Interview: ORIGINALS… Greg Wilson, part one
There’s very little that can be written about Greg Wilson that hasn’t already been said, such is the Merseyside native’s influence on dance culture over a more than four-decade period.
Kicking off his DJ career at the age of just 15, in his hometown of New Brighton, Wilson came into his own during the late 70s and early 80s as a purveyor of quality soul, funk, disco and, in time, electro, at landmark venues such as Wigan Pier and Manchester’s Legend, as well as introducing the concept of mixing to an audience raised on a diet of microphone-friendly DJs and glitter-festooned backdrops.
Remarkably, at the end of 1983, seemingly at the peak of his powers, Wilson turned his back on DJing, to focus on production, as well as managing Manchester’s Broken Glass and Ruthless Rap Assassins. He would retain a low profile until the early 2000s, when the growth of the internet led him to launch electrofunkroots.co.uk (one of several sites he now curates), which sought to ‘fill in the blanks’ in chronicling the evolution of electronic music culture, and his re-emergence behind the decks.
A popular fixture on the international DJ circuit – generally accompanied by his trusty reel-to-reel – Wilson is a musical alchemist, bringing good vibes and, most importantly, impeccable musical taste to everything he does. And he’s a bloody nice bloke to boot.
For the latest in our ORIGINALS series of interviews, we are proud to introduce a true industry icon… Greg Wilson. Part two to follow tomorrow. Thanks to the good people at Beatyard for their help in organising the interview.
Q. You are considered one of the first DJs to epitomise the concept of the ‘selector’ – someone who is obsessive about music choice, about mixing, about reading the crowd?
There were a lot of people before me, going right back to the 60s. In London, you had Guy Stevens, at the Scene Club in Soho, a big Mod club, and in Manchester, Roger Eagle at the Twisted Wheel.
That was where Northern Soul scene developed from, when they stared digging out the old records, and the rarity aspect came in to play. Dave Godin [legendary record shop owner and writer] coined the term ‘Northern Soul’ after a visit to the Twisted Wheel.
When the Twisted Wheel closed, you had a lot of obsessive record enthusiasts, but I don’t know whether you could call them ‘selectors’ – they were more people that just had great music taste. In terms of the presentation side of things, you had the emergence then of the ‘personality DJ’, where you had to have the gift of the gab.
Right up until the rave era, a lot of DJs were still using the microphone. Whether a DJ was able to mix wasn’t a sticking point for most people.
Q. Growing up in New Brighton, on Merseyside, were there a lot of opportunities for a young DJ?
When I was starting out, there were quite a lot of clubs – these were the days that the pubs closed at 10.30, so if you wanted to go for a drink afterwards, you had to go to a club. I worked from the age of 15, in places like the Golden Guinea and The Penny Farthing.
It was like an apprenticeship, I was learning how to DJ, how to read the crowd. You would have some nights when there was nobody in there, and others when the place would be packed as soon as the doors opened.
For me, DJing was all about having the crowd with you, and developing the reciprocal elements to make the night work. That’s hard work when there are only a few people in there, but you learn how to deal with that situation, and that in turn translates to when you are working at a bigger club with a packed dancefloor.
I was young, and before long I was fairly clued up – I was going to London regularly to meet the record company people, and had been doing so since I was 17 to 18. I was getting promos from pretty much every British record label. I wasn’t buying any UK records actually, only American imports.
When I was at the Golden Guinea, I decided I wanted to be the one to play whatever what was ‘new’, first. Imports were quite expensive in those days, so I was cherry picking them, and by the time I got to Wigan Pier I was spending up to £150 a week, which was quite a lot of money in those days.
There was a guy called Emperor Rosko, who was on Radio 1 in the 1970s, who brought out a book about DJing. Most of it was about broadcasting, but at the back of the book was a list of record companies, and information about how to get promos, details about mailing lists – things like that. That was a big discovery for me.
I used to keep these exercise books filled with all the records I was getting on promo; by the time I was 17, I had something like two and a half thousand records. I was getting disco, pop music, even punk. Anything I didn’t want I was selling to the record shops.
Q. Your residencies at Wigan Pier and Legend in Manchester helped establish your reputation in the early 80s, but before that, you travelled quite extensively around Europe. Tell me about that.
I was working in Germany, Denmark, Norway… places like that. I went out there first when I was 18, so I was a little wet between the ears. When I went to Germany, I saw SL 1200s for the first time. You didn’t see them in the UK at all back then.
I didn’t want to be abroad, but DJs didn’t earn a lot of money back then, and I was making something like £15 to £20 a night, which was good money in comparison to other people my age. My friends from back home were doing apprenticeships and going to university – getting their foot on the career ladder – but I was doing something completely different, getting paid to DJ at clubs across Europe.
I remember going to a club on my night off in Essen, called Librium, which really opened my eyes. The soundsystem in that club was incredible, and the lighting system – it was only a small, compact club, but how the DJ was mixing the music was really impressive. I thought, with the right context, I could take this direction with what I was doing.
There were lots of English DJs on the circuit in Europe at that time. They were still doing the ‘microphone thing’; that was the authentic way to DJ back then, announcing and back-announcing records in the English language. I remember driving to a town in Norway called Skien, and there were three other English DJs plying their trade around town.
I was DJing one night, and there was this guy with curly hair – like a big afro – staring at me, like he’s weighing me up. Half an hour later, he’s still there. So eventually, he comes up and introduces himself. His name was Paul Rae and he had been out in Europe for months alongside all these other DJs, one of which was Nicky Flavell.
So he invites me round to hang out, and I get to meet all these guys that are doing the same thing I’m doing. They respected me because I had good musical taste, I think.
Nicky’s club was musically spot on, and I was a bit envious of that, because while I was struggling away trying to play black music in a rock club, he had licence to play disco and funk and everything.
A couple of years later, when I was in Denmark, I rang up Nicky’s home in Hertfordshire, and discovered that he was working at a club called Wigan Pier. So I made up my mind to check it out the next time I was back in the UK, which wasn’t long after that, because I crashed my car and had to come home.
Q. Quite a fortuitous set of circumstances, then?
I was back for a week, and I went to Wigan Pier on the Tuesday. ‘Oh my god’, I said to myself. ‘This is it!’
It was the most amazing place; the soundsystem was incredible, it was the first UK nightclub to have a laser lighting system, and it was fitted out by a company that used to kit out the discotheques then built into Hilton Hotels around the world. The DJ was situated in a giant, 15 foot high fibreglass frog. It was incredible.
Nicky said to me that he was moving to a new club in Manchester called Legend owned by the same people, and that Wigan Pier were holding auditions for the DJ to take over from him. I was due to head back to Germany, on a two month contract, but I was seriously considering not going in order to try my hand at landing the Pier residency.
But after I thought about it, I was on good money in Germany, and there was always the chance I wouldn’t get it, so I couldn’t throw everything up on the hope I’d land a job that almost every DJ in the region coveted.
I sent the manager a cassette tape – that wasn’t done all that often back then – and I think Nicky pushed things along for me, because I got a call when I was in Germany asking would I like to come back and play there.
From the time I was 15 or 16, I had decided that that was going to be my profession, and as such, I thought that if I was going to do this, I was going to have to work out how to step it up to another level.
Now, following Nicky’s call, I had the opportunity to come back home.
Q. That’s how you got started in Wigan Pier, then?
Yeah, and a year on I took over the Wednesday Jazz-Funk night at Legend. As things worked out, Nicky was only there for a short time – he was followed on the Wednesday by John Grant, a big name on the scene, who had then gone to a rival night, taking the bulk of the crowd with him.
Legend had an incredible set up. I can’t emphasise enough how much ahead of the curve this club was. So, Tuesday was the jazz-funk night at Wigan Pier, Wednesday was Legend.
The Tuesdays at Wigan Pier went from strength to strength, with a regular 450 to 500 people coming in from places like Manchester, Bradford, Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham. Legend began to build bit by bit and would eventually go through the roof, with queues forming early and the night hitting capacity until when I left, at the end of ’83.
I managed to make the night my own, and it won all sorts of awards, including club of the year. Legend really should have won it, I think, but Wigan was more ’neutral’, if you know what I mean.
Legend had a predominantly black crowd, Wigan more a black/white split – this in a place where there was a very minimal black population.
At Wigan Pier and Legend, though, you were talking state-of-the-art venues and the crowd really created something special. [As the mixes below, which reflect the music played at both the Pier and Legend, demonstrate – Ed].
[Part two to follow tomorrow, in which we discuss the impact that his residency at Legend had on his career, the birth of the ‘electro-funk’ movement, and why he swapped DJing for production in the mid-80s. Thanks again to the good people at Beatyard and Bodytonic for their help in organising the interview. Main picture by Nick Mizen.]