Remembering Geoff and Annie Davies
“They don't do things like other people at Probe Records.”
Annie and Geoff Davies were two of the mainstays of Liverpool’s alternative music scenes for decades. In an awful coincidence, both have died within the past few weeks.
Although they had not been a couple for many years, each of them leaves a musical as well as a personal legacy. It feels like the end of an era.
Geoff and Annie (and their then partner Dave Keats) opened the first Probe Records shop in Clarence Street in 1971. But Probe will for ever be associated with the legendary premises on the corner of Button Street/Rainford Gardens where numerous photos have been taken of those famous steps, perfect for posing. The new shop opened in 1976 around the same time as a new club, Eric’s, opened around the corner in Mathew Street. Right place, right time. A place in history.
Probe eventually lost the premises following the regeneration of what had become designated the “Cavern Quarter”. The shop is now in the Bluecoat arts centre and, thanks to Annie’s management, still going strong. Annie kept the shop when she and Geoff split up; Geoff continued to run Probe Plus, the spin-off record label famous for Half Man Half Biscuit.
Geoff officially retired from the label in 2021. The shop continues, an independent with over 50 years of history: an impressive achievement.
Probe was where I met my ex-husband Norman Killon, who was working in the shop by day and DJ-ing at Eric’s by night, a symbol of the symbiosis between them. I got to know Annie and Geoff because of this but it was a long time ago and I didn’t know them well, so it doesn’t feel right to try and write a personal tribute. Others are doing that better over on social media (and in this excellent piece by Paddy Shennan).
So this interview with Geoff from 1986 will have to do. Sadly, I don’t have any cuttings about Annie: she kept a lower profile but she earnt her right to be remembered too.
Melody Maker, April 26, 1986
Half record company, half record shop, half mental, half miraculous, PROBE PLUS, home of Half Man Half Biscuit are 86's strangest success story. Penny Kiley investigates the method behind the madness.
GEOFF Davies reckons Half Man Half Biscuit wouldn't be where they are today if they'd signed to a major label. "They'd never have put out a record like 'Back In The DHSS' – they would have had to compromise too much, they would have ended up as a one-hit-wonder comedy act."
Of course, at the time Geoff took the group on to his label, Probe Plus, no-one would have asked them – though plenty have asked (in vain) since.
The group's speedy rise from obscurity to backlash has been unprecedented for the Liverpool label. For the first time in its five-year history, it's not losing money, and the success of Biscuit, as Geoff refers to them, has brought welcome attention to the rest of its output. The way that the group and the label first joined forces, though, was nothing new. A chance hearing of a song, an interest sparked, and no long-term plans or expectations, is how most of their records have come about.
"The decisions just make themselves," explains Geoff. "You just find yourself committed to a record ... we don't have 'A&R meetings'," he adds, as though considering a foreign concept. They don't do things like other people at Probe.
"The identity of the label," says Geoff, reflects "aspects of my character — definitely loose in a practical business sense" — though he does stress that there's more organisation than might first appear.
Geoff's reputation in Liverpool is as something of a benevolently balding old hippy. "I'm definitely old," (he's 42) "but I'm not a hippy" he says. With a dry Liverpool humour that won't countenance anything too "right on", he's idealistic in an idiosyncratic way. "You don't have to have the traditional business-like attitude — people will tell you that you do — there are many ways up the mountain."
The way to starting a record label had a casual inevitability about it. It all began in 1971 when Geoff and his wife Annie opened the first discount record shop in Liverpool. (They could have been Virgin by now.) Probe Records eventually moved to its present site just around the corner from Mathew Street, where the legendary Eric’s club had just opened and, always a specialist shop, found itself becoming a punk mecca.
The first shop in the city to risk stocking indie records, the move into wholesale distribution was a logical one, and the record label grew out of that. "It seemed to be one of the things these people did." (They could have been Rough Trade by now.)
The first records on Probe Plus (the name was used to avoid clashing with the American Probe label) came out in 1981 with releases from Ex Post Facto and Cook The Books. At first there were mainly one-offs, initiated, recorded, and sometimes even financed, independently. As time went by, Geoff began to get more involved, taking on the role of manager and producer to acts whose songs excited him, like Ex Post Facto and Mr Amir. "I started getting enough confidence and learning the ins and outs of getting a record out, which is really quite simple. It must be if I can do it!"
It was with The Mel-o-Tones ("the sort of music that I myself would listen to") that it began to get serious, and Geoff began an active interest in the recording process. The group polarised local opinion, excited a lot of people apart from Geoff and brought out two "absolutely great" mini-LPs before splitting up. There have been other one-off singles along the way (including The Farm and The High Five) and others are planned. There are 12-inch EPs in the pipeline from Ellery Bop, Da Books (ex-Cook The Books), and the as-yet undiscovered Brenda And The Beach Balls and T B Blue.
The two most recent and most permanent stars in the Probe Plus firmament "tying for my affections equally" are Half Man Half Biscuit and Gone To Earth, both co-managed by Geoff with Sam Davis, an old friend who once played in Deaf School, the seminal pre-punk Liverpool group of the Seventies. Gone To Earth, with two EPs to their name, have just recorded an LP, while Biscuit, cult band of the year, are already hovering on the crossover point out of the top of the indie charts, with record sales currently at a healthy 27,000 for their debut LP and 20,000 for the "Trumpton Riots" single.
Things are happening fast. There's now almost a house producer in Sam, almost a house session musician in Gone To Earth's fiddle player, Dave Clarke, who can be heard to dramatic effect on "Wine Bars And Werewolves", and a Probe LP from Jeggsy Dodd And The Sons Of Harry Cross.
If Probe Plus has a musical identity, and Geoff knows it's embryonic as yet, it's the search, he says, for the interesting or the unusual: "Not just another record from Liverpool."
Probe Plus has been successful on those terms, and is just beginning to be successful on the industry's terms too. They'll never be Virgin but they might be Rough Trade yet — in their own way. The moral?
"You don't always have to do what's normally done. If you look at it from an established point of view, we shouldn't have been able to get this far."
Edit: Since I published this, more tributes have appeared including two on Substack.