Honest to Goodness

Posted: Friday 13th September 2019

Ben Osborne looks back at the history of one of London’s most iconic and enduring record shops

Specialist record shops, like their products, are often hard to find. Honest Jon’s King’s Cross outlet is not on the wrong side of a flyover, as Manchester’s legendary Decoy Records was. But there’s something satisfyingly off-track about its location.

Stuck around the corner from the big guns of Coal Drops Yard, and a staircase below the fountains and art school action of Granary Square, it shares a pedestrianised lower level walkway with artisan cafes and bars. Despite the on-point design, there’s a back-alley feel, but minus any unsavoury odours.

Although small, Honest Jon’s windows open up its front wall. On summer days, its speakers spill sounds into the adjoining walkways and neighbouring bars. The spot comes into its own on in-store music nights, when the shop converts into an on-street stage.

Honest Jons, Record Shop, King's Cross, London

Honest Jon’s, Coal Drops Yard

Inside, it squeezes the carefully curated records, books, magazines and music paraphernalia into a remarkably uncluttered showcase. It’s a far cry from the shop’s origins in a vacated butcher’s shop, where records were displayed on meat-cutting slabs and floorboards were stained with blood.

An integral part of London’s musical history, Honest Jon’s began life in 1974 under the Westway. It’s been a style setter for a legion of London’s subcultures, including reggae, rare groove, funk, soul, club jazz and trip hop.

In spite of the record shop’s status as a West London institution, there’s a coincidental connection with King’s Cross. Honest Jon’s first owner, Jeff Francis, left to run All Change, a forerunner of the legendary Mole Jazz record store in King’s Cross.

After Francis left, Jon Clare and Dave Ryner took over. They were Liverpudlians, but their music tastes suited the local culture. The shop soon earned a reputation for supplying soul, funk, jazz and reggae.

The music was never punk, but Honest Jon’s shared punk’s DIY ethos and became a beacon for the scene’s icons, such as Johnny Rotten, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and DJ Weasel, who helped introduce the punk scene to reggae.

Honest Jon's, Records, Coal Drops Yard, King's Cross, London

Success led the business to expand, opening outlets in Camden, the King’s Road and Covent Garden. It also moved from the butcher’s shop to the current Portobello Road site.

But the rapid expansion took its toll. In 1982, Clare and Ryner sold most of the shops and ended their partnership. Ryner took on Rhythm Records in Camden, and Clare stayed on at Portobello.

Honest Jon’s then became a melting pot for London’s different jazz heads. As rare groove turned into acid house and acid jazz, Honest Jon’s stayed at the heart of London’s rapidly expanding DJ culture. In the 1990s, a young James Lavelle started working behind the counter. Peddling a new form of jazz-influenced hip hop, he started his own label, Mo Wax, and kick-started trip hop.

After surviving the turmoil of digital music, today’s King’s Cross premises has placed Honest Jon’s at the centre of a new vinyl culture, with the once redundant format becoming a growth story.

The new location has attracted fresh customers from East London, while its proximity to King’s Cross, St Pancras and Euston stations has extended this reach across Europe.

Honest Jon's, Records, Coal Drops Yard, King's Cross, London

Ironically, online shopping has become been an important factor. The King’s Cross shop has a large second-hand vinyl section, which stocks super-hard-to-find records and books.

“Online ordering is a very big part of the business now,” explains Andreas, one of Honest Jon’s regular staff members and music curators. “For people who often travel through London, it becomes a good collection point for the records they’ve bought online.”

The shop’s history alone also makes it a big draw for international enthusiasts. “On Record Store Day, I arrived to find guys from the Netherlands waiting outside, and there are people who come from Brussels – it also helps us being near the Eurostar.”

Apart from the travel connections, King’s Cross has its own expanding music community. This includes places such as Spiritland and Tile Yard as well as industry bodies such as PRS, major label Universal and tech giants. “It’s an interesting area,” says Andreas, “a melting pot. So, hopefully, we will see more and more.”

Honest Jon’s / Lower Stable St-Coal Drops Yard

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2019 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.

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