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Est. 1987 519 Wilbraham Rd, Chorlton, Manchester M21 OUF  UK
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KINGBEE RECORDS: TWENTY YEARS

It’s the 21st century. Vinyl is dead. The ipod is king. Even CDs are being sized up for the great format dustbin in the sky. They’re trying to sell us zeros and ones, bits of hard drive space, that insurance companies won’t acknowledge even exist. The papers are full of it. The end of an ear ‘ole. Fopp gone bust, beloved independent shops closing left right and centre, all the lonely people up all night on crap tops- measuring their musical tatste out in regimented 79p bites. Painted budgie yellow on an unassuming row on Wilbraham Road is one shop that simply refuses to fall in line. You can’t move in here on Saturday afternoon for errant dads who’ve been sent out for a loaf and taken a musical detour, indie hipsters discovering krautrock and discovering the 80s on 50p sevens, serious spending collectors eyeing the big pieces on the walls, disco mums with prams in the 12” racks, reggae obsessives sifting the boxes for super heavyweight ska, still sharp in their 50s chaps in good shoes, evaluating the latest northern stock, Big shot US house DJs in town for the night and doubling up on obscure electro on sale at a snip, king bee WAGS huffing and puffing at the door while their loved ones spend half of next months mortgage on a pile of Cds that remind them of pramless teenage freedom, old fellers in the jazz racks lost in a world of trios, blue note and bossa, Beatle nuts buying different issues of records they already own, mods and sods, pop gods and odd bods - people who know that music is the only real magic in life.





Kingbee’s own Tommy Cooper is Les Hare who opened an amazing 20 years ago in September 1987. Back then, Manchester, always in love with the magic, was already home to a serious community of anal retentives who spent their whole lives pacing a city wide circuit of shops catering to every addiction. It would have been a risky thing to join them but Les Hare had done his homework. A serious collector, every penny from his job at Massey Ferguson went on soul, the best of rock and northern in particular. Those of us who feel we must give over our home to boxes full of little round bits of plastic know that the weekly and even daily trawl for your sonic drug of choice means that you see duplicates of things you already have. If they’re inexpensive, you can’t help but give them a home, to trade them, pass them on in kindness or just to stop anyone else from getting them. Obviouly not suffering from this last hoarding disease, Les started doing record fairs to buy and sell. He enjoyed it and could see a way out.


In April 1987 he decided to become his own man and took a stall in Ethel Austin’s a few hundred yards down the road from the shop at 519, next to the post office. Except that they didn’t sell ladies nighties back then. The building housed Chorlton Market- one of those place where they sell meat and pies and knitting wool and fish and cheap kettles, all from different stalls. People would bring records in and King Bee as it was now known, began to get a reputation. Word quickly spread that here was a feller who had taken a view in the jungle of possible music you could stock and sell who knew about soul and jazz, latin and reggae and punk and rock. Not just a couldn’t care less big table full of chart cds and a few boxes of unloved junk ready for the charity shop, but what was becoming a real shop with an idenity which expressed the passion of it’s captain. Things were getting busy so Les took on staff in the form of young indie fan Rosie- his ruddy cheeks gave him his name. On Wednesday afternoons, Les
(a chap it is impossible to dislike who had been accepted as a knowledgable fellow traveller by most of the many other Manchester independent shops) would leave Rosie in charge taking a run round the city centre stores to gauge the musical temperature and pick up a few pieces for himself. Temporary deck controller, Rosie would put on his favourite LP by his heroes The Smiths- Meat Is Murder. The title track, penned by miltant veggie troublemaker Morriseey, closes the record. It’s strafed by the sound of cattle howling on their way to the abbatoir. Les, would get back on Thursday mornings to angry complaints from the Butcher stall across the way. They warned Rosie to turn it off but as he turned it up instead old ladies queuing for chops and cheap sausages would drift off distressed by the sound of about no good for milking cattle about to be steak. Rosie had done a better job than Bigmouth himself. But it was time to go anyway. The stock was growing as were the number of visitors braving the knicker displays and knitting stalls to find Kingbee.





Les moved to the current shop and his now permanent home in September 1987. When he opened the doors he didn’t even have enough stock to fill what he worried might be too big a space. Imagine that now as you try to thread yourself through the throng among the heaving shelves and under counter boxes, the crates and shelves all overcrowded with potential gems and possible delights.
A keen young teen - just out of school in a full Morrisey quiff tipped up one day asking for work, Les was impressed by his young knowledge and took him on as part of the YTS scheme. By the time the scheme ended, Neil Barker had proved himself indispensable. A kind of amazing fact cruching pop robot who now strikes fear into music quiz teams in pubs across Manchester when he enters, Neil epitomosed what has become the Kingbee ethos- he was passionate about music of all kinds but had taken a view and knew his Arthur Lee from his Arthur Mullard. People may not know that King Bee will not (and realistically cannot) stock any old rubbish. You could go blind looking for a Phil Collins or a Sting record in here and others - say Les’ beloved Bobby Blue Bland or something great by Martin Hannett will be given pride of place display space that their bargain price may not deserve. That’s what's fundamentally different about this shop. That it’s not a shop. Not in an ordinary sense. A grocers or a department store or HMV or Virgin will sell anything they believe they can get rid of. Kingbee is a real reflection of Les’s belief that music matters, is important and his commitment to sift on your behalf, the good from the bad. That I believe is part of the secret of its continued survival and even growth in these strange times. When you walk through that door you know you are in the company of people who understand implicitly that music is at the core of our peculiar lives. You can breathe easy here knowing you are home, that everyone here is as mad as you are, would consider selling their possessions or even their children for that one elusive missing link in their collectiuon. Just a piece of plastic to the man on the street, but to those of us who believe, a matter of life or death. Witness the man who one day, properly frustrated that he couldn’t afford a pricey sixties beat nuggest from the wall and in a moment of madness offered the keys to his motor home parked outside the shop in exchange.


Of course the madness that’s in us all to varying degrees has meant that the musically and mentally unstable have gravitated toward the shop. There’s the old lady, quite obviously on medication and dressed only in purple who would visit to look for purple records- not deep purple the band but sleeves and labels made up only of the colour. For fear that the social services might have him prosecuted Les one day struggled to stop her offering £30 for a picture disc copy of Prince’s Purple Rain from the wall. Prior to that she had bought cheap singles from the floor and ordinary Lps from the racks. But she would have none of it and proudly offered her cash. Grinning like a, well, I suppose mad woman, she left the shop to return to a flat where I’d guess she didn’t even have a record player.

Lots of other oddballs visit the shop more often than is strictly necessary. There’s a sense of community that is real. You end up talking to people you don’t know purely because you see them working in the same section as you. And in a strange way, they become friends. Regular mitherers over the years have included Everyday Steve, Penny Farthing Face, Girl With Black Hair Who’s Going Through A Folky Faze. Mr Price, No Bag Jazzman, Tom Sellick and a colourful cross section of crackpots from Chorlton and beyond. Some have never had any other names but these. On quiet days Neil would record their appearances in a book. Some of the information really should have been passed on to the social services. The great and the good have passed through also. Ian Brown and John Squire would, just after they dropped the Damned look and just before The Stone Roses began to look like serious contenders, comb the racks for Nazz and Byrds and Nuggets and Pebbles. Living round the corner in a flat on Corkland Road, these were the building blocks of their sound. Martin Hannett lived on Oswald Road for a time and would raid the Palatine Road Offices of Factory for Joy Division rarities which he would bring in. There’s no telling what he did with the cash he exchanged them for but Les loved him dearly and would never ask. Alistair McGowan used the shop as a set for a record shop sketch featuring the impressionist as Trevor Brooking. All of The Smiths have been in through the custard yellow door at one time or other. Recently, The Horrors, sixties obsessed flavour of the month have two or three times passing through on tour, spent big money on Joe Meek rarities. Their version of the Meek produced Crawdaddy Simone is worth hearing. Not the most famous but certainly the most notable visitor was a mysterious chap working as a decorator in the newsagens a few doors down. He kept coming in and asking if Les could find him an EP by Ricky Stevens. Turned out to be a real J.R. Hartley scenario- he was Ricky Stevens fact fans and his humble effort is worth forty English pounds.






The rest of us have had the pleasure of spending time in a shop that’s really a social club, an old people’s home, a retreat for retired rockers, floaters, stompers and psychos. The reggae auction held now and again draws more scary people than you can shake a stick at- wild eyed people who don’t normally go out in daylight, communicate using a code constructed from old blue beat catalogue numbers - camel coated characters who would seriously consider donating a kidney to get a copy of that one in a lifetime Prince Buster rarity with original centre and no WOL (Writing On Label to you and I). It’s like Christies during a big Van Gough sell off - Les takes phone bids, there are weird twitches that signify bids and squabbling over records that sell for hundreds here.

So, twenty years on, Here’s to the best record shop in the world and to a gentleman and a scholar and his current Staff Neil, Mike and Rick. Had Les not deprived Massey Ferguson of his skills and made the leap to self employment, I would know perhaps a only a tenth of the little I do about music. On the other hand I would be driving a Porsche and living in Prestbuty instead of Urmston. We’ve been tolerated, educated and occasionally frustrated at arriving a day too late to get that Can album we should have bought yesterday. Strangely shifting, our lapses in taste have been forgotten, our new passions catered for, our old ones exchanged for cash and, Les having the discretion of a good Doctor, the Cure box sets and Van Halen best ofs we’ve purchased have been discreetly forgotten.

Whatever the future format of music we can’t replace the experience of record shopping, sifting, and the chance element of coming across music we never knew existed and would never find on the internet, amazon or ebay. The sheer pleasure of picking up something in a sleeve which intrigues you, standing idly at the turntable in the window and hearing something for the first time that you know you’re going to love for the rest of your life. You stare down at the sleeve and it’s three quid. This is the magic of music and for me and most of those here to celebrate Kingbee making it out of its teens, the stuff of life.

Thank you Les. Now can you put that Kingsmen LP under the counter for me til next week.


  By John McCready  2007




King Bee Discos card from the 1980s


King Bee Discos card from the 1980s

Kingbee Records Flyer from Chorlton Shopping Village - 1980's


Kingbee Records Flyer from Chorlton Shopping Village - 1980's


Kingbee Records Flyer from the 1990's


Kingbee Records Flyer from the 1990's

Kingbee Records 10th Anniversary Flyer from 1997


Kingbee Records 10th Anniversary Flyer from 1997

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