Noel Watson / Interview / Part 1 / Pre-Delirium!
Noel and Maurice Watson really need no introduction. They were key in the development of London`s underground club scene. As DJs they took part in the beginnings of warehouse and Hip Hop culture and are infamous for their role in breaking House music in the capital at their party “Delirium!”. Noel has kindly agreed to put together a series of mixes for Test Pressing that chronicle those changing times, Pre-, Peak and Post-Delirium!, and has also talked to us about the historical backdrop to each mix. Bill Brewster did an amazing interview with Noel a few years ago over at DJHistory. Rather than repeat what was said there, we`ve tried to fill in the very few holes that were remaining.
You arrived in London from Belfast in 1979. What were the first clubs you visited? How did you find out about these places?
The first places I went to as a kid just arrived in London were Post Punk and Industrial nights and gigs. I’d go see bands at venues like The Marquee and Crackers. Crackers would host Punk nights and then a Disco, though I didn’t go to their famous early 70’s Soul / Disco nights. We lived in Hammersmith, so a favorite was The Clarendon Hotel, where bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu, Young Marble Giants would play. I loved these nights as I was a big Post Punk fan, and I loved The Pop Group and The Slits and ACR. Sometimes you’d go there on a Sunday night and the place would be half empty but the most incredible gigs would happen in front of your eyes. I went to a lot of Pop Group / Slits shows, the Alexandra Palace festival, and the infamous Notre Dame De France gig in Leicester Square. During this time some of the music played as support for these gigs included early Rap and Funk. I remember going to see New Orders first ever London Show, after Ian Curtis had died and with Bernard Sumner on lead vocals, at Heaven, in Charing Cross. It blew my mind. Heaven was like a hidden secret wonderland that I never knew existed, that’s why we took Delirium there. For me it was a dream come true to host the club there. We then started getting heavily into the clothes and fashion thing, which lead me to the Disco orientated clubs. Discovering Le Beat Route on Fridays had a serious impact on me. I knew virtually no one on that scene, and would often go on a Friday night on my own, and stand and queue to get in only to be knocked back at the door. But once I’d got in, and started to meet people and see what was happening, I knew then that me and Maurice were going to get involved and become a part of all this somehow. But club wise, there wasn’t a great deal happening that we liked, mostly bars on the Kings Road were they’d have a DJ play at weekends, and we’d hang out there.
You mention that you were a New Romantic. Did you go to The Blitz, Hell, Le Kilt, Camden Palace, etc?
Yes, I ventured to the Blitz on a few occasions, I’d started hanging out with a young guy called Jason O’Mara, Jason was quite a face on the New Romantic scene at that time, as he worked during the day at PX, the clothing store run by Helen Robinson, who also became a friend, and the shop where Princess Julia worked and Steve Strange had formed the New Romantic look from. PX at that time was more important than Worlds End, even the Pop Group guys would come and go, it was happening. The Blitz, Le Kilt, etc., were bizarre places. I remember going one night to The Blitz and the place wasn’t that busy or full, Rusty Egan was dressed to the nines behind the DJ booth, and he played some amazing music, all electronic, no Soul or Funk. This was actually the beginning of this scene becoming unfashionable at that time, as it was now the early 80’s and people were getting bored of that scene. Rare Groove and Hip Hop were just around the corner and you could sense the days of New Romanticism were numbered. I actually preferred Le Kilt and The Camden Palace to Hell, etc. We went to the Palace on different nights. The weekends were good. Colin Faver and Eddie Richards were like Gods to me and my brother. They were 2 of the only DJ’s in London at that time who could really properly mix, and they were 2 of the first in this country to play House…well well before anyone up North. Another good night was Rusty’s Club on Baker Street, I can’t remember what it was called, but I think it was Club Barracuda (Club For Heroes?) and was held on Thursday nights. I remember queuing behind Bryan Ferry one night to get in, and it was pretty hot in there.
Is this where you met Chris Sullivan?
Yes, I’d encountered Chris Sullivan for the first time at the Door of either Le Kilt or The Blitz, and I’d seen him knocking about. I didn’t properly meet Chris though until the days of The Wag. The Wag was the natural progression of all that had gone before, and we practically lived in that place, there was always something happening. Little Billy McIntosh who was the Picker on a Friday night, the main night and best night there period, also became friends with me and Maurice, and of course we ended up DJing at The Wag on many many occasions. We did the Club Night ACID TRACKS for Rene Gelston on the Fridays, this was the first Acid House Night at the Wag (around 88) and we also did the Tuesday TRANSATLANTIC nights with The Drum Club`s Charlie Hall on Tuesdays. The bouncers were a fucking pain at The Wag though, me and Maurice always had grief with them, and we got fed up with it and moved on.
What was your introduction to Hip Hop? Was this through Steve Lewis at Le Beat Route? Steve was playing Soul and Funk, but it all seemed to carry a strong positive message that was about individualism and being anti-establishment. Punk in a word.
It’s pretty well known that Steve Lewis was my DJ inspiration and hero. I loved his sets at Le Beat Route. He would play a lot of early JB’s and old Funk, that I’d never heard before, and yes, he started to drop more and more new imports, as we called them, into his sets; Prince Charles and The City Beat Band, Rick James, Galaxy, Trouble funk and the beginnings of early Rap and Electro. He did have that Punk ethos to his vibe. He didn’t give a fuck whether people would dance to it or not, the important thing was that he was dropping this shit. All the other Soul Boy clubs and nights run by the likes of Pete Tong, etc. were playing that “soft” American import sound, the Robbie Vincent sound, and man, they and their crowd were boring. They were casuals, we were Punks and Rockers, our lifestyles and attitude was cool and different. I remember seeing Madonna at Le Beat Route one Friday night doing her first single. Her and 2 dancers just wandered onto the dancefloor and started performing. Boy George, etc., all standing sneering making her as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit!…I ended up working alongside Steve at Black Market Records around 1990, and he told me he’d be violently sick before his DJ sets, he was so nervous. That was quite a shock to me then, now I kinda understand.
If “Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel” was your introduction to scratching, where did you go from there? How did you go about learning the techniques? Tapes? Videos? “Flash” was my introduction. Elvis Costello was guest on some Sunday afternoon radio show and he played it. I thought someone was turning the record on and off. Breaking, we spent all day watching the Rock Steady Crew at an Ideal Home exhibition, and we had a rip from somewhere of “Wildstyle” straight after it was screened at the ICA.
We’d started DJing a lot by this stage in London, doing the illegal Warehouse Party Scene (SUBSTATION, SPEEKEEZI) created by Chris Brick from the DEMOB Shop. This shop was based in Beak Street, Soho, and was a hive of activity. So we were getting passed a lot of cassette tapes via friends like Tom and Harry Binns, who were the Jewelery Designers for Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren at Worlds End, and a friend who worked with Fiona from Sign Of The Times. These tapes were like a completely new world. They were tapes of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Islam and Bambaataa, Jazzy Jay and Red Alert, Marley Marl and Mr Magic, all taped off the Zulu Nation / WBLS Radio stations in New York on a Friday night, and sent over to London the following week. I used to have tapes of Grandmaster Flash battling other DJ’s and Sound Systems in Parks in the Bronx, MC’s like Kid Vicious and Rammellzee live at 3.30 AM asking people in the crowd if they knew were their kids were!…and the scratching and beats were like hearing Punk Rock for the first time, it blew us away. But then me and my brother searched and bought as many of these tracks that we could identify and find. It was hard in those days, you didn’t have Google or the internet, and other DJ’s would cover the labels if they had these cuts, so you couldn’t see what they were, but we persevered and we were 2 of the first DJ’s in London to go suss these records out, buy Technic 1200’s, and practice like crazy. We’d also been to see the first Rap Festival event at London’s Victoria Club, and at the WAG, and we studied the DJs and watched how they were manipulating the records. At that time I lived with a Video Producer called Ken Lawerence, and he’d organized bringing Futura 2000 over to London and filming him spray painting The Westway. Don Letts was a good friend of Ken`s and he came and filmed it. I’d hang out in the background and watch and listen to everything being discussed and described, and took it all in. We then set up our decks and bought DMX Drum Machines and Digital pedals and spend most of our waking hours practicing, organizing it into sets, and then play them out to the London crowd at our parties. That’s how we stood out from the crowd, and created our own little ‘Punk Rock DJ’ moment in London’s club scene…it was fresh and we had attitude, my brother also was an incredible mixer and Scratch DJ.
Upon hearing “Flash”, you have said that Maurice simply got on a plane to New York? Did he head to the Bronx and find Flash and Herc?
Ha!…no, it wasn’t quite like that, but yes, we had contacts and friends who would help us ID tracks, and we’d go hunt them down, but Maurice didn’t travel over to New York to settle until around 87 / 88. We’d been asked to model in shows for Comme Des Garcon back around 83-85, and we went to New York for catwalk shows. Jean Michel Basqiuat modeled with us at one show, and he’d hang out and chat about the rap scene and we’d discuss breaks. We had friends like Karen Baccouche who introduced us to all the movers and shakers, including Rammellzee and Dondi, so whilst there we beat shopped like crazy, getting on the subway and travelling up to Harlem, where we knew there was a shop that had all the breaks. We were warned to be careful and stay away, but we’d grown up in Belfast!…it couldn’t be anymore scary or fucked up than that place, so we didn’t care, we had some heavy tunes at that stage, and we knew breaks others in London hadn’t a clue about, things like WAR “Heartbeat” and The Bar-Kays “Holy Ghost”. I know because DJs like C.J. Macintosh and Nellie from the Wild Bunch would ask me what they were when we played out, and when we opened BATTLEBRIDGE we rammed this home relentlessly, at times to the derision of our crowd, but my attitude was the same as Steve’s at Le Beat Route…this is new…embrace it, this is London, not the provinces…
How often did Maurice travel to New York for records? Where were you buying music from in London if at all? I`ve read an interview with Terry Farley somewhere, where says, when warming up for you, that you would go on and he would not know a single record you played.
Well, we both travelled back and forward a lot. Maurice eventually stayed in New York, where he DJed and worked on a permanent basis for Comme Des Garcon in their flagship store in Wooster, and my partner at the time Bunty Matthias, danced for Bill T Jones and Arnie Zanes Dance company, so I’d also be over all the time. In London I’d shop in Groove Records in Soho, and the old Record and Tape Exchanges.
Who found the Battlebridge Road Venue?
Sean Oliver, from Rip Rig and Panic. Sean was a close friend of Maurice and I, and the only one we’d let DJ with us, because of his involvement with The Pop Group and The Slits. Battlebridge was wild. Neneh Cherry and Andi Oliver, Sean`s sister, did our Bar!…and Julian Wooley who was the Streetsounds A&R at the time also did Battlebridge with us. Members of the Sex Pistols and Clash would be there, and Malcolm McLaren would bring down test pressings of “Buffalo Girls”, etc. for us to play, it was amazing.
Did you go to the Dirtbox parties?
No, I have to be honest, I didn’t really dig their scene. They were doing something then which was kinda in competition to us, so I didn’t check it. We were very arrogant back then as a gang!…We thought we were the originators and they were copying what we’d done, which off course is rubbish, everyone in their own way was paving a path for the future, and I do regret not getting down there to have a look, But you have to remember, back then we’d DJ at practically most of the happening events in London, so on a night off you’d go do something different.
You mention that you had Jazzy B and the Wild Bunch hanging out, who had their own sound systems. Who`s sound were you using for Battlebridge? Were you friendly with Mastermind? Were you ever offered or tempted to do anything on pirate radio?
The System was Sean`s. He’d garnered some gear, and any extras we needed we’d hire in. As for Mastermind, no we didn’t hang out. I think Herbie, the main guy from their set-up, was pretty vexed that we’d come in and taken their job (remixing the Electro LP Series), but we were then working with Julian, who was A&R and chose who would select the tracks and Remix the Electro LP’s for Streetsounds, and Julian wanted a bit more of a punk attitude with the Mixes, and for them to be a bit more livewire, so he chose us!…as for Pirate Radio, Maurice and I played the First big night and line-up for Derek B’s WBLS Radio Station event at The Limelight, and I did show’s also for Kiss FM and Roy The Roach’s Pirate Radio show’s for Quaff. Radio still scares me a bit though…
Can you tell me more about Substation? I don`t think it`s mentioned in Bill`s interview, about the only thing that isn`t.
Substation was my first ever DJ break, at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. It was a night run by Chris Brick and Harry Silver from Demob. I stole all my import records from Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street that day to go play at this night. We did 2 of these nights at the Electric, but then moved it to Roseberry Avenue, to an illegal warehouse space Chris had found. We’d get to the venue early and set it all up, even putting sawdust down on the dancefloor area for people to dance, `cos the sweat and damp from the building would drip onto the floor. We’d set up a small bar area, and Maurice and I would be up above the crowd on a walled mezzanine space with our decks and Speakers. We had people from all walks of life in there, from Sade and Suggs, to Don Letts and Joe Strummer, Chris Sullivan, Robert Elms, plus all the movers and shakers from the Soho scene…I can’t stress enough about how important this Club was…these were the beginnings of the WHOLE UNDERGROUND Dance Scene in London in the 80’s…without these nights, Battlebridge, Delirium, Shoom, Boys Own, etc., wouldn’t have existed…this is fact. Terry Farley and his boys would come and party here, and play the occasional set after me and Maurice. We deliberately set out to be an alternative to the shitty naff Soul Mafia led bullshit from the suburbs. Substation was before everything else in that crucial developing period, before House, before Rare Groove, etc. Don Lett’s shot the Freeze A.E.I.O.U Video here, we all created the dance scenes for him in the background. We’d keep the club open until 10-11am the next morning. Then one Saturday night we arrived to set up and local residents were protesting outside!…Dozens of them with Placards. They’d been organized by Paul Foot from the Daily Mirror to make a stand against the noise and the troublesome drug raged (Heroin and Speed) kids spilling out onto the street at ungodly hours of the morning. We argued and nearly got into a fist fight with a couple of them, when suddenly the Police appeared and chased us for over an hour…It was mad.
How did you make the Def Jam connection and have that incredible opening night line-up at Delirium? Was Paul Oakenfold representing them over here then?
I’d done an interview with the Beasties for ID Magazine around 84-85, and Robin King (head honcho at Delirium) had also been working away behind the scenes to get them involved. When the first Def Jam Tour arrived here in London, it was me who went to greet them and hang out at the hotel over in Knightsbridge. I took the Beasties to meet Mick Jones from The Clash, Suggs and Chrissy Boy from Madness, who they loved, and introduced them to the West London Warwick Scene, where we’d all drink and hang out on Portobello Road in an old Irish Bar. They loved all that. So it was pretty easy getting them to do the first night. We’d all connected and it was happening. Paul Oakenfold wasn’t hooked up with them at this point. He only came on that scene some time later. I knew Paul then though, and he was an ace guy. He was always very supportive of me and Maurice, but at this point he wasn’t representing them, to my knowledge anyhow. A lot of people who now claim to have done this or started that didn’t…the whole history of London’s club scene is warped, at the recent ICA OFF-Site Exhibition at Selfridges Hotel Space I had curated a Vitrine and Film based on DELIRIUM!, and our infamous first night, the artist Jeremy Dellar came and spoke to me and he’d never heard of DELIRIUM! before…yet he`d produced the Acid Band Art Piece…you know what I mean?…but these are generational little gaps in time, and that’s why it’s important to do these type of interviews and pieces, to keep the archival history as correct and varied as possible…maybe I’m not making sense…
Can you remember any other guest DJs and / or artists that you had at The Astoria, Delirium pre-House? Were there any residents other than the two of you?
We had lots of amazing guests at The Astoria; Def Jam`s Orin ‘Juice’ Jones, Chuck Brown and The Soul Searchers, DIVINE, Schooly D and Code Money, DJ Cheese, Joyce Simms, and on one of the last events at the Astoria we put on a huge House event featuring Fingers Inc, Adonis and Marshall Jefferson. Other DJs who would play at Delirium were David Dorrell and Hamish McDonald, plus Rachel Auburn was always our Resident in the VIP Area upstairs.
Did you know any of the younger London “turntable-ists” like Cutmaster Swift, Richie Rich, Streetsahead? How about Tim Westwood who championed the music on the radio? Or people like Greg Wilson in the North?
Yes, I knew Tim Westwood and Streetsahead well. Streetsahead would come by the basement studio on St. John’s Street in Islington where Maurice and I used to practice, and where we mixed the Electro Lp’s, and I knew Richie Rich a little bit through record shopping, but only to say hello. I have DJed with Greg quite recently at The Vintage Festival events, and went to see him and Bambaataa up at the Garage in Highbury for their pre-Lovebox event. They’re all cool guys.
How did you pick up on the stuff like ACR and Shriekback? Was that through Sean Oliver, Rip Rig & Panic, and the Pigbag, etc connection?
I had always been into Punk, and Industrial Punk and Disco from when I was about 16. I listened to John Peel`s show religiously back in the seventies, and I’d send off for records like Pink Military and Shriekback by mail order. My aunt lived in Cricklewood, and at 16 I’d come over to London on the Liverpool ferry and train, and go buy records I’d heard on Peel`s show, especially the Dub and Reggae that I could never get in Ireland. I`d also go buy clothes at SEX and Acme Attractions on the Kings Road. When I was a kid I was fearless…
What did you do on your nights off?
We hung out in Soho mostly, at bars like the French House, and a big gathering place pre-club was The Soho Brasserie that used to be on Old Compton Street. A lot of our friends and people on the scene would hang out in Soho, people like Ray Petrie and Cameron McVey from the Buffalo crew, and also as I’d mentioned earlier the happening pub scene in Portobello was similar to how it is now in Hoxton, or was, The Warwick Castle, it was really cool in there, the Allen Brothers, Strummer, etc. It all then moved to The Star on Portobello Road, another little dive pub, but the crowd that drank in there were always the real movers. I used to hang out and drink in there most nights with the likes of Katy England, that’s how I ended up doing a lot of Fashion Show music for Alexander McQueen. Katy was his assistant.
The success of Delirium took you and Maurice to New York to play. How did the clubs and crowds differ from London? What were your first impressions? Did you get to visit places like Funhouse, Danceteria, Paradise Garage, Negril?
Yes, Maurice DJed at The World with Dave Piccionni, and DJ’s like Frankie Knuckles. I went to the Paradise Garage a couple of times with Maurice, and we’d hit loads of all these mad clubs in one night, The Choice and MK, Area, The Limelight etc. Danceteria was like a performance Art venue more than a club at times. I loved New York, back then in the 80’s it was pretty wild. I went to the toilet one night at The World and a guy pulled a gun on me, off his head on whatever, luckily the doors burst open and security guys came rushing in and talked him out. I played at some nights at MK, a party for George Clinton once and a party for Prince. My partner Bunty, who I mentioned earlier, was maitre D at MK, and she’d get me in to play at various parties. One night before I started one of their residents said to me “where’s all your Records?” and I opened my bag and said “Here they are”…he started laughing and said to his cronies “He’s never gonna get anywhere with this crowd with those, we’ll be back on in a minute”…but 3 hours later he was back shaking my hand and saying “Shit!…that was fierce honey”!! We also ventured to The Disco Fever up in the Bronx….man, that was wild…people standing in the queue to get in suddenly pulling out guns and shooting into the air!!…NY’s crowds were completely different to the London crowds back home, they took more drugs, a lot of cocaine, and they loved to just dance. Most people didn’t drink. Drinks were very expensive and you had to tip, but the sound systems they had also blew most of ours away at that time. The Garages system was fierce.
The Area people put out a huge book late last year. Have you seen it?
No I haven’t, but I’d love too, I’ll go check that out, I love the way this history is becoming archival Art. Gregor Muir at The ICA Gallery is a genius. He’s recognized this and is always equating the similarities between what was happening in the Art World then, the YBA’s and the revolution in Art, and linking it to the revolution in Music and Dance. I’m so proud to have done that show with them last year, and for DELIRIUM! to be regarded as one of the most important clubs of the eighties. That’s exactly what we set out to achieve when we were kids, to be a part of something that represented who we were and that we contributed something, even though we’re only a small piece of it, to our Art and work. It’s very important. Thank you Rob and Paul and Test Pressing for being a part of that too. I appreciate it.