A place that no longer exists, but whose influence, history and heritage is as important to Birmingham’s Rock music culture as any band or artist from that area. And I got to work there for 5 years.
It was early 1992, and I’d spent most of 1991 on the dole and looking for work after leaving Express Music whilst trying to get Shotgun Wedding a rung or two further up the music business ladder – hamstrung as we were by not having a singer for most of that year. It was a frustrating time-I was living back at home and spent/wasted days helping out at Muthers rehearsal studios in the city centre where SGW had their lockout room in return for a reduction on our room rent.
I can remember the phone call so clearly in February of ‘92 – my old chum Phil Docker rang the house with some news; “Simon’s leaving Exchanges to write for some fitness magazine – you should go see little Gaz to try and be his replacement”.
‘Simon’ was Simon Bradley, a jovial and very funny member of MX’s guitar staff who we’d befriended over our regular visits to the Aladdin’s cave that the guitar section represented to us. ‘Little Gaz’ was Garry Chapman, the shop’s general manager who was a bundle of energy and as enthusiastic a boss as we’d ever seen as mere customers. I thanked Phil and set out the next day to the shop to chance my arm.
A bit of history for you at this point - by this time in early 1992, MX had become firmly established on Old Snow Hill by Constitution Hill – it had moved there in 1982 (?) following a fire at the old premises on Broad St. I only have vague recollections of that Broad Street store where the Reflex nightclub is now, although it did have a large cardboard cut-out of Paul Stanley advertising his Iceman range of Ibanez guitars that I asked to have for myself when the shop no longer wanted it (they refused).
Indeed, MX didn’t actually start life as a music shop whatsoever. Originally, the owner Dave Quill had opened a shop selling second hand stuff opposite George Clay Music in Birmingham city centre, which became known as Modern Exchange. Clays sold new musical equipment and were never keen to part exchange old guitars/effects etc that their customers brought in. To that end, Clays staff apparently used to say to those customers "Take it over the road, they buy second hand gear" and so over time more and more musical instruments were ‘chopped in’ at Dave's shop to buy goods – the proportion of guitars, basses and the like led Dave to employ staff who could sell these instruments, and the shop name changed to Modern Musical Exchange, and then Musical Exchanges when Dave decided to focus solely on music and drop any other second hand products.
By that time, Garry was on board as a salesman, but even when the business switched premises to Broad St, it was still a relatively modest affair in terms of both size and range of instruments. It was only when the aforementioned fire forced Dave to look elsewhere to relaunch MX that he found the empty, sprawling unit at the bottom of Old Snow Hill. Gradually during the 80’s, the store expanded department by department as more and more rooms within the development were utilised; P.A. systems, keyboards and hi-tech came on board along with guitars and drums in a building that had bucketloads of character – and what truly drove things along as the 80’s became the 90’s were the bucketload of characters that populated each departments’ sales team. Their knowledge and approach to customers helped to establish MX as being just as important as the other music shops in town, like Jones & Crossland on Smallbrook Queensway or Woodruffe’s in Dale End.
The ‘Exchanges’ aspect of the business was what really set MX apart. Every time you visited the guitar department, there were not only new models to view and (occasionally) try out, but also, the second hand section was constantly evolving and changing as musical fashions dictated at that time. There were almost always bargains to be found in the ‘shanty town’ of amps that littered the rear of the guitar department, or a cheap second-hand Les Paul copy with a bolt on neck that your could pick up for £50 and customise to your heart’s content at home. As I once did with a tin of Hammerite…
Anyway - The day after taking Phil’s call at home, I walked into the reception area at Exchanges and quickly found Garry standing behind the counter finishing off a deal with a customer. I waited until he was free and got his attention so we could have a chat, although he had no idea that I was about to punt myself for a job.
Garry knew me as someone who’d worked in music retail before, but also knew me well from the time that my bass playing pal Andy had his Aria Pro bass stolen from the back of my car at The Engine pub in Hampton-In-Arden a few years before (1988 I think), and the thieves had brought the bass into MX the following day trying to sell it for cash, I’d rung the shop (and other stores in Brum too) first thing that day to warn them and Pete Jones, part of the management team, rang me back mid-morning to inform me that 2 gents had indeed been in the shop with said bass, but scarpered when they sensed Pete was onto them! Pete then drove me around Brum trying to catch the thieves by anticipating their next move, and we were desperately close to nabbing them at a pawnbrokers in the Jewellery Quarter a short time later, but they evaded us and were never seen again – nor was the bass, unfortunately, but I appreciated Garry & Pete’s efforts on my behalf over a guitar that wasn’t even theirs to track down.
Garry and I sat in Stu Russell’s P.A. department and I explained to him how I’d heard on the QT about Simon’s impending departure and that I would be an ideal replacement for him. Garry could have just palmed me off at this point with a few pleasantries and sent me on my way, but instead he showed real interest in me and peppered me with questions about guitars, about me, about my time at Express Music and much else besides. 20 minutes later, he’d agreed to hire me to start in the guitar department the week after Simon had gone. We shook hands on our verbal agreement and that was that – I was hired.
I was ecstatic. Not only to be back in gainful employment, but also to be part of a hugely successful company that would afford a young musician like myself ample opportunity to network with likeminded souls who either worked or shopped there. Plus I could pay Mum & Dad a bit of rent and start saving for a place of my own!
On my first morning, I started to get to know all of the guitar staff that I’d be sharing the tight compact space down the steps from the main reception area.
There was Mark Whitehouse, the guitar department manager, who was affectionately christened ‘Number One’ by my predecessor after the Star Trek: Next Generation character – he sported a dyed blonde Rod Stewart-esque mop of hair and a bushy moustache. A man fond of phrases like “Let’s get the skunk on the table” when broaching the delicate subject of part-exchange prices with customers, or ‘Can you get us a coffee ‘one’ and the Spurt?” to me most mornings as I was sent round the corner to the newsagent to get a Nescafe and a copy of the Daily Sport for his perusal. Initially I tried to make it plain to the newsagent that the paper was not for my consumption but for my immediate boss, but they clearly weren’t interested in who bought what as long as the 20p kept coming in every morning.
Gaz Morris was the best salesman in the guitar department and was the go-to man for all visiting sales reps, knowledgeable customers and the great & good of the Rock universe. He was a wonderfully talented player who’d befriended his hero Robert Plant over the years and worked in Debbie Bonham’s band amongst many others. He worshipped Jeff Beck just like I did and we struck up a friendship and understanding very quickly, although he was always keen to make sure that no one could match his monthly sales figures – if you beat him, as I occasionally did, he would simply re-double his efforts the following month and simply obliterate everyone’s sales!
Stevie Howle was a younger lad with more Indie & Dance tendencies than Rock, but he loved his Rickenbacker guitars and was always ready to take on Gaz when he was pilloried for what Gaz saw as his questionable musical tastes. Steve used to respond by mimicking Gaz’s voice under his breath, saying ‘I like all kinds of music…Led and Zeppelin…”
Jon Grant was a bit younger than me too, but seemed to be the ‘jack of all trades’ amongst the staff. Equally adept at P.A. sales as with guitars or amps, Jon would flit between the guitar department and the short flight of stairs that led up to P.A. just behind the main guitar department counter. The fact that he could be almost anywhere at any given point led to boss Garry shouting ‘JON GRANT!!!???’ at least 5 times a day as he put the phone down to a supplier or customer to find out where Jon was so he could set him a task. Jon always appeared 5 seconds later, cheerily taking on whatever he’d been asked to do.
John McQueen ran the bass department. Known as ‘McMad’ by fellow staff, John was prone to speaking in non-sequitors and occasional bouts of gibberish. Speaking any mount of gibberish to him however would usually result in a terrified wide-eyed expression from him as though you’d given him the death penalty. One such occasion came first thing on a weekday morning when all the staff were gathered in reception just before the shop opened. Owner Dave Quill spotted John, wandered over to him and simply said, “Erm…Ma-hen-way.” And then, Dave just looked at him for an immediate response. John’s eyes widened as expected. “You what sorry, Dave” he asked quizzically. “Erm…Ma-hen-way” repeated Dave. Panic set in “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I just don’t understand what you’re saying – Ma-hen-way??” Dave then elaborated.
By this time, everyone was listening in and observing John’s gradual meltdown as he failed to grasp what language his paymaster was talking in.
“Ma-hen-way…PU-WAAH??” John stammered. We were all in bits, crying our eyes out. Turned out that shop had received a letter that day from a happy bass customer in Macynlleth, Powys and Dave’s pronunciation of the sender’s whereabouts left a little to be desired. It just added to the comedy as John’s resolve evaporated before our eyes inside 20 seconds of basic cross-examination.
John had a second in command, Gary Leyland who was still in his teens and was very sure of himself, which made him look cocky to the uninitiated when he was really just the sarcastic type. He had been a Saturday lad helping out in basses, which became a permanent position during my 1st year there.
The Quill family that owned the business were fascinating in that none of them had any musical leanings whatsoever. Dave, his wife Mary, or their three children Richard, Tracy & Susie have never played an instrument to my knowledge, and yet here they were, running a rapidly expanding and thriving music shop in one of Britain’s biggest cities.
Richard was the only one of Dave’s kids to be directly involved with the day-to-day running of the store. He specifically looked after educational orders from local schools and colleges placing orders for all manner of equipment. Richard is without doubt one of the (unintentionally) funniest men I have ever known. Tall, with a swarthy complexion, a curly yet tightly cropped haircut replete with 10 o’clock shadow, a Fred Perry top, jogging bottoms and trainers with laces undone, he was also effectively his Dad’s eyes and ears throughout the store as me moved from department to department sourcing items for his outstanding orders.
He was funny for so many reasons, but primarily because of the malapropisms and spoonerisms that he barked out with total conviction almost every day, like “Thank God it’s Crunchie!” upon selecting the honeycombed chocolate car from the vending machine and attempting to repeat the advertising slogan that Crunchie was currently using in its TV ads (‘Thank Crunchie it’s Friday); or perhaps ‘I went to see a great film last night – Mutiny On The Balcony!’.
Perhaps the greatest for me was the day he entered the guitar department whilst a debate was going on between several of us as to what were the Ancient Wonders Of The World. “What you lot going on about?” he asked in his usual blunt fashion with a pretend air of menace that he enjoyed displaying. “We’re just trying to remember what the Ancient Wonders Of The World were” I replied, “We’ve got the Pyramids, The Palace at Alexandria, we think the Colossus at Rhodes is one but we’re not sure…” I went on. Richard raised his head slightly, looking up and clearly deep in thought. He couldn’t possibly could he…?
“I know one!” he announced presently, maintaining a serious expression
“Really, Rich?” I proffered, “Go on then…”
“The Hanging Rivers Of Babylon!” Whereupon Rich happily went about his business searching for something behind the counter whilst we collapsed in fits thinking more of Boney M than famous landmarks.
We all loved Rich – loved him. A true gentle giant, even though he constantly (jokingly) suggested that my girlfriend was ‘a slag’ always quickly followed by the suffix ‘No offence’. The day that Jacqui arrived to ‘confront’ him on these accusations at closing time one Saturday was hilariously funny, as Rich suddenly lost all his confidence in front of Jacqui’s faux outrage. He soon realised she was on the wind up, and come Monday, she was back to being ‘a slag’ again in his eyes.
One of the most exciting things about my time at MX a year or so after I started there was the expansion of the guitar department into the basement area of the building that had been previously occupied by a PA & lighting company. It was a sprawling open space the size of a football pitch and took a number of months to convert in readiness for moving stock, staff and customers down a flight of stairs from the main entrance. It needed to be done in truth, as the old guitar department was getting very cramped for space, despite its ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ charm. Garry was incredibly excited about the potential of the new premises, and all the big manufacturers were equally keen to get involved to make sections of the huge floor space their own.
Marshall Amps commandeered a massive area of square footage around two large pillars right in the middle of the room. It would be one of the first things to catch the eye as you came through the double doors with its plethora of real (and fake demonstration) cabinet speakers along with combo and practice amps. Once completed, it looked mightily impressive.
Equally eye-catching was the ‘wall of guitars’ that met you gaze as you looked to the opposite side of the room as you entered. Gibson, Fender, Patrick Eggle (remember them?) Paul Reed Smith and Jackson all commandeered space to display their best models, and there was a perfect, separate room on the far side from the counter to house all the store’s best vintage second-hand gear. Basses and bass amps could be found around the corner, housed in and around 3 railway-style arches.
It was quite revolutionary at the time, as very few guitar shops in Europe had the sort of square footage to work in as we now did. The concern now was about whether we’d get the increased footfall and thus turnover to make the move worthwhile for the business.
We needn’t have worried. Washburn supplied all staff with burgundy denim shirts to wear as a kind of uniform ‘corporate wardrobe’ look to coincide with our new department. Beforehand, in fairness, unless you knew a particular member of staff, it was hard to discern who was working in the old guitar section and who was just browsing; so similar was the clothing of choice for all. Those burgundy denim shirts probably lasted about 6 months, as repeated washing (yes they were washed) faded the material to be somewhat…pink…and before long, we had name badges in lieu of a uniform so who could tell staff from punters.
That opening day in 1993 was manic – the legendary Jim Marshall was on hand to cut the ribbon and the place was overflowing with well-wishers, movers and shakers from various companies that had stock with us, as well as customers who wanted a bargain on opening day. Saturdays in guitars were always busy, but the onset of the new department made them even more hectic. Put it this way – you were ready to go home at 5.30 on a Saturday.
Many famous musicians visited MX whilst I worked there. Some sent roadies in on the day of a Birmingham show to purchase items at some ludicrous discount in return for backstage passes to that night’s gig; I remember Prince’s crew coming in to buy a microphone and then having it taken up the road to the nearby Jewellery Quarter to have it gold-plated in time for old Squiggle’s performance at the NEC that evening on the ‘Gold Experience’ tour. But many did show their face and loved the surroundings – Ginger and Danny from The Wildhearts were early visitors to the new-look store; Gary Barlow visited as Take That splintered and he became a solo artist, Noel Gallagher popped in one day as Oasis were soaring high everywhere you looked; Steve Craddock from Ocean Colour Scene was a regular and showed us a riff he’d been working on that became The Riverboat Song; even Roy Wood once bought a beginners guitar/amp package from me for his daughters’ Christmas present one year!
The most famous – to me at least - was the day in late April 1993 when we had the most unexpected visitor borrow one of his own signature guitars from us! Garry took a call in his office that morning and came out to speak to Gaz Morris and I privately “Look lads” he began, “Tony Iommi’s popping in and he’s bringing someone in with him that we need to look after – do we have one of those Ernie Ball Van Halen models in stock?” “Yeah, a pink quilted top one,” replied Gaz pointing to a model hanging up just inside the double doors, which led down into guitars. “Right then” Garry said to Gaz “Get it re-strung and cleaned up downstairs now. Tony’s going to be here in an hour”. And with that I grabbed some strings and took the guitar downstairs to our guitar repairer John to do the restring, whilst we were on alert to make the department look as tidy as possible for our visiting guest.
We quickly put 2 & 2 together and realised that Eddie Van Halen himself would be coming in for a nose. Van Halen were on their ‘Right Here Right Now’ UK tour – their 1st tour here since the 70’s – and had just played at the NEC, with a Sheffield date to follow the next day. The funny thing was that my aforementioned mate Phil Docker, a HUGE Van Halen fan who’d been to the show and was meant to be in that day helping to do work on the renovation work downstairs, was poorly that morning and had elected to stay at home.
How he would have loved to have been there as, not 20 minutes later, Tony Iommi of Sabbath came in through reception (dressed in all black naturally) with Eddie in tow sporting a moth-eaten salmon coloured top and grey joggers just behind. We were all aghast but tried not to look too starstruck – both were beckoned down into the guitars section so that Eddie could have a general look round, as Tony explained what was going on. Evidently, that afternoon, Eddie wanted to go and have a jam with Black Sabbath, who were rehearsing not far away. However, all of Eddie’s guitars had gone up to Sheffield with all the rest of the bands’ gear in readiness for the next show, and as Tony is left handed, he didn’t have anything he could lend Eddie to play with at this impromptu jam session. Which is where we came in with the EVH model we had in stock – Eddie was going to borrow it for the day and one of his or Tony’s minions would return it the next morning.
By this time, the re-strung guitar was hanging up ready for inspection, and Eddie sat down with it on one of the drum stools we had dotted about the place to check its playability and action so that it suited him. He didn’t want to plug into anything and spent no more than 20 seconds checking it over before saying in a croaky American drawl “Yeah, that’s fine cool…” and handed the guitar to Gaz, so he could get it cased up for Eddie, sort a hire form and have it ready to take away. It was at this point that Gaz tried a bit of British humour on Eddie by asking, “Have you got any I.D. mate?”
Eddie looked totally confused by the question and just said, “No…no man, no I haven’t…” Gaz thought about keeping the gag going, but told me later he just didn’t think Eddie had a clue that he was having his leg pulled.
As we all stood back in reception (having had a photo taken with me, Gaz, Eddie and Tony that I still cherish to this day) Gaz was sorting out the forms for the hire of the guitar, when he leaned over to me and whispered “What’s Phil’s number?” “Oh, you can’t!” I said, quickly furnishing Gaz with Phil’s home number (no mobiles then, remember). Quick as a flash, Gaz was dialling from the phone by the till – this was how I heard the one end of the conversation: To whit;
“Phil…it’s Gaz! You’re not gonna believe who’s in…he is….he is you know…I’m not winding you up, Phil, he’s here hiring a guitar off us…no I’m serious!...I wouldn’t make that sort of shit up…he is here…he is…he i- Oh look…Eddie? Eddie? Speak to this guy on the phone will you, he works here and he’s a big fan of yours…”
Gaz had attracted Eddie’s attention and handed him the phone just like that. Good as gold, Eddie picked up the receiver “Hi, Eddie Van Halen here…”
You could almost hear the sound of Phil evacuating his bowels at the other end…beautiful. Although Phil refused to believe for some time that it wasn’t me just putting a silly voice on until the photo I mentioned before was printed off and displayed proudly behind the counter. Incidentally, when the EVH guitar was returned the next day, Eddie had signed it, making it even more valuable! Can’t remember who ended up buying it, but no doubt it was a guitar that Eddie himself had played.
It was the law of the jungle at MX – you had to be prepared to have the piss taken out of you and be strong enough to give some back, otherwise you were toast. Football was a good common denominator amongst the staff across departments. In years to come I was permitted to wear an earpiece whilst I served customers on a Saturday just so I could keep Garry and others up to date with scores from the tiny radio I carried around in my pocket.
Some of us put together an MX football team to play occasional ‘friendlies’ against local rehearsal studios, usually on an Astroturf pitch at Hadley Stadium in Bearwood, or at Alexander Stadium in Perry Barr. Boss Garry, who we quickly nicknamed ‘Schillachi” due to his (partial) resemblance to the Italian top scorer in the 1990 World Cup, always tried an overhead kick at least once in every game we played, and Rich, who captained a Sunday League team in Sutton Coldfield, always put in a dirty challenge or five. So, I put the word ‘friendly’ in inverted commas, as these games had more than a bit of rough and tumble involved. Indeed I came a cropper in one game in early 1995 against Muthers Studios when myself and Ross from the punk band GBH kicked opposite sides of the ball at the same time and I came off worst, stretching my knee ligaments – I was on crutches for a week and was mercilessly teased by all and sundry for being a ‘wimp’ ☺
(As a side note, one of our Saturday lads who was decent at football joined us regularly for those games – he’s now one of the most in-demand drummers in the world. Karl Brazil has toured the world with Robbie Williams and James Blunt amongst many others – he used to fetch my turkey mayo baguette of a Saturday lunchtime!! He’s a lovely fellow and we still keep in touch regularly)
There was never a huge pay packet at MX – this was music retail after all, where you were paid commission of sales profits in an industry where mark up on guitars etc is negligible compared to, say, sofas and furniture at your local DFS. It wasn’t a pittance however – you could live on it, plus the fact that you got staff discount on anything you wanted to buy, whether it was a plectrum or a PRS ‘10’ top. Suppliers were always bringing in t-shirts and jogging bottoms that they’d give you in the hope that you’d wear them for the subliminal advertising they craved. I don’t think I bought any clothes other than pants and socks for 5 years.
Practical jokes were a huge part of life at MX. Everyone had some terrible plot foisted on them at some point whether they were long-term staff or even the work (shirk) experience kids that cam in from time to time. ‘Maroon’ pyro cartridges hidden under the bonnets of staff members’ cars were a particular favourite, which exploded upon the ignition key being turned. One unfortunate team member had this trick pulled on his car, and the detonation of the maroon only served to show just how it was only the copious amounts of rust that were holding the engine together together, as it seemed like half his car fell off and formed a rectangular ring on the road surface around his poor motor.
I was once victim to an elaborate hoax surrounding my beloved Birmingham City. On Saturday afternoons prior to my portable radio & earpiece, the only department that had a radio to keep up with scores was the repairs lads, and Steve Parry (a fellow Bluenose) used to buzz down to the guitar phone intercom system to give me important goal updates. One week when Blues were at home to Leicester, we quickly went 2 goals down and I was informed of this poor start by Steve – presently he buzzed down again to say it was 3-0 and I was crushed. But then as the second half progressed, Steve repeatedly buzzed down to talk of a Blues comeback all the way to 3-3, followed by a dramatic last minute penalty for us to win 4-3! I jumped for joy in guitars and got a round of applause from staff and customers…all of whom were seemingly in on the joke that it was still 2-0 to Leicester as it had been since about 3.15 and Steve had been nudged to wind me up. I didn’t even know the truth until I’d got back in the car to excitedly listen to the BRMB phone in on my way home. Bastards.
If I were to list all the staff that came and went in my tenure at MX I’d be here all day – even in terms of just the guitar department, never mind the rest of the shop. But there were characters galore. Ash who played bass in my band Shotgun Wedding came to work there in the bass department and was terrific company. Carl Jones was a chap who came in and developed a reputation for stealing your deal with a customer whom you’d been working on for months to get a sale. That was a big no-no when commission was a vital part of one’s pay packet. He probably only accidentally did it once, but that was enough to seal his reputation as one to keep an eye on!
I even had to manage the Keyboards department at one point as they’d lost their head of department and Garry sent me up there with a directive to ‘sort the lads out’. I wasn’t welcome at first by the lads there, who rightly saw me as an ‘outsider’ and I really knew nothing about hi-tech gear, but I was there as a manager/rabble rouser rather than a salesman, and by the time one of the staff under me was considered worthy of promotion to run the department, I was back in guitars as assistant manager, which was something of a relief being back on familiar territory.
I never once worked in drums despite being a drummer. I didn’t need to, as the guys who worked there were just fantastic. I’d bought my mirror chrome Remo kit from Andy back in 1988 once I’d saved money up from my first few months at work and every kit I subsequently got over the next decade or so came from the shop – we did get staff discounted rates for any gear we purchased, remember, which always helped financially when you went through a lot of sticks like I did!
I left MX in 1997 after being offered a position at Laney Amps in Cradley Heath helping to oversee the distribution of Ibanez guitars into the UK – a contract they’d recently been awarded. It had been 5 years of laughs, hard work, opportunity and strong friendships that have endured to this day. About a year or so after I left, the company was bought out by the Sound Control brand, which ended up lasting around 10 years before the business went into administration in 2008. By that point most of the existing MX staff - who’d been there longer than I was - had long since departed.
Indeed, the ‘spirit’ of MX kind of lives on at the store Garry Chapman went off to run some time after the takeover. Professional Music Technology (P.M.T. for short) took over a site on Lawley Middleway not far from Millennium Point in the city centre, after another music store that had opened there appeared to be struggling. Garry went in there and once again utilised the enormous space afforded him at this new place to create another mightily impressive store in all departments. And it continues so to this day.
I’ve often said – including to his face many times - that Garry was the best boss I ever had. And I’ve had a few good bosses in my time, I can tell you. There was just an infectious enthusiasm about him that I have never once seen waver over the years that I’ve known him. Such enthusiasm can’t help but rub off on you if you’re made of the right stuff, and if he sensed you had even an ounce of his drive and ambition, you’d do for him. He’s still front and centre at PMT, dashing about doing 3 jobs at once and delegating very little to anyone else – the fact that his store wins industry awards for its service year after year is testament to his graft. But he’s always there for a chat and a catch up about his beloved Manchester United over a hastily drunk cuppa.
So even if Musical Exchanges is no longer about (much as the Electric Banana that once played host to Spinal Tap) then at least there’s a place you can go in Brum where you’re guaranteed to be open mouthed at the sheer scale of a guitar shop – much like its forerunner; the place that made me who I am probably more than anywhere else in my life.