17 September, 2020 — By Dan Carrier
‘It was about multiculturalism and conversation’ – John Clare recalls Honest Jon’s Records
Honest Jon’s in 1978 in Camden Town
The name above the shop in Golborne Road, Notting Hill proclaimed it was home to Honest Jon’s Records – and the moniker has, over the past four decades, become synonymous with London’s music heritage. While its founder, John Clare, no longer runs the company, there are still branches in west London and King’s Cross.
John, now an artist, recalls how it got its name. “We’d been open for a while and there was nothing to say what we were doing,” he says. “A painter offered to do us up a sign and asked me what I wanted.”
John thought for a moment and suggested “Records” – to which the painter replied he needed a proper name, and suggested Honest Jon’s – in honour of the fact he had a reputation for fair prices.
John Clare, founder of Honest Jon’s
John was born in the Wirral in 1942 and his youth was immersed in music. His brother introduced him at an early age to jazz – a genre his name would later be famous for.
“From the age of eight I heard Frank Sinatra, Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon,” he says. “I would just dig it because he was my brother and he was coolest. I was horribly sophisticated at the age of 13.”
In 1965, by the time John was ready to go to university, his brother was teaching in Jamaica – and he suggested John join him for a year. His £75 passage across the Atlantic took him into Kingston – and it was here he first came across the religious sect of Rastafarianism, indelibly linked with the islands reggae music culture. He also saw how Jamaican music had been influenced by American jazz, and heard a lot of ska.
“We lived in a place called Mandeville,” he says. “There was the Wagon Wheels club, up in the hills, and there was a great resident ska band there. My brother suggested I play the clarinet with them, so I sat in a few times.”
When John returned to study sociology at London University, he set up a Saturday night jazz club, booking the likes of Dave Holland, Miles Davis’s bass player, and The Brotherhood of Breath. “That’s how I got to know musicians and record distributors,” he says.
After graduating, he studied gang culture around Paddington as a criminologist and got a post at London University. Then, in 1974, he was approached by a record business contact who knew John had long wanted to run a jazz record store and he knew of a shop going.
“There was no lease and it cost £36 a week,” he remembers.
Previously a butchers, John used the old marble slabs to display his wares. “There were meat hooks and blood on the walls. I knew what sold. The records were played on a big old radiogram.”
The shop opened on Fridays and Saturdays while John taught during the week. “It took off,” he says. “I had planned to be a research criminologist but it’s more interesting to talk about Junior Murvin and Police and Thieves in the streets.”
He loved the feel of the west London communities who used Honest Jon’s to meet up. “Lots of my the customers were from the Caribbean and they educated me. The older guys would stand there and I’d play tenor sax records from the 50s and 60s. They had to guess who it was. Their knowledge was phenomenal. They could pick out Dexter Gordon, Eddie LockJaw Davies, just like that.
“It became popular and was such good fun, I stopped teaching and opened six days a week. I put a sign in the window saying we give cash for records. People bought them in. I thought this is what I was looking for – it was about multiculturalism and conversation.”
It even attracted some of the stars whose vinyl he was selling. “Horace Andy would turn up to sell records out of a back of his car. Augusto Pablo came in with him, too.”
Historian Lloyd Bradley, who penned the seminal reggae history Bass Culture as well as a book on 100 years of Black music in London, was a regular. Working on a nearby fruit and vegetable stall, he’d trade his produce for vinyl.
Jon recalls: “Malcolm McLaren used to stand at the back and sneer at everyone. He was a most unpleasant bloke.
“Johnny Rotten – he was amazingly knowledgeable about music. Joe Strummer became a friend. He was always calling in. We used to go a Friday and listen to him play in his band the 101ers. I taught his drummer the clarinet. He bought some jazz and some reggae.”
After a while, John invited Dave Ryner, an old school friend, to join him in business. “I said you’ll dig the music. He did.”
For a few years the partnership worked and they expanded. John recalls how they were offered a lease on a shop in Camden Town that had been owned by counter culture stronghold Compendium Books. They had another premises opposite.
“Compendium was great, and we thought it would be a good to be across the road as they had the same vibe as us,” John remembers.
Branches opened in Chelsea, Covent Garden and Soho. The partnership split in 1982, with their Camden Town branch becoming Rhythm Records under Dave’s management, and John concentrating on his west London jazz outlet. From there, he promoted gigs at the 100 Club, and Honest Jon’s became the go-to place for generation of musicians and fans.
John eventually left the business in the 1990s, its new owners continuing its tradition and being at the forefront of the Acid Jazz and funk revolution. And today, its stores are still renowned for offering an unmatched expertise in jazz, world music and other specialisms.