Oi Polloi

An Interview with Dave Haslam

Published: Fri Jul 20 2018

Everyone is a fan of something, but it’s rare that someone takes their obsessions and makes something of them.

From putting together fanzines, to playing regular DJ slots at The Haçienda, to penning books on 70s counter-culture, Dave Haslam has channelled his appreciation for the unsung into something useful, making a career out of his interests and tuning people into new sounds and ideas in the process.

His new book, Sonic Youth Slept on My Floor is a personal history of the bands, venues, cities and people that meant something to him.

With this new release as a vague excuse for an interview, I met him in a café to talk about writing, the importance of the audience and the difference between nostalgia and appreciation for the past.

Your new book spans quite a long period of time. What made you want to release this thing now?

Well, having done four previous books which were all music history, they were all things that I was emotionally invested in, but they weren’t things where I was in any way centre stage. So it was partly a challenge to myself, to write a different kind of book.

And also, it seemed like there was interest in various things that I’ve been involved with – not just The Haçienda, but other stuff. And thirdly, I thought the exercise would be therapeutic to get it all down on paper.

One thing I always wonder about these memoir-type books, is how do people remember specific details from thirty or more years ago? Do you have old notebooks you’ve kept?

I kept a diary from 1980 to 1985. It was a slightly over-meticulous diary about all the things that I did — “Went to Eighth Day, had chickpea stew. Forgot I had two library books over-due…” But in amongst all that detail, there might be something like, “Morrissey phoned me up, we talked about Top of the Pops.”

And then from ’85 I’ve had what I call a work diary, with all my notes about gigs I’ve put on, how much I’ve paid bands and where I’m DJing.

More of like a business diary or something?

Yeah – but if you’ve got that, then that will spark things. So it might say, “DJing at The Boardwalk with Pete Tong,” but in my mind I can remember that night someone scratched Pete Tong’s car with a key, and Graeme La Saux, the Blackburn and England footballer, came to the gig.

Is it tough to decide what you put into a book? I suppose if you’re documenting a time and place in history, you’ve almost got the power to make one place sound amazing, and another sound a bit rubbish.

Well, you have to be honest. One of the things I decided with the book was that I would be positive about as many things as I could be — there aren’t many times when I’m dismissive of a club or band or DJ. That means that it’s not about putting people down and settling scores. I don’t think that’s necessary.

I suppose it comes down to the purpose of writing a book… is it celebrating something, or just settling a grudge.

One of the main things in the book is me talking about people inspiring me — people like John Peel, Tony Wilson, Nile Rodgers, David Byrne and Tracey Thorne. So not only is this book not just about me telling my stories, but it’s me paying homage to other people, and audiences.

When you’re a young DJ, you think it’s all about you — you think that all these people have queued up to hear your immaculate selection. But as you get older, you realise that a lot of other stuff is involved. You’re dependant on the audience coming with an open mind, and you’re dependant on the right venue at the right time. To make a great night, you need great people in that club.

So I also paid homage to the audiences, whether it was the 30 people who’d come to watch me play weirdo post-punk at the Man Alive or whether it was 1500 people at The Haçienda in 1990.

I suppose the audience often gets ignored in these stories a bit, but they’re the ones keeping things going.

Yeah, you have to be in a city, at a time, and find an audience that will appreciate you best.

Earlier in the book when you’re still living in Birmingham, there’s a few club nights and bands starting up, but its maybe not to quite the same scale as in Manchester. I suppose if less people are bothered, it’s harder to get things off the ground.

Yeah, those little parts of the jigsaw weren’t there. One of the things about Manchester is that my generation benefited from that slightly older generation like Tony Wilson and The Buzzcocks. The other thing about Manchester is that people can be quite hard and cynical.

That no bullshit thing?

Yeah, so if you put your head above the parapet and say, “Okay, I’m going to try DJ or be in a band or put on a night”, there might be some people who’ll encourage you, but a lot of people will think, “Who does he think he is.” But, if you prove yourself, once you’ve got beyond that, people will come on board 400 times more enthusiastically.

Once you’ve got over that initial hostility, you get really great loyalty.

Going back to what you were saying about audiences, at the start of the book you’re definitely a fan. What is it that separates people who just go to gigs or clubs, to the ones who have then got to go further and maybe do a fanzine or put on shows?

That’s a good question. I think I slightly benefited from the times — in the early 80s there was a very strong indie scene. And that’s not just ‘indie music’, but it’s the idea of an alternative culture that you were encouraged to be a part of.

So if a fanboy like me wanted to interview someone, the band was likely to say yes straight away, and if I sent a fanzine to John Peel, he’d maybe mention it on air.

“When you’re a young DJ, you think it’s all about you — you think that all these people have queued up to hear your immaculate selection.”

Maybe that wasn’t the initial impulse, but once I started the fanzine, I found that you could pick up a lot of momentum from those little networks. I started the fanzine without thinking about it being a career, it was just me expressing my enthusiasm — not just for music, but for politics and books and ideas.

It seemed like you’d cover a lot of different subjects in there. Do you think people are sometimes too strict with definitions of things?

I think one of the reasons why I have got away with it for so long is that I’ve avoided allowing myself to be pigeonholed, in terms of what I do or what I like and how I do stuff.

Near the end of the book I end up wobbling a bit as the world keeps pigeonholing me as some kind of Madchester throwback who is desperate for any DJ gig that’ll allow me to play the same records that I played in 1989, but that was so far from how I perceived myself.

People will say things like, “You’re a DJ, why do you go on about these obscure American writers.” It seems like people are always wanting to limit you.

Are DJs relevant now when there’s a Youtube algorithm machine that can just select music?

I used to spend hours in Eastern Bloc just making sure that out of the five copies of a certain record that might arrive from Chicago or Belgium, I had one of them. I also knew that when people heard it in the club, they wouldn’t have heard it on the radio or on MTV. I still think that’s the role of the DJ. Even though theoretically the audience can go and track down those records on the internet, in reality, they’ve all got stuff to do.

Something like going to a record shop or printing your own fanzine is fairly hands on. Do you think the beauty of these fairly basic, real life activities have been lost now?

The personal interaction of being able to give a fanzine to someone in a queue is great. It’s something tangible, and it’s a sociable thing. That interaction is one where you could potentially end up becoming mates.

Last night I met someone who had an almost complete collection of all the flexi discs that came with my fanzine. These tangible things are kept forever, it’s different to bookmarking a page on a website.

I wonder if in 30 years’ time people will reminisce about that time they first stumbled upon a great song on Youtube?

I also think that in 30 years’ time, even though everything is documented with hundreds of photos on Facebook, these things might disappear. I can’t access all my little Myspace updates — they probably don’t even exist anymore, but I put loads of stuff on there about music and life and meeting people, but it’s all gone.

There’s very little footage of The Haçienda. I DJed there hundreds of times, but there’s only three photos of me there, but in 30 years’ time, there might not be three photos of me DJing in 2018 either.

Yeah, they’d all be on some corrupted hard-drive in a drawer somewhere. On the subject of The Haçienda and all the acid house stuff that’s doing the rounds at the moment, do you think Manchester sometimes has a problem with being stuck 30 years ago?

I think it does, but I think people’s reaction to that big Madchester moment has changed recently. There was a generation at the end of the 90s who resented the amount of chatter, talk and reverence that was been given to that era.

It was still so fresh in people’s minds that anyone doing anything around then was always being judged by it — is this band going to be the new Stone Roses? Is this club the new Haçienda?

I think now people accept the history and take from it whatever they want. Some people still react against it, but a lot of people take inspiration from it. I think generally, it’s unhelpful for my generation to just keep boring people about it.

In the later part of the book, there’s a whole chapter about how brilliant the lesbian electro disco scene in Paris is, and I write about that because it is great, and there’s a lot of virtues of what did happen 30 years ago are there as well. It’s people doing things for themselves, a marginalised community expressing themselves in an underground, artistic and semi-political way.

Do you think the point is missed quite often? People might say they’re inspired by acid house, so they’ll wear a big, baggy t-shirt and listen to music from that time, as opposed to taking the spirit of that time.

The spirit of The Haçienda lives on in lots and lots of ways. It lives on in small underground venues, people doing small labels, people writing about the city, spoken word nights. The spirit of the club was to be unpredictable and forward looking, and being proud of being in Manchester, but not blinkered. There’s a lot of stuff that I see that sums up the spirit of 30 years ago.

And I suppose that ‘spirit’ probably came from New York in the 70s, which probably came from something earlier.

Yeah, The Haçienda was part of a very long journey of people passing on the creative baton, saying this is how we can do great things, by being different, by being passionate and about being rooted in a city. It’s just part of a story, it goes back decades.

There’s a difference between celebrating what’s gone before, and being stuck in the past. One of the values of history, is that it gives you a perspective of where we are now. You need to know that history to understand how we got here.

“There’s a difference between celebrating what’s gone before, and being stuck in the past.”

With this book, I hope people will find stuff in it from the past which is ammunition for the future — stuff about how you operate in the city, or in music, and how you can make a difference. And that for me is the healthiest way to look at the past — what ingredients from the past will help us build the future?

As opposed to, “Look how good we were back then.”

I hate that. When I was growing up, that’s what we’d hear from the 60s generation — “We had The Beatles, we had The Rolling Stones, we had Carnaby Street, you’ll never have what we had.” I was hearing that when I was 14 or 15, but at that very moment, punk was happening, and then ten years later, house music was around. And both those things changed culture.

I’ve heard the phrase ‘swinging 60s’ so often, but for most of the people I’ve talked to who lived through the 60s, the ‘swinging’ element was a long way away from their life. They were trying to get a job, bringing up kids and waiting at a bus stop — people weren’t living that dream.

I think we’re running out of time here, so I’ll try and wrap this up. What was life like in the early 80s in Manchester without the rose tinted glasses?

The reality was that most people were buying albums by Dire Straits. I remember going past Maine Road and there were just lines and lines of people in double denim desperate to watch Queen supported by Status Quo, whilst I was going to some poxy little venue to see a band with a crowd of about 30 people.

Most people were into what most people were into, and then there’d be these little cells of people who were into other things. There’d be a little bit of Greg Wilson playing electro funk at Legend, Colin Curtis playing jazz at Berlin, me playing weirdo post-punk stuff at Man Alive.

They were just tiny little scenes, but when people write about Manchester in the early 80s, they don’t write about the life changing gig at Maine Road, they write about what all those little scenes were doing, sowing the seeds of what happened next.

The niche stuff is often the most interesting.

Things are most interesting in that early period of creativity — when bands are writing their first songs straight out of their heart and souls, before everything is defined and they’re thinking of it as a career. There’s so much value to that early stuff.

Once a band becomes big and their life experience is restricted to flying on aeroplanes and living in five star hotels, they’ve got fuck all to write about. And it shows. There’s a price to be paid for big commercial success.

It’s the same with DJs. When David Guetta started out he played hip hop, he played house, he played gay clubs on Sunday afternoons in Paris, and then 15 years later, he might have his own thing, but he’s not interesting. He’s become a brand, limited to a certain kind of music.

I suppose it’s a tough balance. People have got to eat and not everyone can be Fugazi.

Sometimes audiences don’t want you to evolve, they don’t want every band’s album to sound different. So there has to be a balance, but like I say, I enjoyed writing the early chapters in the book, because I enjoyed writing about those small scenes.

The great thing about that was that I felt as fulfilled as a person putting on Big Black at the Archway in 1986 when 115 people came, as anything I’ve ever been involved with. I didn’t go home thinking, ‘One day I want to be more successful or wealthy or see my name in lights’, I just came home thinking, ‘That was such a buzz’.

Even in 1985 or 86, Johnny Marr or Mark E. Smith, these people who you’d think had reached a level of great success, were still just walking around Manchester or in the back of The Haçienda when Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds were on.

So there was no incentive to want to be rich or famous, because nobody was, and nobody cared. People just wanted to get up in the morning and do something interesting, with some mates — that’s all that we wanted to do.

Find out more about Dave’s new book here.