Saturday, 11 April 2009

Reflections of a Haçienda O.G.

I was scanning some old photographs the other day, and came across my long-lost membership card for the Haçienda (reproduced above for your amusement). This one is the second year membership, from 1983 to 1984. I think they finally stopped issuing membership cards in 1985. The original 82/83 membership, which I also had, was a credit card job in a yellow, black and silver-grey colourway, possibly with some pale blue in there as well - I can't exactly remember. Anyway, although I hung on to it long after it had expired, it eventually broke in half, and went permanently missing years ago. Since it wasn't a photo ID card, it lacks the 80s quiff-action comedy potential of the one above in any event. Just as well, as I suspect my barnet would have looked much worse otherwise. Around then I used to have a combination of a grown-out wedge/flick and what notorious Liverpool FC fanzine The End once famously described as the 'ten-bob haircut'. In my case, this meant a standard-issue short-back-and-sides, with the top and fringe remaining untouched. Pictorial evidence of this still exists, but if you think I'm posting it here...

Needless to say, all this has led to my reminiscing about the many nights I spent at the Haçienda in the pre-Madchester years. The received wisdom seems to be that, prior to the arrival in Manchester of ecstasy and the corresponding rise of acid house, it used to be perpetually empty, but that's not entirely true; far from it, in fact. Certainly, it was often possible to tip up at the Haç at peak time on a Saturday night and walk straight in, to find just a handful of people dotted around the place. Given how vast and cavernous it was, this had the effect of making it all look a bit miserable. Arriving to find it so sparsely attended would usually be followed by a swift decision to hit the bricks, heading a little way back up Whitworth Street to the Venue (later rechristened the State, and once the location of the legendary Northern Soul club The Twisted Wheel) or maybe the Man Alive further out towards Rusholme. Nevertheless, when the Haçienda was rammed and rockin', there was nowhere else I'd have rather been.

Inspired by New York clubs like Danceteria (whose DJ Mark Kamins was an early resident), Area and the Limelight, the Haçienda was generating controversy even before it opened its doors. Initially, it adopted a strict 'members and guests only' policy, which wasn't all that unusual. But what really boiled the piss of a lot of people at the time was the cost of membership. Unlike other Manchester clubs, such as the labyrinthine Pips ('Fennel St, behind the Cathedral') where annual membership was something like £1.50, the Haçienda charged £5.15 (rising to £5.51 the following year). Now bear in mind this was 1982, when the riots in Brixton, St. Pauls, Toxteth and Moss Side were still fresh in the memory. At the very point when Thatcherism was beginning to bite, the idea that people should have to pay such an extortionate amount, simply to be able to gain admission to a nightclub, was considered outrageous. Leading the charge was the vinegary, irreverent and often hilarious Manchester zine City Fun, which never shrank from any opportunity to take a pop at Factory, accusing its capo Tony Wilson of being the model of a hippy capitalist (amongst many other things). City Fun's position was widely echoed elsewhere, in places like the then still massively-influential NME, where a bit of an editorial schism had begun to develop. The first stirrings of Club Culture, much of which was taking place in the South, were already being documented in magazines like i-D, The Face, Blitz and the short-lived New Sounds New Styles. To place, as these mags did, the emphasis on nightclubs over live bands, cutting-edge street style over post-punk austerity, and electronic music over guitar/bass/drums, was considered a craven betrayal of the punk ethos by some, and the 'members only' approach was seen as a return to a kind of Studio 54-style elitism at odds with punk's inclusiveness. Others believed (erroneously, in my opinion) that the NME was trying to buy into this, even though they often mercilessly took the piss out of scenesters like Steve Strange, Robert Elms and Chris Sullivan. But at the other end of the country, the response to the launch of the Haçienda was one of the first indications that a cultural, as well as socio-political, North-South divide was beginning to emerge.

At this time, I lived in Winsford, Cheshire, which had grown from its origins as a salt-mining town to become home for an large overspill of displaced Scousers and Mancs whose families had moved there during the 1960s, when their employers had received generous tax breaks from Harold Wilson's government to move their operations into the cowshit-scented Cheshire countryside. In comparison with its hayseed neighbours, many of which were like Deliverance with buses instead of canoes, Winsford was actually a pretty clued-up place, and quite a few of us were reading about what was going on in London and trying to do something similar ourselves, throwing impromptu parties at local youth centres and social clubs. We had a lot of fun, as it goes. Still, now and again, some of us would regularly traipse down to London, usually to Colin Faver's monthly Final Solution nights at Heaven. Being young and largely liberal-minded, but nevertheless straight, we weren't the least bit intimidated by gay clubs (the gloriously debauched Jody's on Liverpool's Stanley Street was another favourite hangout around then), but the big attraction of the Monday nights at Heaven was the music you'd hear there; early rap, electro-funk, Canadian disco, loads of Patrick Cowley and Bobby O records, and the kind of sleek, dubbed-out proto-garage that labels like Prelude and West End were dealing in. You weren't hearing too much of this in Northern clubs at the time, certainly not in many straight clubs. But once the Haçienda opened, that was it for Heaven, and for London generally - there was now an infinitely better option, virtually on our own doorsteps.

I can't recall exactly when I went for the first time, although it might have been to see Simple Minds, when I remember it being rammed. It wasn't long after it first opened, either way. And famous as it later became for its historic influence on the club scene, I saw some great gigs there as well. It was at the Haçienda that I first saw the Smiths, who were supported by James (who'd just released their first single on Factory), on a night which wasn't as well-attended as history might lead you to believe. The night Troublefunk played there was one of the ten best gigs I've ever been to; an absolute riotous sweatbox of an evening. Shortly after the release of their second album, I saw Run DMC perform to an audience of about 200, most of whom were nascent goths, there in anticipation of a night doing the 'shake the funky moisture off your hands' dance to stuff like Theatre of Hate's 'Liberator'. Run, D and Jay wandered around the club after their set, all in matching skimmers and burgundy Def Jam bomber jackets. I remember asking D if their 'Hard Times' was a cover of the Kurtis Blow song, and he seemed shocked that I even knew of the original. I saw Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five demolish the place just a couple of weeks after seeing them at the Venue in Victoria (which is now Pacha, I think), and I caught Whodini there a couple of times as well. On one occasion, UTFO were their opening act, and they had a couple of dancers with them, one of whom I later learnt was future rap mogul Jermaine Dupri. In fact, the first time I saw Whodini, Run DMC were supposed to be the support, but they pulled at the last minute. That particular evening was co-promoted by the great Greg Wilson, an occasional Haçienda resident DJ and something of a pioneer on the scene. At one point in the show, he was invited on stage by Whodini's DJ Grandmaster Dee to demonstrate his skills on the decks. Much to the amusement of Dee, Jalil and Ecstacy, it quickly became apparent that they weren't quite as advanced as they are now. British DJs didn't really understand what cutting and scratching were back then, and although he took it in good humour, Greg did look all at sea.

Some more random memories, then. Falling asleep during a performance by Roman Holliday; being legged round the club when one of the bouncers clocked me recording Orange Juice's set on my then incredibly hi-tech, if somewhat difficult to conceal, Panasonic Walkman recorder; spending the whole of the Gun Club's set gazing longingly up at Patricia Morrison when she was the apex of Goth glamour, which is all the more remarkable if you recall what a compelling live performer Jeffrey Lee Pierce could be; walking out on a dog-awful performance by what had been billed as Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, but which was actually only half the original line-up, with a handful of random makeweights and someone they tried to pass off as Flash without realising there were smart-alecs like me in the audience, who knew that Flash's trademark was three turntables, rather than the imposter's two. Another great moment was the evening that a then barely-known Frankie Goes To Hollywood did a PA, which basically involved them miming to 'Relax', which had only just been released. The thing I remember most about it was the ramp which had been set up to the right of the stage, the purpose of which became apparent when a huge motorbike with Holly Johnson on the back of it came roaring onto the dancefloor and up the ramp onto the stage. Now that's how you make an entrance.

Unfortunately, I missed the famous 'Live from the Haçienda' edition of The Tube, which featured Madonna's first-ever UK television appearance. This was because, rather than make tickets available to club regulars first as promised, they instead dished them out to random scallies on Market Street and Piccadilly, or in the Arndale Centre, so by the time my girlfriend got down to the club to grab a couple for us, they'd all gone. A week or so later, I got talking to PC of legendary Hulme jazz-dance troupe the Jazz Defectors. The JDs were Saturday night regulars back when the Haçienda clientele was about 75% black, and were the best dancers in Manchester. Their ballet-influenced, free-form style was miles ahead of anything their London equivalents were doing, and I admired them immensely. I asked him why they hadn't been on the show, as advertised. He told me they got bumped by the producers at Madonna's request, although she'd offered to let them dance behind her as part of her performance. They told her to fuck off.

Everyone knows about the acid-house era DJs, but many of the earlier original DJs were great, too. Hewan Clarke, particularly, was a lovely guy, a big, friendly bear of a man, never too busy to tell you what that last amazing record he played was, and most of the stuff he played was amazing. John Tracy, who was from across the Pennines in Sheffield, used to do the Saturday nights after Hewan moved on, and he was every bit the antithesis of the 'moody DJ' stereotype as Hewan was. One particular evening, he played five tracks in one night from Luther Vandross' classic 'Busy Body' album, which had been in the country less than a week. I bombed up to the DJ booth and asked him why he was playing so much Luther, and he replied, "It's just a fucking brilliant album, mate. Best thing I've heard in years - I wish I could play the whole thing!" Even then, people would still come to the Haçienda expecting to hear non-stop New Order and Joy Division, and would be put out to find the DJs playing cutting-edge hip-hop, slick modern soul and just about anything else with a groove. Original vocalist with A Certain Ratio Simon Topping had left the band to live in Brooklyn and study percussion, but when he returned to Manchester, he brought a shitpile of latin jazz, salsa, boogaloo and Brazilian records back with him. For a period on Saturday nights, he'd do these little half-hour sets where he'd play all this stuff - 'the Latin Break' was how they billed it - and his spots soon became the cue for the amateurs to step back and let the serious dancers do their thing. It was during one of these sessions that I first heard Carmen McRae's cover of Stevie's 'Don't You Worry Bout A Thing', which rapidly became a Haçienda classic and was later covered by ACR on the b-side of their 'I Need Someone Tonite' 12".

However, my favourite DJ memory was when I actually got to play there myself in 1990. I'd been asked by a friend to join a tour by Jimmy Somerville in support of the AIDS awareness organisation ACT UP. They were trying to keep costs down, so in lieu of a support act, I was asked if I'd bring along a couple of cases of records in return for food and lodgings. As soon as I was told the first gig of the tour was at the Haçienda, I was in. I have countless great memories of that tour, but none have stuck with me in quite the same way as when I found myself gazing down from the famous DJ booth at the very same dancefloor I'd spent so many nights on. It was a bit like what I imagine playing in the FA Cup Final must be like. It was made all the more sweet by the numerous Haçienda staffers who came up to me later and told me I'd played some great stuff. Coming from people who were used to hearing Graeme Park, Mike Pickering, Jon da Silva and Laurent Garnier play week-in, week-out, it was some compliment. I wish I'd taped it.

1 comment:

john said...

Cheers Paul, john tracy here, great insight into early 80;s clubbing as a specialist non mass market scene, as dj's then we were misunderstood