Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry!
Following on from February’s post about the extraordinarily ill-conceived Haçienda DJ Booth (original side of stage location), I’ve since found out something that takes the entire bungling tale, as slapstick as it already was, into a whole new realm of ineptitude!
Before I go any further I should link the original piece for those who haven’t read it – to get the full weight of what I’m about to disclose you’ll need to check out the photo of the booth from hell, paying particular attention to what I described as ‘the infamous Akwil Digitheque mixer…the bane of my life’:
For close on 3 decades, whenever I’ve discussed the predicament I found myself in during my time as Friday night resident at The Haçienda in the latter part of 1983, I’ve cursed the designers of that damned mixer for making it impossible for me to measure up to the reputation I’d acquired, via my mixes on Piccadilly Radio, as well as at Legend and Wigan Pier, as one of the UK’s leading ‘mixing DJs’ – I know a bad workman always blames his tools, but, come on, you only need look at the photo to understand exactly what I’m talking about. It was an absolute nightmare to use.
People here in the UK generally had no idea of what was necessary for a DJ to properly mix records back then. Earlier in 1983, when I’d appeared on ‘The Tube’, to demonstrate mixing for the first time on British TV, the show’s presenter, Jools Holland, had asked me to point out what a turntable was, for the benefit of ‘people who don’t know what a turntable is’ (a record player then being the commonly used name) – and this was a much revered cutting-edge music programme. You can view the clip here:
In 2009 I wrote an in-depth article about the evolution of mixing in the UK, which, whilst obviously inspired by, was distinct to what had happened in New York. In the early ’80s, only a small minority of British DJs had placed the emphasis on mixing, the overwhelming majority still microphone based in their presentation – hence the title of the piece, ‘How The Talking Stopped – The UK ‘s Microphone To Mix Metamorphosis’:
One of those British mixing pioneers, Froggy, had helped design the Matamp Supanova, which was what I’d bought at the end of 1982, when setting up my home DJ studio, where I recorded my radio mixes for Piccadilly in Manchester from this point onwards. It was the Matamp that I’d used on ‘The Tube’, and this is what I was suggesting The Haçienda invested in to help make my job more bearable, but my pleas, of course, fell on deaf ears.
Not long after I started my nights at The Haçienda, a recently launched magazine called Disco Mix Mag (later to become the major DJ publication, Mixmag) ran a piece I’d written titled ‘The DJ Of A New Breed’, in which I outlined my belief that a shift towards a more New York based approach to deejaying, with mixing coming increasingly to the fore, was now inevitable. Yet, despite championing this new direction, I was unable to practice what I was preaching at The Haçienda, where anybody wanting to hear this new-fangled mixing in full effect would no doubt have wondered what all the fuss was about as I awkwardly attempted to make the unworkable work, whilst wishing pestilence and plague on the creator of this Digitheque anti-mixer.
I’d have gone on forever harbouring this ill feeling for some faceless electrical boffin who’d strayed into the world of the DJ without having a clue about the practicalities of deejaying, as was evident from this totally unfacile piece of kit I was cursed with having to use. However, due to some new information that’s now come to light, delivered straight from the horse’s mouth, a big apology to the manufacturers is in order. Having seen the previous blog post, and had a good laugh in the process, they’ve been able to set finally the record straight, adding an unexpected twist that takes the whole tale to new calamitous depths.
I’ve now found out that the Digitheque, which also doubled up as a sound to light controller, was never intended as a hands-on DJ mixer, but part of a dual unit in combination with the Disco V (pronounced Disco Five), which was exactly the piece of kit I needed, crossfader and all (the 2 units linked via an Aux In on the Digitheque). The problem being that The Haçienda’s management had completely missed the relevance of the Disco V and, incredibly, didn’t bother installing it, leaving the DJs to work with what amounted to half a mixer – unfortunately for me the half that wasn’t suitable for mixing with.
As I mentioned in the previous piece, the Haçienda’s manager at the time, Howard ‘Ginger’ Jones, would site the fact that there were only 2 of these mixers in existence as some kind of endorsement of their quality, whenever I complained about its impracticality. The Digiteque didn’t come cheap at around £1000 – so learning that it would only have cost an additional measly £40 for the Disco V only adds insult to injury, especially now I’ve learnt that 3 of these units were installed across town, at another Manchester club of the era, Placemate 7. Akwil mainman, Eddie Akka, told us that Haçienda owner, Tony Wilson, was really into the aesthetic of an all-digital mixer, so the Disco V with its faders was, as a consequence, deemed antiquated and unnecessary – only problem being that Tony Wilson, as visionary as he sometimes was, obviously didn’t have a clue about the rudiments of mixing one record into the next. Akka explained that the Haçienda management listened to the architects more than the sound and lighting advisors, resulting in big mistakes that were never fully rectified in all the years the club was running. Bands, not DJs were very much the club’s priority when they opened – either that or somebody had a particularly masochistic streak towards DJs. Apart from the mixer debacle, as Akka agreed, ‘the whole idea of the DJ being in a separate room was ridiculous!’
The owners of The Haçienda may have been over to New York, and clubs like Danceteria, the Funhouse and the Paradise Garage, and had the high idea of transferring the NY vibe they’d witnessed to Manchester, but they completely flunked out when it came to enabling their DJs to set about this task – they actually hindered, rather than helped them. Had Mark Kamins, ‘Jellybean’ Benitez or Larry Levan, the DJs associated with these key NYC clubs, and my transatlantic contemporaries back then, walked into the Haçienda DJ booth at this point in time they’d have thought they’d landed on another planet, let alone in another country.
Legend, where I played every Wednesday would have been much more to their liking, set up, as it was, with the DJ centre stage, and with sound and lighting that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Big Apple itself. The sheer frustration of working in this ideal DJ environment on a Wednesday night, then having to endure the madness of a Friday at The Haçienda, hid away inside that room, is something I’ve never fully shaken off. Nowadays, no matter where I go in the world, people will want to talk to me about The Haçienda, expecting me to wax lyrical about the greatest DJ experiences of my life, but the reality is that my overwhelming impression from my time there is of one big struggle – it certainly took its toll on me. Manchester’s City Life Magazine would write in their review of 1983; ‘Greg Wilson’s faith in New York’s mind hammering electro-beat was confirmed with both growing crowds and colour supplement coverage. Though interestingly, the sound flopped in the vast chasms of The Haçienda. Is this why he is retiring from DJing to concentrate on record production?’
Maybe this did play a larger part in my retirement than I’ve previously considered, although ultimately there were far greater forces at play, not least the emergence of Hip Hop culture in the UK, and how this brought a new dynamic that would change the existing scene (I go into my main reasons here: http://www.electrofunkroots.co.uk/misc/why_did_i_quit.html). However, hypothetically speaking, had I been given a level playing field at The Haçienda (i.e., with the booth up on the balcony and a mixer I could work with – both improvements later implemented in 1984), it might have provided me with the fresh challenge that was necessary for my love affair with deejaying to continue (whereas it probably facilitated my falling out of love just that bit quicker). There were certainly possibilities, including the proposed DJ exchange that was put to me, where I’d go to New York for a month and work at Danceteria, whilst Mark Kamins came to The Haçienda. That was a scenario that definitely appealed to me, but as fate would have it, it’d be another 22 years before I made my New York debut, and a few years more before I finally got to meet Mark Kamins, who came along to see me DJ at a night I was doing in Vienna, where he lived at the time. Although the exchange idea never transpired, he was invited over for a guest appearance at the club in 1984, and, in doing so, became The Haçienda’s first US guest DJ – something which would become a common occurrence later down the line.
Hewan Clarke, The Haçienda’s original resident, wasn’t a mixing DJ, so the absence of faders was never as big a deal to him as it was for me (although we were in total accord about the need for the DJ booth to be moved to another part of the club). Working at the Haçienda night after night, Hewan soon got used to the quirky digital ‘mixer’ he had to use. It had a certain simplicity – there were 2 buttons to press, one to make a gradual fade from one track to the next, the other providing an instant switch. He was as surprised as me when told about the Disco V, and thought it was hilarious to learn, after all these years, that there was a missing part. He concluded that “the Disco V looks like a modern conventional mixer. It would have certainly made life a lot easier – if only for not having to mix with one hand on the record and the other hand above your head!”
Had The Haçienda not been so slapdash in its earlier days, and instead instantly become a slick well-run ultra-fashionable club, it would never have gone on to acquire the almost mythical status it’s now bestowed with. It’s a victory from the jaws of defeat type tale, which only adds to its overall resonance. So, when all’s said and done, I’m happy to have my played part in the story, despite the personal frustrations I experienced at the time. Given what we now know about The Haçienda, it was pretty much par for the course. Peter Hook’s book title, ‘The Haçienda – How Not To Run A Club’, said it all, and the Disco V fiasco is yet a further illustration of how this world-renowned clubbing institution was born of a mixture high ideals and gross incompetence. You just couldn’t make this stuff up.
I must thank Dan Smith, Hewan Clarke, Andy Akka and Eddie Akka, without whose help I’d have never uncovered this hidden nugget of Haçienda history, which would otherwise have surely been forever lost to the past.
Akwil Products From The ’80s: