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By Richard Stewart
Acid House commemorated its 20th anniversary this year, with no shortage of articles, books, club nights and talking heads on hand to guide you through the seismic shift that shook youth culture in the summer of ’88. This UK driven phenomena had blown in from the winds of Chicago, an accidental derivative from the Roland drum machine which had for many years powered the black gay clubs of America.
Saturday 30th August 2008, a short cab ride from Manchester city centre in a small enclave of Salford not much troubled by the cranes and bulldozers- the creeping regeneration so evident elsewhere in the borough, tribute of a more clandestine nature was being paid. It celebrated those who blazed their trail to a different beat, in a time long before House Music. Electro–Funk, much like the tower blocks of Salford stands isolated and largely forgotten; simultaneously ignored and misunderstood. ‘Electrospective- Manchester Pre Rave’, the brainchild of DJ Greg Wilson and the MDMArchive, set out to tell the full story, coaxing Electro out from the shadows with nearly 12 hours of discussion, film and dancing. Wilson was a pioneer in programming the electronic boogie emanating from New York towards the end of ’81, a move not popular with purists who were outraged that drummers had been substituted for drum machines. Undeterred, his nights flourished before the fuse paper was well and truly lit, late in1982 and from the unlikeliest of sources.
Malcolm McLaren, like a pre You Tube voyeur went to the heart of the Bronx and his video for ‘Buffalo Girls’ gave the UK it’s first glimpse of Breakdancing, a style which had developed in the streets and clubs of New York since the mid-seventies and featured scratching, graffiti and rapping for good measure. The burgeoning electro scene in this country now had an explosive visual to match the beats and the following summer, swept through the inner cities of Britain laying much of the foundation that Acid House would build upon half a decade later.
Islington Mill dates back to the Industrial Revolution and is now a thriving cultural hub for Manchester’s artists, writers and musicians, where pop sensation the Ting Ting’s early manifesto and debut album came together. A wonderful red brick building, infused with a palpable sense of history and the perfect setting for Electrospective, the doors opened at 4 pm. The daytime session began with an informal Q&A with various movers and shakers of the era, DJ’s Hewan Clarke, Colin Curtis, Chad Jackson & Mike Shaft. The afternoon turnout was testament to the high regard which these names are held locally and to the radical impact Electro left in its wake. During the lengthy and lively debates that ran throughout the early evening Greg proved a good interviewer, taking a background role and subtly cajoling stories and amusing anecdotes from his assorted guests.
There then followed a short session with Tim’Bones’ Forde, a dancer with Manchester’s best known dance crew, ‘Broken Glass’. He is also behind the documentary that showcased on the night called ‘The Birth of the British B-Boy’, which charts the rise of Broken Glass and shines a light on a clutch of unheralded early pioneers of the scene. Whilst the Rainy Cities miserabalists donned grey overcoats to pen a Manchester musical heritage we hear so much about, black kids and soul boys slipped into something more comfortable and hunkered down to the serious business of partying. The 40 minute short perfectly captures that essence, tapping into the raw energy and talent hidden in the high rises and estates of ‘80’s Manchester. The same D.I.Y. spirit that propelled this movement forward is dusted off and put to good use in the film making process and the low budget approach lends the film a certain authenticity. It also gives voice to those responsible for starting the dance, detailing their struggle to find not only an outlet for their passion, but also their place in society.
Certainly the landscape was different back then, with the black voice and presence marginalised. It was nonetheless an intensely inspired and productive period that gave rise to a number of influential underground movements. The film touches upon the lack of opportunities for those lower down the economic order, but its message is refreshingly upbeat. It demonstrates that with hard work, talent and self belief, young people can and do transcend their monotonous grind as proven by this group of street smart kids suddenly realising a golden opportunity in the summer of ‘83. Armed with a determination not to be written off and managed by the soon to retire DJ Greg Wilson, ‘Broken Glass Street Crew’ took their show on the road and made things happen.
With communication as sophisticated as it is today, things travel so much further, so much faster. In a myspace, facebook dominated world, it is hard to imagine anything given the space to develop as organically as the many strands of black music that collided to eventually form the original electro explosion. The internet can flash messages across the globe in minutes, but offers such a wealth of choice that it’s causing attention deficit disorder amongst its users. A generation of fidgets never have time to get bored; one click and they are already onto something new.
And that’s part of the problem. There runs a train of thought that a little bit of boredom is exactly what our children lack. Cutting them off from that experience can leave them with practically no use for their own initiative and less practiced in the art of free thinking. Allow them a little ennui and let’s see what they can create once their minds have a chance to idle. It is no accident that our most defined club moments were the result of decay; oppression, lack of opportunity and disenchantment forced people to find something constructive and meaningful in life and in the case of Broken Glass and Manchester’s other crew of note, ‘Street Machine’, it led to the dancefloor (or makeshift lino) in a contest for supremacy.
There was a fierce rivalry in the early DJ battles and competition between the different crews was furious, yet rarely violent. With the co-modification of hip hop and its subsequent glamorisation of violence this intensified divisions, and seeing the brutal consequences of ghetto styling over substance and the rising toll that the drug wars have taken, this documentary takes us back to a time when a beef was settled by consensus; the one throwing the best or hitherto unseen moves walked away with the spoils. Crime and poverty were as entrenched then as they are now, but B Boy culture for a brief time offered respite from the harsh realities of life, an escape route that hadn’t previously existed.
The legacy of those early days has permeated the upper echelons of high brow culture, with graffiti ‘installations’ now exhibiting in the distinctly asbo-free environment of the art gallery. Turntablism is still thriving and Breakdancing is the standard backdrop for MTV chart hits as well as the burning obsession for Jonah Takalua, the foul mouthed Tongan in Chris Lilley’s brilliantly observed cult comedy, Summer Heights High. The no sell-out ethos that was integral to keeping it ‘street’ may have excluded many of the original crew members from hip hop’s new wealth, but they do at least have a celluloid record that accurately represents their place in history, one that will survive beyond their own memories. ‘The Birth of British B-Boys’ also provides a fitting tribute to Royston Swanston, AKA Swanny, a key member of Broken Glass who sadly died in 2006.
At around the same time that the roots of hip hop began forming in the Bronx, during the 70’s on the other side of the world, a pair of Australians Bill Mollison & David Holmgren first coined the term permaculture. Used to describe an environmentally friendly farming method most in tune with nature, this attitude has been adopted by a huge global movement uniting to fight for equality and sustainability. Their guiding principle follows a simple logic; if you want something to survive, to thrive, then you have to put back in. Watching the grainy footage of Greg Wilson’s very eighties barnet we are reminded of an altogether different kind of permaculture, but you would be hard pressed to find anyone who has done more to raise the awareness of what this short lived era spawned. Since coming out of retirement back in 2003, through his mixes, edits, DJ sets, written memoirs and his own exhaustive fact packed website www.electrofunkroots.com Greg has been on a crusade to exhume the facts from the skeletons of this nascent club scene.
It would be inaccurate to think that the music in clubs at that time was purely electro; that simply wasn’t the case. There was a wide spectrum ranging from jazz, funk, disco, soul and boogie that fused with the synthesizer to construct a new sound labelled ‘electro-funk.’ All these components were the melting pot that provided forward thinking dancefloors with a fairly diverse dynamic.
An interesting point raised by Hewan Clarke was how Hacienda’s later policy of ‘House Music All Night Long’ resulted in a much whiter clientele. There is no suggestion this was a conscious decision from the club, but the move towards solely one style of music alienated much of Hacienda’s black crowd, who preferred Moss-side clubs like Reno’s or the all-nighters at the Gallery where a wider choice and variable tempo was on offer. The same charges of over-kill were levelled at Electro when it stalled down a cul de sac of its own making; looking for the perfect beat soon became the only beat and this rapid rise in popularity actually helped bring about its early demise. As far as the mainstream could tell, electro went to ground almost as quickly as it had come. It barely raised a pulse for the remainder of the ‘80’s before returning in various guises bearing the same name but little resemblance and certainly, none of the innovation of its fore bearer.
Back to the present, and after the screening of the film, the sofas were pushed aside to make way for the club session, which kicked off at 10pm. Early exhibition dancing from the Breakers set the tone and it was pretty much big party tracks all the way after that. A multicultural mixed crowd in terms of age, gender and background responded to generate a great atmosphere. When it comes to throwing a memorable party the devil is in the detail and from the format of the day’s event, running order, venue, right down to reasonable door price and the cheap bar, everything was meticulously planned to make this a night to remember (Note- the £2 bottled beer conspired to erase whole chunks of those memories, so excuse any recollections that may be a tad hazy).
Everyone involved deserves credit for pulling this ambitious project off, in particular the Manchester District Music Archive who had a large hand in making the event possible. It was a runaway success and that speaks volumes for Greg Wilson’s organisational skills and the degree of work he is prepared to ‘put in’ away from the decks and his trusty Revox. Were he still alive, ‘60’s counter culture hero Emmett Grogan might class Greg’s thirty years plus behind the turntables (albeit with a 20 year hiatus) as ‘rubbing it till it’s sore’ but seeing the reaction from contemporary dance-floors to his unique reel to reel and laptop cuts and edits, its clear that the message is getting through.
And that’s really the point- what made Greg’s return to DJ’ing such a triumph was that he never traded on the nostalgia ticket. This was so much more than a mere misty eyed trip down memory lane and ‘Electrospective’ sent out an impressive and important declaration. Respect the past dear reader for we can learn much from the tracks of time, but never forget the future; that is history waiting to be written.
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