Nicky Flavell

Interviewed by Josh Ray 10/08/18

Nicky Flavell


The art of DJing completely shifted during the late ’70s with the unfolding of New York dance culture. Prior to that in the days of selectors using microphones to announce records, English DJs had been a much sought-after commodity in continental Europe and further afield, desired for their ‘authentic delivery’.

Having emerged in the ’70s, Nicky Flavell soon capitalised on the opportunity and was already working across Europe as a teenager, playing upfront music on the swankier side of the nightlife on the continent.

He would be tempted back to the UK as the 1980s approached. His agency offered up some work in Wigan, perhaps not as exotic as what he’d become used to, but the venue, Wigan Pier had just installed a state of the art sound and lighting system that would completely change the boundaries of British nightlife.

Manchester’s highly futuristic Legend soon followed, and Nicky too graced the decks there before handing over the reigns to Greg Wilson. Flavell’s Jazz-Funk selections had perfectly laid the groundwork for the Electro-Funk movement that would help inspire the Acid House explosion that burst out of Manchester to take over the world.

To get some insight into that catalytic time, Josh Ray caught up with Nicky Flavell:

 

JR: Which clubs did you first cut your teeth in?

NF: That’s tricky… It started really in 1972, with a Mobile Disco called ‘The Makkosa Road Show’ (named after Dibango’s 1972 club hit). I’d have been 17 playing Funk and Soul in pubs and social clubs. By 1976 I had already been playing clubs in Europe for a year or so but ‘76 was the year I really “cut my teeth” as it were. At that time I was playing real super clubs in southern Europe Toulouse, Bordeaux, Geneva, Basel, Vienna – all properly cool musically and huge too.

Tiffany's

Tiffany’s in Toulouse was purpose built had a capacity of close on 2000. Magic Club in Vienna was massive too, located in Vienna’s famous Volksgarten it had a giant sliding roof – spinning the likes of Fatback’s ‘Night Fever’ under the stars! Yes that would be the year I cut my teeth, you had to be slick quick and confident to push those dance floors with upfront music all night. Southern Europeans were surprisingly enthusiastic and knowledgable about the music.

JR: When did you first realise English DJs were picking up work around Europe?

NF: 1974, I was working at a club below the Great Western Hotel in Paddington a few doors down from the Cue Club on Praed Street – that would have been my dream to play there, probably the coolest gig in London. I’d saved a few bob and my mate who also worked at the club suggested we go to Oslo and open a clothes shop (Oslo because we had met loads of Norwegian girls at the club in Paddington, which obviously made it a sensible business plan!) No need to bore you with the details, but within weeks we were skint… At the age of 19 that didn’t seem to worry me, I wasn’t DJing at the the time but I had my sounds with me as a back up and a club in the city had asked if I could stand in to cover for their DJ for a night.

This was the night that changed everything. Purely by chance this Irish guy had looked in on the club and heard me playing. At the end of the night he came up to me introduced himself and offered me a job. That was Gerry Coard, boss of Europa International and the job title was ‘International DJ’. 19 years old skint and stuck in Oslo, why the fuck wouldn’t you? That’s how I came to be working Europe, Scandinavia and the rest of the world for a good few years. I never knew how other DJs were recruited, but for around 15 years from the mid seventy’s there was a constant stream of British DJs supplying the world it’s music and the essential ingredient? – the British voice!

I’d say 80% were talented entertainers (Kieth Chegwin / Timmy Mallet types) playing regular Disco / Club Pop. They were ideally suited to the majority of clubs (much like the UK).

Then there were the DJs like myself, not really flamboyant or particularly entertaining, but totally upfront musically. There were enough clubs around the world for everyone. It was the agencies who had the task of getting the right DJs to the right clubs.

JR: Which countries did you work in, and how did the experiences differ to UK clubs?

NF: I guess I worked almost every country in Europe and Scandinavia under the management of Europa Booking, IDEA management  and Scansound, they were the three main agencies for Europe.

Bacchus International and Juliana’s Discoteques covered the rest of the world, and of course Wigan!

JR: Where did you feel most at home musically when you were working abroad?

NF: Musically..? This’ll surprise you – Germany and France equally. The Germans – more so in the South – were, for me hugely receptive toward good Funk and Soul. The French also totally took quality toons for granted too. I always felt very comfortable in their clubs.

JR: Greg Wilson told me that he found 5 DJs in Skien, a small Norwegian city, with 3 of them working the clubs. I’d imagine there’d be a lot more in Oslo. Do you think this had any bearing on the Norwegian Disco producers who’ve risen to prominence more recently?

NF: Yes, I first met Greg around 1978. I immediately admired his balls for taking the leap from the UK (as I had years earlier) as a young teenager. Most impressively in a belt driven 600cc DAF Variomatic car (look it up, young stuff !) I had very few promo records over the years, Greg was the master of obtaining promo stuff.

Initially my dad would send me 7”s from Contempo Records in London and from late ‘75 I also had this guy called Per Vang who flew a jumbo from Copenhagen to New York on  Tuesdays, he’d pick up my order from Downstairs records in Manhattan and have them back to me for Thursday. I’d often drive across a whole country to meet him back in Denmark. This was how I managed to stay upfront musically.

As a side note, in 1978 I was working in Las Palmas with my mate Steve Devonne (Radio Invicta and London electro pioneer) and moaning about the lack of sounds when Per walked into my club with an arm full of music fresh from Downstairs – I couldn’t believe it. The first jumbo to land on the newly extended Las Palmas runway, and he was crew! – result.

Greg though, as a young teen had everything under control – he’d already mastered the art of being on all the promo lists. We drove to Oslo one time and left loaded with promos. Thanks to him I acquired one of my all times – Lenny Williams ‘Love Current’ LP and for free! It was this ability to be driven about music that has got Greg to where he is today I guess.

Lenny Williams 'Love Current'

Norway became very much a loved country for many DJs to visit. Although not great for me as an upfront DJ, the people were great and I was always prepared to tone down the Funk to be there. The single main attraction (as it was for many of the visiting DJs) was the money though. You’d play a few super clubs or 5 star venues around the world on reasonable money then nip up to Norway to line you pockets for a couple of months, they really paid so well!

Did British DJs influence the Norwegians ? – no! Cable TV and independent local Radio took care of that mid ‘80s. When I first arrived in Scandinavia mid ‘70s the TV came on for one hour or so during the evening, it comprised of a news programme followed by a short nature documentary or similar. That was your lot! British DJs were all they had, but limited to night clubs and discos it was never going to create a ground swell. No it was the arrival of modern local radio and cable/MTV etc. that bought a whole new world of influence to countries like Norway.

JR: When Bacchus set up a state of the art sound and lighting system at Wigan Pier, how much of a game-changer was it?

NF: Well Bacchus supplied me, but Julianas did the install. I don’t remember what their relationship was exactly. The Club was to be a showcase the for the worldwide customer base. Club owners and buyers would be flown in from all over, just to see the Pier lighting up the night.

I’d say it was a huge game changer, although coming from the international circuit I couldn’t really make UK comparisons at the time. I new these guys from setting up at clubs in the far east and north America. (I later cancelled a residency at the CN tower in Canada with them, to open Legend in Manchester. They weren’t too happy – we didn’t speak after that.)

The club itself was a phenomena from the get go. The DJ booth was a giant fibreglass frog, high up on a balcony. Inside housed the DJ and light jock. With Technics SL1500 quartz decks, AR monitor speakers a Ferrograph reel to reel and the mixer? Formula sound of course! It was DJ heaven.

Even more impressive was the lighting control which we had front of booth. Mostly everything was touch control, you could live mix the light show doing something different to every track you played (this was pre computer programmable era folks). Comprehensive would be an under statement. Curtains of spots everywhere, effects everywhere, servo motor and chain driven mirror prism’s with neon everywhere and I mean NEON, I live in Soho the home of neon and I’ve never seen that much here! Then we come to the lasers (remember this was all installed late 1979) so for the crowds coming in for the first time, it must have been truly jaw dropping. I’d seen clubs around the world and my jaw still dropped. We would turn the lasers on at midnight, and in those early months it would leave the crowds speechless.

JR: How did the Wigan Pier system compare to the European ones?

NF: Britain (in my mind) had always had shite systems, which is why when a system like the Pier’s arrived it really stood out. I can’t really make comparisons against other UK clubs with any authority, but I knew a lot of hotel clubs in Europe with smaller but high quality systems and quite a few big clubs with equally large sound systems. Trouble with the UK, quality sound was the least important thing for many club owners for a long time sadly. Loud maybe yes, but quality? No sir we can’t help you there.

JR: Can you tell me about the previous Wigan Pier DJ, Kelly? Who was the light controller?

NF: Not really very much I’m afraid. I first met Kelly at the house we were supplied with. He was a real fast talking bloke. It’s funny, at first I though he was saying my name (Nicky) after every sentence just to check I was still with him, actually he was saying “All right OK?” Yes he was a fast talkin’ hyper type and a proper pro’ (DJing for Bacchus was on another level and an extra slickness was required as most of their clubs were premium venues whether 5 star hotels or giant clubs worldwide.) Kelly and I had a few days crossover (as did all Bacchus gigs at this level) Fortunately for me Kelly was ‘on the one’ musically and that made life very easy for me and my own style.

Never once had to drop a bad tune, never played any bad shit. Best of all, month after month, I’d be pushing the envelope with upfront unproven tracks on a weekend and the crowds loved it. Without a DJ like Kelly to follow I’m sure it may have been harder. The owners never interfered with the music -another major plus at any club.

The light Jock was a guy called Lee, I don’t know where they found him and although from London we never really hit it off. On the plus side I was able to play the music AND the lights together without him complaining (he wasn’t really into it at all).

I do remember Kelly travelled the UK with a van full of vinyl and was last known 38 years ago to be heading toward Brighton. I’d love to catch up with him again.

JR: How long did it take you build a scene around the Tuesday night?

NF: Fortunately, with weekends being properly upfront with Soul, Funk & Disco many of the Tuesday crowd were weekend people too. They would be the ones on the floor impressing the coach trippers at the weekend and when ‘Oops Upside Your Head’ came on, they’d be off the floor and off for a piss but back in time for Benny Golson! I don’t remember when it actually became busy. I remember Kelly saying to me “You’ll like Tuesdays, you can do what you like!” So I did, and before I knew it there was talcum powder all over the fucking floor.

It was a big, big night. I’d drive up on the Monday from London. Loaded with vinyl from Groove Records in Soho and City Sounds too, then Tuesday morning into Spin-Inn Manchester in case I’d missed something. Monday night spent finding the killers, Tuesday Jazz Funk at the Pier!

JR: What caused you to leave the club?

NF: Firstly Bacchus vowed to take legal action if I played the Pier after the end of August 1980. I had cancelled a contract with them in Canada starting September and they figured I was planning to stay on at the Pier – you couldn’t really blame them could you? What they didn’t know was that I’d already nominated my mate Greg for the Pier, as I had other plans.

JR: You went on to launch Legend in Manchester in September 1980. The owners wanted to attract a moneyed crowd, similar to the Stringfellow owned ‘Millionaire’ club. Things panned out a little differently though, didn’t they?

NF: Sure did! As early as mid summer of that year the owners of the Pier knew they wanted me in Manchester, to open their new club. They had already one hugely successful club and figured the next one would be just as big, but like I said earlier, the Pier truly was a phenomena, something clicked or fell into place and it was huge straight off. Legend was plush, looked fabulous and the sound system was off the scale. From day one the plan was to be similar to the Pier, club sounds at the weekend and a specialist night midweek. We chose a Wednesday so as to avoid clashing with Tuesdays at the Pier and also because I was hoping to get back to the  Pier on Tuesdays sometime later (Bacchus only had me blocked from the Pier for three months).

JR: How did your Wednesday night at Legend compare to Tuesday at the Pier?

NF: Tuesday? – Jazz-Funk, mostly Jazzy with Funk and Soul thrown in for good measure. Age may be messing with my memory, but I remember Wigan as a 50/50 black white crowd who were all totally dancing all night long, it was real busy and they had the floor on fire right up to closing time – I loved it.

Wednesday? – I had billed it as Jazz-Funk but Legend was heavy on the Funk and Soul closely followed up by the Jazzier side, almost exclusively black kids and it was packed and heaving from day one. During my career I had occasionally gotten a little too tough for the crowd and had to reign myself in before trouble hit, but Legend was unique… NOTHING was too tough or too Funky, and no Jazz was too difficult to dance to at Legend. Never experienced that before and I’ve never experienced it since – unique!

Wigan’s music was not dissimilar to clubs all over the UK at the time, just slightly tailored to my own style. Legend – however? It wasn’t to last, but while it did I’d have classed it as the No.1 gig on the planet.

JR: Is there a particular track that stands out from your time at Legend? – something that brought the best out of the dancefloor.

NF: Locksmith’s ‘Blackjack’ or maybe Earl Klugh with ‘Amazon’.

JR: Was it a disagreement over a change in music policy that caused you to leave Legend?

NF: The owner’s plan never came to fruition. The moneyed crowd never showed up, only in occasional dribs and drabs. It was a membership club and this place was the bomb for every Funk fan for miles around, they all became members straight off. They loved the place and instantly started coming Fridays and Saturdays too. This was not what the management wanted and I was (for the first time ever) asked to change my weekend music policy to attract… shall we say? – ‘different people’.

These were the people who had kept the place floating, they didn’t have much money but they used what they had to keep coming night after night. Without them Legend would never have been Legendary. I’ve never suffered from nerves but the thought doing what the management had requested, had me feeling physically sick and I was dreading what would have been a showdown on the following weekend.

Anyhow, my life has been full of last minute twists and turns. During that week I had a call from a club in Las Palmas. 48 hours later me and my squeeze were on a plane and Legend was minus one DJ and one receptionist! – and we had Christmas on the beach!

JR: What did you do after that?

NF: A couple more years travelling, mostly re-bookings. Eventually we settled back in London where I had never really been involved in the club scene, but DJ Steve Devonne who I first met in 1975 and later shared flats and worked all over Europe with had moved back to London in 1980 and had become heavily involved with the electro scene as well as Radio Invicta. By the way, we were both playing the Spanish Islands ten years before the whole Ibiza thing started together with DJ Cass the Gas from London’s La Valbonne club, Cass was already 50 at that time and didn’t much like British winters either!)

Radio Invicta

So I had a door open to Radio Invicta, broadcasting till its eventual closure. During that time Greg Wilson also re-appeared on my doorstep in London when he became involved with Street Sounds and managing the Ruthless Rap Assassins too. So London was buzzing for a while during the ‘80s – a good place to be.

My old lady was Scandinavian and became homesick towards the end of the ‘80s so we moved to Copenhagen again. After a while I opened my own club, which kept me honest for the next ten years or so – until the building lease ran out, at least.

JR: With the rare groove scene so well established, London seemed to be slower than the North to pick up on electro. Did you come up against any resistance when you were playing it on Radio Invicta?

NF: Me? – no, but then I was hardly prolific. When I first got into Electro I was still working abroad as it kicked off in London.  By the time I got involved with Invicta, Electro was already huge thanks to Herbie Laidley with Max & Dave of Mastermind, Devonne, Steve Walsh and Jazzie B etc. There may have been a little resistance from the established die hard Soul DJs towards the less Soulful Electro sound but eventually everyone came round to the 808… I think if there was any resistance to Electro at all, it was probably from one or two of the old guard black music journalists, but hey fu** ‘em!

For me personally, it’s always been about the groove not the Soul when it comes to the dance floor. I mean no one had more Soul than David Ruffin or the likes of Archie Bell, but it was their groove that made you move – just like Electro.

Back to the root of the question (sorry), unlike the rest of the world – pretty much – in Britain we’ve always attached  a “scene” to most genres of dance  music. You know Punk with mohicans and safety pins, New Wave and its big hair cuts. Hip-Hop and burberry/kangol…. Me? I’d be going to see Desmond Dekker with my Tonic Jacket and stay-press Levis – you get my drift?

I don’t think London Electro had a scene that you could recognise, so to speak, it just seemed to melt into all other black dance music without any big fuss in the South. Mind you, if it should ever have had a dress code these guys had it!

Dolby D & the Sidewalk crew blew my brains when they filmed this demo in Trafalgar Square, I was there that day and couldn’t help feeling like I never ought to try dancing again! I guess if everyone could have danced like that there might have been a London Electro scene?

Upstairs at Ronnie Scott’s was a notable club for Electro as was the Africa Centre with Soul II Soul and I seem to remember Mastermind having a night at the top of Great Portland street. I opened at a new club on St John’s Hill in Clapham around that time, the management suffered a bit of Legenditis. I didn’t last long there, ‘Riot in Lagos’ probably blew it for me!

To be honest I never saw myself as a relevant part of music in the South, I just feel lucky to have had a little bit of the action now and again. Oh shit, look at the time. It’s almost 1986 – where’s my House music!

JR: When you look back at your DJing career, is there a moment in time that stands out?

NF: Legend I guess for all the obvious reasons. Also, and it’s a silly thing… Having Derrick May play in my own club back ‘98ish. I booked him to play an hour from midnight, and he was still on the decks at 5.00am! That’s when I knew I owned a club worth being in.


© Greg Wilson, 2018

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