The Man From Chorley: With Matthew Higgs in the Record Store

By Bob Nickas

Matthew Higgs with his record collection in his Chelsea apartment. Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

  • 3 August 2019

As with many formative pursuits, collecting often begins in childhood. Infinitely curious in ways that may naturally diminish with age or, conversely, become persistent, children possess an inquisitiveness that’s amplified as they learn about the world, and potentially about themselves, by way of objects.

Everyday objects, whether talismanic or mundane, may be imbued with otherwise unseen magic by those who assemble them. These private collectors build a personal world, moving from inquisitive to acquisitive as time, space and funding will allow—a child’s allowance goes just so far and only shells on the beach are free. In kindergarten there’s show and tell: You go before the class when called, briefly becoming the teacher, presenting your object, maybe a book, speaking about it and drawing others into your world. In this public revealing of private interests, with things from home, there’s also an acknowledgment, if one fully realized only later in life, that objects are encoded with information, that this information should be made available, that more may be discovered in the exchange, and that it’s fun. Show and tell—young person as juvenile aesthete—is an activity much more like that of a curator than of a private collector. A curator brings things in from outside, to present and discuss them in public, engaging with viewers who may never have seen the objects—in the process hoping for, it cannot go unmentioned, a ‘wow.’ The payoff, not in any way monetized, is social and cerebral, and it ripples out in ways large and small, in ways we can’t even imagine at the initial point of contact. A personal world can connect up to the whole universe.

Record sleeve for ‘A Factory Sample,’ 1979 (Factory Records), designed by Peter Saville. Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

Center label for Joseph Beuys’ ‘Sonne Statt Reagan,’ 1982 (Musikant). Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

Matthew Higgs, the curator, artist and publisher, has built a reverent following in the art world over the past 15 years as the director of the venerable New York nonprofit White Columns, where he has championed all manner of artists seen as decidedly on the margins of contemporary art—if they’ve been seen at all. He is less known, except maybe by those who follow his teeming Instagram account, as an inveterate collector, primarily of records, which he has pursued from an early age. His first purchase, in fact, in 1973, was the 1972 hit single by Alice Cooper, one of the catchiest anti-authoritarian anthems of all time, the hard-rocking ‘School’s Out.’ Higgs was all of nine years old. Though he didn’t yet know it, his nascent career in show and tell, his own school, had just convened, and at bratty volume.

The single was soon followed by the Alice Cooper album ‘Billion Dollar Babies,’ released in 1973, which went to number one in the U.K. The title of one of that record’s tracks, ‘Generation Landslide,’ would soon prove prophetic. Like other kids in Britain back then, Higgs faithfully tuned in to the weekly program ‘Top of the Pops,’ which delivered a steady stream of the newest and biggest bands of the day, the exciting music then, as Higgs recalls, being glam. In 1973 and ’74 alone, he would have seen David Bowie, Roxy Music, Slade, Sparks, the Sweet and T. Rex alongside other performers who would come to figure prominently in the development of his musical mind. And that generation landslide? Within only a few years, everything would shift seismically in Britain. By 1977, when Higgs was 13, punk had arrived, and ‘Top of the Pops’ would feature the Adverts, Blondie, Elvis Costello, Generation X, the Jam, the Saints, the Sex Pistols and X-Ray Spex.

It was, to borrow the title of the first Buzzcocks album, ‘Another Music in a Different Kitchen,’ an album that Higgs identifies as ‘the first real record I bought forming my own taste.’ He went to see Buzzcocks play live with, as he recalls, a still-thrillingly raw Subway Sect as the opener, and he got to see Devo the same year, 1978, on an early U.K. tour, at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall (where the city’s punk scene had been inaugurated just two years prior). Devo’s theory of ‘devolution’—or ‘de-evolution,’ the idea that the species is not progressing but gradually regressing—along with the punk upheaval and its demystification of rock’s image, aided in Higgs’ own evolution, leading, without doubt, to where we find him today, presiding over a singular collection of some 8,000 records spanning dozens of genres, some unidentifiable, across six decades.

These bands and the people putting out the records (often one in the same) were saying, in effect: ‘We’ve done this ourselves. So can you.’

Raised about 20 miles outside Manchester, in Chorley, a former cotton-mill town in Lancashire (there’s a single track on a classic 1979 ‘Earcom’ compilation by a mystery band called From Chorley; they were most likely from nearby Preston), Higgs quickly became aware that what was happening at the time came not primarily from London but from the North of England. Bands, labels and records appeared seemingly overnight, and zines and various publications written by fans, rather than by established music journalists, were everywhere, with memorable titles like ‘Chainsaw,’ ‘Sniffin’ Glue’ and ‘Toxic Grafity.’ At the tail end of the ’70s, independent labels such as Fast Product, Zoo, New Hormones, Small Wonder, Rough Trade and Factory were releasing singles and full albums by hitherto unrecorded bands and musicians.

You could read all about them, as Higgs and other fans eagerly did, every week in ‘Sounds’ and ‘New Musical Express.’ (Billy Childish, an insanely prolific creator in both recording and art studios, would, in 1993, pen his non-chart-topping garage-punk rant ‘(We Hate the Fuckin’) N.M.E.’ Higgs began to trust certain labels and to buy whatever was on them. Often situated in and around where he lived, the labels gave him the sense, he says, that ‘locality was important,’ as was the scene’s do-it-yourself aesthetic. Anyone with a strong visual orientation, as Higgs had, responded viscerally to the artwork associated with these records. Even today, more than 40 years on, the indelible Dada/punk collage created by Linder Sterling for the Buzzcocks single ‘Orgasm Addict’ never fails to startle. Not only did records come in these picture sleeves, but one often found stickers, postcards and posters tucked inside.

For Higgs, this initiated a lifelong love of ephemera, fueled by the potentiality of something extra, something further articulating the sonic information while extending the notion of generosity. These bands and the people putting out the records (often one in the same) were saying, in effect: ‘We’ve done this ourselves. So can you.’ The idea of participation was both local and democratic. No one needed special permission. Anything was possible. And possibility was infinite. In a song from the legendary post-punk band the Fall, ‘Just Step S’ways,’ Mark E. Smith mocks those who have used up their ‘allowance of experiences.’ Higgs would rightly insist that there is no such thing. And yet culture doesn’t continuously reverberate in waves to which we can respond, or respond with the same fervor.

The tide goes in and out, and inevitably we follow paths elsewhere. As punk began to wane in the ’80s, Higgs’ interest shifted to art, unsurprisingly, since he found himself then in art school, at Newcastle Polytechnic. There, from 1984 to 1987, he met and became close friends with the future art dealer Gavin Brown, and he co-founded a weekly nightclub called Fever, spinning a range of American ’70s funk, go-go, early house and other dance music. Dance music has been an abiding passion, and Higgs has become a familiar presence behind the turntable over the years at various art-world events and after-parties. He once bought, on the spot, 200 ’80s Chicago house music 12-inch singles, including, as he recalls, many extraordinary rarities, from the parking-lot flea market on West 25th in Chelsea. Another time, on a Brooklyn street, he came across a guy selling records from his front stoop and walked away with almost 100 disco 12-inches, for just $1 or $2 each.

Higgs’ Xerox-printed fanzine ‘Photophobia,’ Issue No. 3, 1980. Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

‘ZG,’ Issue No. 1, 1981, London. Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

Whenever his buying of records declines, Higgs’ search for art books and catalogues seems to rise. His book collecting, it turns out, was also precocious. In 1981, when he would have been 16, in a Chorley market stall, amid the fruit-and-vegetable sellers and jumbled piles of used clothes, something caught his eye: a Marcel Broodthaers catalogue from his posthumous 1980 Tate Gallery retrospective. Though Higgs had absolutely no idea who the artist was, the book intrigued him. As he had trusted record labels, he began to pick up other Tate catalogues, quickly acquiring those from a remarkable era of shows: Broodthaers, Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni.

In these artists’ humor, he grasped that art could be approachable, and he instinctively drew a parallel back to punk’s irreverence and accessibility. As a teen­ager, he had also begun to read and collect now-rare copies of the avant-garde culture magazines ‘ZG’ and ‘Performance,’ with covers featuring performers like Laurie Anderson, who had a crossover hit with ‘O Superman’ in 1981, and artist-writer Brion Gysin, inventor of the Dreamachine. (In a recent Instagram post, Higgs noted: ‘At this time, I had never visited a gallery, so these two magazines provided me with an introduction to worlds that I would otherwise have had no knowledge of or access to. And all for 60p!’)

There’s a widely reproduced photo of Joy Division rehearsing in 1979, and a small figure can be seen indistinctly in the background. That’s a teenage Matthew Higgs.

In 1978, when he was 14, Higgs started his own music zine, ‘Photophobia,’ which he copied and assembled himself and for which he wrote almost everything, cover to cover. Imprint 93, a mail-art project he initiated many years later, in 1993, published art editions that were conceived initially as being small enough to fit inside an envelope, sent anonymously to a well-compiled mailing list. The impulse no doubt arose from the communal spirit he had sensed early on in his collecting of publications and ephemera, as well as from the DIY ethic inherent to punk. Too bad for those who tossed the unsolicited envelopes that arrived in the mail, as among the artists invited to participate were many who went on to great acclaim: Fiona Banner, Martin Creed, Jeremy Deller, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Elizabeth Peyton and Stephen Willats.

The modest photocopied zines that White Columns has produced during his tenure, known simply and cheekily as the ‘The W.C.,’ derive from this same self-publishing impulse. And the Sound of White Columns (TSoWC) series of vinyl records—featuring music and text-based work by artists and musicians such as B. Wurtz, Emily Sundblad, Christopher Knowles, Kim Gordon, Malcolm Mooney (the original singer from the influential German band Can) and Richard Hell/Robert Quine (with cover artwork by Christopher Wool)—springs directly from Higgs’ record collecting. Having foraged for labels when he was younger, he now presides over one of his own, yet another way he has found to participate directly in whatever he has obsessed over.

Back cover of ‘Photophobia,’ Issue No. 3, 1980; Poster designed by Higgs for a 1981 New Order/PR5 concert at the Tatton Community Center in Chorley. Photos: Oresti Tsonopoulos

There’s a widely reproduced photo of Joy Division rehearsing in 1979, and a small figure can be seen indistinctly in the background. That’s a teenage Matthew Higgs who, fan that he was, had made his way to Manchester and, knowing where the band rehearsed, knocked on the door of their practice space. Higgs insists he never would have gone to art school and become a curator if it had not been for such formative adventures. Almost 40 years later he would go on to organize, along with Jon Savage and Johan Kugelberg, ‘True Faith,’ an exhibition about the legacy and influence of Joy Division and New Order for the Manchester Art Gallery. When asked if there’s any record he regrets parting with, he doesn’t think twice: ‘A fully signed copy of Joy Division’s ‘An Ideal for Living.’ It was 1983 and he needed the money.  When asked about his thousands of records—most of them lining one well-organized wall in the Chelsea apartment that he shares with his wife, the artist Anne Collier, plus overflow in storage, a few hundred records still at his mother’s home in England, he says matter-of-factly: ‘I’m not attached to them.’ Asked if he has to have everything, he says: ‘I’m not a completist.’ He does sell from time to time. You may have seen him this year at the WFMU Record Fair, where in the past he’s been an avid buyer. Sometimes, you’ll find him digging through bins in the back of an East Village shop, with a selection of 12-inch singles that can be dodgy at best—A Flock of Seagulls, anyone?—from which he will occasionally unearth a real gem. When told that he had once discovered a rare Joseph Beuys 12-inch, ‘Sonne Statt Reagan’ (‘Sun Instead of Reagan’), at a bargain price, Collier remarked, nonplussed: ‘Matthew’s the truffle pig of record collectors.’

A record, for the young in particular, is magical: music and the human voice emanate from its grooves.

Unlike those condescending, know-it-all vinyl hunters who suck the air, and the fun, out of this pursuit, there’s nothing snooty about Higgs. He freely and enthusiastically shares what he knows. His Instagram account is not a forum for bragging. The artist Davina Semo follows it regularly, as do many others, because, as she says, ‘I learn so much about music and get a lot of ideas for books to order. It’s a real education just to follow his posts.’ His collecting, in other words, has never been only for himself, and it continues to relate to the sort of fandom that got him started: buying records as a kid and taking them over to a friend’s house to play, to thrill to. A record, especially a seven-inch single—the artist and musician Jutta Koether has called it ‘the perfect fetish object’—is, like a book, portable. While both have information within them, a record, for the young in particular, is magical: music and the human voice emanate from its grooves. These many years later, when asked what it has all meant for him, Higgs insists of the wall of sound and books behind him: ‘It’s not a library. It’s not an archive. It’s accumulated stuff.’

Sleeve for Josheph Beuys’ record ‘Sonne Statt Reagan,’ 1982. Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

Despite the fact that he no longer makes dedicated rounds to all the shops in the city—Academy on West 18th Street, Academy and A-1 in the East Village and 2 Bridges in Chinatown (‘very intelligently focused,’ in his estimation) are among the exceptions—he still believes in the great pleasures of record hunting: ‘When you walk in, there’s a lot of possibility and surprise.’ Acknowledging what he calls ‘the infiniteness of it,’ he especially likes that you can’t know everything, and admits, ‘It’s almost like a full-time job keeping up with music.’ There’s always more to discover. For someone who has such a deep knowledge of dance music and has been buying a lot of reggae in the past five years, it’s a little surprising to see what he’s pursued lately, which is what he missed the first time around: classic rock.

He mentions Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon.’ Harking back to the punk era’s take-no-prisoners/no-more-heroes attitude, he says: ‘We were almost taught to hate that record.’ He adds that he had never listened to a Beatles album until a year or so ago. ‘I never had them, my friends never had them.’ And so, for him, ‘The White Album’ was a complete revelation. An obvious question brings us full circle: What, in the end, will you do with all this stuff? With a small laugh he says: ‘I think I’ll eventually get rid of it all. Sell things, gift them to friends.’ He has lived in England, San Francisco and New York, and he travels widely, acquiring records wherever he’s lived and everywhere he goes. He describes the collection as ‘a weird map of my movement through space and time.’ Astonishingly, given the many decades and thousands of discoveries along the way, he claims to ‘pretty much remember where I bought everything.’ You have no reason to believe otherwise. ‘Remembering,’ Higgs says, ‘is inherent to collecting.’