Originally this page was going to be some sort of history of the disco
scene in the UK, but as research went on, it began to become obvious that
there wasn't really such a thing as a UK-wide disco scene until the very
end of the 1970s. And so it changed direction. Thanks to Pete Haigh, Ian
Levine, Neil Rushton, Graham Judson , Richard Searling, Ian Dewhirst, Dave McAleer, Kev
Roberts, John Abbey, Retro Russ, Greg Wilson, Terry Farley, JJ, Steve
Naylor and Mike Shaft, the piece eventually became about a scene in the
north of England. So, Northern Disco it is...
This is by no means the whole story. If anyone has information they'd
like to add, or know the whereabouts of people who are part of this story,
please get in touch.
In the UK there's a long tradition of kids dancing to black music. As
long ago as the 1940s the brits were dancing to jazz in venues completely
under the radar as far as the rest of the population was aware, and for
more than a decade it remained a well kept secret. In post war Britain,
it wasn't the done thing to hang around in jazz clubs; the ballroom was
still the place to go. But in the late 1950s the first proper youth cult
began to emerge in London in the shape of modernists, or mods: kids who
dressed sharp, taking influence from musicians and European film stars,
but probably named after their love of modern jazz as much as their love
of modern clothes. In the 1960s, when jazz spawned R&B, the mods found
their own musical soundtrack and as imported records became more plentiful,
and more and more uptempo R&B and soul music was being released, the mod
scene expanded way beyond a few basements in the west end of London, spreading
all over the countr; most famously to places like The Twisted Wheel in
Manchester, where from 1963 Roger Eagle played to packed dancefloors at
what were to become legendary all night soul sessions.
As the 1960s went on, black music continued to evolve: Motown moved to
LA, resulting in a whole different sound for the label, James Brown was
becoming a major influence, Curtis, Sly and Marvin were taking things
deeper. But in the north of England, in certain clubs, and on certain
drugs, that style of music didn't work. The dancers didn't want funkier
or slower records and stuck steadfastly to the old records with the beat
they craved. Inevitably, these old records eventually got played out,
and the DJs had to dig deeper, looking for less obvious titles to play
to their eager audiences, who couldn't get enough of this disappearing
style of music. 1960s soul music remained massively popular throughout
the decade in the north (and, it has to be said, through the next three
decades), with King Mojo in Sheffield, The Catacombs in Wolverhampton,
Va Va's in Bolton and of course The Torch in Stoke on Trent being just
a few venues now famous the world over that were attracting large audiences
of kids looking to hear the latest exclusive/elusive discoveries by the
end of the 1960s.
All this was happening around the same time as the Stonewall riots in
New York - widely regarded as the catalyst for the disco scene over there.
That and of course DJs like Francis Grasso and Nicky Siano playing records
in a whole new way... But the history of disco in New York has already
been well documented. In the UK, however, things were different. There
were no DJs over here breaking boundaries, no crazy custom sound systems,
no gay rights riots. There was only the music. What was happening in parties
and clubs in New York didn't have any influence over here, in the early
1970s at least. In London, things progressed as they had been already;
when records with a "disco" sound appeared, they were simply added to
the DJs' playlists, though disco was never a word used to describe the
music for Londoners. In fact, disco as a style of music was frowned upon
by a lot of DJs and clubbers alike. For many in the UK "disco" was a dirty
word from the off. "The disco was what the wallies went to" as one London DJ
puts it. So, while American clubbers took their tops off and embraced
this new scene, in the UK, in the early days, they mocked it.
Except in one place...
The Highland Room in The Mecca Ballroom complex in Blackpool was the exception,
and an extremely important club to the development of disco in the UK.
Or more specifically, the DJ there, Ian Levine, was extremely important.
Ian was a DJ who had a great ear and played from the heart. Initially
a Motown lover, then northern soul freak and a record collector with an
insatiable appetite; he was one of the first UK collectors to hit the
States in search of rare records, and visited New York many times as the
early disco scene was developing there. It was on a buying trip to Miami
that he first heard the now legendary "It Really Hurts Me" by the Carstairs
on a local radio station. Despite it being a complete departure from the
northern soul records he was used to playing, he fell in love with it
and started searching for a copy. It took a long time, but when he finally
sourced one and played it at the Mecca, contrary to what has been written
elsewhere, the dancefloor lapped it up. So much so that he went on to
play it six times that night, with the reaction getting better each time.
This wasn't the first 1970s release that made its way onto Ian's decks
though - Pete Haigh, who was a regular dancer at the Mecca in the early
1970s, and went on to DJ there, names records like "TLC" by PJ and "My
Man's a Sweet Man" by Millie jackson as new releases that were played
alongside obscure 60s soul. Neither is the Carstairs a particularly "disco"
record, but it was a completely different style of dance music to what
had been played in northern clubs before then, and paved the way for tunes
like "Where is The Love" by Betty Wright and "I'm Your Pimp" by the Skullsnaps,
and solidified Ian's reputation as a DJ who was willing to take chances
and break the mould when it came to soul music
Ian Levine can be credited as one of the first UK DJs to openly embrace
the disco scene. He visited plenty of clubs in New York and befriended
a lot of the DJs he met, which gave him access to all the new releases
as they came off the press. Songs by Crown Heights Affair, Willy J, The
Brothers and The Fatback Band became Mecca classics. Not only was Ian
Levine the first UK DJ to play a 12" single; he was one of the first people
in the world to even see one! It seems Kev Roberts (Wigan Casino DJ and
northern soul collector extrordinaire - more about him later) was in RCA's
New York office sometime in 1975 and was given a hot off the press 12"
copy of Vicky Sue Robinson's "Never Gonna Let You Go", which he gave to
Levine on his return to the UK. According to Ian, and he's argued his
case over the years, this was the first promotional 12" single released.
It was an experiment he says, and has the same two songs on both sides.
Whether he's correct about this being the first 12" or not, it was most
certainly the first one to reach UK shores, and Ian was definitely the
first DJ to play it.
He became such a fan of the 12" format that he convinced Polydor Records
to press what Ian believes is the UK's first 12" single - James Wells'
"Baby I'm the Same Man", a record he wrote and produced and which was
already big on northern dancefloors. It was pressed in a limited quantity
for promotional use only, but Ian is convinced it was released before
the likes of Ernie Bush "Breakaway", which was almost certainly the first
commercially released 12" in the UK.
Unlike London's DJs and clubbers, Ian and his DJing partner Colin Curtis
didn't shy away from the word disco - "New York Disco" and "Disco Funk"
were used on much of the Mecca's promotional material. In fact, their
adverts in Blues & Soul magazine from the time read "The Only Place To
Hear Authentic New York Disco"! The time Ian spent over there hanging
out with the likes of Jim Burgess, Warren Glock and Terry Sherman was
rubbing off on him: although the equipment in the Mecca was very basic
(Ian recalls only one turntable working at times, and him announcing the
next song with a mic in one hand, while he tried to quickly change the
record with the other), Ian developed an interest in mixing. By 1976 he'd
taught himself, and managed to put his skills to the test with a couple
of guest spots in Uncle Charlies in Miami, where his friend Steve Freeman
was resident DJ. It would be a few years before he could utilise his new
skill over here though.
The appearance of 12" singles in the states didn't go un-noticed by many
in the industry over here. Though it would take almost a year before the
UK started releasing commercially on this new format. John Abbey, who
ran Blues and Soul Magazine, as well as Contempo Records, was quick off
the mark, releasing what was probably the UK's first commercial 12" single
(Ernie Bush - Breakaway), though he'd been releasing "disco" records on
45 for a while before then... records by Ultrafunk, The Armada Orchestra
and so on, all released in 1975, and advertised under the slogan " The
Pride Of The Discos". John is a true soul lover and spent a lot of time
in New York. However he was more likely to be found in the Apollo than
in a discotheque. He did have his finger on the pulse though, and with
a shop on Hanway Street in London's west end, and with DJs being his biggest
customers, he watched as 12" singles began to sell in quantity.
Another UK label who were quick off the mark to release disco records,
and 12" singles was Pye. The man behind their disco output was Dave McAleer,
who'd been involved in the northern soul scene for some time, previously
running Pye Disco Demand, a label he set up in 1974 (much to the disgust
of true soul fans it has to be said) to release back catalog material,
aimed at the Wigan Casino crowd. Most of the releases were second rate
non soul records with what Dave obviously saw as the right beat, or worse
still, new releases tailor made for the Wigan dancefloor. He applied this
latter strategy to some of his first 12" disco releases too, with Love
Hustle by The Family Affair, which turned out to be a production by Tony
Hatch, a UK composer best known for writing themes for UK television shows..
and not very credible ones at that: his most famous piece of work being
the theme from Crossroads (a UK low budget afternoon soap). It's interesting
to note that this was also released as a 12" a couple of years later,
on Casino Classics, distributed by Pye, despite the Casino's anti disco
stance. However, Pye also had distribution deals with a few US labels,
including Right On (Disco Boogie Woman came out in the UK in 1975 on 7")
and AVI (Tons of Rinder & Lewis stuff was released on 12" through Pye
Whether they liked the term "disco" or not, all across the UK, DJs were
picking up 12" singles and playing seven minute + records with percussion
breakdowns for half the song. Tom Moulton was worshipped, but still, to
the majority of Londoners at least, it was just uptempo soul music, and
no different to the music they'd been dancing to the preceding years.
It seems most DJs who were a part of the "northern disco" scene were Blackpool
Mecca regulars, and learned their trade from Ian Levine - Richard Searling
was no exception, despite being a resident at The Mecca's biggest rival,
Wigan Casino, from 1973 onwards. He's a busy man now, with a long and
varied career under his belt, so it's hard to get much information from
him about this era. However, when I asked him about UK disco clubs he
was quick to mention Angels in Burnley where, between 1976 and 1978, he
was Wednesday night resident DJ. For those who don't know, Burnley is
a small Lancashire town, about 30 miles north of Manchester. A Wednesday
night in Burnley isn't the most exotic of locations, but thanks to the
vision of its manager Paul Simon, with possibly the first club in the
UK to style itself loosely on a New York disco, a sound system to match
and one of the country's top soul DJs as resident, Angels on a Wednesday
night in Burnley was indeed the place to be!
The same year he got the Angels gig, Richard landed himself a job as
RCA Records' North West Promotions Assistant, where he was responsible
for such acts as Bonnie Tyler, Hall & Oates, Iggy Pop and David Bowie.
One of the first things he did there was to set up Grapevine Records with
John Anderson (together they became responsible for one of today's nicer
UK only 12"s - Leo's Sunship "Give Me The Sunshine"). In 1977 Gregg Lynn,
a great supporter of disco music and one of the first to see the potential
of 12" singles over here, was poached by Richard from EMI Records. Richard
worked closely with Greg who set up RCA's "Disco Direction" label, releasing
material he licensed from the likes of TK Disco, as well as RCA's own
disco releases. Most signifcantly to this piece though, in 1977 RCA UK
picked up the rights to distribute Salsoul's catalog, which meant yet
more 12" singles to be promoted by Richard; the first of course being
Ten Percent by Double Exposure. To promote this landmark release, Richard
threw a party at Manchester's Ritz...
Which leads us nicely onto Neil Rushton. Neil was another northern soul
devotee who cut his teeth at the Mecca. Like his friend and mentor Ian
Levine, he didn't limit his tastes to '60s stompers, developing a love
of all types of soul music. By the mid 1970s there was a great split in
the northern soul scene - instigated mainly, it would seem, by the Wigan
Casino crowd, who were totally against anything that was released after
1965 being played on "the scene". (This is despite the fact that the records
being played in Wigan were quite often sub-standard stompers by white
artists, or instrumental surf music that happened to have the right beat).
The hardcore northern crowd wanted to stay out all night, all weekend,
with all nighters being the thing. On the other side, possibly as a reaction
to this, there was an all dayer scene developing. In 1975 Neil Rushton
launched what would become seminal events in Manchester's Ritz, running
from 2pm-11pm Sunday, once a month, with a DJ lineup consisting of Neil,
Ian Levine, Colin Curtis and Richard Searling. In the early days the musical
menu consisted of mainly northern soul, but there were always new releases
much like the Mecca material played. Gradually, the new releases became
more and more popular, until by 1978, the playlist was 100% contemporary,
with a strong emphasis on disco. The biggest crowd reaction Neil can remember
was for Goody Goody "It Looks Like Love", a six minute long semi instrumental
disco groover which was never released as a 45 - about as far removed
from northern soul as a dance record can get! The Ritz quickly established
itself as the biggest "Jazz funk" event outside of London, regularly attracting
1,700 people. Asked about the term jazz funk, as opposed to disco, Neil
told me that "it sounded more underground than disco... proper disco was
based on soul and gospel music. Normal clubs played commercial disco,
we championed underground music". Despite the jazz funk tag, the HESC
(Ritz promoters) didn't hide their affinity with disco - again, promotional
material from the time describes the all dayer as a "Funky Disco Party"
or an "All Day Boogie". While other soul events were giving away sew on
patches, Neil's Heart of England Soul Club were giving away "12inch Disco
As well as being a DJ, Neil was a record wholesaler and dealer, so had
his finger very much on the pulse. A lot of his stock came from Tony Monson,
who was one of the first people to import 12" singles to the UK. He says
of the music in the north "London DJs were better treated by record companies
when it came to being supplied with records, but the fanatical attitude
and record hunting skills of people weaned on rare soul meant we were
pretty good at finding records before they came out.. in Manchester Colin
Curtis and John Grant were running a Sunday night club where a record
a fortnight old was considered an oldie!".
His passion for music, and for record collecting led Neil to start the
Inferno record label, releasing classic northern soul like "Tainted Love"
by Gloria Jones, and "If That's What You Wanted" by Frankie Beverley on
7". In 1977 he pressed his first 12" single - Gil Scott Heron's "The Bottle",
by now a Mecca standard and only ever available on 12" as a difficult
to track down promo. Neil was keen to license The Carstairs "It Really
Hurts Me" - by now a northern soul classic, and despite being told by
many it would be impossible, he managed to track down the owners (it turned
out to be De-Lite), signed the song, and asked if they had any alternative
takes he could have. Turns out they did: no less than two unissued Tom
Moulton mixes! Tom Moulton was a hero to anyone into this kind of music,
so it was an exciting discovery. It made sense that this had to come out
on 12", making it another quite desireable UK only rarity nowadays!
Then there was Kev Roberts - another Wigan Casino resident, and Blackpool
Mecca regular. Around this time he was striking up a friendship with two
young record producers he met while living for a spell in Brooklyn. Their
names were Patrick Adams and Peter Brown. Like Neil Rushton, Kev was running
a record label, reissuing classic northern soul on 7", but he'd recently
been involved in the release of a cover of Silvetti's "Spring Rain" by
the Destiny Orchestra (who, it turns out were none other than Shakatak,
a band managed by Kev's friend Les McCutcheon, who went onto be quite
successful in the 1980s). Kev's friendship with Peter inevitably led to
some deals being done, and Kev issued some of Peter Brown's material on
12" on his Destiny label - Chain Reaction's "Dance Freak" and Eddie Cheba's
"Looking Good", while Peter released "Green Onions" and "Spring Rain"
both by the Destiny Orchestra on a US version of Destiny... Another P&P
mystery solved then.
And yet another northern soul DJ who trod a similar path is Ian Dewhirst.
Along with Richard Searling and Kev Roberts, he was a resident DJ at Wigan
Casino from the start, having played all over the north of England since
1971. But his love of all types of soul music, and his hunger for rare
records (at decent prices) led him to hit the states for six months in
1975, staying mainly in Los Angeles, but also taking in New York and San
Francisco, visiting those cities' key clubs on the way. He couldn't fail
to be influenced by what he experienced in those places.. he still gets
goosebumps remembering the first time he heard "You + Me = Love" in Disco
9000: a penthouse club overlooking Sunset Strip, and seeing the place
go mad. On his return to Britain he got more involved in the disco scene,
playing the all dayers with Levine & co until in 1979 the Warehouse opened
in Leeds. The Warehouse went a step further than Angels, installing a
sound system and lighting rig that was comparable to anything New York
had to offer, making it one of the country's first US style night clubs;
the other being the Embassy in London. Clubs like Sundown, Samanthas and
Studio Valbonne had opened their doors prior to this and certainly played
disco music, but there was no disco scene in London comparable to what
was going on in New York, with most clubbers still calling it soul music,
or jazz funk. Both in the north and south most clubbers were still unaware
of what was going on in clubs in the USA. The wiser people knew the records,
knew Tom Moulton's name, or knew to look out for a Scepter 12" promo -
but names like Mancuso, Rodriguez or Siano meant nothing.
Greg James was an American DJ, credited as the first to mix records over
here. Greg was an audio engineer by trade, and a close friend of Richie
Kaczor, who taught him his DJ skills. He was brought over for the opening
of the Embassy, where he set up the sound system and became resident DJ. The Embassy quickly became London's answer to Studio 54: the place where the rich and glamorous hung out. London's clubbers who'd been dancing away happily to jazz funk
in venues like the 100 Club and Crackers had no interest, and probably wouldn't get past the door anyway!
Greg schooled many of the UK's DJs including Ian Dewhirst, who was quick
to learn and soon gained a reputation for his skills behind the decks
at his Warehouse residency.. another club kitted out by Greg James.
Ian Levine was mixing around the same time too. It's most likely that
he was in fact the first British mixing DJ; with the closure of the Mecca,
he'd become Saturday resident at Angels in Burnley, where he stayed for
a year between 1978 and 1979. This would make him the first British DJ
to mix in clubs over here - second in the country behind Greg James, who
was of course American.
Back in the south Froggy, part of the "Soul Mafia", and probably the closest
thing to a disco DJ down there, had spent some time in New York, mingled
with the DJs, experienced the sound systems, and brought a whole new style
of DJing home with him to London. By now more and more DJs were changing
their style, causing quite a bit of controversy in some quarters; so much
so that Neil Rushton penned an article "Does The Talking Have To Stop"
for his "Disco" Magazine (see below).
The rest is probably history....
For a more balanced view of the London club scene in the 1970s, look
out for "Before Jack Had His Groove": written by Terry Farley
and Roual Galloway, being published soon...