When Funk Held Sway


Arthur Baker’s Keep On Truckin’ cassette (Photo by Andrew Mason)

Back in 1975 I made my debut as a club DJ at the Chelsea Reach in New Brighton. Even though I was still just 15, I was already firmly rooted in black music thanks to my older brother and sister, from whom I inherited a wealth of wonderful 7” Soul singles on classic 60’s labels like Tamla Motown, Stax and Atlantic.

New Brighton in the 60’s was so different to the way it is now. It was then regarded as a seaside resort, with the ferry bringing in what seemed like an endless stream of day trippers from Liverpool, whilst people from further afield actually still came for their holidays! There was a big outdoor fairground, as well as the Palace, which provided shelter on wet days and housed indoor rides, plus various amusement arcades scattered along the promenade and up Victoria Road. There was the pier and, of course, New Brighton baths, once the biggest outdoor pool in the country. Throughout the spring and summer music was literally all around me, wherever I went I was surrounded by an inspiring array of 60’s Pop and Soul, providing me with the perfect soundtrack for my youth – it was a great place to grow up in.

Greg Wilson – 1976

Another big factor in my early musical education was listening to all the mobile DJ’s who played at the wedding receptions, 21st’s etc, that were held week in week out where I lived for 7 years from the age of 6, a pub with two upstairs function rooms (The Criterion, now Redcaps, on Victoria Road). I used to spend countless hours sat behind the bar with a bottle of Coke while my Mum worked, listening to the DJ’s. Even when I had to go up to bed I could still feel the bass coming up through the floorboards and make out the tracks that were being played.

When I was 11 I became friendly with a guy at school who shared my love of records, but who was also into electronics and had built his own mobile disco with two old record players – very primitive, but highly impressive! Originally calling himself Dee Kay, but later to be well-known and respected throughout the Merseyside club scene as Derek Kaye (Derek being his real name), he also started out, some months before me, at the Chelsea, with both of us soon to take further nights at the Penny Farthing (nowadays on the site of Bobby’s Bar). Locally, I would eventually become best-known for my time at the Golden Guinea (now RJ’s) between 1977-1980, whilst Derek, who this year celebrates his 30th consecutive year as a club DJ is remembered by many for his nights at Ruperts in Birkenhead during the 80s and Liverpool’s Buzz in the 90’s.

Hamilton VIP card 1977

During these early days my two main sources when it came to keeping up to date with the latest Soul and Funk releases were Blues & Soul magazine and ‘Keep On Truckin’’, the Monday night Soul show on the local radio station, BBC Radio Merseyside. The presenter was Terry Lennaine, who also deejayed in the clubs. His most celebrated nights were the ‘Get Together’s’ at The Hamilton, a cabaret club in Birkenhead (which would later become the Pleasuredrome). These were charity events held on a Wednesday, with the admission fee being a new toy, which went to children’s homes. Terry was always a big supporter of homegrown black music, and I saw many classic (and not so classic) British Funk bands at these nights – Heatwave, Gonzalez, Olympic Runners, Hi-Tension, Delegation, Rokotto and the Real Thing included.

Terry Lennaine – 1977

I got to know Terry as a result of doing a hospital radio show when I was 16. One of the other presenters at the station, Dave Porter, also filled-in from time to time at Radio Merseyside (eventually becoming a full-time employee) and he introduced me to Terry (it was Dave who taught me the basics of tape editing). As a result I regularly sat in on ‘Keep On Truckin’’ and was, at one time, primed to take over the show (but, alas, it wasn’t to be). I made my first trip to Spin Inn in Manchester with Terry (this was literally the only place in the North to buy your records if you wanted to be taken seriously as a black music specialist) and, as a result of this, I began featuring some US imports alongside the UK releases I received from the record companies.

One of the DJ’s who played at the ‘Get Together’s’ was the mighty Les Spaine, who had the total respect of all the other DJ’s on Merseyside. Les started out behind the turntables at The Masonic bar, before moving into a club called The Pun. However, he is best remembered for his nights at The Timepiece.

Terry and Dave took me across to The Timepiece, very much a black club, for the first time in 1976. It made a huge impression on me and I resolved there and then that this was the type of audience, so knowledgeable with regards to music, that I wanted to play to. Some years later I would fulfil this aim when I worked with a similar crowd at Legend in Manchester.

Going to The Timepiece that night also taught me a strong lesson in life, for this was the first time that I, as a white guy, had been in a predominantly black environment. It gave me an insight as to what it must have been like for black people, who were the ones that would usually find themselves, on a day-to-day basis, in the minority and, fairly often, in hostile situations, for these were very racist times. I certainly felt a sense of vulnerability entering the club, but that quickly passed when, having been introduced to Les at the DJ box, I became increasingly immersed in the records he was playing.

To understand anything about the dance music scene in Liverpool at this time, one huge contemporary myth has got to be exploded, and this involves Northern Soul. Northern Soul was not played in every club in the North during this period; in fact it wasn’t being played at all in Liverpool! Northern Soul never gained a foothold in Liverpool, where a funkier groove was the order of the day. It was also never a factor within the black community in general (be it Liverpool, Manchester or wherever), who weren’t interested in digging for rare 60’s music when there was a wealth of great Funk, Soul and Reggae released in the 70s.

Les Spaine in The Timepiece – 1976

Why Liverpool should be totally devoid of Northern Soul, I’ve never been quite sure, but I’d figure that it was largely due to the influence of Les Spaine and Terry Lennaine, for the music they were playing was filtering down to all the other DJ’s on Merseyside. Much of what they played first, we played later. Even the most commercial clubs, totally removed from the black scene, where the majority of records featured would be (or had been) in the top 20, still included tracks like Parliament’s ‘Give Up The Funk (Tear The Roof Off The Sucker)’, ‘Fire’ by the Ohio Players and Banbarra’s ‘Shack Up’, which didn’t even reach the lower regions of the charts.

The Timepiece was on Fleet Street, down the road from where Liverpool Palace is now, and later became the 147 Snooker Club. Although Liverpool blacks weren’t welcome in many of the clubs, this, like Spaine’s previous venue, The Pun, was in a part of the city where black kids, and the more adventurous white kids, would mix. It was one of the most upfront clubs, not just in Liverpool, but the whole country, particularly famed for its All-Nighters. People travelled from far and wide to attend, in a similar way to what was happening at Wigan Casino, but, of course, with a black audience in the majority. These included US servicemen who were based in Britain during the time of the Vietnam War (some of whom would send Les packages of the latest Funk records when they got back to the States). Les would also travel to play at various American air bases in the UK (in 1986 a film was made called ‘Coast To Coast’, in which Lenny Henry plays a character loosely based on Les, a Soul loving mobile DJ in Liverpool who hooks-up with a US serviceman and ends up deejaying in a US base).

When Les finally hung up his headphones and left The Timepiece, towards the end of the decade, it was to work for Motown in London. He would subsequently move on to Capital Records, run his own promotions company and manage Aswad during their most successful period. He’s still involved in the music business today and, through his agency, represents classic artists including BB King, Womack and Womack, Alexander O’Neil, Odyssey, Heatwave, Kym Mazelle, Jazzie B, Imagination and George McCrae.

The Timepiece was never the same after Les Spaine had gone, DJ Eric Hearn did his best to fill the void, but the era had come to an end. Liverpool still had ‘Keep On Truckin”, but Terry Lennaine, who used to pride himself on the upfront nature of the show, was no longer driven with the same passion, relying increasingly on UK promos rather than US imports. He’d eventually lose interest, placing his energies elsewhere, with his successor, Kenny James, unable to halt the slide as this once essential show continued to lose focus and, eventually, its slot on the airwaves. Terry would continue to work in radio, right up to the present day, but his association with the black music scene pretty much came to a close after ‘Truckin’’.

My own star, however, was in the ascendancy. After a short period deejaying in Scandanavia in 1978, I returned to The Golden Guinea, where I’d cultivated a strong local following and was even attracting people across from Liverpool. This was at the height of Disco and the Guinea had a reputation for being one of the best clubs on Merseyside for dance music. It was also one of the first clubs locally to embrace the Jazz-Funk sound that would soon dominate the black music scene. In 1979 I was brimming with pride when Blues & Soul magazine, then the DJ’s bible, made their one and only visit to New Brighton and gave my little seaside club a glowing review, recommending it as a place to hear quality black music.

As much as I loved my time at The Golden Guinea, I needed challenges outside the relative comfort of my hometown, so I decided to give Europe another go in 1980, this time deejaying in Denmark and Germany. It was while I was in Germany that I landed the dream job of resident DJ back in England at Wigan Pier, a truly remarkable club at that time, with sound and lighting way in advance of anywhere else (with the exception of a new venue the same company had just opened – Legend in Manchester), complete with an astonishing piece of kit – the first laser system in a UK club! Wigan Pier was the closest thing in this country to the classic New York clubs of the time (the Pier even advertised itself as an ‘American Disco’).

The Tuesday Jazz-Funk night at Wigan Pier would be where I really began to make my name, its success eventually opening up the opportunity for me to take over the Wednesday night in Legend, which would prove to be the pinnacle of my DJ career. But that’s another story.

Back in Liverpool the black music scene was struggling. Lots of people travelled to Wigan on a Tuesday from L8 and other parts of Merseyside (including some of my old Golden Guinea crowd) and their disillusionment with the way things were going back home was apparent, despite bar venues like Kirklands and Quinns trying valiantly to hold things together. Then came the Toxteth riots, in 1981, and the majority of city centre clubs in Liverpool, already racist in their door policy, now felt they had the perfect excuse to refuse entry to black people and discourage their DJ’s from playing all but the most commercial black music.

In ’82 I gave up my 4 night a week residency at the Pier (retaining just the Tuesday) to specialize purely in the latest black flavours, including the emerging Electro sound, which I would become so associated with. Along with my Wednesday at Legend and other weekly nights in Huddersfield and Manchester, I tried to get something going in Liverpool, but many of the guys who came to the Pier and Legend from Liverpool were knocked-back in their home city. The clubs would always let a couple of blacks in to cover their backs, but this was just tokenism – there was no way they’d let in a ‘crew’ of black kids. In ’83 I gave Liverpool another go, but this time I was summoned to the door by the bouncers, who told me, in no uncertain terms that they didn’t want blacks (although, of course, they didn’t use such a polite term) in ‘their’ club. It was all very sinister, and I decided I was on a hiding to nothing as far as Liverpool was concerned.

Without the foundations of a strong club night and radio show, Liverpool slipped further and further behind Manchester, and would become more or less a wasteland as far as dance music was concerned throughout the rest of the decade.

Although things have got progressively better during more recent times, the fallout can still be felt today, hence the decision for a group of DJ’s and black music enthusiasts from Merseyside to come together in order to add their combined weight in an effort to try and break the apathy, which has held the city back from developing a thriving underground dance scene. The article you’re reading is a part of this process and, hopefully, this will help put some flesh on the bones of a once vibrant era for black music in Liverpool, which shouldn’t be forgotten (although it obviously has for way too long).

It also gives me the opportunity, on a personal level, to highlight the largely unsung contributions of two of my own mentors, Les Spaine and Terry Lennaine.

Deep respect and gratitude for all their inspiration.

© Greg Wilson. January 2005

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