Utopia Records taps into the very core of what it means to be a heavy metal and hard rock fan. These are genres fuelled by colossal bands, and the unflinching allegiance and burning passion of their followers. Since its establishment in 1978 the specialty record store has cultivated, and epitomised this binding relationship. From its modest beginnings, to the massive George St location, and the current Kent St basement, Utopia has and always will be, the undisputed ‘home of metal’.
“I still see customers who I saw in the store when I was a customer as a 15-year-old kid in 1980, coming in and buying the early Iron Maiden singles and the first album,” says Paul, the store’s manager and a long-time supporter. “A lot of those same people still come in today. So guys who were my age, guys that were a bit older. But the other thing is we’re now no longer a Sydney heavy metal scene record store. We’re a world scene record store.
“We get kids coming in from Brazil, a lot of kids from Nepal. They come in with tears in their eyes. They’ve heard about the place for thirty years because trust me, in Nepal, there’s no place like that. There’s no Utopia in Nepal... Some of the iconic stores around the world have gone and we’re kind of like a destination spot for heavy metal fans when they come to Australia.”
Utopia offers everything from CDs and vinyl, to DVDs, merch, books and memorabilia. It really is all things metal, in every sense of the genre. And the reason it can pull it all off – and do it justice – is because it has grown up alongside heavy metal music.
“So the store opened in 1978,” says Paul. “Our big thing we like to brag about is that was actually two years before Dead Kennedys or Iron Maiden released their first albums. So we’re kind of there for the, not the very initial punk revolution, but definitely the second wave and the American wave. And we were definitely there for the new wave of British heavy metal, which as we know, spawned thrash metal and death metal and all the other different types of sub-genres of metal. So Utopia opened at the best time to open a heavy metal store in the history of the world, obviously. And we just went from strength to strength.”
As a pivotal pillar of the music scene, Utopia has played host to a plethora of genre-shaping bands and musicians. Paul lists meeting Carlos Santana, Slayer, Suicidal Tendencies, Ghost, Pantera and members of Kiss right off the bat. As a kid who first walked into Utopia as a 15-year-old, his perspective on these experiences captures beautifully the impact the store has had on the fans.
“Status Quo,” he says. “I mean a band my brother used to go see when I was a nine-year-old kid in 1974. My brother would come back in denim jeans and a denim jacket, and he had long hair and they’d all been head-banging. I mean, Status Quo is like the first head-banging band, and they wore the denim jackets that Motörhead started wearing and everyone wore. I’m there having a conversation with the guy in the shop. You know, like I didn’t think that would happen. It’s pretty cool.”
His Slayer story is even better. “When we did one Slayer interview in-store it was amazing because there were more than a thousand kids there,” begins Paul. “And I was looking after the line until it started, and my job was just to like make sure the kids were coherent enough to talk to the band and then meet them. This one kid just like looked at me and he lost his mind and he just started going, ‘man you don’t understand how much you mean to me. You’ve been the reason for my... I got over drugs.’ He was just so star struck that he didn’t even – in the 3D world – realise I wasn’t the guy he thought I was. You know... The singer from Slayer was just there laughing his guts out. He goes ‘man, you’re in the band, you’re in the band.’”
Utopia is a destination more than a store. The place where young kids first get hooked to heavy metal and hard rock, pursue that passion through their middle ages, and end up back at the same place as veterans of the scene.
“Well you know in a store like Utopia we have people ranging from 65-years-old to three-years-old coming into our store,” explains Paul. “We had a little three-year-old kid who’d made his own outfit to look like the singer of Ghost recently. And it was just a couple of bits of cardboard stuck together and the poor little kid looked nothing like the guy at all, but he put the effort in. And to him that was like – that’s like kids in the ‘70s dressing up like Kiss. I mean, the same stuff’s still going on.”