THE UK’S MICROPHONE TO MIX METAMORPHOSIS
US and UK club culture evolved in very different ways. Many people nowadays mistakenly assume that UK DJ’s followed whatever their American counterparts were doing, but the fact of the matter was that, until the second half of the 70’s DJ’s in this country didn’t have a clue what was happening in the clubs and discotheques on the other side of the Atlantic. Instead, the British created their own unique culture, embracing black music with a fervour that was rarely seen in white Americans until the dawn of the Disco epoch in the early 70’s. Although names like Francis Grasso, David Mancuso and Nicky Siano are now revered by a new generation of UK enthusiasts as the pioneers they were, at the time they meant absolutely nothing to British DJ’s, who were busy forging their own path, generally digging much deeper in their passion for dance music, both retrospectively (the Northern Soul scene) and via the various import specialists up and down the country, from whom they bought the very latest US Soul, Funk and later Disco and Jazz-Funk recordings. Unlike the US, in Blues & Soul Magazine the British had a national publication that dealt specifically with black music, the first issue dating as far back as 1966, with two further specialist black music periodicals, Black Music and Black Echoes, appearing in the 70’s.
Disco was originally used as a catch-all term for the music played in clubs and discotheques, which was predominantly Soul and Funk – it wasn’t viewed as a stand-alone genre until New York Disco, as it was referred to at the time, began to make its presence felt on these shores, integrating the gay led momentum that had shaped the course of dance culture Stateside with the existing scenes inhabited by black music obsessed Brits. It’s this fusing of separate, but parallel approaches that would eventually provide the alchemy necessary for the Acid House explosion in the UK during the late 80’s.
The major cultural adaptation, as far as British DJ’s were concerned, had nothing to do with the music they played, but was all about the way in which they played it. As contemporary DJ’s regard headphones as an essential tool of the trade, back then the microphone was what defined the British DJ, who introduced and back announced records in a similar manner to how a radio presenter would, connecting with the audience via their personality, which, with a good DJ, served to enhance their programming of the music and help build the atmosphere. This was very much the British way.
To understand how the microphone was replaced by mixing, we need to see how the seeds of change were gradually planted. This was no overnight thing, but would take a generational switch from the old guard of DJ’s to the new before the transmutation was complete.
In many respects, the beginning of the Disco era in the UK can be dated to July 27th 1974 when George McCrae’s ‘Rock Your Baby’ topped the British chart, having been a huge club favourite. To put this in context, the last time a black artist had scored a UK number 1 (with the exception of Chuck Berry’s novelty hit, ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ in November ’72) was The Tams with ‘Hey Girl, Don’t Bother Me’ back in 1971. Remarkably, following on from ‘Rock Your Baby’, two of the next 3 UK number 1’s were by black artists whose tracks had gained significant early support in the clubs and discotheques, ‘When Will I See You Again’ by the Three Degrees and ‘Kung Fu Fighting’, a British recording by Carl Douglas, which would subsequently go on to top the US chart. The record companies over here would obviously sit up and take notice, and this resurgence of black music as a commercial force would be further cemented during the coming months when ‘Sad Sweet Dreamer’ by Manchester’s Sweet Sensation, Barry White’s ‘You’re The First, The Last, My Everything’ and ‘Ms Grace’ by The Tymes, along with Ken Boothe, a Reggae artist, with his cover of Bread’s ‘Everything I Own’, all climbed to the summit of the UK chart.
Record Mirror, the most supportive mainstream pop / rock magazine when it came to black music, reflected this in a new column, ‘Disco Date’, which appeared on 21st September ’74, stating that it would be “featuring news about what’s going on in the discos around the country”. It included a Disco Top 10, with Carl Douglas at number 1, KC & The Sunshine Band’s ‘Queen Of Clubs’ at 2 and ‘Rock The Boat’ by Hues Corporation at number 3.
The name of the column would change to ‘Disco Sounds’, before they settled on plain and simple ‘Discos ‘in Oct ’74, announcing that “Suddenly discotheques are big business on the pop scene. Single-handedly they’ve pushed black music back into the charts”. ‘Discos’ would be compiled by a variety of people (Dave Johns, Dave Longman, Randy Nicholls, John Rainford and Eamon Percival). In November ’74, an advertisement headed ‘Disco Hits’, with info about the releases of Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes ‘Get Dancin”, ‘Tell Me What You Want’ by Jimmy Ruffin and ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ by Gloria Gaynor appeared in the magazine, along with a full page ad for Pye’s Northern Soul geared Disco Demand series, and on Dec 7th ’74 they published the ‘1st National Disco Top 20′, a new monthly chart.
Then, on June 28th 1975, James Hamilton, who’d previously reviewed US singles for the magazine, took over ‘Discos’ with the title of the column changing to ‘James Hamilton’s Disco Page’ (although it would revert back to ‘Discos’ later down the line, bar a short period when it was called ‘Disco Kid’). He laid out his credentials in an introductory statement, talking about his DJ background, which stretched back for over 13 years. He mentioned how he’d started out as a DJ in London and New York, and that during the mid-60’s his main interest was Soul music. Recalling when he was doing weekend All-Nighters, as James ‘Doctor Soul’ Hamilton, alongside Guy Stevens at The Scene in Soho, the famous Mod club, he said “I played nothing but Northern Soul…on its first time around”. In 1968 he went mobile and began to play a wide range of music.
This set the scene for what was to transpire a few years down the line, when New York Disco culture began to make a direct impression on what was happening in British clubs. Hamilton was its channel, gradually informing his readers of developments across the Atlantic. The introduction of the 12″ single in 1976 was, of course, a landmark, but the fact that this format had come about because NYC DJ’s were playing continuous music, going from one record into the next without using a microphone, barely registered with DJ’s here.
So, for the next few years mixing was pretty much completely dismissed as an irrelevance in this country. The personality DJ was highly valued, none more so than Chris Hill, head honcho of the South’s increasingly powerful Soul Mafia, and best remembered for his club nights at Canvey Island’s Gold Mine and the Lacy Lady in Ilford. Hill was arguably the UK’s first superstar club DJ and, although he was widely respected for playing the latest black music in his venues, it was his often outrageous patter that set him apart from all others. Chris Hill very much set the benchmark back then.
Mixing finally began to create a bit of a stir in 1978 when, in October, CBS’s club promotions department, now under its new US styled title, the CBS Disco Pool, issued a limited edition album (available only to DJ’s on their mailing list) called ‘Instant Replays’. Greg Lynn, formerly the club promotions man from RCA but now the CBS Disco Pool manager, had brought in two “exponents of the disco mix” to help him put together what he described as “nine choice tracks of current singles, 12″ disco discs and album cuts…segued together to provide two sides of non-stop dancing music – an ideal aid to the DJ who needs a break during his gig or as a starter to the evening’s proceedings”. The “exponents” were James Hamilton and Graham ‘Fatman’ Canter, the DJ from the one of London’s leading black music clubs of the time, ‘Gullivers’ in Mayfair.
Warner Elektra Atlantic – Continuous Club Sampler 1977
The previous year Fred Dove from WEA (Warner/Elektra/Atlantic) had come up with the blueprint, issuing 2 continuous promo only LP’s that featured a selection of artists he was currently plugging (including The Trammps, Cerrone, Slave, Boney M, Lamont Dozier, Mass Production, Dennis Coffey, George Benson and CJ & Co). WEA was notoriously the most difficult mailing list to get onto, but those DJ’s who were fortunate enough to be included got a service second to none, receiving not only the latest UK releases, but also US imports (including future hits by artists like Chic, Sister Sledge, Gino Soccio etc). However, whilst the WEA albums were loosely edited together, and could hardly be called a mix in the full sense of the term, Greg Lynn (who had taken a leaf out of Fred’s book by mailing out selected imports himself) now took things a stage further with a more measured approach to what he termed ‘non-stop segued music’ on the cover. In his sleevenotes he enthused; “You will have to listen very closely to catch some of the mixes. The first mix, ‘Instant Replay’ into ‘In The Bush’ was done by Malcolm Eade of our International Department and is so perfect you have to think twice before you realise that the tracks have in fact changed! The majority of mixes are known as chop mixes, which are often near impossible to obtain in a club working off two decks. However, with the facility of tape editing, we were able to stop or start tracks dead on a specific beat or note”. The tracklisting was as follows:
CBS Disco Pool ‘Instant Replays’ 1978
1. ‘Instant Replay’ – Dan Hartman
2. ‘In The Bush’ – Musique
3. ‘Plato’s Retreat’ – Joe Thomas
4. ‘Only You’ – Teddy Pendergrass
1. ‘You Should Do It’ – Peter Brown
2. ‘Freak In, Freak Out’ – Timmy Thomas
3. ‘Do You Feel Alright’ – KC & The Sunshine Band
4. ‘Starcruisin’ – Gregg Diamond’s Starcruiser
5. ‘Black Is The Colour’ – Wilbert Longmire
The album, which had taken eight hours to put together, was a revelation at the time, although it all sounds rather basic by today’s standards, and often pretty clumsy (not least the Dan Hartman > Musique transition, which Lynn had waxed so lyrical about). It’s legacy was that it opened up the idea of mixing to DJ’s the length and breadth of the UK, inspiring further mix albums, most notably, before the end of ’78, Polydor’s ‘Steppin’ Out’, the first to be officially released in the UK (put together by the company’s club promotions man Theo Loyla), and two LP’s that actually made it into the chart the following spring – K-Tel’s ‘Disco Inferno’ (Disco Mix and Sequencing by Rob Bayly), which peaked at number 11, and Polygram’s ‘Boogie Bus’ (Segues and Programming by Graham Canter) which reached number 23 whilst enjoying a healthy 11 week chart run.
Steppin Out / Disco Inferno / Boogie Bus
British DJ’s now knew the theory part, but on a practical level it wasn’t as straightforward as it sounded. Only a tiny percentage of clubs had vari-speed turntables in the late 70’s (and on into the early 80’s), so a running mix was totally out of the question unless you had two tracks that were exactly the same tempo. With the amount of records using drum machines still very much in a small minority, the ‘BPM rating’ (beats-per-minute) of a record couldn’t be relied upon. Live drummers, however good they might have been, are not computers and, even though some played to a click track, this still didn’t provide the level of precision necessary for keeping two records in perfect sync for any length of time. Chop mixing was the easier option, although still difficult to execute, especially on the old-style belt driven Garrard and Citronic decks that most DJ’s were then using. Manoeuvring a record with your finger to try to get it in time could easily result in the needle skidding right off the vinyl and, as such, wasn’t a viable option. Furthermore, regardless of the technicalities, club managers wouldn’t have tolerated a DJ ‘just playing records’ as this would have been deemed to be slacking on the job!
By this point James Hamilton was suggesting mini-mixes of 4 or 5 records to DJ’s who might be lucky enough to have vari-speed at their disposal, but, in his November 25th column, he conceded that few DJ’s in this country are into “US-style mixing”. But then, in his first column of 1979, he wrote a now seminal piece called ‘To BPM Or Not To BPM’, outlining his intention to list the Beats-Per-Minute of all the records he reviewed from that point onwards. He also listed the BPM’s of every record in the magazines UK Disco chart and outlined how DJ’s could work out BPM’s for themselves; “all you need is a stopwatch, and – making sure that your deck is at the spot-on correct speed – tap your foot in time with the records main bass beat. When you’ve got the feel of the rhythm, hit the stopwatch start button on a beat / tap and start counting nought, one, two, three – etc…”.
The BPM bug had obviously bitten him hard because, throughout the next two weeks, he listed, “in order of Beats-Per-Minute all disco product currently in use by chart contributing DJ’s”, which amounted to literally hundreds of titles. Then, on January 27th 1979, he proudly announced that, following his lead, some record companies were now starting to list the BPM’s on their releases (which, in most cases, he was timing for them himself), whilst there were radio DJ’s who were using his BPM’s in order to achieve what he called “locked running mixes on air”. Finally he drew attention to the “disco jocks” (club DJ’s) who he said were “now thinking more than ever before about mixing their records”. Things had apparently changed pretty drastically in just two short months – Hamilton was now on something of a crusade for mixing, but, despite his optimism, there was still a long road ahead before most DJ’s in this country would share his enthusiasm.
Graham Canter & James Hamilton (Photo by Greg Wilson)
I met James Hamilton on a number of occasions, both in London and when he travelled North. I’d generally check out Gullivers, where he deejayed with Graham Canter (also a young Graham Gold), whenever I was in the capital during the late 70’s – this is where I took the snapshot of the two of them behind the DJ booth. However, my abiding memory of James is stood at the counter of Groove Records in Soho, stopwatch in hand, busy BPMing the new imports which had arrived that day.
In February 1979 a highly ambitious weekly magazine was launched, simply called Disco. It was a much more in-depth forerunner to Disco Mix Mag (later to become Mixmag), which wouldn’t appear for another four years. This groundbreaking publication would unfortunately only last for a matter of months. The editorial team, led by Peter Harvey, included Garrell Redfearn (reviews) and Orin Cozier (features), two of the most respected club promo people of the time, plus Northern Soul aficionado, Neil Rushton, as news editor (a decade later Rushton would be a major player on the Techno scene via his Network label). The list of contributors were equally impressive, including Greg Lynn and the guy who’s now generally regarded as the first proper mixing DJ in this country, Greg James.
Greg James was actually an Argentinian born American DJ from Pennsylvania, whose friend and mentor was Richie Kaczor, resident at the fabled Studio 54. James had come to the UK to open The Embassy, London’s first New York-style club, in April 1978, where, prior to his role as DJ (he was there for just six months), he helped design the sound and lighting. This all resulted from a meeting with future Embassy director, Jeremy Norman, whilst James was visiting London a few years earlier. Norman would subsequently hook-up with James in New York, where he saw him behind the decks for the first time.
Spreading the gospel as far as mixing was concerned, Greg James would consider Soul Mafia DJ Froggy amongst his converts – although Froggy cited his 1979 trip to New York as his Damascene conversion (more later). Having spent a month in Hong Kong James returned to the UK heading up to Leeds to oversee the installation of the sound system at a new club, The Warehouse, owned by fellow American Mike Wiand, where he’d introduce the Yorkshire public to the delights of US style mixing, spending a year deejaying there. One of the clubs resident DJ’s, Ian Dewhirst (formerly DJ Frank on the Northern Soul circuit), remembers James attempting to teach him and the other Warehouse DJ’s the basics of mixing, before he headed back down to London and opened his club retail outlet, ‘Spin-Offs’, specialising in disco equipment. So, just as quickly as he’d appeared, he vanished from the club scene to concentrate on his shop and installation business.
Ian Levine 1979
Ian Levine, the legendary Northern Soul DJ who had built his reputation breaking track after track at the hugely influential Blackpool Mecca, saw the possibilities of mixing at an early stage, taking in the New York gay scene during one of his regular trips to the States, where he dug deep to unearth rare Soul 45’s. Levine (along with Mecca DJ partner, Colin Curtis) had caused major controversy within Northern Soul circles by introducing an ever increasing amount of contemporary tracks on a scene that was built on its passion for 60’s obscurities. The schism that ensued split the Northern Soul movement right down the middle, and things would never be the same again. It wasn’t only the music that drew Levine towards the gay clubs of New York, but his sexuality, and as the decade drew to a close he would move away from Northern Soul and increasingly towards a fresh destiny, at the forefront of the 80’s Hi-NRG boom. This can be traced back to his Northern influenced productions of the mid-70’s, like Barbara Pennington’s ‘Twenty Four Hours A Day’ (a big hit in the New York clubs) and ‘Baby I’m Still The Same Man’ by James Wells.
Levine would get to know Greg James via trips to The Embassy, and James would inspire him towards taking up mixing himself, initially on his nights at Angels in Burnley. When, in 1979, a major new gay venue opened in London, Levine, with James’ recommendation, was offered the role of resident DJ. The club, Heaven, would revolutionize the gay scene in the UK.
Disco reported that British DJ’s were worried that there was “a conspiracy afoot to swamp the country with non-stop NY disco fodder”. There were impassioned views on the subject of mixing and I even contributed to the debate myself, sending in a letter. My opinion at the time was pretty much in line with that of the magazine’s – that although mixing was a great addition to the DJ’s armory, it should be utilised alongside, rather than instead of, the traditional use of the microphone. However, the majority of British DJ’s dismissed mixing completely. Tilly Rudderford, head of A&R at Magnet Records, summed up this viewpoint when he stated that “the DJ is more of a compere than an operator. A personality is the main ingredient needed to be successful, because if you can chat, timing of records is of little importance”.
At the same time, John Benson, and his successor, Paul Armstrong (resident DJ’s at the Embassy, following on from Greg James), regularly listed their ‘recommended mixes’ in the magazine. For example: ‘Got To Be Real’ Cheryl Lynn (CBS 12″) 116 – chop mix to – ‘Straight To The Bank’ Bill Summers (RCA 12″) 116 (Cheryl Lynn finishes on ‘3’ – i.e. third beat of bar – Bill Summers starts on ‘3’, or, ‘Disco Nights’ G.Q (Arista 12″) 123 – crossfade to – ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’ Sister Sledge (Atlantic 12″) 116 (varispeeds only – slow G.Q during the record, speed up Sister Sledge).
The cat had been well and truly set amongst the pigeons in the second issue of Disco, with the provocative front page headline ‘Does The Talking Have To Stop?’ illustrated by a photo of a DJ (who happened to be Graham Canter) talking into a microphone. What followed was an article, written by Neil Rushton, that drew the battle lines, with some of the main players on the club scene expressing their views on this hot potato of a topic. Two of the most influential Soul show presenters on British radio, Greg Edwards (from Capital) and Robbie Vincent (from Radio London) kicked things off. Edwards warned young up and comers that the door to radio would be closed to them if they embraced the ‘mixing trend’, “Jocks are just sitting down spinning records and that’s destroying the whole disc jockey profession. Nobody’s going to get a job on radio just by linking records. A DJ will never learn his craft by listening to records and finding out which ones have exactly the same beat. An engineer is there for that job”. Vincent echoed this sentiment; “American bad habits are not going to catch on here. People in the UK don’t want to hear three solid hours of identical music”.
Disco Magazine front cover Feb 1979 (Click image to enlarge)
On the other side of the argument, Ian Levine returned fire, with a not so veiled dig at the Chris Hill type approach; “DJ’s in Britain get their reputation by spouting bullshit to wind the crowds up. In America the jocks don’t do that, they get their following by mixing records in a skilful way. The American way is better because it utilises the music and interprets the music. In England the music is just part of what was going on. People talk about the All-Dayers being so popular that American Disco music is irrelevant, but it’s Disco music which crosses over and has chart hits. A lot of All-Dayers feature boring Jazz-Funk instead of American Disco music, which is especially made to build excitement”.
It fell on Greg Lynn, the man whose promo album of a few months earlier had certainly stoked the fire, to provide the voice of reason; “I don’t think it will ever get to the situation where we will hear mixing in British clubs all the time”. Regardless of what individual DJ’s opinions were, Lynn felt that the British audiences wouldn’t accept the American approach to clubbing; “I think that if, by some miracle, all the clubs in the UK were overnight converted to their American counterparts with the best lights, sound and effects and so on – a lot of people would just not be able to take it in”.
The talking was destined to continue for a long time yet, and it wouldn’t be for another decade before mixing began to seriously challenge the microphones supremacy, eventually sweeping it aside as the Rave revolution finally rung out the old in ruthless fashion. But for now, the overwhelming amount of DJ’s rejected change, siding with the Edwards / Vincent viewpoint – if it’s not broke don’t fix, or in this case, don’t mix it.
Chris Hill Speaks Out At New Music Seminar NYC 1979
When the 5th New York Disco Forum was held in March 1979, Chris Hill was one of a group of people from the UK club scene who travelled over to gain a first-hand insight as to what the fuss was all about. Hill was “appalled” by the standard of the music being played in the clubs he visited, arguing that “clever use of the equipment” didn’t equate to “clever use of music”. Never one to pull any punches, he used a discussion about Disco Radio as his platform; “We’re into black music” he said, “The big upfront discos in England are black music clubs and we come here and we hear bland Euro disco garbage”. Challenging the perception that Disco Pools were a US development he continued, “We had Disco Pools eight years ago. Nigel Grainge at Phonogram invented the idea of a DJ mailing list for just disco DJ’s and excluding radio DJ’s. We have a history of dealing with disco. Now at this forum I actually expected to hear new ideas but what I’m hearing is tired, tired ideas and it frightens me because I really think you people are boxing yourself into a corner”.
Hill’s words were somewhat prophetic, for just three months later, on July 12th, Rock DJ Steve Dahl was orchestrating the infamous ‘Disco Sucks’ campaign in Chicago’s Comiskey Park. The backlash was in full swing.
Although the fallout was mild when compared to what happened in the States, ‘Saturday Night Fever’ had pretty much destroyed Disco’s cool in the UK and the cutting-edge dance scene now revolved around Jazz-Funk (although the more Funk based Disco cuts continued to be played on the black scene – the type of stuff that would retrospectively be referred to as Boogie).
However, one Soul Mafia DJ who very much embraced mixing on his return from that fateful trip to New York was Froggy (Steve Howlett), whose epiphany was brought about by a visit to the Paradise Garage, where Larry Levan was in full flow. Buying up all the right equipment for his Roadshow, which he’d built up to work extensively with Radio 1 presenter Dave Lee Travis earlier in the decade, Froggy, then DJ at one of the big London venues of the time, the Southgate Royalty, soon took his place amongst the UK’s main mixing exponents.
Still not content with the DJ mixers on offer, Froggy helped design the Matamp Super Nova for the Huddersfield based company run by Mat Mathias. It was remembered as “a mixers mixer right from the blueprints. With a cross-fader, remote control of Technics SL1200 turntables, sophisticated cueing and individual trimming and tone controls on each input, the Stereo Super Nova delivered the wish list of all club DJ’s at the time in one (albeit expensive) package”. A few years later down the line I’d mix live on TV using one of these wonderful mixers.
Matamp Super Nova Mixer on the cover of Disco & Club News magazine – June 1981
Another overseas DJ, this time a German, turned up in the unlikely location of Leysdown in July ’79 to work at a club called Stage 3. Peter Römer had been schooled in mixing at the legendary Hamburg club, Trinity, by Sharon Lee, an American DJ who’d played at Studio 54. He’d return to Germany, where he’d be held in high regard as their first mixing specialist, but head back to the UK in 1982, to take up the residency at Xenon in London’s Piccadilly. He’d later become one of DMC’s main ‘megamixers’, following their launch in 1983.
Having brought Greg James to The Warehouse for a time, Mike Wiand would invite another US DJ to play at the club in March 1980, bringing over Danny Pucciarelli (the then resident at Brooklyn’s Night Gallery) for three weekends, having met him in Los Angeles at a Billboard Magazine convention (Pucciarelli was also a Billboard reporter at the time). Things went so well that he was invited back for a second stint the following August, staying for a month this time. In an interview, on the Disco-Disco.com website, he recalls that “England had a massive response. My first trip to The Warehouse was amazing. You have to understand that the standard of the DJ was a ‘Talk Jock’. All the DJ’s would introduce a record, make announcements, etc…I was introduced as a ‘Mixing Jock’ from NYC”.
Pucciarelli’s next trip to England was in 1982, when he noted a change; “This time I found DJ’s that were mixing! I again played at The Warehouse, and I played in Wales, Blackpool, Harrogate and Manchester, where I did my first taped radio show on Piccadilly Radio in Manchester”. He would return to England in 1983, and again in 1984, when he stayed for 7 months (June ’84 – Jan ’85), working for the Bunters Corporation, who owned clubs in Liverpool and Blackpool.
My path crossed with Danny Pucciarelli’s when he did his Piccadilly Radio mixes in the summer of ’82, as these were broadcast on Mike Shaft’s weekly Soul Show, for whom I’d been doing regular mixes myself since the previous May. We’d also appear on the same bill at the Tiffany’s All-Dayer in Manchester, in April ’83.
Ad Tiffanys All-Dayer – Manchester 83
I had remained open to mixing, but it wasn’t until 1980, when I was deejaying in Germany for 2 months, that I first used Technics SL1200’s (in terms of technology German clubs were generally way ahead of the UK). I also heard a German DJ in a nearby city mixing both dance and alternative records, and that left a big impression on me (although I’ve never been able to 100% confirm it, I now believe that this was Peter Römer – the club was Librium in Essen, somewhere I know he played during this period). Although I’d seen Greg James at The Embassy two years before this, what the DJ was doing that night in Essen really crystallized the full potential of mixing for me, given the right environment.
Coming back to the UK to take up the residency at Wigan Pier, I finally had the right equipment to work with (in this case 1500’s rather than 1200’s). The Pier, like the Leeds Warehouse and Angels in Burnley, was a US style disco, with the emphasis firmly on the sound and lighting at a time when most British clubs were in the dark ages when it came to these things. It was opened by Lennon’s Leisure in 1979, and the following year the company would expand operations, taking things a stage further with an even more impressive venue located in Manchester – this time a smaller, more compact club called Legend.
In August 1981 I took over the Wednesday nights Legend, working with a predominantly black audience. It was at this point, inspired by what I’d heard in Germany, that I made a conscious decision to place the emphasis of what I did on mixing (Legend was the first UK club I worked in that had that had SL1200’s). This new direction would set me apart from the other DJ’s in the North, and lead to Mike Shaft inviting me to put together regular mixes for his radio show, the first being broadcast in May ’82.
With the new Electro-Funk sound emerging from New York, and labels like West End, Prelude, Streetwise, Emergency, Profile and Tommy Boy coming to the fore, I was fortunate enough to find myself playing the right music in the right clubs at the right time, whilst taking what was then regarded as a novel approach to its presentation, for these were records that were much more suited to mixing, with the drum machine now superseding the live drummer.
Greg Wilson mixing on The Tube – February 1983
In February 1983 I was invited to appear on the Channel 4 music show, ‘The Tube’, on which I’d demonstrate live mixing for the first time on British TV, whilst Jools Holland and Mike Shaft discussed what I was doing. It was regarded as such a new thing for a television audience that Jools Holland actually asked me to point out what a turntable was, for the benefit of “the people who don’t know what a turntable is” (a record player being the more commonly used description back then). The programme, which reached a sizeable youth audience, provided an introduction to mixing for many of its viewers, some of whom, judging by the apparent indifference of those in the studio, would have been completely bemused by the whole thing.
The same month saw the launch of Disco Mix Mag, the forerunner to Mixmag. It was nothing like the full colour glossy it would eventually become, but more a stark black and white glossy fanzine, available to DJ’s by subscription only. The early issues came complete with two cassettes, one of which showcased the forthcoming UK releases. But it was the other cassette that provided Disco Mix Club, as the parent company was called, with its main selling point, for this included mixes, originally by Alan Coulthard, but, as the coming years unfolded, by other DJ’s including Les Adams, Peter Römer, Sweden’s Sanny X, Chad Jackson, Dave Seaman and Paul Dakeyne. Each month an artist would be chosen for Coulthard’s ‘Mega Mix’ treatment – these were a medley of tracks by the same artist, always a big chart act. The first Mega Mix was Shalamar and others would include Kool & The Gang and Human League. It was an incredible piece of foresight by Tony and Christine Prince, the founders of DMC (as the organization would become known), and would take off immediately with the mainstream DJ community it was aimed at, bringing mixing into a much more commercial setting. DMC was undoubtedly responsible for popularizing mixing here in the UK.
Disco Mix Mag Issue 1 front cover – Feb 83
Tony Prince was the most unlikely champion of mixing. A Northern lad from Oldham, he’d started out as a DJ back in the early 60’s, working for the Top Rank group who owned numerous large nightclubs throughout the country. He’d find fame in the 70’s as Radio Luxembourg’s ‘Royal Ruler’, but, with the stations popularity waning and just as he was in danger of becoming a name of the past, he discovered Alan Coulthard and began to feature what would turn out to be the prototypes of the Mega Mixes on his radio show in 1982. Coulthard had been putting together mixes at home, as a hobby, but all of a sudden he was elevated to position of influence within the club industry.
Hip Hop culture was beginning to make its mark outside of New York at this point and the UK was quick out of the blocks, thanks to Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Buffalo Gals’ video, which accompanied the release of the single in late ’82. Along with other Bronx delights, the video brought scratching to our TV screens for the first time, setting in motion the wheels that would lead to the emergence a whole new generation of would-be turntablists.
Black Echoes April 83 Mix DJs
In April 1983, Black Echoes writer Lindsay Wesker (later to be one of the founders of London’s Kiss FM) listed the foremost mixing DJ’s in this country, whilst introducing a crew of newcomers who were soon to make their mark in a big way; “Britain’s finest mixers are well-documented in this column. We all know the exploits of Record Mirror columnist James Hamilton and his Gullivers compatriot Graham Gold, the electronic Greg Wilson, heavyweight show-stopper Froggy, high-speed Ian Levine, simultaneous Steve Aldridge of The Embassy, megamixing Alan Coulthard, Paul Armstrong from Maunkberry’s and the deft Peter Römer at Xenon, but there’s one mixing force that’s yet to be featured, and we’re not talking about one guy. I refer to the entire Mastermind Roadshow, a soul sound devoted to mixing”.
With a wealth of experience in club promotion, Morgan Khan launched his Streetwave label in the early 80’s. Struggling to get the hits he’d hoped for he began releasing compilation albums, featuring tracks that had been big on import in the specialist clubs. His ‘Street Sounds’ series proved to be a great success, resulting in no less than six Top 50 albums in 1983. This led to a further series, ‘Street Sounds Electro’ (first volume released in Oct ’83), but this time, rather than it being the normal grouping of separate tracks, Khan decided the album’s would be mixed. He approached Mastermind, led by Herbie Laidley, but also including Max LX and Dave VJ (later Max & Dave of Kiss FM), to mix the first release, which proved to be a masterstroke when it went all the way into the Top 20. These LP’s (not forgetting the cassettes, regarded as breakdance essentials for crews up and down the country) would become something of an institution, with a run of eighteen consecutive chart entries (the majority of which were mixed by Herbie Laidley) right up until August ’87, when ‘Electro’ was finally phased out of the title and the series continued as ‘Street Sounds Hip Hop’ (having been re-branded as ‘Street Sounds Hip Hop Electro’ since March ’86). It’s a major flaw on the part of UK dance historians that the impact and influence of these albums has been largely underplayed and, more often than not, completely omitted.
Street Sounds Electro first 6 in series
Mixing had now gained an unstoppable momentum and, in 1987, a veteran of Wigan Pier and Legend in Manchester, who’d come out of the audience of these clubs and into the DJ booths, making a name for himself as a top-notch turntable manipulator, was crowned ‘DMC World Mixing Champion’ at no less a venue than London’s Royal Albert Hall. Chad Jackson’s coronation, which I was there to witness myself, confirmed that mixing in this country had finally come of age. Jackson wasn’t a one-off either, fellow Brits Cutmaster Swift and CJ Mackintosh were hot on his heels, and there were plenty more readying themselves to step up to the plate.
Acid House was about to kick in and dance culture was soon to explode on a mainstream level, aided and abetted by the catalytic qualities of MDMA. The ensuing Rave scene revolved around uptempo four on the floor rhythms, conducive to beat matching, and now the DJ’s were ready, with those not prepared to make the switch soon to become relics of a bygone age, dinosaur DJ’s in danger of extinction.
The survivors, suffice to say, kept their heads down and their mouths firmly shut.
This piece is dedicated to three of arguably the four main British mixing pioneers, Graham Canter, Froggy and James Hamilton (Ian Levine completes the quartet), all of whom are sadly no longer with us.
© Greg Wilson, 2009