We haven’t done an interview for some time so after thinking about who to speak to we plumped for Dave Dorrell. Dorrell was involved in many of the seminal London night clubs – The Dirtbox, Batcave, RAW, Love and The Milk Bar – as well as being a journalist and manager of note for the Pet Shop Boys amongst others. There was almost too much to cover so we just started at the beginning and tried to work through the key years. Thanks to Frank Tope, Terry Farley and Pete Tong for additional questions.
Dave Dorrell images by James McLintock. Wild Bunch image by Beezer.
So Dave, where does it all start?
Well as a child I was a hippy. My sister worked at Biba so if you want the first thing I was seven with my hair down to my waist and she took me to see the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park for the free concert. That was my first concert. Barefoot, we walked the length of Oxford Street. That was a day.
What was the first scene you really got into youth culture-wise?
The first thing that we really got into it was kind of the Disco/ soul scene I guess. So Disco, but then at the same time it was Punk. I was about 15 when Punk happened and we started a fanzine at school called The Modern World (after the Jam song). We got an exclusive interview with two of the Sex Pistols – Paul Cook and Steve Jones – cause they lived in a flat in Bell Street, the same street as our school. I skipped first break at 11 o’clock and went up to the top of this old Victorian building and all these nubile punk nymphet’s came skipping about between rooms and we were like ‘it’s eleven o’clock in the morning this is ridiculous’ and then I remember when we did it Sid Vicious went past on a Suzuki motorbike with no helmet on.
So from the off you were brought up on an eclectic mix of music?
Definitely, definitely. From youth clubs days listening to Ska and Soul same as everybody else and then everything from T-Rex and Sweet and all that nonsense and my sisters into Jimi Hendrix and Bowie and all those things were getting fed into the machine at some point.
So you’re out dancing to the records, when did playing them to other people seem like an option?
For me it was at school. There were a few us really into music. Gary Crowley was in the year above me and he was a huge influence on all of us in being so ahead of the curve. He was going to see The Jam really before anyone knew about them and The Clash at The Roundhouse. Me and my old mucker Chris Clunn, a fantastic photographer who did all the pictures for our fanzine, really got into smoking dope and listening to Reggae and were asked to DJ at the 6th form party. Chris said ‘I’m going to call my cousin up (his cousin was Jamaican) and get him to come down as well’. We turned up with a box of seven inch records and they turned up with a sound system that had to be lifted off a lorry. After that we played when we could. From like 16 on we were DJing in local pubs and stuff like that.
When did you get a name for yourself?
I guess from 19 I thought there is more out here. We were going clubbing and seeing bands all the time and we had an eye on doing a party. I think the first thing that we ever did was at Battle Bridge behind Kings Cross. In those days Battle Bridge was still squats, everything from hippies to punks, and they had a hall there and we did a night. We charged to get in and people turned up. We alternated a few times with another clique from West London, which was Sean Oliver and Neneh Cherry and that whole gang. I think they were good days. Those were good parties.
What was the party called?
I think it was Emergency Ward 10.
So was that at the start of warehouse culture?
I mean for me definitely. It’s kind of before any other warehouse parties that I knew about. I think the Dirtbox was around the same time and I DJ’d for the Dirtbox when they opened up a big warehouse in Chelsea. Around the same time there was D-Mob in Beak Street – Chris Brick and co., these crazy Welsh kids. They were doing various bits and pieces. They had an illegal party in the basement on Rosebery Avenue in Islington called the Doghouse which had Maurice and Noel Watson as residents. So that was the beginning of the 80s I guess…
So what came next? You mentioned Neneh Cherry – was she the link to a new crowd?
Well that kind of came about after. I’d been going to the Beat Route where Steve Lewis (above) was Djing and listening to Fela and Gill Scott Heron and Material.
Yeah absolutely. And that was where my focus was. The mix of things was extremely appealing and soon after that the guys got the Wag Cub and everything properly happened in the space of 24 months yet it feels like it was spread out over years. I started to DJ at The Batcave occasionally. I was starting to write at The NME as a result of a new fanzine we were working on, and it all happened pretty quickly. Across ’80-‘83 I remember going to all sorts of different scenes. Going to see The Specials, going to the The Jam at The Rainbow, watching Skinheads beat up Dexys’ fans at the Electric Ballroom, I guess ‘81 or ‘82, and soon after that I’m writing for The NME and DJing at warehouse parties and the whole thing has a run of about three years.
When you hear a tape of a warehouse party from that time they sound like they have a kind of have a naive amateur edge…
It was. It was completely made up. There were the established clubs, The Mud club, The Batcave was running kind of alongside that, early warehouse parties running alongside that, so you had very divergent scenes that were kind of open to everybody and though I was having a massive Goth moment at one point I was still going out to the warehouse parties the D-Mob guys were throwing as the NME offices were on Carnaby St. I was DJing at one end of Carnaby St at the Batcave then going to D-Mob at the other end.
It was quite unique in that there were an number of very strong scenes, Punk had moved into being almost Gothic, ‘82–‘83, the warehouse scene was coming out of efforts that Chris Sullivan and Ollie were doing at Billie’s in Covent Garden. The Blitz was going at the same time and I’d go there as it was on my doorstep and my sister went out with one of Spandau. I came home one night and there was bloke (Steve Norman) in a Hawaiian shirt playing guitar to her . I was like what is this??? (laughs). You had this very strong youth movement, not even youth movements, they were more explorations into music and style and none of them seemed to be too clear-cut. I’d go to the Beat Route and have a flat-top and mashed up jeans. I’d go to Batcave different jeans, same flat-top and it was odd how it all interlinked but was quite separate.
So obviously there was a point when your tastes refine and you get your own palette – was hip hop the crux of this?
I think that probably is about right. A friend of mine was the editor of Black Echoes and she came back with a 12” of Rappers Delight that she had managed to get from Sylvia Robinson herself. It was the first rap record I’d ever heard and that was an absolutely revelatory moment. It was like ‘what is going on here???’ I guess that opened the floodgates. From there it was trying to get anything I could out of any shops that had records of that nature. Places like Groove Records you know…
So do you think that was the unsaid link that you had with the likes of The Wild Bunch, Nellee Hooper and all that lot?
I can pretty much lay claim to bringing the Wild Bunch up from Bristol. I was going out with a girl from Bristol so I’d go down and see her. I went to one of their parties in St Paul’s and I was doing an occasional night at The Wag on Wednesdays and I got the guys to come up. I remember them coming up and blowing everyone’s minds as they had all these breaks that people in London weren’t plugged into…
Were they on the mic at that time?
They were a little bit on the mic but mostly they were DJing. ESG, their first 6 track EP playing it covered up and at the ‘wrong’ speed, and the break from the B-side of Eddie Kendricks ‘Keep On Trucking’. Cutting between two copies. Seven inches sellotaped to twelve inches – all that stuff. I guess the situation at the time was there was a nascent version of the scene in the West with Newtrament and The Language Lab guys but that was it. It was quite a tiny scene really and you could join the dots fast. Next thing Nellee was moving to London with Miles and they (The Wild Bunch) were getting a deal with 4th & Broadway. I remember being in a studio just around the corner from here, just off Shoreditch High Street, when they recorded the ‘Look Of Love’. Miles was one of the best DJs I ever saw in my life. I remember seeing him in Tokyo around ‘86 or ‘87, at Gold I think. It was an incredible club. It was in a bank vault and the DJ booth was made of Gold bricks. He was DJing and was playing Ramsey Lewis ‘Sun Goddess’ and then mixing some jack track, underneath it… Amazing.
So from the warehouse thing through to Special Branch. How do we get from there to there?
As a journalist I was running around the world for the NME. Going clubbing in New York on the back of generous record companies so I got to do all that stuff and chasing the whole hip hop thing. So Dirtbox started to do a regular night at the Titanic which was Berkley Square and I was bringing lots of electro and playing that. Sometime around ’84. I guess a number of scenes were all starting to converge and I think I met Nicky (Holloway) through Paul Oakenfold. Paul was working at a clothes shop called Ice in St Christopher’s place and we got talking. You know Paul was always a character, and I remember him saying he was going to New York and me saying he was going to have a great time as it was so amazing over there.
Two months later I bump into him and he’s working in another clothes shop and I said ‘how did it go?’ He said ‘it was great – I’m giving up my job and I’m going to start a record pool’. I was like ‘what’s that?’ He explained that DJs in New York got their records from a ‘Promo’ person. He’d kind of fallen into this in New York and saw the classic gap in the market and the market in the gap. The next thing I know he’s wearing a Beastie Boys cap, promoting Def Jam and doing a night at the Embassy. I was like ‘wow you’re get up and go’. At that moment what had been previously very separate scenes started to connect. Meeting Nicky and Paul – years before Spectrum – and that was my connection to the suburban scene that previously I had had no connection with as I was always central. And as such, it was suddenly another door opening. Bringing it back round I can’t remember the first time I met Nicky Holloway but it’s been a lifelong love affair.
So lets go rare groove. Who was the greatest DJ on that scene and why? (Chart above from i-D September ’87)
I’d have to say Barrie Sharpe. I used to warm up for Barrie when the rare groove thing was really kicking in and Rene Gelston had just set up Black Market records, I don’t think it was even a shop, he was a hairdresser and it was just a label in his head at the time, and we got a night at the Wag called Blackmarket and Barrie was the main DJ, Lascelle was playing upstairs and I would warm up downstairs for Barrie, and he would play pretty much two hours of James Brown productions and the full breadth of that was eye-opening. I mean you can’t forget Norman Jay and the Soul II Soul boys as they pulled out some utter gems but in a funny way they weren’t as purist as Barrie. You know if you went to Africa Centre you’d hear Will Powers next to some obscure African funk track and they were throwing things in the mix so they had their own sound so it wasn’t strictly rare groove but Barrie was utterly strict and totally pure.
So where does RAW come into it?
RAW comes about ’84–’85 and ran through to ’87–‘88. RAW was Oliver Peyton’s idea. He was great at finding venues and he found a new one. We were hanging out at the Spice Of Life and going to The Wag a lot and Oliver had just come up from Brighton. Once we saw the venue, it was like ‘wow, we’ve got this amazing venue in the centre of London, what do we do next?’ Oliver had just finished a design degree at Sussex and was like ‘ok, I’m going to drape the whole place in canvas you take care of the music’. He made it look like nothing else. So, I got Rob Milton to come in and do it with me as I was DJing with him at the Dirtbox, and we were the original RAW DJs and much later on Ben and Andy (Boilerhouse). Rob left the country so I had to get someone else in to do it with me and CJ (Mackintosh) used to come occasionally and that was it. Rob was a great DJ.
So when did it really kick off?
I’d say ‘85 into ‘86 it was a line around the block. Like seriously. I think it was the last time that there was such enthusiastic mixing of every single element. We were playing Hip-Hop, Rare groove,Disco and everything went. We’d have the bleachers set up and people would stand up and dance all night whistling. It was a sweatbox. It was 6 floors underground and I’d be drenched by the time the night finished. It lasted for a good couple of years and was it pretty amazing having that as your playground for a couple of years…
So slightly different tangent, who styled the shoot of you in i-D that looked very very Buffalo? It was certainly a very London look…
You know what, no-one styled it. That’s just what we wore at the time. It was me Nellee (Hooper), Milo, Barnsley and Zorha. We were knocking out these Chanel No.5 t-shirts and I was ‘advertising’ one. Product placement I think they call it these days. Nellee had just moved to London with Zohra and Miles and they lived on Delancey St in Camden and we all hung out together. That was kind of the look we were sporting. It was kind of influenced by the Japanese style. Nellee had a Westwood shearling coat on and there was a lot of ‘styling’ going on but no-one styled it.
What other DJs did you respect at that time?
Definitely the Wild Bunch, but then again Jay Strongman stood head and shoulders above all of us. He was the DJ. When he was core DJ at the Dirtbox he was the first person I heard play Double D and Steinski’s ‘Lesson One’. The first person I heard play Go-Go. He’d throw a Cajun record in and it all kind of went together. Because of the music scene the Dirtbox had kind of spawned you’d just as likely hear Theatre Of Hate or something. Jay would merge all of that into what was warehouse culture and would happily play the Clash next to obscure old blues tracks.
It’s funny one – it seems with a few of those guys like Steve Lewis from the Beat Route – they just seem to walk away from it at all at a certain point. Do you think there’s an element of it ‘doesn’t get much better than this…’?
Of course. That’s the secret of life. It’s not the 100th glass of champagne, it’s the anticipation of the first one and it’s almost the anticipation of the first one that’s the most exciting, so by the time you get to the 100th you’re over it…
Quite a few London DJs were spinning in New York pre-acid house – Fat Tony, Noel Watson to name a few – did you get to play out there?
No. Much to my chagrin though I went to every decent club in New York. I was going over mostly as a journalist. The first time I went was in December ‘83 to an exhibition by Keith Haring at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery which was incredible because in the basement Haring had sprayed his signature figurines in fluoro green and pink and yellow all over the entire space – wall, the floor and the ceilings – and he’d installed Grandmaster Flash in the corner as the installation. I was just like ‘wow’. That was when I started think ‘ok – art and music’. The following night I went to The Area. Probably the best club I ever went to. Grandmaster Flash was DJing again, Debbie Harry was dancing on the floor with Andy Warhol, and you just think ‘this is just nuts this place’. New York at the time was absolutely incredible. Meeting people like Mark Kamins who was DJing at Save The Robots and hanging out there a lot. Going to Danceteria and dancing with Madonna, meeting Arthur Baker, just being swept away but the whole scene rather than thinking ‘I want to DJ here’. It was never really my first thought. It was much more anthropological. And that’s how it felt.
You hear about people bringing back tapes from that time, and I suppose when you know what you are going for you want to bring as much of it back as possible and distribute it amongst your mates…
That group of friends they were doing that as well. And by ’86 and ‘87 we had links into Tokyo too. Nellee was over there. Miles was over there. We’d bring over Melon. I introduced them one night at The Astoria. We were doing RAW, must have been ‘86, Nick Truelocke was doing The Astoria with Noel and Maurice (Watson), and half-way through my evening about 12 o’clock, Nellee came over and said they want you to introduce them so I had to run across the road to Astoria and introduce them (Melon) and then run back to RAW and carry on DJing.
Were Melon a big band back then?
They were a big kind of scenester band. The Face and stuff. Anything from Japan was kind of hip. Their album was on Columbia. Everyone was trying to figure out how The Beastie Boys had become the biggest band in the world and everything was up for grabs. Melon and Major Force, as a collective, kind of represented Japan’s end of the game.
Part Two covering the acid house years follows soon.