In Search of Balearic
A group of islands, the cult of Alfredo, or just an excuse for playing daft pop records? Balearious!
Twenty years ago, the word Balearic meant nothing more than a collection of islands huddled near the Mediterranean coast of northern Spain. It was the sort of place you might go to if you favoured package holidays or booked your breaks from the pages of a Thomson’s brochure. But then something strange happened. British DJs, holidaying on the island of Ibiza, discovered a DJ called Alfredo Fiorito and before we knew it, the Balearics – the location – also became a musical genre: the Balearic beat.
So what is Balearic? Is it an actual place or is it an idea? We know about the island of Ibiza, but what is the other Balearic, the Balearic that is a fuzzy and scattered set of records that may or may not include Wang Chung, Phil Collins and Simply Red. Did it ever exist outside of the confines of DJ Alfredo’s record box circa 1989? And is it, as dance writer Frank Tope once jokingly referred to as, “pop records that sound good on pills” or a jumble sale of crap masquerading as gold?
This is the story of what happened in Ibiza and, perhaps more importantly now, whether it ever really was a genre or simply a bunch of records played by an Argentinian ex-pat.
A SHORT HISTORY OF IBIZA
Ibiza has always retained some sort of mythical hold in people’s imagination. Its location in the Mediterranean meant it was perfectly positioned to offer sanctuary for transients travelling to or escaping from somewhere else. It was a favourite haunt of the Carthaginians’ whose goddess of sexuality, Tanit, populates trinket stalls on the island to this day. Its first settlers were the Phoenicians, who gave it its name (it derives from their god of safety, dance and protection, Bes); and thereafter by the Romans and the Vandals, the Arabs and the Catalans, the Jews (fleeing persecution) and Americans (draft dodgers, most of them), fugitives from justice and injustice, pirates looking for place to hide or trade; finally, it was the hippies and the jet set who came…
Ibiza is a tolerant place. You’d have to be to welcome/endure so many visitors over two thousand years. Despite the despotic Franco’s brutal reign on mainland Spain, it became known as an island that was particularly sympathetic to gay men and women, well before most of mainland Europe; Santa Eulalia was a popular gay tourist destination from the 1950s onwards and Ibiza has remained one of the top three gay holiday spots worldwide ever since. The island’s first gay disco, Anfora (snuck away in a cave in Dalt Vila) opened as long ago as the early 1960s. Pacha’s Piti Urgell recalls the contrast in attitudes between Ibiza and the mainland. “Once the police came to our club in Sitges and they said that that it wasn’t up to standard because it was too dark to read. My brother told them, ‘Well, that’s not a problem because nobody comes here to read!’.”
A man with the gloriously unlikely moniker of Bad Hand Jack helped launch Ibiza’s musical scene when he began booking jazz musicians to come and perform on the island, including Billy Eckstine and Jon Hendricks (sadly, Bad Jack Hand lived up to his name and was later convicted of murder in Barcelona). Thanks to its reputation among the gay community and among a strata of super-wealthy individuals, movie stars, actors and playboys found its secluded bays perfect for either relaxing or getting up to no good, away from the prying eyes of a hungry celebrity press. Errol Flynn spent time there, along with Ursula Andress, Denholm Elliott (who made it his home), Nikki Lauda, Goldie Hawn and Roman Polanski. “Ibiza was pretty much left on its own,” claims Bar M’s Willie Crichton. “This is why, in a way, we were able to have what we had. It was a well-kept secret. This was a bastion of liberty in the country. It was like an independent republic.”
Seminal hippie movie More, which employed a Pink Floyd score, was shot on Ibiza and nearby Formentera and provided further temptation for the long-hairs of Europe to head for the Mediterranean. The Ibiza of 35 years ago was somewhat different to today’s commercialised island. Hippies would hang out in the open, often literally since many of them never bothered to wear clothes. “The show was not in the clubs it was in the streets,” recalls Argentinian Nino, aka Captain Birdseye. “I mean the street was a club. You walked to the harbour and there was a crazy world there with the hippies and the hippie market, people naked on the street, drag queens, Germans on their motorcycles. But in San Antonio there were package tours and one of the attractions for the tours was to come and see the crazy people so they brought the tourists down to look. The people did not feel comfortable being looked at, so they took refuge in the clubs.”
The first modern-style club to be opened on Ibiza was Pacha. Even then Pacha was already a burgeoning empire, with clubs on the mainland (their first place opened in Sitges in 1967). Pacha was opened by the Urgell brothers, Ricardo and Piti, the latter also being the founding DJ. Piti played a mixture of British rock (Island Records was a favourite label with bands like Spooky Tooth and Traffic particular favourites) and pop and soul. The early ’70s was somewhat different to now. “There were two floors and two worlds,” explains Piti. “The touristy side was on one floor and the hippie world was on the other floor. The same music but totally different scenes on the different sides. Lots of hippies would come, but the tourists would come and they would also pay. The hippies would just bring their dogs.”
Pacha parties grew to legendary status. One such night involved a flamenco performer dancing with a horse on the main dancefloor. Another involved transporting the whole club on a boat to Formentera. And then there were the White Parties. “I’ll always remember the first White Party we threw in ’76, three years after it opened,” chuckles Piti. “Everybody had to wear white. They were saying, ‘What shall we do to make this party special?’ So we put two UV lights so you could really see the white. Everybody made a really big effort. So when they put the lights on so the clothes glowed, everyone took them off and danced in the nude. The atmosphere was incredible. The challenge was to make a better party than that one because that one was just so amazing. But we never managed it.”
History is never linear and however much you might want the facts and figures to line-up like soldiers, they never do. History is a city of facts backed by an empire of suppositions. While this story is largely concerned with Ibiza and the effects of DJ Alfredo, there are always interesting diversions and this is one of them.
Jean-Claude Maury is a mysterious character that steps into the frame just as the camera lens blinks. His story collides accidentally with that of Ibiza and Balearic music despite the fact he is rarely, if ever, mentioned. He is the Zelig of the Balearic scene.
What we do know about him is this. Jean-Claude Maury was a Frenchman, originally from Marseilles, who lived in Brussels. His background was originally in the punk rock explosion, but he first came to prominence as a DJ at the Mirano, a swanky Belgian club that is often described as the Studio 54 of the Lowlands (an accolade that probably ranks alongside the best breakdancer in Afghanistan). He is said to be a primary influence on the Belgian new beat scene and championed the dark leftfield pop that became such a fixture in sets in Antwerp and beyond. It was Jean-Claude who broke Max Berlin’s Elle Et Moi and also did a very passable cover version for the Carrere label under the name Joy. He was originally the DJ at Glory’s (which had French ownership) before moving on to Ku, where he was resident during Alfredo’s Amnesia glory years.
When I asked Alfredo about the DJ who influenced him, he cited Jean-Claude Maury. “He was a very simple guy, without a massive ego. And, although he wasn’t young, he had a love for the music, particularly, and he had great taste.”
Other details are sketchy. Was the Jean-Claude who played at the opening night of Pacha Sitges in the late Sixties, the same person? Did he bring his new beat influences to bear on Ibiza (Mag & The Suspects’ Erection, for example, was both a big Balearic tune and massive with Belgian DJs like Fat Ronny)? Was Jean-Claude the link?
Jean-Claude Maury, however accidentally, almost certainly had an influence on the sound that eventually became defined as Balearic. In fact, it’s not hard to see the links between the music played in Belgium during the years leading up the new beat explosion with that of Ibiza and Alfredo. The difference between the two is probably just a healthy dose of sun to wash away the doom and acid rain.
In the very same year that Pacha threw their infamous White Party, a young Argentinian journalist arrived on the island by way of Madrid and Paris. Alfredo Fiorito was visiting a friend. He never left. His first job on Ibiza was selling candles on a market stall. A few years later he was running a friend’s bar. The bar also had some decks, a mixer and a small collection of records, so Alfredo doubled up as barman and DJ. He had but one ambition and that was to become resident at Amnesia, then an ailing open-air club that no one seemed able to make into a success. As to why he wanted this job, he says simply: “It was the most alternative place in Ibiza.”
Amnesia had originally been a finca that had belonged to the Planells family for several generations. They sold it to the aristocratic Maria Fuencisla Martinez de Campos y Munoz in 1970, who turned it into a hippie enclave replete with art exhibitions, live performances by stoner bands with a side order of mung beans. It became a discotheque in May 1976 when a Madrileño called Antonio Escohotado began leasing the finca from its owner. He chose the name Amnesia (having discarded the markedly less snappy the Workshop of Forgetfulness).
Amnesia was not a success for several years. Trevor Fung recalls going over to play there in 1984 after two Belgians bought the club. “There was no one in there. No one. Dead. I played there for about two weeks. It had just been bought and they’d just got it going. Didn’t happen. Lost my job.” During that same summer, Alfredo finally got his chance. “By the end of August, we had not had one person in the club,” he laughs, knowingly.
By the end of that season, it was the hottest club on the island. What changed their fortune was switching from regular club hours to after-hours – and a little Alfredo magic. It all happened by accident. “One night we’d been waiting to get paid and some of the people in the club, my work colleagues, asked me to play for them while we waited for the money,” explains Alfredo. “Some people came down from Ku, heard the music and stayed there. Fifty to sixty people. The next day there was 300; the day after 500 and four days later there was a thousand in the club. Just like that.” From then on, Amnesia opened at three and closed at midday.
The music that Alfredo and a cadre of island DJs began to discover and promote over the next few years formed the original Balearic playlist (many of which were later codified on the FFRR compilation Balearic Beat Vol. 1). Although many of these records were mainly European and often English, they’d remained a mystery to many of the travelling British contingent – mainly because they were all soulboys for whom the idea of listening to music made by white people, especially white English people, was anathema.
Trevor Fung was an early devotee of Alfredo’s and soon got to know him. “At the time what I used to do was bring him stuff from the UK and he used to buy it from me,” he says, “I used to look through his records going, ‘Where did you get this from?’ I thought where the fuck did he get all this stuff? And then I looked at the labels and it was all English stuff. It was from Leeds and places like that. I thought what the fuck’s going on here?”
What was interesting about Alfredo’s selections was that even though they were, indeed, from unlikely locations like Leeds, they still somehow had a Mediterranean feel to them. The Cure’s Pictures Of You was a perfect example sounding like a strange hybrid of dour Estuary vocals and Latin heat; perfect for Amnesia, in fact.
What turned Alfredo’s music from a popular local curiosity to worldwide infamy was the intervention of four young enthusiastic British DJs out on a holiday at the behest of Fung, who was running the Project Bar during the summer of 1987: Johnny Walker, Paul Oakenfold, Nicky Holloway and Danny Rampling. It was Fung who had told Oakenfold about the burgeoning scene there (he’d actually been once earlier in the season, not liked it, and returned home). It was also Fung who introduced them to ecstasy.
“I’d give them all one at the bar. I didn’t want to say too much, I just said, ‘Try this, it don’t do too much to you!’ Then we went to Amnesia. Fucking hell! We was all off on one here. Danny Rampling skipping round the room and jumping speakers. Johnny was sitting in a speaker. Paul was like ‘I can’t fucking believe this, it’s changed since I last been here!’ Chaos.”
“I remember walking into this open-air, white-walled fabulous club with palm trees and mirrored pyramid and dazzling light show going on and all these crazy, flamboyant people dancing,” recalls Johnny Walker. “You had all the jet-set around the edges drinking their champagne and all the gay crowd going mad on the dancefloor. It was a real carnival atmosphere, full of life and energy.”
“And then hearing Alfredo play was completely mindblowing to what we were used to in London,” he adds. “We were like, ‘Wow! What the fuck is this?’ Something completely different. Alfredo was mixing up house records with indie guitar records, pop stuff like Madonna and George Michael, and then some of the things that are now Balearic classics, that I suppose he was finding in Ibizan record shops. I think we did go there every night; we just couldn't get enough of it. We were like: ‘We’ve got take this back to London’.”
What happened next has passed into legend in the UK. Often cited as the start of the dance scene in Britain (as though nobody had ever danced until Acid Tracks landed in London). Paul Oakenfold started The Future (aided by pal Trevor Fung), Danny Rampling ran Shoom in the Fitness Centre, while Nicky Holloway had the Trip at the Astoria. Within months they had help transform a holiday epiphany into a nationwide phenomenon.
“Shoom DJ Colin Faver has never seen anything like it,” wrote John Godfrey in i-D magazine. “‘At the end half of them come up and shake my hand. It just doesn’t happen anywhere else.’ It’s the most obvious display yet of a realignment in club attitudes, a move away from the fashion victim voyeurism that has dominated London clubland in the past and more than just a return to ‘fun’. ‘We want to change people’s attitude towards each other when they get out, get rid of that aggressive atmosphere that most clubs have,’ says [Shoom’s] Jenny. ‘As soon as you step inside The Shoom or The Future, you can literally feel and certainly see the difference. Nobody glares at you, everybody smiles at you and someone might even give you a present’.”
Nights swiftly sprung up all over the country (although, in fact, many early house nights in Nottingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Sheffield had long been thriving anyway). The style magazines began gingerly stepping around the scene, while the tabloids’ interest – often denouncing and praising the scene, almost simultaneously – ensured that ‘raving’ became a national pastime for any youth with a sense of fun and access to some half-decent drugs.
“Now while it’s true that the Balearic beat was born in Ibizan clubs, such as Amnesia and Pacha, its breeding took place in a small, sweaty, strobey, smoky south London club called… The Shoom,” wrote Terry Farley, in the sleevenotes for Balearic Beats Vol. 1, a compilation that was entirely based on the playlists of DJ Alfredo. “The hardcore original Shoomers, along with another London club The Future, had discovered the joys of Balearic beats, during several previous ‘summers of love’ (sic), and had brought the music and the attitude back to London with them. The kinetic style of dancing now associated with Balearic’s ugly brother, acid house, is pure Ibizan in origin. The loudest screams at Spectrum are always reserved for Nitzer Ebb and the Residents while hearing Enzo Avitabile booming through the smoke at Joy is an ecstatic experience one step away (some say forward) from sex.”
The arrival of the Balearic beat, reinforced by the unstoppable force of acid house, altered the direction of British clubbing and, indeed, British youth culture, for the next 15 years. But, while it was Balearic that was the launching pad, the idea of playing eclectic sets in the same manner as Alfredo soon waned as the new house regime began.
THE NEW BALEARIC
These days you can’t move for clubs advertising themselves as Balearic. It’s almost as ubiquitous as minimal house. So what does it mean now? Is it a genre of music and does it have anything to do with Alfredo?
In the 1980s, before the arrival of house music, almost all club DJs played an eclectic range of music that might incorporate disco, funk, soul, rare groove, go-go, electro, hip hop and even the occasional comedy record (and some would argue that comedy records are the epitome of Balearic). Nobody billed these DJs as Balearic; a) because the term did not yet exist and; b) because everybody played in this style.
In New York, it was the same story, too. Larry Levan, with his wide ranging tastes that encompassed the classic disco and soul of his youth to bands like the Clash or Cat Stevens or even Nu Shooz, it could be argued (and is, frequently, by some ninnies) that Larry Levan was Balearic. The same could be said for Ron Hardy. And Frankie Knuckles. Oh and Tony Humphries, Shep Pettibone, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano and about a hundred others.
What house created was both a template – a hegemony – but also because of its all-consuming power, it created a small but vocal opposition. The reason many DJs used it as a shorthand term to describe their style was a simple way of differentiating them from everyone else. It was a way of saying, ‘We don’t only play house’.
The ‘theory’ behind Balearic is that any record could be made to work on a dancefloor provided it had the right feel (that fantastically nebulous word that means one man’s Funkadelic is another man’s Dana International). But it’s also because the idea of a bearded misery guts from Wigan who had never been further south than Macclesfield calling himself a Balearic DJ was intrinsically funny (it still is).
So the new Balearic – or The New Balearic, should I say – is both a myth and a reality. It’s a myth in as much as there is no specific genre of Balearic as there is for, say, house or happy hardcore or even hardbag. But it’s also a reality, an alternative reality, admittedly, in which records from any genre can be Balearic if someone has the chutzpah – or the stupidity – to claim so. Balearic is like the giant rabbit in the James Stewart movie, Harvey, a preposterous notion to some, but to Elwood P. Dowd, a very real six-foot fluffy animal. You either get it or you don’t. Thus Wang Chung can be Balearic (well, if you’ve got cloth ears, they can), as can Simply Red or Jamiroquai. The list is endless, as is the debate.
For some DJs – like the Idjut Boys or DJ Harvey – it’s simply about taking some foggy notion of what it is and interpreting it their own distinctive way. The most important thing about becoming a Balearic DJ is to have a sense of the absurdity of your chosen role. You should take great pleasure watching faces drop on a packed dancefloor as they realise they have been dancing to Cliff Richard or Lieutenant Pigeon for the past three minutes.
For the original Ibiza DJs, that time and place has long passed and for most of them the style they championed was not necessarily an ethos or lifestyle, but simple expediency. An Ibizan DJ would be playing almost every night for up to eight hours a day; they had to fill 40 hours or more programming a week. “I think it was because we were brought up like that, but also there was not much choice,” thinks José Padilla. “Now you can specialise in Detroit techno or deep house or whatever, then you had to play with what you had. We had to play so many hours that we have to play different tracks to make the session happen. It’s not because in Ibiza we like to play like that. We have to play Talk Talk, we have to play Belgian beat, we have to play rock, we have to play reggae, because we have to fill the space of so many hours.”
Terry Farley, not only wrote the sleevenotes for the 1988 Balearic Beats Vol. 1 compilation, but also championed much of the music. He has been known in his distant past to have played records by Phil Collins, though thanks to counselling – and primal scream therapy – has not re-offended for many years. “My personal view on Balearic is that it was a moment in time namely a few Ibizan clubs from 1986-88 and Alfredo’s personal taste. In 1988 all the records spun at Future and Shoom were direct steals from his sets. It was when the UK DJs tried playing their own pop records on drugs that it went wrong (I stand at the front of the guilty queue myself) although it was fun at the time.”
I canvassed opinion on some message boards as to what Balearic really means: “Harvey playing Easy Lover in the a.m. at New Hard Left,” said one; “Hearing Donna Summer’s State of Independence on a pill for the first time,” countered another; “Love of music for its own sake, free of puritanical bias and entrenched prejudice, free of marketing pigeonholes…” But this put it more succinctly and more ludicrously than anyone else: “It’s a state of mind,” wrote Barry Devan. “It’s a group of islands. It’s sand in your foreskin but not caring. It’s Clark’s comfy shoes. It’s corduroy. It’s a lazy place. It’s warm. It’s Wellington boots. It’s knowledge. It’s Moonboots. It’s carpet not laminate. It’s Van Halen not Europe. It’s council not Hilton. It’s Jason Boardman. It’s the M10. It’s borrowing not buying. It’s me, it’s you, it’s everybody. It’s bollocks. It’s great.” Absurd, but true.
© Bill Brewster, 2008
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