Liverpool has a glorious history of record shops stretching from NEMS, through to Probe, Penny Lane Records, and Three Beat. Today we are still lucky enough to have the likes of Dig Vinyl, 81 Renshaw St, 3B and of course the ever reliable Probe.
Stuck down in a backstreet in the heart of this dying city you’ll find Prove; a small dingy record shop which has played a vital, if largely unsung role, in shaping the pock marked face of that legendary beast, “The Liverpool Music scene”.
A wonderfully eccentric middle-ages enthusiast, Geof Davis, set up the shop in 1971. Today it’s still the best source of indie vinyl, provides an essential service for reggae lovers, and it’s always been the only place to get those obscure works which, when requested elsewhere, result in bewildered glances from sales assistants who image you’re taking the piss with imaginary titles.
The wacky elite that make up the staff of Probe aren’t beyong a little customer abuse either — that is. when they’re not intent on ignoring you or talking to their (usually famous) mates, or laughing at your choice of records. A few years back at the start of punk, the man behind the counter placing the latest cult faves into my sweaty palsm (in between his many words of wisdom broadcast to all and sundry) was a young Pete Wylie. Even today you can still be served by a ‘star’, if that’s your bag, in the colourful shape of ‘bitching’ Pete Burns.
Providing employment for the city’s needy isn’t Probe’s only function. Upstairs above the tatty chaos of the shop is the more recent but no less shambolic set-up that is Probe Distribution, providing a much needed service for indies in the North. This same cramped room has seen much of the wheeling, dealing and signing of bouncing cheques that’s enabled Geof David, our financially ‘troubled’ entrepeneur, to put a handful of worthy singles on the Probe Plus Label.
After early efforts by Cook ‘Da Books and Public Discrace new impetus was given to the label around the turn of the year with the release of Ex Post Facto’s magnificent synthesised epic, ‘Oceanic Explorers’, which met with some well deserved indie success and a Jensen session. They’ve since tightened up considerably; on stage they’re now producing an impressively grand swirl and are currently courted by a major label.
Following up the acclaim heaped upon ‘Explorers’, the last month has seen a burst of activity with the release of two more Probe Plus singles of aumost equal stature. Skelmersdale’s Virgin Dance have been causing quite a stir locally and ‘Are You Ready (For That Feeling)?’ is a classy, surprisingly accomplished slab of commercial pop-rock. It’s already picked up some daytime Radio One Play. Virgin Dance are genuinely harder than most of the half-hearted slop served up today, and they look set up to be one of the more prominent Mersey groups of the next few years.
The inventive dark force of Bamboo Fringe hasn’t yet received the same sort of exposure accorded to the other two Probe acts, but this rather anonymous trio are a district cut above your average electropoppers; the sweet deceptive simplicity of their ‘Dorian Gray’ 45 provides a catchy tease that only hints at the more subversive depths of their intricate and persuasive melodies.
All the groups acknowledge the debt they owe to the Probe, which will never have the appeal of the Zoo label of a few years back, but which, in its own quirky way, has played a significant role. These are hard times, less records are bought, competition is increasing and the shop is struggling to stay afloat (“I keep bailiffs in business” Geof remarks) but already the next release is planned: an unusual reggae-ish 45 by the mysterious Mr Amir. There’s also talk of a Probe package tour.
Geof’s always managed to muddle through somehow and, together with the long-deceased Eric’s club, the shop is responsible for bringing life to a once-full corner of the city. It would be a tragedy if it were to disapear.
Kevin McManus, UNESCO Head of Music, Culture Liverpool
*Original article by Kev McManus, featured in NME on 27 August 1983. Since publishing, Probe has changed location a number of times but is now, at the time of publishing, next to The Bluecoat. This article was written just before Geoff signed the wonderful Half Man Half Biscuit who are by far and away the label’s most successful signing and when they can be bothered still occasionally release the odd hilarious record on Probe Plus. The photograph of the Probe staff and artists taken on the steps of the old shop was taken by John Stoddart who went on to become a famous ‘photographer to the stars’.