Category Archives: Dancefloor Pride

Dancefloor Pride

Kath McDermott preaches pride and passion

Kath McDermott preaches pride and passion

Courtesy of gay parents, Kath McDermott has been surrounded by queer culture her whole life. And her brushes with alternative lifestyles started when she’d scarcely learn to walk, attending festivals when they were still full of hippies and society dropouts looking for a different way of living. Now in her 50s, Kath still venerates those who reject the mainstream. In acid house, she saw the same potential as those early festivals, but this time via dancefloor unity, joy, redemption – and house music. And today with more than 30 years as a DJ, with residencies at The Haçienda and, these days, at Mancunian behemoth Homoelectric under her belt, she’s still searching for the perfect beat (and dancefloor). Dancing is political, see?

Interviewed by Bill, 5.10.21, pics: Rachel Adams, Tom Quaye

Do you remember the first club that you went to?
Well, I was going to clubs quite a lot when I was very young. Both my parents were gay, so I was going to gay clubs quite early on, and I was going to festivals all the time when I was a kid. So, I was around music and communal spaces. But I think the first club that I went to was called The Third Side club which was an alternative indie club. I lived in Dorset for a few years when I was a teenager, and I started going there when I was about 14, and it was amazing. It was a very democratic club. It was really young. A lot of underage teenagers went – when it was my 16th, I had to say was my 19th)

What was your early musical passion as a teenager?
I was a big Smiths fan. So, I moved from Manchester to Dorset and took The Smiths with me when I was about 14. I was just obsessed with the Smiths. I was really into The Cure, Siouxsie, Cult, stuff like that. I was rejecting culture, really, and I wanted to be with the misfits on the edge of things, which is kind of where I liked to be generally rather than mainstream culture, which I find a bit uninspiring. So I gravitated more to that kind of music. I was really into stuff like The Cramps: punk, goth, really into music but a very happy girl having a good time. I also loved pop music as well. Previous to that, I was a big Wham!-head when they very first appeared – and also I was listening to a lot of reggae and stuff too.

What kind of festivals were you going to?
I was going to the Albion festivals, which were in East Anglia, and they were quite important actually, sort of counter-cultural hippie festivals from the ’70s to the early ’80s. That’s where the peace convoy started, and places like the Elephant Fayre in Cornwall as well. They were very hippie, less about the music really, and more about alternative lifestyles. Friends of the Earth started there. It was a great environment for me to be in as a kid. I was given 50p. in the morning and they’d say, ’We’ll see you here when it gets dark’. So, I’d go and get free dahl from the Hare Krishna temple, and then go and spend my money on Adam & The Ants badges and stuff like that. It was great. There was loads of street musicians and quite a lot of folk. But I was just off having adventures, really. To a certain extent, as long as there was music, I didn’t really mind what it was. 

How did you discover dance music?
I remember getting given a box of sevens off my mum’s girlfriend in the early ’80s; that was brilliant. It was like Manchester lesbian history in a box. There was loads of Motown and soul in there, stacks of it. Then I had a cousin, Tim, who lived in Hackney, and him and his now husband Ray, they just used to feed us amazing music. They used to have Kiss when it was a pirate, and tape it for us. So, I had all these amazing tapes with streetsoul and disco on it and stuff like that. I loved it. I was always ferreting around in second-hand record shops, I’d find things like Sleeping Bag compilations. I was really into buying compilations, so I’d go down all these different rabbit holes of different scenes.

So presumably, you were a bit of a record collector?
I’ve always had records. I’ve always enjoyed handling records. So even when I was very little, I had a free 7-inch that came with some cereals, and I can remember putting it on the Dansette next to the washing machine and thinking, ’Yeah, this is me.’ Then I worked in Vinyl Exchange for 15 years, and by the end of that I was sort of done with record shops a bit, to be honest. 

But when I first started DJing, I didn’t have a lot of money so I’d go in King Bee, and loads of what I was playing was out of the bargain bins there. And I think that’s an inspiring and interesting place to find stuff, really, because you’re doing the leg work. It’s not what somebody’s deemed as precious. It’s what you found that you think is an interesting track to play.

How did you start DJing? 
I was going out with my girlfriend who lived in Liverpool. I was back in Manchester now, and I was 18 or 19. She was a part of the Liverpool Uni Gay Society, and they wanted to put on a World AIDS Day benefit, and they just wanted to raise money for ACT UP and stuff, but no DJ would do it for free. Me and Lynn said, ’Oh, we’ll do it.’ Because we had loads of records. So, we DJed at this party. We didn’t have a fucking clue what we were doing, but it went right off. There was tons of young, queer ravers that had nowhere to go in Liverpool that came down and loved it. So we started a monthly night off the back of that called Loose, which was really great. It was pretty mental. I was just slabbing on loads of Italo stuff, rave music and whatever. Although we didn’t know what we were doing, we were really passionate about it, which is what counts, and it got quite successful.

When Flesh started, I lived in Hulme – like everybody at that point. It was an inner city estate that was just left derelict; a failed housing project. As a result, you could live there for free and everybody did. As a result, a whole generation of people, including me, could just do whatever they wanted. There were poets, artists, musicians, DJs, whatever. That’s where Manchester’s cultural regeneration came from, really. I mean, if you think about it now in Manchester, it’s kind of like the London of the north and rents are just crazy, and every club’s been squeezed out of the city centre. But then, property was worthless, pretty much. So you could have clubs here and there right in the middle of town, because no one lived there. And now, everything interesting in Manchester is actually in Salford, because that has happened to a lesser extent there. Hulme being so close to town also meant that everybody could live there, be incredibly creative and just walk into town. And everyone had a club night. There was just tons going on. 

I lived there, and there was a massive queer community there as well. Lucy Scher lived across the road from me and she started up Flesh with Paul Cons, and they were interested in grabbing all the punters they could, because the first night wasn’t that busy, and it’s a big venue, The Haç. So, they used to run buses from Liverpool, Leeds, Bradford and all over the place, to go to Flesh. They wanted to grab the Liverpool crowd, so they said, ‘Come and DJ as the Loose DJs, and bring your crowd with you,’ so we did. They liked what we did, and I ended up being a resident after that. Lucy was really key in all of this, because she was all about putting women right at the front of that club. So for every flyer that had a guy on, there’d be a flyer that had a woman on. Lesbian representation was incredibly important to her, and that allowed DJs like me and Paulette to come through, because she was really serious about it. 

Kath at the Haçienda

Yeah, I get that. Almost all of the women DJs that I knew about in the late ’80s and early ’90s, even if they were straight, played at gay clubs. Is there any reason for it? 
I think, in part, going back to that same point, it is because of female club promoters. So if you’re a promoter who’s putting on a women’s night, you’re going to be a woman, generally speaking, and you’re going to want to represent. And I think that’s where it comes from. I think in straight clubs, maybe there’s more male promoters, so it’s less high up on their agenda. So I think the more female promoters that you have, the better. Because just as a woman, having that experience, it’s more likely to be a safer space. There’s more likely to be women DJs. They’re thinking about stuff. They’re thinking about the toilets. They’re thinking about accessibility. Is it safe outside?

We do at night up here called Suffragette City, which is all women DJs. We do an annual fundraiser, and we were just talking about venues for next year, and we had a meeting last night and I was like, ‘Well, we can’t do it there. It’s not safe enough. It’s a dodgy area.’ I’m thinking about that in a way that maybe male club promoters aren’t. It just means that whole experience is going to be a little bit different. But I would put it down to the promoters, primarily.

Who were the DJs that inspired you when you were first starting?
Well, I absolutely loved Frankie Knuckles. Frankie Knuckles was just really, really important to me massively. I’d heard him at The Haç, and he’s just a very special individual, and I loved his productions. He was really key. When I’d been DJing for a few years, I heard – DJed alongside, in fact – Paul ‘Trouble’ Anderson. I became completely obsessed with him. I just thought he was amazing. I’d never seen anyone DJ like that. He was just one of those completely natural DJs. I had to work really hard, sort of learn how to DJ, and you kind of knew that he’d always just done what he did in a very natural way. I thought it was astonishing. He’d have a spliff hanging out of his mouth, and then he’d cue the record up. Normally, you put the record on, adjust the tempo, then cue it up and start it. He wasn’t doing that. He was absolutely stoned out of his mind and he was just putting on the track, getting it the same tempo, and then just going from there and he was doing that with really elaborate garage records with strings, pianos, vocals  and really complex arrangements. He was just amazing and blew my mind.

Were there any women DJs that you knew about?
There were women DJs, but most of the ones I knew were people that had come through with me. Actually, I’ve forgotten one, the real key person for me was Tim Lennox. He was massively important to practically every gay DJ in Manchester, really. 

I used to go to The Number One, so I know about Tim. I thought that was better than The Haçienda.
Tim was amazing. He was absolutely amazing. The Number One was an incredibly special experience, wasn’t it? So egalitarian, so truly mixed, and so underground. The fact that it was right next to Bootle Street Police Station, James Anderton’s nest of hate, which was literally two doors down. We were there under the ground, absolutely having it without their knowledge. It was just absolutely beautiful. What Tim did was fantastic. He played a great mix of music as well. He’d play hip-hop and disco, and loads of piano stuff as well. But he was really the key figure that I was seeing every week, thinking, ‘God, this is unbelievable’. So I’d go to The Haçienda on a Friday and loved Mike Pickering and I loved Nude. And then I’d go to The Number One on a Saturday for Tim.

What was it like playing at Flesh and at The Haçienda? It was culturally important. There are lots of people in Manchester who say, ‘Well, it wasn’t as good as this. It wasn’t as good as that’, which is probably true as well. But it must have been amazing playing there.
It was amazing because I was a punter, so I never took it for granted. I mean, I was really, really nervous. The first time we did it, we played in the Gay Traitor, which was one kind of crazy. It was just mental down there. It was just wall-to-wall chaos when it was Flesh. It was kind of different at Flesh than on a normal night at The Haç. People would just be dancing on every surface. It’d be drenched with condensation. The banquette behind me was just rammed with people dancing, and then the seat gave way and they all crashed through it, as did all my records mid-set, with a rum and Coke in there for good measure. Clubs like that, if you fuck up, they love it. Because if the music goes off, they’re just buzzed when it comes on, you know? So yeah, I’d say it was intimidating and enthralling in equal measure.

I think the thing that people forget as well about The Haç is that the lights were very good in there. It would be more like they’d do these incredible colour washes. So if you were playing something with a massive piano, or say ‘The Pressure’ by Sounds of Blackness, or something like that, a big moment, they would just drench the whole club in orange or yellow or whatever and then it would change from there. So it was quite theatrical lighting which created a drama, which worked really well.

Kath DJing at Suffragette City. Pic: Jon Shard.

If your first ever gig was basically DJing at a party, how did you learn to DJ?  You obviously learned on the job, right?
I genuinely didn’t know what I was doing. And I used to be quite ashamed about that as well. But I think what I learned was about the music rather than any technique. So by the time I’d been playing at Flesh for a short while, I got the basics. No one’s ever recorded me in a club. I refuse to do it because I’m quite a perfectionist about it, so nothing would ever be as good as I would want it to be. But I’ve been quite lucky in that I’ve never had to promote myself. I only choose to do the parties that I want to do, and I’ve always had a day job. 

Are there differences playing for straight and gay crowds that you’ve noticed over the years?
I think there’s a sort of looseness with gay crowds. I think they’re a bit more inclined to get involved a bit earlier on, whereas I think straighter crowds will be more likely to wait till their gear kicks in or they get pissed or whatever. Whereas in gay crowds, people walk into a club and start dancing. That’s kind of normal. And in fact, for women, that’s much more normal as well. When you’re DJing, it’s always get the women dancing, isn’t it? The old adage. I think generally, women are a bit more confident about getting involved in that way. 

If it’s an all-women crowd, they drink a lot. That’s why Lucy actually got involved in promoting Flesh, because she promoted the Lesbian Summer of Love at The Haçienda. When The Haçienda saw the bar take that they’d had, it was about 10 times more than they’d had at any night there in about five years. They got the dykes and they absolutely drank the bar dry. So they were like, ‘Get the lesbians in. We’ll get some bar take up.’

Also, I think all-women crowds tend to like to hear the same things a lot. So when I had a residency at Paradise Factory for several years, it would be like: play the same song. And then if you played a new song, everyone would go off the dancefloor. You’ve got to really persevere and you’ve got to be really confident about clearing a floor.

What’s the most memorable club night you’ve ever done?
Possibly Suffragette City, which has just become this massive thing out of a really small idea. The Refuge was doing this exhibition with the Manchester Digital Music Archive which highlighted women in music and disrupted that narrative about Manchester music scene being all about white men. They asked me to DJ, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just get loads of women to DJ?’ The first one that we did, it was probably four years ago or something. We had no sense of how it was going to go. And it was absolutely mental, and the quality of the DJing… Nobody gets paid a penny, all the money goes to charities for women in Manchester. It’s become a badge of honour now to play it and the crowd is fantastic, because it’s very mixed, half-gay, half-straight; probably more gay and more women, but very mixed. 

The first one that we did when we had no sense of what was going to happen and just seeing absolutely amazing women DJing so well. The atmosphere just got bigger and bigger and more outrageous as the night went on, and it was just completely electric. And I think there’s a lot to be said for promoting clubs not for money, because it’s all about the passion, the joy, the integrity, and the energy was phenomenal.

Did the novelty factor of being a female DJ help you in your early years or did it not make a difference?
I don’t really think it made a difference. In Manchester, late ’80s, early ’90s, there was loads of women DJs and we’d all play different stuff. So it was like Paula and Tabs would do soul and funk, Nadine would do streetsoul, Paulette would do disco. We all did our thing, and together really in different ways, and it was very supportive. It wasn’t competitive, and it didn’t really seem that weird. Maybe that’s because a lot of us were playing in gay clubs. 

At that time, and increasingly now I would say, being a woman who isn’t fitting into the heteronormative idea of what a saleable woman might look. So if you’ve got long hair and makeup and you’re wearing a bikini, that’s a commodity in a club in the ’90s, and to a certain extent now as well. If you think about the top 50 DJs in the world, how many of them aren’t pretty, sexy women? Probably The Blessed Madonna, that’s it. What’s going on there? Women’s images are being sold by the clubs. I haven’t got a problem with women doing that, because that is just who they are and what they’re doing. But it is interesting that it’s probably a lot harder if you want to cut through into that A-list. It’s probably a lot harder to do if you don’t look the part or play the game. I always wear T-shirts and jeans to DJ, and I couldn’t give a toss. But I think that might’ve worked against me, perhaps. The shit that The Blessed Madonna gets for the way that she looks. I mean, I read by accident some comments once on this short film of something that she’d done. I couldn’t believe it, the vitriol. And it’s like, Carl Cox is a chunky guy. Nobody’s saying anything about that, are they? 

Obviously, what has changed massively is the amount of female DJs that are around now. There’s much more visibility, they’re playing lots of different styles of music. Did you notice that change and, if so, when did that happen?
I’ve always been surrounded by female DJs, so I never really noticed that. I was the first resident at Homoelectric. The second resident was another woman. I’ve never played in clubs that haven’t had other women DJing there, so it’s never felt particularly strange to me. But you can tell the clubs are making an effort to include women now. That’s changed. I mean, there are not enough. Nowhere near enough, but people are starting to say, ‘We really should have some women on this bill. Who are we going to have?’ There’s some amazing proper high-end DJs coming through, too, like Jayda G. Fuck, is she slick. She is just totally pro. Blew me away at the last Homobloc. I was just like, ‘Whoa, you know what you’re doing’.

Is dancing political?
Well, I think so. I think especially when rave first started, there was such a sense of this enormous subculture occurring under the radar that people didn’t really have a full sense of what was going on. So you’d come out of The Haçienda and just having had this shared experience with a thousand other people, walk out onto the street and everything was just as it was when you’d gone in. You’re in this place where normal rules don’t apply, and interactions and connections and moments are very free and open. So I think that in itself is quite a liberation thing, really. Lots have been said about all the football hooliganism and male violence and stuff like that, and how things changed for a generation there. But I totally believe that. 

Certainly doing stuff after the Clause 28 March in Manchester, doing a lot of stuff around HIV and AIDS in the ’90s, I’m quite a political animal. And my politics are about connection and positivity and love against division and hatred, which is what tends to prevail a lot of the time. I know this is quite idealistic, but I think that that can prevail through a dancefloor. People having an understanding about somebody else’s life, or being able to see people as positive and open is really, really important, and I feel like I’ve benefited from that. That is a political act in itself, probably especially now more than ever really, in the current climate where hate is the first thing that people go to. I go on a lot of demos and I’ve done quite a lot of pro-trans stuff. There’s quite a lot of anti-trans stuff going on in London around Pride where it all kicked off a few years ago. So I organised a crew of a few hundred of us to lead Manchester Pride as Manchester Lesbians Stand By Your Trans. A lot of people that I got to do that with me were from clubs, so it’s probably more about bringing people via clubs rather than doing dance events that are acts of protest.

What is it about DJing that makes a lot of DJs natural rebels?
I think there’s something about wanting to party and bring people together. It’s a very primal need within us, isn’t it? And as we live increasingly complex lives, I think we need to fuck off the week even more now by dancing and generating a different sort of energy between us. And I think to lead that moment, to be at the helm of that moment is very special. I think there’s probably some cockiness in there, t. I think there’s a certain level of egotism within DJs.

Sometimes I’ve got all this vinyl slipping around on my laminate floor and I’m trying to sort out some records for a big gig and I’m like, ‘You know, I’m 51. Why the fuck am I still putting myself through this?’ And it’s because it’s the best feeling. It’s just such a fantastic feeling when you have those moments where it hits. It does still feel quite naughty to me, I’ve got to say. I don’t know about the DJ as a rebel, but I certainly feel quite naughty and quite excited about it. I feel like even though so much of clubbing is mainstream, I still feel like I’m lucky enough to operate around the edges of that, around the counterculture. When we started Loose, it was for a good reason. When we started Flesh, it was because we wanted to do this queer thing. When we started Homoelectric, we wanted to do something underground. It’s like this sort of desire to always kind of be finding the edges of something, where something counts, where it matters, where there can be a difference, where the right people are. And the right people aren’t the coolest people at all. The right people are the warmest, the most open and the best combination. That’s what’s special to me. There is a place for mainstream big money clubbing. But it does feel more exciting to be in a different place to that.

Is there a certain kind of vicarious thrill of being the person that’s controlling the fun?
Oh, definitely. It’s a complete hit. When it goes wrong, it’s a bloody nightmare, isn’t it? You know, when you’ve got no monitors or something, you know what I mean? When it’s shit, it’s shit. When it’s good, it’s absolutely fucking incredible. It’s just so exciting, and it feels as good now to me as it did 30 years ago, without a doubt. I know this sounds really idealistic and hippie, but I find it really important to communicate with people when I’m DJing. So obviously, the music is a journey, all of that. And a lot of what I play is very positive lyrically. Sometimes it might be throwaway, but generally I’m trying to say something in a moment with the records that I play.

But also, just literally spotting people getting really into it that might look at me, and then I’ll have a little dance with them from the decks and having a shared smile, and just having that connection. Because really, I’m mad about dancing. I’m mad about connecting with people by dancing. That’s my thing. I can choose the music when I do that. So to be able to dance with people whilst I’m DJing is the ultimate, really. It’s a massive thrill. And quite often when I’m DJing, I’ll still go and dance. If I’m really into a tune, I’ll run onto the dancefloor and dance with people and then jump back onto the decks before it runs out, because that’s magic for me. And yeah, it’s a massive ego hit and a huge buzz. I have a very busy day job that’s incredibly full-on. And I’m like, ‘Why am I putting myself through that?’ But I know why, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to stop doing it. It’s a very attractive drug.

One of the questions I was going to ask you is about victories you think we’ve won through dance or DJ culture. Do you think there’ve been any lasting wins from what happened in the late ’80s and early ’90s? Do you think it did change society?
Yeah, definitely. I think for our generation, it was like there’s so much more understanding. The kind of sort of openness, like the ’70s and early ’80s were so different in terms of people being open to other people’s experiences and inclusivity. I think that has changed, but we had such a good window of positivity. In terms of the gay scene, straight people would not want to go on the gay scene. Why would you want to do that?

But I remember it being a real moment with Flesh when loads of gay people were complaining they couldn’t get into the club, and when they did, it was full of straights because so many wanted to go to it. So then we had to put on the tickets, ‘Thank you for not being homosexual’ and there would be tests on the door where they’d get people to kiss members of the same sex to prove that they were gay to get in. It was a bit of fun, really. But what it meant was you’d have two straight guys snogging each other to get into a club. Three or four years before then, that would have been absolutely unimaginable that straight men would be so desperate to go to a gay club. And I think gay being cool made an enormous difference to what was going on the streets, because you had a lot of people that might not have been that positive towards gay culture or gay people, having experienced it firsthand and realising that obviously it’s just the same as everybody else. We just want to have a good time.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Gay Bar – Why We Went Out

Gay Bar – Why We Went Out

After being told his hot new boyfriend is dangerous trash, gay bar ingenue Jeremy Atherton-Lin briefly despairs of the situation: ‘It was as if I’d been adopted by the wrong family – these nightclub people, thriving on secrets and risk.’ He’s consoled by his first sniff of poppers, and soon comes to his senses. Because as we know, secrets and risk (and poppers) are the main ingredients of a great night out.

After his initial wobble, Jeremy’s nightlife family becomes central, providing true love, a deep understanding of human nature and a growing sense of identity – as well as some highly illuminating identity crises. As he explores the shifting sands of the culture, and his changing place in it, he weaves a smart history of the gay bar into a beautifully written memoir. Each chapter is built around a particular bar, either in his native San Francisco or in London, where he moves in search of a Britpop waif. ‘Xuan had produced a spreadsheet of museums to visit. I was fixated on getting to Popstarz. I imagined a pale and interesting boy awaited me there.’

He tracks the gay bar’s development from clandestine Regency cellar to unspoken ’50s hideaway, via out-and-proud activist centre, vital community support hub, to an inclusive, non-denominational queer space that seems to have LGBTQIA’d itself out of an identity. And latterly to a raucous fun palace with more hen nights than homosexuals. When a recent BBC news piece asks, ‘Do Gay People Still Need Gay Bars?’ he laments, ‘Do gay bars still need gay people?’

The story is written in social and political realities – in the gay bar’s changing legality, appearance, purpose (ostensible and otherwise), and of course in its clientele. To the author it has been a place of liberation, education, exploration and occasionally disillusion. He admits he first ventured inside to learn about himself. ‘Of all human categories, adult gay males were amongst the least familiar to me,’ he writes poignantly, confessing he hoped to receive wisdom from his elders and to grow by emulation: ‘I didn’t know how else to learn history, but to try it on.’

We learn of the grand queer histories of London and San Francisco, filled with memorable nuggets and reverberations – and sites that have been gay for centuries. That the iron columns in the Vauxhall Tavern are all that remains of the great Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, where orgies took place in ancient row-boats hanging from the trees. Or that Villiers Street, home to Heaven, is named after George Villiers, a favourite of King James I, who gave him the land while calling him his ‘sweet child and wife.’ Villiers also gave his name to another famous gay bar The George, off The Strand, which hosted ’90s Britpop confection Popstarz, where the author does indeed fall in love.

He tells us that the first guide to gay London was a 1937 publication called For Your Convenience, printed between the leaves of a map of public toilets; how the tradition of drag queens performing on the bar was a smart way to avoid extra charges in the event of a raid – a show was harder to deny if there was a stage; that at one covertly gay place the orchestra would play a fanfare whenever a fit guy walked in, and how another would warn its patrons the police were on their way by playing the national anthem (ie ‘God Save The Queen’).

Occasionally something stuns. Like the fact that because the 1967 decriminalising of British gay sex only applied to private spaces, ironically there were more arrests after it was passed, as public meetings for sex remained fair game for the cops. Most of the history reminds us that the rich always had their safe spaces; for those less privileged there was usually danger and uncertainty.

Gay Bar is an exploration of masculinity, a nuanced dissection of gender politics, a homogeography of oppression and rebellion (including several events that predate Stonewall), and not least a collection of quirky characters and brilliant anecdotes. A favourite tale tells of a San Franciscan bar owner who bought hundreds of dollars’ worth of flowers after his place was busted, so as well as posting people’s bail, he could drape a garland round the neck of each arrested customer as they were released.

The writing alone will have you smiling throughout. In a leather bar he recalls ‘men built like chesterfields.’ Wolfgang Tillman’s subjects look ‘like beautiful weeds.’ He describes his college friend Xuan with the line, ‘She ordered both lipstick and photographs in matte finish.’ Noting the bizarre Aztec architecture of the MI6 building that dominates the Vauxhall riverside near the bar he’s in, he writes, ‘Like the men in here, it’s a little too much and it gives itself away.’

The opening scene is priceless: a hilariously candid sequence of him and his partner ‘Famous’ negotiating the delicacies of an orgy in a dark room filled with prowling suitors.

‘The men skulked in trackies, inhabiting or playacting working-class bodies. I thought then I had better not speak. My accent is too equivocal, scuppered somewhere on the Atlantic and apologizing. The point here was to be regular. The only distinguishing feature should be an erection the size of a Sky+ remote control.’

For those unfamiliar with the complex etiquette of such a situation, as the tale unravels Atherton-Lin’s sharp, thoughtful prose is hilariously informative. Frank Broughton

You can purchase a copy of this brilliant book via our store.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Tallulah paved the way

Tallulah paved the way

Born Martyn Allum in 1948, Tallulah was an icon of the London gay scene, watching it evolve from the ’60s to the ’00s, and enjoying a DJ career spanning 1972 till his death in 2008. This wonderful interview takes you from Wapping speakeasies run by characters straight out of Dickens, with names like Selina The Horse, via raucous seaside salons where pirate radio DJs caroused with Carry On actors and pantomime dames, and into an era of coded and covert pubs and clubs, when he knew characters like Joe Orton, Victor Spinetti and Kenneth Williams (‘an absolute nightmare’). As well as detailing the evolution of DJing in the capital, Tallulah brilliantly conjures this lost world, when London was the colour of cigarette tar, information and connections spread via a network of ‘cottages’, and where you could get a handy daytime wank in a fleapit cinema while tourists watched Daffy Duck cartoons. His first gig entailed playing Motown tracks from inside the coat-check while also taking in coats, keeping the toilets clean and collecting glasses. ‘I think every DJ should start by cleaning the toilets,’ he told QX magazine. Tallulah found fame at the game-changing purpose-built nightspots that sprang up in the ’70s – playing at Bang, The Embassy and Heaven. As Princess Julia recalls it, Bang on a Monday night with its light-up dancefloor and Tallulah behind the decks was ‘Total Disco.’ During a brief sojourn in New York he worked the lights at Studio 54, and even snuck one night as DJ, covering for a no-show (most likely Nicky Siano). He went on to become a mainstay through the ’80s and ’90s at venues including Crash, Barcode and Substation, inspiring several generations of DJs and partygoers.

Interviewed by Bill in London , 29.7.04

Gay life in the ’60s must have been very coded and secretive. What were the lines of communication? How did people find out about things?

My parents never told me anything about sex. And even though I knew… I even tried with a couple of girls, but it never got anywhere near full sex, I just knew it wasn’t right. I was very effeminate. I’d always get beaten up. Buying blue suede shoes from Ravel and wearing them in Maidstone – where they hadn’t got anything like that at all – didn’t help. Every town had that division between mods and rockers, and if I was on the mod side, then I was a very camp mod. Almost a girly mod. In those days, you could never get hair products and I had curly ginger hair.

The first time I met somebody… My parents sent me to ballroom dancing classes – not the best thing to do with a son who’s slightly fey – at the old Palace in Maidstone. And opposite the Palace was the old coach station where these toilets were, and I was absolutely mesmerised by them. There was a huge hole in the wall, basically the size of someone’s head, and people were obviously cruising. Not that I ever did anything, but that was my learning process. I learnt more about sex from reading toilet walls. I’d never even seen a minge, but I found out about it all on those walls. Jokes etc. I’d live in there. People exposing themselves… When people talk about paedophiles and the like – I used to go round those toilets at 14 begging to be picked up and no one ever did!

Once I’d found out about the toilet in Maidstone, I just thought: if there are toilets like this in Maidstone, then the one in Victoria Station must be absolutely amazing. Which it was. It was cavernous, it was downstairs and it probably had 300 urinals. That’s where I heard about the cinemas. There were these cartoon cinemas and people used to say, ‘Oh you should go to the Jacey cinema in Piccadilly, and Trafalgar Square’… I was still not sexually active. People passed numbers to me, but it… well it was against the law.

Where were you born?

I was born in Hamburg in 1948. My parents were over in Hamburg with the Reclamation after the war. My father was in hotels, so he was helping getting them back on track. I came back to live with my grandmother in Bexley, just outside London when I was three. I was brought up in the Woolwich, Erith, Bexley area until primary school. Those towns were very mod-influenced. You know what it’s like being brought up in the suburbs, you make a statement in the way you dress, you put yourself up for criticism, especially during the ’60s. I had two younger brothers. We weren’t a musical family.

I was living in the suburbs till I was ten, and then I moved to Maidstone. These were my searching years. I already knew by ten that London was the main attraction. From ten to 15 were my formative years listening to music. We had no pop radio stations, so I’d listen to Luxembourg 208.

Who were the DJs?

Jimmy Savile, Keith Fordyce, Pete Murray. I used to go to the Star Ballroom in Maidstone. And they used to have a DJ on there called David Wigg, who worked at the Kent Messenger and he was the entertainment correspondent there [later the showbiz reporter on the Daily Express]. In a provincial town it was either mods or rockers and it was a very Teddy boy area. They used to have lots of live bands on a Saturday like Shane Fenton [later Alvin Stardust] & the Fentones, Peter Jay & The Jaywalkers, Wee Willie Harris, Screamin’ Lord Sutch… The best thing was the Odeon, which was big, and practically every month they’d have live bands. You’d get Rolling Stones, Supremes, Mary Wells, Lulu, Billy J Kramer, Dionne Warwick, Gene Pitney. At Olympia they’d do a radio exhibition and I collected autographs then… Even when I was 14, I’d hang outside the Palladium… There were no record shops in Maidstone, so I’d have to come up to London to buy records.

When did you start buying music

I used to have three paper rounds. I was greedy, I suppose. I had quite a bit of money. So I’d go from Maidstone to London, and my parents never hassled me, gave me complete freedom, probably because I was the eldest – I’ve got a younger brother.

Where would you go buy records?

The first record I ever bought was in Maidstone; there was something about those little booths that you used to go hear records in. It was 6s 8d. First record I bought was the Crystals ‘And Then He Kissed Me’. Then I started looking around and came up to London, and the first album I bought was Nina Simone, ‘I Put A Spell On You’.

Where did you buy it?

HMV in Oxford Street near Bond St. To wear the trendy clothes I used to buy Simplicity sewing patterns and buy the material down the market and I’d make them, but tighter. I used to have silk shirts. I was very effeminate and very skinny. It tied in – the music and the clothes. Of course, when you’re 16 you start carousing around and that’s really when my gay bit came out, through the toilets and cinemas. Carousing around Soho. You’d fall into record shops. You’ve got your Saturday night shirt from Lord John in Carnaby Street, so you go to get some records. With my brother I used to do little radio shows with my brother on his Grundig. We used to do little jingles. We’d play anything we could get our hands on.

One of the first cinemas I went to was called the Biograph, opposite Victoria Station. They used to play things like Jason & The Argonauts, Edgar Lustgarten films… There was this old girl called Jane who sat in the kiosk and she looked like Marie Antoinette. Very, very well dressed. Full of make-up. In actual fact, she looked like Lily Savage! People used to take her orchids in glass boxes and chocolates, quite glamorous. Once you paid to go in you could stay there all day, nobody used to throw you out. The seats up the left had side were gay, the other side tramps drinking cider. There used to be a little fat queen called Myrtle, with dirty old Lyons Maid white coat with a tray full of ices. He used to walk up and down the aisle with a torch and literally put a torch on people wanking each other off and he’d try and throw people out, which never worked. The manager there was Henry Cooper’s twin brother. It was a freak show. Plus you used to get wanked off. That’s how I found out about other cinemas. The other main one was a cartoon cinema in Piccadilly Circus where Ratner’s the Jewellers is now. You’d go in the boiler room there where everyone would be having it off, while the tourists were in there watching Donald Duck and Roadrunner. It was there that I used to found out about what clubs to go there, like Le Deuce.

The X-rated cut of Boy George’s Jesus Loves You ‘Generations of Love’ video features some wonderfully seedy shots of bygone Soho, plus Tallulah here playing a gentleman in search of some relief.
Tallulah with Steve Strange at the opening night of Circus Circus, his own night, at Studio Valbonne in Kingly Street, 1983

And you lived in Broadstairs for a while?

I went to catering college in Broadstairs when I was 15. I love Broadstairs, it’s really cute. I did two years in Broadstairs. This would be ’66. I was well into music by then.

Where were you going out?

The first gay pub I ever went in was the Ship in Chatham. I’d go there from the age of 15. I’d met these two queens in the toilet in Maidstone. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying because they were talking Polari. And they said, ‘Oh we must take you out’. We went to this pub; I think it’s still a gay pub! It was really rough. There were dykes in there who were prostitutes, ships coming in; it was a busy merchant port. But it closed at half past ten, so you’d have to get there at 7 o’clock. You can imagine walking through Chatham in blue satin flares with yellow and blue shoes and blue eye shadow.

I was in this gay pub, called the Queen’s Head in Canterbury. I’d just got a fur coat which I’d cut the bottom off and put it at the top like a massive high collar. I thought I looked the bees knees. I walked into this pub and nobody took a blind bit of notice because they were all surrounding this one guy at the end of the bar. I kept saying ‘who is that guy?’. It was Tom Edwards, who was a DJ at Radio City. This was at the start of the pirates, and Radio City had opened up on those old turrets near Whitstable [Shivering Sands Army Fort]. And Tom Edwards kept sending drinks to me at the bar and I’d ignore them and send them back.

Tom Edwards of pirate station Radio City

Probably within about three weeks I buckled and became friends with him. Needless to say we hit it off immediately. He used to do two weeks on and two weeks off. He lived in Whitstable. Once we linked up, he’d send me these camp messages on the show. I met him one Sunday in a pub in Herne Bay and he called me Tallulah, and it stuck.

When he used to come off the boat, he’d have six sacks of fan mail waiting for him and he was only 22. He sounded very good on the radio. We were very friendly and I’m still in contact with him. He had a very hard time, did Radio 1, was a Thames TV continuity announcer, and was an alcoholic and got arrested over 20 times because of it. I met him about five weeks ago at a Radio Caroline get-together.

My college went a bit down the pan, because I got interested in socialising. My principal saw me on my vacation, cruising on Piccadilly Circus, so he warned me about these pirate radio types I was hanging about with. So I knuckled down a bit, but still went to gay pubs.

Broadstairs used to have lots of retired actors and I used to get passed around – socially, not sexually – as a young 16-year-old queen. There was a guy called Ted Gatty, who was the guy who named Danny LaRue LaRue, which was originally the name of a club. He was 60 even then, he used to put on these shows; had this house Castle House, Serene Place, Broadstairs High Street. I thought that address was so chic. It was a smugglers’ cottage, and it was where he used to have these parties. And gay séances! It was very Joe Orton, very queeny, theatrical. [Ted Gatty used to put on summer season shows in Margate’s Dreamland and Winter Gardens and Dame in panto at Christmas.]

Was there a gay pub in Broadstairs back then?

No, we used to go in the Tartare Frigate where Ted Heath used to drink.

That’s where I go when I’m there.

I used to love it there in the winter.

They’ve got a pic of Ted Heath on the walls.

I bet they haven’t got one of Ted Gatty! She used to say ‘oh I bumped into Ted’s mother and her two dogs’

I always assumed he was gay…

We all used to say that, but I think he was just asexual. Also, all along that coast Birchington, Margate, Herne Bay, Broadstairs, Ramsgate, Deal, Dover, any queens living there were immediately invited [to Ted Gatty’s]. Basil Spence, the architect, also the camp one in the Carry On films.

Charles Hawtrey?

That’s it. He used to do Deal, because the marines were there and they had a marine band. He used to walk along the sea front in red leather. He was really outrageous, he’d just go for marines, and they’d go for him, because he was a film star, or he was to them.

Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey in Carry on Camping
As Julian and Sandy, Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams smuggled ’60s gay culture into the nation’s living rooms with their Polari-filled BBC radio show Round The Horne.

You knew Kenneth Williams too.

I remember being really embarrassed in front of my mum when [innuendo-laden BBC radio comedy] Round The Horne was on. I knew what Julian and Sandy were talking about when they said [in Polari] ‘Nishta lallies and vardah the carts on the bonah hommie’, but my parents had no idea what they were saying. Tasty Tim’s just recorded me a load of those shows. When I was at the hotel I got friendly with Hugh Paddick, he was Julian. Kenneth Williams used to live opposite the hotel, down the back of the church in Euston. Someone I met through a cinema pick-up introduced me to him and took me to dinner. We were all sitting around this really little glum table in his little kitchen eating spaghetti hoops on toast. Very strange.

When he found out I lived opposite, I said you must come to dinner. He was an absolute nightmare. I’d only been there a couple of years, I think, and I had a really small room. He got up to the room and a record was just finishing and I said, ‘What kind of music do you like?’ He said, ’I HATE MUSIC. If we’re going to talk, we’ll talk.’ Took him downstairs to the hotel restaurant, I didn’t realise at the time, but he wanted to be on show all the time, so his voice was loud. 126 people in the restaurant and you could hear him above all of them. When he finished the meal I said we’d have coffee upstairs, just to get him out of the restaurant. ‘No, let’s go in the lounge and have coffee. Oh, and I have had you checked out, you know.’ He’d asked Hugh about me.

When I used to go and visit him, he used to leave the door ajar. You’d go into the flats, it was a bit like a Peabody building, really dark, and I’d knock and there’d be no answer with the door half open. You’d do that for ages. Is he in there or not? Knock again a bit louder. Finally: “COME IN!” He’d make me tea and let me read scripts.

What was he like, because his diaries are very depressing, he seems quite tortured about his sexuality, which is why I think he envied Joe Orton so much.

I knew Joe as well.


Yeah. He was alright. Absolutely fine. Really ahead of his time. He was very upfront about his homosexuality. Loved cruising. You’d sit with him and he’d talk about it all the time: dirty dirty dirty. It was through his boyfriend that I met him.

Kenneth Halliwell. What was he like? I have Alfred Molina indelibly marked in my mind from that movie.

He was really good, actually. That portrayal was quite wrong, I think. I can honestly say with Kenneth Williams, High Paddick, Joe Orton and Victor Spinetti, I used to knock round with all of them, there was no glamour involved in it at all. You’d sit around the kitchen table…

What would have been the gay pubs in London then?

The Coleherne and the Boltons, directly opposite the Coleherne. That was it.

Did you go to the Sombrero?

Ooh, that was much later. The clubs that were going around that time, which would be ’67 or ’68, were the Spartan, which was the place Kenneth Williams went to in Victoria, and the Kabal.

Was there dancing?

No, no dancing in any of these. There wasn’t music. There were pubs that had some dancing. There was a pub in Bermondsey, which Larry Grayson was the compere at for years. There were pubs in Woolwich… If we did a pub crawl from Kent, you would go from The Ship in Chatham, the Old Kent in Woolwich, another one in Woolwich, but I can’t remember the name, but they weren’t really gay, they just had sailors, and drag queens were also accepted in them. Then you’d work your way up to Coleherne, then you’d head for Chelsea and there were two clubs there, The Hustler and the Gigolo. They were members’ clubs and they were basically coffee bars, they were just grope holes. No jukebox. Clubwise, the main one was Le Deuce, which was in D’Arblay St, the building next to the alleyway near Black Market. Opposite that, the lesbian club was better, it was in a basement, with a jukebox – it was a coffee shop upstairs.

What music would be played?

Mainly soul and Tamla. Miracles, Marvelettes, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Mary Wells. You’d get people down Le Deuce like Roger Daltrey, in their satins and kaftans and chiffon scarves. It was mixed so you could get away with it. And you could buy black bombers. There was another place down that alley, but I can’t remember the name. Le Deuce had a coffee shop upstairs. Also a club called the Stud in Poland Street, which later became Louise’s. How I found these places was through a Greek boy I’d met in a cartoon cinema. It was word of mouth. God forbid you should get a flyer! London was dark. Nothing had been cleaned. There was smoking on the tubes. Wood panelling on the tubes. They were yellow with smoke. It was like the war. I used to ask the old queens what it was like during the war. Was it horrible? No dear, during the blackouts you could wear as much make up as you liked and you didn’t know who you were having!

I used to stay, too. You could stay in the sauna in Jermyn Street for 15s, overnight.

Did they have rooms?

No, cubicles. It was quite gay. I used to act as lookout. Going back to Le Deuce, I think it was open till 2 o’clock. I used to aim to get back on the milk train which went at 5 o’clock, so in between that I used to go to Tiles.

Did you go to the lunchtime sessions?

Later on, but it went for a while.

Wasn’t Tiles a facsimile of a shopping mall, though?

Yes it was.

Describe the layout to me.

If it was there today, it probably wouldn’t have been any different to what Substation in Dean Street was like. Mirrors and black. Flashing lights. It was almost tunnel-like. Never many people there, but it was open all night. It wasn’t licensed. They played mainly soul.

Metallic, black, it had lights. No one had lights then.

Most places sound very dark and hidden…

There was a pub I used to go to in Woolwich, which was run by this queen called Selena The Horse. And she would be in charge of the pub and she owned the house next door. And the house next door had a kitchen and a front room and you’d pay 1s 6d to go in after the pub had closed and she’d pull an ironing board down in front of the kitchen entrance. In the lounge there’d be nothing other than a red light and a jukebox and you’d buy the drink from her, from behind the ironing board, and it would be outrageous, because it was mixed up with sailors, lesbians, drag queens. Really rough. That was ‘66. Tiles, however, at least looked like a club. I don’t know who owned it, but they decided to put some money into it.

It was the Marshall brothers, who owned the PA company.

Ah! Because the sound system was the first time I actually heard something that was different from a jukebox. And they had a DJ. There were loads of other bars around: A&Bs, Jeremy’s, Toucan, all these little rent boy bars in Soho, they had a record player and they’d just put Shirley Bassey albums on. The barman would put an album on!

Anyhow, after I finished college I got a job at the Cora Hotel in Woburn Place, up by Euston station. I was there for ten years. There was a gap around 19 or 20 when I was trying to be good at my job, but then I got bored and started exploring again.

How did you get into DJing?

In the ’70s I used to go this club called the Escort Club in Pimlico. They used to do drag cabaret; they had people like Lee Sutton and Hinge & Bracket. It was a cabaret-restaurant, they had a little tiny dancefloor, as you went in. The bar, another level with tables and chairs and a piano. Before and after the cabaret they played music. It was there that the owner asked me if I wanted to play music. There was a guy there who played, very young, cute, bisexual, I think, called Jimmy Flipside! He was called Flipside because he used to flip the records over!

I didn’t need to do it, I was managing a hotel. When I got in there [to DJ], I asked them what they wanted me to do and they said, ‘Can you do the toilets? And you’d be on the coats.’ So they walked in, paid you, you put the coats behind you and then here were the decks! That’s why they used to play albums, because you were doing coats as well. It was when Cloud 9 came out. I did that whenever Jimmy couldn’t do it.

The first proper place I got to play at was Shane’s, which was behind John Barnes in Finchley Road and there used to be a club called Le Cage D’Or, a straight club. There was a room up an extra pair of stairs and this guy decided to take it over and make it into a little gay club. Unusual for then, obviously. He opened it up on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

For gay people, there weren’t dance clubs. There might have been areas where you could dance in pubs and the like, but there really weren’t any dance clubs. There were no dance licenses. Even in the well respected clubs, like the lesbian one that’s in Killing Of Sister George, in Chelsea, there wasn’t really dancing, it was socialising.

But straight people had dance clubs. So when Shane did this club, I’m not saying there were no dance clubs at all, but there certainly weren’t any major ones. It was supposed to be a social club, but it just so happened that there was a DJ unit in there and it had got space for about 30 or 40 dancers. A bar at each end, and it was then that I started to really buy records. I didn’t have two decks and to this day I can’t work out how I used to cue, because I know I didn’t have headphones… Actually, it had two decks and I used to mix visually by looking at the needle waver as the stylus picked up the sound denoting that the record had started! I used to buy the import records in Quicksilver in Hanway Street. Or was it Contempo?

I think Contempo came later.

Whatever it was before that. It used to close at 1, so there wasn’t much time. The last ten minutes I used to try and pack as many tunes into as possible, Caterina Valente, Kathy Kirby. I’ve just spent the last four months transferring the 7-inches I used to buy from Contempo on to CD. It was really exciting on Friday nights in Contempo/Quicksilver. You used to go upstairs into this little bit. Everyone was black, apart from me, a weird geeky person among these black dudes. On Friday afternoon, the imports used to arrive from the airport. These were the records that disco was about to burst out from. Stuff on Gordy, Parliament, Chocolate City, lots of soul.

Can you remember the kind of things you played?

I’ve got them all on my computer, year by year!

How long did you play at the club for?

Started from about 1972. Things had started to get better by this time. Catacombs was open by then.

Cartacombs in Wolverhampton?

No Earl’s Court. That actually had a very good dancefloor. The guy who DJed there was Gordon Fruin and he was called Pamela Motown, because he was the A&R guy for Tamla in the UK. He had really good taste and, again, no drinks; it was coffee and orange juice.

Describe it to me.

It’s opposite the hospital on Brompton Road, Earl’s Court end. Opposite where Brompton’s is now. It was downstairs, underneath a faux Tudor cottage front on the ground floor. You go down the stairs, pay the entrance money and it had a bar… It actually was catacombs. The bar was on one side, there was a resemblance of a dancefloor at the front of the bar which circled round the back. There was a wall that went round the front and behind that wall was another wall and little caves set in, about four of them. Then there was a passageway around the caves. That’s where all the sex used to go on. But they played music, really good music, and there was dancing. It held about 150.

By this time, I knew people in the business, through Tom and the pirate radio thing, I knew Richard Swainson from RCA, I knew Dave Most, Mickie’s brother, I used to hang out with his wife. I knew Fluff [radio DJ Alan Freeman]. They used to come to the hotel. I was always on the periphery of it. There were other clubs going on around that time, too. Chaguarama’s, which was before the Roxy [on Neal St], and Sombrero.

What was Chaguarama’s like?

It was fantastic. It was trendy, if you could possibly have had trendy then. It was mixed and again music was good. When did the Roxy open?

About March 1977.

Ok, so this would’ve been in 1974. It was always very trendy. It was the first gay club that Neil Tennant went to. As much as the environs of punk were bubbling then, art college wise, it was still very glam. Lots of girls and the girls’ toilets was where you picked up pills. It had two levels, a restauranty/bar level, then you went downstairs, quite large, and there was a dancefloor. Very good.

Do you know who DJed?

No I don’t I’m afraid. It’s an alcoholic haze. That was popular, but the main one to go to was the Sombrero. Sombrero on the Sunday night. Always the Sunday. The girl I used to knock around with Barbara, who went out with Dave Most, she would book a booth, because there were three booths that surrounded the lit-up dancefloor. It had everything you needed in a club, but it was not big. The dancefloor was very small. The DJ unit was flat against the wall. It was raised, the dancefloor, and then a bar that went round, marble steps down to the banquettes and seats. You were supposed to eat, too. It was very trendy and you often couldn’t get in.

Wasn’t it on Kings Road?

No Kensington High Street. Opposite the tube station about a block up to the left. There was a guy called Amadeo, very good looking, blond, Swiss, tanned, we never had those sort of people. I used to think he was very exotic. He was the door picker. There were two things about this place, one, you couldn’t order a drink and, two, you had to eat. To get around that they used to give you a ticket for the salad. They didn’t want to give you food anyway, but it was a licensing thing. So they used to give you a plate, a serviette and a fork. You got one slice of Spam and I mean one slice of Spam, a lettuce leaf and half a tomato

And they had these waiters who were all midget Spanish queens. Vile Spanish queens. If you upset them you couldn’t get a drink. I always think there has to be someone in clubs who can say no… The way into the Sombrero was down a staircase… The old queens used to tell me that they all hung out in Lyons Corner House in Leicester Square; it was in the basement and had a huge staircase and the queens used to use the staircase to make an entrance. And that’s what happened at the Sombrero. It was a really big dress up do; Bowie was there. Coming down that staircase, great for making an entrance and you had your coats taken off you as you were standing at the bottom! The Music was really good, Timmy Thomas ‘Why Can’t We Live Together’ was a sort of Sombrero anthem there and this Ginger Baker drum solo which I’ve never found. The DJ was Latin. It was great. The club was actually called Yours And Mine, but because it had a big sombrero outside for the restaurant upstairs, it got called the Sombrero. The sad note at the end of it, Amadeo, I think dealt in coke. He was actually burnt and killed by having petrol poured over him.

Horrible! How long were you at Shane’s?

I’d say from ’72 to ’74, because that’s when Bang opened.

Tell me about Bang

It was started [in 1976] by Jack Barrie from the Marquee. There was Gerry Collins – real name: Gary London – and Jack, who I think was the accountant at the Marquee. Gerry also DJed at places like Lacey Lady, Goldmine, because there were no gay dance clubs. Norman Scott was playing at Global Village at the (black) Friday night. Gerry went to America for a holiday, to Los Angeles, to Studio 21 and it was gay and he came back absolutely fired up. I think he might already have been doing Busby’s as a straight DJ.

He was gay?

Yes, but he wasn’t out. He was a jobbing DJ, that’s what he did. He was a career DJ. Anyway, the first two weeks he comped it. Gay people didn’t have the opportunity to go to a club. So the minute it came on the scene, it was a huge success. The queues! It went right round past the 100 Club. It was the most packed it had ever been. There were something like 1,500 there on the first night. He couldn’t have picked a better venue to bring that sort of thing to Britain. Mainly because of the way the club was designed, the bars on each end, the hamburger joint, you could look down on the dancefloor. Later on he put a shop selling Bang T-Shirts and stuff.

He had three DJs on. It had lighting FX. It had fog machines. It had balloon drops. The DJ was central, up in front of the crowd. It was mixed, although you’d use the mic for announcements or birthdays stuff like that. In the booth, there was a light switch that you could hit and the lighting engineer would get a flashing light on a phone so you could talk to him. So you could arrange stuff with him, it was brilliant. It was the old Astoria Ballroom, so he’d got a huge stage and at the back a cinema screen, the whole length of the club. And he used to bring the cinema screen down and play the whole tap routine from Silk Stockings or something. There’s one Fred Astaire one, which I can’t remember the name of, where they’re all wearing top hat and tails and they all come up out of the floor, about 40 of them, then 100. The crowd used to go absolutely berserk watching this. They’d never seen stuff like this before. They’d never had production. And the sound system… you couldn’t say it was better than such-and-such because there was nothing before to compare it to. You used to get people coming early and standing in the middle of the floor just to hear the bass and the stereo… because they’d never heard it before.

He would theme it. Bang did everything in those four years… Then it became a trendy nightspot, even though it was gay it didn’t stop people in the closet or cool straight people coming, so you’d get Rudolf Nureyev coming down. I’ve still never seen production like that. At Christmas, he would make it snow, the whole time, for the whole four hours! Shorts nights. Red parties, white parties.

The DJs were him, he’d go on first, then Norman Scott and then I’d go on. Gerry always did the warm-up. He’d learnt to mix. He’d also do reel-to-reel stuff. Music-wise, these were all import records. By then, you’d know what was going on in America, even though you couldn’t get there, so we knew what the records were. The trendy ones who were in demand at Bang were the air stewards, because they’d be travelling all over the world, but particularly to New York and LA. They’d have four- or five-day stopovers, so they’d be going to the clubs, and they’d know which records to bring back, whatever the hit record was.

As Bang settled down it had certain areas to it. Left hand side at the back was the clone area. There was a magazine called Colt, which was all lumberjacks, so that little group would stick together at the club.

Gerry saw Bang all the way through the 80s. They had the Saturday Night Fever premier party there. In about ’81 or ’82 they did a big circus night one night and this person had a gun, shooting things. He ducked behind the DJ booth but he got shot and he was never very well after that. In the end, he sold the name, and got rid of his records. There were other parties going on early on – Sols Arms, which was a lesbian bar, the Green Man in Portland Street, Union Tavern in Camberwell had suede head nights on a Tuesday – but nobody had done it big like Bang.

Tallulah in pink with fellow DJ Tricky Dicky (Richard Scanes) and friends, mid-’70s

Were people getting pissed or doing drugs in Bang?

If they were doing drugs, it wasn’t noticed by anyone. No one was doing coke, there were no queues to the toilets. It was alcohol, there were deals on the beer prices, always made sure they were cheap. It was open till 3 or sometimes 2, so that’s a decent amount of time for drinking on a Monday.

Once we got established we got a name among the record companies and then we started putting on PAs, like Grace Jones. I got whipped by her once. I did an interview with her and she just shouted at me all the time. Everytime I asked a question, she just went, “YEEAH!” Off her face, obviously. I didn’t understand that then. I thought she was a monster. Which she is, of course!

The other thing we had was theme tunes. I think Norman Scott had a theme tune, but mine was the overture from Gypsy! I was really nervous, even after a year or two years, but Norman Scott… she was such an old cow, honestly. I’d go down. She’d say ‘I’ll line up your theme tune, what’s your first record?’ so we could do the handover. So I’d be at the toilet and I’d hear my theme tune and there’d be a spotlight which they’d train on you. Then she’d announce you, and put the record you told her to cue on the wrong side – so you didn’t have time to change it.

Musically, it was disco… It was very good of Gerry to take me on, and I think the only reason he took me on board was because I was so interested in music, and maybe because I used to dress up as well. I always used to be wearing sequinned tops and I think that helped. He would never go to Contempo, so he would warm up. I don’t really remember playing 7-inch records there, so maybe it was 12-inches by then.

Then they did a Thursday night and I got half of it, with Gerry Collins. He’d do half and I’d do half. This was pre-Heaven, but there were other clubs by this time. There was Adam’s in Leicester Square [where Comedy Store used to be]. It was a restaurant-club, quite trendy, quite posh. Catacombs was still going, and by then the Copacabana had just opened in Earls Court, probably opened just after Bang. It was based on Copa in Ft. Lauderdale. They had a really good DJ down there who was called Chris Lucas, who was really good mates with Ian Levine. Levine had finished his northern soul bit and had started moving into disco. He used to turn up with his bits. Around the same time Munkberry’s had opened on Jermyn Street. Full of pop stars, really trendy, Freddie Mercury etc. It was the sort of crowd who’d gone to Tramp. The music was very black: funk, funky soul.

Did Freddie Mercury come to Bang?

Oh yeah. There was also the Blitz going on later, too. [Boy] George said that he didn’t want to go a club full of queens with moustaches so they created their own club. By then the Roxy was going on. There was a crossover with all of this.

What about the Embassy?

That was much later. I left Bang in 1978. I had problems with the flat I moved into in Marble Arch and basically ended up having nowhere to live, so I decided to go over to New York. At that time, a lot of professional people were moving there. It was completely the place to be from about ’74. Over here we had three day weeks, electric cuts, strikes… all the people I knew – market researchers, doctors, dentists – all moved to New York within a year.

I’m sure Gerry’s got a different angle on what happened but for me it was getting too commercial and I was getting more into the funk side and the soully stuff and there’s only so long you can keep up with the snowstorms and stuff. And all the music was coming out of New York.

I lived there for about 18 months. Which is completely another story. I got a job at Studio 54. I don’t even know what I did there. I certainly wasn’t pretty enough to be a busboy. How I got the job, I’d only been there about a month… I was really, really pissed and probably on something else as well, so when I got to the guide rope and I thought they were beckoning me forward – they weren’t – I tripped over the rope and fell over flat on my face. Bouncers picked me up and took me inside the door. This guy asked me if I was alright and when I looked up it was Steve Rubell. He said, I’ve seen many ways of trying to get into a club but this beats them all. Did you do it on purpose?’ So I said, ‘No’, he said, ‘where do you come from?’ I said, ‘London. You haven’t got any jobs going?’ I spent most of my time in the lighting rig. It was fantastic. The atmosphere was unbelievable. I always liked it on the midweek nights the best, there were less people but they danced more.

What made you come back?

I’d just got into the stage where I was doing so much drugs. I lived on Washington Square and it was just far too easy. One day I ended up in the Anvil. I wore this all-in-one ladies black swimsuit and covered it in diamante, fishnets, stilettos and a pillbox hat. One of the rooms there was a big sex room. They used to have a bath there with piss in it. It was horrible. Anyway, I thought oh I’d go in the back room. And I thought oh this is brilliant, I can actually take all my clothes off and go in there naked. I could roll the swimsuit down and roll the fishnets down and then just wrap them round the stilettos. I must have been in there for 20 minutes and everyone was steering clear of me like death. As I came out, and I caught a reflection of myself in the window and I still had the pillbox hat on with the diamante earrings and necklace…!

In the end my mother said I should come home and I was so drug-fucked that I needed to anyway. I came back and DJed at Scandals in Wardour Street, just down from where the Wag was. Really good. Sunday nighter. A boy called Gareth was leaving and he put a word in for me. That was a six-night residency. Then there was another club called Napoleon’s which was down in Lancaster Court off New Bond Street. Scandal’s was a bit rough, a bit renty. In actual fact, the same people opened up Stallions which later became Substation. There was a black club that used to be down there on a Friday night that Steve Swindells used to do…

The Lift?

Yeah, that’s it. They used to have an enclosed DJ booth at Scandals so you could see out but they couldn’t see in. And the record allowance for both of those – this was around 1979 – was about £70 a week and £90 at Napoleon’s. It was good!

Then I went back into restaurants… Sour Grapes in south Kensington. It was the same time as the Embassy opened. I threw a party and used these porno pics and sheets as invites. We didn’t even have decks. The next night London Weekend Television did a report and said two clubs opened up last night, Sour Grapes and The Embassy: ‘We must admit we went away from the Embassy to Sour Grapes and that was the better of the two’. But the Embassy was a fantastic place. They brought a DJ over…

Greg James?


I tracked him down.

Really? Give him my love if you speak to him! Embassy was where David Inches started [later at Heaven]. StevenHayter was the manager, then they went over to Heaven.

What did Embassy look like?

The Embassy was a breath of fresh air, because it was immediately – the underground knew it had gay connections with Steven Hayter, Greg being gay. It was London’s answer to Studio 54. We knew that the boys were all going to be in shorts. At the same time was Ritz magazine, with Lichfield, so they needed somebody who was, not royalty exactly, but someone to get the Hooray Henrys with money in. They got Lady Edith Foxwell. She would’ve been about 55 then, with scraped back hair and very thin, birdy elegant person and broke – which is how she got the job.

The gay night, Sunday night, it was the nearest to a chic club that London ever got. Lots of stars – big stars – rooms off to the side, everyone knew the boiler room was the coke room. Lemmy from Motorhead would be continually, permanently, on the one-arm bandits. I used to go down there in my mother’s cocktail dresses, with big boots on. I always used to stand next to Lemmy and he used to say, ‘I hope you’re not taking hard drugs.’ ‘No, I’m just drinking vodka.’ ‘Steer clear of the hard stuff!’ It was London’s little Studio 54. Paris had Le Palace. We had the Embassy. It never quite reached 100%, it was always about 20% of being absolutely fantastic. But the music was great. Greg was a great DJ. He mixed. Don’t forget, around this time, 1978 and maybe a bit before, you’ve got some of the best records ever coming out.

Tell me about Taboo?

I never Djed there. Boy George always quotes Taboo, and in fact made a musical about it, but we always thought he only ever went on the opening night. He always makes out he was there every night, but he wasn’t. That’s where that slogan ‘would you let you in?’ comes from. It was at Maximus, it was basically Leigh Bowery doing his thing. I was with John Maybury and Baillie Walsh. Baillie did all the videos for Massive Attack. John did the crying one for Sinead O’Connor and he did all the Jesus & Mary Chain and that sort of stuff. Baillie’s just done Kylie’s new one. Baillie had a flat in Leicester Square, so we’d always be round at the flat. Then it was very drug-fuelled. There was Rifat Ozbek, Anthony Price, Bryan Ferry, it was all that sort of stuff and they were all on Rohypnol. The whole thing with Taboo was… [Princess] Julia used to do the coats… Mark [Vaultier] was on the door with the slogan and the mirror: ‘Would you let you in?’ Really, those club kids were just Leigh Bowery copyists. Totally. I don’t even know how long Taboo lasted, all I can remember is Jeffrey [Hinton] playing everything he could get his hands on, including the slipmat. And rolling around the floor having beer poured over you. Getting drunk. And Nicola Bowery, boring us shitless, trying to read poetry. Trying to get enough to get home. To tell the truth, I don’t think it was that fantastic, there were really much better things going on. Kinky Gerlinky was much better. It started at Legends, then to Shaftesburys and them the Empire in Leicester Square.

What do you think were the best gay clubs in the 80s?

The beginning of the ’80s, it has to be Heaven because of what it encapsulated. And it never got to the beauty of the Saint in New York, but I’m sure it reached the degradation. There were back rooms there. When I talk to old clones they told me there was a leather area in the Soundshaft and they gave them gold keys at one stage. You’d get these old clones standing on a wall with their gold keys; they looked like a load of old walruses. And they’d use their keys to get in and there’d all be doing poppers… Embassy Sunday nights, too. On the Kings Road there was a place called Rod’s where Fat Larry’s is. After that, Christopher Hunter had Country Cousins and he put on cabaret every night. Before that it was Rod’s, quite chi-chi, but it never really worked.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Ballroom Blitz, 1991

Ballroom Blitz, 1991

‘Work, bitch!’ From deep in the vaults, here’s Frank’s brief glimpse into the New York ballroom scene: a Sunday night of runway and voguing in October 1991, accompanied by some programmes from the era, including this first one from the great Sound Factory Ball in 1992, dominated, if memory serves, by the club’s own House of Xtravangaza. A shout-out across the years to Joseph and Reggie and the other Roxy girls, to the banjee boys of the Factory floor, and to the House of Elite for welcoming us into their family for the night. Additional reporting by June of the House of Nubia.


Runway Punishment

“There’s a score to be settled and only those walking bitches will survive.”

‘I’m looking for what Madonna didn’t have, and what she wished she had, and what she might have if she keeps watching.’ Devin Elite, master of ceremonies and Father of the House of Elite, is spurring a pair of bodystockinged duellers into a frenzy of head-to-head voguing. The two gentlemen on the catwalk have the moves of dancers, the attitude of Dynasty starlets, and lycra that curves in all the right places. They twist their athletic bodies around, posing and pouting and writhing aggressively on the floor, but even when they’re face to face glaring daggers at each other they’re not allowed to touch.

‘It never gets too violent,’ Devin explains, ‘It’s just very competitive. Everyone’s jolly and friendly until the music starts, and then you see the crazy fucking effort, the sweat popping and all the antics.’

It’s Sunday night in a masonic hall in downtown Brooklyn and the event is ‘Couture Allure ‘91’. An outrageous parody of a fashion show, it’s a chance for some of New York’s black gay population to dress up in the wildest of outfits and strut along the catwalk to pumping house music, fulfilling their dreams of being models and superstars, and showing the world just how wonderfully incredibly gorgeous they are.

Makeup is applied, outfits sorted, and precision voguing moves perfected on the sidelines. In this very ordinary hall, with very ordinary lighting, are gathered some of the most extraordinarily beautiful men and women alive. Except that pretty much everyone in the room, whether rippling with dignified manliness, or glowing with cutesome femininity, was born male.

Balls like this one have been happening for more than thirty years, and despite the popularising efforts of Madonna and Malcolm McLaren they remain a decidedly underground phenomenon. A product of the bygone days of glamorous Harlem drag queens, the scene remains exclusively black and Hispanic, and balls are kept very low-profile. Hardly surprising since they evolved as a fantasy escape from the all too common reality of bigotry and misunderstanding.

‘You have two strikes against you if you’re black and gay,’ says Wayne, a teacher and activist, ‘These people aren’t likely to become white or straight so they’re mimicking white straight culture – being characters they’d never be in real life.’

The people involved are organised in ‘houses’. There are currently 47 of these, with names like Milan, Extravaganza, Armani, Revlon, Ashanti, Africa, and tonights hosts, Elite. Each consists of a ‘mother’ and a ‘father’ and their ‘children’, and like families they offer mutual support and encouragement, as well as providing the team groupings for the competitive balls. Most house members emphasise the positive nature of the houses, and are unhappy when they are disparaged as gay street gangs.

‘I can’t speak for everyone, but I have a particular curriculum my house members have to follow,’ stresses Devin, ‘They have to be actively in school or working. I prefer to be strictly positive. I started the House of Elite for the sole purpose of showing everyone else in the ballroom what it should be like.’

Music thumps into action, kickstarting the ball into life. The children of the House of Elite parade themselves along the runway and take the stage as our hosts for the night. Although the hosting house is traditionally barred from competing, they are keen to show off a few moves before the contest begins. Devin arrives to take his place at the head of his house wearing a fabulous outfit halfway between a mafia chieftain and a Las Vegas magician. A table in the wings groans under a mass of golden statuettes (like Rolls Royce figurines in 30’s bathing trunks), and one by one the judges take their seats.

Contestants are either ‘gentlemen’ (straight-acting gay men), or ‘ladies’ (trans women) and they compete for prizes in diverse categories dreamed up by the hosts to set the tone for each bout. Some of the more outlandish might include: ‘Runway Punishment – There’s a score to be settled and only those walking bitches will survive’, or ‘Big Bad Girls vs the Small Call Girl vs the Amazon Hooker’; and ‘Costume – Cher vs Grace Jones’, and there are always ‘realness’ categories, for example ‘9-5, white collar only’ where the aim is to ‘pass’, to look like an unquestionably straight businessman. Another favourite used to be ‘Drug-Dealer Realness’, where quilted jackets, cellphones and briefcases full of bags of white powder were the order of the day.

Tonight’s categories underline the current fashion for taking images and idols from the worlds of haute couture, advertising and television. In one, ‘Body with Production’ the gentlemen are invited to compete as living versions of the beefcake in Calvin Klein’s Obsession ads. This offers the spectacle of hunksome young musclemen getting greased up with lotions and potions, slipping off their trunks and cupping their bare essentials for modesty’s sake (with a less modest two hands). In ‘Double Take’ the ladies are asked to, ‘recreate a look of your favorite model from a magazine – You Must Bring Magazine’.

‘Everyone’s a little less on costumes now and a little more into a ’90s kind of look,’ Devin explains. ‘They’re more into European effects and looks compared to back then. Now they’re wearing tights and they’re creating an androgenous look, and they’re doing a lot of things with hair and so on.’

But what about voguing? We’ve all seen Ms Ciccone strike a pose and we’re itching to see the real thing. Seeing as the V-word is notably absent from the programme tonight, where are the coverstar moves, the waving hands, the pouting stares? It seems ‘voguing’ is no longer the thing to say. ‘Performance’ is the favoured term these days, and ‘precision is a must’. When the fellas come out on the floor to do their thing what’s most striking is the speed and agility of their movements. There’s none of this slow-motion activity that Madonna foisted on the world; instead we get an intense flurrying of limbs, plenty of grooving around, and a deal of raunchy gymnastics. It’s fast, it’s millimetre-accurate and it looks as if it probably hurts.

It’s a close call and the finalists are called back to fight it out. Voguing started in battles like this as a way of cursing out your opponent without saying a word. Where rapping evolved as a way of warring with words, voguing takes things a step further, being a means of showing yourself to be dripping with glamour, style and attitude and your opponent as being a dowdy uncoordinated loser.

Frank Broughton, 1991

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton


LADIES OF DISTINCTION – Women who were born female.


GENTLEMEN/BUTCH QUEENS – Gay men who dress/act straight.

LADIES/FEM QUEENS – Trans women.

OVERNESS – A total state of being. Perfection. What everyone competing in the ball is striving to achieve and display.

SPOOKABLE – If you are spookable, you are not what you appear to be. Your cover can be blown. The opposite of overness.

REALNESS – Looking completely convincing in your assumed gender.

WALKING – Entering the competition. Walking down the runway.

BATTLE – When the two finalists fight it out together on the floor.

THROWING SHADE – Giving off attitude. Spoiling for a showdown. (Also SHADY, SHADING)

READING – Cursing, throwing shade in the form of verbal attitude.

OVAH! / IT’S OVAH FOR YOU – The supreme compliment, meaning that the person thus addressed is brimming with overness.

DJ Paulette fleshes it out

DJ Paulette fleshes it out

Interviewed by Bill, 5.10.21

Music-obsessive Paulette went to her first club aged 14 and never looked back. From 1992 she was resident at Flesh, the mixed/gay spectacular at The Haçienda, and as British clubbing discovered glamour, she was welcomed into a flamboyant nationwide family, where her fiercely expressive approach to DJing (and DJ attire) earnt her residencies at many of the best nights across the UK. After a sojourn in Paris she’s now back in Manchester, writing a book and creating unapologetically fabulous shapes out of dancefloors worldwide.

Can you remember the first time you ever went to a club?
I started clubbing in Manchester when I was 15, but the first club I went to, I was 14, it was 1980, and I went to Cagneys in Liverpool to hear Steve Proctor play. At the time, I was buying Melody Maker, NME, The Face and New Sounds New Styles. They were my magazines. I was into post-punk, Sheffield electronic sounds. So, Cabaret Voltaire, early Human League: Travelogue, Reproduction. And Gary Numan, John Foxx, all sorts of electronic. And then post-punk: Dead Kennedys, Killing Joke, that kind of thing. I was really into that.

It was the Blitz Kids in London, Princess Julia and Rusty Egan who were playing all this. And I couldn’t get that far, but Liverpool seemed doable. And in all the magazines, they talked about this DJ in the north of England who was playing that kind of music. My sister’s friend Karen was best friends with Steve Proctor. So she was like, ‘Oh, just come to Liverpool and I’ll put you on the guest list.’ Never mind the fact that I was 14, but these were simpler times in the ’80s, when you could just take somebody else’s paper birth certificate to the club as proof of age and look a bit grown-up.

Photo: Lee Baxter

And I went wearing a really beautiful big print, it was like plants and leaves, big Monstera leaves on this jumpsuit which was green and olive and gold. It was beautiful. You know, one of those jumpsuits with the diagonal zip. And yeah, I went to Cagneys in Liverpool. The first record he was playing when I walked in was Gary Numan, ‘Cars’, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is fantastic,’ I got on the dance floor, and that was it. I think I was going once every two weeks or once a month or something. And then I started studying for my marks and it got a bit of a drag going all the way to Liverpool after school on a Friday.

Then my sister Elizabeth started working at a club called Pips behind the bar, and she said, ‘Why don’t you come to Pips? They’re playing your music.’ Because I was the only one in my family that was into that. Everyone else was into soul. They were following Greg Wilson, Colin Curtis, Mike Shaft, Ewan Clarke. They’re like family friends. And I was just like, ‘I love that music, but this is what I want to follow.’ So Liz is just like, ‘Come. I’m on the bar, so I can keep my eye on you. I can get you in, but you know, you can get a membership.’ And that’s what I did, and I was there probably three nights a week until it closed. I was a steady 18 for three years, because I just used to use different sisters’ birth certificates to get membership.

And Pips became your home from home
It was absolutely fantastic. First of all, Pips has everything to do with how I built my record collection, because it was a bit of everything. It had four rooms; a ’60s room, a soul room, a Bowie room, and a Roxy room. You had all the punk stuff in the Roxy room, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Dead Kennedys, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft, all that kind of shit. And the Bowie room was where they were playing all their new romantic stuff: Bowie, Roxy, Simple Minds, which was more self-expressive, Visage, that kind of thing. The dress-up, the performance thing.

And Pips had everything to do with why I DJ the way I do, because it’s all to do with expressing yourself to the music at the same time as it’s playing. So, dancing along, singing along, miming along. Every time they played a Bowie record, everyone moved off the dance floor, and the Bowie-heads moved on, and it was a dance floor full of Marcel Marceaus miming along to it. I used to be really good at it.

Was it quite big?
Yeah. It was massive. It was a massive basement club, four rooms. You could definitely fit I would say 150, 200 in each room. Probably about 800 in total, maybe 1,000 at a squeeze.

Did you ever go to The Haçienda before acid house kicked in?
Of course I did, yeah. Because we used to go and listen to Hewan Clarke and Mike Pickering at Nude and go to gigs there and everything. It was just a place to go and listen to music and dance, you know? Sometimes really empty and sometimes really good. It was a really good place to dance, a really good dance floor. It was like a playground to me. The Ritz, The Gallery, Pips, Haçienda, Boardwalk, DeVille’s, Berlin, Legend, I’ve done them all. I was there on the dance floor. That’s how I grew up. I was clubbing probably three nights a week from 14.

Out of all of them, you would say Pips was the most formative.
Yeah, there’s never been another club like it, and I don’t think they could ever make it again, just because of the mixing of tribes. Even at festivals, you don’t really get that mixing the way you did there. Because at Pips, you’ve got the ’60s room, you’ve got the soul room, you’ve got the Bowie and the Roxy room, but people didn’t just stay in those rooms. Everybody moved around. So you’d get the soul boys in the Bowie room in their waffle cardigans and their cords and their loafers watching all the dressed up new romantics dancing to Grace Jones or David Bowie. And then you’d get these six-foot-four punks with full mohicans, chains, makeup, the lot, standing in the soul room, dancing to flippin’ Donny Hathaway. You know? It was just like a real mind meld.

Though culturally, 1980, 1981, and 1982, if you looked even remotely different, you were a fag, you were a queer, you were a puff. And if you actually were, then it was even worse, you know? You got it in the street, but you didn’t get it in the club. People seemed to leave that outside the door, and once in the club, everyone was alright with everyone being there.

All of the different tribes would mingle in one space, because you knew you wouldn’t get beaten up and you knew you could hang out there.
I suppose Pips and then DeVille’s and Berlin were my soft introduction into the full gay scene of Manchester. That was kind of how I drifted into finding that side of myself.

“The reason it happened in gay clubs is because they didn’t see having women behind the decks as a bad thing or a weakness. They saw it as a strength.”

When did you start hearing house music?
I think I was more aware of house music coming through my sisters, because Paula and Elizabeth were raving and I wasn’t, and they were bringing the music back, and I was hearing it on the radio.

But not in clubs?
I was married really early. And my ex-husband didn’t like clubs at all. And for the years I was with him, we kind of went to clubs, but it was all very polite. So it was only really like the wine bar-y ’80s, and Simply Red-y sort of stuff. We split up after seven years. So probably the first time I heard house music in a club was after I went, ‘Fuck this, I’m out of here,’ and started dancing at The Number One, in 1991.

Tell me about The Number One. I used to go there as well.
The Number One was funny. I always seem to be attracted to these dark, seedy basements where all sorts of shit happens. You lose control and you find yourself. I was working for Piccadilly Radio, and me and my friend went to The Number One one day after work, and it was chrome and mirrors and carpet, and they were showing Divine on the videos: Female Trouble, and I remember that very clearly.

Then fast forward to 1991, I went back. The carpet was sticky and dark. The chrome was there but it had all been painted over black, and it was a proper rave spot. I was there one night dancing, and I remember dancing to Prince’s ‘Gett Off’, and I lost the plot. Absolutely lost the plot. I don’t know whether it was because I was free from my husband for the night. I remembered Tim Lennox played this Junior Vasquez mix and I went into this routine which just was a complete release, and when the manager saw me dancing, he just came over at the end and he went, ‘Oh my God, that was fantastic. Do you want to work for us?’ So I was like, ‘Doing what?’ And he said, ‘I’d like you to dance on a podium every Friday and Saturday night. If you can do that from nine till two, I’ll pay you 50 quid.’ And I was studying, so it was quite a lot of money. I said yes, much against my husband. He wasn’t happy about it at all. It was nearly all of the mortgage though. So he’s like, ‘Okay, then.’

But I wasn’t allowed to leave the house in the clothes I was wearing, so I had to change at the club. It was all a bit mental. But this club was, wow, because Tim Lennox was playing. And that was where I heard DSK, Inner City, Kevin Saunderson, Mr. Fingers, Larry Heard, and then all the vocal stuff that was coming through.

Who were the DJs who influenced you most?
There was Hewan, there was Tim Lennox, there was Mike Pickering, and Barney – Michael Barnes-Wynters from Bristol. He used to run a party called Hoochie Coochie in Manchester. He’s just a incredible, switched on, very politically black, very right on, black power, civil rights kind of person. He’s an artist now. And musically, because he was from Bristol, he had an edge that Manchester music didn’t necessarily have. They were the four pillars of my understanding of what it takes to build a set, play a set. What kind of music can you play all night, which is basically fucking everything. And the quality, really, and also vocals. They all played vocals.

Any women?
I didn’t have any female influences. There were never any women behind the decks when I started DJing. Even on the posters, on the flyers, there were no women’s names on them ever. Ever, ever, ever. I wasn’t moving in the lesbian circles either, so I wasn’t aware of that side of things. From my tunnel vision I was always following male DJs.

When you first started DJing, all of the women seemed to come through the gay scene, even if they weren’t actually gay. Princess Julia, Vicki Edwards, Rachel Auburn, people like that. It was like female DJs hardly existed on the straight scene.
Well, they didn’t exist on the straight scene because it was big boys club, and they were never going to give any woman a job. There’s a reason why there weren’t any women on the flyers or the posters, because there weren’t any there. It changed a lot in the ’90s, but in the ’80s the only women you really saw in clubs were behind the scenes. They could manage the bar. They could manage the kitchens, the offices, the record labels, everything, but they weren’t the high profile figureheads. Ang Matthews was managing The Haçienda, but you never saw her giving any comments on the news. It was Tony Wilson, Peter Hook, Rob Gretton. You wouldn’t have been aware that women were running anything to do with The Haçienda, or the Factory, but they were.

There was a woman who designed The Haçienda who never gets mentioned: Sandra Douglas. It’s always Ben Kelly.
I mean, it’s in everything. It’s not just in clubbing. It’s the same in the arts. It’s the same in science, politics.It’s not unusual to clubbing, per se. We live in patriarchal society. That’s how it is. Things are systemically embedded in society. That’s when it becomes political, because it’s not just an isolated case of you not knowing there were women there, or they’re not promoted, or they’re not pushed, or they’re not accepted. That’s just the way it was. And there weren’t really very many women.

I think the reason why it happened in gay clubs is because they were alright with having women around. They didn’t see having women behind the decks as a bad thing or a weakness. They saw it as a strength. They saw it as something else that would attract another crew of people.

And also, they knew that if you had a lot of women there, it changes the environment completely. You know yourself, if you play a record that brings all the boys to the dance floor and makes all the girls disappear, your dancefloor will go really quickly, because you really do need to keep that balance of men and women. With the gay clubs, they were working more on the holistic atmosphere of the event, rather than it just being a club playing records.

How did you get the gig at Flesh?
I started DJing in 1992. It was by accident because I never planned to be a DJ. I didn’t set out thinking, ‘I want to DJ at The Haçienda.’ I was offered a spot at a party that a friend of a friend of mine was running, and she’d run out of money because she paid for the hire of the club, she paid for the posters and everything, and then couldn’t afford to pay for a DJ. So she asked her friend Tommy, did he know anyone? And he knew I had loads of records because I’d been secretly building this record collection, even though my husband had said no, I couldn’t. I spoke to Adele. She said, ‘I want you to play at The Number One from nine till two. I’ll give you 30 quid,’ which seemed like a really good deal to me. So I said yes, spent my entire grant for that term on records, which was 150 quid. I played that party, and it went really super, super well. I did it on my own. I’d never played in a club before, and I played the entire night. I didn’t lose anyone. You know, nobody walked out. Nobody said it was shit.

And from that, it had really good feedback from the gay community, because it was a gay party. And news filtered back to Paul Cons and Lucy Scher, who were moving Flesh from The Academy to The Haçienda. And then Adele said to me ‘I think we should ask them if we can play their second room.’ So we did. Lucy Scher, there’s another woman, god rest her soul, she died three years ago. If it hadn’t have been for Lucy, neither myself nor Kath McDermott would have played at The Haçienda.

Before this, Lucy did a party there, I think it was called The Summer of Lesbian Love, and it was one of the biggest parties they’d had – absolutely packed and made loads of money. So that persuaded the people at The Haçienda that maybe it was a good thing to start a new gay night, so they started Flesh. I was downstairs in the Gay Traitor. They renamed it the Pussy Parlour, and I played there every month from ’92 till ’96, bar two when I took my finals.

When all of the problems were happening at The Haçienda, with gangs taking over the door, was Flesh unaffected by that because it was a gay club?
It was for a while. At some point, some of the gangs used to come into Flesh, and it was just a place where they could hang out and be left alone, and nobody would bother them, and they could enjoy the music. They did occasionally come in. Certain of them, not all of them, but in large, it was a safe space for gay people and their mates.

And you juggled DJing with a career in promotions
I moved to London in ’94. and I’m working at Mercury Records. And by 1996, I’m full on into Talkin’ Loud, Manifesto, Ibiza, you name it. It was just too much. Flesh was a Wednesday monthly. I couldn’t keep taking a Wednesday every month off work, so I had to stop. Also, they didn’t want to pay more, and they didn’t want to pay my travel. I was at Mercury Records from ’94, and then I was at Azuli and Defected in ’98, and then by ’99, I was just working solely on Azuli as the promotions and art director. And then 2000 I was really struggling to keep the timing of working a full-time job as a promotions director for a record label and my weekend DJing which had really picked up. They wanted me to do an American tour, so I made the leap in 2000 to go full-time.

And you lived in Paris for a while
I started touring internationally for the Ministry of Sound, and various other things happened. I had a load of problems with my flat and then I sold it. I met someone, and it was just like … I’d always wanted to live in France anyway, so I just decided that it would be a good idea in 2004 to make that leap. So December 2004, I moved to Paris.

One of Paulette’s low-key outfits for Flesh. “If you’re gonna make yourself visible make yourself really visible” Photo: Daniel Newman

Did the novelty factor of being a woman help or hinder you in the early part of your DJ career?
Both. Both. I mean, in terms of bookings, I would say absolutely helped on the gay scene. It didn’t help me on the straight scene at all. I had to kind of divorce myself from playing those nights in order to start playing on the straight circuit, to start working at your Ministry of Sounds, your Cross, your Bagleys. You didn’t get gay DJs playing on this straight scene and you didn’t really get straight DJs playing on the gay scene. They just didn’t meet. I was with Concord Artists, and when they were suggesting me for booking, people wouldn’t book me because I was ‘that gay DJ’. So I had to lose that tag, which is really upsetting. Looking back on it, that’s fucking discrimination. You really wouldn’t be able to do that now. And if people found out about it, they could rightly kick off.

But in gay terms it was fantastic because the persona that I had built meant I was picked up by Wayne Kurz at The Zap for a weekly residency. And the same with playing for James Horrocks and Thomas Foley at Garage at Heaven with Princess Julia and Rachel Auburn and Stephen Sharp. James Bailey had seen me, so I went to play at Venus in Nottingham, and Trannies With Attitude booked me for Vague. They had all seen me and heard me play out Flesh. Patrick Lilley was always, always at Flesh. And when I moved to London, I became a good friend and consequently played for a lot of his nights: Queer Nation, One Nation Under A Groove, you name it. All of those big mythic gay nights and gay locations. Everything those people did, I was able to play because I was part of the family. It enabled me to meet all these really powerful, important people and play at some of the best parties in the world

And in what ways did it hinder you?
I was thinking about it the other day. When I started DJing I didn’t know, how do I get these cool records? It was about ’93, so I’d split up from my husband and was seeing Simon Bushell, who was in charge of a distribution company that supplied all the record shops in Manchester. One Saturday afternoon, he took me to Eastern Bloc, and he says, ‘You should put a bag of records aside for Paulette. She’s a really good DJ. She’s up and coming,’ and somebody said ‘Why should we give her any records? She only gets the gigs because she stands there playing records in a fluffy bra and bikini knickers.’

It was just like, god, the straight guys don’t think I’m remotely relevant in terms of music. All they can see is a woman behind the decks. And not just a woman, because I think if you’re going to make yourself visible, make yourself really visible, so I’m not standing there in twin set and pearls; I’ve got fuck-all on. It was just clear that they didn’t think I deserved the term of DJ, because all I was to them was window dressing. For people who know me and know what was in my head musically, they would know my life is music. But for the people that couldn’t be assed, all they saw was a fluffy Wonderbra.

“David Guetta’s around 20 million a year. There’s not a female that’s earning even close to that. “

Have you noticed things change over the past 25, 30 years?
I think a lot more in the last four years. We can talk about this stuff now, and we can actually say, ‘Hey, this is right. This is wrong. This needs changing. This doesn’t. We’ve got a whole new generation of females that are running things. They’re running their own labels. They’ve got radio shows on Radio 1, 1Xtra, Reprezent Radio, Rinse, you name it. They’ve all got their brands. They’ve got their labels. You’ve got people like Anz, and Jamz Supernova, and Jaguar, and Afrodeutsche. There’s a whole new generation of really powerful, vocal, political black women coming up. And that’s where I would see the change as well because I’m seeing a lot more black women too in there. When I was doing it, I was a bit of a needle in a haystack.

Is it really that recent that it’s changed?
Yes. Absolutely that recent.

Are there places even now where you still get treated differently as a female DJ?
Yeah. I mean, of course there are, because there isn’t a single place that pays women the same money as they pay men. That gender pay gap is absolutely horrific. For one of the projects I’m working on I was looking at the statistics for wages for female DJs. The highest paid male DJ, I think it’s between Calvin Harris and Marshmello. I think Calvin Harris earned 80 million last year. And Marshmello earned 38.5. The highest earning female DJ, I bet you can’t even guess who that is.

Nina Kraviz?
Not even close.

One of the Eastern European techno DJs?
Not even close.

I’ve got no idea, then.
The highest earning female DJ, and this is such a con even putting her on the list because she is an heiress anyway…

Oh, God.
…is Paris Hilton.

There isn’t any female DJ that is earning even remotely near the amounts the guys are earning. I think David Guetta’s around 20 million a year. There’s not a female that’s earning even close to that. There isn’t a female equivalent to Carl Cox. There isn’t a female equivalent to David Guetta. The closest you can get is Nervo, and I’m telling you, they are not earning anywhere near the same.

Annie Mac is just an absolute mega-god in terms of what can be done and what can be achieved. But if Annie Mac doesn’t come up in the 20 highest earning DJs, then seriously, we’ve got a problem. When she left Radio 1, the last post she did said, ‘There’ve been so many changes and it’s great to see so many women at Radio 1, but we still have so far to go.’ And it’s just really frustrating. I’ve been DJing for 30 years and I think it’s changed a lot in many ways. But really, when you put the stats together, it’s not changed at all.

Is dancing political?
For me, yeah. Everything. Everything’s political for me, everything from my head down to my toes. Everything is political, much to the annoyance of my family. But I really do see that if we have this platform, it has to have some use. It can’t just be, oh, I’m playing this nice record and then that nice record. If you’re going to influence people, make it count. If you’re going to entertain people, entertain them in such a way that they can take some kind of message away. A positive message, a positive political message.

Music is universal. I will never stop loving music, and I’m not going to stop playing music unless the ears fall off the side of my head or I go deaf. And I think even if I go deaf, I’ll still have a go. Everything about dance is political, down to the colour I am, the gender I am, the age I am, everything. Absolutely everything is political. And I hope that just by my even standing there, I am saying to people it is okay. And that’s why I keep going. It’s okay. Just whatever you want to do, if you have that dream, if you have something you want to do, just do it. It’s okay to be who you are. Just be who you are when you wake up in the morning. It’s fine. Go party.

And yes, dance is political. We have a platform that we can use to transmit messages. So, I do occasional bits of fundraising. I will use my music and my platform to transmit that message and to raise money or to raise awareness. And I think we can really make a difference in that way. So yes, dance music is political and it always should be. We’re fucked if it’s not. We really are.

Why is music such a force for rebellion?
It isn’t for everybody. There are some people who manage to use dance music as just a money-making tool to line their own pockets and to buy huge mansions. But music has always been a tool for rebellion, right back to Negro spirituals and gospel music. It wasn’t just a nice song. They were giving directions to people to get out of the fields. The songs they were singing, they were maps. Music has always been really political. I think if you can get a song that sticks in people’s heads, it’s a lot more powerful than a pamphlet or a politician.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton