Alongside long-time musical buddy Winston, Parrot can take much of the credit for getting Sheffield dancing. The duo helped introduce house to the city at their eclectic and much-loved Jive Turkey and Occasions nights, where, as acid house made its impact, they made a conscious effort to unite the city's black and white scenes. His 1990 collaboration with Richard Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire, as Sweet Exorcist, provided Warp Records with its first releases (Clonk and Testone) and loosed the influential northern 'bleep' sound onto a techno-hungry world.
Let’s start with some biographical details…
I grew up on the outskirts of Sheffield. My dad was a farm labourer, so we moved about a bit. We lived in Bradfield. Sheffield is quite a strange place, most people think of it as a Full Monty-esque industrial wasteland, but actually the whole west of Sheffield merges into the Peak District so it’s incredibly beautiful. I think a third of Sheffield is actually in the Peak District. My dad worked on different farms and we lived in the tithe cottages on the farms. So I was always gazing into the bright lights of Sheffield.
How did you get into music?
I was always quite into music even at junior school, we were all into rock’n’roll which was in the late 60 and early 70s. I suppose there was a kind of rock’n’roll revival and we were living in a little village called Dungworth and we used to go to the youth club there. It tied in with a lot of the bubblegum pop of the time, too, like Mud. Then I moved again cos my dad got a job on a different farm and that’s when I went to a comprehensive school and nobody was into that there, they were into chart music, or soul or rock music, which I absolutely hated. It wasn’t till punk came along that I thought, “Yeah, I quite like this”. I can remember seeing the cover of a paper with a kid on it and saying something about punk rock and he had short hair and I thought, “Hang on he looks really good”. So I got into that but swiftly got disillusioned with it. I started hearing lots of other things, my sister’s soul records, disco music, and fucking Sheffield electronic records that sounded a lot more interesting than what was supposedly punk rock.
Did you listen to Vice Versa, Cabaret Voltaire?
Yeah, the Cabs were Sheffield in a way. I don’t think I’d have been ever drawn to electronic music if I’d have not thought it had something to do with Sheffield. I listened to the Cabs and the Human Leaguer because they came from Sheffield. And when you heard those records, and electronic music, when you were out in nightclubs, they sounded so much better than other music did. That all happened when I first started going out to nightclubs in the late 70s.
Were you going to places like Samantha’s?
Well, that was more of a northern soul thing, and I did go to some northern soul things but the thing a lot of people forgot about those northern soul nights is that a lot of people went to them because they knew they could stop up all night and take drugs. There were obviously loads of people who were really into the music, but equally there were plenty who just wanted to stop up all night. In the early eighties there was a place in Rotherham called the Clifton Halls which for a while was the epicentre of northern soul, so we used to go over there a bit, but I wasn’t a dedicated follower. The main place for alternative bit-of-everything type of music from the late 70s up until the mid-80s was the Limit which was, for short while, an absolutely fantastic little venue. Proper dirty little venue.
When did you go from just buying music to DJing?
I’d always been into records and going out. I’d go out dancing, stopped drinking, and the only reason to go out was listen to music. If I found out what records were I’d go out and buy them, but a lot of the time I didn’t know what they were called. It wasn’t till I was actually DJing that I found out what the records were called. I started DJing by default; I never wanted to be a DJ. How it happened was by the mid-80s, about 1985, I was so fucking bored with what was going on in Sheffield. I hated The Leadmill. I hated The Limit. Me and a couple of other blokes decided to start our own night. Originally, they were gonna do some DJing as well, but as it turned out I’d got the most records so I ended up doing it all. I don’t think I could say I hit the floor running, it wasn’t that spectacular; but I hit the floor, anyway.
Where was the venue?
It was called Mona Lisa’s and it was the same place that Scuba’s in now. A proper little backdoor club which, at the time, had been unchanged since the 70s, so it still had all of its flock wallpaper. These were all these fantastic plastic screens up with bare breasted afro ladies looking fierce and righteous up on the walls, with a big flashing star over a round dancefloor. It was seedy as fuck. Just right. So when I started out I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, I just played a bit of everything: northern soul, Cabs records, electro, Bo Diddley records. As long as I thought it was alright to dance to. But I swiftly became a trainspotter and looking for things. The first house records had started to come out around that time so you’d be buying these Chip E records thinking, “What the fuck is this?’ but it seemed to fit perfectly with the vibe of Cabs records. Then we started getting black kids coming down. At the time, things were very segregated and the black and white crowds didn’t really mix. But the Footworkers were really into these records, they liked footworking to these house records.
What were Footworkers? Were they like the Jazz Defectors and those 80s dance gangs?
Yeah, yeah. It came out of that jazz thing in the late 70s, stuff like Colin [Curtis] and people like that were playing and the London lot at Electric Ballroom.
Who were the Footworkers then?
I suppose initially, it was Winston [Hazel] and his gang, who’d been into electro and breaking, and moved into footworking dance. Can you remember the Free Nelson Mandela video? Well, that video was quite influential for a lot of people. It was the first time a lot of people had seen footworkers. Lot of people who saw that ad got into that style of dancing and house music was perfect for that. They were either dancing to million MPH samba tracks, crazy percussion records or these records that were more or less just bass and clicking. They started coming down, and Winston started doing a bit of DJing with me. He’d always wanted to be a DJ and in terms of his attitude he was miles in front of me. And we carried on from there. We were into the same kind of things, Winston started doing a bit. I can’t say we became an item, but in our littlie way I suppose we did.
How did the racial composition change?
It stayed very mixed. We were always getting shut down. Very frustrating. We’d get shut down and we’d do parties, which I suppose would be called warehouse parties. That thing was happening in the mid-80s. Then we’d get a venue back again or we’d get back in Mona Lisa’s and then we’d get shut down again.
Why was it getting shut down?
Partly because of the race thing, people didn’t want to a lot of black faces there, but also they didn’t think black kids spent money on drinks. A load of crap really. But eventually we worked through that and we ended up with quite a good little crowd. Sometimes we’d do a party and Graeme would come up from Nottingham and he’d bring up a coach from there and we’d do an all-nighter in a warehouse. And we started doing parties at the City Hall ballroom as well, a huge cavernous venue. Again, he’d come up to that as well. They were really good for a while, until they started putting number restrictions on us cos you’re only supposed to have 700 in there, but the venue could comfortably hold 2000 people in there. When we were letting as many in as we wanted it was fantastic, we were getting people from all over the place. Cramming them in!
I guess at that stage there can’t have been anything more illegal than spliff smoking really? Were there Es?
There were! Not that I ever bought any. The thought of paying £20 or £25 for a drug was just outrageous. I can absolutely vividly remember the first time somebody tried to sell me ecstasy. He walked up to me in the Limit club and it was somebody I’d not seen for a while. He’d fucked off to Europe a while before, I used to see him at football and northern soul nights, Black Paul he was called. He came up to me and asked if I wanted to buy some X? I was like what the fuck are you on about X? “Ecstasy” “Oh, how much is it?” “£25” I was just laughing at him. I thought there’s no way you’re gonna sell any of that in here. That was more than some people were getting on the dole! Obviously, though, what the fuck did I know?
Do you remember when that was?
That was 1987. I remember that a lot of people fucked off about 1983 or 1984. People who’d previously been faces around town and football games, they just disappeared. And I think the term was International Tourist Thieves. They were running about Europe getting into trouble. When that contingent started coming back is when the ecstasy started coming in. I think there were lots of people like that in every town. You’d see contingents from Manchester and London in Europe.
Yeah, Liverpool. A lot of ‘em ended up in Ibiza didn’t they? I didn’t know anything about that. But I’d bump into people or they’d ask me when I was DJing about quite odd records that they wouldn’t normally have asked for. I’d be thinking what the fuck are they on about? Or they’d grown their hair long. “What’s going on here?” People’d disappear looking really smart, and come back scruffy with long hair.
Was there a point where you noticed a change with no one being out of it and then being suddenly everyone being off their heads?
There was a period after the City Hall got really crap we didn’t seem to do much at all, then we started a night back in Mona Lisa’s, but by this time it was called Occasions cos somebody had bought the club and tried to turn it into a weddings and parties type of place. We started a night in there…
Were all of these nights called Jive Turkey, was it like a moveable feast?
Jive Turkey was kind of an umbrella organisation. The night in Occasions we called Club Superman. By this time it was 1988 and the whole acid house thing had started. So there was a new crowd coming through but we’d also got the old crowd. So for a short while, a couple of years we had a really good mix of people. The older lot were coming back from Ibiza were, I presume, coming back to make shitloads of money. But the black crowd was still there as well. We were playing music to the old crowd, but we’d got the energy of the E people in there as well. In a lot of other places like Manchester it changed very quickly.
When I interviewed Mike Pickering he said it went from being black to white in 6 weeks.
I can imagine that. The few times I went to the Haçienda in the late 80s, I hated it. It was a vision of hell in there. It was so different from what was happening in Sheffield.
In what way? What were the differences?
Well, the records were different. A lot of the records were the same, but loads were different. The crowds were different and were being lead by different types of people. Where musically we were being led by the group that had been there in 1986, they’d suddenly got an influx of new people. That process did happen here but over a much longer period of time. It wasn’t until 1991 and ’92 and I looked out the DJ booth and the crowd was horrible. The crowd was all boys with their shirts off.
Do you remember the types of records that were different to the Haçienda?
Well we were still playing a lot of the more downtempo records, like soul music. They went strictly uptempo, we played hip hop records. We’d still got one foot in the past, even though it was the recent past. In 986 we’d all have been playing quite similar records, me, Graeme and Mike. And then they veered very much into house music and European house music, which we wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. They were hi-NRG records! Obviously there were a lot of universally fantastic records, too. But there were other records that, if you played them in Manchester, you’d fall flat on your face.
Did what happened with house put you off it?
Yeah, eventually, totally. I really liked house music. I loved house music, don’t get me wrong. But I just didn’t like the crowd and the people. I couldn’t stand it at all, because what they were asking for I didn’t like at all. With hindsight, some of the records they were asking about were probably quite good. I hated hardcore, I hated the rave thing, it sounded really horrible to me. When did Plez come out?
About 1991? The one on Bush? Don’t Stop?
Yeah. That record was stupidly big in Sheffield. It wiped the floor with everything else. We’d been invited to play a night somewhere up beyond Leeds. And I was playing that record, and people were just looking at me totally gone-out. A kid came up to me, and said, “Haven’t you got any house music?” I was totally gobsmacked. Then the resident came on and started playing Cubik and Acid Rock and the place went absolutely fucking berserk. I just thought there was something weird here… I couldn’t stand to play those records so I packed it in. I retired in 1992 when I saw someone having a crap in the corner of the club. I had a big box of records nicked and that did my head in (but I kept being driven by poverty to come and DJ again). I’ve knocked it on the head completely now.
I used to go down to London a lot. I used to go and buy me records in Bluebird and they’d look at you gone-out because you’d buy house records. I’d buy soul records in there as well, but I’d buy house records and they looked at me like I was crackers. I found this shop in Hammersmith called Spin Offs where Jazzy M worked. I bought a GLI mixer off him. Obviously Jazzy was really pushing house music. So I started buying records from him. Met Laurence [Kid] Bachelor and he was really into it. He took us to the Jungle where Colin Faver used to play. But down that end, even though everything was available nothing seemed to be happening.
I suppose the rare groove scene was happening and it was really good... What was the Jungle like?
It was really good. It was mixed gay night. Colin was a fantastic DJ. Really good night. The records were played in a slightly different direction to what we were doing. I remember him playing that Company B’s Fascinated, which I hated, but it sounded really good and I got in a real sweat dancing to it. I also remember talking to Laurence a week or a few weeks after Phuture [Acid Tracks] had come out, so it must have been 1987. He said, “I just can’t imagine anyone playing a record like this in a nightclub”. So even though Colin Faver was playing mainly house music down there, it was slanted more in a Company B type vibe.
I’d always thought it was a ‘deep house’ night. Was it?
He played that Give The DJ A Break [Dynamix II], sort of Miami electroey megamix thing. Me and me mate were looking at each other going, “What the fuck is this?” He played a Farley thing that had only just come out. I remember getting chatted up by a bloke which was the first time it had ever happened to me, which was flattering and worrying at the same time. I remember Laurence saying, “Don’t go for a piss! Don’t go to the toilet” I remember getting in a right sweat about Company B and immediately going out and buying this record that I’d been poo-pooing for ages.
Did you go to the Garage in Nottingham very much then?
I used to go down there yeah. It was great. He’d got such a tiny room upstairs. I remember going in there and there was a couple of records out at the time, one was Whistle’s Just Buggin’ the other one was Success Is The Word [by 12.41]. And he was DJing and then all this wicky wicky stuff over the top and I thought, “I don’t know this mix”. I went and looked and it was Graeme who, technically, was miles ahead of everyone else. And thinking, “Wow this is really good” and the crowd were going with it. Then I started going backwards and forwards and talking to him. Although he’d got that great little club there, we’d got the facilities to do all-nighters and stuff. We had a nice thing going there for a while till he got poached by the Haçienda. He was always quite a commercial minded DJ, Graeme, much more than we were. Got his head screwed on.
Tell me about the origins of Warp and your involvement with them.
In the dim dark distant past, the studio/label Fon had a small record shop, called, naturally enough, Fon Records. Run by a character known to everyone as Nick Fon, it had never dragged itself out of the early ’80s and was suitably under performing. [it would probably be quite hip now - loads of grim industrial funk]. So out went Nick and in came young Rob Mitchell to get things sorted out. Rob was involved with various bands in Sheffield and though his taste in music up to that point was definitely ‘indie’, he was suitably entrepreneurial enough to employ Winston to run an import section alongside the boring bit presided over by Rob.
Rob really liked a mix of Mink’s Hey Hey that me and Mark Brydon had done and got the idea of starting a new label for it. This didn't happen (the track was released later), but Winston had been up to something with a young dreadlocked engineering genius from Fon Studios called Robert Gordon and together they’d concocted a track based around Manu Dibango’s Abele Dance that was a crowd favourite off cassette in Occasions.
Mitchell, Gordon and Becket formed a label to release this on record and so Warp was born with the Forgemasters. Nightmares On Wax brought Dextrous into the shop on their own Poverty Records, swiftly smartened up by Rob Gordon to become the second release. Me and Kirky did Testone specifically for the label and they tried to talk the Unique 3 into giving them The Theme, then the biggest track in Occasions. That one escaped (although Rob Gordon did the mix for its eventual release on Virgin), but they did find LFO. Rob Gordon fell out with the other two, i think because he wanted to release GTO’s Pure and they didn't and as the scene based around Occasions turned into something else so did Warp. And very successfully too!
The last record on Warp that me and Winston and Robert were involved with was The Step, although they later started a less ‘intelligent’ imprint called Nucleus that I did a few things for. So as you see, things initially were all tingly-tangled in good old Sheffield fashion, before Warp outgrew its parochial roots and created a different and ultimately more long-lasting identity. Rob Gordon is, in my opinion, one of the great unsung heroes of British dance music who, maybe one day, will get his due.
Incidentally, away from Warp, I was just reading this book about Sheffield music from 1973 to 1984 which i heartily recommend if you have any interest in bands from that period – Martin Lilleker’s Beats Working For A Living. Anyway it mentions this guy called Disco John, who i'd completely forgotten about. Disco John (so-called because he was into dance music in punky times) was a character who turned up in Sheffield to study in the late ’70s. He originally came from Manchester but became involved in promoting nights round and about the bandy/electronic scene. His heyday was a night at Penny's nightclub that he did with Martin Fry’s brother Jamie, from where he went on to become the Leadmill’s Friday night DJ before he was poached by the Hacçienda. What i liked about his DJing was although he was very much on the punky/alternative scene, he was quite obviously into soul and jazz, leading to interesting combinations of music and people. I remember him for records like War’s Galaxy and Hip Hop Be Bop Don’t Stop, Cabs’ Yashar, Temptation, Shack Up and Sivuca’s version of Ain’t No Sunshine. Get that book bought man and read all about how stupid Sheffield music is. It’s hilarious.
Interviewed by Bill Brewster, 7 Jan 2005
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