This is our first guest post – courtesy of Jim O Mahony – a wonderful reminder of a real Cork city institution… I hope you all enjoy reading it and remembering as as much as we did… Thanks Jim…
Hard to know where to begin really. In an era where people now cherish the memory of record stores and even have a designated day every year dedicated to them it’s worth remembering that such stores were the norm 15/20 years ago. Every city had a few decent and not so decent ones.
Comet Records was one of the decent ones. An offshoot of Comet in Dublin it was the first proper independent record store in Cork providing the music lovers in the real capital with a variety of exotic musical styles in many guises. Since its doors closed for the final time about 15 years ago it has attained almost mythical status in the history of the Cork music scene. Some of this is deserved while some is taken silently and cynically with a pinch of salt.
Cork has always had record shops – some good and some not so good. For years the best shop in town was The Swap Shop in MacCurtain Street which sold second-hand records and musical instruments. We never really had a proper alternative record shop like they did in Dublin or Belfast. Comet Records changed all that when it opened its doors in Cork in 1989.
Originally situated halfway down Oliver Plunkett Street above Mr. Video selling new and second and cassettes and records in a variety of genres – rock, pop, indie ( a term I hate ), metal, rap, country, folk, jazz and a panpipe section that actually sold quite well – the people of Cork took to it like ducks to water. Depeche Mode 12”s would have been big sellers and I can still remember the Friday the first Stone Roses album came in. We got five copies which sold in about 5 minutes. We lasted about a year in Oliver Plunkett Street until one day one of the landlords (two identical twin brothers you couldn’t tell apart) arrived in and announced that the building had been sold and we basically had three days to vacate. We had to send some of the stock back to the shop in Dublin and the rest was stored in the front room of my parents’ house in Blackpool… ruining the carpet in the process… where it remained until we finally found our new home at No. 4 Washington Street where Comet would establish itself as a Cork music institution.
September 1990 we opened on Washington Street. The first record we sold was Bossanova by The Pixies. Any fears we had that the customer base we had established on Oliver Plunkett Street would disappear were quickly parked. We thrived there but it was hard work. As well as the music – LPs cassettes new and second-hand – we also had our concert tickets, t-shirts, badges, fanzines etc. as many small record shops did. Grunge, Metal and Hardcore formed a large part of our sales in the first year or so. Two albums that immediately spring to mind are Babyteeth by Therapy and Nevermind by Nirvana. The cultural significance of the latter album in relation to Cork has been more than well documented so I won’t get into it here. Around this time it was also becoming evident that in order for an alternative music store to survive something else was needed. A lot of the bigger selling underground groups had signed to major labels so their records were starting to appear in mainstream stores at a cheaper price than we could sell them at as they would have had much more buying power than we did. The fact that the majors didn’t really give a shit about the little shops didn’t help either. It was also getting exceedingly difficult to get excited by new releases from these awful bands like Carter USM, Ride, Curve, Northside etc. Something new, fresh and exciting was needed and it had to come from the underground.
That something new arrived in the late 80s/early 90s and it was a game changer. When the acid house scene emerged it provided a much needed shot in the arm not just for independent record shops but it created a whole new counter-culture within music, media, fashion and attitude. We embraced it wholeheartedly in Comet. We had no choice really. To ignore this one in a lifetime opportunity as some shops foolishly did would have been commercial suicide. This was pure underground music produced in little studios by little known artists from Berlin to Chicago. It didn’t get any airplay and didn’t really feature in the charts but was huge in the better underground clubs and Sweat in Sir Henrys here in Cork was one of the best ones. It was a no brainer really.
I think the first time I really noticed it from a commercial point of view was when we got this 12” by Altern 8. I had been to Sweat many times before but never put two and two together. So we got five copies of this which ended up in the industrial section as we didn’t have a dance section at the time and they pretty much sold out straight away and then lots of people started coming into the shop looking for that tune and similar stuff. I couldn’t help noticing that most of these people were new customers who’d never been in the shop before. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment.
Within about three months the whole shop had changed. Out went the Country, Blues and even the panpipe section along with a fair chunk of the second-hand section (big mistake) and to be replaced by more exotic terms such as progressive house, techno, trance etc. As time went on these would be joined by Breakbeat, Drum & Bass, an expanded soul and jazz section, exotica and ahem… speed garage. We were also very conscious of our original customer base so the likes of Fugazi, Napalm Death and The Breeders could still be found on our shelves. Contrary to popular belief we were never a specialist dance shop. We were in fact a specialist music store that stocked dance music. Cork completely embraced this whole new scene. The better clubs and pubs were rocking, every second person seemed to be a DJ and then we had a radio station… Radio Friendly… that was playing all this music all day and all night. Good times in Cork overall.
As well as the treasure trove of records there were many other things that made Comet the stuff of legends. The famous half price sale… which originated in the Dublin store… took place every year on January 2nd… 10 am till 10 pm… basically every record in the store was half price. People loved it. They queued and got bargains and in return we had a massive clear out and got rid of some turkeys while at the same time giving something back to our loyal customers. Not all of the turkeys always sold. An LP by Omar and a box set by The Farm both survived about 5 half price sales.
Organizing instore appearances was another important part of running a record shop. They weren’t always easy to get as we were small but we got some good ones. Nick Cave was probably the biggest one. Don’t ask me how we got him but we did. He was in Cork doing a charity gig in the City Hall with Shane MacGowan… phone calls were made and hey presto we had Nick Cave in the shop on a Saturday afternoon signing records. My abiding memories of the afternoon include a very drunk girl without a camera wanting to get a photo with him, he was a very nice guy and also he looked exactly like Nick Cave looked on his album sleeves.
Sometime later on another Saturday afternoon Grant Hart from Husker Du sat with an acoustic guitar on the counter and entertained the crowd for about an hour. We also had Therapy, Frank & Walters, Fatima Mansions and literally stopped the traffic one afternoon when Scooter did an instore. Not all were successful. When Cornershop did a signing absolutely nobody came into the shop while they were there.
My personal favourite was when Bass Odyssey launched their debut single with a live appearance in the shop one Sunday afternoon. Everybody later retired to the Back Bar in Henrys where it all went off.
We always tried to have a good selection of concert tickets. They were never a huge money spinner but they brought people into the shop. This was in the days before Ticketmaster swallowed all that business up. We also used to get a certain allocation of tickets for concerts in Dublin and even Slane so when it was feasible we used to run buses to these gigs. McCarthy Coaches in Mallow supplied the buses at a reasonable price and the fare was never more than a tenner. Admittedly some of the coaches had seen better days but we always made it there and back even though it might have taken us a bit longer than everybody else. George generally travelled with the buses and he counts among his adventures trips to Death, Pestilence, Chilli Peppers and Metallica. Steve once took a busload up to see The Fugees and on two occasions I took buses to Slane to see REM and Neil Young. Think I might have taken a busload to see Nirvana in The Point as well. Generally I tended to leave the travelling to the two lads as the whole day could be quite stressful and a general head wreck. Somebody for whatever reason always got left behind and it was usually left to me to deal with the irate parent.
All record collectors want those collectors’ items and hard to find records and in the days before the internet the local independent record store was usually the first port of call. Comet was no exception. Over the years we had our fair share of rarities pass through our hands. Most of the non-dance ones would come as part of second-hand collections. Many times you would come across a gem and would really struggle to keep that poker face while you made your meagre offer which more often than not was accepted. Dance records were a different kettle of fish altogether. They tended to be “white Labels “or original pressing sourced through a bit of ducking and diving and they could be very expensive. People in Cork paid crazy prices for certain dance 12”s and certain shops charged crazy prices for them. We were no exception. On the one hand it was ridiculous but on the other hand we were running a business and we only charged what I perceived to be the market value at the time. On the other side of things we always tried to price the ordinary everyday records as cheaply as we could. It’s all different today of course. Go into any record shop now and the prices of all new and second-hand records are outrageous. This is due to a number of reasons… not all of them the shops fault. But lots of second-hand record shops and charity shops are getting their prices from the internet. Fine if your store is in Tokyo or New York… not so fine if it’s in Cork. The true value of a record at the end of the day is what somebody is willing to pay for it. Common sense needs to be applied.
While always challenging and enjoyable it wasn’t always fun and games. Running a small shop is hard and you couldn’t swing a cat in this shop. We had no internet or computer so the ordering was done by hand and faxed usually on a Monday. New records come out every week and you need to keep up. Musical trends change like the wind. Often it’s the small things send you over the edge. A certain little litter warden was once told to take his summons and to paraphrase James Coburn in Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid “shove it up your ass and set fire to it”. He never returned so maybe he took the advice given. You also had to be aware of the competition. We weren’t the only small record store in Cork though to be honest the only other one I took seriously as competition was The Vinyl Room just down the road from us. The megastores were a different matter. HMV arrived in Cork first and to be honest I thought they’d create more problems for us than they did. Virgin hit us a lot harder. A bigger blow again and ultimately for the megastores themselves was when Tesco entered the market selling top 20 cds at below cost price. That in my opinion was almost as big a contributor to the demise of the record shop as downloading. There was also competition from afar. Every week people would tell you endless stories about these magical record shops in Dublin, Galway and Manchester full of these wonderful records that nobody else had and if I had a euro for every time I had to stand and listen to somebody prattle on about the “classics” they just bought from bloody Hard to Find Records……
Everything eventually changes and all good thing come to an end. Towards the end of the decade it started to go downhill. Times were changing and it had probably run its course. We won Best Contribution to Dance at the first Smirnoff Dance Awards in 1999 but it was a hollow victory…the last sting of a dying wasp.
Looking back now would I have done anything differently? Yes.
Did I make mistakes? Absolutely.
Would I do it again? Hmm…..
Do I miss it? Yes but I probably miss a time that no longer exists. Today’s record shops… if you’re lucky enough to find one…are much more organized and efficiently run but they’re not as much fun. Back in the day you could smoke in the shop …even though we banned it around ’97 becoming the first shop in Cork to do so… and you could physically assault shoplifters and boot them up the arse out on to Washington Street. Probably wouldn’t get away with that one now. But they were great times and it was great to be part of it and I have some great memories and friends from those days. Though the nostalgia can get a bit annoying at times to have been part of something that will always be remembered so fondly by so many people for so many fantastic and memorable reasons is indeed truly special.
All pictures, and captions, courtesy of Jim