Following the release of Dave Haslam’s autobiography Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor Banjo chatted with him about moving from post punk to dance, losing the safety net and playing The Smiths at Cream.
There is a Bill Murray film called The Man Who Knew Too Little, where Murray’s character gets mistakenly caught up in a spy ring and triumphs over the bad guys only because he knows nothing about what’s going on, believing the whole thing to be nothing more than a game. Reading Dave Haslam’s autobiography puts me in mind of this character.
There is a wide eyed, innocent, almost ingénue like charm to the way Haslam comes across in his book, almost chancing upon scenes and places, finding himself in the right place at the right time and succeeding because of a lack of guile rather than following a plan. Dave Haslam is an everyman made good, he is a nice guy who has won the game.
As a teenager, Haslam got caught up in punk and, more pertinently, post punk, catching the likes of The Au Pairs and The Pop Group. Moving to Manchester, he found himself in the perfect place and at the perfect time for a music fan. Soon he became heavily invested in the city’s music scene, with the likes of New Order and A Certain Ratio, staying with the city’s musical heroes through The Smiths’ years and into Madchester.
Haslam was not content to be a mere spectator though. His fanzine Debris soon garnered attention and led to interviews with lots of Manchester’s musicians and residents, also bringing him to the attention of the NME, who he wrote for as a freelancer. His love of music led him to DJing, soon earning a residency at the Hacienda, then still a struggling, usually half empty and cavernous venue.
Change was just around the corner however. Haslam recalls the first records coming over from America’s little known underground House scene. The Hacienda became one of the few clubs outside the USA where people could go to hear this new kind of music. One of the book’s highlights is as Haslam recounts his view from the DJ booth of the change that spread through the Hacienda’s clientele.
From a small pocket of people, the ripples from the Ecstasy and Dance fans slowly spread from one side of the club to the other, each week seeing new converts to the cause. The revolution had begun and both the Hacienda and Manchester would never be the same again.
The end for the Hacienda, when it came, is as sorry a story as has ever been told. Guns, gangsters and violence brought the club’s summers of love to an end. But, proving you can’t keep a good man down, Haslam has gone on to DJ across the world, spreading his joyous music to thousands of people.
Ahead of the publication of his autobiography, we spoke to Dave Haslam to find out more about his journey from post punk to the many genres of Dance music.
Why do you think it is that a lot of people went from punk or post punk into dance music? Musically the two have little in common.
‘I think quite a lot of post punk bands enjoyed the slightly dubby sounds of a lot of post punk, think of PiL into 23 Skidoo or The Pop Group and then there was the whole interest in electronica and drum machines. I remember hearing electro, the hip hop version of electro, not the house version, hearing Hip Hop Be Bop (Don’t Stop) by Man Parrish and to me that seemed like the sort of record I liked, it didn’t seem like a revolutionary record to me.
Looking back, that kind of record was very much a precursor to Acid House and Techno. And after all, a lot of the Acid House guys in Detroit liked European electro pop. They certainly knew about New Order and Italo Disco. And I think there’s a lot of crossover. In the book I’m very clear that for me, Acid House wasn’t a year zero where there was a day that everything changed. For me it was always more about evolution that revolution.’
Did you become aware at some point that this new music you were starting to play was starting to take over and had become something new?
‘The newness of it appealed and the trickle became a tidal wave by, I would say, the middle of 88. All the nights in the Hacienda went in slightly different directions at that point, but for me on a Thursday I was still able to mix techno with hip hop, with the industrial or electro side of indie. There were some people who were more purist about it; there was Mike Pickering on a Friday who played entirely House and Techno and there wasn’t really any crossover between the audiences.
For me DJing has always been about trying not to limit myself about what to play. One time I played at Cream and I played There is a Light That Never Goes out by The Smiths. Two thirds of the people in the Courtyard at that point left. But the other third embraced it. And then about ten years later somebody came up to me and said ‘You’re the DJ who played The Smiths in Cream’ so it was worth it. And I knew how to bring it back, the people who left were soon back, but that was my mentality, and still is my mentality, and that was bred into my working at The Hacienda where you would just keep pushing things.’
I remember talking to [chillout DJ] Mixmaster Morris back in the 90s and he was telling me that he had a poster on his wall of a bonfire that was made with guitars. He took against guitar music to such an extent that he was happy to see it go up in smoke and he was certain that Dance music would wipe guitars off the face of the earth.
‘The thing for me is, if you read the book you get a sense of how both my life and the world changed over the decades. There’s a quote in the book from Muhammad Ali who said that ‘A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life’ and so I change, my playlist changes, the world changes and the music that seems to matter changes. And I love that and embrace that.
As somebody who, like everybody else, is a complicated person, when it came to writing the book I thought I don’t have to create a simplified version of myself, I can be complicated and my life can go in several directions. I can be confused. And in that complicated life that I lead I sometimes want to hear The Sound of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel, and I also sometimes want to put Plastic Dreams by Jaydee on very, very loud. And that’s just because they made such different parts of my being, and I don’t want to have to choose.’
Do you find that as you grow older you have lost faith in the power of music to change people?
‘I think I have it even more. In the 80s, music mattered a lot to me, but I thought that was just me and the crews I hung out with. There are some people to who music is just wallpaper, and that’s fair enough, they have other stuff in their lives, but for me it was not quite everything, but close to being everything.
I think that, by the end of writing the book, in a way to do with the Bataclan attack and the Manchester Arena attack. The live gig at the Bataclan and the live gig at The Arena were targeted by Isis and to me, trying to understand the mindset of Isis, they must somehow believe music to be an important thing in our society, that music is such an important thing to us they must somehow feel threatened by it.
And following those attacks, music became part of the healing process, so actually if you’d asked me that question five years ago I might have been a bit more cynical.
But having seen that importance that music has had in a kind of symbolic way in recent years, in those extreme situations, I have to put my hand up and realise that music matters to people, on a much deeper level. And even if those people are only thinking of it was wallpaper, actually it isn’t, it goes much deeper. People are getting strength from music, as individuals and as part of a community.’
You make it sounds as if music fulfills the same purpose as religion when you talk about it like that.
‘Well we’re not a religious people really, but that doesn’t stop us being spiritual or wanting to enjoy and be overwhelmed by communal experience. And also there is a redemptive power in music.
Another example would be the way that Joy Division became New Order. I think it’s such an amazing story and for me it is kind of symbolic of how music can be important to people and change people and give people something to hang on to. And not just the people in New Order, but the people around them and the people who were part of the Joy Division story.
In a way they find a kind of redemption through the band that came out of the ashes of Joy Division. There’s something very powerful about that story and it’s almost an intense reflection of the way we all are with music.
In the book I think there’s a link by the end of me, at various times of my life, to be the thing I hang on to. Joy Division becoming New Order and music becoming so important in the healing process after the terrorist attacks, all those things kind of come together by the end, and that wasn’t something that I was expecting.’
So you actually found something out about yourself by writing the book?
‘Yeah. I was just writing about myself, and writing honestly, but I talk about how music was never just music to me, when I was a teenager, music is what opened up all those other doors into the world of ideas, the world of art & culture. And I think that probably still happens, but it’s certainly true of my generation. When I first met people like Pete Wylie and Jayne Casey, I realised that it was the same for them, and it was something that connected me to them, particularly to Wylie, that music was a way into things.
He always used to quote that phrase of Patti Smith’s, ‘the sea of possibilities’, and the idea that that’s what the adventure was about, and music was the thing that powered that adventure. People of my generation were very used to starting a conversation by talking about music, but then going on and talking about film and culture and ideas and politics. And I’ve always been like that, music has never been in a ghetto and I don’t think I’m alone in that’
In your book, it seems that one thing leads to another, which leads to another. Did you have any kind of plan or did you just take advantage of opportunities that were there? Was there an ambition?
‘Writing the book I kind of realised I was making opportunities for myself, but also I was very reliant on opportunities arriving and me being a bit more passive in that career structure, rather than cutting a swathe through the world, like some kind of an all conquering super hero, it wasn’t like that. I was very reliant on some people, like Tony Wilson, for example, being the kind of person who would open up an opportunity.
So it was kind of a mix of things, but because I’d always been comfortable in the outer reaches of music, in those outer reaches you never know what’s going to happen. If you’re in the mainstream, you know that a great ballad will always be a great ballad and a novelty song will always be a novelty song, there’s are some basic rules which you know will always apply. So if you’re a radio DJ and you keep smiling and playing songs from the top 40, you’ve got a career.
But on the outer reaches you have to be used to everything changing, or at least evolving and new things happening. You have to be open to things happening, so you can’t really plan ahead. If you stop doing that, you stop being open to what’s happening in the world.
In writing my first four books, before I started writing about myself, the thing I realised about cultural history is that some things change, but some things stay the same. And I realised that when it came to my autobiography, the same is true of a life. In the book I try to paint the picture of a part of my life and a part of my personality that doesn’t change and there’s a part that does. And I’m actually quite glad of that, I’m not one of those people whose default position is ‘I’m afraid of something.’’
You do get people who stick with the music that was happening when they came of age.
‘I don’t mind that because I think that when you’re young you are particularly susceptible to new experience, before you maybe settle down, get a proper job and a mortgage and all that, you glorify those years of supposed freedom when you were discovering all this great music and you were on the dancefloor or down the front at gigs and your music tastes were being shaped.
That is a glorious period for people and they just don’t have the need to move on from that. I did, but that doesn’t mean that the music I heard when I was 15/16/17 isn’t still really important to me, most if it is. I think everyone’s life is soundtracked by music to a certain extent.
But I’m kind of at an age now where I’m thinking that I don’t need to hear a lot of new music. And one of the reasons for that is that the Internet has just given me the opportunity to hear so much new old music, so I’m discovering records from 82/83, that if I’d heard them then they’d have gone straight into the first box of records that I took out DJing and they would never have left. Something like Spacer Woman by Charlie for example, which I heard a few years ago and those kind of Italo Disco records are back in vogue now, but they would have fitted in with the sets I was playing over the last 40 years. So I’m kind of hearing new music, but it tends to be new old music.’
Listening to some of your Hacienda mixes, there is a real infectious joy to the music. How do you feel about how Dance music developed over the years?
‘Well myself, Mike Pickering, Graeme Park, Jon Dasilva, I think we were all much more eclectic than Dance music DJs are now. There wasn’t the same need from us or the audience for pigeonholing and that gave us a lot of freedom. But I think Dance music has progressed in lots of great ways.
But the one thing I sometimes regret is that everyone has retreated into genres. Which I can understand because if you like bog standard global EDM you’re not going to like minimal techno. But it’s a bit of a shame that the barriers are really down between dance music genres.
But this has been going on for more than 20 years, I remember talking to Paul Van Dyk at the height of Trance music; The Fugees first album had just come out and I said to Paul, as one music fan to another, ‘what do you think of The Fugees album?’ and he said ‘it’s great.’ And I said to him ‘are you going to be playing anything off it in your set?’ and he said ‘no, it’s not what I play. And people who pay to hear me don’t expect me to play that kind of music, they come to hear Paul Van Dyk music.’ I understood what he was saying on a sort of brand level, but I thought I don’t really want to be in that situation.
Obviously he earns a fortune compared to what I ever earned, but I’m quite happy to be in a situation where if I hear something that I like, it goes into the playlist. I don’t have to think ‘am I allowed to play this? What will the audience think? What is Brand Haslam?’ And that conversation was 20 years ago, more or less, and I think that’s symptomatic of the change in Dance music.’
So what are your plans for the future?
‘I’m working on a project that is will be a live performance. This is alongside all the other things I do, I like doing the onstage interviews, I love DJing, I like writing. All that stuff I want to keep on doing until I drop. But I have got this thing that I want to do that’s halfway between DJing and performance art. It’s probably by far the artiest thing I’ve ever done and it certainly won’t go top 20. And Paul Van Dyk won’t be playing it. [laughs] But I already have my debut live performance penciled in so now I have to be ready for that and challenge myself.
But my default answer now is ‘Why not?’. There might have been a time when, if somebody said ‘do you fancy this or do you fancy doing that?’ I’d have found a million reasons not to. And instead I’m like ‘why not?’ And it takes away the safety net, but it makes my life more exciting.’
When you get to the end of Haslam’s autobiography, you may think that he doesn’t need anything else to make his life more exciting. He has been lucky enough to have spent his life wisely and found himself at the centre of extraordinary times. Will this continue, will he still be spreading his love for music across the world in the future?