Electrospective: Colin Curtis

Interviewed by Greg Wilson 30.08.08


Image by www.anti-limited.com

Full transcript of interview:

GW: Right now I’d like to introduce you to somebody that, if you know the history of dance culture, you’ll have heard about this guy, mainly through the Northern Soul scene. He was one of the DJs at one of the pivotal Northern Soul nights, which was at Blackpool Mecca, and there are books and books written about this. But, not a lot of people realise that he was also somebody who was involved in a key way in two other scenes. I don’t think there is any DJ in this country that can say was a key player in three separate black music scenes, the first one being Northern Soul, the second one being Jazz-Funk, and the third one being the early House period. So I’d like to introduce up Colin Curtis.

I’m not going to go into the Northern Soul situation, because, as I say, that is so well documented, because we are obviously going over ground that people are probably aware about.

CC: Yeah, there’s nothing about Northern Soul, other than the fact that for me that period was just about new black music, it was about black music that I’d never heard at that time. Buying black music in the UK at that time was very difficult; you could only buy it on 7” single, or occasionally albums, and from specialist places. It was from nothing, to just a spark of light, that opened up a new world that just didn’t exist in the UK, there was no underground scene for that music at the time, it just grew as more and more people got exposed to it.

Colin Curtis at The Mecca (Photo Steve Naylor)

GW: Around the mid 70s there was a famous schism within the Northern Soul Scene where yourself an Ian Levine at Blackpool Mecca began to play contemporary records alongside the more retrospective stuff that was the normal fair of Northern Soul.

CC: We’d been existing on Levine’s trips to America, and the other main sources in the UK; Record Corner and F.L Moore, and individual mail-order guys – based in Manchester; Brian ‘45’ Phillips was a top supplier of records at that time. But the difference between Blackpool Mecca and Wigan Casino was that we were interested in playing great black music and all of a sudden black America had gone away from putting out just Ballads to putting out dance music again, and you know, you could buy records for a pound instead of £50 that were just as good, if not better. So we started going down that route and exploring that route, and Wigan Casino didn’t. Wigan Casino, for me, was always a retro venue, I was actually there the first night they opened the oldies sessions and I thought this was the first step backwards. I never really understood Wigan Casino, although I look like I’ve taken drugs for 50 years, but I actually haven’t. That particular side; the all-nighter scene was something that didn’t appeal to me.

Ian Levine & Colin Curtis at Blackpool Mecca

GW: The Mecca was basically run on a Saturday night, it closed at 2 o’clock, normal club hours and a lot of people would go to Blackpool Mecca first, and then they’d go onto Wigan Casino after that for the all-nighter.

CC: Yeah, I think one of the successes at Blackpool is that in those days the Mecca organisation actually laid on coaches from probably 20, 30 locations within a 40, 50 mile radius, and those people where actually brought to us, and as the soul thing developed upstairs obviously people who were interested in that started jumping on those coaches, so they could come, dance all night, get pissed and go home without driving.

GW: What you started doing at the Mecca, and what started changing things around, it was the time when the music scene was changing, moving away from northern soul and into the Jazz-Funk era. When you made that move, the transition, pretty smoothly, and went from being a top Northern Soul DJ to being one of the main Jazz-Funk DJs.

CC: That probably initially happened at The Manchester Ritz, the old venue which was the first place we brought the two cultures together, where we’ve got Northern Soul, and started playing, as you say, the dance music that was eventually titled Jazz-Funk. If you go back to some of the old posters that we used to do, we used to spell it in different ways (laughs) with a ‘G’ in there (as in Slide ‘Stella Fungk’), if anything it hadn’t been defined at that stage. I think, I left Blackpool, and as far as I’m concerned that could have been the end of my career, and then coming to Manchester… Mike (Shaft) has told me something tonight that I didn’t actually realise; that he’d DJd at Rafters before we went in there. I came to Rafters in about ’78, and the first I knew of Mike was Rumours back in Blackpool that he played in Rufus, which you haven’t mentioned tonight, which was another dump in Manchester. Dumps are great for black music; the whole of Manchester was full of clubs that nobody wanted to know. It was a similar story for us when we came to Rafters, I came down and looked at it and the night I arrived it was 50, 60 motorbike rockers in there and the place looked an absolute dump! I just collared John Grant and I said “There’s no way we can do this!” We actually cut a deal in the end that they were going to stop the Rock nights completely, and then we’d try it. We moved in with carpenters, we put the sound system in there and the lights, and re-jigged the whole place from ’78 on.

Rafters ads 1979 & 1981

GW: I remember hearing about it before I’d ever come to Manchester to a club. I saw some of your lists with John Grant and knew Rafters was a legendary club.

CC: The lists were down to John Grant.

Colin Curtis & John Grant: Rafters Jazz-Funk & Disco record lists

Tony Bowd, Colin Curtis & John Grant

GW: Can we talk about John Grant? Explain who John Grant was?

CC: When I left Blackpool Mecca, I’d been working with Ian Levine who most people have probably heard of in some shape or form, a controversial but likeable character if you got on the inside of him. John Grant I was hooked up with through Kev Edwards who was one of the main guys in Spin Inn Records on Cross Street in Manchester, Kev kept coming to Angels in Burnley, I used to go there as a punter on a Wednesday night to listen to Richard and Mike and people like that, and he (Kev) kept on mythering me to meet up with John Grant and have a look at moving forward in Manchester. Mike always worked for the Post Office, and John for British Rail.

John Grant & Kev Edwards

CC: Yeah, he got a job as a harbour master on the South coast; he completely sold up all his records, everything, he just went, lock stock and barrel.

GW: We’ve said a lot about DJing in those days, but it wasn’t you know, a major career move like it is now.

CC: No, no absolutely not. John felt that the money he earned from work, even though at the time of Rafters, I mean the reason that eventually it was a big success is because we controlled the door take and therefore the expenditure on equipment and putting the money back in. We earnt a huge amount of money at that particular time but we ploughed most of it back into music, equipment and promotion.

GW: Yep. Just explain about a pivotal part of the scene at the time, that of the all-dayers, and how that all worked?

CC: The all-dayers started at the Manchester Ritz, and they were probably the beginning of, as I say, the friction between Northern Soul and the new music which was eventually titled Jazz-Funk. Jazz-Funk started to take over The Ritz as a venue. Also, that was the beginning of us starting to see more black guys and girls coming to Manchester Ritz to experience that. We where then able to use the Mecca organisation to promote similar events in Blackpool, Birmingham, Nottingham – Nottingham Palais, Birmingham Locarno and Blackpool Mecca, and we started bringing over these artists, so live artists would be Al Hudson, Roy Ayers, with still retro a bit with people like Jnr Walker. We were in a position to get what were top acts back then, we had Sylvester, Two Tons Of Fun.

Blackpool all-dayer adverts (Click image to enlage)

GW: The way that it worked with the DJs, that you would pick the main DJs from different areas and bring them all in together?

CC: That’s what we tried to do, we tried to utilise DJs from all over the country; Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, all over.

All-dayer ads The Leadmill Sheffield ’83, Clouds Preston ’83

GW: I speak to people now about the underground scene and maybe how they can network this by bringing people in from different areas, because what it did was bring different crowds into the same environment and then maybe for the club night, for example the guys from Huddersfield would come to check out what was going on in Wigan, or the people from Leeds would come across to Manchester and Birmingham, and it would all start (to cross-pollinate)…

The Ritz All-Dayer Manchester 1982

It’s like when we talk about Manchester and the scene that existed in the late 70s and into the 80s, it wasn’t just about Manchester people, it was about people from Huddersfield, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Nottingham, Bradford.

CC: He’s playing to the Huddersfield posse here.

GW: (Laughs)

CC: Huddersfield was massive! …A massive input of travellers from Huddersfield!  I mean we still get travellers from Huddersfield at the nights at Blackburn. But back then they would come into Manchester, down to Birmingham. Leeds was another good area, at the Central club in Leeds with Paul Schofield, Ian Dewhirst back then. And they were playing off the back of Northern Soul. When I first heard Mike (Shaft) playing in Manchester he was playing more towards the James Brown, he was playing Banbarra ‘Shack Up’, he was using, as I said, Bobby Womack, a lot of the Funk side of the black scene, which never really developed in the North of England.

S.A.S Of G.B All Dayers May 1983

GW: Well it did in Liverpool , with Les Spaine.  (electrofunkroots.co.uk/articles/when_funk_held_sway)

CC: Yeah Liverpool, well that was a different country wasn’t it. I only went to Liverpool twice as a DJ and I lost my car both times. Ford Capris, don’t take them to Liverpool.

GW: Right, so Rafters, huge concern, that was round about the time that I met you, I think you where still at the back end of working at Rafters, and we spoke to Mike (Shaft) before about The Main Event in Manchester, and you followed John Grant there; when John went off to work, you took over from John there.

CC: That’s right when John packed up I moved in with Mike. I don’t ever remember running up and asking him who Luther Vandross was, I don’t run anywhere! (Laughs)

GW: (Laughs) Now, when the Electro scene, or when I say scene, it just started initially with a trickle of music initially that came through. From my perspective I took over at Legend in 1981, back end of ’81.. You said before about the clubs that most of the clubs on the black scene at the time where ramshackle hovels… You know the difference between the clubs that I was fortunate to be at, Wigan Pier…

CC: Apart from the major venues which were owned by Mecca Organisation, most of the independent nights were in poor venues yeah.

GW: Wigan Pier, Legend where state of the art discotheques, and I think that with the new music that came through, and with everything that happened around that period, it changed the scene around very quickly from being the old style of doing things, there became a new scene. That obviously affected you at the time in Manchester.

CC: Of course it did, the way the music develops, and the way the music always changes, is, you know.. Mike has already announced that he has made a decision that he didn’t like that particular music, therefore he didn’t want to promote it. He actually then quite cleverly utilised his radio show to incorporate people who did know about the music, and that’s why Mike maintained the respect that he does in Manchester. For me it was probably a little bit wider than that because I wasn’t just about Manchester, I’d become about Birmingham, about Nottingham, where the scenes were just as huge, and the black population in those areas was also just as huge. So we’d got major clubs like Rock City and Birmingham Locarno, where prior to the break dancing and prior to the Hip Hop, we’d already started to develop the Jazz rooms as a separate entity. The Jazz rooms were very much about dance! In the main room it was about black people, black dance, which had not been seen in the clubs for about 40 years! And this was redeveloped, and then Hip Hop came on the back of that, and the Electro sound. We had Bambaataa, Run DMC, Mantronix – all these guys live in Rock City and this was an integral part. What you were doing in Legend I was able to take to Nottingham and Birmigham, and utilize that with the local DJs. All those, you know, ‘The Voice of Q’, Warp 9, Bambaataa, all those records where huge. For me it was a triangle; Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham.

Johnathon Woodliffe, Colin Curtis & Jean Carn

GW: Only recently, Colin and I sat and talked on the phone for a long time. There was a lot of stuff that it (the conversation) clarified for me, because there was a lot of political stuff going on at the time when Electro music came through, and I found myself backed into a corner at first with people that where very anti (electro), they didn’t see it as black music, they saw it as machine based music that was going to kill the scene, destroy it. I think that, in a sense, that your name was used in vain on a number of occasions to kind of tell me that people weren’t happy with the scene. So speaking to you more recently, a lot of things fell into place, especially with what you were doing at Rock City; that you took that kind of music side there and you ran with that. It basically links into what happened later very clearly. The manager at Rock City was a guy called Paul Mason, who in this city went on to become the manager of The Haçienda a bit later down the line. A guy who worked in one of the record shops in Nottingham, Selectadisc, was  a guy called Graeme Park, who wasn’t DJing at the time, but I believe you where instrumental in him starting up?

CC: Yeah, we used to pay Graeme £30 to finish off some of the nights we did. He was the first DJ that I actually saw turn up with 2 record boxes that had identical records in, 30 or 40 records in each box – just 2 copies of each record. He was one of the first guys who started to put that erm, well it was more blending than mixing if you will, he was actually using the attributes, and I mean records were coming out with four or five mixes on; instrumentals, dubs, and he was using that in those early days.

GW: Yeah, cos I mean the lineage, you know, like the start of the rave period, it had kind of been lost… Something you touched on before, that I’d like you to talk a little bit more about, that was massively important, and I think people now couldn’t take on board just how major it was, was the dancing on the black scene.

CC: Even today, talking outside the venue tonight before we came in, one of the most undocumented areas for me of club culture in the UK from around ’78 to ’88, where for some reason nobody has gone out there and written a book that actually documents what happened with the emerging black dance scene in the UK, whether it was Jazz, whether it was Hip Hop, no matter what it was it seems to have been written off, that whole period seems to have disappeared. Nobody has actually written a definitive book, people have touched on areas of it. The importance of dancing, to most of the black crowd I knew, it was an integral part of life, yes it was about the music, the going out, yes, but the dancing, everybody had moves, everybody had styles. I remember bringing up some guys from Birmingham to a club next to Spin Inn Records; Smarties, on a Sunday night, and these guys where free-form, probably more towards the Jazz, but they could dance to anything. They came onto the dance floor this particular night and they’d pulled black tights over their heads and danced that night, and that changed the dance attitude in Manchester, just from that one night people started to pick up and come back with their own ideas and would then use them at Blackpool Mecca at an all-dayer. You know, you’ve got Broken Glass in Manchester. We had The Rock City Crew – the breakdancers down there, IDJ from London, you’ve got all the guys, Salts, and all the guys from my city – the Jazz Defektors. The outlets and the importance of the development of dance music in the clubs that has not been documented is disappointing.

Jazz Defektors & Colin Curtis at Tropicana / Jazz Defektors at The Haçienda 1985

GW: I think that’s one of the things where looking back at the start of the rave scene, people not realising that before it exploded in ’88 at The Haçienda, that previous to that, the main crowd for House music in The Haçienda was a black crowd. Now this crowd was a dancing crowd, and when you look at the classic footage of The Haçienda, with everyone squashed in like sardines, and its all arm and hand movements, there’s nothing happening with their feet because everyone’s close together.  Whereas with the black dancers it was all, you know, the footwork was all important, it was important to have a bit of floor space. It’s clear that that space was invaded, and no longer was their space, and I think that they moved on at that point in time.

Jazz Defektors & Broken Glass at The Haçienda 1984

GW: Wanting to talk about House music, and the early House music, the stuff that you were playing, again, I explain to people that House music wasn’t a separate entity when it started; it was played alongside the Electro, alongside the music from Detroit that was starting.

CC: Whenever change comes out of America, whenever change happens to music, more often than not, it’s paying homage to something from the past. With Electro, with Hip Hop, that was paying homage to a lot of the 7” Funk singles that had been around and underplayed. They were called crate diggers back then in the States. Over here people used to search out for a different sound, for Northern Soul. Eventually, of course, ‘Sliced Tomatoes’ was used by Norman Cook, a huge record! But Electro was the same; it was paying homage to a mixture of James Brown, a mixture of those crate diggers, and with House music that was identical. They were looking back at where everything had come from and taken… they were putting vocals back into… with a 4/4 beat which hadn’t happened since the 60s. To get that dance beat back, some of the early records, there was a mixture, we had the Hip House period for instance, you know with Master C & J ‘Face It’, and records like that where there was a mixture of two things. Again, at that period we were still bringing those acts over. Because these were guys, like with the House movement, at the beginning, and even to this day, where there’s no major music companies behind these people. This is driven from here (points to heart), from people who actually care about what’s going on. I remember doing a weekender for the London crew; the Chris Hill crew down in Bognor Regis, and I was in the chalet with Jonathan (Woodliffe), one of the Nottingham guys, and this guy came in, I was introduced to this guy and he says “This is Paul Oakenfold”, I’d never heard of Paul Oakenfold, but he knew some things about me. He spent two and a half hours writing down all the early Precision tracks and Strictly Records that we were using back at that time, he had no clue about House music. But he’s a lot bloody cleverer than I am, he’s a fucking millionaire! Those are opportunities; it was the same weekend where the London guys were talking about taking people to Ibiza. We tried to take people from Manchester to Skegness. That failed, we sold 18 tickets for this weekender in Skegness! Eventually we put Mass Production over there and lost a fortune as well! But the whole House thing, as with Electro, as with Hip Hop, was born from the streets. It fed what was happening very nicely into what were doing. We were playing house music before The Haçienda was even thought of. They called it ‘The Haçienda, we built it’, well we built it way before The Haçienda, and it was black guys who were reacting to House music at that time. You know, DJ International, labels like that, I mean, huge response to the early House music!

Foot Patrol at the 8411 Centre, Moss Side Precinct, Manchester 1986

GW: And what were the clubs that you were playing these early tracks?

CC: Pretty much the same; for House music in Manchester would be The Playpen. In Nottingham, y’ know Rock City. We continued to move forward with that sound. The Electro thing which you pioneered in Manchester, and what’s that other country? Liverpool, erm…

GW: I wasn’t, I didn’t do much there.

CC: No, no, nobody did, apart from Les Spaine. It was pretty much Birmingham, Nottingham and Manchester, that was the Colin Curtis triangle if you will. That was where most of my support was. We were able to take 3, 4, 5 coaches of people to Scotland, Peterborough, Cambridge. Wherever we went there were fantastic followings, it was very much about dancing.

GW: The music back then was like; again for someone who’s much younger (today), it was the width of black music. Even for someone who was known for playing Electro, I was playing Soul, I was playing Funk, I was playing Jazz, you know, it was the best music available. It didn’t matter about tempo, it was downtempo, it was upbeat. It was a full spectrum of music.

CC: Well there was a massive similarity between the way that, certainly began at the major nights, it happened a Legend, it happened a few times at Rafters; people would form into a circle and you’d get the battling off, whether that would be the Jazz dancing, or Hip Hop, break dancing, that became part of some of the all-dayers, we’d have a period of half an hour, 45 minutes where that was the only thing that happened, that was the aspect. It was important to the event; it became an integral part of everything.

GW: Again, going back to that kind of thing, I sometimes get asked now about… “What was it like?” “What were the clubs like?” They’ll ask me about Legend, and say “What was the party like?” and they’ll use that term ‘party’, and I kind of think about it and I’m like it wasn’t really a party, it was much more intense than that.

CC: No jelly, no trifle, it was no fuckin party!

GW: It was incredible; it was like there was a necessity, the people that came, they needed that to let off steam and everything.

CC: Yep, the initial buzz, when I first came into Manchester at Rafters, I think I ended up at Rufus before I eventually left, I mean the buzz about Legend back then, and what was being created by yourself and Chad (Jackson), and the other guys, and Terry Lennon, who put the whole thing together, at Wigan Pier as well, that excitement excites me! Whether people decide, as we’ve said, there were people who didn’t like that; the traditionalists didn’t like what was going on. But what tends to happen with all these changes is that because they are often borne of things that have happened in the past, they then evolve forward. So for me it’s a positive thing, it’s not a negative thing.

GW: Well it’s the same thing that happened when you where at Blackpool Mecca, things had to change.

CC: That’s right.

GW: You went with the change.

CC: People on the Northern Soul scene will tell you that (Northern Soul) is still going, and that Electro is dead. Which is shit! Sorry.

GW: Talk about Berlin, because I know that is close to your heart as a club.

Berlin 1986

CC: Berlin was a unique time, because Manchester, the best of what I’d been involved with in Manchester kind of passed on. This would be about 84, 85. Although at the time I didn’t know it but at the time I was having some sort of breakdown. So it was an important period for me, finding myself, as well as finding music. It was the one place, along with Hewan Clarke who assisted me greatly there, where we were able to combine every aspect of black music, whether it be Jazz, Hip Hop Soul. We were playing Bossa, Hip Hop, House, everything under one roof, and this was just a midweek night.

Berlin Flyers 1984

CC: It attracted the likes of Mick Hucknall, you know, he did ‘Money’s Too Tight To Mention’, we used to play the Valentine Brothers version down in there, and you know he picked up the album because we were, actually not playing that track, that track was shit! And he did a shitter version of it. But, that’s not a pop at Mick, you know the guy’s worked very hard! I think that particular period for me was unique because Hewan would play, and then I would play for maybe 3 or 4 hours, and that’s the first time I’d done that in a club, and actually played for that long, and to be able to go through all the different phases of music, and all the different styles, with the same people reacting. We attracted a lot of people who took a lot of ideas from nights like that.

Colin Curtis – Article in Mancunian – January 1985 (Click image to enlarge)

CC: You’ve mentioned Mr Scruff and people like that.

GW: Yeah Scruff. Oh, Gilles Peterson?

CC: Well Peterson used to have a spy in Berlin (Laughs), and when I used to go to London he used to meet up with me off the train station, and then he would follow me around the Jazz shops. You know he was only young back then and it was obvious that he’d got a pretty face and he got a chance, and for music he’s done a phenomenal job!

GW: And he does pay his respects to you as like an influence.

CC: Only respects, he never pays cash! (Laughter)

GW: (Laughs) Why is it that people now go over to Japan to play, and they go all over the world, surely…

CC: I remember sitting at my parent’s house many years ago, and I got a phone call, and my dad who not the best, you know he uses about 3 hearing aids for each ear! And he said “Sony incorporated are on the phone from Japan”. I said “No, it will be the council”. “No” he says “It’s Sony Incorporated from Japan”. I said “No, no, that can’t be right”. I picked the phone up, and it was one of the executives from Sony Japan who wanted me to go over and play jazz in Japan.  Y’know, I’ve been on one aeroplane in my life, and that’s it! No, I don’t do aeroplanes, so I passed them on to Baz Fe Jazz, who’s one of the Birmingham DJs, who was one of the original Birmingham dancers.  And he went over there, and since then Snowboy, people like that have been able to go out there. And on the Northern (Soul) side people like Butch, Mark Dobson, which is fantastic! I would have loved to do it, but something up here says that I don’t do aeroplanes, so you know, I didn’t go at the time, and probably could have done the Gilles Peterson thing. It was difficult to be as influential as Peterson if you weren’t in London. Very few DJs have been able to be, you know, Oakenfold again, who was clever and used the internet, whereas Gilles, again, he built up the rapport in London. But Gilles is a real nice guy, he’s not like me, he hasn’t got an edge, he hasn’t got an attitude, he’s accepted around the place. He did a fantastic job! I did some great radio shows with Gilles back in the day, and the weekenders as well, we had some good times together. We came at it from different angles, but yeah a lot of respect for the guy!

Baz Fe Jazz / Gilles Peterson, Norman Jay & Omar

GW: Talk to me again about The Playpen, because this was a club that doesn’t get mentioned an awful lot. It was the old Slack Alice’s which was George Best’s club in the 60s (42nd Street nightclub today).

CC: Yeah, I used to see Best in a couple of the clubs in Manchester, mainly for drinking sessions; he wasn’t interested in the music:  Women and drinking mainly for George. We got tied into The Playpen through the connections with Terry Lennon, because I used to work at a club called Cassonellis, just outside Manchester, which he owned.

GW: It was his cousin?

CC: Yeah his cousin, or brother I think, they owned the supermarkets and hotel. It (The Playpen) was a silver and glass, chrome and glass club. Horrible! but supposedly very trendy. I used to play a lot of music in there on DJ International Records, a lot of very early House stuff.  We had a troupe of girls I can’t remember their name…

Audience: Freestyle Freakers.

CC: Yes, they were the first as I remember, first female… I wanted to take them everywhere with me, to prove that this thing was huge. And again we’d have people from Huddersfield, people from Sheffield, which was another great city that I had a fantastic black music following. The Playpen was probably the first place where we really got to grips with House music and later people who used to come along who’ve later become influential in Manchester, like Mike Stephens, he was one of the early punters towards the end of The Playpen.

GW: And there was a crew of guys who kind of evolved a specific dance style to House wasn’t there? Like Samson, and those guys?

CC: Yes there were.

Audience: Foot Patrol

Foot Patrol at The Haçienda (Photo by Ian Tilton)

GW: Yep, yeah, which was very different to what people, you know, looking at the old footage, the kind of rave footage, it was a completely different kind of thing from that.

CC: I think because so much of what had gone on before, the culture of what had gone on before, in underground type venues that were not like this. The fact that a black crowd was moving into this type of venue was also reasonably unique, as it was at Legend. To have a black crowd that was so influential in a very up-market trendy club that had a lot of money, and Legend was one of the first clubs that had the money spent on it; lighting and sound. I mean lighting and sound, if you go back to Northern Soul, lighting and sound was a candle and a fucking handle! Nobody gave a shit about the sound system.  And I still bang on about sound systems today. That was hugely important. I think that helped with the way you presented music, it helped that you were working on the best equipment. Even Chad Jackson learnt how to use it (laughter). Well, he used to have a switch didn’t he? He used to turn it on and off, and he said he was the light engineer! I never got that (laughter).

GW: I think I was fortunate that I went to that club with the equipment and at the moment the music was changing, and I’d made a decision that I was going to mix. I think it just fell kind of lucky for me, in a sense.

CC: I have a mixing style that’s unique to me; it’s called ‘falling down the stairs with a drum kit’… “bumpppttthhhh… these beats are not matching!” Yeah, I know, (laughs) I’ve been DJing for 41 years, I know they don’t fuckin’ match! (laughter).

GW: You mentioned Sheffield, just wanted to jump back to that for a second because I know that linking into The Playpen that there were very legendary names in Sheffield, DJs like Winston and Parrot.

CC: Winston used to come to The Playpen, he very rarely missed The Playpen. In fact, I owe him a big thanks because I used to make such a big mess with records, with covers and things everywhere, he used to put them all back for me, so I mean he was a top guy!

GW: It was funny because when I first found out about the Electric Chair, when it was at its height, I looked at what was going on there and it had a real grounding in black music, and it understood that kind of culture. It seemed to me that it linked in, it kind of almost jumped over the rave period and it linked back to where we were at before it became all house in a sense. And I was trying to work out why and what was the linkage, then I realised that Luke Unabomber was from Sheffield, and realised that Luke used to go to Jive Turkey that was Winston and Parrots club.

CC: Well Jive Turkey was probably just before I eventually ended up in hospital. I used to play for Winston in both rooms, because again, they’d set up a different room for the Jazz, that still continued. The sort of positive attitude towards dancing was as important as the gig itself.

GW: Exactly, when you think about it, what happened later, you know, we had this huge explosion in House music, and all of a sudden, from my perspective, when I wasn’t DJing at this time, I just saw that a lot of people have come onto the scene, that previously six months ago would have told you that dance music was shit. And now they’d taken a little pill and they were like there and they were centre stage, and all of a sudden everybody was into dance, but that kind of background that we had with the dance scene was lost. All of a sudden nobody was talking about that. It was like talking about something completely new. Why do you think that happened?

CC: I think you already… just said why it happened, its called ecstasy. To be fair I don’t think many black people were duped by ecstasy, for many white kids it was a return to the Northern Soul scene. Although the drugs problems that came with Northern Soul, the all-nighters were probably 20 – 25% of the issue, although back in those days, for instance when The Golden Torch was closed down, in the local paper it was front page news, it was major! But the drug taking at the height of the dance scene in the 90s was probably 80 – 85%, it was totally different. Most of the black guys, that I knew anyway, didn’t take that particular drug; I’m not saying they took any drugs, but it wasn’t that particular one. They didn’t need to, they came to dance, it was about the dance, the chilling afterwards was a different party. Massive respect to Persian and the Reno scene because that was where people had already established a culture for class black music in Manchester which was the underscore of the success of the dance clubs.

GW: Yes because I mean again that’s a question that I’m often asked is “What drugs were people taking?” and I’m like, somebody might have a little smoke in the corner, but they were even reluctant about that because if they got caught they were out of the club and they couldn’t get back in and they didn’t want to risk that. So that was it.

CC: So where did the black people go? I think that was part of where they went. The Ibiza thing kicked in , and I did the first Acid Jazz thing in Stoke On Trent, which is another dance town, city, whatever you want to call it, it was involved in the Northern Soul culture, it was evolved in the Jazz-Funk scene, and here it was again, so I used two local guys and we put that on, and within three weeks we got lock outs, we got the police, we got everything. Everything was a problem. We were able to bring something out that me and John Grant had close to our hearts, that was the old dry ice machines were back, and stretchers for the hospital… ecstasy is not a good drug to be taking!

GW: So why do you feel that it has been obscured so much? You know, from your own personal perspective, obviously you where involved in such a wide spectrum of music and scenes, and yet what people know you for is Northern Soul.

Colin Curtis photographed for Black Echoes magazine 1982 & 1983

CC: You keep saying that, and I don’t think people on the Northern Soul scene (laughs) would agree with that anymore. My opinions on Northern Soul, you know I always find it very strange that a music scene would want to listen to the same records for 40 years! I’m not saying there isn’t a wealth of 60s music, there is, but when you actually go to the gigs and hear the repetition of music that’s been around for a long time, I don’t fully understand that one, on a personal level. Erm… I’ve no idea.

Northern Soul was predominantly white people. Jazz-Funk eventually became predominantly a black scene. I still play out most weekends, and I play mostly to white people. I would love to know where the, the black scene’s kind of gone back to itself if you will.

GW: Which is a shame…

CC: It did become one.

GW: It’s like saying, for example with House, that a lot of people would assume that someone like A Guy Called Gerald; that he walked into The Haçienda one day, discovered house music and made a track called Voodoo Ray. Whereas in reality Gerald was a kid who was on the Jazz-Funk scene, then he went through the Electro period, then he was the DJ while MC Tunes was the rapper, and when you listen to Voodoo Ray as a track, you can hear those Jazz influences, you can hear the electro, it’s not an orthodox House record.

CC: No it’s a great track, it appealed to a lot more than as you say that one particular genre. It appealed to everybody. I mean that crossed-over to most of the venues I was playing at the time I could play that record, and that didn’t apply to all the records.

GW: Yeah, but I think the people kind of assume that he discovered it because he went to The Haçienda, whereas really it was Gerald and the people like him that built that kind of scene in The Haçienda by going across on the Friday, and obviously they had been going to clubs like The Playpen, Legends, The Gallery, Berlin, these kind of clubs beforehand, and you know I think that that’s like, the one main thing that I’m always trying to put across, is to draw back to that period of time, and the culture that existed beforehand, and how strong it was. It was an underground culture but it was a big culture.

CC: If you look at the 90s dance scene as it was, and the amount of people that were drawn into it through the raves, through Acid House, through everything, through Ibiza, the whole thing, it became so huge! And yet now, you show me an event, apart from Southport Weekender, that actually encompasses 2 or 3 thousand people dancing to that music? Where? It doesn’t exist. So when you think something that huge could disappear, I suppose it isn’t that surprising that what happened between ‘78 and ‘88 has also disappeared, and changed in a way.

GW: What’s happening, a lot of that music is being rediscovered, but interestingly it’s by generally by a younger white audience who never had it first time around, that have come across these records, that maybe have gone through the house scene and heard things sampled, and discovered that maybe these came from a Disco record, or a Boogie record from the early 80s.

CC: I think that’s just repetition of what we said about the American black culture, you know, they come up on the crate digging, just buying cheap records, learning from that. Well Keb Darge was another. Keb Darge was originally into Northern Soul. He single headedly invented ‘Rare Funk’. He applied a Northern Soul mentality to 7” Funk singles. We’d had the Rare Groove thing with Norman Jay in London, which something else that didn’t really come up to the North.

GW: That was almost like their Northern Soul.

CC: Yeah that’s right, that’s been said in the past. Keb Darge did that with Funk, but Keb had the power of the internet and again very cleverly. His Funk nights are still going in London, been going for years.

GW: So tell me what are you doing now?

CC: Talking to you.

GW: (Laughs)

CC: Erm, see, even recall at 55, that’s pretty impressive! Erm, I’m DJing, I’m DJing all the time. I work within the Blackpool Hilton Weekenders, I still work in the midlands, I work in Birmingham, Wolverhampton, nights like Soul Underground, Soul Intent. But I have to say, most of the crowds are predominantly white, the weekenders can level up a bit.

GW: I would say that with the black crowd in general, apart from the Rare Groove scene in London, you know the black crowd have never been retrospective towards music, they’ve never gone backwards looking for stuff, they are always looking forwards, looking ahead for things.

CC: I think some of them look backwards, I mean the whole white thing in London, you know, the Chris Hill era is completely stuck!  I mean it’s become almost an 18 to 30s scene, where if you’re not playing any records from sort of ’81 to ’83 or ’85, then they don’t want to know, they just stay in that. If you listen to Solar Radio which is one of today’s internet radio stations which plays 24/7 black music, erm, you’d wonder what year it was sometimes because it’s predominantly about the 80s. And when you talk to them about it, approach them thay say “well nobody’s making any good new music” Bollocks!

GW: Well I mean that’s it, I think there’s always stuff.

CC: It’s changed, record companies, don’t rule the same way that they did; independent music is now fed through the internet, either you download it illegally, or there’s places like CD Baby. If you want vinyl still there’s Juno online. There radio stations, you can listen to… I used to covet my 70s American New York WBLS cassettes, you know these where guys who influenced me greatly back then… Frankie ‘Loveman’ Crocker, Billy Currington, Kirkland – these were DJs on WBLS back in the 70s. Now you can press buttons on the old laptop and you can listen to any radio station in the world. That’s not been there before. People have got the options. I think Gilles Peterson more than any other DJ has opened that sort of world music aspect, and Louie Vega is there at the moment, he’s in that World music, looking at the African side, looking at the Latin side which is again cultures that he comes from whereas Kenny Dope goes more towards the Hip Hop thing, that’s where he grew, another crate digger. Kenny is still a collector, he still comes over to see Keb Darge and they chase after records.

GW: I also heard that Louie Vega saw a list of the music being played in the UK in late 70s, early 80s and couldn’t believe it! …There’s a lot of documentation now about US dance culture, there’s been some fantastic stuff written about it and it’s great to have that information there. But at the same time I don’t think people realise how rich and how far dance culture in this country goes back, you know, way back into the 60s!

CC: They (Americans) have gone about it… If you look at it you can go to more depth, the main influential clubs in the States were Paradise Garage, Body and Soul, Shelter, these are consistently good year in, year out. Originally of course the Paradise Garage was heavily connected to the gay side, but these clubs are about dancing, and it’s a marathon, it’s a 12 hour session each time, they are marathons!  For most of the major world DJs we’ve come to know in the UK, gigs in the states don’t exist. They become huge in Europe, they become huge in Australia, but they’ve never had this adulation, this respect in their own country.

GW: Yeah. I wanted to kind of round things off, just talk about why this country, for example if you go back to the 60s I’ve heard the stories of the people who came over on the Stax Volt Tour and on the Motown Review, they came to this country and they couldn’t believe the amount of knowledge that people here had about their music!

CC: That was back then, I mean I went to watch Stax Volt when they first came over, and I would have been 12 – 13. If you look back at the crowd that was watching they were very beatnicky, very university and very white! But no, I think that happens every time Americans… I’ve spoken in some depth with Jnr Walker, Roy Ayers and people like that about black music, they can’t believe how much people know about black music over here. For them the world exists just in their world. You know I think I gave Roy Ayers about 31, 32 albums to sign, and he said “You know what Colin? If you didn’t spend so much money on records, you could buy a yacht!”

GW: And it’s true.

CC: What for? I don’t like planes; I don’t like water, no, no. It’s a different culture, If you get sucked into the music scene in this country, for me, what I’ve seen, and the passion that people in this room and DJs that have upheld and contributed to black music in this country, it’s a completely different mindset… Because you are unique to the UK.

GW: Yeah, in the States, even looking back at that early 80s period, and now I can do it with hindsight and say look at the music I was playing at somewhere like Legend, that it wasn’t being played in the same way anywhere in New York, for example, you’d have the block parties in the Bronx where playing one side of it, the people in the Paradise Garage where playing another side. Maybe the closest thing to it was something like The Funhouse or The Roxy, where they were kind of combining these things. But it was completely different the way people consume music in this country.

CC: Yeah we had that situation at Blackpool Mecca where you were getting the Disco end it; even as extreme as Alec Constandinos and Parliament and Funkadelic being played in the same gig, along with anything from Northern Soul, right through to what became Jazz-Funk. So I don’t think that’s ever been embraced outside of the UK in the same way.

GW: I think if there’s a positive thing that’s being embraced now is that people seem to be kind of becoming broader minded towards music that for a long time, especially during the 90s, everyone sort of went into their own narrow bag, so it was one little side of House music or Techno or whatever it was. Whereas now I think people for the first time in a long time… Somebody said to me the other day, and you know, I hadn’t thought of it that way; it’s almost like now we are going back to before the house thing hit, and taking on from there in a sense.

CC: I think possibly, I think the people who treated the House scene, you know, at the front end, the [people who’d done it from the heart and from the dancing, and then what it eventually became, inevitably, it was only ever going to leave a residue, most people would move on with their lives and just retain that as a memory, as opposed to looking for what goes next. I think, like you say, I think a lot of people now go back, there’s 40, 45 years of black music history in this country that you can go back and respect. I’ve always felt that my goal is about playing new music. Whether that’s also incorporating some music from the past that other people may not have heard, but yeah. A guy once said to me “I like what you do, you play to an empty dance floor for about an hour and a half, and then about five years later we get it!” (Laughter) And that’s been my job, which doesn’t make you the most popular DJ at times. But erm yeah, I’m excited by the next parcel that arrives, the next CD that comes down off the internet whatever, I’m still excited as much now as I was 40 years ago!

GW: And that’s a fantastic way to be! And really, many thanks for coming down today Colin, it’s been an absolute pleasure to have you here!

CC: No problem. Thank you.

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© Greg Wilson, 2012

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