get to the till to buy any music. It was just a place that every single person in Liverpool went to hang out.”
There was a more than hint of that about all of these places.
The most memorable of them on Merseyside, though, was Probe, a dingy enough place in what was then a drab corner of the city centre – it’s now the “Cavern Quarter” and thriving on the tourism that the city’s musical heritage generates. We’d spend hours, and most of our money, in the place. Then, when we were broke, we would set about killing time on the cheap until it was time to take the boat home again.
The journey involved two potential hurdles: police before we departed on the look-out for paramilitaries, and customs men when we arrived looking for passengers carrying contraband. We were unlikely-looking Provos but any tangle with British law enforcement had the potential to go fairly badly wrong for young Irishmen back then, and I recall being hugely relieved on one occasion we were stopped when the plainclothes policeman took one look at what we were carrying and inquired good-naturedly if we had been to Probe, where his son was something of a regular apparently.
Despite our always exaggerated fears, the customs people back in Dublin never took much interest.
I was back in Liverpool recently and delighted to see that Probe is still going and looking rather well in its current home on Bluecoat School Lane.
I stumbled upon the old place entirely accidentally that night and though it was now a restaurant, knew it straight away; the “before” picture stored safely somewhere in my head.
Travelling between the two cities is a very different, much more relaxed, experience these days but given the way most people get their music now, it is hard to imagine smuggling records across the sea again, even with the worst-case Brexit.
Somebody will find something to smuggle, though, if Britain and Ireland are not part of the same customs union and a hard border here will mean security might quickly become a bigger issue again. It is also hard to explain to my children’s generation why mine would ever want to take that particular step back in time.