PICCADILLY RADIO’S DANCE MUSIC LEGACY 74-88
On April 2nd 1974, a new ILR station began broadcasting to Greater Manchester from Piccadilly Plaza. One of its original team of presenters was Londoner Andy Peebles, formerly of BBC Radio Manchester, whose weekly ‘Soul Train’ programme on a Sunday would quickly establish itself as essential listening for black music fans throughout the region. Over a quarter of a century later Stu Allan would play his final record on Piccadilly offshoot, Key 103, bringing the shutters down on an entire era, which started with Peebles, was nurtured by Mike Shaft, and saw Lee Browne take a bit part along the way. This is the story of how a Manchester radio station played a key role in shaping the city’s celebrated club culture.
Even as far back as 1974, Manchester already had a long established Soul scene, with the now hallowed Twisted Wheel (1963-1971) setting in motion the Northern Soul movement, which would flourish during the ’70’s, whilst in 1967 The New Reno would open its doors in Moss Side, catering for the black community. Piccadilly Radio (261 on the medium wave band) was the main commercial station outside of London, so ‘Soul Train’, named after the classic US TV show, attracted a sizeable audience, laying solid foundations for a lineage of dance music radio in Manchester, which continues to this day.
In 1978 Peebles left Piccadilly, having landed a plum position at BBC Radio One, leaving his ‘Soul Train’ slot vacant. Cue Grenada born Mike Shaft, a DJ who’d built a solid reputation as a Soul and Funk specialist playing at Manchester clubs like Rafters and the multi-roomed Pips. Having read about Peebles’ departure he headed straight to Piccadilly Plaza, where he put himself forward as the heir apparent.
The Mike Shaft years would number 8, during which time he played an integral role in the black music scene in the North-West. The main difference from Peebles’ tenure was that Shaft placed greater emphasis on dance music, with the programme becoming more reflective of what was being played at the upfront Manchester club nights, including Rufus, his own main residency, and by DJ’s like John Grant and Colin Curtis, who were packing them in at Rafters. The programme also underwent a change of name, metamorphosing into ‘Takin’ Care Of Business’, or ‘TCOB’ for short.
Disco was at its height, but whilst the mainstream audience embraced ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and the Bee Gees became the genre’s most recognisable act, ‘TCOB’ reflected the black scene, where most of the music played was only available on import from the US, with just one record shop in the entire region stocking the very latest tunes out of America – the quintessential Spin Inn, then on Manchester’s Cross Street.
By 1980, Mike Shaft, along with Robbie Vincent and Greg Edwards in London, was regarded as the most influential Soul Show presenter in the UK, playing a superior selection of Soul, Funk, Disco and Jazz-Funk, whilst making regular appearances on the All-Dayer circuit in addition to his weekly club slots, which included, in ’81-’82, the Main Event, a joint promotion between Piccadilly and Blues & Soul at Placement 7 (on the site of the old Twisted Wheel), which he co-hosted with John Grant, and later Colin Curtis.
It was around this point that I took over the Wednesday Jazz-Funk night at Legend, which had previously enjoyed a purple patch under John Grant’s stewardship, but was now struggling to survive, given Grant’s defection to the Main Event, which was dominating the local scene. I was very much the new kid in town, having announced my arrival via my successful Wigan Pier residency, picking up an increasing amount of All-Dayer bookings as a result.
Nine months later, in May 1982, Legend had hit capacity, turning the entire scene on its head in the process. With its sound and lighting arguably the best in the country, it was the ideal environment for the oncoming Electro-Funk epoch. Furthermore, I’d placed the emphasis on mixing, which set me apart from all the other black music specialists North of Watford.
What was happening at Legend was a whole new thing and, despite not being the biggest fan of this new electrophonic direction, Mike Shaft, in a similar way to how he reflected the interest in Jazz by involving guests like Colin Curtis and Hewan Clarke, invited me to put together a mix for his show – the first of its type in this country, focusing on the imports I was playing at the time. The fact that my night at Legend was in direct competition with Mike’s, at Placemate 7, didn’t stop him from making a decision that would have far-reaching ramifications, hastening the demise of the Main Event as a consequence, whilst considerably enhancing my own status on the scene.
Making an objective appraisal, Mike Shaft had realised that, although it wasn’t what he was personally into, a large chunk of his listeners were wholeheartedly embracing this Electro dawn. Wisely acknowledging that the show wasn’t about him, but his listeners, he’d taken this somewhat altruistic step.
His foresight was rewarded – the mixes, as author and DJ, Dave Haslam, would later observe “were probably some of the most taped programmes in Manchester radio history”. Gerald Simpson (A Guy Called Gerald) remembers their significance and the ritual that accompanied their broadcast; “As soon as I heard there was going to be a Greg Wilson mix on the radio I would run over to Shadus, the local electronic shop, and buy a brand new Chrome C90 TDK cassette tape. I would make sure I was in front of the Amstrad with my finger on the pause button when that mix started. It didn’t matter what was happening anywhere else. That mix would get played to death – the tape would be worn out until his next guest appearance on Piccadilly Radio”.
The end of year ‘Best Of ’82’ mix became something of an underground phenomenon, setting off a sequence of ‘Best Of’ the year mixes that would run on Piccadilly and later Key 103 for another decade. The mixes were also instrumental in bringing my name to the attention of a new Manchester club that had opened the same month as my Piccadilly debut in May ’82. This was The Hacienda, very much an Indie / Alternative venue back then, attended mainly by students. In August ’83 I began an additional Friday night residency at The Hacienda, bringing what I was doing at Legend to a new audience.
The ‘Best Of ’83’ mix was my swan song for Piccadilly, coinciding with my retirement from DJ work at the end of the year. As with my Wednesday at Legend, I passed the baton to a young upcoming DJ from St Helens called Chad Jackson, who would provide Mike Shaft with mixes for the next 2 years, including ‘Best Of’ mixes for ’84 and ’85. As one of the first British DJ’s to fully master the Hip Hop styles of cutting and scratching, Jackson would later go on to become the DMC World Mixing Champion in 1987, and in 1990 scored a Top 3 hit with ‘Hear The Drummer (Get Wicked)’.
When Mike Shaft left Piccadilly, moving across town to a new challenge at BBC Radio Manchester, where he presented ‘Back In Business’, his replacement was a local DJ called Lee Browne, who changed the name of the show to ‘Souled Out’. However, after 6 months he told the station he’d be taking a 6 week break, having been offered the role of compere on a Motown tour. To fill the void Stu Allan, ‘a ‘broadcast assistant’ at Piccadilly with a love of black music, stepped in for what was supposed to be just a temporary role, until Browne’s return.
Allan, originally from Anglesey in Wales, had moved to Manchester in 1982. Discovering, by chance, the Wednesday nights at Legend, he became a weekly regular – one of the few white guys in attendance in what was very much a black environment. He’d started spending time at Piccadilly in 1984, staying throughout the night and helping out in whatever way he could, before eventually finding himself on the payroll. He put together some mixes for Lee Browne’s show and remembered him as ‘a nice bloke and all that’, but not a worthy successor to Mike Shaft; “He didn’t know the music, and for only that reason it wasn’t done very well. You know, choosing the wrong album tracks, things like that”.
Allan set about choosing what he believed were the right tracks, and, although initially concerned about the more progressive approach he’d taken, the bosses at the station were quick to notice that the amount of mail to the programme had significantly increased since his first appearance in July ’86. This resulted in Allan being offered the show full-time, a life-changing opportunity that would be totally vindicated; “Within 6 months they had their highest ratings for that type of show ever. It was just immense it was just a huge, huge listening audience, and that just secured me there for years on end”. Having only basic DJ experience, Allan was now at the helm of one the most popular specialist black music programmes in the country!
He’d continue the tradition of end of year mixes until 1992, putting them together himself (with the exception of 1987, when he got DJKA to do it). During this period mixing would really come to the fore in this country whereas, previously, the vast majority of British DJ’s still used the microphone between the records they were playing. The times were very much changing with regards to the developing dance culture he was both reflecting and influencing, as what was once an underground movement began to gradually seep out, before exploding full force into the mainstream.
Although he’s still fondly remembered for his ‘Bus’ Diss!’ Hip Hop hour, perhaps Stu Allan greatest legacy is his crucial role as champion of Chicago House music, giving many of the formative House releases, on US labels like Trax and DJ International, their first plays on British radio during the show’s ‘House Hour’, which would conclude proceedings on a Sunday night – his opening track on his inaugural show being Farley ‘Jackmaster’ Funk’s ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’. DJ Laurent Garnier, who’d cut his teeth at The Hacienda, sites Stu as a major inspiration – talking to Miami’s CrossFade music blog last year he recalled; “I was living half an hour from Manchester, and there was a shop called Spin Inn. You had to call them to make sure they’d save the records for you, because they’d only have five copies of each and it wasn’t sure if you could get them. With ‘Love Can’t Turn Around’, it took me months to finally get a copy. And of course to hear the songs this DJ Stu Allan was on the radio in Manchester and I was listening to his show and taping the show”.
Garnier, along with legendary Hacienda House DJ, Mike Pickering, would observe that the original House crowd at the club were mainly black kids, a vital clue when piecing together the true evolution of Manchester dance culture, and one that’s still, more often than not, totally overlooked. One of those in attendance was Gerald Simpson, now making his own House inspired tracks. Gerald not only received his first airplay on Stu Allan’s show, but gained his name as a result – playing a cassette of one of his early recordings, Allan had introduced it as ‘by a guy called Gerald from Hulme’!
Once the drug Ecstasy arrived on the scene and white ravers ‘discovered’ dance music in their droves, the years of groundwork laid by the black scene was, at best, obscured and, at worst, ignored. Soon the music magazines were writing about Ibiza ’87 as the starting point, completely negating what went before, with Stu Allan’s pioneering on air contribution more or less totally omitted from the history.
Playing the latest imports during the pre-Rave era at Manchester clubs including The Gallery, Berlin, The Playpen and Legend, DJ’s like Stu Allan, Colin Curtis, Hewan Clarke and Mike Shaft helped sow the seeds from which The Hacienda blossomed, before the E fuelled eruption of ’88/’89 brought the club to national, then international attention. The city’s long-standing underground dance scene connected to other influential black music nights and All-Dayers, in places like Nottingham, Birmingham and Sheffield, and it was in this environment that House music was introduced to the dancefloors of the North and Midlands.
In 1988 Piccadilly Radio split into two services – Key 103 with a contemporary music format, broadcast on FM, with Piccadilly Gold, an oldies based station, on the AM frequency. Stu Allan’s show switched to Key 103, marking the end of an era on one hand whilst, on the other, announcing the beginning of a new one for the next generation of clubbers, who continued to religiously tune into his Sunday night sessions, writing in for ‘shout out’s’ as the Rave era hit overdrive.
Echoing it’s instantly recognisable ‘Nobody Does It Better’ jingle, Piccadilly Radio was the number one station for so many people, especially the black music enthusiasts who’d tuned in to Andy Peebles, Mike Shaft, Lee Browne and Stu Allan for their Sunday fix between 1974 and 1988 (with the exception of a short period in the early ’80’s when the show was moved to a Monday night). A whole history of black music, from Soul and Funk to Hip Hop and House, filled the Greater Manchester airwaves between those 14 years. Radio would go through some radical changes following this time, especially where dance music was concerned, with the national BBC station, Radio One increasingly catering towards the ever-growing clubbing community, whilst 100% dance stations like Kiss 102 and its successor, Galaxy, would set up in the city to help satisfy the increasing demand as DJ culture became a major commercial force.
Mike Shaft @ Piccadilly Radio in 1982 (Photo by Greg Wilson)
Mike Shaft would be a trailblazer in this direction, fulfilling his long-standing ambition of setting up Sunset Radio in Manchester, a legitimate (as opposed to pirate) station that specialized purely in black and dance music. He was Managing Director and Programme Controller from its launch in 1989, but was ousted from the board the following year as the result of a fundamental difference of opinion with other directors who wanted to take the station in a more orthodox direction.
Having finally parted company with Key 103 in 2000, Stu Allan would present shows on stations including Kiss 100 and Pure Dance.
Lee Browne seemed to completely vanish off the radar following his time at Piccadilly – it’s believed that he moved to London. To the best of my knowledge he never appeared on radio again, at least not in this country.
Mike Shaft has continued to carve a highly successful career in local radio and, to this day, can still be heard (in his inimitable style) on BBC Radio Manchester.
Bringing things full circle, Andy Peebles, following a long association with the BBC, where, apart from Radio One, he presented programmes on Radio Two and Radio Five, finds himself back in Greater Manchester, on Smooth Radio, where, in addition to his evening shows, nostalgia for his Piccadilly roots is evident in a weekly programme he currently presents called – you’ve guessed it – ‘Soul Train’!
© Greg Wilson, July 2008