Since 1971, the music scene in Liverpool has seen a fair few changes. Bands have come and gone, venues changed, genres reached both zeniths and nadirs, but there has been one constant. PROBE RECORDS has stood the test of time, providing sounds for those in the know for almost four decades. After being opened by Geoff and Annie Davies, it found its first home on Clarence Street, before taking residence on Button Street and finding its most recent premises on Slater Street. Now, as it heads towards its fortieth birthday, Probe has once again upped sticks, becoming part of the Bluecoat Art Centre on School Lane.
Bob Parker, manager and ‘face’ of Probe Records has seen first-hand many of the changes in the music industry since he began his stewardship of the shop in the mid-1980’s, “Obviously things have moved on an awful lot. I think the trick is to adapt, but not to change too much.” The climate of the music industry now seems a million miles away from the one that greeted the arrival of the shop all those years ago. With digitalisation, the onslaught of downloads and the iPod generation, combined with the rise of the record conglomerate HMV and the increasing ubiquity of music sales in supermarkets, one could be forgiven for wondering how any small record shops can survive. According to Bob, it relies a great deal on what you’re selling, “We can’t really see HMV as competition, we sell the stuff that they don’t and we’re not planning to become a DVD shop anytime…ever. Hopefully there’ll always be a market for what we do.” What Probe do is specialise in new vinyl LPs and EPs, “I still see vinyl as the perfect format. With the music actually being in the grooves. It doesn’t need decoding, it doesn’t need formatting.” They continue to stock the sounds that others don’t, from avant-garde psychedelic to “numerous three-word-name screamo bands.”
The image of the independent record shop has perhaps been a little tarnished in recent years, thanks in no small part to Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’. The idea of buying from such an establishment is often accompanied by trepidation, fear that your choice will be met by such derision as to send you scuttling back towards the nearest faceless chain outlet to buy your ‘crap’ in peace. “Yeah, I don’t think High Fidelity did us many favours. I can tell you that the only similarity between us and them is the number of romances! In the past people have accused us of snobbery in what we stock, but we only stock what we think we can sell. If it’s not something people will come here to buy then there’s no point.” Probe are in the business of selling music, so to belittle the customer base on musical preference would be non-productive to say the least.
Slater Street had been the home of Probe for nearly twenty years, but after being approached by the Bluecoat about a move they decided it would be beneficial, “I can’t speak highly enough of the Bluecoat people. They’ve given us more publicity than we’ve had before, off their own backs. I guess they decided that we were of cultural value. It (the move) has come at a good time, it’s going to give us the opportunity to do some of the things that we’ve been thinking on for a while. Once the shops sorted properly, we want to start thinking about putting gigs on.” I should interject at this point that Bob is very careful to specify that this is a ‘distant future’ plan, and nothing that should pre-empt bands to drop off demo CD’s immediately. However, it serves as a sign that after all these years Probe still has aims and ambitions yet to be achieved.
Throughout its time, Probe has become somewhat woven into the fabric of Liverpool music scene, and a fair few myths have sprung up around it. One is that it was responsible for the musical education of a young John Peel, “People seem to miss or ignore the fact that he (Peel) was already a well established DJ in the USA by the time that Probe opened. I guess people like the romance of it.” Despite the inaccuracy, it’s hardly a surprise that the shop should find itself linked to the DJ, with both serving a similar purpose. Providing ‘none-square sounds’ for Liverpool and beyond.
Post-discussion about the current state of the music industry, and having been asked what he feels Probe’s remit to be these days, Bob replies, “I think Andrew Loog Oldham said it best, we’re ‘happy to be in the industry of human happiness’. I don’t think it’s ever been put better than that.” Neither do we.