I was asked earlier this year by the Australian based blog Spank! to write about five tracks that had inspired me and, with the proviso that “it could have been many others, but I decided to go with these five”, I spread my selections over a sequence of black music styles spanning a two decade period, from Soul through to House:
Otis Redding ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’
Sixties’ Soul was my first love and Otis Redding my favourite singer. Even at a very young age his voice got right under my skin – my older brother, who, as a Mod at the time, was a big Soul fan, owned a number of Otis’ singles which I’d play when he wasn’t about, including ‘Hard To Handle’, ‘I Can’t Turn You Loose’, ‘Mr Pitiful’, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satifaction’, ‘Shake’, ‘Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)’ and ‘My Girl’.
For some years after I’d been told he’d died (at the incredibly young age of 26 in December 1967). I got fact mixed up with fiction in my youthful naiveté, believing that he’d fallen from the dock of the bay and drowned. This, of course, added to the poignancy of the song for me.
I eventually realised the truth – Otis, along with four members of the brilliant young band, the Bar Kays, died when his plane crashed into Lake Monona in Wisconsin. ‘(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay’ was a track Otis never heard completed. Co-writer and producer Steve Cropper, of Booker T & The MG’s, finished it off following his death. It went on to become his biggest hit and the first posthumous number 1 in US chart history. It marked a musical departure for Otis, following on from his experience at the Monteray Pop Festival earlier in the year, where his memorable live performance was acclaimed by the hippie audience. This new direction he was moving in was further inspired by The Beatles’ ‘Sgt Peppers’ album, which, as with countless others that ‘summer of love’, had hardly left his turntable. We can only guess at what wonderful music would have resulted had his life not come to such a drastic halt.
Even now when I listen to ‘Dock Of The Bay’ it touches me deeply, especially, for some reason, the line “I can’t do what ten people tell me to do”. A truly iconic single, which will always live in my heart.
Banbarra ‘Shack Up’
This was a big track in the clubs back in 1976, not long after I started out as a DJ. Local heroes like Les Spaine, the resident at the Timepiece in Liverpool, and Terry Lennaine, who presented the Soul show on the local BBC station, Radio Merseyside, played this as an import 7”, before it filtered down to other DJs, like myself.
It was a Funk classic, which would later be lauded in Hip Hop circles for its much sampled breakbeats, but it always puzzled me that there’d never been a follow-up to this remarkable record. How can someone make such a brilliant single, then never release anything else? It didn’t add up.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I finally found my answer. Martin Moscrop of the Manchester band A Certain Ratio, who’d covered ‘Shack Up’ in the early ’80s, exposing it to a new audience of indie kids, told me that he had a contact for the publishing company that owned the rights to the song. I followed up the lead and managed to uncover a tragic tale of what could have been, which I would write up as an article for Wax Poetics magazine titled ‘Banbarra Unmasked’ (the name Banbarra, as I learned, coming from a type of African mask).
To cut a long story short, it was the age old account of money grabbing deceit. The single resulted in an album deal, but a shifty manager walked off with the cash and the whole project disintegrated before it had barely started. Various people connected directly and indirectly to the recording went on to forge successful careers in the music industry, but the name of the drummer, the man behind one of the most legendary drum-breaks funk has served up, remains a totally mystery to this day!
Some secrets are perhaps meant to remain buried.
Sylvester ‘You Make Me Feel Mighty Real’
A classic Disco tune that was released in 1978, during my time at the Golden Guinea in New Brighton. However, it’s the connection to another DJ, Paul Rae, that always springs to mind whenever I hear/think of this track.
I’d met Paul during my first short stint as an international DJ, working in a Norwegian town called Skien that year. He was staying with another DJ called Nicky Flavell, who was working in the same town that month (Paul was between gigs). It was as a result of meeting Nicky that, as fate would have it, I ended up working at the two clubs I’m most associated with – Wigan Pier and Legend in Manchester (but that’s another tale for another time).
Anyhow, fast forward to 1981. Paul Rae is now one of the residents at Legend and on the Thursday night the club is launching what was then known as a Futurist night, featuring indie and alternative music. These nights grew out of what were previously called Roxy/Bowie nights – where records by artists like Iggy Pop, Velvet Undeground, Kraftwerk, early Human League and others were played alongside a whole heap of David Bowie and Roxy Music tracks that wouldn’t have featured on a normal club night. The Futurist scene really gained momentum during the New Romantic period in the early ’80s and Thursday at Legend would become one of the leading nights in the country.
The catalyst for this was a personal appearance from one of the leading lights of the Punk movement, Siouxie & The Banshees, who happened to be in Manchester playing a Thursday night gig. The management of Legend had slipped them 500 quid just to turn up at the club afterwards and say a quick hello over the microphone. Word spread quickly that Siouxie was heading to Legend, and it had the desired effect, the club was soon packed – it had proved to be a brilliant piece of promotion that would reap dividends well into the future.
As DJ, Paul decided that the best thing to do was to ask the band to name a track each that they wanted him to play, then get them up behind the DJ booth, pass a few pleasantries, and have them announce what it was.
This all went swimmingly, until it was Siouxie’s turn. With all eyes on her, a gushing Paul, delighted to have her in the club, started to say how wonderful it was that she was there, but he hadn’t bargained on her response. Abruptly stopping him in his tracks, she cuttingly told him to ‘shut the fuck up and play the record’.
It was his most embarrassing moment in his entire DJ career – the record, of course, being ‘You Make Me Feel Mighty Real’ by Sylvester.
Grandmaster & Melle Mel ‘White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)’
I was with Kermit, then a breakdancer with Broken Glass, later of the Ruthless Rap Assassins (who I managed and produced) and Black Grape (who went on to have a number 1 album and a string of hit singles), when I first heard ‘White Lines’ back in 1983. It had just arrived on import and we looked at each other flabbergasted – ‘what the fuck is this!’.
Even by Electro’s leftfield standards this was leftfield, totally unlike anything we’d heard before, or since for that matter – a truly unique record. It soon became the biggest floorfiller on my nights at Legend, where I was playing to a predominantly black crowd who were as cutting-edge as they came.
Some time later it was issued in the UK, but failed to achieve anything more than a minor chart placing, before completely vanishing off the chart radar. It was obviously too extreme for mainstream tastes.
It was massive though at Legend and Wigan Pier, and I was also playing it at The Hacienda, where I’d started my Friday residency. Then, slowly but surely, other DJs started picking up on it and a strange thing was to happen. After I’d stopped deejaying in 1984 the record re-appeared on the UK chart and, bit by bit, edged its way upwards, until it eventually cracked the Top 10. It would go on to enjoy a remarkable chart span, lasting over a year, and become the type of track that could be played anywhere, anytime, to a great response.
But it was all from small acorns – this was never nailed on to be a hit, as its early chart failure proved. Had it not been for the black crowd and the upfront nights they attended ‘White Lines’ might nowadays be regarded as a cult track, but not a pop classic.
I know I had a hand in breaking a number of records during my time at Legend and the Pier, but ‘White Lines’ is the one that probably gives me the most satisfaction.
FPI Project ‘Rich In Paradise’
Six years on and I’ve stood in an alcove in The Hacienda. I’m with Kermit again (now a Rap Assassin) and it’s the height of the Rave era. I’m up from London, where I lived at the time, so, unlike Kermit, I don’t get to The Hacienda too often these days.
Everyone’s ‘on one’ and the club is buzzing big time. Suddenly I hear this piano breakdown, and as I’m talking to Kermit I see him raise his hand. I then notice that everyone in the alcove also have their hands raised, as do those stood nearby. I turn my head to the dancefloor and see that everybody is saluting the moment – a communal show of strength that announced ‘we are here together now’.
The record playing is an instrumental Italian 12”, ‘Rich In Paradise’ by the FPI Project. The reason it’s instantly recognizable to me, even though I hadn’t heard it before, is because it’s a version of ‘Going Back To My Roots’, originally by Lamont Dozier, a track I was playing over a decade earlier at the Golden Guinea. A cover by Richie Havens, which was a massive Jazz-Funk tune during my Wigan Pier days, would be the inspiration for this new house variant. Apparently some Balearic DJs had claimed the Richie Havens version as their discovery, obviously unaware that the black scene had got there first many years before (it had even be issued as a DJ-only promo in the early ’80s alongside the Lamont Dozier original, the parent company, WEA, owning both recordings). Most of the people on The Hacienda dancefloor that night had first heard ‘Going Back To My Roots’ via the poppier Odyssey version, a UK hit in 1981 – it was a track that connected to us all in one way or another.
As I once said elsewhere: “It was the most unifying moment I’ve ever experienced in a club and, although I witnessed similar sights subsequently, everything that followed seemed to be just chasing shadows, trying to re-capture something that was no longer there, at least not in its purest form”.
That incredible loved-up Hacienda vibe would, alas, soon be a thing of the past as the wolves moved in, exploiting the ever-growing market for ecstasy, and introducing guns and violence into what was previously a haven of happy smiling faces. The mood soon changed and although the party continued, it was never the same. I’m just so glad I was fortunate enough to experience it before things went sour, when we really were rich in paradise for that moment in time.