AS MUCH as Greg Wilson is excited about DJing a big, open-air gig on the Pier Head in his home town of Liverpool – and he’s clearly thrilled – you also get the impression that he’s every bit as excited about the chance to talk about the ideas behind his involvement with the Very Big After Party.
Transatlantic 175 is a commemoration of 175 years of passenger travel across the Atlantic, taking place on Liverpool’s waterfront and docks. It involves the Very Big Catwalk, an attempt to break the world record for most models on a catwalk, followed by the veteran DJ Wilson doing his stuff for the assorted fashion divas at the Very Big After Party.
Wilson was brought in by Wayne Hemingway (whose Vintage Festival is also at the dock over the weekend), with a brief to highlight the musical connections between Liverpool and the US.
The perceived wisdom is that the story of musical Liverpool all started with the Cunard Yanks, the merchant seamen who went to New York and took the music, the clothes, even the mannerisms they found back to their home city, planting the seeds that would eventually grow into the Beatles and Merseybeat. A young George Harrison, for example, bought a black Gretsch guitar from a Cunard Yank fresh off the boat from New York.
“That’s not half the story, even though it’s massively important,” says Wilson over a tea cake in a restaurant on the seafront in New Brighton.
“Bob Wooler, the DJ at the Cavern, told me that he got his records from everywhere, it wasn’t just about the Cunard Yanks. He told me he used to buy a lot of new American imports from a shop in Newton-le-Willows. That seemed a bit bizarre to me. But it’s next to Burtonwood Airbase. It makes complete sense. They were selling them to the US servicemen.
“There’ve been American servicemen in this country since the second world war. I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s such an affinity with black music. And that scenario plays out in Liverpool as much as anywhere else. Black American servicemen used to come to clubs like the Timepiece in Liverpool in the 70s. And at the same time, it was always a cosmopolitan city. It was a melting pot for ideas.”
“Dave Godin went into an ice cream parlour in Bexley Hill in 1954 and heard black American music,” says Wilson, “and the reason that jukebox was in there was because it had been sold to them by an American airbase. There’d been black GIs there and this was their music. Wherever America goes, it takes its culture with it. Dave Godin had that eureka moment, and it affected his life.”
Wilson started DJing in a club around the corner from his parents’ pub in New Brighton in 1975. After 40 years as a professional music obsessive – celebrations are planned – he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sounds he grew up with.
He tells me that Merseybeat historian Spencer Leigh and Bob Wooler put together a list of all the tracks by Liverpool artists between 1962 and 1967 and discovered that some 60 per cent of the city’s output was made up of cover versions of black American artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander and Smokey Robinson.
While most people “wouldn’t have a clue” how important black American culture has been to Liverpool over the years, it’s something Wilson feels “very strongly” about highlighting.
“All the bands that came out of here in the 60s were indebted to that music. Before the Beatles exploded on the UK scene, compared to other parts of the country, Liverpool would have seemed to be very behind the times. The city hadn’t embraced what was then popular culture – Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, those kind of more clean-cut artists. In Liverpool they were hanging onto rock n roll, the music of five years before.
“The Beatles managed to morph that music into something original. And that was then exported back to America, and they put their own twist on that again.”
A decade later, another Liverpool act who were similarly inspired by the music of black America were the Toxteth funk and soul act, the Real Thing, but their fortunes were very different to the Beatles.
“The Real Thing weren’t around in the 60s but one of the Amoo brothers [Eddie] was in the Chants, and the Chants were the great hope of the black community at that time. But, unfortunately, it was a very racist time. Their faces didn’t quite fit. And even though Epstein managed them for a time, and they released quite a lot of records, they never had the breakthrough.
“I remember Les Payne, the DJ from the Timepiece, saying that, had there been the right visionary in Liverpool around that time, things could’ve happened. Berry Gordy was that kind of visionary, in Detroit, he fused it all together. The artists were all from that city, but it would be foolish to think that it was unique to Detroit. Les always used to think that the talent was there in Liverpool 8, but there was just no exploitation of that talent.
“Eventually the Real Thing did come out of the city but they were very undervalued,” decides Wilson. “There was a snobbery about black music from this country at the time, even from black music aficionados. They had a few hit singles but their second album, Four from Eight, was commercial suicide. That had Children of the Ghetto on it, which is now almost a standard – Mary J Blige has done it, Courtney Pine has covered it – but when it was released it was a huge flop. And it’s a Liverpool concept album.”
Wilson says that, while Liverpool, in some ways, benefitted greatly from black American culture, within the city there was “always an aspect of racism getting in the way. Certainly in the 70s, people could go to the Timepiece and a few other places in the city centre, but you could go the next week and not be able to get in those other clubs, purely because of your skin colour. It was quite blatant back then. But people managed to work around it.”
“I think it all went wrong, in a big way, after the riots because it closed that avenue off.”
In truth, this shameful situation was hardly unique to Liverpool but, as a professional DJ playing to a predominantly black crowd, having the majority of his audience barred from his venue was simply untenable for Wilson.
“I ended up in Manchester. In the 80s, Manchester was the cosmopolitan city, where all this new black music out of New York was really starting to make its mark,” he remembers. “There was a mix of black and white people. There was that fusion that later became Madchester.
“And sadly, we didn’t have that in Liverpool. It was very difficult to put on a specialist black music night. The club owners would stop that. They’d only let the DJs play the more commercial stuff – Michael Jackson, Imagination, Shalamar. Anything a bit more upfront, they weren’t interested. Liverpool and Manchester went off on completely different trajectories.”
Wilson played cutting-edge jazz funk to a clued-up multi-racial crowd at Wigan Pier and Legends in Manchester, often mixing up two copies of the same record to create a unique live remix of the original (which he demonstrated on Channel 4’s The Tube, becoming the first DJ to mix on British TV).
“I got into doubling up records when I was first mixing, with one of them two, three, four beats behind the other. I might have been playing a track on import for six weeks. Once it’s actually released in Britain, on the scene I was in, which was very specialist, that’s when its days are numbered. If it’s going up the charts, it’s not going to be played. People would be very snobby about it.
“So I’d start to play around with it and make a different version to get another few weeks out of it. People used to go into Spin Inn in Manchester, ask for a record and say, it’s not the right version. They’d tell them it was the only version there was. And they’d say, it wasn’t what I heard at Legends.
“That’s how I got on the Tube. They were down from Newcastle to see David Joseph, who’d been the lead singer of Hi Tension, doing a PA. They heard me playing around with two copies of one of his tunes and they asked me to demonstrate that in Newcastle. That was basically a live edit.
“I started to actually do proper re-edits in around 1984. By this point, I’d stopped at Legend and I was doing it for radio. I called them turntable edits. They were either for Mike Shaft or, weirdly, Timmy Mallet, who had a show on Piccadilly that was aimed at teenagers, so I’d edit up stuff by Frankie Goes to Hollywood or Scritti Politti, things that I wouldn’t really play on the black scene.
“I was just trying to get some remix work from record labels. But they said, American DJs remix, British DJs don’t remix. It was like banging your head against a brick wall. Four years later and every English DJs is doing remixes.
“I just found my own way into that edit culture. I heard stuff that was being done in New York, and I was influenced by that, but I didn’t have anyone showing me what to do. I was on a bit of an island. I think that’s why it didn’t really work out for me at the time. If you’re a bit ahead of the curve, maybe you need to stop and wait a couple of years for everyone to catch up.”
I guess it depends on how you define not really working out. Wilson was voted Blues & Soul magazine’s DJ of the year in 1983, with Legend and Wigan Pier at number one and two in the club poll, championing the new sound of electro, which blended synthesisers and drum machines. He even ended up teaching a young Quentin Cook how to scratch records while on tour in Brighton via a short-lived residency at the Hacienda.
Wilson takes exception to the way this period of Manchester’s musical history is portrayed.
“I remember hearing some radio documentary about Manchester, and the story was, the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall, and then the Hacienda opened, and then this rave thing started. But where are the black kids? They’re the ones who brought this music over here. How does this indie club become this bastion of dance music?
“The real story is the open-mindedness of people like Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson and Mike Pickering. The audience wasn’t into dance music. They saw it as a lesser form and were initially quite condescending about it.
“But the people behind the club thought that dance music was the future. They could keep it open because it wasn’t a normal club and because they were fortunate that New Order had that success with Blue Monday, because any realistic business would have closed the place by the end of 1983.
“When I was there, it was struggling like mad. People say, you worked at the Hacienda? That must have been amazing. Not when I was there. It was really hard. The DJ booth was down in a room to the side of the stage, the sound system sounded awful and really tinny, there were no people, it was really cold.
“We had the odd one-off really good night that was a sign of the future. That Friday night I did, Pickering turned into the Nude night down the line. There were seeds planted, but for me, it was a real step down from Legends, which had an amazing system, a great crowd, great music, everything was right.”
Wilson retired as a DJ in 1983, at the ripe old age of 23.
“It’s difficult to explain in a couple of sentences. In the summer of 1983, breakdance exploded within the black community. I started managing Broken Glass. It was really exciting. Everyone was just knocked sideways to see people spinning on their head and all this.
“But on a club level, it lead to challenges on the dancefloor. This had gone on before with jazz fusion, but we had it under control, in little sections of the night, whereas then, if I played anything remotely electro, it was groups of lads battling each other – because Legend attracted people from Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Bradford – and it was all these lads on this testosterone high.
“You could see the girls getting pissed off because the dancefloor was taken up with lads trying to outdo each other. We were moving into hip hop culture.
“I was more into doing production, and what was happening was a live turntablism thing. I understood very quickly that to master this to the level of what was happening in the States, you’d have to be in your bedroom working at it for eight hours a day. And there were young DJs that were prepared to do that. I handed over the reins to Chad Jackson, who went onto win the World Mixing Championship.
“There was a slight egotistical thing too,” he admits. “There’d been a DJ on the black music scene called John Grant, who used to work with Colin Curtis at Rafters. He’d been huge and he just went to work as a harbour master in Southampton – it shows you what the career curve of a DJ was back then – and he vanished. He went out on top. He was like an undefeated boxer. And there was something about that that appealed.”
Wilson went onto manage the band formed by Kermit Leveridge after Breaking Glass, the very excellent Ruthless Rap Assassins. His time in this area of the music industry was, he says, “a real roller coaster”.
“It’s a very fragile world,” he reflects. “There can be good times but there can be really hard times too. I’ve been through the times of looking down the back of the sofa for 50p. And I’m really glad I went through that, because it adds a bit of humility that maybe wasn’t there before.”
By the start of the 90s, he was, he says, “punch drunk” from working on projects for years only for them to fall apart because someone left a record label. He largely withdrew from the world he’d spent much of his adult life in and spent five years being a “hands-on father” to his son.
“It was the most content I’d ever been. But then, after a while, I started to get the feeling that I wanted to re-engage.”
In the decade since, Wilson has established himself as a fixture on the festival circuit and something of an elder statesmen of British club culture, whose re-emergence coincided with the tendency to re-examine the roots of the music that has soundtracked our lives over much of the last four decades. He explores these ideas at http://www.gregwilson.co.uk
“The first 10 years of this century, culturally, it’s been a diluted culture of the X Factor and talent shows, the pop charts are obliterated. They know what’s going to be number one at Christmas, before the song is even recorded.
“When culture has been taken over to that extent, on a corporate level, something else has to emerge. That’s one of the problems for me. Although the internet is incredible on one level, on another level, everything is fragmented.
“One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot, because we’re nearly on the anniversary of it, was the event in 1965 where Ginsberg appeared at the Royal Albert Hall. They did it on a whim almost – what the biggest place we can book in London? The Albert Hall. I think seven thousand people were in there, from all over the country. That was the start of the counter culture, seeing itself, recognising itself. It was about disparate groups of people making those connections.
“I think the internet has thrown that up as well, but now everything’s separated. Forums used to be big but now that’s dissipated and everyone goes to certain DJs’ Facebook pages but it’s not neutral ground. It’s a different thing. Once two or three of these disparate strands going together, and then connect with other strands, then you see things starting to happen. I don’t think we’re quite there yet. But it’s getting close.
“Young people are very cynical about pop music. They think it’s crass. It’s only older people who are interested in it. I remember one time, this real soul aficionado was trying to tell me how great Will Young was. And I was like, you’ve listened to all this music and you’re accepting Will Young? If they were really true to themselves, they’d admit that it’s second-rate stuff. It’s alright.
“We’ve always had talent shows like New Faces and Opportunity Knocks but we’ve also always had great pop music, edgy pop music. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great music being made at the moment, but there isn’t as much opportunity for it to come towards the mainstream. It’s fractured. It’s hiding in corners. For it to survive and thrive, people need to be able to connect.
“I’ve said it so many times before that it’s almost become like a slogan for me. To know the future you first must know the past. If you know what happened before, because things are cyclic, you may have an idea what’s ahead of us.
“The danger for me, it’s a trap you can fall into easily, is that nostalgia – which is not bad in itself – it’s like doing a one-off Hacienda revival, but not if you do if every week. You’ve got to connect with a younger age group. For me, that’s absolutely key. It would give me the horrors if I thought, as a DJ, I had to just play the same old tracks to people my age group, in the same way that I used to play them back then. A lot of people enjoy that but to me, it’s a slow death.”
It’s like the northern scene. Sometimes it seems like it’s preserved in aspic.
“Have you seen that Northern Soul Girl video? It’s this girl in the streets of Bristol. She starts off outside this supermarket dancing to Happy by Pharrell Williams – this was before it was before it was massive, but then she switches to a northern soul track called Happy, and she’s dancing away and this old guy comes up and dances and it’s just a really lovely vibe.
“It’s so fresh. She’s a young girl, just loving the music and everything. But then, on the northern soul forums you get, she’s cashing in on it, she’s taking our scene. I was like, are you mad? Do you want to take this music to the grave with you? Because that’s what you’re doing. This is someone you should be encouraging, saying isn’t this amazing? Thirty years on a 17-year-old has connected with the music we love. But too many people think they own it.
“It’s similar to those forums I used to belong to. Initially they were full of really knowledgable people who were very helpful to each other and five years down the line, new people come in and everyone isn’t so helpful. We had to go digging around record shops to find the music we liked back in the day, all that stuff. Yes, we did have to do that, but the world’s not like that anymore, times have changed and we’ve got to adapt.
“People say it’s all too easy but there’s so much stuff out there, how do you exercise quality control? It’s not as easy as you think. I’m a big one for letting people know what things are. I just tell people, it’s Curtis Mayfield or whoever.
“As a DJ, I draw from the past, but a lot of these tracks are reworks. There was a time in the 90s where people would take a track, rock music, anything, and just put a straight house beat on it. And that’s supposed to be a club track. It’s not like that.
“You take a song that was recorded in the 70s, that’s great, but it’s not in time so it can’t be mixed. So you put it in time but you do it nicely so you wouldn’t even notice. Build an intro so that DJs can mix into it and then build an outro so that they can get out of it. Maybe the chorus was a bit cheesy, so let’s take the chorus out and extend this. That kind of re-work, re-edit, cut and paste culture is part of the world we’re in.”
And that’s precisely what you were doing in the early 80s.
“That was the start of that culture emerging. We didn’t know what it was but we were responding to it. I was hearing Grandmaster Flash and Steinski, it was hip hop. Now it’s everywhere. In the early 60s, the editor was the guy in the white coat in Abbey Road saying, don’t touch those tapes, they’re really valuable. Now kids have got editing facilities on their computers. They can do it. And they’re very hands on. They can twist stuff into what they want it to be. And I’m into that.
“People say it’s sacrilegious, and there’s stuff that you shouldn’t touch, but you can always go back to the original. You shouldn’t say that, just because the Beatles have done something you can’t touch it.
“There’s a guy called Leftside Wobble did an amazing rework of Tomorrow Never Knows. He made a six-minute club track that sounds sensational and it’s a track that was made in 1966. Obviously it’s a very special track anyway, but he’s brought it into a new context.
“I’ll put it in a mix and people will come up and ask what it was and you tell them it’s a little band called the Beatles, because to kids in their early 20s now, the Beatles are Hey Jude and She’s Loves You.”
I can’t get over the rave thing. Was rave really such a bad thing, given the UK’s vibrant cultural landscape?
“I think it started off brilliant, obviously,” says Wilson. “Let’s use the Hacienda as an example. Nude night was already established in 1986, 1987. It was a strong night, with Mike Pickering and Martin Pendergast, and then later Graeme Park. They played house but they also played street soul, funk and even jazz, basically different strands of black music with a few balearic twists.
“And then ecstasy came on the scene, and it enhanced the music, everyone was buzzing, it made everything more vivid or whatever it was, but eventually the drug experience became the primary thing and the music was secondary.
“And it started becoming house all night long. All the other strands dropped away, Mike Pickering has said since ‘we got it wrong. The precious times were before it went house all night long, when we had the black crowd in’.
“The black crowd liked their dancing space and they left when it went massive. They liked the fact that the Hacienda wasn’t rammed full of people because they had their space on the dancefloor. All that hand dancing started because people were packed in like sardines and there was no room to do anything else. That was no good for the black kids.
“I was a bit more detached from it all in the 90s but I remember a mate telling me that somebody wasn’t around one night because he was at home practicing his set. And I’m like, his set? Isn’t that what a band does? And then I realised, they were practicing, mix for mix, what they were going to be playing on Saturday night. It might be a place they’ve never played before, in a city they’ve never been to, but they’re locking down exactly what they’re going to play.
“That was completely alien to my graduation as a DJ. You’re reading an audience. They’re reacting to what you play. It’s a reciprocal, two-way thing. You had to learn how to work with people. You realise that maybe this is not the time to hit them with all this obscure new music, but maybe if you play it right, chuck stuff in here and there, maybe you can play more upfront stuff.
“There was this big emphasis on the technical aspect and for me, it should be all about programming, what records you play. They weren’t even necessarily playing the best record, they were choosing the best record to mix most seamlessly.
“And the drug experience had become primary. People like you and me, when we first got into music, as kids, what that did to us wasn’t anything to do with drugs. It caused a chemical reaction, and we felt it throughout our entire bodies. It’s the vibrations. It’s incredible. But those people lost track of all that.
“When I began to play at festivals, it was almost like a recruiting ground. People are more experimental and more open to different things at festivals. I’d be playing a bit of funk, a bit of soul, a bit of disco, a bit of indie, you know, like the Happy Mondays, and it was very new to people, because they’d be used to hearing one style of music all night. This is just me doing what any DJ would do in the 70s. You never stuck on one narrow strand. It was the movement that was the joy of it.
“I got to know a couple who’d got married, who’d met at a gig I did at Bestival. It was a revelation for them. He was a former heroin addict and she hadn’t been out to a club without a pill for years, but they were completely cold sober and having the time of their lives. They could still have a good time without having to take anything. I’ve noticed that happening more and more. People are realising that the music does something to you as well.”
Clad in Adidas from head to toe, with his mane of grey hair and a gleam in his eyes, Wilson is still recognisable as the confident young lad showing Jools Holland – and all the rest of us too – how to mix records all those years ago. His enthusiasm is just as infectious.
He’s recently started a new label Super Weird Substance, dedicated primarily to “balearicpsychedelicdubdisco recordings” and 60s-style “Happenings that include talks, art, bands and DJs.”
Among a gratifyingly varied roster are Kermit’s new band, the Super Weird Society, and the Reynolds, two sisters from Seacombe, whose soulful and fabulous take on Bessie Banks’ Don’t You Worry Baby (The Best is Yet to Come) is one of my favourite tunes of the year. Get involved.
I’ve had a couple of very entertaining hours with Wilson. Tales of Ken Campbell, Walking in Rhythm by the Blackbirds, music industry dramas, Adidas trainers, snooty internet forums and John Higgs’ book about the KLF come thick and fast. Wilson is an interesting bloke.
“I love the connections, the richness of the tapestry of culture that surrounds us,” he tells me. “I love the fact that records have a story, and they connect with each other in ways that you couldn’t even imagine. That’s what I’m all about, putting these connections together. It gives you an insight into patterns and how things develop.
“I went to the site the other day and looked up and saw the Royal Liver Building there and thought, this is the place, this is the spot,” he says with a wide grin. “It’s like playing by the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. It’s an absolutely iconic place. It’s where people sailed off from or sailed into.
“It’s a dream setting, especially for someone from Merseyside. Telling this story and making these connections in this context is a really special thing.”
[This is a longer version of an interview that was originally published in the Big Issue North in June 2015]