Bill Allerton is dead. That was the impossibly sad news from our longtime mutual friend Colin Baker. I was in upstate New York, two days after my daughter’s wedding, and two weeks after both of my parents had died (they were old, long divorced, and I was estranged from my father, but still…) And now Bill. FUCK.
Record collectors around the world knew Bill (above right) as the owner of London’s late lamented STAND OUT!! records, which, along with Bill Forsyth’s Minus Zero, certainly qualified as the strangest record store set-up ever (more about the legendary 2-in-1 shop and ‘The Bills’ here.)
In this post, I’m going to focus on Bill Allerton the man, who I was fortunate to count as a good friend for 48 years.
I first ‘met’ Bill in 1974, via his classified ad in Alan Betrock’s pioneering record collector zine The Rock Marketplace; I bid on and won his Arnold Corns single (a Bowie rarity.) In the summer of 1975, when I traveled to London for the first time, I met him in person, along with his close friend and fellow collector Colin Baker. Sharing many musical and collecting interests, we all bonded immediately. I’ve traveled to London maybe 35 times since then, and hung out with Bill every single time. Almost always with Colin, as well.
When we met, Bill he worked for Virgin Records. He’d studied hotel and restaurant management at university, and leveraged his accounting skills into a music business job. But his true passion was for record collecting, particularly anything and everything by the Velvet Underground and Arthur Lee & Love. He was almost certainly the first serious collector of either of these bands.
On Saturdays, Bill (often joined by Colin) sold records from a table at the Portobello Road market, sharing his expertise with his regular customers. He knew more than anybody about 60’s records, and I felt very lucky to have been adopted by the two of them.
Bill lived in a single room on the second floor of 7 Caldervale Road in Clapham–an address forever etched into my brain. It had a mattress on the floor, a sink and a hotplate, and was CRAMMED with stuff. In a corner were floor to ceiling piles of 60’s music newspapers. Multiple pinball machines, with the legs removed, were stacked on top of each other. There were two or three ‘fruit machines’ (aka slot machines.) And of course thousands of records. The flat was too small for all of Bill’s things; on a staircase landing outside the door there was a bookshelf full of 45s, across from the shared toilet. If you were careful, you could just about navigate around Bill’s stuff without hitting anything, via the narrow path he’d left. Oh, do I wish I had a photo of that room.
I was in college then, working at Rhino Records in Los Angeles, and like Bill and Col, hustling rare records. I’d come to London once or twice a year, lugging a suitcase filled with American rarities. I’d trade them for UK records, which I’d sell on mailing lists and at the legendary Capitol Records record swap meet.
I’d travel for two or three weeks at a time, staying with Colin or at a B&B near Bill’s, and spend every waking hour looking for records. When Bill wasn’t working, he was driving me around in his rickety Triumph Herald, traveling to record fairs, visiting collectors and dealers, and exploring every shop in London, continually on the hunt.
Bill was exceedingly generous with his time, knowledge and connections. He introduced me to everyone he thought I needed to know, and told me which shops were worth ‘hitting’ while he was at work. In those days it seemed Bill ate mostly fish and chips, and he was borderline obsessed with which chip shops were ‘must visits’ and which to avoid at all costs. We may not have considered the long term implications of this record collector zero-exercise lifestyle, but boy did we have fun– buying and selling records and discussing them endlessly with the similarly afflicted.
Bill was eccentric and idiosyncratic as can be. But if you ‘got him’–and if he liked you–you’d have a friend for life. In the past week a number of his friends have told me virtually the same story–they’d come to England for the first time, perhaps with their partner or wife. Bill had driven them around, shown them the sights in London, taken them out to eat, and visited museums with them. With some record shopping too, but that wasn’t the focus of it.
I spent thousands of hours with Bill. We had so many crazy adventures. Visiting Royce Radio in Brighton, owned by a grumpy-old-man who wouldn’t let anyone into his store. There were rare records in the windows, but no one was allowed inside. You’d knock on the door, he’d open it, and you were allowed to ask if he had something. If he did, he’d disappear for a few minutes to get it.
One time Bill discovered that Roy Wood, mastermind of The Move and Wizzard, was playing a private show at a country club an hour or two from London. Without telling me, he’d called the club and explained that a very important record executive from the States (me!) was was in town and really wanted to see the show. I’m fairly certain Bill, Colin and I were the only non-club members allowed in.
Bill’s collecting was truly unpredictable. In the mid 70s I’d managed to buy some of the original artwork from Velvet Underground albums. Arguably Bill’s all time favorite group, right? I showed up in London with the original album cover photo used on their third, self-titled album. THE original photo. I’d brought this for him, thinking he’d be blown away. He could have cared less. I almost had to force him to trade me something for it (and decades later, he sold it back to me.) Though years later, he was truly excited when I found him an obscure Christian music album by Barry (‘Eve of Destruction’) McGuire, Anyone But Jesus, that featured Bryan MacLean of Love on a few tracks. Go figure.
Bill had the most droll sense of humor. At some point I’d asked if he could find a copy of an out of print book by Yardbirds/John’s Children manager Simon Napier-Bell. A few months after Bill visited Los Angeles for the first time, I found the book in my bookcase. He’d snuck it onto my shelf, saying nothing, knowing I’d find it eventually and my mind would be blown. Which is exactly what happened.
In the early days, Bill refused to be photographed. He never really explained it, he just objected strenuously when I tried to take his photograph. Once we were in a shop that had a computer display with a camera pointing outwards. I subtly pointed my camera at the monitor and snapped the photo below. (Bill later mellowed on this prohibition, allowing my wife and I to take the odd picture of him, most of which are in this post.)
While he never had a long term partner nor children, Bill loved kids. When my daughters were maybe 8 and 12, Bill insisted on taking them out for the day and to dinner, ostensibly so my wife and I could have some alone time. Everyone had a blast, and in a nod to their very specific requests, Bill dubbed them ‘The Terrorists.’
When the Velvet Underground reunited in 1994, I was working for Warner Bros. Records, their new label. I went to the first show in Edinburgh, amazed to have the opportunity to see them live, and invited Bill to see the next show, in London. I had us all fixed up–tickets, passes to the after-show party, very possibly the opportunity to introduce Bill to the band. I thought he’d be thrilled, and again, he sort of shrugged. Though he owned every record anyone in the group had ever breathed on, and had never seen them live, he was ambivalent. I think it might have been fear of being disappointed, though he didn’t exactly say it. He did come with me though, and seemed to enjoy it.
Bill’s success selling records had enabled him to buy a proper flat in Notting Hill.
After Bill closed the shop, he stepped up his interest in high-end audio gear, and developed a passion for fine dining and travel. He had great enthusiasm for the English chef Marco Pierre White, and was always consulting his restaurant guidebooks to find new and interesting places to try. And he traveled to far flung places including Russia, Israel, Thailand, and even North Korea, where he’d enthusiastically attended a stadium event (from Wikipedia) ‘famed for the huge mosaic pictures created by more than 30,000 well-trained and disciplined school children, each holding up coloured cards, accompanied by complex and highly choreographed group routines performed by tens of thousands of gymnasts and dancers.’ He seemed to have really loved that.
Sometime in the 2010s he’d been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, at which point he began paying more attention to his health. In 2017 he emailed ‘Retirement suits me well! Spending too much on my hifi and listening to music all day long + getting down to the gym 4 times a week. Diabetes has to be treated seriously.’
The last time we got together was in February 2019, before Covid changed everyone’s lives. Colin, Bill and I spent a great day together, seeing an exhibition of Andy Warhol’s polaroids, visiting Jimi Hendrix’s Brook Street Flat, shopping for records, snacking and generally catching up, before a fancier dinner with my wife Jody, who had been friends with Bill and Colin for close to 40 years. Bill was open about his efforts to lead a healthier life, and seemed ‘same as he ever was.’
Since then, we’d been in sporadic touch via email, and he’d never mentioned any changes with his health, though other mutual friends mentioned he’d had bouts of dizziness recently. At this point, no one knows exactly what happened to Bill. Apparently he’d failed to show up for a scheduled get together with his friend Vernon Joynson, who went to Bill’s flat to check on him, but failed to get a response. Vernon alerted the police, who discovered Bill had died in sleep, peacefully.
Though Bill never had kids or a partner, from my perspective, he lived the life he wanted. He’d budgeted carefully for many years, so he’d be able to retire with sufficient resources to travel, dine out and indulge in his hobbies. He had many, many friends around the world, wide-ranging interests, attended thousands of concerts and arts and cultural events, traveled extensively, ate very well, and pretty much did exactly what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. He was truly one-of-a-kind, and while I’ll never get the chance to hang with Bill again, I’m very happy to have so many great memories of the time we spent together.
Farewell Bill. I love you and will never forget you.
[For more on Bill, here’s my 2009 post about the closing of Stand Out/Minus Zero, about which Bill wrote me ‘This must be the only accurate synopsis I’ve ever read on S Out/M Zero!’ High praise indeed.]