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American Trilogy – Motortown, Philly & NYC

American Trilogy

Just back from a flying visit Stateside, playing consecutive days in 3 of dance music’s seminal cities – Detroit, Philadelphia and New York. The Detroit and New York parties were both really special, but not all ran smoothly, for sandwiched in between the Philly gods conspired against us.

In Detroit I played outdoors on the Thursday at TV Lounge, from midnight to close, at 2am - it was a free ‘Appreciation Party’ in a brilliant space, courtesy of Paxahau, the organizers of the wonderful Movement festival, which had taken place the previous weekend. They’d booked me for what was, in effect, their wrap party, concluding proceedings for 2013. It had been the most successful Movement to date and, mission accomplished, everyone who worked on delivering the festival was finally able to relax and enjoy the celebratory nature of the night.

I was supposed to play at TV Lounge back in 2011 – it would have been my Detroit debut, but my visa was delayed and I ended up frustratingly having to cancel my US tour dates. As a consequence of this, my first Detroit appearance would be a Saturday afternoon main stage set at last year’s Movement, which, as it worked out, couldn’t have been a more perfect introduction to a city that, in just 2 short visits, has made such a big impression on me – as illustrated in my blog post from last year, ‘Detroit Hustles Harder’:

A huge bonus for me was, unlike last time, when I got there to find it closed for Memorial Day, the Motown Museum was in full effect, and TV Lounge manager Josh Guerin was kind enough to take time out from setting up the venue to drive me along in the afternoon. I’d expected it was, as with The Beatles Museum in Liverpool, somewhere you walked through at your own pace, but they had a tour guide, and it became a communal experience, which was especially poignant given that our group included some highly vociferous elderly black ladies who’d lived this whole thing first hand, as it originally unfolded, before mushrooming to global proportions, announcing Detroit as a world power of music. The brainchild of Soul visionary Berry Gordy, drawing inspiration from the car production lines that had defined the city, Motown is right at the roots of dance culture as we know it, the original discotheque music, a fact far too many people seem to be totally unaware of – it didn’t start with House and Techno, it didn’t start with Disco or Funk, it all stems from Motown and 60’s Soul. As I stepped into that building I was totally aware that I was setting foot inside a hallowed space – Hitsville USA no less.

The Sound Of Detroit - Funk Brothers 1959-72

As I’ve spoken / written about on many occasions, I was immersed in this magical music throughout my formative years – it’s right at the foundation of what makes me me. So, to stand beneath the happenstance ‘echo chamber’ in the upstairs room, the very spot where many classic songs I deeply love were sung, and to walk down into ‘The Snake Pit’, where the Funk Brothers made all our dreams come true with music that lifted the hearts of a generation, released all sorts of karmic emotions within me. Strangely, the thing that got to me the most was hearing the opening notes of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ by The Supremes, and being instantly transported back to the boy in myself, mesmerized by this and so many other wondrous Tamla Motown singles of the 60’s.

Later, I would kick off my spot with the Reflex Revision of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Wish’, which (although it was originally recorded in 1976, 4 years after Motown had relocated to Los Angeles) harks back to his own Detroit boyhood. To close I played 2 of Motown’s best-loved recordings, ‘Tears Of A Clown’ by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ by the Four Tops – both classics amongst classics. There was a special moment when I was drawn to James Jamerson’s iconic baseline in ‘Reach Out’, which I could hear in my left ear (stereo often split to extremes on 60’s records) – this drew my attention to the street outside, which cut through midtown Detroit, and the awareness that I was there amidst it all, became acute. This was Jamerson’s city, Stevie’s city, Marvin’s city, Diana’s city, Smokey’s city, Gordy’s city and on and on and on. Hallelujah Detroit, praise be to God for your ever-giving gift of music.

The recording from the night is now available to stream / download via SoundCloud:


From Detroit to Philadephia on the Friday, where, by contrast, things were somewhat subdued because of an unexpected freak weather curveball – a tropical storm called Andrea, I believe. However a hardcore of clubbers braved the downfall, 4” of rain in some parts of the city, and made it to the venue, Morgan’s Pier, (which was part in and part outdoors). Although it was a smaller gathering than we’d anticipated, before the heavens opened up that is, what it lacked in numbers it made up for in spirit. So, to the Philly crowd who made it along, I salute your gallant efforts, and look forward to a return in sunnier climes.

Philly Weathermap

Following on from Motown, students of dance music will know that Philadelphia International Records was the next major dance music label to emerge, laying the blueprint for Disco in the process by, as Fred Wesley (formerly of James Brown’s band, The J.B’s, then later Parliament / Funkadelic) once remarked, elegantly ‘putting the bow tie on the Funk’. The golden era of the Philly Sound spanned the early to mid-70’s, when producers, Gamble & Huff, were at their most prolific, churning out hit after hit by artists including The O’Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, Billy Paul, The Intruders, The Jacksons and MFSB, the Soul / Funk orchestra working out of the city’s famous Sigma Sound Studios who were so vital to shaping the sound of Disco (later, most of these musicians would re-locate to New York to form the Salsoul Orchestra – beginning a fresh chapter for dance music).

New York was my final port of call. The massive influence this city has had on me, especially during the early 80’s, is well documented. This is where Disco fermented in the 70’s, growing into a global movement and defining the course of dance culture. Even after it was supposedly killed off at the end of the decade in a racist and homophobic tirade by the Rock establishment, spouting their ‘Disco Sucks’ mantra, it continued to flourish on a more underground level, with classic independent labels like Prelude and West End flying the flag – with the term Disco sullied, people began to refer to it as Dance music instead. A positive result of all this was that, with the mainstream glare now elsewhere, an era of experimentation followed, setting the tone for the oncoming Hip Hop, House and Techno directions, which would dominate dancefloors for the next 30 years.

The Daily Note

The Red Bull Music Academy, held in New York this year, had only just ended the previous weekend, and the final issue of The Daily Note, the event’s free paper, carried a great article from ‘Love Saves The Day’ author, Tim Lawrence, the front page, adorned with a fabulous shot of DJ Larry Levan with Grace Jones, announced ‘Disco Eternal – How NYC Clubs Fired Up The World’. Tim’s piece, ‘From Disco To Disco – New York’s Global Clubbing Influence’, looks at some of Manhattan’s legendary venues of the 70’s, including The Loft, Paradise Garage, Studio 54 and Danceteria, whilst discussing how the city inspired 2 of the UK’s most celebrated nightspots, The Haçienda in Manchester and London’s Ministry Of Sound. You can read online at: http://www.redbullmusicacademy.com/magazine/from-disco-to-disco
or download a PDF of the publication:

My NYC gig was a boat party, from 4pm until 10pm on the Hudson, promoted by TBA Brooklyn and Autobrennt, and also featuring ex-pat Mancunian DJ Billy Caldwell (whose magnificent edit of ‘How Soon Is Now’ by The Smiths has been a big tune for me during recent times). Given that New York is only a few hours from Philadelphia, it had also experienced bad weather in the days beforehand, so, even though the forecast had it clearing up on the Saturday, there was still a concern that it might rain on our parade. We needn’t have worried though, not only did the rain hold off, but the sun broke out – it was an ideal day for a boat party, and the event was a major success.

New York Boat Party

A personal highlight was seeing the Statue Of Liberty for the first time. To view from a boat, as so many people who immigrated to the US originally saw it after it was erected in 1886, was awe-inspiring. A gift from the French, and a symbol of freedom, you can only imagine the emotions it would have conjured up in the hearts of those seeking a new beginning in what was a whole other world. A small group of us broke away from the party to view it from a quiet spot at the front of the boat - the four people with me, all now US citizens, each coming from different European countries (Albania, Serbia, Poland and Turkey), emphasising the cultural melting pot that makes up America.

Statue of Liberty

Resident Advisor pre-tour news item:


Year Of Decision

 Yes, this is the year

To make your decision

(We gotta get it together)

Yes this is the year

To open up your mind.

Gamble & Huff 1973

On New Year’s Eve, for the first time since I started up again, I was deejaying as one year passed into the next. Although I’ve had bookings every New Year’s Eve since 2004, I’ve always played after midnight, but this year I made 2 separate appearances in London, the first at the Slide & Get Diverted party in the Brixton Clubhouse between 11pm and 1am (my later date, from 3am and 5am would be over in Greenwich at the Defected event at Proud2 in the O2 Arena).

Back in the 70’s, like pretty much every other DJ of the time, I’d bring in the New Year with ‘Auld Lang Syne’, as was traditional as 12 o’clock struck. The version I used was from an album called ‘Celebration Party Dances (For Every Occasion)’ by the British bandleader Victor Silvester, which was an indispensable mobile disco LP back then, covering the type of stuff the older folk of that generation would have regarded as essential fuel for a proper knees-up.

During the 20 years I wasn’t a DJ I never went out to a club on New Year’s Eve, so it was with a tint of sadness that I realised that ‘Auld Lang Syne’ no longer got an airing, at least in the clubs where I was booked in to, the DJ instead selecting a classic oldie as their first tune of the year (T-Connection’s ‘At Midnight’ seemingly a popular choice). This is with the notable exception of one club night, the mighty Melting Pot in Glasgow, where I was pleased to hear tradition still preserved. Graeme Clark (The Revenge) was on, and although he didn’t play ‘Auld Lang Syne’, he marked the moment with a suitably Scottish Highland Reel.

Hogmanay is, of course, something the Scottish hold so dear, with the writer of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, Robert Burns, revered as the country’s most celebrated poet, and recently voted the greatest all-time Scot. The song has ushered in the New Year since the 1800’s, and stands strong as a poignant symbol of endings and new beginnings.

It’s opening line ‘Should auld / old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind’ reminds us of what came before, especially those friends and family no longer with us, who perhaps we once joined hands with at midnight in younger days. I think this link to the ancestors is important – looking back on where we came from and, in a sense, grounding ourselves before moving on into the year ahead and wherever destiny takes us. One day, of course, we’ll be the ancestors – we’re all part of life’s process, and in the future it’ll be us who will be ‘brought to mind’ by those who come after. Anyhow, before morbid sentimentality is levelled at me, I’d better lighten the mood and play out of this paragraph with a distinguished piper:

So, back to NYE and, knowing I was the midnight DJ, I was faced with the question of what to play? Ringing out the old and bringing in the new carries a weight of responsibility – you don’t want to get it wrong when the whole objective is setting the year off on the right footing. With all due respect to the DJ’s who do play ‘At Midnight’ at midnight, that would never be the tune for me. Don’t get me wrong, ‘At Midnight’ is a decent enough track, but it’s not specific to January 1st and wouldn’t be out of place on any other night of the year. I wanted something befitting of a special celebration that only comes around annually.

I thought about a track that might fit the bill, and remembered how I’d always enjoyed the positive message of ‘Year Of Decision’, an upbeat Philly Sound favourite that was the first UK hit for The Three Degrees, reaching #13 in 1974, just 3 months before the trio topped the chart with their most famous single, ‘When Will I See You Again’ (to complete a hat-trick, between these 2 singles they also saw chart success with a featured credit on MFSB’s ‘TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)’, the anthem of this era defining label, and the theme tune for the seminal US TV show, ‘Soul Train’. In short, they were on a roll.

‘The Year Of Decision’ was written and produced by label founders Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, who were responsible for a phenomenal run of hits during Philadelphia International’s 1972-1977 heyday  - just check out this wealth of Philly gold, all UK Top 40 hits, which the prolific duo both produced and wrote / co-wrote (22 in all): ‘Backstabbers’ / The O’Jays (1973), ‘Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet, Tender, Love) / The O’Jays (1977), ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ / Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (1977)’, ‘Get Your Love Back’ / The Three Degrees (1974), ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ / Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (1973), ‘I Love Music’ / The O’Jays (1976), ‘I’ll Always Love My Mama’ / The Intruders (1974), ‘Let’s Make A Baby’ / Billy Paul (1976), ‘Long Lost Lover’ / The Three Degrees (1975), ‘Love Train’ / The O’Jays (1973), ‘Me And Mrs Jones’ / Billy Paul (1973), ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back)’ / Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (1974) ‘Sexy’ / MFSB (1975), ‘Show You The Way To Go’ / The Jacksons (1977), ‘Take Good Care Of Yourself’  / The Three Degrees (1975),‘Thanks For Saving My Life’ / Billy Paul (1974), ‘The Love I Lost’ / Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (1974), ‘TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia)’ / MFSB Featuring The Three Degrees (1974), ‘When Will I See You Again / The Three Degrees (1974)’, ‘Win, Place Or Show (She’s A Winner)’ / The Intruders (1974) ‘Year Of Decision / The Three Degrees (1974) and ‘You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine’ / Lou Rawls (1976). Leon Huff even found time to branch out on his own with the Funk anthem ‘Do It Anyway You Wanna’ / Peoples Choice (1975).

Gamble & Huff’s work during the early-mid 70’s provided one of the main branches of the tree from which Disco grew. As the legendary JB’s / P Funk trombonist Fred Wesley famously said, ‘the Gamble & Huff style put a bow tie on the funk’.

So, ‘Year Of Decision’ was a strong possibility for my New Year tune, it both had the right message, and Disco association, but, given my feelings about ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and the whole custom that surrounds it, I found myself drawn towards playing it after all, with ‘Year Of Decision’ following on. Having fixed on this, I looked online for a suitable version and found one by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, the pipe and drum ensemble who hit the top of the UK chart with their rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ in 1972. Starting out as a march, it rocks out after half a minute in a suitably rousing fashion. It’s total length was around 2 minutes, but I edited this down to 1.15, which was just enough, adding some signature samples over the top to give it a more bespoke feel, including Public Enemy’s request that ‘everybody in the house make some noise’ as the rock part kicked in, and the Cyrus spoken ‘can you dig it’ (x3) from the 1979 film ‘The Warriors’. As ‘Auld Lang Syne’ finished, ‘Year Of Decision’ took over.

I’d planned to embed a YouTube clip of ‘Year Of Decision’, but just checked and it’s frustratingly no longer available. It was a version I hadn’t heard before – an extension of the original, with a longer intro and a break ahead of the outro. It wasn’t the album version (which is the same length as the single), so I’d no idea where it was from. I made a few enquiries via a text to JJ from London-based Six Million Steps, a bona-fide 70’s Soul aficionado, and an email to New Yorker Jay Negron (aka J*ski), who’s just co-compiled the new album ‘Philadelphia International: The Re-Edits’, with my old mate Ian Dewhirst. Neither knew this version I’d found on YouTube, at which point I realised that it must be an un-credited edit that someone had put together, rather than an official version I was unaware of.  I really liked the additional space of the extended intro and break, so I set about re-creating it myself (the break, as it turned out, was simply 4x4 bars taken from the intro). In the absence of the YouTube clip I’d intended, here’s my ‘A Quick New Year’s Message’ from SoundCloud, with the extended ‘Year Of Decision’ providing the soundtrack (excuse the voiceover at the intro):


Having made such an impact on the UK chart in 1973, The Three Degrees  would go on to record a string of British hits throughout the decade, long after their popularity had waned Stateside.  They parted company with Gamble & Huff / Philadelphia International in 1976, and their credibility suffered when Prince Charles announced them as his favourite group, and had them play at his 30th birthday party in 1978 (although his royal patronage made them darlings of the British media well into the 80’s, helping sustain their career long past it's US sell by date). Sadly, a group who had once worked with the great Gamble & Huff, would be reduced to recording with British producers, Stock, Aitkin & Waterman, who swamped the chart with syrupy formulaic hits throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s, via Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Sonia, Rick Astley etc (The Three Degrees best SAW placing being a disappointing #42 for ‘The Heaven I Need’, in 1987 – the last of their 12 UK Top 50 hits, 13 including their featured role on ‘TSOP’).

So, with this important decision arrived at, on the stroke of midnight all those congregated in the Brixton Clubhouse celebrated our entry into 2012 with ‘Auld Lang Syne’, and the room suitably bounced. ‘Year Of Decision’ then followed and I dug back into the 70’s for a while, re-connecting with days long passed, before moving on to some more recent favourites.

I believe this really is a year of decision for many of us – a time to re-assess our aims and objectives and set them into motion, not through some lacklustre resolution we're going to have forgotten well before February, but through necessity.

Issues of recession, corruption and abuse of power, race, religion, riots and revolution play out at home and overseas, and whereas in recent times the majority of the populace seem to have chosen to switch off to the bigger picture, preferring to sedate themselves with reality TV, talent shows, sports coverage and soap opera, an ever growing amount of people are waking up to the harsher realities and seeing the world more objectively as a result, with the ‘Chinese curse’, ‘may you live in interesting times’,  taking on a new contemporary resonance.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep focus amidst the chaotic fog of information overload, which Facebook, Twitter and other social networks churn out at breakneck pace – it’s impossible to keep up with everything going on, there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. There’s no doubt we’re being sucked into the future at speed, so hold on tight, it could be a bumpy ride, a turbulent time for a lot of people. But remember, on the other side of the coin, this will also enable opportunity for others.

I’m a glass half-full type, so, despite being disturbed by much of what I see going on, I feel that once the dust has settled, things will work themselves out for the better. We’re still trying to figure out how to adapt to this cyber-existence, and it may serve us well to keep remembering that there’s a real world out there, with real people, not just Facebook friends. I’m fortunate that my work takes me into contact with a wide range of people, from different parts of the globe. I feed off this human energy, and am able to reciprocate via the music I play. I try to retain this personal connection, to the best of my ability, with my online interactions. I suppose that the part-human / part-machine cyborg future is already upon us, for our computers have become an extension of ourselves. With this in mind, I believe we need to keep the emphasis on the human, not the machine.

I hope that 2012 is kind to you, wherever you be, whatever you do. I certainly feel that this will be a telling time, as the ‘culture of steam’ moves ever closer to boiling point. Big changes are on the horizon for sure – it’s just a case of whether you’re someone to whom change is welcomed or change is feared, for this will inform the choices you make, and how you adapt to the unknown adventures ahead.

So, to quote ‘Auld Lang Syne’, I raise my ‘cup of kindness’ to you all (Baileys, if you wondered) and wish you peace, love, happiness and good times as the year unfolds.

Auld Lang Syne Wikipedia:


Living To Music – Michael Jackson ‘Off The Wall’




YEAR: 1979

This Sunday (Dec 4th), at 9pm, you’re invited to share a listening session with some likeminded souls, wherever you might be. This can be experienced either alone or communally, and you don’t need to leave the comfort of your own home to participate. Full lowdown here:

Even though it's almost two and a half years since his death in June 2009, Michael Jackson remains ever-newsworthy. Only recently, the trial of the physician who administered the drugs that killed him, Dr Conrad Murray, came to a conclusion with Murray convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

There was a time before Jacko was considered wacko, before his life turned into a celebrity soap opera. Sadly, his music increasingly played a supporting role to the stories that surrounded him, some plain silly, others more sinister. This is the side of his legend that gained momentum throughout the 80's and 90's, following the phenomenal success of his 'Thriller' album in 1983, and the groundbreaking promotional video that accompanied it, but, IMHO, and the opinion of many others, his greatest album came 4 years before this. So for this edition of Living To Music I ask you to try to put aside your preconceptions and listen afresh to an extraordinary artist, incredibly still yet to turn 21 years of age, cementing his place amongst the 70’s greats, and paving the way for his coronation as King Of Pop in the oncoming decade.

'Off The Wall' is very much Jackson's coming of age LP. It was released at the end of a decade that had begun for him, and his brothers, with unprecedented US chart success, when each of the first 4 Jackson 5 singles, 'I Want You Back', 'ABC', 'The Love You Save' and ‘I’ll Be There’ all went to #1 within 1970 (they were also all UK Top 10 hits). Almost overnight the group had become Motown's biggest money-spinner, and this was a company packed with greats, like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops and Diana Ross, who’d championed the Jackson 5 ahead of their recording debut. The 12 year old lead singer, with the James Brown moves and command of vocal rhythm, was, quite rightly, a revelation, and soon, in addition to ongoing Jackson 5 material (not to mention the TV cartoon series), his solo career was launched.

Initially specializing in ballads, Michael Jackson scored huge US and/or UK hits with songs including 'Ben', 'Got To Be There' and the Bill Withers classic 'Ain't No Sunshine', on which he displayed a maturity that belied his tender years (as he did on the Jackson 5’s, 'Never Can Say Goodbye', a Soul standard composed by Clifton Davis, with other particularly notable, and very different 70’s recordings made by Isaac Hayes and Gloria Gaynor).

Between 1970 and 1973 he was a veritable hit machine, but then the big singles started to dry up, although ‘Dancing Machine’ provided a J5 US swansong, peaking at #2 there in 1974 (it wasn’t a UK hit, but was a significant single for me on a personal level, given that I adapted the title to ‘Dancin’ Machine’ in naming my mobile disco, which I set up the following year). After a few relatively barren years the brothers left Motown, who forced them to drop the 5 from their name, signing to Epic as The Jacksons. They set about recording new tracks at Sigma Sound, the studio responsible for the famous Philly Sound, which had been tearing up the dancefloor as Disco hit its stride with artists like The Trammps, The O'Jays, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes, The Three Degrees, The Intruders and studio band MFSB. Bringing in hot producers Gamble & Huff, the brothers returned to the US Top 10 with ‘Enjoy Yourself’, whilst hitting the UK #1 spot with ‘Show You The Way To Go’. Their 1978 album ‘Destiny’ included 2 massive hits, 'Blame It On The Boogie' (written and originally recorded by English singer/songwriter Mick Jackson - strange but true) and 'Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)'.

This renewed success set things up nicely for Michael Jackson's solo return, and he didn't fail to deliver. 'Off The Wall', with the great producer Quincy Jones at the controls (and Jackson taking a co-production role, in addition to some of the songwriting credits), was packed full of hits, no less than 4 US Top 10 singles - 'Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough', 'Rock With You', 'Off The Wall' and 'She's Out Of My Life', the first 2 being chart toppers.

Another major contributor to the album, songwriter Rod Temperton, provided 3 of the tracks, ‘Rock With You’, ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Burn This Disco Out’. Temperton, from the English seaside resort of Cleethorpes, already had a hit pedigree. As a member of the British-based Anglo-American Funk band Heatwave he’d written a quartet of UK Top 20 singles, ‘Boogie Nights’, ’Too Hot To Handle’, ‘The Groove Line’ and ‘Always And Forever’, a trio of which had also reached the Top 20 Stateside (‘Too Hot To Handle’ being the exception, the biggest being ‘Boogie Nights’, which peaked at #2 in both the UK and the US).

Jackson would once again team up with Quincy Jones, as well as Rod Temperton (who composed the all-important title track), for his crowning glory, ‘Thriller’, and a whole new phase of unimaginable fame and fortune would follow. However, it’s the pre-‘Thriller’ Michael Jackson we celebrate via this selection, already a truly remarkable artist who’d achieved so much by that point in time, but who’s legacy is overshadowed, and for some tainted, by what happened subsequently.

Your own thoughts are always welcomed, and, should you join us for Sunday’s session, it’d be great if you could leave a comment here after you’ve listened to the album sharing your impressions – how the music affected you, who you listened to it with, where you were, plus anything else relevant to your own individual / collective experience.

Michael Jackson ‘Off The Wall’ Wikipedia:

Living To Music Facebook Event Page: