An unlikely country boy who ended up Djiing quite by accident, Parrot and his DJ partner Winston ‘Winni’ Hazel were the musical forces behind Jive Turkey, Sheffield’s influential mid-80’s – early 90’s club night that came to prominence as the Electro-funk sound gave way to US house in the north of England. The crowd he attracted was a disparate group of Sheffield electronic musicians, old soulers, jazzers and black kids checking out venues away from the Black scene at the time. In this email interview, conducted over a number months, I find out more about one of the intriguing figures behind this notable club night.
GW: When were you born and where are you from?
P: I was born in 1963 and grew up on the outskirts of Sheffield, descended from generations of Sheffielders. Sheffield apples don’t tend to roll too far from the tree ha ha! My father was a farm worker, and until I left home and moved into the city, I’d always lived rurally. I was a bit away from things, on the outside looking in – summat that I still feel I’m doing really.
GW: How did you get into music and can you remember which tracks made the earliest impression on you?
P: When we were very young, an older cousin had given me and my sisters all of his records, presumably because when he’d got into his 20’s he decided he was grown up and was ready to move on. How times have changed eh? Anyway, it was all late-50’s / early-60’s stuff. Nowt unusual, big hits. So lots of Elvis, Everlys, ‘The Twist’ (Chubby Checker), ‘Nut Rocker’ (B. Bumble & The Stingers), ‘Raunchy’ (Bill Justis) etc, stopping off at stuff like ‘Baby Love’ (The Supremes). We’d put them on the little plastic Dansette and dance around the front room. Those records gave me a lasting taste for simple, stripped back rhythmic music, the real essence of what pop music should be. Yes, I’ve managed to stay resolutely unsophisticated for 50 years!
In the little village school I went to, just 30 kids in all, me and the 2 other boys my age, that’s what we listened to. Every Friday night there was a youth club in the village hall that catered for kids from 6 to 16, anybody allowed out really. The back room had a tape player, somebody would tape the top 20 every week and we’d dance to the songs we liked, which was anything vaguely Rock and Roll.
When I was 11, my dad got a job on the other side of town and we moved to farm near the poshest part of Sheffield. That coincided with me shifting up to comprehensive school, which was a bit of a culture shock. The posh kids there were into stuff like Camel and Genesis. I’d never even heard of most of it and absolutely detested it all. I still think to this day that when people start sitting down at concerts and studying what the musicians are doing, something deep in the heart of pop music withers and dies.
In my youthful ignorance, the kind of music I liked seemed in short supply. The simple vaguely Rock and Roll, bubblegum glam had all but disappeared from the charts, and I knew nothing of the black dance music scenes that were going on. My first sight of anything to do with Northern Soul were the Wigan dancers on Top Of The Pops for ‘Footsee’ (Wigan’s Chosen Few). All the talk at school the day after was about how they’d danced, but I had no way of contextualising it as a ‘thing’.
There was a Saturday morning TV show called The Geordie Scene, and I can’t remember a thing about it apart from one time when Dr. Feelgood popped up on it. That made me sit up straight and I went out and bought ‘Roxette’.
My first notion of owt happening with Punk Rock came came upon seeing a shock horror story in one of the papers. They’d printed a picture of a youth with short hair, leather jacket and drainpipe jeans – the very antithesis of what the hairy kids into twatty music looked like, so I decided I liked Punk without even hearing a record!
GW: When did you start going out to clubs?
P: In terms of back to basics attitude and energy, I wasn’t disappointed by what I eventually found with Punk, and went to a lot of Punkishly related gigs over the next couple of years. Mainly, these would be staged in nightclubs, so that’d be when I first went in somewhere like that, not to hear a DJ. Punk was initially exciting, but very swiftly got boring. It was about that time that my enthusiasm for Punk started to wane and I became a little confused as to what tribe I was supposed to be in. Luckily, these were good years for youth clubs where a good cross section of stuff would be played. So you’d go out and hear the big Disco and Jazz-Funk records of the day, and up here a lot of Northern Soul. Youth clubs aren’t really places that get mentioned these days as places that spread good music. I guess we’re all too sophisticated now or people just forget, but for me they properly opened my ears to different things.
GW: Only the other day I was talking to my son about how one of the positive aspects of Top Of The Pops was that everybody would watch it, regardless of their personal musical bag – it was a communal experience. I hear what you’re saying about youth clubs, people bringing along their own records and different factions getting their turn. I know a lot of DJ’s started out via youth clubs, and not necessarily because they had a disco there, but because they became the main selectors on the single turntable – the ones whose musical personalities came to the fore in those environments. Could you elaborate a bit on the youth clubs you went to and some of the records that made a particular impression on you from those times?
P: The main one around about where I lived was Dobcroft. Running since the 60’s, I think it may have even won some kind of award as ‘Best Youth Club In Britain’ at one point. Anyway, it was the usual school hall type setting, one big room with games and two smaller rooms off. The room at the back was full of hairies listening to ‘serious’ music, the room at the front was more about dancing. Mainly for the girls, big Disco tracks, but like you say the different factions got their turns.
So there’d be a section where this giant Punk kid called Tiny would leap around all over the place to whatever he’d brought, maybe a bit of Jazz-Funk for the good dancers, a selection of Northern and so on. The Northern bit was driven by a little group of Soulers centred around a youth called Alan Bex, whose younger brother Andy would later go on to be a bit of a face around the Jazz rooms. Anyway, for a while, him and his gang were Punks, all jumping around with Tiny. Then literally in the space of days they turned into Soulies. One Sunday they were covered in zips, the next they turned up in Spencer’s bags and cap-sleeved T-shirts, hair still with dye in it from the week before. I remember ‘Hallelujah Day’ by the Jackson 5 and Frankie Valli ‘Are You Ready Now’ getting played for them. To be fair, the transformation was so quick, it didn’t give much time for building up a collection of stompers!
Samantha’s was my baptism into nightlife proper, not because I was mad keen into Northern, more because it had the allure of being a nighter and everything that went with that. The club was above The Silver Blades ice skating rink, known as ‘the Skates’. ‘Six Million Steps’ (Rahni Harris & F.L.O.) should have been the theme tune to that place, as it involved climbing about 10 fucking flights of stairs to reach! That added to the sense of anticipation back then, although I’m not sure I could make it up there now! Once inside, it wasn’t what I expected. The crowd weren’t dressed like the Northern Soul stereotype kids in the youth clubs, and the music wasn’t all the oldies I was used to hearing. I can in no way be described as a Northern Souler, or as being on that scene, but it did interest me enough to keep sporadically attending nighters over the next few years. And to start coveting my mate Phil’s copy of Ric Tic relics ha ha!
GW: From what I’ve read, Samantha’s seemed to be closer to the Blackpool Mecca than the Wigan Casino approach – embracing newer music alongside the older rarities.
P: I can’t say anything re Blackpool or Wigan, never having been to either. I do recall my shock on going into Sammy’s for the first time and not seeing the patchwork denim bags and vest brigade, but much trendier kids with wedge haircuts and narrow leg wear. This is a time in history when you really seriously could judge a man by the width of his trousers!
Also, I’m pretty damn sure that EWF were playing as I got to the top of the stairs, which added to my confusion.
GW: What records spring to mind when you recall your nights out there?
P: Titles are a bit of a blur to be honest, I was terrible with that right up until I starting Djing, when I suddenly decided I needed the records. I’d be going to Andy Bex, ‘Who does ‘Out Of Sight’, who does ‘Expand Your Mind’?’ He’d be rolling about laughing at me.
As an aside, and prompted by your probing, I Googled Andy Bex to see if I could track him down. This popped up, some kind of background footage used for Krush on Top Of The Pops:
Bexy is about 2m 17s, followed by Winni with Little Ricky from Foot Patrol. Before that is Nembhard, Derek, Chris and Julie (currently Hayley Cropper’s nurse in Coronation Street). The full vid is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61rFY4VPADE Quite funny, and a bit sad watching it now: I drove a minibus down from Sheffield with a gang of us on, several of whom are no longer around unfortunately, such as my girlfriend of the time Barbara and Kemi, later Kemistry, co-proprietor of Metalheadz. On a lighter note, see if you can spot Graeme Park mincing around with his little hat on!
Having said all that, I did hear ’Seven Day Lover’ (James Fountain) the other day and was transported back up the steps above the ice rink. But even so, my knowledge was pretty pathetic. I hadn’t got a fucking clue about any of it. There’s times even now when I hear a song I like and remember, possibly summat quite well known to lots of folk, and I’ll still not have a clue what the fuck it is. It was lovely in someways to live on a farm and be a bit away from things, but in terms of my musical awareness I think I was about 5 years behind the curve. And possibly still am!
Going to Samantha’s could possibly sound romantic nowadays, even hip, but I can assure you that by the time I got there it certainly wasn’t. I can’t remember the occurrence, but me ending up in there would have been because I was out with a group of people when everything else had finished and someone would know there was a nighter on. So we went there. Right up until the last time I ever went in the mid-80’s, that was the pattern. I am categorically not a Northern Souler, but it’s still the only music I ever learned to dance to ha ha!
Without any main youth tribalistic loyalty, I’d wander around having a look and listen at this and that. Whoever said that “the past is another country” got it bang on. God knows how young people now can contextualise what drove the likes of me back then. My family didn’t have a phone or a car, we lived half an hour’s walk away from the nearest village that was itself a bus ride away from town. I’d set off from home to find my mates, and quite often they’d have fucked off somewhere leaving me on the hunt for summat to do.
Nightclubs would have dress/race restrictions, so if you didn’t match up to what they deemed as suitable, you were forced elsewhere to a place that might just let you in. They shut at 2am in Sheffield (a bit later in London and even earlier in the North East), thus the allure of an all- nighter.
Sunday’s were dead, the paper shops would shut at midday and sometimes after that you wouldn’t see a person or car moving. Thus the allure of an all-dayer. And that’s before you start talking about the struggle to find good music in amongst the shit!
Anyway, I went to a lot of different places in that period just because I couldn’t find my mates. I’d set off thinking I was just going to the pub, and then end up somewhere completely unexpected, either tagging along with kids I vaguely knew or just wandering about on my own, because anything was better than going home to bed. I even ended up in a heavy rock club once, something not to be repeated!
My real musical and clubbing epiphany came from an unlikely source. At the time, I worked as a landscape gardener – my first and last proper job. One of the other lads there was this freaky hippy kid called Sean who was well into drugs, something I was keen to explore but knew very little about. So I’d talk to him about various ways of getting off your head and sometimes go out out after work with him and his gang of beardy weirdies. I think they regarded me as a kind of football hooligan mascot.
So one day we’re at work discussing substances and he pulls this big bag of dried magic mushrooms out and gives them to me. This was 1981. I know that because there were a lot of electronic records about I can date specifically to that year that on mushrooms suddenly sounded really, really good. Especially in nightclubs! It wasn’t that I was unaware of the form, I’d seen various Sheffield synth acts live and heard many records, but hadn’t really differentiated it from other music until the psychedelics opened me mind up. (Ironically, I can’t stand 60’s Psychedelia. Compared to the space and possibilities of electronics, it sounds like speakers blocked with sludge).
Still living on a farm surrounded by fields and moorland, I could pick thousands and thousand of mushies and dry them off, all free. Mushrooms are a bit unusual in that you can’t just keep topping yourself up on them. You have to leave it a couple off days between taking them or they don’t work as well, which can be annoying, but does mean you don’t go on never ending benders. And because you have to ration yourself, a big bag can last a long time. So I’ve got thousands of dried shrooms and all of a sudden there’s all these brilliant dubby electronic records coming out, which sound amazing in nightclubs. 1982 was a very good year!
GW: Was this just something that you and your friends were doing, or was there a wider circle of people taking mushrooms and going out to clubs?
P: For me the mushroom thing was just a case of make it up as you go along. That’s what you had to do. Mushrooms aren’t exactly something you’d associate with Electro are they? But in a back to front, wrong but right way, they worked a treat. Nowadays when there’s so much information and availability, it’s less likely that such happy accidents occur. Then, you just used whatever you could in order to get a result.
Finding out there was literally millions of free drugs right on my doorstep was possibly the only advantage as a teenager of living where I lived. In the Autumn you’d see other kids about in clubs who’d obviously been out picking and indulged, but they’d all go hunting in the well known places and get maybe a few hundred that’d soon be gone. I went out and picked carrier bags full of the fucking things, then dried them so they’d last forever.
GW: Which tracks made a particularly lasting impression on you in this context?
P: Tracks would be the biggies from that period. Rockers Revenge ‘Walking On Sunshine’, D Train ‘You’re The One For Me’, Man Parrish ‘Hip Hop Be Bop’, Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force ‘Planet Rock’, Peech Boys ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’. For a couple of years so many great records had ‘that’ sound. I’ve heard it described in later years as ’82 Funk’, and even though that’s not entirely accurate for some tracks date-wise. Even the synth at the start of ‘The Message’ (Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five) gives me flashbacks. (I still wasn’t part of any scene though, just ghosting around wherever.)
This would be when I started buying records, not obsessively, but buying nonetheless. I had loved 12-inchers since first buying them in the late 70’s, and would always get stuff on 12 if it was available.
GW: Tell us which DJ’s you particularly liked, and why?
P: Ha ha! I’m not big on the cult of the DJ. For me, it’s more about the crowd and the party. You’ve been around. You know that every DJ, no matter how famous or lionised has good nights and, er, less good nights. ‘Cos someone’s good in one space, doesn’t automatically follow that they’ll be good in another. A nice bunch of tunes and a good crowd in an alright space. Why care who’s putting the records on? Maybe if I’d been more of a spotter when I was going out all the time, I could have appreciated someone who selected a particularly rare and good tune. By the time my antenna was suitably attuned I’d more or less stopped going out. And when I did go out, I’d just end up standing next to the fucking DJ.
There was a guy called Disco John, who stood out a bit from the rest because he dressed okay and played good stuff. Originally from Manchester, he ended up back over there doing the Hacienda about the same time as Hewan Clarke.
GW: Disco John – that would have been John Tracy, who started out in Sheffield.
P: Yeah, changed his name. Maybe thought ‘Disco John’ was a bit light hearted. Good DJ, seemingly written out of history.
In the early 80’s, Richard Searling had a show on Radio Hallam, a local commercial station, and I’d listen to that. Not out of any loyalty to him, just because it was the only place radio-wise where you might hear something. For that reason, I always associate records like Circles and Tossing and Turning with Saturday teatime! Get back from the football, radio on, fry up, Dr. Who on the telly, get ready to go out…
GW: Did you come across a Sheffield DJ called Pete Girtley?
P: Hmm, was he the DJ at Dollars? I never went there annoyingly, though it was very popular and attracted a crowd from far and wide. About that period, there was a dayer almost every Sunday at a venue called Tiffany’s.
GW: What led up to Jive Turkey starting?
P: In 1984, aged 21, I packed my first and last proper job in. That summer, a group of my close friends had taken off to Europe and were scratching around the Med. Not being much of a traveller I’d not fancied it, I stayed in Sheffield as a landscape gardener, but after a couple of months of them being away I had a “fuck me, what am I doing?” type moment. So I walked out of the job, went on the dole and decided that my new state-funded career involved going out. Every night. It was great for a few months, but unfortunately on nights when options were restricted to staying in Sheffield, I’d usually end up in the Limit or the Leadmill by default. (They had no dress restrictions.)
After about a year of that, it really did feel like the only way to get a different sort of club was to actively instigate it. I think if I’d not done that 12 months of properly caning it, I’d not have got as frustrated with what was on offer. There had been a little moment in Sheffield when the energy of Punk and Post Punk had catapulted a few bands to stardom, either (eventually) mainstream like The Human League, ABC or Heaven 17, or underground like Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA. A few years later that had dissipated and what was left were the ‘not-quite-good-enoughs’, ‘never weres’ and wannabes, many of whom were very happy with the status quo and saw no reason why things should be any different. I hadn’t been part of any band or nightclub cliques in the heady late 70’s early 80’s period of Sheffield music, so had nothing to lose by attempting to change the record(s).
GW: How did you start Djing yourself?
P: There was a small group of us in Sheffield in the mid 80’s who were very bored with what was on offer, and it seemed like a good idea to try and start something that could cater for like minds.
The first night of the Jive Turkey was the first time I’d ever been in a DJ booth and it was actually a little raised up boothy thing on the edge of the dance floor, which I was thankful for. At ‘specialist’ nights, it wasn’t unusual to see the DJ perched on a stool or chair behind the decks. Wouldn’t get that these days would you? (Now I’m getting on bit, I quite like the idea. Maybe with a cushion on it!) Anyway, Citronic 2-speed, thoughtfully suspended from the ceiling so at least they didn’t jump. Much.
Originally, the two other lads I did the club with said they’d do a bit of DJing, but then on the first night they stayed downstairs on the door all night leaving me to muddle through. It felt like I was pretty terrible at it to be honest, but people must have been desperate enough to indulge my learning curve, because the night steadily managed to gain ground. Maybe I’m being harsh on myself because I found the initial experience so unpleasant, but I suspect it was a right mess for a good few weeks. Maybe even years ha ha! One thing I will say for myself is that I jumped in with both feet, and properly got involved with obtaining records. Being a Dance / Black music DJ back then was fucking expensive. You needed to spend and most likely travel to get the goods, which I was willing to do. It’s entirely possible that the only reason me and Winni had our little moment in Sheffield was because we were the ones that would put ourselves on the line and really do it.
GW: What year was this when you started Jive Turkey?
P: Autumn 1985. Accidentally the right time for House Music.
GW: Where was it held and what night of the week?
P: Mona Lisa’s, a tiny backdoor club, on Saturdays.
GW: When did it really take off?
P: Ha ha, ‘take off’ kind of implies something spectacular and rocket-like… it just sort of crept up the wall, like a lonely slug.
GW: How long did Jive Turkey run for?
P: 7 years in various guises, long enough to see the clubbing landscape almost totally change. Unusually, the music that we were most closely associated with, House, had a double life. Styles usually come and go quite quickly, a year or two and people move on, maybe leaving a few stragglers behind. With House, you had its initial couple of years. Then just as it seemed to be going off the boil, the E phase kicked in.
In addition to ecstasy, there were records coming out giving a UK take on the sound. [A Guy Called] Gerald, Unique 3, Nightmares, Ital Rockers, Forgemasters. People from the footing period of House were releasing tunes – tunes that still echo down through British Dance Music to this day.
Prior to the mid 80’s it could be quite hard and expensive to make dance music and get it recorded. You’d have to be buying instruments, learning how to play, forming a band, practising, rehearsing, gigging, and then hopefully get signed. All of a sudden there’s these brilliant American tunes that sound as if somebody’s got an old synth and a drumbox, and recorded it in the bedroom. Dancers and DJ’s are hearing these sounds and goin, “Fucking hell! I can do that!” Proper Punk Disco.
That was one of the best things about the early House records that came over the water, they’d got that energy music has in it’s infancy. Kids making sounds for themselves and their friends, scarcely believing that it would get pressed up.
GW: How did you meet Winston Hazel?
P: I’d seen Winni about a lot during the Electro period. He was in a b-boying crew called Smak 19 that would pop up all over the place, and you’d also see him looking about seven foot tall spinning around town on his roller skates. Being a bit of a shy country boy, I’m not very likely to speak unless spoken to, so we’d never actually exchanged pleasantries. In ’85 he was playing alongside Derby’s Simon Smith in a venue called Turn Ups. I’d go there sometimes, and one night got into a spot of bother. Winni shot out and intervened, pulling me over to the booth. After that, we would chat when we saw each other around record shops etc., and when the Jive Turkey started he’d come down with his gang. I’m not exactly sure when we started Djiing together, sometime in ’86 I should think.
GW: Was he already Djing?
P: Winston was probably Djing on the first day he fell out of the fanny, trying to plug his umbilical cord into the nearest available disco mixer. I’ve seen him quite happily play to an empty room, just to hear the tunes loud.
GW: Were you aware of other DJ’s outside of Sheffield who were taking a similar musical direction?
P: From my bored perspective in 1985 Sheffield, it seemed like every other town had something going on. By that time, I’d done plenty of traveling about to clubs in London and various other towns. You had to in order to experience the music. Nothing on the radio in Sheffield other than Searling, and you’d not be hearing Hashim or Paul Scott on that show. No internet or books to learn from, you had to put the hours in and get going out. Most of those trips are a blur to me now, I can’t recall much if I’m honest. The stuff I remember most is where things weren’t perhaps what you expected. The cold, empty, echoing Hacienda, the intensity of the upstairs room in the Electric Ballroom, the smallness of the Beat Route. Nottingham Garage, mainly from the shock of finding Parky’s room in there ha ha!
I wasn’t very good with individual DJ names, and still no better really. I was aware of Colin Curtis up here and some of the others of that scene, the ones that got the biggest billing on the flyers ha ha! Down South, the so-called Soul Mafia lot had done a good job of turning themselves into personalities, but London-wise, the nights where people like Jay Strongman or Dave Dorrell were playing were far more interesting. These were the years of iD and The Face, and you’d get people writing about clubs in New York. There might be pictures of the DJ’s who’d previously just been names on record labels.
Anyway, records. I was progressively getting less ignorant by the time I started, at least in terms of current 12”s. So I had stuff like ‘Set It Off’ (Strafe), ‘Under Mi Sleng Teng’ (Wayne Smith), ‘Music Is The Key’ (JM Silk), ‘Rock The Bells’ (LL Cool J) etc. that I would play alongside random bits of Northern, Jazz, Cabs, Electro and Disco. The first few months are a bit hazy, the things I remember are associations between certain characters and songs. Andy Bex asking why I was playing Hi-NRG when I first dropped ‘Jack’n The House’ (Farley Jackmaster Funk) and then getting in a right sweat footing to it the week after.
One guy, a really good dancer, would always ask for ‘Spanish Hustle’ (Fatback Band) at the end of the night. Another chap loved The Montclairs, and would get teary eyed when I played ‘Hung Up On Your Love’. Then you’d have pests like this suit wearer, always really pissed, he’d come up wanting Talking Heads all the time. Talking Heads you could hear at any ‘alt’ club or student disco, so I’d put on The Staples Singers’ version of ‘Slippery People’. Back he’d come, arms flailing, beer and spit flying everywhere: “Thish ish not fookin’ Talkin’ Headsh!” Happened every week.
The first nights in there, we maybe got a hundred or so people. A proportion were confused-looking Indie types who’d get quite agitated that there was none of what musically they termed ‘alternative’. They tended not come back, at least not for a few years. The small hardcore who’d be there every week were a disparate bunch: Sheffield electronic musicians, old soulers, jazzers, black kids who were happy to move off the ‘scene’. Sometimes just randoms who’d wandered in, liked the vibe and stuck around. It was a place for the musically and sartorially dispossessed.
GW: Why did it come to an end, and how did you feel about that?
P: It died a natural death. Me, Winni and the original crowd were all teens/early twenties when it started. By the time you get to thirty there’s a new young crowd who can’t wait to get you out of the way and do their own thing. Well, that’s the way it used to be anyway. These days the undead never seem to realise it’s time to shut up. Disco Zombies walk the earth in 4/4 time, round and round forever, stuck in the same old groove.
We’d gone back into our original venue in 88. It had been taken over by a big leisure group and renamed ‘Occasions’ – they were pitching it as a weddings and birthdays hire spot. Samantha’s went that way, by the first time I went the club was called Stars and the Sam’s nights were only intermittent.
Anyway, we convinced the new owners to let us have it on a trial basis and ended up spending 4 years in there. The place had been totally bottomed out, all the old 70’s interior had gone. Seemed bigger, it was very spartan. There was a large broom cupboard that had a shelf suspended on a supporting wall, perfect for a couple of nicked paving slabs with decks on top. So that’s where we played, now and again sticking our heads into the main room to see what was going on. Luckily, this utilitarian DJ den was big enough to become a hang out in its own right, lots of ne’er-do-wells popping in for a chat etc.
A couple of years into that spell, another cupboard was made into a proper booth with a window looking out over the club. Maybe it was just the crowd changing, but I remember the homemade space as being more fun! I had a Friday night thing that I did in there, just playing old stuff. I made a rule that I wouldn’t play anything new, so the old records wouldn’t be thrown into any unflattering relief by more modern productions. It was good, I’d play maybe a Sly track that people knew, then fuck everybody up with a mad Headhunters track or 15 minutes of Rare Earth. The night never approached the numbers of the Saturday (which sometimes had as many as a thousand stuffed in), but ticked along with a nice mellow crowd. That was something I should probably have carried on with, though me being me, I decided it was all or nothing and my DJing career was over.
Anyway, packing it in at that time felt right, things had changed and there wasn’t the same room for oddballs like me and Winn. The racially mixed-up scene in Sheffield was over. I think we’d naively thought that once people had broken down the barriers, that was it, it’d be like that forever. But then all the rules and separations reappeared, how you were supposed to dress, where you should go, what the DJ should play. The little moment of adventure was passed, and the music became commodified.
Luckily, our thing finished before the traveling circus of superstar DJs started. We were spared the pressure to host a procession of large-mouthed gak heads who’d maybe managed to get their name on a big record. Or worse, some large-mouthed gak heads who maybe just knew somebody who’d got their name on a big record. I never understood all that. My take on nightclubs was that the dancers were the stars, the DJ’s just facilitators. Possibly the Superstar DJ era was just a reflection of a less musically sophisticated crowd, happy to take recommendations about what they should and shouldn’t like. The traveling guest spot DJ does make more sense to me now that we’re in the contracted world of the internet, but back then it just seemed to be another sign of off-the-shelf commodification, an ironing out of regional quirks and differences.
GW: How did you relationship with Winston change over that period of time? Are you still friends today?
P: Still in touch and very much friends. We always got on, just a pair of daft enthusiasts who enjoyed going out dancing and wanted to spread the music. Winn’s a little bit younger than me, not carrying as much pre-Jazz Funk baggage. He was properly a part of what was going on then, where as I’d never been truly on the scene. I was just a tourist up to the start of the Jive Turkey, looking on from the sidelines.
Winston was a true Futurist. And I don’t mean some kind of Black Numanoid with eyeliner and a lop sided haircut. He was like a Funk Marinetti, he wanted to get to the future as quickly as possible. Took stick from some quarters on the Black scene for it as well, not everyone was as desperate to move forward. There were people who thought House was too “white”. Amusingly, I got stick from a different part of the crowd who complained it was too “black”! One girl would come up every week in order to tell me “we’re not in fuckin’ New York y’know”.
I can’t remember when we actually started DJing together. He would come to the club every week, and at some point I must have invited him to play. By early ’86, House would have been the dominant soundtrack and he fitted seamlessly in. Most of our time playing together would be spent laughing at something or other, we didn’t take ourselves too seriously, just a pair of daft fuckers.
GW: What did you do afterwards?
P: I decided to concentrate on the making of music. Very foolish really considering what was happening with nightclubs and DJing. Things were wide open for DJ’s, promoters, and the cocaine confident to start making proper money. Unfortunately I’m really hard to motivate when I loose interest in summat, and I’d little interest in clubs at that point. It felt like all the people you’d spent your nights desperately trying to get away from were all of a sudden involved in House. I’d be stood at a record counter surrounded by these really straight kids who were like the Ritzy club or mobile jocks of years gone by. And now they were House Music DJ’s. It made me want to turn left, to not be involved with what they were into.
Alongside the straight invasion, the Hardcore thing was in full effect, kind of like the bastard child of our bass and bleep phase. That recognition, the realisation that it was something we’d partly given birth to, revolted me a bit more than was necessary. There were a few records from that period I really liked, ‘Some Justice’ (Urban Shakedown) was one, and the Nicolette records on Shut Up And Dance, but in general I couldn’t stand it. The penny only dropped when the first true Junglist tunes started coming through.
’94/’95 with Jungle was like ’85/’86 with House, you couldn’t wait to get to the record shop to see what had come in. The first flush of sounds on a scene, where people are alive and experimenting and one track can turn everything inside out.
As far as getting involved in anything, even just at the level of going out to dance, I never got back my enthusiasm for nightclubs. In that 90’s period, I could possibly be tempted down into a dark cellar to hear Pipes and Winni Djing. Or maybe on to a coach going to the Electric Chair in Manchester, which was a bit like a Sheffielder’s home from home for a while (Luke Unabomber, a Jive Turkey regular, was one of the residents).
GW: What were the highlights and lowlights of the night?
P: Lowlights would be things like The City Hall limping on after the council strictly enforced the numbers allowed in. Or ‘Occasions’ when it had lost its mojo. When things are barely alive, but drag themselves along somehow, when a bullet in the head would be a kindness. There was nothing we could do about the City Hall, it went from great to grim in one fell swoop. The space was too big, 600 people was nowhere near enough to keep the vibe it’d had with more than twice that amount.
With Occasions, things changed over a much longer period of time, starting with the black girls. The original crowd had slowly melted away, to be replaced by young pilled-up white lads. Our playing style lost its adventurous fun and fluidity, the music coagulated into blocks, with most of the kids just wanting big uptempo tunes. And ultimately, what they really wanted were the giddy Rave records we didn’t play, but were by that point being heard in other Sheffield venues.
Obvious high points would be the things me and Winn are most remembered for. The City Hall in 1987 when it caught a moment at the end of the Dayer scene. Occasions in the first couple of years: bleeps, bass, breaks and heavy street soul. Less obviously, although (or maybe because) I don’t remember much about specific nights, the early months in ’85/’86 have a charm for me. If I’d known more about Djing before we started I never would’ve gone near the decks, it was only ignorance that made me suppose I had the records to do it. I’d really like some of that naive can-do spirit back, and the few hundred odds, sods and misshapes that made up the crowd. Maybe that innocence is something that can never come back now that dance music is so thoroughly investigated. Nobody has to make do and mend anymore, or is forced to simply make things up as they go along. What chance is there now for a happy accident or two?
It used to really annoy me in the 90’s when you’d get, say Mixmag, doing “Best Dance Music Ever” type charts, and they’d start from 1988. But for so many people that’s where it really did start. Not just youngsters either. Prior to E arriving people who liked ‘Guitar Music’ tended to look down their noses at Soul and Black Music in general. Then with Acid House , Madchester and wotnot, you’ve got thousands of folk arriving who’ve no regard for Soul at all. For them, everything really did start with an E.
Before that happened, almost without fail, for DJ’s and dancers at Dance Music clubs, the starting point was a taste for Soul. Younger people coming on the scene would be aware that they were joining something that had a rich history. When I first started playing, I’d often bump into Dave Godin around town (he worked for Sheffield City Council). In between slagging the Council off, he’d impart some wisdom about Soul Music and I’d be thinking, wow, Dave Godin. Or I remember being sat with blokes who were arguing about which was best, the Mojo or the Wheel (King Mojo in Sheffield and Twisted Wheel in Manchester – key Soul music venues of the 60’s). They seemed really old with these reservoirs of ancient wisdom, though they were probably all under 40 ha ha! Or Colin Curtis telling me about crawling through the bog window at the Torch (legendary Stoke-On-Trebt Soul venue). Things like that seemed to root people so deep in the music, you’d be very conscious that you were just a newbie in a long line of British kids into Black Music.
The sheer weight of numbers arriving with Ecstasy really did fracture the bedrock of Dance Music in the UK, at least in the North. The emphasis slowly started moving in a more “gig” style direction, attention focused away from the floor and onto the DJ. The DJ’s responded by putting on a “show”, getting to the point where they’re now often moving about more than the crowd. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s behind the decks, the organ grinder or the fucking monkey.
It’s interesting, though sometimes a little depressing, how large crowds getting into a form of music can take take it on a journey away from what it was initially. Viewed from the perspective of a dancer in 1985, House/Garage was a combination of uptempo Black Music and electronics. Two or three years later, many more people are arriving in clubs who have no way of contextualising what they’re hearing, essentially they’re starting from scratch.
You can see how things change by looking at something like Heavy Rock. It starts off as essentially an amped up version of Rock’n’Roll/Blues, but many of its younger audience have no interest in its roots, they view it as a wholly new thing. Each new crowd that arrive take it a step away from how it started, and 25/30 years later you’ve got some guy going “RAAAARRRGH” in a Death Metal band.
Which is a bit like the path from House to EDM…
Back to the 80’s, I do understand why it was necessary in London to rebrand House Music as a new thing. With few exceptions, the music had not been welcomed as it had in the Midlands and the North of the country. They really did have to change notions of what was right/wrong in terms of what could be played. We didn’t have the same issues, House being welcomed certainly by many of the younger black crowd. The big thing in London at the time was Rare Groove, which doesn’t mean that House Music wasn’t played, just that it wasn’t the main trend. Conversely, we played bits of Rare Groove up here, but it would be ridiculous to try and claim it was as much a Northern thing as a London thing. Anybody who was going out in both London and up here would have witnessed the difference in styles, it wasn’t hard to see or hear. I can only guess that the people who now refuse to acknowledge that such a split existed never went out beyond their own towns. Or maybe never took their heads out of their own arses.
Music in the 80’s, just before House, was going through a really horrible overblown, pompous phase. Big shoulders, big hair, big snares. New Romantic “heroes” had seemed funny and ironic posing around in clubs when they were skint and on the dole. Less amusing a few years later when they were rich and coked up on Top Of The Pops. Add into the mix that recording engineers were using technology to get things sounding really clean, getting rid of all the dirt, the mistakes. Lots of horrible front ended DX7 noises everywhere.
House, Hip Hop (and, in London, Rare Groove) was the deliverance from all that. There seemed a great need at that time to strip all the unnecessary polish away from music. Lose the fat, let people feel the pulse again, the heartbeat. Rick Rubin used to have a saying that sums up ’85/’86 perfectly: “I don’t produce, I reduce.”
Ironically, nearly 30 years later, things have been so reductive for so long I’m now actively trying to put stuff back in, even if it’s only the sound and melody of a human voice.
© Greg Wilson, 2014.