Justin Robertson: My Journey From Indie To House

Justin Robertson gave Mike Boorman his well-educated take on his journey through the Manchester scene of old and new, ahead of his gig at Manc clubbing institution, Sankeys, this weekend...

Jimmy Coultas

Date published: 20th Oct 2014

Justin Robertson is a key part of the nation's clubbing history, but is every bit as relevant today as he always was, as he looks forward to playing at Sankeys on Saturday October 25th. As a producer, he's been very busy in recent years, including some brilliant collaborations with Daniel Avery under the Deadstock 33s moniker.

What's particularly interesting about Robertson is that even though he was right at the heart of the acid house and rave explosion in the late eighties, to look at him and his general style, you'd have no idea - he certainly wouldn't have been down the front with a whistle and shell suit.

So we thought we'd tell the story of how an indie kid from agreeable suburbia was converted into a proper house head, and just how important Manchester was in the evolution of the country's house music scene.

It's not like it doesn't get enough credit already, but often it's the wrong credit. Justin's story is an important reminder that there was a lot more to it than just going to the Hacienda in 1989.

Did you choose to go to uni in Manchester basically because of the music scene?

Yeah. I was brought up in the home counties, the most un-rock 'n roll, conservative place on earth! So I always had a hankering for the music scene. Manchester University was a fine educational establishment of course, but I was a fanatical fan of The Fall, New Order, Joy Division, that whole kind of Factory thing. Obviously that was pre-acid house.

So at that point did you have any idea of some of New Order's reference points, i.e. they'd been experiencing black electronic music and club culture in the States?

I was vaguely aware. Like many people, I'd careered around a school disco to 'Blue Monday' and I did think at the time, 'what's going on here?' because the early New Order records sounded like an updated version of the old Joy Division sound and then something like 'Blue Monday' and the album Power Corruption And Lies (below on Spotify) comes along.

I first went to uni in 1986, and I was up in the halls of residence, and on the first night I met a guy called Eddie Leviten who's still a good friend of mine. He was a year older and was from Leeds, and he'd being going to The Warehouse and was into a lot of the early Chicago stuff, so he kind of introduced me into the sound.

Then we started going to Nude at the Hacienda, Mike Pickering's night, and that properly exposed me to house music. As soon as I heard it I thought 'this is just unbelievable'. I think it was a combination of walking into a club like the Hacienda, you know, the music just suited it perfectly. Detroit techno and Chicago house was just perfect in there.

You know, I'd lived a sheltered life - I'd been to a few youth club discos and a few gigs in town, but I'd never been to a proper nightclub.

Had you been to the Hacienda before that for a gig or anything?

The first night I went to would have been for Dave Haslam's Temperance Club, because I was basically an indie kid who liked other stuff. What was interesting with Dave is he played The Smiths and all that kind of thing, but then he'd put in Tackhead, Shinehead, and some really heavy hip hop, and bits of house as well, and it broadened my palette instantly.

Within the first few weeks I was buying records from bands that I was dimly aware of through John Peel possibly, but that kind of put it into focus when I heard it again in that environment. I can remember 'Who The Cap Fit' by Shinehead (hear below) being a particularly big one for me, of the tracks Dave Haslam used to play.

So I already thought the club was brilliant and I loved the space, and because Eddie had been to Nude before he said we should go, and as soon as I got in there, the energy of the place was just a different class. This was pre-acid house. A lot of people blowing whistles and pulling all these mad moves.

The period before drugs became so associated with electronic music seems so under-rated. It's as if nothing was happening at the Hacienda before 1989. So was it a mainly black crowd at this point?

Yes, it was. I think it's fair to say that house music was the underground sound of the city at that point, or at least 'the makings of house music', and this was an underground black sound.

So at places like The Gallery as well, you'd hear good street soul, electro, hip hop. So when acid house came along, it wasn't this great musical revolution, it was just that people grew their hair a bit longer and wore baggier clothes!

Of course, the energy and the crowd did eventually change, basically into what the Hacienda is famous for, but to me, some of those pre-acid house nights are unsurpassable - those are the nights that really stick in my head.

Would you say that your story was quite a common one, that you first went to the Hacienda for different reasons than for what you ended up going there regularly for, which was to watch specific DJs play a specific sound?

Yeah, I think so. It's quite weird how it's kind of been lost in the reporting of history, but even after acid house had taken hold, the idea that the DJ was the absolute star only really came in after about 1992.

People didn't really dance at the DJ, they danced to each other. If you went to the early parties, people were just getting together and dancing - there wasn't really a focus, there wasn't a star, and I know it sounds cliched but the 'stars' were the people in the club.

At what point did you notice it become a predominantly drug crowd?

There was an ID night at the Hacienda in 1988, and I think Mark Moore was DJing, and all these people were wearing Yohji Yamamoto outfits, doing some sort of mad go-go dance kicking their legs in the air. So there was this group of people who had this energy, who'd obviously been to Ibiza, Shoom, or something.

And I can remember somebody coming up to me with long hair and a cheese-cloth shirt, wearing Converse trainers which was totally different to me - I was probably wearing a Duffer St George 8-piece Baker Hat and a waistcoat or something! And he gave me a teddybear and some sweets and said something like 'I love you' and then just sort of walked off!

That probably coincided with someone bringing back a bag of something or other from somewhere or other! Then the night Hot started a few weeks later and just never looked back.

The other thing that's totally overlooked is that there were other places at the time, like The Thunderdome and Konspiracy that were equally good, just as energetic, and in some ways more revolutionary because the Hacienda, although there was the odd football terrace head, it was quite fashionable, quite middle class, but if you went to other places they were a bit more raw.

The interesting thing about acid house for me was what was happening in Miles Platting, or Derby, or Nottingham. It wasn't so much a Manchester or a London thing to me. You could go out to Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Macclesfield, Stoke - it spread.  

What was your path into DJing?

My main break was Eastern Bloc Records, someone left their job and because I was in there all the time I said I'd like to work there, and they were like 'can you start tomorrow' kind of thing.

Me and Greg Fenton then started off the night Spice, just getting some likeminded people together really. But it was more legendary than successful. People say to me now how they used to go to Spice, and I'm like: 'well I beg to differ'. There were only about 10 people in there sometimes! We had our moments though I guess.

You've been talking about some great clubs that sometimes get forgotten about, and obviously you've got the Hacienda - it's clearly a rich scene we're dealing with here. But why in Manchester?

Greater Manchester is a big place, but the centre feels quite small. The vibe was there. And there were not that many places to go to hang out. So ravers would tend to go to Dry Bar, and hang out in Eastern Bloc, and you'd swap information.

London was a lot more disparate. What got them through was the print media would pretty much only write about London clubs, and so from there they were perceived to be a lot more cool than everywhere else. Manchester clubs were a lot more inclusive - there wasn't an elitist thing.

So we'd do Spice, and we'd get quite a lot of proper house heads in there who liked much harder house. But they'd come down and see us on a Sunday where it would be a lot more Balearic and mellow, and sometimes we'd take the piss out of each other but we all felt part of a broad community.

Generally speaking, people were quite supportive of each other's nights. There was obviously some bitchiness but people would give each other's things the time of day, even if it was on a Monday night or something - they wouldn't be dismissed beforehand.

Must have been a lot of students?

Yes, but it was a lot broader than that. The whole thing with house is that it seemed to take over people. That is was evangelical, like 'this is the future'. So people would be going out on Monday nights, Tuesday nights whenever.

It's still hard to say why Manchester though. I suppose it is multi-cultural and has a very big student population. And I guess historically Manchester had a network that was worldwide and nationwide. And then you've got people like Tony Wilson who weren't into it right from the start, but once they were, they kept talking about it and kept Manchester on the map, and gave it that impetus that never really dissipated.

It's a tricky one, because loads of the things you've said about Manchester could technically have applied to other cities. Leeds, Sheffield etc. are multi-cultural - and certainly in Sheffield's case, had a worldwide industrial reputation - they both have a massive student population, quite concentrated city centres etc.

Maybe you are basically the answer! That because Manchester at the time had such a big reputation for 'music' passe, like The Smiths, New Order etc. it seduced loads of people like you to come and be a part of it, and then you accidentally got into different music from there, watching Dave Haslam etc.

Possibly. But I think if I'd have studied in those cities, I could have found house nights there as well. Maybe the location helps, that it's quite well connected to London by train, as well as to a lot of major towns and cities in the north.

But it's got a far bigger scene than Birmingham, which has even better connections.

Yeah, you're right. I guess Birmingham is like a load of towns stuck together, that might explain that. I just don't know to tell you the truth. I've got a geography A-level and a philosophy degree, but I'm just not sure on the sociological and economical reasons why! Maybe it's just that nebulus thing - a city that's just got such a focus and drive, that's sure of itself.

And yeah, it's got the history. Maybe it's the sheer weight of the huge number of bands that have come out of Manchester, that anchors it I guess. Good venues as well. The GMEX, Apollo etc.

Back to the Hacienda specifically. How important were DJs warming up for bands? How much were they playing house music beforehand?

I used to go on tour with The Inspiral Carpets because I used to remix them, and I used to go on the road with one guitar roadie named Noel Gallagher. I played broadly electronic music when I warmed up for them.

So house was part of the whole thing. You'd get kids coming into Eastern Bloc at the height of the Madchester thing - I was working there then - so when a Stone Roses record came out, or The Mondays or whatever, we'd have piles of pre-bagged stuff under the counter.

We almost knew who was going to buy what, and it would be the same records in each bag. So you'd have a new Stone Roses track in the bag, but you'd also have 808 State (hear their seminal breakthrough hit 'Pacific State' below) or something in the same bag, so those kids were buying house records at the same time.

They'd go to the Hacienda with baggy trousers and they'd listen to Chicago house records, and it wasn't unusual to go to a Mondays gig or a Roses gig, and it would basically be a rave. If I played at those gigs, I'd be playing electronic music.

The other thing about that period was, for the first time, I saw that when a band finished at midnight, the night was far from over. So even a big band… I can remember seeing Primal Scream finish at 11 or 12, and then Andy Weatherall came on and played house. And everyone would stay.

This was basically unheard of until then. It used to be you'd go and see a band, the band would finish and you'd get the last train home. It was definitely a time where house was part and parcel of the whole music scene.

All the bands used to come into Eastern Bloc Records and buy the house records. All members of the Roses often bought Trax records and stuff like that. And of course it was also when bands started having remixes, you know, 'Indie dance' as it became known.

That's what makes acid house of that period such a revolution, because it was just something completely different to what most of the musical world had heard. So bands wanted a piece of it in order to reinterpret what they'd done.

Nowadays, any band would record music in a studio with a computer and various machines, but I would say it was acid house that showed them what could be done with their music technologically.

So finally… Noel Gallagher. People say different things about his relationship with the Hacienda - in fact he even once said that it was full of people who wore trench coats and read poetry, and that he preferred The International - so did he actually go there and get on it, or not?

Yes, he most certainly did. He was a big fan. He can remember records from that time. I saw him quite recently and he was talking to me about records I'd played on certain nights. All of the big Manc bands would come and watch the DJs.

Oh to have been around to see all that, although to be fair, you can go to pretty much any town or city these days and you'll find decent electronic music. There are plenty of good scenes now.

Yeah, people ask me a lot about what it's like compared to the old days, expecting that someone from my background would say that it's not what it was, but I think it's much better in many ways. The music is so good at the moment! And the breadth of creativity of the different events you can go to.

Okay, there's not the magic of surprise, but what is these days? That's just true of anything. That's true of TV bakery programmes as much as it is with music. It's amazing that it's happened like this and I'm so happy that it has happened like this.

There was a time when the whole superclub thing was running its course and you were thinking house music was music to sell hair products with or something, and you're thinking 'oh God - maybe it's run out of steam', but then suddenly you'd get someone like Matthew Herbert bringing out the most bananas record you could imagine, and you're like 'yes! it's still delivering!' And it's still delivering now, and I think times now are fantastic.

Interview: Mike Boorman (follow him on twitter here)

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