THE CASTRO CONNECTION
FROM GAY DISCO TO HIGH ENERGY
Greg Wilson 2005 ©
After reading the part about Harry Taylor in my sleevenotes for the Credit To The Edit album, Discopia’s Andrew Back asked if I’d write a piece for the webzine about the significance of the emerging gay scene in the early 80’s. Although I was part of a seemingly unconnected black music scene, there was a degree of crossover between the two, with Spin Inn, the renowned record shop in Manchester, vital to both.
I’m no expert on the gay scene, it wasn’t until I stopped deejaying in 1984 that I first experienced a proper gay club. It would need someone who was more closely involved to document this subject in greater depth. However, I can hopefully illuminate some of the connections that would help shape the course of dance culture, not just in Manchester, but throughout the UK, as the decade unfolded.
So, first things first, here’s what I wrote about Harry in my sleevenotes – it was in reference to one of the tracks I’d edited for the album, ‘Cruisin’ The Streets’ by the Boystown Gang:
Before the term Hi-Energy came into common usage, the Boystown Gang were firmly categorized as ‘Gay Disco’. Spin Inn, the North’s main import specialists, in Manchester, wasn’t just the place to buy the latest black music, but was also an important shop for DJ’s on the Gay scene, selling both US and European releases. Harry Taylor, sadly no longer with us, looked after this side of the shops business and, when I was still the 4 nights-per-week resident at Wigan Pier, I’d buy the odd Gay Disco tune from Harry to play on the more commercial weekend nights. It would have been in this way that I came across ‘Cruisin’ The Streets’ in 1981, a record that made you feel proud to be gay, even though you weren’t! Harry would turn me on to a lot of tracks the other DJ’s on the black scene weren’t listening to, and it was in this way I came across some real gems, not least Klien & MBO’s ‘Dirty Talk’, an Italian import that slotted straight into the Electro vibe I was cultivating in my clubs (and later one of the records that provided the inspiration for New Order’s seminal ‘Blue Monday’).
To understand the paramount importance of Spin Inn, you should firstly consider the fact that during the late 70’s / early 80’s (and beyond) DJ’s would travel there from all over the North, the Midlands and even Scotland, in order to buy the latest dance releases. Literally the only place to shop if you wanted to be taken seriously as a black music specialist, Spin Inn sold Soul, Funk, Disco and Jazz imports from, mainly, the US, and was truly an oasis when it came to purchasing the very latest black music, a large percentage of which would never be issued in the UK. This was as cutting-edge as it got - most dance records originating from the US that would go on to become big UK hits, first arriving in the shop way before they were released in this country, so, by the time they’d begun packing the floors in mainstream clubland, they’d already been and gone as far as the ‘upfront’ DJ’s were concerned.
Spin Inn was owned by Gary Lane and located on Cross Street in the centre of Manchester. Subsequent specialist shops in the city, like Eastern Bloc, Manchester Underground and Fat City, would grow from the foundations it laid - Spin Inn was the fulcrum.
In addition to black music, they would also stock European dance releases, which were mainly being played on the evolving gay scene. Harry, who was openly gay (these being the days when many gay men remained firmly in the closet, away from the relative sanctuary of the club scene), built up this side of the shops business so that, just as Spin Inn was the essential port of call when it came to specialist black music, it also became the main place to buy imported Gay Disco.
New York was, of course, paving the way for what is nowadays a global dance culture. Disco, following the backlash of ’79, was now more underground and, as a consequence, enjoying an era of extraordinary creativity, producing a seemingly endless stream of hybrid dance releases that never ceased to amaze, with labels like Prelude, West End and Emergency taking up the baton. New York’s club music was indeed ‘red hot’, forging bold new frontiers via mutant forms such as Hip Hop, Electro and No Wave. Suffice to say, reports of the death of disco had been greatly exaggerated.
The big names in Gay Disco were people like Bobby O (East Coast) and Patrick Cowley (West Coast), whose productions heralded the coming of High Energy (later Hi-Energy, finally Hi-NRG), a genre that would be developed in the UK by former Northern Soul DJ and producer, Ian Levine (more later).
Harry Taylor was the person who introduced me to the 12” ‘bootleg mixers’ that were making their way across the Atlantic. The most famous of these was ‘Bits & Pieces III’, which would be recreated track for track (via session musicians) by Jaap Eggermont, a former drummer with the Dutch rock band, Golden Earing. This legal version of ‘Bits & Pieces III’, re-named ‘Stars On 45’, would go on to become one of the biggest selling pop singles worldwide in 1981.
However, the ‘mixer’ that provided me with the greatest inspiration was ‘Big Apple Production Vol. 1’ from 1982. The identity of the people behind these bootlegs was a mystery at the time, the record industry not taking kindly to this type of practice, but it turns out that the person responsible for putting together this magnificent mix was Brooklyn DJ, Mikey D’Merola, from WKYU Radio in New York, a real unsung hero of the Disco era. This 12” would have a big influence on my own radio mixes, which had begun in May ’82 on Piccadilly in Manchester.
Then, of course, there were the Disconet DJ only releases, featuring remixes / edits, plus exclusive tracks. They were very expensive, but sometimes essential. I generally bought them when they included an Electro tune (the most notable being by Man Parrish, C.O.D and the Jonzun Crew), but the majority of the tracks were geared towards the gay scene, including, arguably, the most famous of all the Disconet mixes, Abba’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’. I say arguably because, later on, Double Dee and Steinski would first come to our attention via their winning entry in the Disconet mix competition at the end of 1983. Their ‘Play That Beat Mr DJ Medley’ is nowadays better known to most people as the seminal cut ‘n’ paste masterpiece, ‘Lesson 1’ (aka ‘The Payoff Mix’).
Further to this, Harry would often play me a ‘Euro Disco’ track that he thought might fit in on my nights, undoubtedly the most influential being (as I mentioned in the Credit To The Edit sleevenotes) ‘Dirty Talk’ by Klien & MBO, which I bought as an Italian import on the Zanza label. By this point I’d become notorious in Jazz-Funk circles for featuring the new Electro-Funk releases that were coming out of New York. Despite condemnation from the purists, who were totally against what they considered to be computerised crap, my clubs were packed and the young black audience of the North and Midlands were right behind this new direction.
Working in Spin Inn, Harry was, of course, aware of all the politics surrounding the Electro issue. Kev Edwards, who managed the shop, was amongst my biggest critics, even though, paradoxically, the majority of Electro records I played were bought there! When Klien & MBO came into the shop, initially ordered by Harry with the gay scene in mind, as with most of the European releases they stocked, he correctly identified it as a track I’d be interested in and put a copy aside for me. The instrumental ‘USA Connection’ mix was right up my street – without the vocal this was pure Electro.
‘Dirty Talk’ blew up big time at Legend and Wigan Pier, becoming one of the most popular records of the year for me. Subsequently, Hewan Clarke, the resident DJ at the newly opened Hacienda, aware of its popularity with the Legend crowd, picked up on it. One night while he was playing it, a couple of the guys from New Order (who co-owned the Hacienda) came into the DJ booth to ask if they could borrow it to use as a reference for a track they were working on. This turned out to be one of the all time classic British releases, ‘Blue Monday’, which would go on to become the best selling 12” single ever!
The top DJ on the North’s gay scene back then was Les Cokell, who worked at Hero’s on Deansgate in Manchester (nowadays Club V). I got to know Les via Spin Inn, although, unfortunately, I never saw him behind the decks. I had no idea at the time that he was already a legendary figure from the early days of Northern Soul, having been the DJ at the Twisted Wheel, the club which inspired the late great Soul music writer, Dave Godin, to coin the term ‘Northern Soul’ in the first place. It was Les who played the final record at the venue when it was forced to close down in 1971.
Les, like myself, was one of the only DJ’s in the North who was serious about mixing back then and, to accompany this article, I’m really pleased to be able to include, in two parts, a live mix of his from Hero’s, which was recorded in July 1983 (courtesy of his great friend, Leo Stanley).
Les and Leo would write a regular column for the fledgling Mixmag (originally Disco Mix Mag) in ’83, called The Castro Connection (a title I’ve recycled for this article) – the Castro in question being the famous street in San Francisco, then the gay epicentre of the world.
The profile of the gay scene in this country was raised significantly during the early 80’s. In addition to The Castro Connection, Harry Taylor would list half a dozen of the tunes that were big in the gay clubs as a regular item in Frank Elson’s ‘Checkin’ It Out’ pages (Blues & Soul), Elson being the magazines Northern correspondant. Record Mirror would also weigh in with a ‘Boystown Chart’, alongside its regular Disco Chart, with the inimitable James Hamilton, of course, reviewing the latest releases in his weekly column, which covered all styles of dance music.
The main figure on the UK gay scene was Ian Levine. Regarded by many as the most influential of all Northern Soul DJ’s, famed for his weekly Saturday night sessions at the Blackpool Mecca (where he’d taken over from Les Cokell, who’d deejayed there following the closure of the Twisted Wheel back in ‘71), Levine gave numerous now classic Northern Soul singles their very first club plays.
During the mid-70’s, Ian Levine and his DJ partner at the Mecca, Colin Curtis (later to become one of the countries leading Jazz-Funk DJ’s), would receive heavy criticism for starting to feature current Disco releases. Whilst Wigan Casino ‘kept the faith’ by refusing to follow suit, Levine began to forge a new direction, which would eventually lead him to London, where he became resident at the biggest UK gay venue of all, Heaven, when it opened in 1979.
The fact that the two best-known Gay Disco specialists of the early 80’s, Ian Levine and Les Cokell, had both originally made their names playing Northern Soul, highlights the connections that linked these scenes, albeit beneath the surface.
Until venues like ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hero’s’ opened, there was nowhere comparable to the vibrant New York clubs of the 70’s, where gay culture was being celebrated in a manner that was unthinkable in the UK at the time. It was as a result of heading over to New York, to dig out Soul rarities, that Ian Levine had his Disco epiphany. But it wasn’t just the music that captivated him, he’d also explore his sexuality at hardcore gay clubs like The Anvil, Crisco Disco and The Mineshaft.
There was certainly a gay undercurrent on the Northern Soul scene, which would have been regarded as something of a safe haven for gay men who wanted to go out dancing, but without their sexuality being called into question. In the regular clubs, a man dancing on his own would have been seen as a ‘puff’ or ‘queer’, most guys back then only taking to the dancefloor when they wanted to make moves on the opposite sex. However, Northern Soul provided a loophole, the emphasis being on the dancing, with no necessity to have to find a partner. Furthermore, unlike the mainstream clubs, the scene wasn’t about picking up girls, so a gay man could happily fit in without anyone realising he was gay in the first place.
Les Cokell and Leo Stanley (who’d regularly attended the Wigan Casino during the late 70’s) were quick to point out that High Energy was closely related to Northern Soul’s uptempo ‘stompers’. The most direct example would, of course, be Ian Levine’s mid-70’s productions, like The Exciters ‘Reaching For The Best’, ‘LJ Johnson ‘Your Magic Put a Spell On Me’, Barbara Pennington ’Twenty-Four Hours A Day’, James Wells ‘Baby I’m Still The Same Man’, Evelyn Thomas ‘Weak Spot’ etc, which provided prototypes for his High Energy successes some years later.
The Barbara Pennington track would go massive on the New York gay scene following its release in 1976, eventually totting up sales of 100,000 units in the US, whilst Evelyn Thomas, whose previous Levine produced British hits had also been in ’76, would team up with him again to release her biggest single in 1984, reaching number 5 on the UK charts. This was the record that’s credited with giving the genre its name, ‘High Energy’ (although there was an earlier, totally unrelated release in 1976 by The Supremes, which had the same title).
However, according to Leo Stanley, the name High Energy, in the context of gay dance music, originally derived from a conversation he had with Tony Prince, the founder of D.M.C (Disco Mix Club) and, consequently, Mixmag, about the energy of the music he was hearing Cokell play at Hero’s. This was after he’d sent Prince a copy of ‘So Many Men So Little Time’ by Miquel Brown, a monster tune with the gay audience, both in the UK and the US, which would put Ian Levine’s name firmly back in the frame. Prince loved it and picked up on what Stanley said about the track’s ‘high energy’ sound. As a result, Stanley and Cokell’s ‘The Castro Connection’ column would be sub-titled ‘D.M.C’s High Energy Corner’ from its inception.
Tony Prince, another Northerner (from Oldham), had been a well-known presenter on Radio Luxembourg (the only non-BBC station to broadcast nationally) for over a decade, before he became an unlikely supporter of mixing, launching D.M.C in February 1983. Accompanying the mixes that went out to D.M.C members (originally on cassette) was the magazine, for which Leo Stanley and Les Cokell would begin to write their column the following August. Les would also become one of D.M.C’s team of ‘megamixers’.
Leo, one of the earliest D.M.C members, was a Manchester DJ playing a cross-section of music to a straight audience. However, having been taken to Hero’s one night, he was awestruck by Cokell’s mixing and the vitality of the music he heard. Its relentless beat and (for the time) extremely fast tempo setting it apart as something different to what he was used to playing himself. As a result of his experience, Leo would become ‘the straight one on the gay scene’, championing the music outside of the gay clubs and, as previously mentioned, bringing it to the attention of Tony Prince and his D.M.C membership, thus playing a major role in helping expose the music to a non-gay audience nationally.
Pretty soon, High Energy’s ascendancy would make a huge impression on pop producers, Stock Aitken Waterman, providing the blueprint for their breakthrough single, ‘You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)’ by the Liverpool band, Dead Or Alive, which topped the British chart in 1985, having broken via the clubs, both gay and straight. SAW would go on to become the most successful British songwriting and production team of the next two decades, churning out hit after hit after hit from a whole range of acts, including Bananarama, Mel & Kim, Sinitta (the daughter of Miquel Brown), Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue and even the ‘Disco Queen’ herself, Donna Summer. Not surprisingly, Pete Waterman had once been yet another DJ with Northern Soul connections.
Carving his own piece of the pop music pie, Ian Levine would go on to acquire the dubious distinction of helping unleash an ongoing wave of ‘boy bands’, aimed simultaneously at young girls and gay men, through his production and writing credits for the likes of Big Fun, Bad Boys Inc and, of course, Take That.
Leo Stanley would focus his own energies in a new direction during the latter part of the 80’s, opening a clothes shop, Identity, in Manchester’s Afflecks Palace. At the height of the Madchester era, Leo’s two famous slogan t-shirts, ‘On The Sixth Day God Created MANchester’ and ‘Born In The North, Return To The North, Exist In The North, Die In The North’, were literally everywhere, whilst, at the same time, he was enjoying what is perhaps his best remembered DJ residency, just down the road from The Hacienda at The Venue.
Tragically, both Harry Taylor and Les Cokell died in the mid-90’s. Harry, like far too many of his generation, fell victim to the AIDS virus, whilst Les, an alzheimer's sufferer during his latter years, was run over by a car.
As far as the gay scene in the North is concerned, they were true pioneers, their influence, although hardly recognised to date, was nevertheless indubitable.
How things have changed in the quarter of a century since Les played his first record at Hero’s and Harry stood behind the counter in Spin Inn (which still exists today - at least in name). They’d no doubt smile at the current obsession with Italo Disco, Harry having probably been the first person in Britain to hear many of these records at the time, via the import stock that arrived in the shop from Europe, with Les, as Spin Inn’s most important gay customer, being the first to play them out.
Nowadays Manchester has its own Gay Village (immortalised by the groundbreaking TV series ‘Queer As Folk’), which is said to have the biggest concentration of gay interests, services and businesses in Europe.
Hero’s and Spin Inn are very much a part of Manchester’s illustrious gay heritage, helping nurture what has now become such a strong and colourful ‘queer community’. Canal Street might not seem as exotic as Castro Street, but the spirit of San Francisco (and, of course, New York) has swiftly spread its roots within the rainy city throughout the past two decades.
© GREG WILSON – DECEMBER 2005
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THE CASTRO CHART – MIXMAG NOVEMBER 1983
1. Koffie ‘And I’m Telling You’
2. Pamela Stanley ‘I Don’t Wanna Talk About It’
3. Eartha Kitt ‘Where Is My Man’
4. Flirtations ‘Earthquake’
5. Marsha Raven ‘Catch Me’
6. Eastbound Expressway ‘Primitive Desire’
7. Sharon Redd ‘Love How You Feel’
8. La Jete ‘La Cage Aux Folles’
9. Slip ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ (remix)
10. Gloria Gaynor ‘I Am What I Am’
11. Risque ‘Burn It Up (Mr DJ)’
12. Charade ‘Got To Get You’
13. Two Sisters ‘Destiny’ (disconet)
14. Miss Kimberley ‘DJ Girl’
15. Miquel Brown ‘Manpower’/’Sunny Day’/’So Many Men’ (dub)/’He’s A Saint’ (LP)
16. Vicki Sue Robinson ‘To Sir With Love’
17. Deborah Washington ‘Nothing But Heartaches’ / ‘Nowhere To Run’
18. Divine ‘Love Reaction’
19. Waterfront Home ‘Take A Chance’
20. Earlene Bentley ‘Boys Come To Town’
Artefact added : 21st August 2017